Lessons from hearing ‘Si el clima’ live

Almost two weeks ago now, Alex Raineri gave a recital of works for solo piano and ‘fixed media’. As part of that he premiered a new version of my Si el clima fuera un banco that we collaborated on, with Alex pre-recording the tape piano parts, rather than them being samples. The tape part was also spatialised. Alex obviously did a wonderful job, and I thought the piece came across relatively well, but there are a number of things that I think require some reflection. Despite the fact that Alex had performed this a number of times already, this was actually the first time I heard it live. Unfortunately I had an extremely brutal cold, and was on the verge of coughing or sneezing the whole time. Hopefully that didn’t affect my perception too much.

The first aspect that struck me about the work was the essential negativity of the materials and the approach to counterpoint. Particularly the materials in the opening section and the penultimate section – these are quite haphazard and lacking clear purpose. This is of course a symptom of my undeveloped thinking at the time of the piece, where ‘character’ of each group was quite intuitively determined (which is not to say that it wasn’t determined in the precompositional period), rather than thought through clearly in terms of shared or private parameters.

But the most important issue concerns the relationship between the tape and the live piano. The actual form that the work took on this front was the result of a number of practical decisions that had to be taken due to an error on my part regarding the degree of possible complexity of the live part. Originally, four separate lines were to be performed by the live pianist, while another musical element (temporally, timbrally, and intonationally different from the live component) was to take place. This was not possible for two reasons: firstly, I realised that the 4-line counterpoint (plus the spoken text I intended to write in) was going to become far too aurally complex to preserve any meaningful contrapuntal dimension, and secondly, a human performer would need 3 months alone with a piano, a masseur, and a meditation guru in a cabin in the woods to be able to perform all 4 lines themselves. So, the four lines were split between the performer and the tape part.

This contributed to the essentially ‘haphazard’ and ‘negative’ (I’m using that term to mean essentially ‘aconceptual’) nature of the counterpoint. In this case it was that there was no essential logic in the deployment of lines between the live and the tape spheres (likewise for the tape spatialisation, which was done quite intuitively and rudimentarily). But this might be acceptable within a certain more ‘local’ and less ‘global’ focus of counterpoint (and a paradigm that sees the global dimension more as ‘drama’ than as ‘logic’) – what remains problematic is a fundamental mistake in the thought of the piece: the essential indeterminacy of the timbral relationship between the live and recorded piano. My supervisor Gerardo pointed this out to me after the performance, and it was quite obvious from the performance. In this instance, the live piano had a very bright and almost brittle sound, whereas the piano we recorded the tape part on was very mellow and dark. What this meant was that the counterpoint felt weak, since it was originally conceived as taking place on the same piano, the counterpoint in this piece really relied on close timbral proximity to intensify the feeling of difference in the other aspects of the lines. The tension embedded in the lines was largely lost because there was no feeling of timbral/spatial contact between them. This would not have been a problem had this non-contact been taken into the founding conception of the work, and there was a much clearer differentiation between the type of material in the live and that in the tape (where, for example, two quite independent sonic discourses unfolded largely independently, or where there was a more obvious ‘foreground’ and ‘background’, and so on).

The other major lesson regarded the use of spoken texts. In the original conception of the work, the idea that the four voices would speak simultaneously was an attempt to create an analogous structure to that of the 4-line counterpoint of the piano part. In retrospect this was a poorly thought through idea. I’m not unhappy with the presence of the voices, with their enigmatic content, in the work. The simultaneous moments, however, are not particularly effective. My hope in this case was that the spatialisation of the four voices would allow a greater degree of intelligibility of each one in the sea of information. While this might be true (the setup at the concert was not exactly ideal, but was enough to give something of a picture of what it would be like), it was not enough differentiation to cover the extreme information overload, which collapses a counterpoint of independent parts into a general texture. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: firstly, whereas the musical elements on the piano can be clearly distinguished in register, rhythm, pitch and so on, the voices are all far too similar in these parameters. This means that their tendency to merge into a sonic block is greater. Additionally, the fact that they were all complex in terms of their syntax and their signification further enhances this tendency towards the dissolution of their individual identities (to make an obvious point: if each of the voices only had three words unique to itself that it repeated over and over again, the stratification of the overall texture would be far greater).

None of this means that I’m not still happy with the piece for what it is, or that I would change anything – the piece is what it is – but these are definite lessons for me in terms of thinking counterpoint with spatial, electronic, and textual resources.


Si el clima: Quick thoughts upon listening

Alex Raineri premiered my new piano and tape piece Si el clima fuera un banco in Brisbane a few weeks ago and did an incredible job. Here’s the recording.

