Overthinking my 20th High School Reunion

This past weekend I went to my 20th high school reunion in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina (East Surry High School, class of 1996). It was great. I loved seeing everyone. I couldn't believe how much everyone looked like they did in high school. My high school was small, and the class of '96 was only 98 or 99, I think. We all knew each other. About 30 came to the reunion. We talked about our kids, our jobs, and tried to identify the others from our class who weren't there. I had been anxious because it was my first reunion ever--I hadn't seen most of them in over 20 years--and I wasn't sure what the dynamic would be. Well, it was the same as ever. I was right back in high school, and it was especially fun to introduce my wife to all my old friends and let her see what I was like high school. It was non-stop catching up for four hours.

Then we left, and the next morning everything felt wrong. Had I said goodbye to everyone? I mean, I won't see most of them for at least five years. My memory of the previous evening began to feel more and more surreal--like a trip in a time machine, or a ghost showing me what my life was/might have been like if I hadn't left Pilot Mountain. I had just told someone before the reunion that high school was at least three lifetimes ago. Afterwards, it felt like I had been dropped into a different life, and then plucked out just as quickly. It was jarring and depressing.

After high school, I began to seek out experiences that would take me far from my hometown--both physically and culturally. I wasn't trying to get away because I didn't like it--in fact, I never connected with movies or songs about kids who just wanted to break out of their hometowns--I was just curious. I ended up living in South Korea for two years as a Mormon missionary. I got married and spent ten years in grad school in Utah and Texas. It's not an especially adventurous résumé, but compared to the religiously conservative, rural South, I got pretty far afield.

My accent changed. Through learning Korean, with its pure vowels, I lost most of my Southern diphthongs. My politics changed as I lived poor in big cities; I started to see the role of government differently. I began to prefer Asian food and TexMex as much as pintos and cornbread. Megan says--and I take it as a compliment--that most people aren't as open to adapting themselves to new things as I am. I certainly think that clinging to tradition (whether it be guns, religion, or whatever) is a spectacularly bad way to live life. Finding the best part of everything is the most efficient way to become a better person! Anyway, I've taken bits of philosophy and culture from everywhere I lived, everything I studied, and every professor and colleague I've worked with--hopefully the best parts--all without giving up any of who I am and who I've always been.

Except it didn't feel that way after my reunion. It felt like I had lived three lifetimes since high school, but everyone else was the same. Then, of course, I realized I probably hadn't changed all that much either. So is it more depressing to think you haven't changed in twenty years or that you've become a completely different person?

I've had this recurring... not really a nightmare... but a very unsettling dream ever since Isabella was born. In it, I am asked to go on a mission for my church to Korea. It's always funny to me how my subconscious has to rationalize this since we don't do second missions, and we don't go on missions when we're married. (I think there's part of my subconscious that remembers learning that in the early days of the church, men were called to leave their families to go on missions.) Anyway, in the dream, I both want to go and desperately don't want to leave. I'm not sure I ever actually get there, although the long trans-Pacific flight is always a central element. The anxiety comes from knowing I can never really go back to the same experience, partly because that place has changed, but mainly because I've changed (I think that's what my family symbolizes in the dream).

The feeling I had the morning after my reunion was eerily similar to way I feel in that dream. I was going home again, and yet knowing I can never go home again. Anyway, looking forward to seeing everyone again in five years!


Guitar thing

I've been wanting to write for guitar for a long time, but the instrument intimidates me. I won't get into the issues of performer/composers//composer/performers, but it seems fair to say that composing for the guitar is often the domain of guitarists. It makes sense when one considers the conceptual basis of the instrument as six overlapping lines of pitches. Most of our traditional western instruments, except strings and valved brass, have a single linear sequence of pitches. The piano and harp are clear examples of pitches arranged in a line from low to high. Woodwinds have sort of wrap-around sequences, but basically continue to be a single line from low to high, using a register key to double the length of the line. Orchestral strings have four overlapping lines, providing multiple options for most of the pitches. These options, of course, facilitate a variety of performance patterns (i.e. fingerings), but this multiplicity of patterns confuses my simple linear mind, and I have a tough time conceptualizing which notes can be played simultaneously and which patterns are idiomatic. The guitar is exponentially more complicated in my mind.

