The Reason of Sweeney

Here is the text of a talk I did via skype at the THNMF Conference in Perth on 26 October 2017. It gives some thoughts on what I was trying to do in my recent work for Matt Horsley on uilleann pipes, A Book of Migrations. Some kind of recording of this work should be available soon, and hopefully a proper studio recording will be done in 2018.

In the Medieval Irish legend Buile Suibhne (‘The Frenzy of Sweeney’), Sweeney, the king of Dál nAraidi in Ireland, is cursed with madness after he insults a Christian saint and loses a battle against a nearby rival kingdom. He flees the battle, half-way metamorphosing into a bird, and spends the next few years roaming around the countryside, living off watercress and composing poems before meeting an unceremonious death at the hands of a villager.

Matt Horsley preparing for the premiere performance at BIFEM on 2 September, 2017.

My recent composition A Book of Migrations, a concert-length work for solo uilleann pipes (that is, Irish bagpipes) and electronics created in collaboration with Matthew Horsley and premiered in September at BIFEM, took Sweeney’s internal exile as its conceptual point of departure. Rather than translate the story of Sweeney’s journey into a narrative musical form, it attempted to situate itself within an internal displacement of the traditional stylistic and technical elements of the uilleann pipes.

The work takes its name from a fabulous book by Rebecca Solnit, documenting her travels through Ireland as an American of Irish descent. Not unlike Sweeney, Solnit’s work details a series of displacements, both metaphorical and physical, within the overall space that could be called ‘Ireland’.

One of the working hypotheses of the compositional process was that this old Sweeney myth is in fact formally equivalent to Adorno’s concept of ‘musique informelle’ from the 1960s. Adorno famously criticised the post-war serialist composers for imposing an entirely abstract system in their compositions, leading to a kind of static formalism, purged of all dissonance. While much of his critique can be seen to be conservative in its orientation, its essential argument for a music which is “completely free of anything irreducibly alien to itself or superimposed upon it” (1998, p. 272) is nonetheless a compelling compositional perspective. As a dialectical and materialist doctrine, the point of musique informelle is to take an existing set of conditions or materials and liberate from within some hidden ‘tendencies inherent’ in them, rather than adding external elements in order to create something new by their juxtaposition.

As with Sweeney, the exile is not to another place, but to the same place. The same place, yet seen differently, made anew, on condition of freedom, albeit an unhappy one in both Sweeney and Adorno’s cases.

I have toyed with this understanding of musique informelle in the past – such as in my solo flute work Warped Passages that I developed in collaboration with Hannah Reardon-Smith – however, it had tended to stay at the formal level. The fact of writing for the uilleann pipes forced me take into account the social significance of the instrument, and how meaning operates in relation to this idea of internal exile.

Here is an instrument whose sound seems so loaded, particularly when placed within the art music setting. It is particularly loaded in the context of Australian colonial society.

Robert Hughes (2003) has pointed out that while it is largely not true, one of the dominant myths of Australian settler culture has been that many, if not the majority, of the Irish convicts sent to Australia were in reality political prisoners and that their rebelliousness was at least in part what gave Australia its egalitarian and anti-elitist spirit (pp. 194-195). And recently the first Aboriginal woman in Australian Federal parliament Linda Burney pointed out that Irish people also engaged in atrocities, unsettling a fairly widespread idea that the Irish were not really colonisers in Australia, since they share a common history of invasion and dispossession to First Nations Australians (Irish Times, 18/10/17).

My argument is that, for the white Australian context, the sound of the uilleann pipes cannot be separated from the affect of these origin myths. More broadly, from within the context of modern music (and here I’m not talking of a specific genre, but instead of music that is largely commodified and rationalised, which includes everything from pop to jazz to ‘contemporary classical music’), the uilleann pipes, with their drones, their non-equal tempered intonation, and their myriad timbral idiosyncrasies, cannot but be invested to some extent with an affect of lost wholeness and an escape from the alienation and mechanical standardisation of the present.

To borrow from political theorist Ernesto Laclau, we could say that the various aspects of the uilleann pipes – their drones, intonation, timbral nuances, ornamentational conventions, tunes, harmonies and so on – become an equivalential chain of signifiers for an “absent fullness of the community”.

Thus, following the idea of musique informelle, the goal of A Book of Migrations was to situate the work (and the listener) inside this chain of equivalences and explode it from within by way of a whole bunch of internal displacements – defamiliarising the familiar by extending and reconfiguring it, rather than by simply placing some familiar signifiers within a wholly new context.

