Category Archives: Sound

SEAMUS 2016

(Savannah, GA) Just attended the SEAMUS 2016 Conference at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. It was very interesting to re-engage with this group after nearly nine years living in Europe. The last SEAMUS Conference I attended was back in 2006, when I was just getting started with electroacoustic music, learning SuperCollider, etc. A lot of water under the bridge!

The schedule was absolutely PACKED, with a huge number of concerts and pieces to hear over the three days. I gave a paper on the first morning (thanks to the folks who came out early to check out Drake, Sean, and my offerings!), but otherwise just tried to see as much as possible and see what everyone has been up to. I have to be honest and say that by day three I had reached new-music-saturation and couldn’t really engage very well with anything (some other attendees said the same). Perhaps fewer pieces/concerts (thus, more selective) would be a way forward for future conferences?

That aside, there were several standout pieces and presentations I should like to mention here. On the first day I was really moved by Hold Still, by Becky Brown. She put so much of herself into the piece, something that doesn’t always happen (in my experience, at least) in such an open, visceral way. The combination of drawing with audio really worked well, and she controlled the emotional tension created by the interplay (and manipulation) of the recorded voices and text very well indeed. I’m a fan. Day 2 highlights included Michael Musick’s excellent workshop on his work with Sonic Ecosystems which really resonated with me, awakening some ideas regarding independently-acting ‘musical agents’ that I had let fall by the wayside over ten years ago. I’m talking about an aborted collaboration called Terrasono which I undertook in 2006/7 at Montana State University with Tad Bradley (architecture) and Luke Shorty (maths); the idea revolved around making use of geographical data supplied by users to create individualized ‘identity synths’ which would all play nice together in a musical mock-up of the globe, with the individual ‘locations’ of each participant all influencing one another and determining the total sonic environment.

Anyway, back to SEAMUS: I loved the refined stillness of Gugak Study 1, by Tae Hong Park, with Youna Lee performing. In the planetarium set I was left alternately giggling (in the BEST way) and deeply stirred by Ryan Mcguire’s ‘audiovisual fixed media composition’ Pivot, which employed a recorded chamber quartet, video, field recordings and processing.

Overall, the conference delivered an interesting, if a bit ‘uncritical’ three days. You definitely got the sense that a lot of the folks attending have been coming for years and everybody knows everybody else and what they do… Whilst the quality of music presented varied pretty widely, there was certainly some standout, amazing stuff, and of course I met some great people. My thanks to the organizers and all our hosts at Georgia Southern for their hard work to make it happen!

Lietuva.

(Shropshire) A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting beautiful Lithuania for the first time. Under the auspices of the 15th Music Theory Conference sponsored jointly by the Lithuanian Composers Union and the Lithuanian Academy for Music and Theatre, the three-day event featured a small but very stimulating and congenial group of composers and academics from across Europe, with nine different countries represented. The conference has always had the subtitle “Principles of Composing”, each year focusing on a particular aspect of the art, and this year the theme centered on the phenomenon of melody. I delivered a paper which further developed the more melody-centric aspects of my recently-completed thesis commentaries for the PhD at Durham, but of course this also gave me an opportunity to explore some related issues which have arisen in the months since I submitted that work for examination. I’ll upload the paper here to the website when I’ve finished a couple of revisions and added some material that I couldn’t get into the 20 minute paper session. My thanks to all the organisers, faculty and students of the Union and the Academy; it was great to experience the warm, close-knit familial atmosphere which permeates the Vilnius new music scene!

Speaking of which: Vilnius is an realllllly interesting city for the casual tourist as well. Boxed in and around the confluence of two rivers (the Neris and the Vilnia) and surrounded by low hills on all sides, the modest skyline north of the Neris highlights some of the newer development (bank buildings, swanky blocks of flats) which has occurred in the years since independence. Just south of the Neris lies the smallish Old Town (originally a ghetto area, as my expat guide informed me), which contains the University, Presidential Palace, Art Academy, and many more cultural and government institutions of interest. On the hilltops west of the centre, the needle of the Vilnius Television Tower still provides a distant reference point for the tourist. As with other cities I’ve visited in Eastern Europe, there are still ample opportunities to encounter some intriguing echoes of the Soviet days, usually coming in the form of grim-looking blocks of flats, office buildings, or bits of public art languishing in empty piazzas, extolling popular Soviet themes (workers, industry, agriculture, political figures). As I’d seen in advance during my online research, the local beers were all really really good, and very inexpensive (500ml / €0.75). Count me in again for next year!