Anyway, I decided to avoid all of my paralyzing concerns about which harmonies and chords are possible, and compose a mostly melodic piece, using rhythm and register to create interest instead of harmony (check out Ligeti's Musica Ricercata to see a brilliant example of this sort of thing). So I'm going to just string a bunch of notes together in sequence. I'm going to make the guitar monolinear so I can understand it.

I'll write more about it as it takes shape, but it's been a long time since I composed and the shape is pretty foggy right now. The process--and the music--feels stiff, but today--the third straight day of composing--the feeling is starting to come back.

Teaser: it's 12-tone minimalist. Maybe. I'm thirty seconds in and have only used one pitch class so far (see the first movement of the Ligeti mentioned above).

Sundance 2016

Here are brief reviews on the six films I saw at Sundance, and then some general thoughts about the festival, etc. below. I'm not giving full plot synopses (I hate those, and didn't read any before I saw these films), but just some salient things that stood out to me. I'll link each title to a longer review if you want to know more.

Captain Fantastic

My initiation to my first film festival was this world premiere from writer/director Matt Ross. The 1200-seat theater was packed with VIPs, press, industry types, etc. We couldn't get tickets to this show, which quickly sold out, but I luckily got #18 on the wait list. I was one of the last ones let into the theater before the film began.

Viggo Mortensen plays a survivalist raising six children in the Pacific Northwest (the child actors were all wonderful). In a panel discussion the next day Ross called this a film about parenting, and it definitely is, but it's also partially about the absurdity and hypocrisy of contemporary American liberalism. Mortensen's character is a different kind of leftist than we're used to seeing, more academic than emotion-driven. He's well versed in Marxism and celebrates Noam Chomsky Day with his kids (one humorous scene has his teenage son explode in frustration when his dad calls him a Trotskyite instead of a Trotskyist--or was it the other way around?). He also, however, believes in self-reliance, rugged individualism, and meat-eating (the film opens with his oldest son ritualistically killing a deer, which the others skin). The children, in addition to their intense home-school regimen, participate in military-style physical training every day; they are smart and tough. All this is contrasted with the children's cousins, who are lazy, uninformed about the world (they don't know what the Bill of Rights is, for example), and play video games all the time. Their parents protect them by keeping certain information from them, while Mortensen's character answers every questions his children ask in explicit detail (at one point the youngest daughter asks what "rape" means, presenting a thorny situation, but dad doesn't flinch).

The film was my favorite of the six. It made me reflect on being a parent, being truthful with my kids, and being wholly committed to my beliefs.

Manchester By The Sea

Casey Affleck as a guy who's been through a lot, although it takes a long time to put it all together. A very close second to Captain Fantastic as my favorite film of the festival. The pacing of the narrative felt realistic without moving too slowly. This film continued giving exposition in jarring little doses almost all the way to the climax. Many instances felt like punches to the gut, especially as a parent. Very sad stuff. Beautiful composition in almost every scene, and terrific performance by Affleck.


I should have known that this film was about the real-life story of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV news reporter who shot herself during a live broadcast, but I didn't. So my experience was not ideal; I thought the film was rambling, rambling, rambling, BOOM. Did not see that coming. I think the filmmakers intended to take viewers on a journey to a destination we all know was coming (except I didn't), and so there was little effort to shape the narrative. Instead, the focus is on Christine's character in the months preceding the incident. Rebecca Hall was terrific as Christine.

Swiss Army Man

A man (Paul Dano) is trapped on a deserted island, about to hang himself when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore and helps Dano in various ways, both physically and emotionally (as the title suggests). So far, all the buzz has been on the bookend extended fart jokes (co-director Daniel Kwan said, "We wanted to start with a fart that makes you laugh, and end with a fart that makes you cry."). In fact a bunch of people stormed out of the premiere after several minutes of a farting corpse. But that impolite bodily function (not to mention extended discussions of masturbation and pooping) stands for lots of things that we humans do but don't want to be caught doing. Much of the movie explores these things that, if made public, would get us labeled as "weird", even though they're common to every human. Ultimately, I thought it was a lovely look at the parts of being human we don't talk about--if you can get past what the Variety review linked above calls "surface scatology."

A note on the soundtrack. There was constant crossing between mimetic and diagetic sounds. Often the on-screen characters would speak or sing, and that would be looped and transformed into music accompanying the scene. For me, this reinforced the likelihood that on-screen events were probably happening in Dano's mind.

