Hi-fi and low-fi counterpoint

Reading this interesting new book by Melbourne sound artist Jordan Lacey – which I’ll write about a bit more soon. I came across the concept of ‘hi-fi’ and ‘low-fi’ soundscapes as conceived of in the field of acoustic ecology. Here’s the definition of the distinction by Barry Truax:

Situations where signal detection is difficult or impossible may be termed ‘lo-fi’ environments, by analogy to electroacoustic signals of poor quality, high noise, and distortion. The complementary situation, the ‘hi-fi’ environment, is one in which all sounds may be heard clearly, with whatever detail and spatial orientation they may have. Such an environment  is, by definition, balanced and well ‘designed’. (Truax, quoted in Lacey, 2016, p. 36)

I think this is a nice distinction for thinking about contrapuntal construction even in traditional concert music settings. Certain parameters affect this dimension more than others: spatial separation on stage, register, and timbre in particular, but just about all other parameters can contribute to whether the counterpoint is ‘hi-fi’ or ‘low-fi’ (that is, whether you can neatly distinguish sonic ‘lines’ or whether they are confused and blurred). The opening of my a new day in the desert is definitely more of a ‘low-fi’ kind of construction, as are the rapid sections of Si el clima, whereas the ‘feudal’ sections of that work, and most of braneworlds, are considerably more ‘hi-fi’. These days I lean towards hi-fi constructions, and I feel they are the basis of contrapuntal thinking, because (as a rational method of construction) they distinguish between sonic objects and therefore a clear logic of interrelation can be established. On the other hand, low-fi situations are also very relevant to contrapuntal logic, insofar as they may result from a bringing closer together (in the topological sense) of musical objects and rendering indistinct previously established (in the logical, and not necessarily temporal/formal, sense) musical identities. It’s an important textural dimension to explore, with strong affective implications.

This also points to the fact that while all parameters are relevant to the determination of identity and difference in a work (and therefore its counterpoint), and all can be structured in this way, parameters are not all equal in their effects and weighting in perception: parameters have different functions on the musical discourse. Parameters are not abstract mathematical quanta, but particular material relations, and as real material things, they different from each other in a qualitative sense. They are also interrelated and mutually interdependent in different ways. This is part of what composing contrapuntally – as I understand it – is about exploring.


Technology, context, and experience

Just had a great lesson with my supervisor Gerardo. We spoke about my new piece that I’m composing, braneworlds.

Apart from just getting the score together in a timely fashion for the musicians, this work is a bit stressful for me for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve decided to write myself into the piece, and so I’ve got the added layer of freaking out about my capacities (or lack thereof) as a performer. That’s just something I have to deal with, and I’m practicing and meditating to lower the freakout levels.

Secondly, and this is what I discussed a lot with Gerardo, is the technological component of the work. The piece – as I’ve described earlier – is based on the idea of four simultaneous groups that are (most of the time) stratified when it comes to tempo and time signature. The idea is that there will be, to facilitate this, four simultaneous (but synchronized) click tracks – each musician only hearing one at a time in their headphones.

Technologically, to make this happen in a professional and totally accurate way, the most elegant setup is to have a laptop running a 4-channel logic pro file into a digital-audio interface (capable of at least 4 outputs) with 7 sets of wireless headphones. After some investigation, the cost of this would be quite significant, upwards of $2000 for the whole production, for hire/purchase of various parts (we in Kupka’s don’t have any of this technology, save a laptop).

While I’m still keen to pursue this option at some point if the funding is available, the whole thing raises interesting questions which are simultaneously technological, compositional, and social/contextual.

Gerardo’s basic point was that this inability to have this gear should give pause to reflecting on the context and meaning of the work and its founding conception. Why is it that I don’t have these materials? This is because Kupka’s doesn’t have the funding to purchase them, and we are contracted by a venue that will provide only basic production costs, and not anything beyond. We are not being hosted by some big festival or institution that would take care of all this. This is an Australian problem (though not uniquely so), and things are somewhat different in Europe, for example. So that’s a basic contextual consideration.

On the other hand, we are not in a totally DIY situation where the musical approach and intended experience is founded on a radical extra-institutional position.

