Another video with Piano and Electronics, this one using the VCV Rack software euro rack Befaco Ring Modulation module. The second part of the video is an arrangement of Mahler 'Urlicht' for piano/ring mod. Enjoy!
I'm using a computer to assist in the composition of Raw Moon , a set of preludes for Piano. I wrote a bit about the process earlier. I take an image of the lunar surface, a photograph stored online in the NASA archives. Then I use a library of tools in the Open Music software platform published by IRCAM to transpose the pixels of that image into points on a spectrogram. A spectrogram is a visual representation of frequency change over time, so there's a natural correspondence between an image and a spectrogram.
I play back the sound created by that spectrogram, and I upload the sound into another IRCAM tool, one called ASAnotation. This tool lets me set various parameters and thresholds to capture pitch based on the spectrogram analysis. What I'm doing there is reducing the pitch complexity so that I can represent the image in standard western notation, which I can play at the piano.
ASAnotation produces a Sound Data Interchange Format (SDIF) file, which is a markup language that easily translates to MIDI. I import the MIDI file to Sibelius, which produces a score.
I said standard western notation, but the result is very abstract rhythmically, and is filled with dense chord clusters. It's the kind of thing that makes sense to represent graphically, like a Varese score. I've used the material in a couple of different electronic pieces (Moon Ikon) where the capacity of a player is not a constraint. For Raw Moon, I want to extract what I consider musically meaningful artifacts from the original (the raw) material. That's the phase I'm in now, and it probably looks the most like 'composition' in that I have pencil and paper.
I'ved used a computer before, of course, without thinking of computer assisted composer. All of my published scores were created in Sibelius, and all of my extant electronic music was recorded on a laptop or more recently an iPad.
I like to categorize, so let's think about a few different categories of composition that uses a computer.
Computer music is music that requires a computer for the performance. Maybe a sequencer or sampler , some kind of controller that is manging synthesizers.
Computer generated music I think of where the structure of the music is determined by algorithms that have been worked out in a machine. The ready availability of sequencers and software like Iannix make it a lot easier to realize 6 hour pieces structured on your favorite equstion.
Then what I think I'm doing with the piano preludes is Computer assisted. The computer does something that I'm not able to do, because I am a human with limitations of time, skill or sensory perception.
It's like having Merlin or Moriarty as an assistant. Someone capable of transforming objects, or perceiving other worlds clearly, understanding complex mathematics, and with a staunchly virtuosic approach to performance.
I just bought a box of the Blackwing 602 pencils and an 18 stave manuscript book from the Archive company.
If you go online and run a Google query for Music Manuscript Paper, most of the top links are for sites that provide templates for your printer. That's all fine and good, but I've not been able to find the size and weight of paper.
I've never had a hard time finding reasons not to write, so I wouldn't put too much on having the 'correct' paper and 'proper' pencil. But there is something tremendously gratifying about the tactile feel of a good pencil on thick paper. The 18 stave is 12 x 16, so when I'm scrabbling down quick ideas for piano they all form a mind-map on a page which I can savagely erase, whimsically connect, and distractedly elaborate with marginalia. I can stand at my studio piano to write, then sit down to play.
I don't know yet what will be the overall shape of Raw Moon. I'm trying to capture a few characteristic surface textures, one of which I want to have massively glistening, shimmering clusters, ranging across the whole piano. For this section, not sure whether I want to write using mostly trills, tremolos, glissandi and grace notes, leaving a lot of freedom for the performance. I'll end up notating the rhythmic material, because when I really listen to how I'm playing it, there are specific phase shifts and whatnot that I think will be important. It's just that that's a lot more work, isn't it? I'm watching how my hands are moving, the details in notation are the result of these larger physical gestures.
Perhaps it will look something like this Messiaen score? Messiaen is a composer who wasn't afraid of working on a score. The Raw Moon material is based on computer generated tone clusters derived from the translation of the lunar image into frequency information, so the density will be heavier than in shown in this particular sample. But the offset tuplets in each hand create the kind of flittering effect that I'm looking for.
I found the Archive
I forget what we used when I was a student. Probably the archive sheets that fold out, buy a sheeth of those. I've tried printing on loose leave moleskin paper, loose leaf linen paper is most effectiove so far, but still 8.5x11.
I bought a fcked up pen with 5 lines , but oit turns out to eb very difficult to get a consistent line.
Don't get me wrong. I love flkying away along the keyboard. I rely on being able to write discoherent, unchorded statements knowing that when it comes time to order and organize, I can cut and paste without using scissors and tape.
I took a course once at College Park, we actually sliced tape. Can you imagine? Can you imagine how Stockhausen got those sounds? The technology is better now, I don't claim that the sound of tape is something I can even distinguish, let alone value over anything else.