Green Room

I exchanged my ticket to Birth of a Nation because I couldn't see both that and Green Room. Since I didn't read any synopses, I had no idea Birth of a Nation would generate so much buzz and sell for over $17 million the next day. I also had no idea how violent and gory Green Room would be. I'm not the kind of guy who needs to see ligaments and intestines to enjoy a film. Oh well. This is the story of a punk band that ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time: a secluded skinhead bar in the Pacific northwest witnessing a recently murdered body. The owner of the establishment, played by a chilling Patrick Stewart, locks the band in the green room while they plot a way out of a mess that won't stop escalating. I'll leave it at that. (Oh, one more thing--SPOILER--Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development's Maebe Fünke) gets eaten by a dog.)

One thing I liked very much was how the characters behaved exactly as you might expect a real person to. Reactions aren't over-acted, no long monologs or stand-offs--just a lot of quick decision-making, trying to get out of there alive.

Yoga Hosers

Kevin Smith spoke for at least half an hour both before and after this screening of his new film. He called it a "kid's film" (promising a PG-13 rating), and acknowledged the similarities with Clerks (when he told his wife he was going to make a movie about two teenage girls who work in a convenience store, she said, "You can't do that--you've already done that."). Smith talked about how his daughter Harley Quinn and her real-life best friend Lily-Rose Depp had played apathetic teenagers in his previous film Tusk so effortlessly, that he wanted to make a whole film based on them. Depp's father Johnny also reprises his role from Tusk, Guy Lapointe.

The girls (both named Colleen) are in a band, practice yoga, sell artisanal maple syrup at a convenience store in Winnipeg (plenty of dumb Canada jokes; for example, all the "ou" sounds are changed to "oo"--like oot for out, aboot for about, etc.), and... well, look. I don't want to get into the plot. I don't think it's Smith's best movie or anything, but as a parent of a (nearly) teenage daughter, I found it compelling and accurate. It also gets weird, and I love when weirdness surprises me, so I'll just leave it at that. #brazis

Final thoughts

I was excited just to be there. There was a positive energy in the crowds on Main Street, in the shuttles, and in the waitlist lines that I rarely see in large crowds. It wasn't the anticipation of seeing a celebrity--as I had expected--but the shared experience of doing something we all loved. As a musician who's been to countless concerts, I was surprised to find these film screenings felt very much like concerts. At the end of each film there was applause for real people who were in the same room. And then they stood up and talked and answered questions.

My two favorite moments happened on Sunday afternoon. After attending a panel discussion with the cast and director of Captain Fantastic, I got to talk with Matt Ross for a couple of minutes about the film. It turns out we both have Noam Chomsky posters in our offices (different ones). After that I went to lunch where I ran into Trin Miller, who played Mortensen's wife, and several of the children from the film. I told them how much I enjoyed the film, and they, in turn, complimented my hair (several of them, including Miller, have red hair). And while Charlie Shotwell, who plays the youngest son, didn't actually play the harmonica in the movie (as portrayed), he is a budding composer (his mom said he had just started using MuseScore). These interactions grew organically out of the energy of the place.

I loved the mountains, the snow, the people I went with, and the people I met. I loved thinking about new forms (the jarring flashbacks in Manchester, the sudden climactic ending of Christine, the imagination of Swiss Army Man), and how they can work in music.

The fixed media component

I was almost done with the fixed media component a few hours ago. I thought that it just needed something small but textural. One of the pianos in my office is currently tuned to Ben Johnston's scale from his Suite for Microtonal Piano, and I had sketched two little four-dyad motives a while back (this can be seen below in the Soundcloud link, though partially obscured). I thought I'd record myself playing those and work them into the texture somehow.

To see what this would sound like with the rest of the mix, I added two tracks to my Logic session and looped each file. I had recorded the second line twice, so I added a third track and looped both recordings of the second line, which were not synchronized. I put a little flanger and compression on them and found that this texture held my interest for five for six minutes. Probably self-indulgent, but I hate to use something that I like for a shorter time or a less central role than the material deserves. So now the dilemma is this. Does this piano bit complement what I already have? Or does it overwhelm what I'm trying to do? Tonally it works with the other audio (all of which are bird songs). Let me think about it.

