Sun 6 Sep 2009
Yesterday I made a recording of No 46 from my Book of Musical Patterns and I thought it’d be interesting to go over my process of realizing these scores. The scores in the BoMP progress from rather regular patterns to increasingly abstract notation and yet the instructions for the scores remains constant (with the addition of rules at times, but never subtraction). The musical patterns are always a challenge for the performer in how to take very minimal information and transform that into music. A lot of leeway is given to the performer and yet the instructions are rather rigorous. So apart from the basic challenge present in all of the scores, how to apply these instructions to the more abstract scores is an additional hurdle. To illustrate the issues of interpreting the scores I shall examine two realizations: No 3, the first one I ever performed and the above No. 46, which would be the most recent. Since I’ve written about my ideas behind the BoMP on its site (mainly on this page) and also on IHM (in this thread in which I discuss the Pools of Sound in particular) I’ll jump right into the analysis here and suggest checking out those links if one is unfamiliar with these scores or my ideas behind them.
A quick note on media. I’ve included an embedded player with my realizations of the scores under discussion. It can only play mp3s but I’ve also added download links that include an Apple Lossless version (playable with iTunes). Additionally all of my BoMP recordings can be downloaded from the Downloads page on the Hollow Earth Recordings Book of Musical Patterns sub-site. The images of my performance scores were taken by a digital camera which is not ideal but my scanner seems to have shuffled off this mortal coil. They have been uploaded at full resolution to Flickr and by clicking on them you can access larger versions of them if you want to examine any aspect of them. They are all collected in my Hollow Earth Recordings Images Flickr set if you want to see them all together. The scores themselves as well as the instructions for them can downloaded here if you want them for reference.
The best way to consider approaching the more abstract scores is to first examine one of the early regular scores. Above is my performance score for No 3 along with the recording that resulted from it. This was the very first of the patterns I recorded (though obviously the 3rd one I wrote) and this performance score comes from about two years before I completed the book. You can see that I amended some of the symbols by hand, changes that were then applied to the master document. As I’ve said before the early scores in the BoMP are more akin to John Cage’s Time Bracket notation as opposed to purely abstract scores such as Treatise. Time Brackets indicate a range in which a (usually notated but not always) sound was to be performed. The BoMP does not provide such precision, instead is gives you the distance between when an event should occur.
To the left is an example of Cage’s Time Bracket Notation (Five (1988), image from Wikipedia). The topmost figure is a good example, it shows playing a note starting at the performers choice between one minute and a minute forty-five seconds and ending between a minute thirty and two fifteen. So looking at No 3 how does it compare to that? Well the distances between events can easily be translated into time and the space a symbol uses into duration. As the instructions indicate that you are supposed to set a fixed amount of time for a realization, which translates to a fixed amount of time for each row for piece like No 3, it isn’t too hard to break it down in that way. It should be noted that based on the sounds chosen there may not necessarily be a direct correlation between the size of a symbol and the duration of a musical event. There can be, but it is only a requirement where mulitple symbols differ in such a way that it is clear that one should take up more time then the other. The indeterminacy in the BoMP is twofold: one that the time for the piece is up to the performer (thus the structure itself is indeterminate) but also in the degree of accuracy to which the player works out the timing. In the example above I worked out the starting times of events precisely, but only the absolute length of the long optional events. To put this in something more like time bracket notation the first two line would read like this:
0’10” – s2
0’55” – s1
0’55” – 1’0″ – oe1
2’15” – s1
2’0″ – s2
2’05” – 2’50” – oe1
In the BoMP notation s1 is sound source 1, s2 is sound source 2 and oe1 is optional event 1. The optional events in this piece stretch over an amount of space that can be translated into time whereas the symbols for s1 and s2 are not so easily translated into time, with the caveat that s1 is clearly longer then s2. If you were playing this on a piano (say) you could pick fixed notes for the symbols and probably create a pretty standard score of it in time bracket notation. However the instructions do not force you into that degree of rigor regarding time, nor does it force you into that degree of rigor involving the sounds sources.
The choice of sounds used in these scores are vital, I spent quite a bit of time working out which ones to use for No 3 and likewise recorded a number of versions of it before I settled on what I used. The sounds that used for this were fixed sources but included those that I was able to create variations within. For s2 I used a turntable cartridge that was wired directly into the mixer that I manipulated with several different objects (tape, bubble wrap and an emory board are three I remember). For s1 I used a radio tuned to static and for oe1 I used a pure sine wave from an old test tone generator. The cartridge was the most varied in sounds while the others (especially the test tone) were fairly constant. There were several takes that I did of this piece with different sounds, or different combinations of these sounds that while accurate to my realization just weren’t compelling to me as music. Thus I learned the great lesson that for music made up of few sounds, the choice of those sounds is vital.
For quite a few of the early scores that sort of interpretation works perfectly, but the scores become increasing abstract, first abandoning the confines of rows of events and then eventually even the discrete nature of the symbols. So how to approach these more abstract scores, especially those without additional instructions? The first thing of course is to examine the score carefully, noting the elements it contains and trying to work out a basic structure. No 46 is a solid black oval, with twelve white blobby pools of varying size unevenly distributed throughout its area. The pools contain additional black elements of varying size, quantity and complexity. The first thing to decide is which of these elements are to be considered as part of the structural nature of the piece and which are the sound events.