There's a maneuver at the piano keyboard where you reach up to a higher note, let's say with the ring finger of the right hand, and then while still holding down the note, sliding up one of the other fingers, let's say the second finger, without lifting the ring finger until the note is safely held by the second. It's a move that let's you smoothly make your way up the keyboard, in a melodic line; or jump around safely in some gymnastic arpeggios.
But when I play certain composers, that finger slide just feels wrong. Not that it's bad (it is bad, very bad. It is a louche and decadent position). I just feel that the music demands a carefully discovered hand position...once you've got that position, playing the music is easy, it slides in to place, just occurs. Messiaen scores are formidable, but I really do think that the strength of his compositional craft was the capacity to throw his hands on the keyboad, remember exactly what had happened, and notate it so accurately that someone else could throw their hands upon a second piano to acheive the same result. The notation is not to capture the specific notes...the notes are the epi-phenomenon of a physical gesture. Recreate that principle twitch, and the notes fill themselves in.
This is a bit of a crank position. But I also remember the years I spent studying from the Alfred Cortot Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique .
"In the beginning of this work, we stated that we thought it possible to group all the problem of pinaistic execution into five essential categories. We conceive this classification in the following manner:
- Equality, independence and mobility of fingers
- Passing under of the thumb (scales - arpeggios)
- Double notes and polyphonic playing
- Wrist technique, execution of chords
We consider that in the whole literature of the pianoforte, no difficulty exists which cannot be placed under one of the preceding headings."Throughout the text, I get the sense that Cortot also looks for the root cause, the underlying gesture that explains each passage. The whole series of exercises are designed to be played through each morning, like calisthenics. Time to practice, if I'm going to play Raw Moon with any conviction.
Over the summer, I worked on Moon Ikon, an electronic piece that derives musical gestures based on the contours of the lunar surface. I'm now starting to work on a set of piano preludes, working title Raw Moon, which are based on the electronic sounds. I use tools published by IRCAM in the Open Music forum to parse out the electronics, generate pitch material and export a MIDI file. From there, I open up the file in Sibelius...where the fun starts.
If you listen to Moon Ikon, you can hear that the material is very pure, an unrelenting chorus of sine waves. I've broken the piece in to 28 sections, because I envision 28 preludes and because there are 28 phases to the moon.
ASAnnotation analyzed the sound file, in this case called Moon 19. The particular view is an analysis of the partials, highlighting those that meet certain threshold defined in the various settings. I won't make any claims about these values, most of them were default and a few I messed around with just to see if it made any difference ( it didn't). Here's a visual of the screen.
The output of this analysis is a file in a format called Sound Data Interchange Format. SDIF is a kind of markup language for music and one of the many cool things it can be used to do is to translate non-musical material into musical vectors (pitch, amplitude etc). I have a patch in OpenMusic which does nothing except translate SDIF into MIDI.
A snap of what the first page of the score looks like when I open in Sibelius.
If I play that on the internal synth, using a bell sample, sounds like this:
That's pretty cool, and I have in mind a large scale electronic rendering based on the MIDI files. Something like The Orb hanging with Jean Michel Jarre on the London Eye scoring up some acid. But for now, notice that tintinnabulation of the bells is not really represented in the visual score. I can't account for that, except that the MIDI file is finer granularity than the notation software can represent, but which can still re-play.
The first edit I did in Sibelius was to expand the single staff onto two staffs. Then I ran a couple of batch processes to reduce the number of duplicate notes. I say 'reduce' rather than 'remove'...the SDIF translation generated not just duplicates but stacks of unison. That means that when I delete a note because it appears to be a duplicate, I find another identical note underneath it. When I was done with it, the score looks like this:
and sounds like this:
A horse! A Horse! I'd give a horse and a kingdom to know how to tweak Sibelius so that my scores looked like this:
Moving through 28 of the Raw Moon raw material, by the time I finished 6 or so, I was heartily tired of the effort involved. I couldn't figure out a reasonable spacing of accidentals in a tone cluster, and since I'd already resolved that this was raw material (see 'working title'), I started to ache for a pen and some paper: in some preludes, yes I would try to recreate this wonderful player piano style, reminds me of the Conlan Nancarrow studies. In others, the diaphonous trill of the original download. And in the rest - something like the Messiaen Vingt Regards.
Glenn Gould is up at the family cabin. He's young, playing on the family piano. Something by Bach. You can hear the articulation click-clack on the left hand line and then he's up and over by the window. The relentless flow of information continues, he's still practicing, still playing, but looking at the lake.