I’ll just mention a couple of the techniques to achieve this now.

Firstly, the work is fundamentally rooted in folk materials:

  • Each section of the work is based on one of three Irish folk melodies (all with Australian connections): Australian Waters, Boolavogue, and Na Connerys. These are subjected at different times to temporal expansion and compression, registral displacement and pitch alterations.
  • One of the defining characteristics of the uilleann pipes is how the set of traditional Irish ornaments sounds on the instrument—from cuts and taps to crans and rolls and backstitching. Each of these feature heavily in the work, sometimes in typical ways, sometimes temporally expanded or contracted, with extra notes added, or on pitches and fingerings not commonly associated with these techniques.

Physical elements and performance:

  • The slower the structural folk tunes are in the work, the more they function as cantus firmus-like points. In between each of these points a different pitch logic is used: Inspired by Richard Barrett’s concept of ‘radically idiomatic composition’ particularly as in his solo flute work Vale, each change of pitch can only involve a depression of fingers or a removal of fingers, never both at the same time. This creates a different path through the range of possible pitches, but also facilitates a smooth transition from ornamental techniques and melodic lines.
  • The drones were detuned four times throughout the piece ranging from the traditional all-D tuning to vastly altered chords, sometimes with parts of pipes removed. This preserved their ‘drone-like’ dimension, while creating eerily different harmonic regions.
  • The regulators (a set of keys that sits on the leg), were slightly detuned, and the alterations in timbre and intonation that result from simultaneous depression of different keys was fairly extensively explored.

The electronics

  • The work features electronics, which seem to contradict this idea of internal displacement, however, each of the electronics components is based solely upon processing of the different drone chords (largely filters and detuning).


  • On the level of the text, parts of Sweeney’s poems are recited periodically throughout the work, but with different distributions of the English and medieval Irish versions, to heighten the sense of internal displacement. And yes, Matthew Horsley did learn how to pronounce the medieval Irish gaelic, because he’s a mad bastard.

A variant on the common Hegelian theme that alienation is at the origin of consciousness, Sweeney’s dislocation appears as a madness from the standpoint of the day-to-day world but simultaneously reveals itself to be a heightened awareness of his homeland, rendered in his poems. This is Sweeney’s reason. A Book of Migrations attempts to do something similar to the equivalential chain of signifiers for lost fullness embedded in the uilleann pipes by displacing and exploding them from within. However, being art and not politics of some sort or another, the purpose here is not primarily to create a critical awareness of the falsehood of this lost wholeness, but to liberate richer, more complex and contradictory experiences hidden within.


Some thoughts on recording braneworlds

Getting close to the finishing line for the PhD (submit on March 1), hence I’ve been a little more occupied with writing the dissertation than with writing blog posts. There are, however, a couple remaining posts to write before I submit. The first is about recording braneworlds.

The first thing to say is that because braneworlds is split into four groups each with their own clicktrack, it is very simple to record the work in individual groups and then piece it together. In fact, with the clicktracks all loaded into the music recording software, we could record everybody in the one file so that the compiling was already basically done. In general, groups did not need to hear each other for tuning melodic unisons or matching tones, rhythmic nuance, etc, so there were only occasional sections where different parts were fed into the headphones so that the musicians could hear what was going on in the rest of the recording.

This way of approaching things meant that the recording could be done group by group, region by region, ensuring that we got the best takes and enabling us to have maximum control over the levels of the respective groups and over the eq, spatialisation, etc. It could also lead to a kind of artificial feel, especially in the transition between regions, but that can be corrected in the editing/mixing stages.

Besides, the work has a kind of ‘artificial’ feeling about it anyway, and I don’t feel the recording needs to really attempt to represent at live performance at all, but to give another access point to the identity configurations established in the work. It’s not that the recording is necessarily a more ‘correct’ representation of the work either, since while it is true that many aspects are clearer in the recording, the performance also offers ways into the relationships not offered by the recording (visual associations, unified space, etc). I plan to spend some time in March mucking around with spatialisation, eq, and effects to see how much the relations between the parts can be highlighted in post-production.

But for now, listening to the rough mix that we just put together yesterday with Mark Smith, our sound engineer, there’s a few observations I’d like to make.

