It’s November, National Novel Writing Month, which means it’s time for another tape piece!*
*For some of you this might seem to be a non-sequitur, so let me explain. While I was in Norman, our group would have a creativity pact every November. Walter (writer of some of my best program notes) would participate in NaNoWriMo, Steven would work on album tracks, I’d write a tape piece. Prep work could be done outside of November, but the bulk of the work had to happen between the kickoff doughnut night at Donut King on Lindsey street (10 PM on Mondays), progress reports would be assessed at subsequent doughnut Mondays, and the project had to be completed in time for the December Third holiday meal. If you didn’t finish your project, you owed the winners a cake.
Given that I just finished that saxophone and percussion piece and I had a pair of finger cymbals lying around, I thought it would be cool to do a piece totally from finger cymbal sounds.
Turns out, finger cymbals only really have about one sound, so this project has been harder than I thought. To make it more interesting, I’m trying to write this as a tape piece AND as a finger cymbals and tape piece.
Last week, Pipe Dreams–a piece I started writing in 2009, received its second premiere, this time by the NDSU Wind Symphony.
Second premiere? Am I even allowed to do that? Well, I did.
Pipe Dreams started out as the last thing I’d write as an undergrad, and the first thing I’d work on as a grad student…and as a doctoral student…and as a “professional” composer. It received its first premiere in May of 2009 as a percussion octet. It was the first piece of mine accepted to a conference (an SCI Regional Conference at Kansas State in 2010). It brought me some attention with the Oklahoma Composers Association, which was my first real commission. Anyone who has played anything of mine written since will realize the beginnings of my infatuation with time signatures.
And then it was a slacker. I added a couple of movements to it, but neither movement was as impressive as the original. I came back to it again in 2012, reworking it into a band piece. And then I returned once more in 2014, tweaking the orchestration.
Because this piece exists in a bunch of different versions, I thought I’d run through how the piece developed.
Nine-and-a-half years later, here we are. It’s still a fun piece…but let’s not forget the best version of all: the 8-bit version.
I spent a week in Montana this summer, and while I was there I took several field recordings of rivers and rain and cows and all sorts of fun stuff (most of which are over on AudioAtlas). I was hoping to use several of those recordings on a piece called “Introspection”, but as I worked with the material a slightly different narrative emerged. This piece (audio and notes below) is exciting for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's the first “real” piece of acousmatic music I've written since 2012's Blueprints of Eternity (amazing how much other music you don't get written when you're writing a dissertation). Secondly, it's the first piece of mine to have a program note written by Walter Jordan. Walter and Steven and I had a creativity pact for the month of November, where Walter would write a novel, Steven would complete an album, and I would finish writing this acousmatic piece. So here's my music and Walter's words
Reverie of Solitude
Utilizing recordings from Montana and Central Oklahoma, the piece serves as both an exploration of and an invitation to reverie; providing a space wherein the listener is asked to reconsider their idea of what it means to daydream. Immediately, the listener is isolated amid an every-day crowd hum—pervasive and vexingly indistinct. Lost among the multitude, it is easy to believe that this daydream is not an expression of solitude, but rather a longing for solitude.
From this foundation, the piece conducts its consideration through alternating themes of action and inaction, order and disorder. The buzz of the crowd—unmetered, churning—gives way to the steady pulse of a passing train: the mind swiftly carried away. The movement of a mind imagining is suggested by a motif of water in each transition. Having raced away, the focus of the piece coils about a scene of Sunday-lawn tranquility with the stagnant and predictable arc of a sprinkler. It dissolves into the free rhythm of a rainstorm on a tin roof, evoking a true sense of solitude. The chaotic throb of the rain shower becomes the pulse of a frothing river as the mind races on again, an echo of the train beneath. As the piece nears its conclusion, the listener is introduced to the most complete soundscape yet: birdsong and footsteps as counterpoint to the steady but untamed lapping of water against the hull of a boat.
Each vignette is a self-contained narrative offering a unique opportunity to consider solitude in a natural context. As each image fades, replaced by another commensurate in theme though separated in space, the listener is invited to reflect on the purpose of a daydream: whether to occupy a static moment, to escape a blunt reality, or to enrich the experience of a perfect moment. The subtle transitions between the natural recordings are woven throughout by digitally manipulated tones, calling the listener’s attention to how they themselves have been lulled to daydreaming amid the sonic backdrop. Attention is inevitably returned to the churning crowd, bookending the piece to demonstrate the facility of such reveries in establishing a personal solitude for each listener, undiminished by having shared the experience with an audience.
Program Note by Walter Jordan
Please credit Walter Jordan when using this program note
Pipe Dreams has always been one of my favorite pieces, but I've always felt like my idea was better than I could write it. It started out as a piano work before Carlyle suggested that it could be a percussion ensemble. So it became a percussion ensemble, when my percussion chops weren't quite what they are today. When I started my master's degree, I worked on it with Marvin and it tripled in length. A few years later I decided that it should become a wind ensemble piece, and thanks to Roland, it did. But the percussion writing was still…not quite right, mostly due to its size. For a four minute piece, it used six percussionists (and timpani). The Symphony uses six percussionists too, but it's nine times longer and the percussionists play actual percussion parts instead of just one instrument.
So over the past week, I consolidated the percussion into three parts (plus timp.), and so here's the (new) final rendering:
In the process of consolidating the percussion parts, the non-pitched percussion was mapped onto a piano stave, which created this delightful dissonance, which I quickly exported and renamed “Pipe Nightmare”.