Strange Attractors: Thoughts on rhythm and meter in polyrhythmic space.

(DURHAM) In his explanatory notes to Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, Olivier Messiaen highlights the fact that the notated meter of 2/4 is merely for ease of performance, thereby discouraging the performer from attempting to fit the music into any accustomed a priori metric framings. When creating music in polyrhythmic space we may find ourselves thinking about notated meters in a similar way, simply selecting them by virtue of either pure convenience or correspondence with particular format unit durations. This is nothing new, as the bar line has always had a tenuous relationship with musical meter as it is performed and perceived. As composers have sought ever-new approaches to rhythmic organization and temporal flow, any conceptions of meter as a locally repetitive, cyclical force of forward musical motion which is somehow directly reflected in the time signature have often been redundant, or at least of minimal consideration.

In my own work using polyrhythmic space I have gradually become aware of how the very act of composing with two or three layers of discrete pulse streams – streams which can often affect one another locally in, at times, quite unexpected ways – can produce a different sense of forward motion, one that is naturally reflected in the more complex local and global temporal relationships between the elements of the polyrhythmic limbs. Speaking from experience, these time points (the individual elements in each limb) can naturally exert strong, attractive motional forces across the time skein, creating a complex web of continual temporal flux. One feels oneself composing toward and away from time points in the underlying structural layers, using them as rhythmic poles around which the push and pull of musical time can be organized. Can these irregular motional forces in polyrhythmic space be potentially understood as some kind of complex meter? Or, taking a step back: when composing stratified rhythms in polyrhythmic space, what happens to the idea of meter?

Recent research has greatly increased our understanding of the cognition of musical meter as well as its function and manifestation in the temporal structure of music, although much remains unclear. David Epstein (1995) and Jonathan Kramer (1988) both view meter as part of a bipartite overall temporal structure, with meter on the side of what they both term ‘chronometric time’ and rhythm on the side of ‘integral time’. Epstein highlights the importance of a perceptible periodicity, but for Kramer this is less important, as he focuses more on its manifestation through metric accent, also asserting that we can even perceive ‘deep meter’ at the highest levels of temporal structure, even up to the duration of an entire movement. Justin London (2012: 15-18) takes these ideas further in his study of the cognitive facets of meter, developing the idea of metric entrainment, whereby meter functions in the perceptual middleground as a framework for motional continuity and listener expectation; the cognitive entrainment to a metric pulse. Viktor Zuckerkandl was one of the first theoreticians to conceive of meter as a wave, beating at multiple levels of periodicity across the temporal skein. Applying this concept to our question of meter in polyrhythmic space, it would seem logical to infer that any polyrhythmic structure has the potential to create multiple simultaneous metric waves which must be somehow collated and internalized by the listener. The wave conception of meter has been adopted and developed by many researchers since Zuckerkandl, some of whom have also begun to explore how listeners group local rhythmic patterns into multiple high-level patterns of meter, and how specialist and non-specialist listeners rely in different ways on regular and irregular pulse configurations. Based on recent research into dynamic attending theory (DAT), Mari Riess Jones has hypothesized the existence of what she terms metric binding:

Entrainment is a biological process that realizes adaptive synchrony of internal attending oscillations with an external event. Different event timescales correspond to marked (i.e., accented) metric levels. Time spans within a metric level can elicit a corresponding neural oscillation, which has a persisting internal periodicity, manifest as a temporal expectancy. It ‘tunes into’ recurrent time spans at a given level by adjusting its phase in response to temporal expectancy violations at that level.

Building on four assumptions regarding neural oscillations which she claims are shared by several current DAT models (that they are self-sustaining, stable, adaptive, and that multiple related oscillations can be triggered by multiple time levels), she goes on to propose that:

Whenever two or more neural oscillations are simultaneously active, over time their internal entrainments lead to binding and formation of a metric cluster. A metric cluster comprises sets of co-occuring oscillations with interrelationships that persist due to acquired internal bindings. Entrainments among internal oscillations promote binding, which strengthens as a function of:

1. Duration of co-occurring oscillatory activity.
2. Phase coincidences, and
3. Resonance (i.e., relatedness) among oscillator periods.