Hopefully soon I’ll get around to writing up a summary of the approach I took in composing the work – its formal and material dimensions – as part of documenting what could be called my research process. But what I want to do just now is a bit of rapid, non-structured ‘brain dump’ as my partner Hannah would call it, or, in the words of the ever tasteful Alex Raineri, a ‘vom doc’. The latter would be perhaps more appropriate since in the premiere performance of this piece, an innocent audience member was overwhelmed with the need to vomit and had to quickly flee the concert space (you can hear it in the recording towards the end, a poignant moment). I would like to claim this as testimony of the overwhelming effects of my music, but I have heard that the audience member in question had food poisoning at the time. I hope s/he is ok.

The purpose of this doc is to sharpen up both the composition and the interpretation of the piece. Alex will be writing his own vom-doc soon. The fact is that Si el clima is not really finished and perhaps will never be (in the sense of logically closed: I have no intention to keep fiddling with it forever) and so is really still open to improvements. This version features a midi piano part, but this will soon be replaced by Alex prerecording all of the tape piano part in advance. There still remains the possibility that all of the 4 lines within the contrapuntal discourse could be performed by a single pianist (if they decided that the new music olympics was their sort of thing), and I’m not against doing a version for two pianos.

Anyway. Vom-docs away!

The opening. The problem with the opening is this: on the one hand beginning with the tape part in this way is a bit weak, and I’m not convince of the minimal live part and how it relates to the rest. However, the overall effect of starting with the tape and then very immediately shifting the focus to the live piano – the tape representing a false start of sorts – is in my view very effective. Perhaps the issue of the opening two bars will be ameliorated when Alex records his own version of the tape part.

The following section (bars 3-24 I think), doesn’t quite have the intensity of momentum it perhaps should have. Alex plays it super lyrically, and that’s perfect, but there’s perhaps not enough of a feeling of things really getting out of control (prefiguring the final sections). The thing is, in these sections, the polyphonic discourse is intentionally undermined by a shorter-range gestural thinking, and so, without the cognitive dissonance between the parts to keep things interesting, a more helter-skelter feeling is necessary. Perhaps there’s just something that can be tweaked in articulation, etc, to sharpen up the chaotic vibe.

The following section is sufficiently murky and weird.

Thinking about it now, the polyphony in the work is obscured more or less up until bar 33, it’s all too murky or gestural until then. This is a good thing, in my opinion. One thing I think that could be change in the interpretation is the staccatos in the live part from bar 33 – they are a little too sharp and accented and jump out of the lines rather than just punctuating them.

I’m quite happy with the chordal passages, and their polyphony with the (very quiet, almost hidden) single line in the tape part – but I’d have to hear it live, since in the recording it’s hard to tell what the balance and feeling between the two parts really was like.

Bar 48 – mistake in the score. The left hand shouldn’t have a C natural, it’s a C# tied over from the previous bar. In the recording it makes a pretty nasty, grandiose octave. In general I think the top line needs to be seriously reduced in dynamics, since I want it to not really take over as the ‘feature’ line until around the second beat of bar 49.

48-50: in general the tape part is too buried…

51: Eb major triad. Sounds super gorgeous after all the murkiness preceding it. Nice! Beautifully executing by Alex! Makes the entry of the voice really beautiful.

This whole transitional section into bar 58 is again really wonderfully executed. Here’s a really polyphonic moment. One can really listen to each of the individual lines separately or the overall discourse… I’m also really happy about the harmony in this section. It’s a resultant parameter (that is to say, the lines only conform to their own intervallic constraints, not to some textural-harmonic constraint), but the result is very arresting, to my ears. Worth returning to to see what I did right!

The entrance of the next section at bar 58 is also perfectly interpreted. This quite intensive entrance and then a bit of a retreat…

Ok. So there are a few timing issues between the tape and live part in the next section or two, but that’s neither here nor there – something that can be sorted out in future performances.

The following section, from bar 85-91, sufficiently intense: moving from a perceptible polyphony to a a wildly pulsating texture.

In general the top line from bar 91-94 should be more obstinate and intense. It is throughout this whole long middle section of the piece where the textures are significantly clarified, with lines really very distinct from each other, so it’s quite necessary that they are each given a lot of love and individuality, since they can’t rely on dissolving into gestalt gestures to make them effective. Alex in general does a great job. With a new tape part that Alex has recorded himself, I think the unique qualities of each line will only be strengthened.

That run in the right-hand at bar 97 tho. Phwaaw! Alex!

In fact all the quicksilver stuff in the right hand throughout this section is so wonderfully done by Alex…

In general the spoken voices, particularly when they enter all together, need to come up in the levels. That is true as much at bar 128 as elsewhere. In this particular section the voices need to swamp the live piano, now reduced to a single-line.