The beginning

The beginning comes from the last few notes of the flute solo at the end of the piece. It is played on the vibraphone. The flute enters at about 1:08 (3rd system in this picture). I'm not sure yet how the piece will begin when it is a flute solo, but probably a shortened arrangement of this vibraphone material (probably will take advantage of the 9th multiphonic--with flutter tonguing on the long notes).

As with the previous post, this is only a sketch.


After a few months of moving, starting a new job, and conducting a major musical production, I finally started a new project this week. I'm composing a new work for flute, electronics, and optional percussion called Aubade. Flutist and poet Wayla Chambo invited me to compose this for her as part of her TranScript project that has composers writing new works based on her poetry. Here's my initial sketch.


This past Wednesday I went into the Memorial Chapel at Sweet Briar College--where the piece will be premiered next spring--and recorded video of me whistling while moving around the space. Today I transcribed a lot of the improvised whistling and tweaked it a little. It will be the final section in which the flute plays alone. She will traverse the space during the piece, ending atop the raised pulpit, where she will play this final section.

Kristen Schaal is still a horse

One of my teachers in graduate school used to say the difference in repetition and reiteration is that repetition diminishes meaning while reiteration increases meaning.

The repetition in musical Minimalism (think Reich's Come Out or Glass's Einstein on the Beach) is my go-to example for evaluating meaning, or the change in meaning, in repetition. In my own experience, my perception changes gradually over time even when listening to this kind of music. First, I sense the repetition on a local level ("Oh, this isn't going to change, huh?"). Second, I become annoyed and impatient (this happens less now than it used to). Third, I give in and slip into a different mode of perception (some people think of this as a trance; it comes with practice)--a mode that allows me to connects dots that are farther apart, so to speak. The big picture comes into focus and time becomes less important--like I'm looking at a picture, with the freedom to direct my intentionality around a space rather than being locked in the moment, as in traditional goal-oriented music.

I heard a Radiolab episode recently called Loops that dealt with a couple of things that reminded me of musical Minimalism and raised a couple questions about the meaning of repetition. One of the vignettes deals with the composer William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, a series of recordings of old, decayed analog tape loops repeating until they literally disintegrate. This certainly follows one common model of Minimalism: A gradually transforms into B. In addition to the listener's perception changing over time, the music changes literally, though almost imperceptibly.

Kristen Schaal Is a Horse, which is dealt with the episode's first vignetter, on the other hand doesn't change. It is literally AAAAAA.... It's a comedy (or anti-comedy) bit she does with Kurt Braunohler (there's a video below, check it out). But unlike the musical Minimalists, Schaal and Braunohler don't change gradually (except as a result of the physical demands of the performance--hoarse voice (no pun), for example). They seem to undermine even the assumption that something must change, progress, evolve, etc. In the world of comedy this is an extreme version of jokes that run absurdly long on purpose (the giant chicken on Family Guy, for example). My perception of these too-long jokes is analogous to my perception of musical Minimalism (i.e. become aware of the repetition, become frustrated that it's going on too long, then give in), except in this case giving in means to laugh. The transparent, literal repetition in the Schaal/Braunohler gives us a good way to control for the change in perception that occurs (if any). My perception does change; in fact it does all the work. At the end* Kristin Schaal may still be a horse, but the viewer has just experienced a surprisingly rich perceptual journey precisely because nothing happened.

*I understand they have done this bit for up to 10 minutes or more in some performances (or maybe it just felt that way to some people--I haven't seen a longer video).

Walking Dead, season 1

I just finished Walking Dead, season 1. I know--I'm behind. And while I'm probably the last one who cares to finally get around to watching it, there will be spoilers in this post.

I can't figure this show out. The dialog is cheesy, but earnest. The acting, especially the physical acting and fighting, is not even close (how many times will Rick block Daryl's attempt to murder someone with the swim move football players use to avoid being blocked?). I can't tell if it's plot driven or character driven. I think it's just script driven (i.e. x happened because it was in the script). For example, why did they park so far from the CDC? So that when it blew up in the next episode their vehicles wouldn't melt, obviously.

Bottom line? Zombies, I guess. Based on the show's popularity among friends whose opinions in these matters I respect, I was expecting something more well-crafted (i.e. Lost*, Breaking Bad). Oh well, maybe the future seasons will surprise me.