Firstly, the piece has a focus and clarity well beyond my earlier works in the folio. My feelings after the performance were a bit mixed. I thought that overall the work was a ‘success’, but that there were numerous sections that didn’t really work. With the extra rehearsal time, the musicians becoming familiar with the piece and the clicktrack, and the benefit of the studio, a lot of the stuff that I thought didn’t quite work (e.g. Regions 12, 13 and 14 in particular) actually work very well. So I’m pretty happy overall with the work. I’m still not 100% convinced of the major-minor triadic sequence that pervades the piece, since such familiar harmonies have a tendency to dominate the musical space, and since the alternative harmonic logic is not sufficiently transferable to other instruments, so it is even less capable of mounting a challenge to the hegemony of the chord sequence. But within the logic of the experimental system that is braneworlds, it works pretty. The chords are kind of funny too; melodramatic in a sort of Hollywood way.

There is some great ‘group polyphonic’ textures in the work, and in fact I wish now that there was more of this. That’s one thing I crave in the work and it never delivers quite enough of it: properly materially dissociated textures. For example, Region 4 has a really strong polyphony between Group I (flute), Group III (clarinet and piano) and Group IV (guitar and cello). Flute 1 plays a really simple, rhythmically stable line of held notes in the upper reg, and the instruments of Group IV play a punchy, lower register unison line of staccato notes, while Group III plays a flowing heterophony. There’s a kind of oblique motion going on too between Group I, which meanders around the high register, and Group IV, which descends from the middle register to the lower register across the section. This is a great moment in the work, but it passes by in 23 seconds.

Likewise the polyphony at Region 5 is really enjoyable. The two groups (II and IV) are both slowing down, but at different tempos and at different rates, and it gives this kind of sea-sick feeling and is constantly forcing the listener to pay attention. I also think Region 12 is much more interesting than I first thought. At this stage, the mix needs to be adjusted, and a little bit of editing as well, but I think the three different groups (I, II, and IV), very registrally distinct, offer a pretty wonderfully confusing rhythmic and textural moment.

One thing to be said about these textures is that much of their material is quite simple. It is just complex enough that the material of each group doesn’t become redundant, but just simple enough that the distinctness of the individual groups doesn’t disappear into a complex and undifferentiated swirl. The registral dimension is also super important to the polyphony of these sections. More of this in the work would be enjoyable… something for future works.

Something that works in the recording is the approach to common gestural shaping between ensembles that I did via my time plots (see this post). After the performance I was worried all that work might have been a waste of time. But with the tighter playing in the recording, these aspects really come out in a number of sections. In particular, Region 5, where the accented upward arpeggios in Group IV connect with stronger attacks in Group II; Region 6, where the metric structures and tempos between Groups I and II are totally different, but where the phrases begin and end at roughly the same point because I worked this out in the time plot; and Region 14, where the piano and flute have clear connecting gestures.

One thing about that is that often what is only a nearly synchronised attack between groups is perceived as a rhythmic unison because it is in such proximity and the brain decides that near enough is good enough. This is a good argument for working with slightly simpler ratios (rather than always prime numbers) in future works, since rhythmic unisons are going to be present anyway in the perceived work, they may as well be written into the work in a more controlled manner.

The one section that still doesn’t work, unfortunately, is Region 15: the flute and drums soli. My guess is that it seems unsuccessful because it is a rupture on the level of the sonic material (this is the first time this entire drum array has been used), and yet it doesn’t really pack the punch (in terms of density and complexity, or, for that matter, simplicity) that a rupture implies. It’s unclear how that could be fixed, but perhaps in future performances of the work I will revise this aspect.

Most of the rest of my criticisms of the work (particularly the fact that it is too sectional) still stand, or are even more obvious, in the recording. However, all in all, it makes for fun listening, and it’s a solid piece to end the PhD project on.

braneworlds reflections, part 2

On the whole, I’m very happy with how braneworlds turned out, especially considering I didn’t have a score for the piece and so couldn’t be sure how everything would sound together. It’s certainly my best constructed and most self-defining piece to date. I won’t go through blow-by-blow about all the minutiae that needs changing, but instead draw some broad brushstrokes about my fairly immediate response from having heard the recording of a rehearsal.

