Thursday, February 10, 2011

Transcript of the Composers Spotlight Presentation on my "StormSound" Cycle

[The following is both the presentation that I had prepared for the Composers’ Spotlight, last night (2/9/11) and various questions and comments by audience members and by myself. The presentation part I give here as written; when actually presenting it, I changed a few words around here and there or elaborated, or gave examples. The audience member comments are paraphrased to be more understandable outside of the context of the presentation. Ss means “sound sample”, which I played (prerecorded) as an example of something in the piece. Also, the “stage directions” in brackets indicate when I showed something to the audience, or something else visual occurred. For another review of the evening's proceedings (from a member of the audience), read this blog entry by Keith Eisenbrey.]

Lúmu ro arn téilandumen, su trillórn máellorn s’ naghérum.
Dáestu ro arn téilandumen, su noshéi siinón s’ eténnum.
Átau ro arn téilandumen, su trillórn kullánd’ s’ naghérum.
Sámu ro arn téilandumen, su noshéi xám s’ eténnum.
Teilyándal’ arn téilandum dálei,
Mú arn Kálalyar na téilandum.
Ro Na arn Kálalyar na téilandumen.
Zhen Kálalyar arn zéyum, sulándu karn teilándas.

For those who couldn’t understand that, don’t worry. It’s a fictional language that I invented for a science-fiction book. What I recited was the following:

Light was not, nor sun nor moon to cast it.
Darkness was not, nor night nor cave to hold it.
Warmth was not, nor sun nor fire to cast it.
Cold was not, not night nor sea to hold it.
Teilyándal’ (meaning “That Person Who Is”) was only.
There was nothing before Him.
There was no before, before Him.
And He said, Let there be a Song.

Although in this made-up language the vocabulary is not gender-specific and therefore doesn't refer to God as "he", the Biblical paraphrase is obvious. This is indeed a creation story of the fictional Fyorian people. When I wrote it, I put in some of my concepts about music. Sulándu karn teilándas. Let there be a song. The universe is a song. It begins with sounds, vibrations (string theory), movement, energy.

What I’d like to talk about tonight are these ideas about music, specifically as they relate to a lengthy cycle of pieces, the “StormSound” pieces, which I’m working on presently. A shameless self-promotion here: On May 21st, this year, there will be a concert of my “StormSound” cycle: 21 pieces in all, for a total of about nine hours. These are pieces for various instruments and what used to be called “tape” – I don’t know what to call it now that it’s on CDs or MP3 players. The pieces range in length from about two minutes to over two hours. The concert will be at the Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, from noon to 9:00. Besides myself on piano and percussion, Neal Meyer will play guitar, Keith Eisenbrey and possibly David Paul Mesler will play piano, Jay Hamilton will play invented instruments, Beth Fleenor and Bruce Greeley will play clarinet, and there are several others who are in the process of confirming. During the nine hours, the audience (and the musicians!) may come and go as they please.

Stylistic aspects. (Ss 1). That type of music is familiar. I don’t need to say anything about it: neo-impressionist, “new acoustic”, “new age” if you will; you’ve all heard it. …It’s not part of the StormSound cycle anyway, though it is one of several styles of music that I like to do. I don’t agree that it need be considered differently than my more experimental music. (Ss 2) That is more “experimental”, if you will, at least in the way that it doesn’t use any particularly familiar melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic material; but of course “free improv” is probably familiar to you anyway. It’s not part of the StormSound cycle either. I bring up both of these because: 1.) I composed them and played the piano on both; they’re both on my CD called “PianoSphere”, and 2.) the distinction between what’s “experimental” and what’s “commercial” is, to me, an artificial one that should be scrapped. My approach on that CD was to put both styles together, which led to the fact that people who liked the first piece I played hated the other, and vice-versa. Can’t win them all I guess.

“PianoSphere” was an earlier experiment that has little to do with the “StormSound” pieces. Both use a lot of extended piano techniques; otherwise, there isn’t much similarity.

All of the “StormSound” pieces are graphic scores of one type or another, played over prerecorded sound. Much of the prerecorded material is derived from nature sounds, recorded either by me or my friend Randy, and then processed (or not) via computer. As I give some examples, the several “whys” of this will slowly become apparent.

