Samples from each version of NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX are available below as mp3 files.
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.
NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX was premiered as part of a sound installation in Adelaide in August 2002. A small number of privately-made CD-Rs were issued.
I revisited NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX in late 2010. The original recording of the piece had tested the limits of my rather crude audio equipment of the time, and some compromises had to be made. A new recording was made, with better sound, better spatialisation and a greater range of retuning options. All this was done with much less difficulty than in the first version.
NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX1 & RMX2
It had occurred to me earlier that there should be some way to realise an equivalent of the alternate mixes suggested by the original LP release of HPSCHD, each copy of which came with a unique printout from a program called KNOBS. KNOBS produced chance-determined settings for the balance and tone controls on a stereo hi-fi system, which the listener was to adjust every five seconds. In response to this, in 2010 I prepared two alternative versions of my piece, in which not all of the harpsichords play simultaneously.
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.
NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RDX
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. I wanted to create a mix of the piece that would emphasise this harmonic aspect. In early 2011 I experimented with applying different types of filtering and reverberation to reduce the amount of finer detail from the music and enhance the presence of these harmonies.
Finding none of these satisfactory, I used the program Paulstretch; first to shrink the duration of the original mix to one-tenth of its length, before stretching it back to its original length. By repeating this process several times, 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.
NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX, RMX1, RMX2, RDX, © Ben.Harper 2002/11. Recorded in Your Dad’s Den, Stoke Newington. A Cooky La Moo production, edition numbers 11, 30, 31, 32.