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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Chenoa Anderson's "Birds of Paradise Lost" completed

I've just finished the first version of my composition for amplified flute and computer for the great Canadian flutist Chenoa Andreson. The work is designed to be performed by a duo of solo flutist and computer musician. The flutist plays into a microphone which is attached to the audio interface of the computer. Once in the computer, the flute sound is transformed in real time to be sent out the loudspeakers in the hall.

The computer part is uniquely designed to run exclusively with Ableton's "LIVE" software. For anyone unfamiliar with the software, it allows the mixture of realtime processing and the launching of audio files with an interface that is easy to set up and use. The company also provides a 14-day completely functional trial version that allows the user to open any previously-saved files and play and manipulate them (but saving is disabled). This allows a composer to create an entire working document that can be sent anywhere in the world because the software runs on both Windows and Macintosh computers. The computer keyboard is used to control the flow of the processing and computer performance, so no extra devices are needed to perform the work. All that is needed is audio cables to go from computer to sound mixer. Very simple, this piece could be played anywhere.

The title comes from the nature of the sound materials themselves. Chenoa sent me recordings of herself performing various special flute sounds and techniques. After I multitracked the sounds and created the first few minutes, the title came to me, and it has stuck. (The connection to the Milton text is an echo rather than any direct reference to meaning in this great classic.)

The solo acoustic instrument (here the flute) is processed through various multiplication and sound colour manipulation techniques to create an entirely new sonic beast that evokes soundscapes and sound textures one would normally associate with nature and/or industrial noise; yet within the large sound, one hears the "motives" that are the source of it all, as performed by the soloist. With electronic music, it is possible to go further than "motivic development" as the primary source of forward movement in music. Where the primacy of sound rules, excitement is created using other means than the (harmonic) modulation techniques of times past. We speak of "textural transformation" rather than "modulation" – although "modulation" in electronic music refers not to chord changes, but to "frequency modulation", which is another beast. "Birds of Paradise Lost" presents a seeming contradiction between consonance and dissonance, with microtonal chromaticism colliding with beautiful tonal resonances.

Is "dissonance" defined purely by the resonating/beating properties of musical intervals and sounds? Or does the rate of change also contribute to perceived "dissonance"? As Stockhausen, Grisey and others have observed, the structure of moving sound, from still (static) to hyperactive (chaotically dense movement) is a complex web of interdependent components. For example, a dense cluster of quiet, slow-moving microtones can be quite peaceful if the beating of the intervals – the sound texture – has a very slow rate of change. It is the behaviour of the sound over time that defines its level of tension for the listener. As is often the case in my music with manipulated sound, the texture may seem fairly busy, but the underlying rate of change is often quite slow. This allows the listener into my sound world, which often contains very high, sometimes "rough" sounds.

This is music for those who would like to hear music beyond the equal-tempered music for pianos and pop-computing: music for curious minds and thirsty ears.

Premiere yet to be determine, likely 2010.

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