Haptics are the physical actions required to play an instrument, the sense of touch, the interaction with mechanics. That's part of what we're seeing here.
There's a structure, an underlying phenomenon, the Ineluctable Modality of Bach, let's call it. There's this other thing, let's call it Glenn Gould. Imagine a Venn Diagram. Some part of Glenn Gould interacts with the Ineluctable Modality of Bach. Some other part of Glenn Gould moves through a world of chairs and dogs and fingernails. The intersection of the three is at the keyboard, to "play the piano" .
When I write music, I can't hear notes. I've never had a great ear, sightsinging and ear-training I just wasn't very good at it. What I do get is a sense of what it would feel like if my body were the shape. A sense of gesture. If Messiaen wrote by Synaethesia, I'd describe this as a sense of "Kinaesthesia". It's not dancing, I don't visualize choreography or movements. But I do feel muscular contraction. My body isn't convulsed, I'm not talking about actual movement. Rather, there's the intuition of a gesture.
If I could compose in the medium of physiological twitches and quiverings, I think I would. Sound is an epiphenomenon of these Kinaesthetic whispers.
I always write at the piano. The exercise of compositional craft is to be able to recognize when I've fit the right notes to the gesture. Today I spent an hour trying to figure out a rhythm I'd been tapping on my fingers this morning on the bus. I'm spending the time trying to figure out if I need to notate a precise tuplet rhythm, or a trill with poetic license. There's something about the difference between an appogiatura and a grace note that I feel could define a big piece. But I can't remember the damn thing.
Most of the time, the music under my fingers at the piano ends up not feeling right. Composition requires time, sure: but we all have time. What it really requires is urgency and if that's lacking, then it requires faith.
Button Ballet is choreographed for Button, Blackberry and Employee ID card (a strange love triangle). There are 4 short dances, with original music that I have composed and recorded on piano along with video of the dances.
Dance 1: Button and Blackberry
Dance 2: Button and Employee ID
Dance 3: Lament for the Button
Dance 4: Blackberry and Employee ID
Francis Poulenc wrote a set of piano pieces called Badinage. The word means something like "silly pieces of nothing". In the same vein, Poulenc wrote music to accompany a recitation of Babar the Elephant. Sometimes the greatest sadness is found in the poise required to touch lightly.
This piece could be subtitled "Idle Hands", after the un-named character who participates in each dance.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently issued a DVD collection of all the television performances recorded for them by Glenn Gould. From the early years, there is a recording of Gould rehearsing Bach Partita #2 - he's working on the articulation in a left hand passage. Gould plays with a precision of intent, looking for not just the overall downward sweep of the gesture, but also some intricate patterning within.
He is surrounded by his dogs, and the practice session is taking place in a cabin . Gould leaves the piano and stares out the window, continuing to mutter the rhythm of the music. His hands are contorted, conducting, performing, extracting something from the air.
Bach is a convenient medium for the ideas he is examining, just as the piano is a convenient instrument for expressing them in sound. I'd go further and say that Gould is tapping in to some sonic experience which has Glenn Gould as it's most convenient avenue for expression. Gould is ensorcelled. No wonder he has his dogs around, they are atavistic companions to ensure a safe return. It makes me think of Carl Ruggles Sun-Treader. Ruggles also had an unrestrained, magnificent relationship to counterpoint and the title for his symphony comes from Robert Browning describing Shelley --"Sun-treader--life and light be thine for ever." We don't think of Gould as a romantic pianist, but that's because of the repertoire he preferred. His approach to sound belongs with Shelley, although Gould wasn't one for jumping on the roof or sailing in home made boats.
The interface for all that are these fingers. Gould sat low at the piano, using a 14 inch stool his father made for him as a boy and which he used for the rest of his life. Who knows what really this allowed. Certainly the leverage on the hands would be affected.
The physical act of playing is more important to me than the sound created. In part no doubt because my damaged hearing interferes with the one, I'm never sure exactly what I'm hearing any more. But the haptic sense of a piece has always been important. My teacher, Natash Chances, had been a student of Cortot. I practiced the Cortot exercises as a student. The exercises begin with each finger holding down a key so as each progressively complicated pattern is played, the non-active fingers stay sunk in the keys.
Gould practiced 'Finger Tapping' exercises developed by his teacher (Guerrero). The music was played slowly, hands separately, and with the non-active hand tapping the fingers of the hand under examination.
When I play, I sit fairly high and often press my leg up against the base of the keyboard. I feel like the keys are being moulded by the action, like clay. Other players, you can see that .they are leaning in from above, the full strength of their torso used to impress the instrument. And then there's this guy
None of this prevents a delicate tone. I'm speaking of the root for the pianistic movement. The hands take all that energy, channel into specific articulation, from whatever the source, Sitting so low, Gould would be pulling the keys in towards him.
