Update, September 2016: The complete set of 144 Pieces For Organ are now available in high quality audio on Bandcamp. 90 minutes of music - with cover art, sleeve notes and videos.
I’ve been thinking about generative systems a lot lately. I’ve never thought about artist’s block. That’s not an ego thing, it’s just that I hate inspiration. If I have to insert an aesthetic element into a piece then I consider it a failure. I’m thinking of that idea in mathematics of the elegant proof: that great richness of detail can be drawn from a relatively simple interaction of underlying principles. If the system’s good, there should be no need to fudge or tweak to keep things interesting.
The 144 Pieces For Organ were created from a simple impulse. I wanted to write some short, self-contained pieces (I’ve done this before, but it’s been a while). The apparently modest scope of this project allowed me to realise another idea which had been in my head for some time: of composing a piece of music entirely within a spreadsheet.
Microsoft Excel has been my most frequently used compositional tool. I’ve used it to generate tuning systems, scales of tempos and durations, distribution and density of different events. This spreadsheet work has then always had to be applied to some other, music-making medium. I wondered if it would be possible to create something entirely in Excel, which could then be read as MIDI instructions for a computer-controlled instrument.
Of course, someone has already thought of this and written a little program called midicsv, which translates MIDI files to humanly intelligible lists of numbers and vice versa. So, nothing could stop me!
Each organ piece is 12 measures long (each measure a different tempo), using 12 organ stops, each stop playing 12 notes. 144 notes in each piece. Each measure begins with a note on different organ stop, all other notes can appear at any time in the piece. Moving from one pitch to the next is done by a crude approximation of flocking behaviour (i.e. each note is more likely to stay close in pitch, and less likely to imitate any “outliers”). Within these parameters, all outcomes are determined by chance.
A brief set of instructions: the sentences are easily understood, the results produced are not easily imaginable.
144 seemed like an appropriate number to write. With some tweaking of the spreadsheet formulas, I was able to make the last 72 in half an hour: enter the piece’s number and the data generates automatically, ready to be copied, pasted and converted to MIDI. I’ve uploaded them all to Soundcloud, so you can pick and choose or click at random. Each piece is 25 to 55 seconds long so they shouldn’t try your patience.
Each piece follows the same set of simple rules. Making and listening to these pieces has raised a number of more general issues about music for me.
Music as an Object
I keep telling everyone that John Cage is the composer with the most pervasive influence on my work, and it is part of this influence which involves the necessity of ignoring or contradicting his ideas as well as accepting them. As far as I'm concerned, Cage is the orthodoxy.
I look at ways my working methods diverge from those of Cage. (This preoccupation with the past is itself an attempt at a Cagean strategy, that of transcending one's situation through accepting it – the situation here being the apparent cultural impasse in a period of decadence that has followed postmodernism.) I also look at ways I can consciously diverge from Cage in a productive way.
That whole thing about music as process, keeping it "live", avoiding fixed relationships – when I was a kid I remember reading Brian Eno talking about the same stuff. It always bugged me; it felt dogmatic. Why should music as an open-ended process be considered intrinsically preferable? It seemed like a good reason to make music which is conceived and received as an object. This is of course the natural state of recorded music, and it's a state I want to fully exploit as both a form and a medium.
144 Pieces For Organ is thoroughly Cagean in its method: chance-determined materials and structure within an arbitrary form. The form, however, was conceived as a series of unique objects, like sculptures or drawings: a complex of fixed relationships. As with static visual art, any open-ended process is left to the audience. It seems as though how they sound depends a lot upon the level of attention given. Eight seconds of silence is given at the end of each piece to enforce its self-contained identity, and to break any sense of an ongoing continuity (i.e. perceptual process) that a sequence of pieces may give.
The generative nature of the pieces is starting to remind me of Allan McCollum's Shapes Project. Although they are not permutational works, and are computer-generated, my 144 Pieces share some similar attributes. Most clearly, there is the creation of great, diverse abundance from a single determining process. There is also the possibility (explicit in McCollum's work, implicit in mine) that more works in the same series could be created by other people, given access to the process.
There's that word 'process' again. I want to keep stripping away any romantic connotations that might enhance a work of art, to see what remains; this applies equally to history, artistic biography and mythology as it does to Cage's ideas about Zen. It takes no time to make these organ pieces: I could churn out millions of them, use each one once then delete it, outsource them, make them open-source, sell or give unique pieces to anyone who asks. This would all fit very well with the new surfeit/abundance (delete as appropriate) of information in which we now live. The problem, however, would then be that I had moved the work from an object to a process, a concept.
Then I start thinking about Morton Feldman's music. Not just that he was influenced by Cage in the way most people are – find a few key ideas to embrace and reject everything else – but that he wrote music by setting up a hedge of contradictory imperatives and then negotiating a precarious path of compromises through them. ("It's a sign of maturity.") If I'm to treat my music as art – music is an art form, right? – then perhaps these organ pieces are not so much drawings as an edition of prints. More pieces could be made, but only as "duplicates" of the original work.
One night in a pub, many years ago, someone asked me why, if I was writing music for computers to play, was so much of it written for virtual piano. I said that computerised sequencers were really useful only for precise control of rhythm and intonation, not for timbral subtlety; therefore when I wrote music for MIDI files I used the piano as a familiar acoustic model which wouldn’t distract the listener with “new” or “weird” sounds. (This was after several whiskies so I probably used slightly different wording at the time but the sentiment was the same.)
Most sampled acoustic instruments sound horribly fake. Every note has the exact same sound, with none of the natural variation you can’t help but get with instruments that are bowed or blown, for example. The sameness becomes grating. How could I easily get a wide range of tone colours which would still strike the listener as a “natural” acoustic listening experience?
The pipe organ has some striking parallels to the MIDI synthesiser. Both are dead-end technical solutions to musical problems. A wide range of stops (instrument patches) are available, but with little direct control in how these sounds may be used. You press the key, the sound starts, you release the key, the sound stops. In between pressing and releasing the key, there is no change to the sound unless it has a built-in decay which cannot be varied.
The combinations of stops used in 144 Pieces For Organ could not be played on a real organ, but the sound-world is sufficiently familiar for the listener to enjoy the mixture of harmonies and timbres without feeling a need to identify a sound source.
144 Pieces For Organ: The Movie
As well as uploading the complete set of pieces to Bandcamp, I thought it would be nice to add them on Youtube. I made a visual representation for each piece; once again, these were created in Excel. A combined graph showing the distribution of the 12 notes in each of the 12 voices in time and pitch is laid over a graph of the tempo changes in each measure and the organ stops used. Any resemblance to John Cage’s late prints is purely coincidental. As of now,
four 12 24 36 all 144 videos have been uploaded.
Ben.Harper, October 2014.