braneworlds: the beginning

I’m currently working on a new piece for Kupka’s Piano – the final piece of my PhD folio. We’ll be premiering the piece on 7 October at the Judith Wright Centre in Brisbane (so make sure you put the date in your diary, if you’re going to be in town).

The piece will be a kind of extrapolation of the flute solo warped passages that I wrote for Hannah recently (and that she’ll be performing next month). Also taking some conceptual inspiration from Lisa Randall’s book Warped Passages, the new work will be called braneworlds. And no, I don’t imagine it will sound much like this.

I’ll of course be writing about it a fair bit over the next few months while I compose it, but for now just a couple of basic points about the work:

Firstly, it will feature me on guitar. This will be a weird experience, and a little daunting. I haven’t performed ‘new music’ before, and haven’t performed guitar (other than some folk music) for many years. It was my supervisor Gerardo’s idea a few years ago that I should write myself into one of my pieces. At the time I didn’t agree it was so important. But over the last 12 months or so I’ve become less and less interested in being a serious ‘composer’, and more and more interested in making art from a less institutionally (and ‘Historically’) determined perspective. Making music with the electric guitar (my instrument since the age of 14 at least) is part of this effort.

Secondly, it will re-contextualise and re-write warped passages, functioning partly as a ‘flute concerto’ and adapting its pitch material and temporal structures for the full ensemble. While not much direct material from warped passages will make its way into braneworlds since the logical (and particularly temporal) framework of the latter is different from the former (though not unrelated), its material will spring from the same basic parametric arrangement.

Thirdly, it will be an experiment in click-track composition and will not have a ‘full score’ – only parts. The ensemble is a septet: 2 flutes, clarinet, piano, percussion, cello and electric guitar. I have split this set into four groups:

  1. Solo concert flute
  2. Flutes (picc, concert, alto, bass) and percussion
  3. Clarinet and piano
  4. Cello and guitar

Each group will have a separate click-track. It will all be synchronised (there will be only 1 audio file, but with 4 different outputs), but there will be complete tempo independence for large parts of the work (of course this is a structural parameter that will range from near-total unification to total stratification). This means that the cello and guitar, for example, will play in the same tempo and relate closely temporally to each other, likewise the clarinet and piano, and the flute and percussion (the solo flute will do its own thing). The coordination of ensemble events will happen ‘contingently’ from the perspective of the performers (since they’ll have to pay attention only to their click, their own part, and the other performer in their group), but will be planned out (at least on a macro-scale and at key points) on a poly-temporal grid (and with the help of a computer-generated click-track).

Finally, and here’s the link to the theory of ‘branes’, it will test out a way of simultaneously structuring the limits of the compositional space and the independence of the voices in that space. In post from earlier this year, I outlined some initial ‘principles of counterpoint‘, at least the concept of counterpoint as I theorise it (which relates to, but is not determined by, more historical forms). In this I outline three axioms to do with inter-relation of parts (or lines), and three to do with the logical ‘space’ of the work. In a sense, they are two logically distinct (although compatible) conceptions of counterpoint. The first is linear and is clearly derived from historical principles of counterpoint (independence, imitation, etc). The second is atemporal, logical, and derived from serialism (from Stockhausen, through Richard Barrett). At the time of writing these axioms I was aware of this possible problem with the framework – that there is no necessary movement, no direct link, from the first three to the second three. Without knowing it initially, my current piece is offering one possible solution to this gap. This is because the basic logic pins the logical extremes of the compositional ‘space’ to particular musical voices in the work. Or, conversely, it fixes particular voices (groups) to certain parametric ‘branes’, which is to say that this voice can move along a number of parametric ‘degrees of freedom’, but is stuck when it comes to these parameter-branes. (If that doesn’t make sense, my apologies, I’m writing quickly just to get something down, in a future post I’ll try to explain a bit more clearly what I mean by parametric branes).

Specifically, the basic logic is that the work is this: there are four essential parameters (each with a maximal or minimal value, thus giving 8 possible positions), and four groups. Each group is assigned either the ‘maximal’ or ‘minimal’ value of two different parameters. The result looks like this:

  • Group I: pitch minimum, register minimum
  • Group II: tempo minimum, dynamic contour minimum
  • Group III: pitch maximum, tempo maximum
  • Group IV: register maximum, dynamic contour maximum

This means that each group is freely variable on the two parameters for which it has no assigned value (i.e. for group II, it can move freely in pitch and register). Therefore, the full ensemble is incapable of complete unity of characteristics (and therefore of unison). However, regional totalisations can occur, where, for example, the two groups that have no fixed value for register (II and III) join group I in its minimum ‘brane’, thus creating a division in the musical texture between groups I, II, and III on the one hand, and IV on the other. But the catch is, that within this formation I-II-III, there will be an impossibility of unity on the pitch parameter since I and III are fixed at opposite poles of this dimension. One of the essential ideas of the work will be to demonstrate a large number of these combinational possibilities. There is also one exceptional formation: a bifurcation of the ensemble space. Since groups I and II have no conflicting values, and likewise III and IV, the four groups can reduce to just two: I-II and III-IV.

Anyway, I will come back to this in a future post to explain a bit more concretely what I mean by all of this.