Thus the kind of music we play is in this in-between position, where the music and its performative elements are assumed to be a kind of professional product, with all that entails, but without only partial institutional support.

This, then, should give pause to the question of what the music – this piece in particular – is trying to achieve. Firstly, is the visible appearance of the technology necessary to the overall experience (in the sense that it lends some authority or credibility to the performance that would lend people to listen in a more ‘trusting’ way)? Secondly, does the musical experience that I wish audiences to have require the degree of exactitude required by the full technological setup?

One thing I think is excellent about the way Gerardo thinks is that he really considers the full and actual experience of the music as it takes place in the context of its production. My music is not being performed in some ideal context with ideal, totally erudite, listeners with optimal technological and institutional support. It is not taking place in a major festival in Europe, but at the Judith Wright Centre in Brisbane, with all the positives and limitations that that entails.

To come back to the technological dimension, if it’s the case that my music does not need the visible technological professionalism for it to be convincing, then I have to ask myself whether the exactitude of the technology is central to the work.

In warped passages, for much of the time, exactitude of coordination between the four groups will not be crucial. Where there are common gestural connections, these do not require 100% accuracy on the rhythmic plane, but only sufficient coordination to communicate a coming together of elements – other elements, such as dynamics, shared melodic motion, etc, come to compensate for the lack of rhythmic precision. The effect is somewhat more ‘statistical’ than determinate.

More important is the effect of stratification of the different groups through various parametric considerations or ‘characters’, through their vertical stratification in the registral space of the work, etc.

There is the possibility that I could, through PD, sync four laptops so that one person can start all four clicktracks simultaneously. Finding four laptops, connecting cables (or simply Bluetooth), and four sets of headphones with long independent headphone leads, is much more manageable than the ‘optimal’ but costly setup. Making sure that this works without fail is another challenge, but probably quite doable.

Nonetheless, there is also the possibility that I could just have four laptops, and the performers must attempt to hit ‘play’ on their clicktracks at the same time. If they rehearse this action, they could likely get the discrepancy down to an almost perceptually negligible level. (In fact, there are other solutions: Gerardo also suggested that the whole thing could be performed without clicktracks, and either with a very sophisticated system of cues and coordination, or with four conductors, which would have a very interesting effect in performance!).

Again, the total accuracy of this temporal dimension is not the key to the work. And in reality, I think I’ve fetishised the rhythmic stratification on the paper of the score in many previous pieces, when, in reality – in the actual experience of performance – the very complex rhythms all become relative and malleable and the key question is coordinating key points in the work.

If this is the case, the question is how to intensify the experience I wish to communicate. Gerardo suggested elements like an obvious spatial arrangement of performers, a particular kind of lighting, or even a dress code for each group. This would give the audience, the actual audience, a particularly strong experience of stratification, and could help them relate this stratification to elements of their life in perhaps a more direct way.

This aspect would have, according to Gerardo, and I agree, a far greater impact on the experience of the audience than the absolute accuracy of the rhythmic component. So rather than stressing too much about this one element, what I should be doing is considering the totality of the concert experience, in its actuality, rather than fetishising one component. The technological decisions made should flow from this full understanding, rather than seeing elements in isolation and idealizing the listening experience. A big part of this is recognising that how one listens and experiences music in a live context is quite different to listening through headphones at home. In a recording scenario, I could record all the groups separately and ensure in the editing process that all the necessary alignments take place.

There’s also the rehearsal context to take into account. Rather than spending too much time (and money) worrying about the optimal technological setup for accuracy, I could instead focus on how to get the best out of the rehearsal process to guarantee the maximum possible confidence coming from the musicians. Gerardo suggested doing a mockup audio of the whole piece, by exporting the midi from Finale to Garage Band or something, with the ability to isolate the individual groups. He suggested I ask the musicians to listen to this at least two or three times before the first rehearsal to get a feel for how things interrelate.

I meant to talk primarily about technology in this post, but I’ve ended up talking about a lot of other things as well. Perhaps this comes with the territory. Certainly thinking about building the technological side of this work has forced me to consider composition from a more ‘ground up’ perspective, that critically reflects on context and experience.