For composers experienced with working in polyrhythmic space, this hypothesis may ring true on several levels, as our compositional process is often centrally concerned with the construction of just these types of metric clusters (to use Jones’s term); i.e., multiple musical (thus, neural) oscillations of pulse streams which may have varying degrees of duration, phase coincidence, and resonance, as outlined in Jones’s three points above. Speaking in general terms, we understand that whilst music based upon what is necessarily a more irregular network of attractive forces may create practical problems for performers (in terms of ensemble coordination – specifically, the coordination of different simultaneously-operative pulses and, possibly, meters) as well as listeners (some of whom may lack the listening experience or even the ability to effectively entrain with more complex rhythmic/metric structures), that it can nevertheless be a vehicle for rich, deeply affecting artistic experiences.

In conclusion, let us briefly return to the question of gestural rhythm and metric continuity/discontinuity as it relates to larger formal constructs. From the standpoint of practical composition, the widespread use of gestural rhythms and phrases can frequently create additional problems of formal development, the main one being: how do these more-or-less isolated rhythmic gestures help to move the music forward? I use the word ‘isolated’ here to describe a gesture that is composed to be in some way (rhythmically or harmonically) self-sufficient (i.e., it has no directly-connected rhythmic antecedent, and no immediately obvious consequent). Conceptually, it comes more or less from nothing (silence/stilness), returning to nothing. Such gestures may (while still exhibiting their properties of self-sufficiency) be composed within a sequence of similar gestures (which may or may not overlap), forming part a larger gestural whole. Magnus Lindberg highlights this very issue in his program note to Corrente II (1992):

After having written a Piano Concerto in 1991 preceded by three works for different orchestral effectives (Kinetics, Marea and Joy) I felt that I had come to an end with a certain musical expression and also compositional technique. All these works were based upon an extended chaconne principle with chord chains cycling around, undergoing constant transformation and being articulated in a very gestural way. The musical paradox and evidently also the challenge was the discrepancy between a brick-like method expressed in a world of gestures (with all difficulties involved in conceiving music out of phrases) aiming at a continuity in terms of progression and development.

What Lindberg means specifically by “aiming at a continuity in terms of progression and development” is not completely clear, but from the context it is logical to intuit that Lindberg was (at least in part) searching for a more through-going sense of temporal continuity (as opposed to music composed of gesture/phrase islands, i.e., the ‘brick-like method’ described above); one that could perhaps make more use of the periodicity of meter, with its in-built continuity of forward motion? It is also interesting that he mentions his so-called ‘chaconne principle’ of harmonic organization in this context as well, as it is an idea not unrelated to our discussion of pc set permutations in Section 1.1. As described by Ilkka Oramo, Lindberg’s ‘chaconne principle’ abstracts the idea of the historical chaconne by creating chains of pc sets with specific pitch/register mappings which are more or less fixed throughout the work. In practice, he typically composes through these reservoirs of pitches in the same order, creating strong harmonic relationships based on global repetitions, but with a huge amount of local rhythmic control and flexibility. As Oramo points out in his analysis of Lindberg’s Corrente II, the composer did not, in fact, abandon the chaconne principle for this piece as stated in the program note (indeed, Oramo’s analysis shows that the piece is actually built around the composer’s most rigorous working out of the chaconne principle up to that time), but rather has gone on to use it in the majority of his subsequent work.

To summarize the main points in our discussion of rhythm and meter in polyrhythmic space, we have seen that:

1. the potentially attractive motional forces operative between polyrhythmic elements can very naturally be made to function as both foreground rhythmic ‘signposts’, as well as the foci of middleground metric pulses and background structural supports,

2. the individual elements can be as strongly- or weakly-emphasized as the composer wishes, and can be operative at various levels of magnification within the temporal structure, providing as much fine or coarse rhythmic detail as the needs of the music dictate, and

3. from a contrapuntal standpoint, the composer has enormous freedom in determining the nature of the relationships between polyrhythmic layers (the spectrum between stratification and integration).