The section from 161 was slowed down – as was the rest of the piece – from my original conception, because it was too insanely fast to play. Ok, my bad. And in general this hasn’t caused much of a problem with the overall flow of the piece (in fact, quite the contrary, on the whole). However, in this section, in the tape part, the single lines are so exposed and so simple that their slower pace makes them sound decidedly weak and lacking direction. Perhaps this will be rectified just by having Alex record these passages himself and just giving them a greater amount of energy and direction. Although in general the first half of this section (161-200) for me sounds too slow and lethargic in all parts… Not sure. We’ll see in the new version. The second half of this section up to bar 255 is better, and things get sufficiently insanely fast and intense, but in terms of the pacing of the work, the movement towards the climax is a little too rapid and it should really build for much longer across this section. Perhaps the interpreter can compensate a little to resolve that…

The final section is very effective IMHO. Two things. Firstly, syncing with the tape is super tough, since there are heaps of rests in-between gestures and they keep changing time-signature. At the same time, it is the live part that begins many of the gestures, so there aren’t any cues for the performer. To my mind I think this problem should remain for the performer. It’s part of the intensity of this final section. It’s not gestures followed by fermata with cues for re-entry. It is a chaotic and over-determined metric structure with a chaotic and overdetermined alternation between silence and gesture and that’s the way it should feel. The second problem is more simple, the tape part in the final, pianissimo section, needs to be a little louder. It is has a very limited role in this final bit, but its role is really crucial and should be quite audible.

Anyway. That’s enough thoughts for now. Like I said, I’ll write up a technical outline of the compositional process when I get a moment, and probably more reflections when the next performance comes around (and certainly when I hear it live myself next year).


Dignity and militancy: Si el clima fuera un banco

Have a read of my new post ‘Dignity and militancy: Si el clima fuera un banco‘ over at the KP blog. The new piece will be premiered this coming Friday in Brisbane. Expect a more in-depth look at the piece up here soon.

Thoughts after workshopping with Alex Raineri

So the illustrious Alex Raineri came to stay with Hannah and I in Brussels for a few days more than a week ago now. We had many chances for tasty Belgian beers and frites, etc, but we also managed to get some good time in on the first few minutes of my piano piece Si el clima. Here’s just some general reflections to help me remember the important things that came out of these few sessions, from the standpoint of both the development of the composition, and also its performance/interpretation.

Firstly, it was surprising how technically playable much of what I had written was (at least for someone as agile as Alex). As I was writing the piano materials, I had thought about whether there were hands or fingers available for all the material I was laying down, but in general the material was thought about in a fairly abstract manner and I was expecting there to be all sorts of problems and impossibilities. There were only a handful in the end. So a few notes were changed or displaced by an octave or they were shortened to allow the hand to get somewhere else.

One thing that caused grief was the passage from bar 24 to 26 which four different lines are taking place simultaneous, with different rhythmic constitutions:

Si el clima_3 excerpt

The main problem here is the middle line in regular semiquavers (derived from the great song ‘We Shall Overcome’). It’s not really possible to play the line on the bottom staff with any clarity (or perhaps at all…). This may be fine in itself, if it wasn’t for the fact that bar 24 represents a return to material from the opening section, which is quite a clear and precise texture, unlike the few bars before 24 which are wildly gestural and have a pedal down, creating a particular ‘spatial’ quality. Bar 24 should be a break with this pedalled, unclear texture, so keeping the murkiness brought about by the inclusion of this ‘We shall overcome’ line is not really an option.

The solution is to take this ‘We shall overcome’ line and put it in the tape part. Normally I would be against this as a solution. I’m interested in the lines of live piano part really interacting in an ‘organic’ kind of way in the body and mind of the performer, and a line coming from the speakers would mean something very different… However, in this case, the resolution is really quite a good one: this line is already associated to the emergence (in the tape) of the voice of Hugo Chavez. It has been already ‘subterraneously’ plugging away for some time in the previous section in the live piano. The idea that it would switch to the tape at the point at which it becomes recognisable in itself sounds interesting to me, and I intend to do this with the subsequent moments in the work where ‘folk’ pieces emerge associated with the voice of Chavez. Up until the coda, where they will be ‘recuperated’ by the live piano itself, and all 4 of the songs will be performed in counterpoint with each other, stripped of the surrounding materials.

The next issue that came up was to do with how Alex will actually deal with syncing with the tape part. As it stands the tape part is very involved and rhythmically precise, so a totally ‘loose’ relationship to it, in fact, as it stands, it really does demand that Alex subordinate himself to the tape part and become quite mechanical in his interpretation, which is really not desirable from my perspective, and it goes entirely against my philosophy of performance and interpretation. It is also quite ‘impossible’ since the degree tempo accuracy required by Alex with practically no cues from the tape perhaps beyond human capacity (or at least within reasonable performance practice). So, neither desirable, nor possible. Something’s gotta change.

