CDs and MP3s
A small edition of CDs containing short and long versions of String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was made in July 2007. The first mp3 is this short 2005 version. The second mp3 is a 23-minute long version of the revised, 2008 incarnation.
Originality and Radical Amateurism
In a discussion of his theory of radical amateurism, the composer Warren Burt describes his practice of studied incompetence as part of "the tradition of taking objects from the past and putting them through the distorting lens of our technique and producing new objects". Technology can be used as an extension of - or a poor substitute for - a creative idea, so it is significant that Burt quotes his sometime collaborator Ron Nagorcka in this context: "the very essence of electronic media is distortion."
I would go further and argue that all creativity is in fact a distortion of a pre-existing model, whether intentional or not. There are small, obvious examples of such distortion through raw incompetence (the sea-coast in Shakespeare's Bohemia) and a knowing, studied incompetence (the sword held aloft by Kafka's Statue of Liberty), as there are artworks whose large-scale form is patterned upon those of previous works (your Shakespeare or Austen updated as a high-school comedy, for instance).
Rather than try to be original, I have worked for some time with the idea that each of my works should be consciously modelled on another composer's works or techniques, and so instead of attempting an original work that unwittingly imitates an older one, I might create an imitative work which, in its divergences from the model, allows some genuine originality to emerge.
Repetition and Variation
String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was made in 2005 out of an unfulfilled wish to hear Phill Niblock's music - despite having heard about it for over ten years I'd never managed actually to hear any of it - so I created an ersatz composition based on descriptions of the original. I knew it typically involved someone playing one note for a long time, over and over again, and then overdubbing all the renditions of said note, resulting in -?- : a mysterious product of all the previously imperceptible fluctuations of intonation from one idealised pitch.
The piece started as a sample of homogenous sound fed through a (virtual) tape delay system, using small variations in filtering to produce gradually shifting overtones on a steady harmonic base. It was long, capricious, and sometimes very loud. Then its nature shifted to a prolonged, almost inaudible performance piece, requiring great concentration and self-control to make a few gestures with little immediately noticeable effect. Over several incarnations the piece became more and more restrained until it was reduced to a 6-minute composition, a fixed object for contemplation, stripped of added harmonic complexity and overwhelming volume.
This isn't one note, but it is a single chord played by 240 string quartets with a remarkably uniform sense of intonation, each playing in a very rapidly articulated canon in unison, and each able to expertly imitate the slightest change of nuance in tone colour of its predecessor. I suggest playing the mp3 at a modest volume, where you only notice the changes if you concentrate. Or if you prefer, set it on repeat, crank it up and switch the telly to a report on Third World labour for the full faux-Niblock concert experience in your own home.
Art and Showbiz
The technique of conscious copying of a work seems much rarer in music composition than in the visual arts. This may be because the limited range of compositional methods available in traditional western music has forced a self-conscious emphasis on the need for the unique, for subjective individuality. I can immediately pick from the top of my head more than one artist who works by creatively copying the work of other artists (Sherrie Levine and Imants Tillers, there's two) or by copying their own work (Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, there's another two), but I don't know any composers who work in these ways. Why have so many ideas about art over the past century bypassed music completely? I can hear the ghost of Morton Feldman muttering, "Is music an artform at all? Or is it just a type of showbiz?"
Although String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was consciously written as an imitation of Phill Niblock's music, its compositional concerns are completely different. A score for a Niblock composition, Five More String Quartets for example, carefully specifies exact frequencies to be played by the instruments, to produce definite harmonic results. My piece is not designed in this way, or with these specific musical intentions: it is composed purely to adhere as closely as possible to an incomplete understanding of Niblock's techniques, without regard for harmonic complexity (or lack of it). It exists to be a cheap imitation, reminiscent of something else yet unmistakably itself.
Live and Long
In 2007 I revisited the longer version of the piece, for a live performance at the Placard Festival in Paris. For this half-hour version, I made up another patch in AudioMulch (this being the third patch I'd made in the same program to realise the piece, using different techniques to produce variations on the same basic principle) in which some parameters are controlled by random computer-generated signals, while others are controlled by the performer, using AudioMulch's metasurface function.
As you will have gathered from the above screenshot, my metasurface interface was kept as simple as possible, designed to focus both mine and the audience's attention away from the screen and onto what performance gestures I might make.
I've written elsewhere about the aesthetic problems raised by performing live on a computer, and the live performance of String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was my first attempt to address these problems. The gestures I made were very small and infrequent, working with an interface intentionally designed to make successful performance actions very deliberate and carefully considered. My role in the piece was cast more as a listener than as a performer, so that by sitting still for half an hour, my stillness was imbued with concentration, not passivity.
While rehearsing this new version, I made a longer (36 minutes) recording of the piece, and burned a small number of CDs which pair the two recordings.
A bit about the Placard Festival experience can be found on the blog. This was the first time I'd been able to observe the effect a long version of String Quartet No.2 has on listeners, held more or less captive by their headphones. Several listeners reported some nice 60s-style hallucinatory effects which, being too close to the source material, I am unable to enjoy. Fortunately, I had access to the tone controls on the mixing desk, which I used to enhance some of the overtones generated during the piece.
My girlfriend said it was nice, but she didn't understand it. Then she went back to photographing the "cute boy" who had fallen asleep. I swear he was already asleep before I began playing.
String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta), © Ben.Harper
2005-07. Recorded in Your Dad’s Den, Hackney and Lewisham.
A Cooky La Moo production, edition number 28.