Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Musical Ideas

Nocturne/Doubles, for piano and computer
Nocturne/Doubles for Piano and Computer is the second in a series of works for instrument and computer. Doubles is a term used in 17th and early 18th century French music for a technique of variation in which more or less elaborate ornamentation is added to the original melody, while the supporting harmonies remain the same. The Doubles series takes this idea as its starting point and applies the variation technique to the timbre of the soloist as well as the pitched material. The computer also responds to the piano’s music; sometimes confirming (doubling) and summarizing, sometimes extending, altering or recontextualizing the piano’s melodic and harmonic material.

Unnatural Selection
In Unnatural Selection the performer improvises freely on Tactex MTC Express touch-pad. The synthesizer music is performed by an improvising computer program inspired by the computation technique known as a genetic algorithm, which takes a set of possibilities and generates new ones by recombining aspects of the old ones. The notes played by the human performer become a population of possibilities from which the program derives its musical material. The data from the touch-pad is interpreted by the program, which derives information about the pitches and rhythms being played, and produces a closely related accompaniment. The program "learns" the music on the spot, at the moment it is played by the human performer, and joins in with a synthesizer accompaniment it improvises based on the music it receives. Thus, the human performer has the ability to influence the computer's composition in real time, but cannot wholly determine it. Since the accompaniment is composed at that moment, the performer has never heard it before and is required to interact with this new sonic environment.

Variations for Piano
My Piano Variations is a set of eight variations on an original theme. The theme itself is cast as a moderately long, two-part rounded form, and ends with three sets of reiterated chords which are used at times as cadential material, and at other times to make a transition, preparing or anticipating the succeeding variation. The fourth variation - in a poignant and contemplative mood, played una corda - provides a centerpiece, the other variations deployed symetrically around it, with lighter, dance-like variations preceding, and more turbulent ones following. The turbulence reaches a climactic moment, leading to a final, incomplete variation reminiscent of the opening. Considered another way, the variations group themselves together harmonically and rhetorically into a sonata-like structure: the theme and first variation are expository in meaning and character; variations 2, 3 and 4 are developmental; and variation 5 returns to the original tonal area dominated by D and Ab, with a richly figured variation on the opening theme.

Quintuple Escapement
Our musical knowledge is heavily invested in the concept of discrete musical events which form measurable inter-event relationships (i.e. pitch intervals). Digital musical instrument paradigms now offer a fundamental decoupling of the generation of physical sound from instrument’s physical design responding to performance gestures. This raises the question of what musical potential lies in the domain of a single performer engaging instrumental interactions that go beyond control of individual event streams and entering into the realm of inter-event intervals -- the direct playing of many kinds of musical relationships. Pianist Daniel Koppelman asked me to work with him on a project exploring these ideas. The first result of this project is an interactive laptop instrument running in Max/MSP. The instrument, named Erard’s Springs & Levers after the developer of double-escapement piano action, owes philosophical and sonic debts to John Cage’s developments of the prepared piano half a century ago. Unlike the prepared piano, this virtual instrument allows for the triggering and continuous control of complex musical events as well as single tones. Composed for this instrument, Quintuple Escapement presents five short pieces that explore what might be considered to be idiomatic music for this new instrumental paradigm engaging the intersection between traditional performance and the domains of freedom recently made available. The pieces grow out of two principal ideas: a series of movements that are compressed, nearly rarified character pieces, and each movement built up from juxtaposed and inter-related musical statements that are constrained by the notion of 8-second ‘sound bites.’ Erard’s Springs and Levers is based on a combination of patches designed by the composer and modifications of patches included in the distribution of Max/MSP as help files and tutorials all using standard-issue Max/MSP objects. Daniel Koppelman provided a design for rehearsing sections in the instrument. In addition to the standard Max/MSP objects, this instrument uses the tap.shift pitch shifting object which is part of the TapTools set by Timothy Place, and the Newverb~ object by Richard Dudas which is available as a public domain reverb object. The sound sources for the instrument are recordings of plucked, struck, and scraped piano strings, short excerpts from solo piano recordings of Kleinsasser’s Available Instruments for piano and computer, and sampled recordings of piano tones from and Steinway Model C piano tones by Soeren Bovbjerg.,

Psychic Driving
Psychic Driving is a method employed after the original personality has been excised through sleep induction, sensory deprivation, electro-convulsive therapy, and mega-doses of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) and other psychotropic drugs. Tapes are played continuously to the subject, installing the desired personality modifications. The psychic driving technique was developed under the aegis of the MKULTRA program for mind control experimentation. A central concern in Psychic Driving is the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of homicidal insanity. This is represented musically in distinctions between music composed in familiar classical style, and live computer transformations of this music which call the stylistic boundaries into question. The work is bordered by two text quotations. The first quotation is from cult leader Jim Jones, exhorting parents to make their children drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in Guyana: "Everybody hold it, hold it, hold it. Lay down your burden and I'll lay down my burden. Down by the riverside. Shall we lay 'em down inside of Guyana? What's the difference?" The second is from a 1996 60-Minutes interview with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who explains why infanticide is official U.S. policy in Iraq: Leslie Stahl: "We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Madeleine Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it."

