Jon Rose’s “Ball Project” [au Melbourne]

bg_projects_ball.jpgSphere Of Influence – The Ball Project: Music, chance and games by Jon Rose.

Best known for his work on, around and about the violin, Jon Rose is a global performer, presenting his group and solo projects regularly in over 30 countries. He brings over 25 years experience pioneering the use of digital technology in live music performance to the Ball Project and this Festival outcome Sphere of Influence. The ball as symbol is universally recognised. A ball flying through space has an inherent mystery; it replicates our lonely and insecure position in the universe. To sport fans, the ball verges on being a sacred object. Ball games, especially in this sport-obsessed city, are nearly a religious rite. The earth is our favourite ball – our future on it less than certain.

After the sun has set at Federation Square, a huge white ball is pushed, heaved, thrown, and rolled around in a game – or is it a ritual? As this two and a half metre ball moves, it sings, it speaks, it screams. It’s a clever ball: its motion can manipulate both sound and images. The music it makes includes sounds from the environment and vocal samples composed by Rose and sung by The Song Company and Aku Kadogo, while Hollis Taylor plays the live violin obligato. As the ball spins, it juggles with words of wisdom, power and warning. The ball, aided by purpose-built interactive technology, has evolved from an object to a virtuoso multimedia performer.

From Rose’s website:

The use of games of chance to determine musical content has fascinated composers as different as Mozart in his Musikalisches Würfelspiel, Stravinsky in his stage works based on card games (also his neo-classical wind Octet of 1923), Cage throughout his entire career, and John Zorn in his ‘game pieces’ (which are in essence structures for improvisers). Richard Strauss spent much of his time playing skat (not improvised jazz vocals but a version of the card game whist); Schoenberg and Britten were very keen on tennis; Prokofiev was a chess master; Mozart was often to be found at the billiard table; Percy Grainger was outstanding at Badminton and possibly the first recorded jogger – sometimes running from concert to concert (once accompanied by 100 Zulu warriors) and even running from stage to back of concert hall and back again, when he had too many bars tacet in a blockbuster piano concerto.

Outside of western music of course, most societies have had their practice of music integrally linked to every ceremonial necessity of their social activities – from birth to death. Also, in many non-western cultures the idea of music without physical movement (dance) would have seemed strange, if not perverse.

Functional music, cultural replacement

In Australia, we live in a country that has the oldest surviving practice of gebrauchsmusik – it is only 50 years since the chief elder of many Aboriginal groups still knew how to sing into existence every significant animate and inanimate object, the keys to survival. It is unlikely that such sophisticated and rich cultures of aurality will ever exist again. But anybody who has ever witnessed an Aboriginal Australian Rules tournament in the Northern Territory will know that ‘footie’ has gone some way to filling the physical (if not the spiritual) cultural void left by whitefella destruction. This game may have been invented by Victorians, but the Aborigines of the north have seized it with both hands and feet and made it their own. If ballet was this good, I’d go every night. Unfortunately it is for blokes only; it also (sadly) has no music. The women have to make do with basketball or must stick with painting; but there is cause for optimism, painting is still often accompanied by song.

What is it about the ball?

A ball flying through space has an inherent mystery; it replicates our lonely and insecure position in the universe. Any young child seems to recognise the universality and truth of the ball. It’s global. All children, even those who show little interest in games or sport, respond to this user-friendly object. Add the random qualities of the oval ball to our philosophical observation, and we approach notions of twentieth century physics – the Uncertainty Principle and Quantum Mechanics. The oval ball may adhere to Newtonian gravity, but its chance bounce-ability gives lie to Einstein’s own belief that ‘God does not play dice with the Universe’. To football fans the ball verges on being a sacred object; the ball game – a religious rite. Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of the Liverpool soccer club, was once asked if football was a matter of life and death. ‘No’ he said, ‘it’s more important than that’.

New musical forms

A casual listen to the programmes of concert hall music, jazz festivals, rock spectacles, or other mainstream genres in 2005 will inform you that very little has changed in the way that most music is structured. There seem to be very few new forms for music (content is an equally unadventurous story, but let’s not go there). In classical music, they still haven’t got over the sonata form; in jazz they still unthinkingly play the head, the solos, and the head again. In electronic dance music, there is no form; you basically switch it on, mix it with something else, then switch it off again at the end (if you’re lucky). Most team games in sport provide a set of fixed macro and mobile structures that can be utilised as a formal basis for sonic compositions. A composition can utilise the basic parameters and agreed dimensions of place, time and space, to notions of technique, base strategy, flexible game plans, sportsmanship, or fooling your opponents (theatre?). All the codes of team games such as football, volleyball, basketball, and netball have the adaptive potential for setting up musical structures with satisfying yet unknown sonic outcomes – in fact I am suggesting that the practice of sport is akin to many methods of group music making such as Gamelan or the antiphonal singing that grew out of the European Renaissance. In the interactive badminton game PERKS, I thought that it would be enough just to have two adequate badminton players simulating the game. As it turned out, the best musical result was achieved by the best players (both in technique and commitment) – faking it wasn’t possible.