First, there are the nature sounds unchanged. Two examples of this should be enough. This one is a birdcall, with other sounds behind it. (Ss 3). This next one is thunder, rain, and branches breaking under a heavy snow. The drones are, obviously, not nature sounds, but a instrumental and vocal samples. (Ss 4).

Audience member: What’s the background sound? It doesn’t sound natural.
Me: Yes, there are some instrumental sounds. That one was sampled off of a CD of early music, which I’m not sure is quite legal, so I distorted it and made sure that it was no longer anything like the original sound. The distorted sound was what I was looking for anyway there.

Unaltered nature sounds do not occur frequently in the Cycle. Usually they are processed in one way or another. The simplest type of processing is to simply slow them down. Here are some birdcalls and the sound of a stream, slowed to half-speed. They are still very recognizable, but maybe their slightly altered time frame causes the listener to linger a bit longer; to pay closer attention than otherwise. (Ss 5). In that example, the flute was played by Ginny Landgraf, sampled, and the percussion was a woodpecker. I will talk later about their peculiar timing.

Continuing to slow down, birdcalls in particular can get more and more interesting. Here they are again (the same birdcalls), slowed to ten and one percent of their original speed. Mary Kantor plays clarinet, from a graphic score. [Show example.] This is what I call a “melodicy”, from the words “melody” and “dicey”, because it sometimes can get a little dangerous when playing… (Ss 6).

Audience member: …So you make up the melody based off of the pitches here.
Answer: Yes, though not exactly what you see there because the clarinet is a transposing instrument.
Audience member: Yeah, that’s the first thing I though of when you mentioned clarinet.
Audience member: This is kind of off the specific topic, do you know if anyone has done what you have just done, slowing down those birdcalls as much –
(Me: Probably…)
Audience member continues: …and then, taking them out into the wild, and playing them for the specific birds, to see if they would recognize it or how they would react.
Me: Interesting idea. They might think they sound kind of eerie or disquieting, in the way that a human voice sounds to us when it’s slowed down.

Slowing down even further, the sounds can become unworldly, strange and new: in this next excerpt, there are two sets of pulsing vibrations: the faster, higher one is the same birdcall again, slowed 1000 times. One can hear what appear to be the individual vibrations made by the bird’s syrinx (counterpart of the human larynx). The other sounds are a pipe organ, played by me. (Ss 7).

One more example will suffice for this section. The following is the sound of crickets, followed by another birdcall – but neither are recognizable because they are slowed hundreds of times and with massive reverb. The effect is cosmic; somehow to me it always suggested floating in space somewhere near Jupiter. (I should say that I don’t really know why; I’ve never been floating in space anywhere near Jupiter!) Bruce Greeley and Beth Fleenor play clarinets here, as well as me on piano and percussion. (Ss 8).

Audience member: …Not Saturn, but Jupiter. [scattered laughter]

All the foregoing were attempts to make the listener slow down, to notice the sound that was already there, even if that sound has been changed into something unrecognizable. In that sense, it’s rather like a style of abstract art that I’ve done a few examples of: where the natural lines and contours of the grain in the wood are colored in, making a pattern, attempting to have the viewer stop and take a look at what was already there.

But nature sounds, slowed down or not, can also be of great compositional interest. Here is a birdcall, the same you just heard, though here only slowed ten times, looped, multitracked, and phased. Stuart Dempster plays trombone and Neal Meyer plays guitar, from a graphic score. (Ss 9).

Another example is the following: here, I took a clue from the rather sinister forest music in the Carl Nielsen 5th symphony, to create this nocturnal dreamscape. There are the sounds of owls, two different birdcalls, and piano chords. All occur according to their own pulse, though all are slowed down; creating a polyrhythm on a grand scale. Dean Moore plays percussion. (Ss 10)

Audience member: That last piece almost had the sound of whales. I was wondering if that was your intention for that part.
Me: Not whales, specifically, but nature in general. Actually those were owls, that you were hearing.
Another audience member: I thought they were almost recognizable as owls, now that you’ve told us in advance.
Me: Oh. I shouldn’t have said so then.
Audience member: Well no, they’re more interesting when we know what they are first.
Me: They’re slowed down to about one third their original speed.

