Composition diary for “Quasar” #1

Quasar is meant to be a 20 minute piece for sinfonietta (12 musicians) and electronics. The piece is inspired by having read quite a bit of science fiction and cosmology books in the last. I have thought of this piece for quite a long time before actually setting myself down to write it. Like several of my earlier pieces, I had drawn the form in general, and some general parameters. This can be seen in the picture below:
Then I had a private lesson with the fantastic Michael Obst, in which we discussed this piece. We had discussed how to further plan the piece, and be able to work on it in an effective manner. I also explained the electronics (I will come back to this). What he told me was often simple, nothing very complicated, but he simply saw composition in a different manner than I do, which helped me greatly when it comes to planning the piece, and I’m incredibly thankful for his advice.
Now, before discussing the piece further it might be worth it to discuss electronics. The piece is meant to be in ambisonics around the audience, with an extra tower in the middle of the audience in the same way Marco Stroppa uses speaker totems. However, after discussing this with one of my thesis advisors and testing it out, it doesn’t work exactly as I want. Another option is now a hemispherical speaker which I’m soon to test, but otherwise there might be some discrete speakers in front of some of the musicians. It’s important to have these two distinct “systems” of speakers and use them spatially throughout the composition. The speakers around the audience are in ambisonics, making it much easier to move the piece to different rooms as well as affect their spatial field in interesting ways.

The electronics are to be controlled by several different elements. A score follower will be used in several sections, at least when it makes sense. To help with the other sections, the conductor will have a MIDI pedal which also gives back a bit of control to the conductor. This also permits him/her to be able to control a few more processes. A third aspect will be the use of NGIMU sensors to get more data from the real-world and be able to use that in real-time to influence some of the sound synthesis.
The electronic processes that are so far planned are quite different. The first one is a physical modelling of a bowed plate. This is done using Modalys, and the sound is to simulate one of the opening sounds of the pieces which is the quasar itself, in many ways a theme. Using Modalys is rather difficult as the tutorials are lacking to put it mildly. Any problems generally are not answered online, meaning one is left to his/her business. However, I did find the idea of working with acoustic/physical parameters to be exciting in a completely different way than normal synthesis for example. This was inspirational although difficult but it did take me a rather long time to come near the sound I was hearing in my head.
There are other more normal electronic processes such as ring modulation, spatial decorrelation, granular synthesis, spectral delays, etc. As I’ve been writing the piece so far, I’ve also programmed several of these effects to really be able to hear them and then go back and forth between paper and programming. I’ve been drawing a lot of the effects and how I want them to sound as well, a type of visualization of the sound.
Having planned out most of the composition, I started working on the different sections up to E at the same time. Several of these sections share some material, sometimes only in the acoustic world but sometimes also certain acoustic sections being “re- interprerated” by the electronics. For each section, I’ve now been drawing how they sound, but also making graphs of different parameters or ideas varying from how the electronics sound, to timbral areas, melodies, etc. All of the sections also had clearly defined interval sets, lengths, ideas, etc.
The A1 section was very easy to score as it was already so clear in my mind. At this point it’ll be mainly to program and test all of the electronics. There are also some notational issues which I will have to work on to make it clear and concise for the musicians. The B1 section is electronics only and it’s all planned out on a time line, also timbrally and melodically. I will have to work more on finishing this section, but it will also be using, or hinting at further developments in sections C1 and D1 which are not finished yet. The C1 section has been very problematic at this point, and I’ve started it and deleted it at least 5 times. I have yet to find a way to organize it that feels organic and natural, yet still breathes as I see the piece. This will now be my main focus. The D1 section has been evolving very well. My drawing for it was also very complete and specific so it has been rather quick to compose the skeleton. I have now been concentrating more on developing the different ideas in it, and its orchestration to make it as effectful as possible. Another problem that has arisen in this section is that what I want is truly too much for the allotted time length. If I make the section longer, I also feel it will throw off the balance of the piece. Therefore I have been thinking about cutting off one of the sections in D1, and I’ve also been testing out how to let the ideas breathe more and not make it too claustrophobic.
At this point it’s also not yet possible to test out the whole orchestration with electronics which does make it quite difficult. The way one can synchronize certain events or ideas will also be something to start deciding very soon. I’m thinking of writing the next diary entry mostly about these two issues.