Firstly, the scope of the work. I found the various dimension of the work pretty effective. I feel that the space between the 24-tone series and its microtonal underblown variations and the sequence of major and minor triads was well explored. On first listening, I feel it gave the work a drama and saved it from the danger of a modernist homogeneity of the harmonic plane. I also feel that despite how cinematic and potentially kitch the section where the guitar and piano lock into the chord-sequence could be seen, it is quite compositionally justified (since it is present in a lesser degree in almost all sections) and is not some kind of post-modern ironic gesture.

Similarly the rhythmic stratification was quite effective, I feel. The work had passages of total rhythmic independence between the four groups, passages where one group was pitted against three, and sections where two groups unified against two. I think this ensured that the work pushed itself to imaginative leaps and the textures were often quite novel and rarely felt dull or monotonous.

One thing that could be said is that the work could have done with foregrounding the different tempos a little more. When each group is playing different pitch, registral, and gestural material, and they all have fairly complex rhythms, the fact that they are all playing in different tempos is somewhat less perceptible. Instead it sounds like a lot of difficult new music – an effect that could be achieved with everyone in the same tempo. So a few more Nancarrow-esque moments, where material with a high-level of self-identity (fairly simple and repetitive) is stacked upon itself in different groups and different tempos, would be good in future pieces that try this approach.

One thing I meticulously did in this piece was to make sure almost every possible solo, duo, trio and quartet had a section in the work, and that aspect was planned out in advance. I felt previous works, such as a new day in the desert and Kampflieder, dealt with this very basic aspect of textural density in an inadequate way. While I was worried that braneworlds would be too all over the place with all the different combinations taking a turn, upon listening it doesn’t seem to me to be particularly incoherent, in fact I think it again pushes the work to a more imaginative space and a constant reinvention of itself.

In terms of pacing… In the Kupkacast before the gig, I said I was worried that it would appear that the work is just bashing through 23 different ideas, and in a previous post I said I was worried that the sections weren’t long enough. Firstly, it’s true that in general sections abruptly begin and end, but I’m not actually too worried – I feel there’s enough transitional moments worked in to make it not seem too much like a montage. And secondly, while it’s true the sections could all easily be longer, I feel in the recording that they are sufficiently differentiated in length that it doesn’t sound flat and monotonous. The middle section where the long section of Group II and III transitions into an even longer duet between Group I and the piano contrasts really nicely with the final minute or two, where a sequence of distinct and short sections kind of keep interrupting each other.

Perhaps the elements that might tend towards overkill are balanced out by the strictness of the constraints placed upon the materials of each of the groups. For instance, the piano and clarinet only play notes from a sequence of triads, the guitar and cello only play crescendos and are only ever located in the low register. Perhaps this is what my friend Peter Clark meant when he said after the gig that braneworlds is actually quite restrained.

In general I think the clarity of the textures themselves is pretty well handled. There are passages where the groups blur into each other, and others where they are more stratified. I’ll have to listen to this aspect a little more, and decide how I feel about it, but my feeling listening to this is not so much being in two places at once, but of being in a single incongruent place, a place which feels fractured and requires thinking about how these different things belong in the same place. There are definitely sections (I’m thinking the duo between Group II and III) where timbral, registral, and spatial similarity cancel out the independent rhythmic and harmonic logics, rendering the result somewhat awkward: it feels like a harmonic unity of sorts, and a near gestural unity, but with a lack of unison. I’m not sure if this feeling of ambiguity in the counterpoint of this particular section is such a bad thing in the context of the work, where there are sections of much clearer relationships between parts in the texture. However, it might be made more compelling by aiming for much clearer and more exaggerated dynamic contours in performance, for example. (A similar problem emerges in the flute duo section, which I’ll have to return to to see how to make it have a stronger idea).

In general, probably more could be done to reach extremes of textural stratification. Something to attempt in the next piece of this kind.

There were a couple of compositional elements that were quite fraught. In particular the flute writing, dealing mostly with underblowing from a sequence of quite high quartertones, is problematic. The difficulties are several: 1) the passages are often too fast for the fragile underblown notes to speak properly in time; 2) the fingering sequence itself is a bit clunky and often requires a bit of ‘cheating’ to make work; 3) the underblown notes are often too soft and get lost in the texture; and 4) the dynamics I want for the 4th register stuff is just not possible. All of these have solutions, and I’m already working to change some of these passages, sacrificing pitch for dynamics and speed for sounding result…

One thing that came up as a problem is that the really trilly passages requiring rhythmic accuracy (mostly group III) are difficult to deliver. It seems like either the quality of the trill or the rhythmic accuracy needs to be sacrificed. While it’s not really in need of correcting in this work, it’s something that is worth bearing in mind in the future, because it has an impact on the ability to really deliver lines with clarity.