As the last two examples hinted, nature sounds can also be unpleasant (or at least eerie). Here is one of the points of the Cycle: Nature Lives in Motion – all nature is in motion, making sound (though some of that sound is not vibrations of air molecules and thus not audible to humans). As I said when I started, it all begins with sound, vibrations, energy. One could say that the universe is a song. The ultimate purpose of all of this sound, behind all of its secondary meanings and means of production, is aimed at God – whom, I believe, is separate from, and not part of, nature and the universe (He permeates the universe, but is not part of it, nor is He the same as it). But, at least here on planet earth, there is something wrong in nature. Of course we humans are doing our share to make it worse – pollution, leading to global warming, is only one example of our destructive tendencies. But even before us, evolution seems to have run amok, resulting in parasites, diseases, and a tooth and claw struggle for survival. In the sci-fi classic “Perelandra”, C.S. Lewis gives us an imaginary alternative, a vision of non-Darwinian evolution.

“…the song. Now high in the air above him, now welling up as if form glens and valleys far below, it floated through his sleep and was the first sound at every waking. It was formless as the song of a bird, yet it was not a bird’s voice. As a bird’s voice is to a flute, so this was to a cello: low and ripe and tender, full-bellied, rich and golden-brown; passionate too, but not with the passions of men.
…“The singing beast? I would gladly hear more of this.”
“The beasts of that kind have no milk and always what they bring forth is suckled by the she-beast of another kind. …Until the singing beast is weaned is is among her whelps and is subject to her. But when it is grown it becomes the most delicate and glorious of all beasts, and goes from her. And she wonders at its song.”

But that is fiction, and here on earth, things are different. Such a parasitic creature would either rob its host of its nest or kill it. Nature is not all pleasant here. Part of the “StormSound” Cycle is about this possibly inherent aggression and vengefulness. Again, the processed nature sounds show this. The following sounds like warfare or even traffic, but it was made simply by slowing down the sounds of a stream, crickets, and elk several times. There will be a flute, piano, and drums with this during the performance. (Ss 12).

And in the final example of this type, nature sounds can be changed so that they are no longer “natural” – here, I used a MIDI plug-in and rendered birdcalls as synthesized bleeps and scratches. I used the same idea in my piece “SoundScrolls VI”, played here by Bruce Greeley, bass clarinet; Mike Sentkewitz, acoustic bass; and Ryan Burt, drums. These mechanized nature sounds represent humans’ tendency to spoil nature by, in this case, attempting to control it with machines. (Ss 13).

Audience member: In the previous piece, there were a lot of high and low water sounds.
Me: Yes, there was quite a range of high and low sounds. I tried to make it really thick and dissonant-sounding.

Saying that certain sounds represent pleasant things in nature, and certain others represent unpleasant things, begs a question. What is it about certain sounds that makes them more suitable to stand for other sounds? The answer to this may at first seem simple: we’ve all been brainwashed to a certain extent by Hollywood to think that dissonant chords are unpleasant. Every time something nasty or scary is about to happen in a movie, the background music gets dissonant or even microtonal and we know that the killer is just around the corner. But such is not the case in all cultures: in Balinese gamelan music, for example, there is a piece traditionally played when the bad guy shows up in a shadow play – and to the American ear it’s not dissonant at all, it’s relaxingly modal and vaguely bluesy. …And don’t forget that a lot of jazz music is extremely dissonant, yet we often listen to it to relax.

Dissonance merely means complex interaction of resonances. There is nothing intrinsically unpleasant about it. Rather, I believe, it is individual sounds that are in themselves pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly. This depends on a number of aspects of their attack, timbre, volume, and decay, and the way all of these work on the design of the human nervous system. I won’t describe all of it here; I don’t even have (nor am I looking for) a comprehensive theory to describe it. However, I have used the idea of the inherent aesthetics in sounds in some of my compositions.

