A short video of Warren Burt and Catherine Schieve playing the last of Percy Grainger’s free music instruments, the Electric Eye Tone Tool:
Between 1954 and 1961, Percy Grainger and Burnett Cross worked on a machine called the Electric Eye Tone Tool. Years later, I was looking at the diagram of the Electric Eye machine in the Grainger Museum and I said, “That should be fairly easy to rebuild.” Well, it turns out it’s not fairly easy to rebuild but it was rebuildable.
The Electric Eye Tone Tool seems to be the first light-controlled synthesizer. Its oscillator circuits were transistorised (more stable than the old valve technology) and could be controlled graphically, simply by painting a score onto a transparent plastic sheet which could then be passed over the instrument’s array of photoelectric cells. Take that, UPIC.
Burt has written a brief study of the history of experimental music in Australia, reprinted at the Australian Music Centre website.
Just the other day I was complaining about writing out conventional dots-on-lines music using notation software. “It needs a regular, steady beat, and needs to know how many beats will be in each bar before it begins to fill them with notes and silences.” I haven’t used notation software for years because it didn’t seem to want to let me do anything fun.
I generally don’t write for human beings anyway, so if I’m writing out musical instructions to be understood by a machine I’d rather use sequencer programs which can give you more direct control over your data. This means I end up punching in lots of numbers by hand* or writing scripts to generate the numbers for me. Now someone’s found out by accidentally hitting the tuplet key twice in Sibelius that you can create all sorts of groovy irrational rhythms and temporal illusions by building up stacks of multiple tuplets, like so (illustrations and sound samples follow).
* or by banging my head against the computer keyboard Don Music stylee.
In case you don’t hear the music in your head when you read a score – and I sure don’t – I’ve made up a little electronic realisation of Redundens 1m for you to enjoy. It was written for melodica (and for Melodica!), but this recording uses an accordion soundfont because I couldn’t get a decent-sounding melodica soundfont for free anywhere on the internet, not even illegally. These particular accordion samples sound closer to a melodica than an accordion, anyway.
The series of works collectively titled Redundens was begun in 2001. All the pieces take Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op.11 as their starting point: only the top line in Schoenberg’s pieces is retained as an unaccompanied melody (or as a list of pitch classes if you’re more technically-minded.) Each set of pieces uses a different method of encoding this melody; by pitch, register, timbre, duration, dynamics, or other means.
Redundens 1m keeps the same register and duration for each pitch class throughout the piece, determined by the nature of their initial appearances in the original. The range of the original has been compressed to suit a solo melodica with a range of two-and-a-half octaves. Certain notes have been selected by chance to be extended to four beats’ duration, so that they may overlap with following notes.
I just remembered it’s the Grand Final this weekend in Melbourne. I was looking through some photos last night and found some more snaps from my last trip to Melbourne. On one of my last nights there I was out drinking with some friends at the Union Hotel in Fitzroy when the football came on – the only real footy I’ve seen in nearly five years.
Essendon 16.17 (113) d West Coast 13.13 (91) in case you’re wondering.
Every morning I go past Conway Hall on my way to work. A while ago I just twittered that for the last two days the front entrance has been surrounded by truckloads of pianos being wheeled inside. This morning I caught a glimpse through the front door of the corridors lined with pianos.
I’d been hoping for at least a super-duper version of Les noces, if not some sort of weird, quasi-musical ritual going down – the hall opens its doors to all sorts of meetings. Instead, according to their website they’re just hosting a piano auction this week. Google takes the fun out of everything.
When I get to gigs at all, it’s because of what is being played rather than who is playing it. I’m not a huge Stravinsky fan but I had to go hear the Proms performance of Les noces, that fantastically eccentric piece for singers, chorus, four pianos and a load of percussion. My general lack of enthusiasm for Stravinsky comes partly from disappointment that he moved on to pursue other musical ideas after writing something as awesome as Les noces. It’s a sad, stupid blind spot I have which persuades me, when I hear this piece, not to listen to any of Stravinky’s other music for fear of spoiling it.
The real highlight for me for the Proms season was the late-night concert one Friday devoted to George Crumb. Crumb’s music really needs to be heard live to appreciate it, not only for the theatrical elements of its performance, or for the spatial placement of sounds (more than once the musicians had to relocate from the stage to one of the balconies to achieve an elusive, distant quality to their sound), but for the subtlety and complexity of the sounds he specifies.
These details can’t be fully captured on recordings. Just one example: the soprano begins and ends Ancient Voices of Children with her back to the audience, singing into the resonating strings of the amplified piano. The Nash Ensemble played these pieces superbly, keeping the technical details in focus without ever losing the dramatic and emotional impact of the music. Each piece ended with a long, reflective silence from the audience before breaking into applause. That’s another thing you don’t get to experience in recordings. Again, in the Royal Albert Hall the best place to appreciate all this was standing in the arena.
(Churlish footnote: Ancient Voices of Children has a part for a boy soprano. In the programme guide was the note, “Owing to the late hour of this concert it is not possible for a boy soprano to take part in tonight’s performance; the BBC is grateful to Amy Haworth for agreeing to take on this role at short notice.” Sounds like there was a late intervention from a Health’n'Safety officer, and one disappointed youth.)
I missed the Last Night of the Proms this year, not that I watch it anyway: I simply missed that it happened on the weekend. There wasn’t even the usual hand-wringing from the usual suspects about jingoism and cultural imperialism that usually presages the event. Perhaps getting David Attenborough to perform the floor polisher solo in Malcolm Arnold’s beloved Opus 57 put the night beyond criticism.
In fact I went to more Proms than usual this year: three of them. I think I’m acquiring a taste for them. Depsite the dreadful acoustics, the Royal Albert Hall is starting to endear itself to me. Getting arena tickets helps. You have to stand for the entire gig but it’s only £5 and it’s probably the best way to hear what’s happening on the stage, what with all the seats in the hall being either side-on or far, far away.
For the Xenakis prom I scored a seat in one of the loggia boxes from a friend (thanks!), which was just as well because the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed Nomos gamma from inside the arena itself, leaving room for only a few lucky punters to mill about in the company of the scattered groups of musicians, and Mrs Xenakis, who presumably was given a chair. It was one of those rare occasions where the Albert Hall becomes a suitable venue, with the sounds of disjointed groups of instruments rising up from the centre of the arena.
The playing seemed more passionate than at the Total Immersion concert earlier this year, particularly in a suitably brazen performance of Aïs. Are the British developing a taste for Xenakis? Perhaps they’re less reticent when safely behind an instrument, and they’ve always shown a greater tolerance for new music as long as it makes a suitably large noise.
Continuing the minimalist binge (cramming myself with lots and lots of very little), I’ve been listening tonight to a new performance of Tom Johnson’s insidious An Hour For Piano by R. Andrew Lee. It’s available for download on Lee’s blog, in either mp3 or (gasp) wav format. Thoughtfully, he reprints the program notes, which are meant to be read while listening to the music. If you’re one of those people who can’t help reading the notes while listening, you may think this is a boon. Remember, I said the piece is insidious.
It’s a fine performance, never mind Lee’s perfectionist quibble that he ran twenty seconds over the one-hour time limit. He got closer than Frederic Rzewski.
(Found via aworks.)