Speculation. Time to listen.
I remember a dream. I am underwater, in a domed city populated by small, enigmatic creatures ambivalent towards me. The dome collapses, and I find myself compressed, swirling, exploding for lack of breath deep beneath the surface.
Then a whale - huge, enormous, blue - approaches me. He swims next to me, I recall vivdly the eye scanning me. A warm, dark brown eye. With the mass of his body, the Whale protected me from the furies of the ocean, and guided me to the surface where I could breath again.
I started to write a piece, which ended in a drawer for three years. I restarted the piece, believed it finished and moved on. Two years later, I have finished it. This time period corresponds quite clearly with my engagement with psychotherapy. I may not yet be done with this piece.
Francis Poulenc wrote a Sonata for two pianos, published in 1953 - the two piano sonata is an enormous and magnificent piece, which should not be mistaken for an earlier Sonata for 4 hands (on one piano). There’s a beautiful repertoire of early 20th century French music for two pianos. Ravel wrote Mother Goose. Debussy has some Antique stuff. Faure (a little earlier) wrote Dolly. I played a lot of it as a younger person, and I remember the experience with great fondness.
It's easy to pass over Poulenc in a discussion of structure and theory - anything so lush, so melodic with such a coquettish promise must surely have been pulled from a cognac-fuelled improvisation. This would be doing a disservice to the composer, and to the listener who is transported by the music. The Oboe sonata is as meticulously ordered around pitch class as anything written by the contemporary Stravinsky, and the two piano sonata offers many opportunities for reflection - some prurient, some intellectual, others in a place that questions the line between the two.
A puzzle is presented with the very beginning of the piece: a dramatic clanging sound that opens and closes the sonata:
Here’s the score, to follow along:
The same kind of writing ends the piece, but it is ‘scored’ differently. ( ‘Scored’ refers to which notes are played by which hand, taken from the act of writing a musical score). It's curious to me why Poulenc would have done that. In the first movement, there are huge leaps by each hand of each pianist. In the final movement, one pianist plays notes in a central part of the keyboard, while the other plays a series of chords across the keyboard. Sounds the same, written quite differently.
Perhaps what Poulenc has done is to score the composition so that the musicians have to move in a particular way? Perhaps in addition to the actual notes on the page, Poulenc is interested in the relationship of the pianists hands to each other, to the other pianist across the stage, and to the audience. Perhaps he is: I certainly am.
Consider the layout of the pianos on the stage. These pictures is taken from a film recording of Poulenc playing his concerto for two pianos...unfortunately, there’s no full stage shot available, neither could I find a film of the actual sonata. But this gets across the visual layout of the pianos on stage. This is a standard arrangement, with the curves of two grand pianos pressed together - like the Newfoundland coast and western Europe in geological text books on tectonic shift.
The first relationship to expose is between the players and their pianos. ￼￼If each note is assigned a number, with the lowest key on the piano being zero, and the highest being 87, then I can create a chart that shows the relative position of each hand in each beat of the music. The x-axis is time, represented as each quarter note beat in the piece. The y axis shows the number of each pitch. This is the perspective of someone suspended from the ceiling above each pianist - it is a mirror image, where the lowest note on Piano 1 is directly across from the highest note on Piano 2.
An opening line downwards is followed by lots of jumping around. These two gestures - split at Rehearsal letter A in the score - define the overall structure of the section. I want to highlight the relationship between mirror hands, the hands that are directly across from each other. Here’s a chart that shows the right hand of one pianist with the left hand of the other:
When one hand moves up, the other moves down on each respective keyboard.
Consider what the positioning of the pianos on stage does to the pianist’s hands in relation to the audience. From the perspective of the audience, the hands closest to us are moving in parallel...as one jumps away, the other follows. My thought is that this visual relationship is as important to the interpretation of the piece as the actual notes being played.
One way to make this relationship clearer is if I revisit the chart of lines representing note values, but do some quick math so that instead of a fixed value on the keyboard, each note is assigned a value in relation to the audience. For the pianist on the left, I subtract the key position from 88, to get a value of distance to and from the audience. Zero on piano 1 is the highest note: zero for Piano 2 is the lowest note. This chart shows only the hands closest to the audience.
From the pianist perspective, in relation to the keys, even in relation to what we hear, the two musicians are playing opposites. But to the visual perception, the pianists are moving as if joined by a bar connecting their chests across the pianos. As one leans right, two leans left to follow. The pianists are moving together towards and away from the audience. Two marionettes whose bodies lean and shiver in tandem over the two opposing keyboards.
This is a pretty piece of choreography.