NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX

Monday 7 March 2011

For an idea of what each piece sounds like, below are mp3s of the first four minutes of each mix.

NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX, or ‘Instant Harpsichord Pocket (Packet?) Mix’, was composed in 2002, in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of John Cage’s Death. The premise of the piece is simple: a potted rendition of the musical ideas used in John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD, particularly multiplicity and microtonality, on a single CD.

The source material was John Sankey’s online archive of MIDI renditions of the 500 keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Every one of these sonatas was edited and transformed by removing the notes in each particular sonata’s tonic triad, thus erasing a clear sense of which key the sonata is played in. Before each sonata, the keyboard is retuned at random.

These retuned – or detuned, if you prefer – sonatas are played simultaneously by 14 virtual harpsichords arranged from left to right in the stereo spectrum, so that all 500 sonatas are heard in 75 minutes. With its length, excess of detail and amorphous tonality, the piece is intended to recreate, on a small scale, the immersive sonic experience of Cage and Hiller’s original multimedia extravaganza.

In 2010 I prepared two alternative versions of the piece, in which not all of the harpsichords play simultaneously. These remixes were inspired by the KNOBS program used to generate playback instructions for the original LP released of HPSCHD. In NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX1 anything from a single harpsichord to all fourteen may play at a time; in NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX2 no more than six harpsichords can play at once. The volume level of each harpsichord, when present, also varies. Decisions about which harpsichord plays when, and how loudly, were all made by chance operations.

The frequent changes in tuning throughout NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX, as well as the large mass of notes being played in any given moment, creates a cloud of overtones that constantly changes. In early 2011 I experimented with different ways of reducing the amount of finer detail from the music and enhance the presence of the underlying harmonies. Eventually I was able to achieve a version in which the more transient events had been blurred into the more persistent sounds. This mix, titled NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RDX, finds a balance between the sound and surface complexity of the source material, and the underlying harmonic drone.

More information about these pieces are now on the main website.