*I did like the shout out to Lost (if this was intentional) in how they find a single person in a hatch, who has been there alone for some time, and who only lasts about an episode.

Everything and Nothing

Jerry Seinfeld did an AMA on Reddit awhile back. Eventually someone asked him about the "show about nothing."

How did Seinfeld come to be? What obstacles did you face when pitching your idea of a show about "nothing"? Who supported you and who didn't?

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that.

The opposite of that? So it's a show about something? Everything? Anything? Being? Of course it is. It's a show about the minutiae of daily life--those tiny things that we are so familiar with that we presume we don't need to talk about them. But Seinfeld did talk about those things: the close talker, man hands, the insecurities and neuroses that we all struggle with (double dipping, etc.). Seinfeld was a show about being.

Anyway it got me thinking about the void and nothingness, and I couldn't help remembering the "silent piece" that John Cage wrote, 4'33". Cage uses silence to point our intentionality toward the mundane sounds that surround us all the time. This is like the Sufi idea that the void points us to God. By not saying his name, or painting his picture, we are more aware of his presence. That's a powerful idea. The absence of something forces us to take notice of that thing. A shadow is the absence of light, for example, and a shadow is an immediate sign pointing to the thing that casts the shadow. When Beethoven delays the recapitulation of a symphony movement, the immediate result is the listener thinking about the recapitulation. Nothing always signals something.

Seventh Seal text

I'm working on a song now for mezzo soprano, piano, and interactive computer music. The initial inspiration--which often has little to do with the final product--is the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal. The text is taken from Revelation 8:1-2.

And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

I decided, however, to use Greek text for a couple of reasons. I prefer the original text whenever possible. Of course this often limits the intelligibility for the audience, but in this case that's a good thing. The book of Revelation is highly charged and interpreted in a variety of ways, and I don't want that overshadowing the other themes at work here. The non-English text also mirrors, for me, the Swedish text of the film, which sounds like carefully designed sound art punctuating long silences. Here is the Greek text:

Και οταν ηνοιξεν την σφραγιδα την εβδομην, εγενετο σιγη εν τω ουρανω ως ημiωριον

Και ειδον τους επτα αγγελους οι ενωπιον του θεοu εστηκασιν, και εδοθησαν αυτοις επτα σαλπιγγες.


And here's the film if you're interested.

Noise and meaning

In my mind sound mass music and noise music are similar. I'm not sure if that simply goes without saying or if scholars have already teased them apart in some way, but in both cases there is a kind of semiotic disruption; what we thought we knew about musical meaning (I mean we in the most general sense) is distorted to the point that it doesn't make sense as music. I'm not arguing that it isn't music, but Ligeti's Atmosphères doesn't make sense in the same way as a Schubert song. I'm also not arguing that music carries intrinsic meaning, and I accept that musical meaning is, or could be, the result of cultural conditioning. So, maybe one day someone will hear the Ligeti the way we here the Schubert. I think that will be the case, anyway.


I like music with some noise. I think I like it because the meaning is ambiguous; I have greater freedom to interpret it. I also like composing with noise partly because it removes the burden of dealing with universally understood meaning. A film score composer, for example, must be able to convey fairly specific senses or moods with music. I don't have to worry about it in a more abstract setting (i.e. the concert hall) because the listener has more freedom to interpret. I don't think that means noise music, or noise-in-music, is a cop out for the composer. Anyway, it makes sense for me given my formative musical experiences with rock music, with its distorted guitars, scream-singing, and drums. It's a legitimate musical impulse, and can be treated with skill in the same way Schubert, for example, treated melodies and harmonies.


I tend to think of sound mass music in two big styles: Penderecki's static blocks of microtonal clusters and Ligeti's (and Xenakis's) hyper-active surface counterpoint. I recognize there are more than two ways to skin a triad, but when I compose I think in terms of these two polarities. It occurred to me today, however, that I am beginning to develop my own approach. Basically, I layer semiotic music so densely that it can't be heard as semiotic. When I say semiotic I mean music that conveys some universally understood characteristic. (Is that vague enough?) For example if a person hears "I Wonder as I Wander" he or she will have some perceptual response based on previous experiences. Even if the person doesn't know the song, or lives in a non-Western musical culture, it will at least make sense as a melody. If a person hears Schubert's Der Wanderer, there will be a similar response.


