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.
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.)
The piano etudes are really more like percussion pieces, the player using beaters and making noises on the piano construction. … Kirstein found the piece unplayable; it was only Michael Pugliese, a virtuoso percussionist, who found the way to play these “impossible” pieces.
– James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (1996), p.199.
Last Tuesday night I left home and walked twenty minutes down the road to a cafe to hear the pianist Mark Knoop perform John Cage’s Etudes Boreales (1978) for piano. I was reminded of that story of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s percussionists or whoever taking thirty rehearsals to muddle their way through Varèse’s Ionisation (1933), whereas now it’s a staple of student percussion ensembles.
It is indeed, like all of Cage’s Etudes, a fiendishly difficult set of pieces. Having never heard this particular set of four pieces I can’t compare how well Knoop performed it compared to other musicians. It sounded fine to me, and he didn’t appear to be struggling with getting the right beater to the right part of the piano in the right time, nor was he playing particularly slowly.
Interestingly, the music in these piano parts is significantly more sparse than in the other etudes. Cage was apparently mindful of the practicalities of performing these pieces, even if they did seem impossible at first. The idea behind all the etudes was not to defeat the musician, but allow them to accomplish something never attempted before. To paraphrase Morton Feldman: now that the Etudes are so simple, there’s so much to do.
When a forgotten talent is rediscovered, it’s sobering to realise how little time it takes for the biographical details of an artist to become as elusive and conjectural as those of a Jacobean playwright.
The fate of the composer Julius Eastman, not yet twenty years dead, is an extreme but illustrative example. Mary Jane Leach has been on a quest for ten years to gather up whatever scattered fragments of his work have survived. Devoid of context, the stray odds and ends can be frustratingly hard to fit into place.
Having heard Stay On It on the Internet Archive, I searched around and found a recording of another Eastman composition called Creation. According to the program notes, the recording is from a broadcast on KPFA in 1973, it “appears to be an aleatoric piece for voice, instrumental ensemble, and some prerecorded sounds”, and was written in 1954. If this last point is true, the piece is remarkably advanced for its time, particularly as Eastman would have been 14 when he wrote it*.
The program was repeated in 1974, and again the piece is called Creation by Julius Eastman. In the list of known works by Eastman, no such piece is mentioned. It seems unlikely that a hitherto-unknown piece, regardless of when it was composed, has been hiding in plain sight on the web. Perhaps the piece was mistitled in the broadcast: Thruway and The Moon’s Silent Modulation, both from 1970, are the only two on the list whose descriptions could possibly fit the recording. The former exists in a recording ten minutes longer than this 1973 broadcast, the latter lists no surviving recording or score.
I’ll have to become a researcher myself, just to find out for certain what this piece actually is.
* The 1954 date also seems incorrect when one of the singers quotes “The Girl From Ipanema“, although this particular song may not be specifically cited in Eastman’s score.
Daniel Wolf, of Renewable Music and Winter Album fame, has compiled a new survey of present-day composers who have written music for the melodica (or multiples thereof). Composers include Jon Brenner, Stephen Chase, Kieran Daly, Paul A. Epstein, Graham Flett, Aaron Hynds, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Kondo Kohei, Nomura Makoto, and Ushijima Akiko. There may be some new additions over the next few days.
My own piece, Redundens 1m, continues the ever-growing series of Redundens pieces. A mirror of the PDF will be added to the page shortly, and maybe an mp3 of a MIDI realisation (although good melodica soundfonts are hard to find). In the meantime enjoy the collection.
Julius Eastman, Stay On It (Ne(x)tworks live in concert at The Stone)
I’ve been having a little binge on minimalist music lately, and happened to find this 2007 performance of an essential piece by Julius Eastman – a tragic, quasi-mythical figure in the New York music scene. Stay On It starts out in a jaunty, upbeat fashion typical of much repetitive music… but then it starts to fall apart. And then something else happens. And then another something else, and then… It’s a great piece of music, and a neat reminder that in 1973 some composers were already finding minimalism old hat.
For only about the second time in five years, I’m writing something out in conventional music notation for a real, live musicians. I’m trying to use a music notation program but I’m finding it a particularly frustrating experience. First of all, there’s the learning curve you get with every new piece of software, but that’s to be expected.