If working with a high-integer polyrhythm over the course of a longer section of music, she is able to exploit the (by definition) absolute stratification of the polyrhythmic elements to create music which is made up of perceptibly discrete layers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, she may also compose a more integrated music, weaving a unified structure through the layers, exploring the latent possibilities of microrhythmic coordination and development through the composite rhythm.

A final word: as we will see in my own compositional practice, it is critical to note that the polyrhythmic canvas as we have defined it thus far can be viewed as the temporal analogue to the permuted ‘harmonic fields’ which we discussed in Section 2.0, in that it creates complex patterns of durational interrelationships through a section of music; intricate networks of temporal tension and release which can then be used as raw material for composition. Again, it is the composer’s task to uncover the interesting ‘hidden’ potentialities latent in these parallel harmonic and temporal structures.

This material has been excerpted from Chapter 2 of my PhD portfolio commentaries at Durham University. A complete, fully referenced pdf copy of the entire thesis is available here.

New music for a new generation.

(DURHAM) It’s been a busy few months. Looking back on the year so far, I’m certainly most proud of the outreach work that my colleague Mark Carroll and I have been doing in a couple of schools in County Durham. We offered a series of sessions with pre-GCSE students (around 13 years of age) at Wellfield School and Shotton Hall Academy, with another cohort coming in from Seaham – in all about 50 students were involved, dipping their toes in the waters of 20th/21st century music history and practice. We had a fantastic time with them, sparking their interest in the myriad possibilities available to the modern composer. Yesterday we finished off the programme series with a concert by Durham Uni’s current ensemble in residence, Ensemble 7Bridges, who played a concert of completely new pieces by Durham composers. For many of the students (almost all of whom are from the northeast), it was their first time to visit a university music school. Needless to say, they were very excited and it was such a treat to show them round, let them interact with the performers and composers, and to give them a small taste of what it’s like to prepare a concert of new music with professional musicians. Many thanks to Durham University for their generous Seedcorn Grant which funded the project!

Adelaide Festival.

(DURHAM) I submitted a soundtrack piece from a couple of years ago, The Method, to the 2014 Adelaide Festival for inclusion in their fantastic “Sound Introversion” web radio stream. If you couldn’t make it down under for the festival, why not check out the global mix of new ambient, drone, minimal, and low-volume electronica here.

In other news, I’ve built a little calculator in SuperCollider which figures out the notated beat divisions required for 2-limb polyrhythms. You can simply substitute your own integers for limb1 and limb2, and SC will output the various possible formats with the total duration units per format.

// polyrhythm calculator based on a formula from Andrew Mead:

(
var limb1 = 21;      // add your own integers for limb1 and limb2
var limb2 = 25;

var limb1factors = limb1.factors;
var limb2factors = limb2.factors;
var formatDurations;

if(limb1factors.size == 1, { limb1factors.add(1) });
if(limb2factors.size == 1, { limb2factors.add(1) });

if(limb1factors.size > 2, { t = limb1factors[0]*limb1factors[1];
	limb1factors.removeAt(0); limb1factors.removeAt(0); limb1factors.add(t);
});

if(limb2factors.size > 2, { u = limb2factors[0]*limb2factors[1];
	limb2factors.removeAt(0); limb2factors.removeAt(0); limb2factors.add(u);
});

a = limb1factors[0];
b = limb1factors[1];

x = limb2factors[0];
y = limb2factors[1];

formatDurations = [[y/b, a/x], [x/b, a/y], [x/a, b/y], [y/a, b/x]];

("Format A –  "+limb1+":"+y+"/"+b+"  "+limb2+":"+a+"/"+x+"  Number of duration units: "+((y/b)*limb1)).postln;
("Format B –  "+limb1+":"+x+"/"+b+"  "+limb2+":"+a+"/"+y+"  Number of duration units: "+((x/b)*limb1)).postln;
("Format C –  "+limb1+":"+x+"/"+a+"  "+limb2+":"+b+"/"+y+"  Number of duration units: "+((x/a)*limb1)).postln;
("Format D –  "+limb1+":"+y+"/"+a+"  "+limb2+":"+b+"/"+x+"  Number of duration units: "+((y/a)*limb1)).postln;
formatDurations.round(0.001).postln;   // change the amount of rounding for more/less precision
"...".postln;
)

This allows you to quickly check if certain integer combinations might work well in terms of the required beat divisions for each limb, although at the moment the code only works for integers with 3 or fewer prime factors.

