Flutist Nicole Mitchell and composer Fabio Paolizzo first performed together live in 2018, in a concert at the University of California, Irvine. More accurately, Mitchell played a duo set with VIVO (Video Interaction VST Orchestra), a machine-learning program engineered by Paolizzo, which recorded her flute and voice improvisations and generated real-time accompaniment through loops and synths. A year later, Mitchell and Paolizzo reprised their collaboration at the same venue, then recorded it on the studio album Medusae, which they’re releasing this month on Don Giovanni.
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Deputizing autonomous tech as a musical partner is nothing new. Trombonist and computer-music pioneer George Lewis—like Mitchell, a product of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians—famously employed it on his 1987 work Voyager, as well as in its recently mastered and released predecessor, Rainbow Family. But VIVO has a secret weapon: a camera, which adds the extra layer of optically processing Mitchell’s movements as well as her aural cues. (In case you’re flummoxed, Paolizzo has published scholarly articles which provide a more extensive explanation of VIVO’s functionality.)
VIVO’s AI is more subtle than the chattier digital interlocutor of Voyager. It mostly buttresses and manipulates Mitchell’s lines, rather than responding with its own knotty improvisations. But the way it does so can be downright frightful: the gusty “Gametes” sounds like being inside a glass bottle as it’s blown, and parts of “Perils to Beauty” get pretty close to the music I imagine the devil’s organist might play in hell. VIVO’s technological sophistication is a marvel, but you don’t have to care about that to find Medusae a deeply satisfying spin. It’s an aural hall of mirrors, delightful in its disorientation.
Nicole Mitchell & Fabio Paolizzo’s Medusae is available through Rough Trade.