Composition diary for “Anomie” #3

The last few days have been rather busy with other projects than this composition, but it has always been at the back of my mind. I can hear the piece in my mind much better at this point, but must develop the ideas more as well as work on its structure in a more substantial way. I believe I have been thinking about its structure and formalism a bit too much, trying to include too many ideas in a short piece. Therefore, I have been wondering how to peel back several layers and concentrate on making it a good and interesting peace. Listening to Chaya Czernowin’s music, specifically her two CDs Shifting Gravity / Wintersongs III and Hidden, has also been a catalyst to rethink my structuring of the piece (as a side note, fantastic music which rethinks how to work with dramaturgy). I was hearing something less structured and formal, yet trying to write in a very formalistic way which did not work with my mental “image” (for lack of a better word. Sound perhaps?).


This rethinking of how I had started to write the piece has only solidified my ideas for the electronics. It has also made me go for the more pragmatic solution when it comes to the synchronization: the use of a MIDI pedal for cues. This will also make the piece easier to learn for the pianist. However, I will still be using Antescofo to manage certain processes as it is a very convenient programming language where one can describe events in musical time instead of absolute. This will give me the musical and temporal flexibility I want, yet remain practical for the musician. The original idea of using two smaller speakers inside the piano will also be used for the sake of simplicity and it will also force me to think about the mix of the electronics in a different way. Most the small speakers that can be found in conventional stores tend to be Bluetooth here in Norway. This can affect the electronics quite a bit as Bluetooth introduces quite a bit of latency when I have tried it. Although the electronics will not be tightly synchronized to what the pianist is played, this could still be slightly problematic for a few cues I thought of.


The signal chain so far would be thus:

Although it is a relatively simple set-up, there are still many musical and poetical possibilities in such a set-up.


As I sit here writing this diary entry, I’m also working between the electronics and notation, trying to structure them together and give them meaning. I will be using several electronic “modules” that I have programmed before, but slightly modified to have the proper poetic language for this piece. The main module to be re-used is the FM-synthesis system I built for the piece “North Star” for solo flute and electronics. Between the MaxMSP coding and the Antescofo coding, the synthesis notes will be coming more as waves crashing into each other. I am also experimenting with the concept of more complex FM synthesis with more complex ratios. For example, starting with 3 different overtones of a single note and each overtone has a slightly different ratio that varies in time.


The next few days will bring more writing of this piece.


Composition diary for “Anomie” #2

One of the first issues I have been thinking of is how to relate the electronics to what the pianist is playing and making both feel as a whole. I’ve always thought that this sounds easy, but it is clearly difficult and I often find myself disliking mixed music pieces as I find both entities to be too separate in negative way, or that they add little poetic meaning to each other.


Another issue related to this is to think about the production value of the whole piece. When one is mixing a piece of music, one has to make room for different elements, etc. This is also the truth in such music. Therefore, one of my first ideas that I will testing out is a relationship between the amplitude of the piano and the amount of modulation going on in the main electronics in the background. If the pianist is playing more mezzo piano instead of forte, there could be a bit more modulation to fill out the stereo image, etc. The time aspect here has to be an estimation as a direct relationship would probably be too close to “mickey-mousing”. The amount of time used to calculate the amplitude could also be changed depending on the sections and for example how quickly the musician is pressing the midi pedal (if one will be used) or by an envelope follower.


Another idea I have been slowly exploring is a delay that has a bandpass series that are pitch dependant. Another idea is to us a type of granular delay which could start playing grains before, and after certain notes to accent them. This process would have to be tightly integrated with the synchronization. A drawing might explain what I mean better:


Both of these will have to be tested more in context of the piece, as I play it myself or perhaps Bahareh to see what fits better. However, I do find that by working on these ideas of how to process the sound and test them out with piano sounds, it helps me have a clearer idea of how I want the piece to actually sound in practice, not only formally.


I have now come up with a few short motives and ideas to be used in the piece, as well as some harmonic evolutions for the form.


I feel a certain paradox in how frustrating it is to write this piece. I feel that I have too little material to truly make something interesting. However, at the same time I feel that I need much more than 8 minutes to explore several of the elements I’d like to explore in the piece.