In my piece The Wanderer for wind ensemble, I used both of these melodies to create a sound mass near the end of the piece. I layered "I Wonder as I Wander" five or six times in close imitation and transpositions. On top of that (and a lot of other stuff) I added motives from the Schubert. The result was music so dense that it prevented the perception of melodic and harmonic sense. This may not be noise in the strictly acoustic domain, but it is very much noise in the semiotic domain. (For me, it's really a combination of the two.) I think it's important for me to embed more comprehensible music in my noise music (or sound masses), even if they won't be heard as such, because that's what the modern world seems like to me. The metaphorical noise that we deal with on a daily basis (i.e. stress or anxiety) is not abstract or meaningless. Every fragment, every insignificant component part of the stress of modernity is a perfectly comprehensible thing. It is the sheer density of these component parts that makes it incomprehensible.


This is the backdrop against which I need to think about this dissertation. No one will describe this piece with the word "clarity." I've really been struggling as I write the piece and it becomes more and more real because I've been grasping, unsuccessfully, at clarity in the traditional semiotic sense (i.e. "Will this be perceived/easily understood as music?"). However, I don't want to let that struggle for clarity undermine the noise element.

Shepard tones

I've been struggling for a couple of weeks to decide how to end of this piece. I finally took a "just compose" course and started writing out notes. Soon I realized I was doing something like Shepard tones, so I thought, "Maybe I'll do this for awhile and then end it." Then I went through everything I had written up to this point and timed it. The passage shown below corresponds approximately to the jagged, angular section in the sopranos, beginning around 13:30. It ends about 15:30, but is just beginning to pick up some momentum at that point (haven't filled in everything yet in this picture). I began to realize that this could be the way I build to the end. It's a simple way to gradually layer repeated figures to thicken the texture. The timing is almost perfect. But the best thing about the Shepard tone* is its representation of circularity. Considering the selection of the text with its circular form, and that it will become intelligible as language during this passage, I think this is a bit of serendipity to have happened on the Shepherd tone.


*) Of course this isn't a real Shepard tone, but it is a stylized approximation similar to the one found in Ligeti's etude "The Devil's Staircase."

Counterpoint and The Void

"...[A] void exists between musical acoustics and music properly speaking, that it is necessary to fill this void with a science describing sounds, joined to an art of hearing them, and that this hybrid discipline clearly grounds our musical efforts." 
-Pierre Schaeffer

Phenomenology seeks to be this hybrid discipline to fill the void between objectivity (musical acoustics, for example) and subjectivity (music properly speaking). A good musical example of this notion is the difference between frequency and pitch. Frequency is the number of sound waves in a given time; pitch is the way we perceive the frequency. 440 hertz is a frequency; A is the the pitch. Schaeffer's void is the almost ungraspable space between the objective known and the perceived.

It's the space-between that reminds me of counterpoint. Maybe counterpoint is a reflection of the Void, or negative space more generally, and it's the ungraspability of counterpoint that makes it so interesting. Some would argue that it's completely graspable. Indeed, it can be described in great detail. Schenkarian graphs are one example of this description. Species counterpoint captures the essence of a style in order to teach students to emulate that style. But, those examples are akin to the "musical acoustics" of Schaeffer's quotation above. What is less clear is the listener's perception of counterpoint. It's nebulous.


Dramatic Counterpoint, Part 1

"Dramatic Counterpoint" is a term used by Paul Lawley in discussing the texture of Beckett's Play.

Play is a play with three characters delivering overlapping monologues on the same story. Not really overlapping--maybe interwoven monologues. Anyway, they don't converse with one another, they just take turns telling bits of their individual perspectives. If one were to parse out the three monologues, three cohesive narratives would emerge, but it's this counterpoint between the three that make it interesting. You can't look at three sides of a statue at the same time, but with Play you get close to simultaneous differing viewpoints--a kind of theatrical cubism. (Another time I might be inclined to think more about the difference in simultaneity versus juxtaposed--maybe they're analogs with harmony and melody. Counterpoint being the space between, of course.)

Anyway, here's an excerpt from a film version of Play from YouTube:

Introductions, part 2: Other Fibonacci applications and accent canons

In the previous post I mentioned that the form of the introduction was based on two Fibonacci series: one a series of thirteen gestures with durations of (in terms of sixteenth notes) 377, 233, 144, 89, ... 2, 1, and the other a series of twelve gestures with durations of 1, 1, 2, 3, ... 144. The first series ends with only one one-sixteenth-note gesture, and what would be the thirteenth gesture of the second series (233) gradually morphs into a new formal section.