There were a number of balance issues both within and between groups. Some of these are will be easily resolved through rehearsal, but others are failures of orchestration, and might need a bit of a rethink in the score.

Group II’s property of constantly decrescendoing doesn’t really register aurally as much as it should, and perhaps needs to be made a little more explicit, although it is naturally there regardless, due to the decay of the percussion.

Another element that comes across only very weakly is my attempt at forging gestural interconnections between groups in different tempos. In a previous post I explained how I used graphic read-outs of the waveforms in Logic of the clicktracks to give me a sequence of points where different groups almost have a downbeat together. I tried to highlight these points of the work by dynamic, articulation, or pitch correspondences. So far this has not really come across in the work, instead the micro-level interactions between groups seem largely random and without significance, or with an ambiguity as to whether they are significant. Again this is not bad in principle, but it would be great to be able to control it further. We will have to try to make these moments more prominent in rehearsals, by better articulation and dynamic contour, but for future pieces, having a clearer idea about how micro-level interactions are structured (or not structured) will be important. Having attended Ben Marks’ The Circular Ruins 3 yesterday, it’s entirely possible to not worry at all about micro-level interactions between groups with distinct material, and simply leave them up to chance. But I personally want at least to be able to control this dimension in a work. This would probably require a more nuanced approach to dividing up the time of a section for each group. Whereas in this composition each group divided a section by a different prime number (thus ensuring no points of coincidence at the start of any bars), and similarity on the temporal plane meant arithmetic proximity of tempo (for example, division by 13 is closer to by 11 than to by 23), a future work could explore density of temporal coincidences, where similarity on the temporal plane would meant proportional proximity (for example, division by 6 is closer to division by 18 than to division by 11).

Anyway, there’s probably much more I could think about, and no doubt more will come up as we go to record the piece, but that’s enough for some initial reflections.

braneworlds reflections, part 1

On Friday night, Kupka’s Piano performed my new braneworlds as part of the ‘Tautologies, Transitions, Translations’ concert, alongside wonderful works by Hannah Reardon-Smith, Michael Mathieson-Sandars, Alan Lawrence, and Eric Wubbels. In the interest of gathering my thoughts about this, and documenting the entire creative process (including the reflection-assessment stage) for the PhD, here’s the first of two more or less stream-of-consciousness reflections on rehearsing and performing my piece.


That’s us playing braneworlds at the Judy on Oct 7 (thanks to Kathleen McLeod for the photo).

The first thing to mention I guess is the fact that I played guitar with the ensemble for braneworlds. This is the first time I’ve done this, and the first time I’ve performed ‘new music’ at all, really, having come from a rock and jazz background, and having more or less quit the guitar about 7 years ago when I seriously began composing.

The experience was an interesting and very enjoyable one. It changed my perspective as a composer somewhat. Being less exterior to the work, I felt I was more able to treat the performance as a performance, and less as a score to be represented. In this scenario, the ‘simplest’ parameters of dynamic definition and balance, and cleanliness of entrances and exits of sections, became the most important elements, rather than the pitch and rhythm elements internal to the sections, for example.

Having practiced this piece about four times as much as the others in the group (since their capacity to wing it in this style far outstrips mine), and having played most of the work very well in rehearsals, I nonetheless had the inevitable freakout when I came to perform it. In the first section in which I play, I was distracted worrying about whether the clicktrack for Group III (clarinet and piano) was actually working. This entirely threw me, and I was pretty much all over the place in the first few sections. I likewise was distracted thinking about the balance of the piece later on and heard my count-in wrong in my chordal section, and entered early, which again threw me somewhat… Having said all that, I held up ok in most of the rest of the work, and nailed a couple crucial passages, so not bad for a first go.

