What if your instrument is invisible?

2014, Dafna Naphtali

As an electronic musician, I am largely occupied with capturing and manipulation of sound in real time — the sound of instruments being played by other musicians. I am also a vocalist, and often my instrument(s) are perceived as being “invisible”.

Real-time live sound processing“, “audio machinations”, “{kaleid-o-phone}” – are all terms I’ve used to describe what I do, since I first started in the mid-90’s, dragging a 
Mac-plus computer and MIDI controllable effects units to clubs and venues, lots of equipment so that I could experiment, and find a way to play sound manipulations in a musically reactive way, especially in improvised contexts.

Dafna Naphtali in concert at Skolska, Prague , Nov. 2010

Dafna Naphtali in concert at Skolska, Prague , Nov. 2010

I started with a group of instrumentalists: drums, bass, saxophone, a multi-instrumentalist (brass, reeds) and me, singing. I put microphones on everyone, routed through a mixer and an effects unit controlled by my Max patch, and create tiny, constantly changing loops, wild mood swings with comb filters, pitch-shifting madness, and a bit of singing in between.

After shows people would often say “.. fabulous, but you really should do more..”. They thought I was only “doing something” when I was singing. All the crazy sound manipulations I was doing, were not attributed to me, because they were not visually identifiable as coming from me, nor aurally identifiable as my work. I created a complex combination of sounds that were easier to identify as from the other musicians (my source material) or as something so strange as to be unidentifiable, and certainly not created by the singer! In the mid-90’s, a few instrumentalists were bringing electronics into these kind of club environments (in New York), but the kinds of aural transformations I was experimenting with were more often heard on the concert stage as academic computer music.

But the musicians I played with appreciated and supported what I was doing and reacted very musically to my electronics, experimenting along with me. I tried to create a separate sonic identity with my live processing distinct from their individual sounds.

Over time, I came up with guidelines for myself, to solve this problem of invisibility. These are musical gestures I use until this day:

  1. never interfere with the musician’s own musical sound, rhythm or timbre
  2. be musically identifiable to that musician and to an audience.

These two ideas are about respecting the sound and independence of the other musicians.

To this end I began

  1. grouping parameters of my delays/pitchshift/comb filters, to control many things at once (expanding my palette),
  2. creating algorithms to control these gestures rhythmically in real time (these allow me to interact and lock-in rhythmically with other musicians).

Lastly, I sought to become less dependent on others for my sound sources (I couldn’t take a “solo” without them playing!), so I also began to play my processed sounds with feedback, routing the effects processor back into itself in a “no-input” situation.

I’ve used various controllers to interface my programming over the years; these have helped me use my whole body in performance, lessening the “invisible instrument” problem. But, I still sometimes have to explain how my instrument works. These days though a musician performing with a laptop only is rather ordinary, I still have to explain perhaps even justify live processing as an instrument, and still work to get my audiences to understand that the “singer” is doing something even when she is not obviously performing.

Dafna Naphtali is a singer/instrumentalist/electronic-musician, who composes/performs experimental, interactive electro-acoustic music (since the mid-90’s) using her custom Max/MSP programming for live sound processing of voice and other instruments. She draws on an eclectic musical background in jazz, classical, rock and near-eastern music, and as performer she also interprets the music of Cage, Stockhausen and contemporary composers, in a large variety of projects with well-regarded musicians around the world.
Dafna has received fellowships and awards including from New York Foundation for the Arts (2013 Music/ Sound , 2001 Computer Arts), New York State Council on the Arts, Franklin Furnace, American Composers Forum, Foundation for Contemporary Arts and American Music Center, and has recorded several CDs, including “What is it Like to be a Bat?” a digital punk trio with Kitty Brazelton (on Tzadik).


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