One of the earlier ways to achieve this was to have an instrument that was in some way uncontrollable. As the musician played it, he decided moment by moment which sounds were intrinsically beautiful and which were ugly, and (depending on the piece) chose either the beautiful or ugly sounds to continue. In a piece called “Winter”, I chose the beautiful sounds to continue, and asked the performer to produce random harmonics on the piano. [Demonstrate.] If I had chosen the ugly sounds, I would have played it like this. [Demonstrate.]

Audience member: As a musician who plays the piano in the “normal” way, i.e., on the keys, and who has just a little bit of understanding of the overtone series, how were you able to, in that very small area of the strings, to get higher and higher overtones, when, in my concept, you would have to move quite a ways? Or is my concept incorrect?
Me: The piano string has a different harmonic every millimeter, practically.
Another audience member: Is that because it’s wound?
Me: I don’t really know. Some other instruments don’t have as many that are obvious.
[I demonstrated, moving my finger a very short distance to damp the string to produce different overtones.]
First audience member: Oh, right. You almost get a scale there.
Me: Yeah, almost; but in that piece I was doing them at random, because I didn’t mark where they were.

The same works for the crywire, a piano modification of my own invention, which is even less predictable. [Demonstrate.] (I’ll disconnect that later before I play a piano piece; it makes buzzing noises that I don’t really want.)

This doesn’t work with all instruments; most don’t have “random” timbres in this manner. So, I have to leave it to the interactions of the sounds, and this leads to various types of improvisation and random juxtaposition.

Random juxtaposition. At this point I defer to John Cage, the great American composer, who beautifully and eloquently disproved his own theory. Cage was working from the idea that there is no meaningful distinction between sound and noise; that there really is no such thing as a bad performance, and in the end none of this really mattered anyway. The impulse behind this was nihilism, at first; later, as he embraced zen, he came to see it as a positive that none of it mattered anyway – because we are simply here to joyously participate in moment to moment beauty and creativity before it, and we, and everything, returns to the great cosmic nothing from whence it came. He composed silence into his music, saying of some other busier compositions, that “there is too much there, there; there isn’t enough of nothing in it.” He composed randomly, by throwing dice or dropping stones on music paper and tracing around them, or using radios as instruments, in order to show that, in the end, all is really chance anyway.

But, working from a different philosophical and religious perspective, I have come to realize that in the end it does matter; and that “nothing” really doesn’t exist. When we listen to Cage’s silent music, we hear silence – and there is really no logical or intuitive way to say that silence equals nothing. We also feel either tranquility, or expectation (waiting for something to happen); and again, there is no real way to say that these subjective states are equal to nothing. There is always something to fill a void. Even the vacuum of space is full of dark matter, energy, and a thick broth of quantum particles that are said to continuously pop in and out of existence.

What of random chance? It would seem that everything is random; I drive by another car, and there is no way for me to determine beforehand how many people are in it, or what they look like, or where they are going. Even at a subatomic level, quantum mechanics tells us that we can never know the exact speed or position of, say, a photon. But is this really random? If I drive by another car, I know beforehand that there is at least one person in it (and probably less than five), that the driver is of driving age, is probably not doing gymnastics while driving, and that, say, there are no giraffes or mountains in the car. Concerning to photon: I can’t know exactly where it is and how fast it is going at the same time, but I do know that it’s not going to suddenly stop, split in two, turn into a gazebo, and then run away in a different direction. I can’t do entirely random things either: for example, I can’t suddenly hover four feet in the air, sprout leaves, and then eat the planet Neptune. You say, of course not, that’s absurd! But we say that because we recognize absurdity; our minds realize that there are constraints on randomness. The laws of physics prevent me from hovering or eating Neptune (besides, it would give me indigestion) and genetics prevents me from growing leaves, even if I had a choice in the matter.

I may posit that these constraints on randomness also apply to music, though we don’t know exactly how this works. Cage’s music proves this. Paradoxically, very little of his “random” pieces actually sound random. What Cage discovered was exactly the opposite – there is no such thing as random. Every time we think something has happened completely by chance we find that it is the result of everything else that has already happened. The universe, or the physical laws, or both, seem to act as a kind of brake on the possibilities of what can actually happen.