I used the Fibonacci series in a few other ways in the piano/percussion/electric guitar texture. As I've described in the previous post, each of the thirteen gestures in this passage is a descent to the bottom of the keyboard. As the gestures get shorter it seemed unreasonable to cover the same interval of 21 semitones from C3 to E-flat1 in each gesture, so I decided to begin gradually lower each time. Here's a table that shows the initial central pitch of each of the thirteen gestures.

Except for the first and last gestures, there is a change in transposition level every two gestures. These changes follow the Fibonacci series (technically, the negafibonacci series). I chose to use the Fibonacci series here because it gives a nice curve to the entire section that mirrors somewhat the descending curve found in each gesture. I did compose the piano's final A0 of this passage outside of the system detailed in the previous post in order to make sure the goal of the lowest possible note was achieved.

I honestly can't remember if this was intentional (it has been a few days), but I find it interesting that the total number of gestures in this passage, 13, is a Fibonacci number, as is the number of semitones between C3 and E-flat1, 21. Not sure if it means anything...

Finally, I used Fibonacci numbers in a way that undermines the recursive nature of the series. I created a row of 81 (unless I miscounted..) Fibonacci numbers based on various simple additive patterns. I used this row to determine where to place accents in the piano, percussion, and electric guitar parts. I broke up the series using additive patterns in order to ensure asymmetry.

The row:

13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, 5, 3, 2, 1, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 2, 5, 3, 2, 8, 5, 3, 2, 13, 8, 5, 3, 2, 3, 5, 3, 8, 5, 3, 13, 8, 5, 3, 5, 8, 5, 13, 8, 5, 8, 13, 8, 13

Here is the row broken up in sections to show the various patterns.

Each part follows this row, either forward or backward depending on the part, and when it gets to the end it changes direction and traverses it again in the opposite direction. The piano begins at the beginning, the marimba at the end (retrograde), the xylophone begins on the "2" (12th line, lone 2) and moves forward, and the guitar begins on the "1" just before (end of the 11th line) and moves in retrograde. These numbers are time points on a grid of sixteenth notes. Accents fall on the first note, then again after sixteenth notes according to the row. In the end this is just a quick and effective way to ensure some variety and generate patterns in the monotonous sixteenth-note grid. I realize there is some goal-oriented motion embedded here, but this is a canon, of sorts, played by four different instruments (playing in unison or octaves, remember). The interplay among the accents on these instruments will create brief, passing motives, not the sense of direction toward a goal.

Introductions, part 1

Well, there's just one introduction. It's the most unified section of the piece. It will actually have a standard score with a time signature, bar lines, and synchronized parts. I knew the kind of texture I wanted; it came out of an improvisation with Impulse back before the holidays. The primary gesture is based on the physicality of playing the piano in the low register, thumbs together, alternating hands playing "random" notes within a generally fixed range in a fast, regular pattern. The pitches aren't important except in that they should not overly emphasize any particular pitch. Of course, as we know from the history of serial music, it requires some kind of non-intuitive system to make an even distribution of pitches sound just right. In my improvisation a couple months ago I felt like I was getting the right texture intuitively, but when it comes to making decisions about pitches to go down on paper I felt I needed to go to the computer to generate a texture closer to my improvisation. Besides, while my improvisation


 right, without a recording I can't be objective enough about it (not to mention I can't transcribe what I played). Intuition is a dangerous place to spend too much time :)

I went to Max because it's very flexible. I built a very rudimentary patch that outputs MIDI information directly to Sibelius. Here's a picture:

The toggle in the upper left turns on the patch. The metro object bangs the toggle below resulting in alternating 0s and 1s. The 0s go to the "left hand" side of the patch, which generates the left hand notes, and the 1s go to the "right hand" side. Both sides are essentially parallel, generating numbers between 48 (the MIDI number for C3) and 48+6 (or 54, F-sharp3). The left hand side is then lowered 7 semitones, producing the range of F2 to B2. The result is alternating left hand and right hand notes, each hand covering the range of a tritone, which fits very comfortably under the hand.