Si el clima_3 excerpt2

(Piano 9 and 10 are the tape parts)

The solution is twofold. Firstly, we’ve decided to go with having a ‘trigger’ system, so that Alex can hit a pedal at different points to trigger the next section of electronic stuff, which will him a greater control over the electronics.

Secondly, this would need to be coupled by a slight ‘loosening’ of the electronic part (in the opening section at the least) to allow that it can be much freer in its relation to the piano between ‘pedal’ moments. That is to say, there will be a lot of room for the live piano to get ‘out’ with the tape piano, since at certain important points they can be ‘re-cued’. This will be an interesting experiment.

With this looser relationship between live and tape, the question of whether the tape part should be written on the same score as the live piano part comes up. While it would be tempting to only include the pedal-triggers for the live pianist, and not include the tape part in his score, there’s a fundamental reason for keeping the full score.

This is because a new formal dimension is opened up by having a foot-pedal to trigger new sections, that being the antagonism between freedom and constraint, or the degree to which the pianist controls the tape part, or the tape part controls him. The two new formal elements therefore are non-symmetrical:

  1. The increase of the frequency of ‘trigger’ points increases the control the pianist has over the tape part and thus the total discourse; the decrease in the frequency would generally mean the opposite, control of the tape part over the live pianist, except that
  2. The tape material can be defined in a more or less rhythmically precise way. If the rhythmic precision in the tape part (the degree to which the score implies that the pianist and tape should play in sync with each other) is lessened, the pianist is freer to take liberties, if it is increased, the pianist is more rigidly bound to follow the rhythm and tempo of the tape part.

So there are two possibly ‘parametrisable’ elements here that mutually mediate one another: the relative frequency of the trigger points, and the relative rhythmic definition of the tape part. Both can be submitted to formal processes across the work.

(There’s an allegorical dimension to all of this, since the tape part ‘represents’ nature, and so there is an antagonism between domination of man by nature and vice versa. An antagonism that the work will present in its tension and not resolve).

This does then beg the question: how does one construct the tape part to be ‘more or less’ rhythmically precise or defined? Considering the result will very much be rhythmically defined (since a tape will produce it), it doesn’t make much sense to me to compose the tape part in spatial notation or something like that. There will remain an ‘ideal’ syncronisation between tape and live, but it will in fact not be ideal. The idea will keep the live pianist at least partially free.

A few elements will come into the construction and notation of this approach to the tape part:

  • Degree of rhythmic regularity
  • Frequency of points of (meaningful) coincidence with the live part
  • Degree of rhythmic density
  • Dynamic and spatial ‘presence’ of the tape line (is it ‘off in the distance’ or up close?)
  • General character marking of tape part
  • Indications to the live performer along the lines of (‘you can largely forget about the tape part in this bit’, or, ‘slavishly follow the tape part here’)

My job for the next few days is the elaboration of these and coming up with a working approach to the composition of the tape piano part. Expect more rants on this blog as I try to make sense of it all…

Counterpointing texts

I’m trying to use this blog to jot down quick thoughts at the moment. Don’t worry, the long rants will stay, but I’m going to see if I can fill in the gaps between them with shorter reflections that document the development of my thinking about pieces I’m working on – for the benefit of my PhD.

So, at the moment I’m thinking about the texts I’m using in Si el clima. As part of the ‘tape’ component, there will be a number of spoken text parts chosen from the following books: Marx’s Ecology by John Bellamy Foster, Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould, and The Diversity of Life by E. O. Wilson. I haven’t decided yet who will speak the parts, but they won’t be professional voice actors… Probably just musicians and activists I know. In addition, there will be a separate line for Chavez’s speech at Copenhagen 2011 after which the piece is named (I’m using the recording of the speech itself, in all its lo-fi glory).

Anyway, the issues I wanted to raise were these:

There’s the fear that the introduction of such scientific texts could detract from the musical flow and aesthetic experience. All the better!

There’s the concern that the simultaneous deployment of 3 or 4 texts, plus a dense piano part, plus tape piano lines, could just end in an indistinct mush, not so much complex as a vast murky texture. I think this is more of an important concern. I think that at one or two points in the piece I will push it to this extreme, but it’s the step or two before then that interest me: how to deploy these spoken vocal lines alongside the music in a way that allows for a degree of both integration into the musical flow (since their separateness will be assured), and of delineation and distinction between themselves?

I think that my construction of the spoken parts will centre on creating internal coherence for each line along two axes: firstly, the conceptual one (each text will be selected according to particular concepts or themes), and the musical one. On the latter axis, the question will be giving character to each line by way of: phrase length, kind of articulation, speed of movement across virtual space, and so on…

More on this soon!