electronics

Pacing Pt. II

I briefly wrote about the importance of pacing a few weeks ago. Here are some additional thoughts as I write my work Disconnect for saxophonist Chi Him Chik and percussionist Derek Frank with live electronics.

Writing a piece that includes both performers (who read notated music) and electronics (that do not fit nicely into our notation conventions) creates a unique challenge for perfect pacing. The way we notate music to fit into time is through strict rhythmic divisions within a meter. The notation system normally divides notes into halves (whole, half, quarter, eighth), but we can mark different divisions of notes in relationship to larger beats. For example, we can divide a quarter into 7 sixteenths by putting a 7 and a bracket over them. These all are to fit into a meter, which implies an emphasis (downbeat) and basic rhythmic framework (this is a simplification). Yet many natural sounding rhythms cannot be notated with precision because of our method. Some composers have invented ways to achieve more fluid rhythms, but they often cause great confusion for the standard performer.

Electronics, while they may be synced to one of these meters, are much more easily thought of in absolute time (minutes and seconds). With modern Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), I can line up different sound files at just the right millisecond. I realized in this project that the best method for my piece was to work in absolute time and then place the live performers within that frame rather than deal with the electronics in a metric framework. To pace the performers within the ammetrical sound world, I first juxtapose standard meter in their music against the electronics, calculating about how many beats of rest are needed between entrances. For longer waits, I have a foot pedal attached to a computer to trigger the next major electronics entrance or shift.

As my piece progresses, however, I take the sax and percussion music away from strict meter. The first thing to go is the meter itself. The standard rhythmic configurations will exist, but without the meter, it implies that there is room for rhythmic flexibility. Then, I introduce reactionary gestures, which are sets of notes that will be triggered by something in the electronics or from the other performer. Soon after, I introduce imitation gestures, where instead of notation, the performers imitate something they hear from the other performer or in the electronics. Later, I give free improvisation with a contour, drawing lines that squiggle through their music to tell the performer only pitch content with a note on the general feeling of the line. And finally, they are given completely free improvisation within certain time frames, with expressive prompts for inspiration. As the structure of the notation loosens and leads into free improvisation, the musicians align themselves more with the spontaneity of the electronic music. As the piece progresses, I have less exact control over the pacing because of the loss of meter and exact rhythms; however, I place trust in the performers' developed musical senses and the implications from my electronics to make this a successful piece.

More on pacing later! This work Disconnect will be premiered at the Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers (EMCC) on April 7th at the University of Iowa (Iowa City) at 7:30. See the performance page for directions (more details will be posted soon)!

Musicking and Improvisation

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I was reminded of the concept of "musicking" yesterday, which is the late Christopher Small's term to help people think of music as an action rather than a thing (though adding a "k" to a word makes it feel archaic so I use the term warily). Thus, listening to music is musicking, performing music is musicking, and creating music is musicking. Sheet music or recordings themselves are not music until someone engages with them. While he goes in depth on this topic in his book Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, I would rather talk about how musicking as brought life to the music around me.

I recently joined UMKC's Imp Ensemble, a free (not necessarily jazz) improvisation ensemble. Several years ago at BYU I was part of a similar group called GEM (Group for Experimental Music). Both these ensembles provide a creative outlet where I am invigorated to musick without the restrictions of societal convention. I believe that we should strive to engage with our culture by putting forth our best contributions to the art, I also believe in what Ned Rorem termed "the distortion of Genius." It helps to step outside the bounds of classical concert music culture to reassess one's work and musical purpose. Next month, the Imp Ensemble will be performing at West Bottoms as part of the West Bottoms Reborn initiative. More details here.

This upcoming Tuesday, my work Improvisations VI: Just, Plane, Natural will be performed by Gabbi Roderer, an amazing flutist (see the event details here). This is the third in a series of improvisation pieces for soloist and live electronics that I originally wrote for myself as a way I could continue improvising outside of a group. But now they have become a fascinating means of collaborating with performers as musicians, tapping into fellow performers' intuitive abilities to musick, not according to the societal norms of their repertoire but according to the dictates of their ear in response to the electronics (which are wholly dependent on the performer's playing).

These improvisations are free for the performer, but while this sounds liberating, it actually invites the performer to solve their own compositional puzzle. The piece only progresses with a tap of a pedal that initiates a change in the electronics. These changes provide the overall structure of the piece while leaving pacing up to the performer. The puzzle for performers is to effectively navigate these changes to achieve their artistic vision. In this manner, the performer also becomes a creator and sculptor of sound in time. The performer also must engage carefully in listening. It is a perfect example of musicking to a composed work without the strings attached.

This work is a joint effort, a true collaboration. Rather than the composer acting as dictator or even as visionary, the composer becomes the facilitator and architect, providing a space and flow to accentuate the performer's work. While the composer is not active on stage (though I can easily code in my own laptop part and devise the form in real-time), the contribution of the electronics provides a unique mark that, while at times sounding very different in each iteration, infallibly remains. The contributions of composer and performer are equal; the electronics can only be engaged by the performer's input and the performer must engage with the electronics to play out the work. Through this partnership, the new work is born every time, and I love this sort of relationship. 

If you are a musician and want to musick with these Improvisations or have insights or comments on these concepts, I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to comment below.