Time is also being spent studying several piano scores of contemporary composers I respect. A special amount of time has been taken listening to Dusapin’s piano études. His writing is both fresh, yet anchored in tradition and all of these pieces are breath-taking in their own way. Dusapin often has an economy of material that is used in all possible ways, which is one of his strongest compositional aspects in my humble opinion.


Composition diary for “Anomie” #1

After reading many different methodologies about practice-based research, I have concluded that it could be useful to start recording my compositional process while writing pieces that are relevant to my research areas. This will not be as thorough as for example Philippe Leroux’s recording of his process with the composition “Voi(rex) (2002), but should still give a clear view of my compositional process and its relationship with the use of electronics and especially synchronization methods.


This piece will be the result of Bahareh Ahmadi asking me to write a short piece with electronics for one of her concerts. She has been a good friend of mine for several years, and has gotten curious about the use of electronics in contemporary classical music after hearing a few of my own compositions. We have sent each other much music back and forth by composers like Rolf Wallin, Emmanuel Nunes, Pascal Dusapin, etc.


The limitations I have been given are that the piece should not be too difficult, or be much longer than about eight minutes. Out of pragmatism, the use of electronics should also be relatively simple and easy to set-up. This is partly inspired by reading and listening to Hans Tutshku and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. As much as I would like to always be able to have complex systems such as those found in Manoury’s “Tensio” (2010), time and money will rarely allow it. Discussing these issues with several musicians as well as reading articles by performers has made me want to try to make something more pragmatic. Therefore I am also thinking of the possibility of only having two small speakers inside the piano for the electronics, instead of a PA.


The first idea that came to mind was inspired by reading about technical failures in mixed music. A composer (whom I sadly cannot remember the name of right now) wanted to make a piece in which the piano plays with white noise. As the pianist presses different pieces, the area around the played pitch is filtered out of the white noise. For some reason, this became technically difficult to realize at the concert and they therefore shifted to using political speeches, which in turn completely changed the message and concept of the composition.


My original idea was in many ways to reverse this concept. What if the pianist is slowly adding overtones, pitches, etc to form something in the background? After listening to a lot of Thinking Plague recently, I settled for the idea of forming some polytonal chords. A technique that I sometimes use for fun is to “hide” relatively banal tonal elements in a post-tonal context. So here for example, an element of the electronics that the piano will activate is the progression I-vi-ii-V7 but polytonal and reversed, essentially creating: I/V7-vi/ii-ii/vi-V7/I. From this idea of symmetry, I thought that the two tonalities to be used should be related by a tritone. This relatively “tonal process” is to happen in the background while the foreground is closer to traditional post-tonal writing (although with allusions to the polytonality). The main figure I have figured out so far is the cell [0-3-11-8] and all of its permutations or ways of using this cell.


I have also thought of the dynamic form of the piece and have drawn it.


The electronics that are drawn out of the piano pitches should sound like waves that do NOT fall completely synchronized with how the pianist is playing and essentially create a vibrating sound mass that moves. Other electronic processes such as the use of reverb and delays are also thought to be used to highlight certain passages.


As for the synchronization… The piano is often a difficult instrument because although it is ONE instrument, it is generally played polyphonically. Although I have had some success by using Antescofo (score following) in a piano piece, it is often slightly less reliable, especially if the music is very polyphonic. Therefore, this synchronization method is seen as less desirable. Using it would possibly confine my writing to being either less polyphonic or more based on block chords which the program manages to follow. Once again on this subject I must refer to Hans Tutschku’s ideas of triggering events in his piece Zellen-Linien. An envelope follower combined with a MIDI pedal could a good combination which allows me the compositional flexibility I want, yet be precise enough for what I want the electronics to do. Since I doubt any of the electronics will be precise rhythmic figures, short delays and errors are not necessarily as noticeable. Because of this, the use of tape could also be done, but this would make the electronics mostly non-responsive to real-time changes. The use of the pedal and for example, an envelope follower can still allow me to extract acoustic features of how the pianist is playing, and use those to affect the electronics.


These relationships are to be sketched out more today…