What’s really vexed me is how the software brings the contradiction, between what makes sense to humans and what makes sense to computers, to a crisis. I just want to write down a fairly simple succession of sounds, without any particular constant beat. It’s simple to enter this into a MIDI sequencer and have the computer play it back without a hitch, but if I convert it straight to sheet music it will look like a jumbled mess.
On the other hand, it would be simple for me to write the music out by hand, and the musician could immediately understand what was going on, but the software can’t intuitively grasp concepts and becomes hopelessly confused. 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.
This is like trying to draw parabolae with an Etch-a-Sketch.
Pace Terry Wogan, Eurovision is not always a vote-for-your-neighbour contest. A total of just 43 people in Eurovision newcomer Azerbaijan voted for neighbouring country and traditional rival Armenia. How do we know? Because officials from the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry are rounding them up:
“They wanted an explanation for why I voted for Armenia. They said it was a matter of national security,” Nasirli said. “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like, ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.”
Disappointing news. It makes one yearn for the simpler, more innocent days of yore, when Eurovision points were allocated on the decisions of government-appointed judges, without all this pesky voting messing things up.
Good news, everyone! I’ve fixed the dodgy music files in The Listening Room. It turns out that some of the pieces had been enocoded as mp3s at 48kHz instead of 44.1kHz, leading to Van Halen-like shenanigans. Everything should sound crystal-clear now.
Also, you may have noticed the little blue ‘listen’ buttons popping up on the blog. I’ve started using that Delicio.us play tagger thing which lets you listen to any mp3 on the site at the click of a mouse (or two clicks, if you have a Flash blocker installed). These have also been included on the music pages, so you can hear anything you want at the merest whim.
This way of working was a conscious attempt at “formalizing” a disorientation of memory… In this regularity, there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion; a bit like walking the streets of Berlin — where all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not.
— Morton Feldman, “Crippled Symmetry”
The set of pieces that make up Callington began with the vision of an image I couldn’t make real. For some years now I’ve been interested in using means of visual processing to make music, with limited success. In this case, I’d been imagining the music of a spectrogram, itself made up of a montage of spectrograms of different musics, laid over each other with continuously varying degrees of transparency.
Not too surprisingly, my attempts to make music from such an image have so far all been unsuccessful. The few image-to-sound converters I have worked with interpret spectrographic information (intensity of frequency over time) in ways that make an actual spectrogram sound clumsy and dull. As an alternative, I patched together a system of filters and mixers to simulate the sort of effect I imagined the spectrograms would create.
The entirety of Callington is based upon five source sounds, each of a similar nature and roughly similar length. Only four of these source elements are used in any one piece. For each subsequent piece (Callington 2A, Callington 3A, etc) one of the sources is substituted, until all five possible combinations of four sources are used. Each piece is thus designed to differ as little as possible from its neighbours.
Each subsequent iteration of the source material (Callington 1B, Callington 1C, etc) is an imitation of its predecessor, using a different technological approach to mimic the previous section as best it can (full details here). Each section is thus a failed attempt to maintain a uniform identity throughout the entire piece.
The many small differences can be said to be caused by ‘mishearings’ as the music is translated from one format to another. This consistency is carried over into all the pieces, each sharing three of its four source materials with the others. The main noticeable difference between sections is in timbre. The outer sections have complex timbres and dynamics, whereas the inner sections reduce this material to a uniform timbral simplicity.
The twenty-five sections can be played individually or juxtaposed in a variety of ways. In particular, two ways present themselves as obvious arrangements. In Callington x, each successive iteration of the same source material is played (e.g. Callington 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E). The other, Callington n, groups common treatments of the different sets of material (e.g. Callington 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A). Other permutations, of course, are possible.
The multi-movement versions can be played from these m3u playlists:
Hooray! StSanders, the genius who gave the world so many excellent shreds of the world’s finest guitar heroes, has raised the stakes in a new video that’s gonna make the people sway and rock and clap their hands to the beat. Hooray!
Because YouTube kept taking them down, the complete gallery of shreds can now be found here.