I’ll wrap up today’s post with another game I played as black against Deep HIARCS 14 (computer playing at 1700 Elo) several weeks ago. My endgame technique is getting better!

Thinkin’ bout medium-range polyrhythms.

(DURHAM) Starting to outline a new piece for trio and computer, I find myself once again in front of some nearly-blank A4 sheets on my clipboard, trying to ask the hard questions. What’s the big idea? What’s the global structure, or at least an initial conception of it? Ensemble roles? Texture? Temporal characteristics? What should the computer do?

Of course, these kinds of questions are on my mind all the time. I’ve been preoccupied by the use of medium-range polyrhythms for a couple of years now, first creating them between two pulses in low-integer ratios with a shared pulse unit, most often the quaver. A bit of background: I made a few pieces over several years using shared-quaver pulses of 3:5:7:9 as a local structural determinant (Safety In Numbers, Immortal Witness, Mare Insularum, Mare Orientale), with interesting results. More recently I’ve moved on to experimenting with higher-integer ratios such as 21:25, creating polyrhythms that don’t share a common pulse unit. Mare Marginis, written last summer for the Ives Ensemble, was my most elaborate exploration of this approach, using a polyrhythm of 21:25 which cycled in 35-bar units. This is what I mean by the term “medium-range polyrhythm” – a juxtaposition of two pulse streams which are mutually prime and complete their cycle in some period, usually 30 and 90 seconds of music, which is substantially less than the total duration of the piece.

Working with higher-integer ratios which must be notated for performers brings up several issues, first and foremost the question of beat division and how that will be achieved in a practical way. If one is making music strictly for computer then this is, of course, not an issue at all; the computer can happily perform any polyrhythmic ratios you can imagine, with no thought for irrational values. If you want to divide one beat by 14.35, then you just tell the computer to do it. For human performers, we need to think quite a bit more conservatively, and here is where the interesting challenge comes in: how to coordinate the computer (which can perform complex rhythmic ratios at all temporal levels), with the ensemble, who are pretty much limited to beat divisions (depending on the tempo) of 2, 3, 5 (and their multiples), and 7?

On a totally different note: here is a nice little game which I somehow managed to win after getting myself two pawns down. I was playing against Deep HIARCS 14, when I should have been paying attention to some undergraduate workshops, but never mind:

Better late than never.

(SNODS EDGE) Okay, I finally made a video demo for the piece I wrote for Stichting Conlon at Gaudeamus Muziekweek two years ago. The premiere at the Speelklokmuseum in Utrecht was musically lovely, but visually…not quite, um, no. Two years to get this done! Better late than never. It’s a good piece, I think. It’s AT LEAST worth checking out this video of section 1 and 1a….

YAMAHA / ENIGMA, for Disklavier & electronics. from Chad Langford on Vimeo.

New work. Lecture at The Sage.

(SNODS EDGE) A quiet, autumnal atmosphere gently descends here on the moors of the northeast, and I’m sketching out the formal plan for my new project: a quintet for the Ives Ensemble, who will be coming over to Durham from Amsterdam at the end of November. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but I think it’s going to be pretty intense. After the diaphanous lightness of atmosphere that generally defined my recently-completed series of four pieces for chamber ensemble, Maria Lunarem, this piece will be going deep and dark. I’m using only a portion of the ensemble, selecting only the mid- and low-range instruments: cor anglais, piano, viola, cello, and double bass. More information to follow as the piece develops!

For those of you in the Newcastle / Gateshead area: I’ll be giving a one-hour lecture, a “Beginner’s Guide To Contemporary Music” at The Sage on October 8th at 19:00. This is part of their fantastic Exploring Music series. Come listen as we take a whirlwind tour of some of the most vibrant and exciting pieces of 20th (and 21st) century music! It looks like you have to book tickets; have a look here to reserve your place.

On the physical sensation of time.