The ball project

The project will consist of a series of compositions utilising the structures of team sports (such as netball and quadrugby – otherwise known as murderball) and incorporating at least four custom made balls (an Australian Rules football; a Volley ball or Net ball; a huge 3 metre plus ball for a gallery space; a small kindergarten friendly ball). The balls will be fitted with pressure sensors and accelerometers providing continuous controller data streams via radiophonic transmission for interactive software driving audio and visual content. Some games will generate visual and text commentary on the nature of competition and tribalism, and be accompanied by string quartet obligato. Other games will function on an abstract level, concentrating very much on the essence of what it is that makes the ball such a powerful object and icon in our culture. The music generated by the ball will include original composition for sampled choir (The Song Company), the sounds of the body, physical exertion, and the sounds of electronic transmission. A composition for violin and juggler, using the same interactive ball technology, is also planned. This, I hasten to add, is not an exercise in touchy-feely therapy but the rigorous development of a hybrid art form.

A short history of ball games

The Meso-American ball game Pok-A-Tok has been around since 3000 BC; players used their elbows, knees and hips to get a small rubber ball through a hoop. Being an ersatz war situation (like most ball games since), the losers were often summarily executed. In North America, the Indians had their own version of soccer called Pasuckuakohowog. When the British turned up in the 1600s, they noticed similarities to their own crazed inter-town ball tournaments (which often lasted several days). The pitch could be over a mile long, the teams consisted of as many players as possible, the ball or bladder was stuffed with anything animal or vegetable – including body parts of a recent enemy (with grass as the ubiquitous filler), and the games were always extremely violent affairs. The Chinese can also lay claim to the origins of soccer. Around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, during the Han Dynasty, the army trained by kicking a ball into a smallish net. Almost everyone, including the Greeks and Romans it seems, had their ball games.


The Age of Enlightenment sowed the seeds of humanity’s salvation in giving us most of the useful ideas that we associate with a modern rounded society – a franchised democracy, rational behaviour, social equality, wonder at (as opposed to ruling over) the natural world. However it couldn’t contain the grab for empire and the pathological exploitation of natural resources – which continues unabated. The Enlightenment has also not prevented the recent backward summersault to about the 12th century as our species’ insecurity and evermore desperate plight on our little planet is highlighted in the current burst of reactionary religiosity.

The moon, the earth would be balls in existence and travelling through space whether we were here to observe them or not. Unlike most of our cultural language-dependent notions like money, democracy, religion, etc – playing with a ball-like object could well have existed before language. It is an ontological artefact like none other whether it be a rolling stone or a pig’s bladder. After all a wild dog will perceive a moving ball as prey and play with it without understanding the rules of either physics or soccer. Once set in motion, a ball object seems to take on a life of its own. For all intensions and purposes, in the eyes of the wild dog, the ball is alive. The domestic dog can be trained to fetch the ball. But no dog, domestic or wild, can understand what a goal or a try is. Nor does an animal understand that our continued existence on this small finite ball is tenuous – we should however.

Blow the whistle.

Metaphors of music

Music as food, or politics as music, abound throughout literature, but a spontaneous look through the sports pages of The Guardian and the culture pages of The New York Times a few years ago revealed the following:

‘For the first 45 minutes, they could find no way through the Hammer’s defence; Dicks, often at walking pace, conducting the orchestra with the Croat, Pilic, as leading violinist. Only Carbone looked to have the wit to break the tempo. West Ham’s game was too fancy for its own good at times; Dicks would play the 1812 Overture, but a minuet through midfield seems to be Harry Redknapp’s preferred melody and, on this evidence, they don’t play it well enough.’

‘The program for Saturday night’s Alice Tully Hall concert described the ‘most distinguishing features’ of The Double Tenth Junior Hight School in Taichung, Taiwan, as ‘the experimental music class and female volleyball team’. The place must therefore be positively jumping with experimental music, and has to be a major force on the Taiwan volleyball circuit, since its orchestra – which were the point of this concert – was most engaging.

The Ball Project is supported in a two year fellowship (2006/7) by The Australia Council, and with generous help from STEIM, Amsterdam.

Sep 28, 2007
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