So being a composer performing their own music comes with difficulties. One thing that really intensified these was the specific construction of the work and its technological dimension. The fact that there isn’t a score for the work, but only four parts, and the fact that everyone was buried in their own part and clicktrack meant that performers (myself included) had very little awareness during many sections of what was happening around them. This week I’ll be drawing a graphic representation of the whole piece as a kind of ‘study score’, but in retrospect it would have been much better to try to have this available during rehearsals.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting, and I think effective, way to rehearse: only a very vague amount of attention was paid to ensemble coordination, dynamics, balance, etc, during rehearsal itself (though clarinetist Annie Larsen very kindly came to two rehearsals just to give some basic feedback). A recording was made during rehearsal that I later listened to and took notes. I then read out to the ensemble before the following rehearsal, and we tried to then be a little more conscious of those aspects. With more rehearsal for future performances/recordings, I think we will reach a really powerful performance of the work.

I really enjoyed the confidence that the clicktrack lent to the performance. It meant that entrances were (almost) always completely bang on target, and people were able to play with a lot of confidence in some essential aspects of the work, and could therefore stress more about getting their own parts right, and getting more clarity to gestures, etc. We don’t have to worry about who is cueing whom, and we don’t have to have a conductor. (Obviously it also enables a performance in multiple tempos and time signatures as well, and the shifting between temporal stratification and temporal unison across different groups, which is one of the key ideas of the piece.) In the end, for this concert we ran the work about 5 times in total in rehearsal, with a couple of sectionals for each group. That was sufficient for the premiere. With a score of this complexity, without the clicktracks (even if everyone was in the same tempo, and even if there was a conductor), rehearsals would have been much more complicated and time-consuming just to get together basic elements like coordinating entrances, not getting lost, etc.

Obviously this takes out the conversational, ‘chamber music’ aspect of the piece. (Although not entirely. With more rehearsal and comfort with the various parts, and with clicktrack performance, each musician would be a little more freed up to explore the interrelations between parts). A year or two ago, I would have discarded it for this very reason. The kind of Adornian idea, however, that this kind of non-hierarchical chamber music, where the time is controlled collectively and internally to the subject of performance, is somehow more free than a music where the performers are ‘dominated’ by an external technological device, which controls their time (above which stands the authoritarian composer), misses a couple things. Firstly, the clicktrack makes possible musical relations and experiences simply not possible without it, and thus is a vehicle for our aural liberation. Secondly, the collaboration involved in the creation of this kind of music (amongst the musicians, and between the composer and the musicians), is very far from a model of authoritarian structures. In fact, I felt this was the most egalitarian piece I have written, partly because I was also subjected to the performance experience, and partly because it was my most thoroughly prepared piece, with a lot of logistical stuff sorted out in advance.

Creating the clicktrack itself was a time-consuming process. After I had determined the number of pulses and tempo of each group for each ‘region’ of the work (as I’ve described in an earlier post), I created a click-track via midi in Logic for each section at the point of beginning to compose it. I then bounced that and dropped it into the overall click file, which included each group as a separate channel (sometimes I had to time stretch the region slightly to fit its intended length, since the tempo I wrote in the score was sometimes rounded slightly from the value I determined mathematically).

I then bounced each click separately, so there were four independent clicktracks. I had initially thought of having just one computer, which would play a 4-channel file, which would then go through a multi-channel DAI and perhaps into wireless headphones, but the cost was somewhat prohibitive. Fortunately, my friend Vincent Giles in Melbourne provided me with a Max patch that creates a server-client situation so that sending a bang from one computer will start the clicktrack on all four computers. Obviously a network connection needs to be established across the four. I was initially going to go through the Judith Wright Centre’s wifi, but was advised against that by the Judy technician (it just wasn’t reliable enough in his opinion), so I decided to buy my own router and lan cables. This made it very easy in fact, once I had fixed some weird connectivity issues on some laptops. Anyway, once all connected, the laptops just needed some headphone splitters and headphone extension cables so that two people could access each laptop. To make sure that the audience couldn’t hear our click, we got headphones with noise-reducing rubber earbuds, and taped up each of our spare headphone with toilet paper and electrical tape.

Now that I have all the gear, this piece is actually a fairly straightfoward thing to perform, so perhaps we’ll be doing it again soon. The plan is also to record it very soon for Kupka’s very first album… which will be an interesting process unto itself.

Ok, that’s it for this post. In the next post I’ll take up some specific aspects of the composition that I thought were either particularly effective, or are in need of revising…

Temporal stratification in ‘braneworlds’

One of the key elements of the piece I’m working on at the moment – braneworlds – is that the ensemble of seven musicians is divided into four groups (three duos and a solo). That in itself is perhaps not unusual, or particularly interesting. What I think is interesting (or could be interesting) is that each group will be running in an independent tempo. To make this possible each group will play from a clicktrack playing in one ear. The clicktracks must be synchronised, even if they are playing independent tempos. This means that the playback of the clicktrack has to be via a single audio file but mixed quadraphonically – each clicktrack is assigned to a different channel so that each performer only hears their relevant clicktrack.

