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Saturday, August 1, 2009

La Sombra Espiral for guitar and string quartet by John Burke

On August 11 I will be performing (classical guitar) the premiere of La Sombra Espiral for guitar and string quartet by Canadian composer John Burke at MusicFest Vancouver, a work I commissioned from John a few years ago.

This music, designed both as concert music and as sonic "assistance" for those engaged in walking the labyrinth at Vancouver's Christ Church cathedral, is hypnotic and continuous, yet evolving in ways certainly unexpected if compared to the usual reference points for this sort of music: minimalism and New Age music. John Burke's music is unclassifiable in this regard.

My anecdote for today is to shed a little light into the process of internalizing the music, that is, practising and preparing for the concert. Usually a musician will prepare the music by identifying the difficult passages, working them until they are smooth and under the fingers, and then integrating them into the musical passage in which they exist. With minimal music, the challenge is more often mental and muscular stamina: the repetition and the counting put me, as a musician, in a different relationship with the sound I am making. There is time to "view oneself" performing the music. But such viewing is a distraction and the result of a busy mind. So I find I need to conquer the technical challenges, just as usual, but then, to actually perform the music, I need to put my mind into a meditative mode. In this respect, performing Burke's piece requires of me to enter the stream of the music in a similar way that the audience might: to quiet the mind and the body, and to focus on the sound. Those walking the labyrinth may have a two-fold task, making the possible rewards of the experience double: focus on the walk and the music at the same time. For those who enter the stream of John Burke's composition entirely, there will be a few surprises.

There are two performances of the work on August 11, the first at 6:45 and the second at 9 pm. More information here.

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.