I have tried to show some of this concept in the “StormSound” pieces, as well as in a couple of other large-scale compositions: the “SoundScrolls” cycle, and “From the Oceans; From the Stars”. There are a lot of events within the music that seem to happen at random; yet they occur within a fixed framework – and the musicians are always instructed to interact with each other (in various ways), so careful listening reveals that all “random” events are connected to all others. The simplest way to do this is with graphic scores [show some examples]; since the “StormSound” cycle is music about nature, I often use what I call “soundscrolls” or representations of nature or landscapes drawn or copied onto music paper. In some of these, the musicians read actual musical notes [give example]; in others, the notes of the staff merely indicated higher and lower, relative to other sounds.

Audience member: You could also vary it by changing the size of the staves.
Me: I’ve done it that way sometimes.

Other graphic scores are abstracts [show examples] – follow along a line; play louder where it’s thicker, higher when it’s higher on the page, etc. Other times, I felt that some sense of modality was needed, so I provided “melodicies” that are to be filled out as modal melodies during the performance [show example] – here is one with me on piano, Stuart Dempster, on trombone, and Neal Meyer on guitar (Ss 14).
The chord in the background of that one is an example of what I will talk about in the last part of this presentation. I will talk about it later – it’s very significant in the work as a whole – but first, the organization and structure of the prerecorded sounds that I’ve used in the “StormSound” Cycle.

The sounds are not random, though, as you probably realize by now, many have been put together by random means. Listen to this, for example. (Ss 15) What are the sounds here? Silence in a mountain meadow. Some fragments of instruments: a flute, a clanging bell. A spate of notes on a piano, processed to sound low and unclear. Then, thunder. But notice how they overlap. The piano sounds anticipate, and lead directly into, the thunder. I did not plan that. I took a recording of a thunderstorm, and an altered recording of another one of my pieces, and tracked them together. That was the result.

Audience member: Could you explain that process a little more? You say you didn’t plan it, but you put them together. What do you mean by ‘put them together’, which to me sounds planned?
Me: Okay, I planned them in that I put them together. But I didn’t plan when they would do what. I took a track of altered piano sounds, and a track of thunder that was the same length, and multi-tracked them without looking at what was going to happen, and that’s what happened.
Another audience member: So, did that happen often in these pieces, that sounds became one another, or mirrored one another is a really surprising way? Did that happen a lot, when you take one sound, to slow it down and alter it, and it sounds very similar to something that is unrelated?
Me: It did happen a lot, all the way through this piece, all nine hours of it. …There were some things of course, here and there, that didn’t work very well, so I threw them out. But in most of it, this kind of thing happened, often. That’s my point; maybe there really isn’t such a thing as random. You just put things together, and often, that’s the result. Of course some of it doesn’t come out like that, so you have to pick and choose.
Another audience member: And it’s hard to get a handle on it.
Me: What do you mean?
Audience member: It keeps weaving into itself, as it were.
Me: That’s partially what I’m talking about; partially what I’m doing!
Audience member: Yup.
Another audience member: Another question. On one of the pieces earlier, there was a sound that was very similar to the chanting of Tibetan monks.
Me: The background chord… I’m going to talk about that in a minute…
Audience member: …And I was wondering if you’ve discovered the meditative quality of certain monastic types of music. There’s a certain resonance, and I was wondering if you were working from that.
Me: [
demonstrate the overtone series on the piano.] It’s basically the harmonic series. It happens in monastic music; Gregorian chant harmonized the same way. It began as plainsong, just one note, but later they harmonized in octaves, then fifths, then fourths, and so on. The Tibetan monks use a different technique; they crack the voice so it splits into three parts – but they are the same three notes. Actually the lower one is an octave lower.
Another audience member: It sounded very three dimensional, the one before this.
Me: That was recorded in a concert, so the prerecorded sound is behind the performers. It was very three-dimensional.

The same goes for the flute and woodpecker I played earlier. Remember this? (Ss 16). I could not have timed that woodpecker more perfectly, yet again, I didn’t time it. (Actually, technically, that’s how it came out the first time. There were some things I didn’t like about the piece, so I remixed it and it didn’t work that way the second time. I had to copy and paste it there. But that is how it worked the first time; usually the first time is better.)