As I was driving through the southern parts of Missouri and Kansas over break, thinking about everything I wanted to write this semester, I kept coming up with ideas for prepared piano (which was kind of unfortunate, since I was really needing to think of ideas for solo clarinet, but more on that later). Amongst all the ridiculous ideas (of which I have many), I came back to a phrase I've wanted to use as a title for a while, which involves the juxtaposed ideas of prepared piano and unprepared pianist. The immediate problem with that idea is that no one wants to hear an unprepared pianist on unprepared piano so it would stand to reason that no one would want to hear the same unpreparation on a prepared instrument. During the drive, I figured out how to make the piece work.
Pianists are saved from many of the pitfalls of wind instruments. Reed issues, wrong partials, everything having to do with intonation, stuff like that are not really problems (Of course, pianists have their own issues, like having to keep track of ~10 notes instead of 1, moving their instruments, all the mechanical voodoo that makes hammers strike keys, etc). But usually, assuming your piano is in tune, and is operating normally, if you hit an E-flat, something resembling all other piano E-flats come out.
And that's where our “Unprepared Pianist” part comes in. No one sits down at a piano to play a well-known piece, and expect anything other than piano noises to come out. And so, this piece I'm working on for prepared piano, is part prepared piano, part unprepared (or unexpectant) pianist, part Chopin's Nocturne in E minor, part theatre, and part ridiculous.
Maybe next week I'll go into the process of writing it, but here's how it is right now, without the theatrics added. In fact, this is merely Jennifer Tripi playing the aforementioned nocturne on a prepared piano.
I finally finished my first electroacoustic piece! (for those of you who aren't familiar with the genre, it uses recorded sounds as a basis instead of traditional notation and instruments. Wikipedia has plenty to say on the subject). This new piece, Creatures from the Black Bassoon, uses bassoon sounds to create a variety of animal-like characters. The form is more or less based on the golden section, with a number of contrasting “windows” in the sound.
Here's what it sounds like:
This piece was composed with Pro Tools 7 LE (Steven Eiler's copy), 8 HD (OU's copy), and 10 (my copy), with processing by DigiDesign/Avid's usual audiosuite plugins, GRM Tools Classic and ST, and Sonnox Oxford Reverb.
Those of you familiar with my music (both of you) will notice that this is pretty much unlike anything I've written. After all, if I'm wanting to be an acoustic composer, why switch to electronic music? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First of all, marketability. Most academic job listings for composers now require some sort of electronic background, and if I'm looking to get a job in academia, this can only help (Will I get a job in academia? Do I want to? That's another blog post). Secondly, the process of creating this piece has been valuable in learning how to use Pro Tools (an industry standard) and has allowed me to listen to (and think about) sounds in a new way. This is similar to my work with New IMPROV! Century Ensemble, where any sound is fair game. And of course, there's also the value in having an 8 1/2 minute long piece of music that requires no performers.
So what's next? Prepared piano? Instrument and tape? Pipe Dreams for wind ensemble? We'll find out.
Back during my last semester at Drury, I needed something for the annual composer’s recital (because there’s no way that the Mass was going to get played), so I wrote this short piano piece. Carlyle said it’d work better as a percussion ensemble, so I rewrote it for that, hijacked the “percussion methods” class going on that semester, and had it performed. And people loved it.
2009 Drury Composers Recital. If you’re going to watch this, start from the 2:00 mark. Unless you like seeing people set up.
So I set that aside, moved to Oklahoma, and…picked it up again and revised it. I added a couple of movements, and somehow managed to get the third movement played by the K-State percussion ensemble (my first validation as a real composer!)
And for the past couple of years, I’ve largely left it alone. I’m still not comfortable with the percussion writing (I think the difficult parts are too hard and the easy parts are too simple for an ensemble to play it), and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it.
And that’s when I decided that Pipe Dreams needs to be a band piece.
Well, at least that third movement, the first part that I wrote. It’s a lot of fun. It’s short(ish). It’s catchy. It’s the closest I’ve come to Steven Eiler in terms of melodic genius. And it needs to be played more often.
I mentioned recently that I was working on a sort of choose-your-own-adventure orchestra piece for OU's 4×4 prizes. (I still have no idea if that was a good idea or not, but it was fun, and here it is). So through the process, I planned to sit down and write out all the possible combinations of parts.
Luckily, I had the foresight to count up how many parts there would be, in case the number was way higher than I expected. Like 393,239,448. Which is how many different combination of parts there are. I decided against listing them all.
So with close to 400 million different combinations of parts, how long would it take to play them all? Assuming six minutes per combination (I haven't calculated all the possible tempo variations because, no.), the total works out to 2,359,436,688 minutes…or 4,486 years.
I think it's done. I mean, it certainly looks done. All the notes are (supposedly) in the right places, all the margins are set, the paper is ordered, and the Graduate College gets a copy of it tomorrow to approve the defense of it. My committee gets a copy of it Monday morning, which means I'm spending the weekend putting together a MIDI realization of the entire thing.
It is terrifying to think that this piece is going to be done in less than three weeks. It's well on its way, with about half of it orchestrated and in Sibelius, but there's still plenty of work to be done with dynamics and accents on the front half and orchestration/scoring/Sibeliusing on the back half. That's the project for this weekend.
Earlier this week I ran into the now-obvious problem of having 16 channels of available sound, but having 44 staves (and therefore needing 44 channels). I eventually solved this by running multiple copies of the Garritan/Plogue ARIA engine. I'm using Garritan COMB2 (Concert and Marching Band) for my brass and sax sounds, Garritan GPO4 (Personal Orchestra) for my woodwinds and piano, and the built-in Sibelius soundset for percussion. So my audio playback device window looks like this:
I would show what my mixer window looks like, but I don't believe it will fit here.
There is still no word on the paper-size issue, which I hope gets cleared up this week. It would be nice to produce a thesis that can be, you know, read by humans. Until then, I'll continue to compose on tabloid-sized paper.