This Is The Old New Music: String Quartet No. 1 (π Quartet)

Wednesday 14 January 2015

I think this is might be the earliest piece I wrote which I still have lying around, but I’d never heard a satisfactory realisation of it. I’d been reading about mathematicians constructing visualisations of the decimal places of π, to better its apparent randomness. This made me think of a musical interpretation, to find out if long strings of decimal places would deviate from the mean over time or else show true randomness with no significant long-term deviation.

The final piece, of course, does no such thing.

Each instrument in the quartet obtains its material from a different string of decimal places of π. Each digit is compared to the mean of the preceding digits, with the difference expressed as a (microtonal) pitch change. Instruments exchange digit strings to obtain note durations, from 0 (grace note) to 9 beats. About halfway into the piece, rests replace notes for the most extreme deviations from the mean, and the range allowed for pitch changes reduces until by the end all deviations from the mean are expressed as silence.

The piece was conceived as a string quartet, using a scale of 36 tones to the octave; both to keep within the 2-octave range common to all four instruments and to avoid excessive ‘leaping’ from one pitch to the next. It was not expected that performers would perform the microtones accurately, but would drift away from a sense of shared tuning as they went along. Despite this, the piece would still be very difficult to play and I’ve never wanted to pester any musicians into attempting it.

I’d made a couple of MIDI realisations of the piece before, using various intonations and instrument patches to retain some of the string instruments’ properties of attack and sustain, but none of them were acceptable substitutes. Over the new year break I dug up the old MIDI files for one last shot and completely remade the piece. The tuning now has the inaccuracy lacking from the previous versions and the samples used give a rough approximation of the instruments’ sound. I figure this will be as good as it gets, so I’m offloading it to Soundcloud for at least a little while.