I’m remembering late September/early October of 2011 when I played a speaking role for the première of my friend Hashimoto Tomohisa’s opera The Butterfly Dream at the conservatorium in Den Haag. In one of the scenes, a duet with my character’s female paramour, we had alternating sections of text which were coordinated within 16-bar musical phrases performed by the stage ensemble; e.g. I had to “get in” my sections of text during my 16 bars before the next 16-bar phrase began, when Lovorka would take over with her text. What I remember very clearly is the actual sensation of the two discrete time streams in my awareness; the steady chronometric flow of the ensemble, and the more irregular, gestural temporal flow of my text as I spoke it. After rehearsing the scene only a few times, not only was I able to frame the text within the 16-bar metric framework (“getting my stuff in” before the 16 bars were finished), I was also able to give the text its own convincing temporal flow, one which was well-suited to the meaning of the words as well as to the dramatic requirements of the scene. In addition to this, during the rehearsal process I discovered several places where I could create emotive correspondences between certain words of my text and specific time points in the ensemble accompaniment, meaning that I had to pace myself accordingly to reach these various time points at the right moment and keep the discrete temporal flow of the text intact (not to make the text feel “rushed” or “dragging”).

Again, it is my memory of the delicious sensation of these two independent-yet-interacting temporal streams (text–music) sliding by one another that is so compelling, the more so because I am convinced that as a performer on stage I am not alone in perceiving the beautiful interaction of these temporal waves; the audience experience them too, and find them just as physically engaging as the musicians. It is a sensation which is absolutely unique to musical performance.

The temporal environment described above is the essence of rubato, an environment where a regular chronometric pulse (either explicit or implicit) acts as the frame for a more gestural temporal flow. Rubato literally means “robbed” in Italian, as the word in its classical sense usually means that one voice in the musical texture is quickening and/or slackening its pace in relation to a more or less strictly chronometric accompaniment, usually for expressive purposes. To be done effectively, the musician performing the rubato passage must be aware of and effectively manage two temporal streams: his / her own, as well as that of the accompanying musician(s). I am convinced that all truly great musicians possess this skill at a high level, and are indeed able to create musical coherence across an ensemble from two, three, or possibly even more (?) discrete temporal flows.

Concert update. Immigration.

(SNODS EDGE) Here is the poster I made for the upcoming Ensemble 7Bridges debut concerts in Huddersfield and at The Sage, Gateshead. Just twelve days to go! If you’re in the northeast of England around the 18th and 19th of May, why not treat yourself to seriously good new-music juiciness? Take a gander at this:

Ensemble 7Bridges A4 (lo-res)

In other news, I learned last week that my application for a UK residence card was refused on the grounds that I hadn’t sufficiently proved that I’m eligible for this type of permit, despite the fact that I’ve already essentially *got* one in advance of our arrival here last July…sigh. It’s complicated, having wholly to do with EU treaty regulations that apply to our specific situation (having moved to the UK from another EU member state), and the fact that my wife is British, and was employed in said EU state (The Netherlands). This particular residence card (the so-called ‘EEA Family Permit’) should be a fantastic deal for me as it’s free, unlike the sort of visa for which a Yank would normally have to apply, which costs upwards of 800 pounds. So far, so simple, right? The problem is that no one at the UKBA (UK Border Agency) seems to know much about this permit (‘Oh, it’s that EU stuff; not really sure about that, mate. Sorry I can’t help you..’) and after you apply you can’t get any information about what’s happening. The most frustrating thing about the process is that they actually take your passport, effectively trapping you in the country whilst they review your application. In my case, this has taken four months with the result being a refusal, for which I now have to appeal (meaning possibly another four-month wait, during which I have no way to leave the UK). The funny thing is, to get the EEA Family Permit you have to initially apply for an entry clearance visa (a full-page sticker in your passport) from your country of origin, in my case The Netherlands, during which process they check everything that was supposedly checked during this most recent phase of the process. I got this initial entry clearance last May (2012) with no problems. So: given that I successfully obtained an entry clearance, why should there be any need for them to check those same documents *again* now, just to obtain a residence card? And how is it possible that suddenly there isn’t enough evidence that G was working in Holland, despite the fact that we included official copies of her employment contracts in the application? This all has the stink of fussy, lumbering bureaucracy, and I absolutely HATE it.