Audience member: Before that [back in the one with the chanting in it], there were some instrumental parts that weren’t random. How were they made?
Me: That was one of the “melodicies”, filled-in note heads without meter. The musicians make up their parts based on those notes. It’s a way to have the performers interact in a way that is sort of random but also sort of planned.

Other than simply tracking sounds together, there are more complex ways to produce “randomness” that is not at all random. Here are two examples of what I’ve called “phase canons” – phasing, but not on a loop, with one voice following the other at a slightly different speed. The first is with nature sounds alone. (Ss 17). The second is of a piano – the same piano part as in that thunder example above – here, some of the notes are distorted a little to sound stylistically similar to the nature sounds in other parts of the Cycle. (Ss 18) Notice how the piano parts overlap and seem to be in synch with one another – yet again, that was not planned. Also, there is something I call “time stratification” – the timing of the piece is divided up by recurring sounds, a sort of polyrhythm on a geological scale. I can’t give any clear examples during our time here, since some of these sounds recur as far apart as fifteen minutes – but in this excerpt, the high drone, birdcall, piano harmonic, and elk call have all appeared at varying time intervals. Neal Meyer plays guitar and Dean Moore plays percussion. (Ss 19)

Lastly, there is the overall structure of the entire “StormSound” Cycle, all nine hours of it. Listeners may not perceive it because of its large scale; just as we can’t perceive the structure of the universe itself because of its large scale. But it is there nonetheless. The first piece and the last three pieces form a frame, so to speak, the two halves of which are exactly the same length. Throughout, there are sets of three pieces; three of these sets are related to one another. On a less academic level, there is what I call the Mystical Chord. Here it is again. (Ss 20) It appears in no less than nine of the twenty-one pieces; at first it is barely noticeable, but it gradually subsumes itself into the texture of the music itself, and transforms it into something new. Remember how I was talking about the inherent meanness in nature? This chord represents a form of hope; it comes from elsewhere, enters into the music, and releases the sounds of nature from their unpleasantness. By the end, it has spread to five octaves and become the music; and the music exists, beautifully, transcendently, in it. (Ss 21). I will leave it to the listener to decide exactly what the chord represents, though I will say that its source, musically, is from processed sounds of waves on a lake. The sounds split into those of the harmonic series that I was talking about earlier, though there is also a sixth that gets in there too, and I don’t really know how that happens.

Audience member: So, what’s the average of the number of tracks that you would lay on each other, and what’s the maximum and minimum number?
Me: The most is probably in the piece called “Sonic Nebula”, which has about… [count]… sixty tracks. Six-zero. The minimum is, exactly, one. There are some parts that have only one track. The average is somewhere between four and ten. And, none of the pieces have the same number of tracks throughout; it’s constantly changing. As far as live musicians go, the last piece has the most: flute, two pianos, marimba, and vibraphone: five. There are a lot of pieces for solo instrument, and several for two instruments; and three trios. There are no pieces for four instruments. Why, I can’t really say. So, it’s really chamber music, though it’s really… long… chamber music.
Another Audience member: How do you choose the musicians or the instruments?
Me: Ah – good question. Some I choose because of how the instruments blend in with the prerecorded sounds; the clarinet with the slowed-down birdcalls was an example. It almost sounds like another bird. Other times I want extreme contrast; the piece “Sonic Nebula” will have flute, piano, and jazz drums; none of which sound even remotely like the prerecorded sounds of the piece. So choosing is by timbre of the instrument, and it depends on the piece. They either blend in with the nature sounds, or stand out sharply against it, one or the other.

I’ll now play a seven-minute excerpt. Let me disconnect the crywire from the piano so it doesn’t buzz while I’m playing…

Audience member: Are you going to play an excerpt from the project, or something else?
Me: I’m going to play an excerpt.
Another Audience member: I see that you haven’t invented a case for the crywire yet.
Me: Yes – that’s the next thing I’ll have to come up with.

…This is the 13th piece in the “StormSound” Cycle, called “Soundform II”. [Plays]

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