Voices: In Memoriam
This work began as a commission from two wonderful and talented pianists: Leah Hokanson and Daniel Koppelman, both of whom have performed my music on a variety of occasions for many years, and both of whom are extraordinarily gifted interpreters of contemporary music. It also served as a re-entry for me into the world of instruments-with-electronics, which I had not worked in for four years. The medium of choice for 2001 is undoubtedly interactive electronics, where a computer system “listens” to the live performer and provides further interpretation and commentary on the instrument’s sound world. The advantage over pre-recorded materials is one of freedom for the performer, where the computer ‘accompanist’ reacts to the instrument’s sounds, rather than the reverse. I had just started the composition when the attacks took place on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, and by a month later I found myself making little progress. During a trip to New York in October, 2001 I found myself making a pilgrimage of sorts to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I discovered a chapel area which had been dedicated, apparently for many years, to the Firefighters of New York. There I saw special displays by school children, a newspaper tribute to the 343 firefighters who were killed at the World Trade Center, and, most significant, I saw a letter, bravely hand-written by a school-age youngster to his father, who had been killed. Its sentiments were at once universal and specific — lauding a hero’s bravery and looking forward to a distant but much anticipated reunion. This, more than any of the television coverage, newspaper reports, or memorial ceremonies, brought home to me the full impact of this tragedy on the individual and collective spirit. I decided, even before leaving the cathedral, that I needed to start over — that this work should somehow memorialize these firefighters. Hence the tones of the piano honor their voices and create a sound world, while the computer does what computers do best – hold these voices in memory, and bring these memories back, changed – as memories always are – by time and by new experiences and associations. The piece itself is an example of this process of change: once the voices have been stated, there is a significant change of mood, and the sound world of the piece changes its context completely. Yet memory persists and, in the end, brings us inevitably back to these now-silent yet very audible voices. In fact, our memories argue convincingly that nothing that we love ever really leaves us.

Four Preludes for Solo Piano
My PRELUDES were completed in December of year 2000. They are dedicated to an acclaimed pianist who encouraged their creation. My goal was to write a group of straight-forward pieces which were united by a common musical language. While the PRELUDES are formally coherent in an abstract sense they all bear programmatic titles suggestive of a scenario or mood. MAELSTROM endeavors to capture the terror of the violent tornadoes I experienced while growing up in the flat agricultural country of southern Minnesota. In this prelude moments of uneasy tranquility alternate with sudden, tempestuous outbursts which eventually climax and dissipate, returning to the ominous calm of the beginning. FADING EMBERS was inspired by evocative lines from a ninth century Chinese poet, Li Shang-yin: "Dreams of remote partings, cries which cannot summon…" In short, FADING EMBERS is a wistful, nostalgic reawakening of poignant events buried in the past. Strictly speaking, VALSE SUBLIMINALE is not a traditional waltz. It is, rather, a series of surrealistic, often mercurial flashbacks concerning various aspects of the waltz repertoire which have produced vivid impressions on me. Throughout the work are indirect references to the music of Brahms, Berg, Ravel and Bill Evans. CACCIA is an Italian word meaning chase. The early Trecento applied the term to poetry dealing with the hunt, and to music which portrayed the hunt via extended imitative passages (canons). Instead of counterpoint, however, this prelude's scenario focuses primarily upon a victim trying desperately to elude its predator. Midway there is a brief, nervous respite—as if the quarry has at last found secure cover. This illusion is abruptly shattered and the pursuit resumes with renewed ferociousness. A volatile cadenza spells the beginning of the end. The victim, becoming progressively weaker, finally stumbles and meets its demise in the clutches of the predator.

Church Keys
I have long loved the simplicity and clarity of the four-part hymns I used to sing in church as a child. I view these hymns now as a foundation upon which highly complex structures can be built. I have often been perplexed, however, by the range of emotions expressed in many of these hymns. On the one hand hymns like “Far Far Away From My Loving Father,” portray a heartfelt loving and forgiving image based on the prodigal child story. On the other hand, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” contains violent war imagery and language. The opposed polarity of these two types of hymns can be striking when they appear side by side in a worship service. I have come to realize that both compassion and confrontation seem to be equal parts of human nature. Church Keys is the ground on which these halves of myself struggle to coexist.

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