My first approach was to lay a 9×9 grid over the circular area and considered playing in in a left to right, top to bottom approach such as I took for No 3. This approach raised a number of concerns though: there would often be parts of the discrete pools in a grid, sometimes more then one which vertically would be encountered simultaneously. This approach would make it hard for a solo realization without discarding a significant amount of the elements. It also minimized the circular nature of the dominant component of the score, something which I felt must be handled in some way. I had played this score before with my friends in the Seattle Improv Meeting (download an mp3 of it here) in which we did a sight reading of the piece. In this take I had worked my way from pool to pool following the shortest distance between them. This I felt was an adaptable approach, using the distance between the pools. For this realization I chose to follow the pools in a circular pattern, spiraling inward. I started at the bottom where the arrow and X are and went clockwise around the pools. Each of the pools I labeled from A to L so by following those alphabetically you can see the route that took through the score. The bottom shows the distance between the pools and the amount of time I assigned to those distances. Following this notion I furthermore measured the pools and assigned a duration for each of those, which is notated on the right hand side of the sheet. I fiddled with the values to get to the Forty-Five minutes that I had alloted to the piece but they are consistent.
The next bit of analysis I did pre-performance was on the content of each of the pools. These vary per pool but each of them is made up of a number of discrete elements, most of which are constructed from clusters of smaller elements (you may have to look at the larger images to see this). On the left hand side of the score you can see a rough count of the discrete elements and also a shorthand symbol for the elements basic nature. I decided that in general I’d consider these as discrete events but that since each one is made up of clusters, that they’d generally be of more complicated sounds. That is to say sounds that are themselves clusters of events, like say sliding a rock around the strings as opposed to plucking a single string.
The final structuring element now was how to treat the black and white elements. The main circle is solid black and the pools are negative space within it. The most obvious interpretation is sound for the black, silence for the white. One could of course invert that without any compunction, the difference would be sound events widely seperated in silence versus silence puncturing more continuous sound. I chose the first interpretation, though I’d kind of like to do an inverted realization of the negative space version. Of course there are a lot more options then just this binary approach, but these are the ones that I considered for this particular realization.
Finding the sounds
As I had learned from No 3 the sounds chosen for the realization were vital. In that case it was because there were few sounds across the duration, but in this case it was because there was going to be a continuous sound played for over half of its total duration. Now what this continuous sound is constructed from is of course the key, it need not even necessarily be all that continuous. It could be made up of a a wide variety of micro-events that in the whole come across as a unifying whole. Or it could be a single static sound that runs unmanipulated. Between those two poles there are of course limitless shades and there are options beyond these poles as well. What I chose to do was to work with a continuous non-linear electronic sound. That is I setup a system that was inherently non-deterministic so that it subtly varied under its own accord and perhaps had features that could be slightly permuted as it came and went, thus providing a unified sound that had details for those that chose to focus on them. I tend to think of these things more like kinetic sculptures – they are fixed in their elements but as they move, can be viewed from different angles and never appear the same, but viewed from a distance are always recognizable as a discrete entity. I setup a version of my network instrument using interconnections that were right on the edge of feedback as well as inputs from the entirety of my setup that could push it into near chaos. The way this was setup I had to manually manipulate to pots on my mixer to turn this source on or off and this in itself provided some of that variance I desired as the interaction between the two channels was rather variable depending on their relative volumes.
Having worked out the continuous sound it now fell on me to settle what would be performed in the pools. I decided pretty much right off that since the rather dominate continuous sound would be be pure electronics that I’d use only the prepared wire strung harp for the isolated events. I set this up with a few preparations and four mics (one contact mic on the strings, the internal contact mics on the soundboard and two speakers on the soundbox used as mics). I laid out a subset of objects I’d chose from to manipulate the harp with (rubber tipped mallets, nail files both cardboard and steel, a bolt, an eBow, a rock, tuning key and the bow from a bowed psaltery). However I went no further then this in preparing for the playing of these events. I’ve played the prepared wire strung harp with these tools for many years now and have a wide array of techniques and approaches that I can take. I decided that to add an additional element of uncertainty to this performance that during the static parts I’d decide how to approach each pool. I had more then enough options to approach each one uniquely which I felt was integral to the score. The wire strung harp I prepared with a minimum of preparations, ones that I knew would allow for a variety of options but also kept choices to a manageable amount. Limiting both the manipulators and the preparations I felt was appropriate considering that the score, while displaying a wide variety of disparate elements was still rather austere. With all of the elements taken into consideration and setup it now just was a matter of performing the piece. You can listen to the recording to see how it went.
The Musical Patterns in many ways can seem to resist a musical interpretation and I hope that this shows at least one way that they can be approached. It is worth noting that my approach is not necessarily as monolithic as looking at these two realizations may make it appear. I have used a number of approaches on the various recordings that I’ve made of these pieces and these represent only a subset of those (see my description of No 33 in the IHM thread for an example of a different approach). Of course with my own realizations there are other concerns that I also address: those involving accidents, choice of sounds, issues with continuous sounds, process and so on. These can lead to music that the listener may or may not necessarily find to her taste, completely apart from any issues arising from the score. Hopefully through discussion like this, notions of approach can at least elucidated perhaps inspiring those who’d like to hear these sound different to create their own realizations. For more information on the score, to download pdfs of the score or any of extant recordings see the Book of Musical Patterns site.
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