I’m still in the process of investigating the exact technology I’ll need for that – my main concern at the moment is having headphones that will reach to everybody!

But besides the technological dimension, I’m finding the compositional implications of this basic setup quite interesting.

The first implication – and this is quite significant – is that, since everyone has their own clicktrack, there is no need to have a simple temporal relationship between the groups (such as 2:1, 3:2 or 4:3). Fairly early on in my planning stages, I decided that the ratios between the different groups in this work could only be of prime numbers. What this means is that given a section of 75.5 seconds, one group will divide this by 17, another by 23 and yet another by 37 (let’s say there’s only three playing at this point). Dividing these into the total duration, this means that the first group will have a structural bpm of 13.51, the second group 18.28, and the third 29.4. Of course, on the surface level, these slow bpms can be subdivided – and must be, in order that they yield faster, more interesting rhythms.

While this method ensures independent tempos with a certain proportional relationship, if they are subdivided differently, the end result might fundamentally obscure the initial ratio. It is for this reason that I decided that the structural bpm represents the ‘bpm of the mean event density’. This means different things in different groups. In Group I (solo flute), an ‘event’ is a change of fingering in the isofingering sequence; in Group II (flute and percussion) an event is defined by a decrescendo contour; in Group III (clarinet and piano) it is a change in chord within a ‘consonant atonal’ chord sequence; in Group IV (cello and guitar) it is a crescendo contour.

This is to say that, for instance, Group II, if it divided the section into 17 events, would decrescendo at an average bpm of 13.51. Anything else that happens within that time can be varied (pitches, different rhythmic subdivs), but that decrescendo is fixed as the event-type of that group.

For each section of the work I choose a kind of a ‘density window’ or ‘tempo frame’, which basically just gives a span of prime numbers. Here’s the list:

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 10.24.14 PM

As you can see, within the logic of the work described in a previous post, Group II is always trapped at the slow end of the density spectrum, and Group III is always at the fast end. Groups I and IV are variable and in each section I will decide whether I wish one or both of them to be closer to either of the fixed groups.

I say mean or average bpm or density, because while there are some sections that have a regular event rhythm, many others (the majority in fact), shape the time according to a gradual acceleration or deceleration of the event density.

How this is done is to choose, for each group, a multiplier of the basic bpm (its subdivision), which will determine the speed of the basic surface pulse (as opposed to the event pulse). If, for instance, there are 23 events in the 75.5 second section, and this is multiplied by 7, that means there will be a total number of 161 basic ‘surface’ pulses in the section, with a bpm of 127.95. This becomes the tempo of the section for that group.

How I create the accelerando or decelerando structure in a section is then more or less how I proceeded in warped passages. Firstly, the number of events translates (in simple cases) into the number of bars. I then create a particular linear or exponential function (for instance y=x^1.5) with this many x values. To map this set of proportions to the number of surface pulses in the section, you simply divide each y value by the sum of all the y values and then multiply the result by the number of surface pulses. Rounding these to the nearest whole number, you get a bar structure with expanding or contracting bar lengths. If these bars are then treated as ‘events’ you evidently get events of greater or lesser duration within the one section, but they oscillate around a basic mean event density.

This means that often the tempo difference are not going to be felt at all like a structural polyrhythm, but instead as almost totally independent streams with different statistical structures (especially if tuplet structures overlay the bar structures). At other times, however, I want to show clearly that there are multiple tempos happening based on obscure proportional relationships – that’s when I keep the event bpm entirely regular and reduce the surface density.

One of the extreme implications of this is that I have jettisoned the use of a full score for this piece. It would be impossible to represent these complex ratios with any accuracy while writing the score in Finale or Sibelius, and it would be extremely time-consuming and painful to do so by hand. Nor is a full score necessary. Instead there will be four different parts. This is a bit of a pain, but I’m getting pretty good at flicking between various finale files…

In a future post I will talk about how the graphic representation of the clicktracks in the Logic Pro file I am creating helps me to identify temporal coincidences or near coincidences and structure things like dynamics and melodic climaxes according to these.