Once I decided the length of the gestures, I added the objects on the right side of the patch to add a curve to the gesture (more on the length of the gestures below). The center pitch above is MIDI note 48 (C3), or 21 semitones above E-flat1, a tritone above the lowest note on the keyboard (i.e. as low as possible without the left hand running off the keyboard). During my original improvisation I moved gradually to the bottom of the keyboard, and I wanted to recreate that gesture here. I tried to descend by semitone every measure for 21 measures, but found the descent was too regular for my liking. By connecting the


object to the transposition factor (see figure above), I could control the rate of descent. I simply drew the curve that I wanted with my mouse (of course, I had to set the parameter of the


first--in the example above I knew I needed 377 notes, so the x-axis was set to 377). The transposition factor adjusts the center pitch, which is 48 by default, thereby lowering all the pitches proportionally. When the curve reaches the bottom of the


, the transposition is 21 semitones down, for the bottom of the keyboard.

The form of the introduction

The introduction is around 2:20 in length, but it gradually dissipates into the main body of the piece making the ending of this section ambiguous. It represents no more than 10% of the entire work, and probably a little less. I first thought of it as a stand-alone, unrelated section, but now I think of it as crucial to the development of the three component pieces: In the beginning the three are integrated into one gesture, but during the course of this introduction, they begin to foreshadow their distinctive behaviors and come apart from one another. If the idea for the entire work is three separate pieces, the introduction tells the story of how they became separate.

The first 30 seconds or so is an extended reproduction of the improvisatory piano gesture I described above. Percussion and the electric guitar join in unison or octaves, dynamically coloring the piano's timbre. This is notated by 377 sixteenth notes. After one sixteenth rest, the same gesture is played again, but shorter this time--233 sixteenth notes. Then another sixteenth rest precedes a third gesture taking 144 sixteenth notes. There are twelve gestures like this, each getting shorter according to the Fibonacci series down to a one-sixteenth-note gesture. The rests between each gesture (#thevoid) get progressive longer according to the same series.

These rests between each piano/percussion/guitar gesture are filled in by harmonic series chords in the winds, strings, and sopranos. Conceptually, I just wanted static surface texture to contrast with the active sixteenth-note surface. However, as the piano's active texture is colored by the percussion and electric guitar, the static-texture interruption is also elaborated somewhat. The primary static material is found initially in the bassoon and clarinet (though these may change later in the introduction--it's not finished yet). The first static gesture is only one sixteenth note, so in order to avoid it blending too much into the piano/percussion/guitar texture, I orchestrated the event with some higher-frequency resonance. This resonance is found in the flute and string harmonics, and it is sustained somewhat longer than the single sixteenth note played by the bassoon and clarinet. The singers, too, project this idea of resonance with even longer (approximately two measures) passages of unisons and close-voiced harmonies that slowly change.

As the static gestures get longer they come to dominate the surface of the music. From a position of practicality the resonances must either get shorter (because the time between gestures is getting shorter) or begin to wash over the beginning of the next gesture. I will play with this, probably alternating between abrupt changes with no resonance and resonances that become asynchronous with the static event rhythm (think of waves crashing irregularly on a beach). The nature of the soprano parts as harmonically dynamic resonances will begin to change to more static material that will eventually lose prominence to the strings and winds, which will gradually become more active. The sopranos' movement toward stasis will foreshadow the beginning of sopranos' large-scale gesture, which begins quite statically. The winds/strings' growing prominence will signal, by the end of the introduction, the beginning of isorhythmic texture that will dominate those instruments' large-scale gesture. The piano/percussion/guitar part, with its curves in pitch space, foreshadows the tempo curves that will dominate the behavior of those instruments later.

Dissertation Proposal


The original composition will be a single-movement work for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, electric guitar, piano, two percussionists, and three sopranos. Though it will be a single movement, I think of it conceptually as three overlapping movements, each being independent and distinct. In other words, I will be thinking carefully about experimental approaches to and interpretations of form, not as a simple delineation of linear time, but as counterpoint between contrasting musics.

The impetus for this approach will be discussed in detail in the critical essay. I think of this project as another step in a rich tradition of music, visual art, and prose that explores such concepts as circularity, deferred resolution, stasis, and the void as metaphorical constructs. The critical essay will elaborate on this tradition and make connections between various composers, artists, and writers with my own work.

Overview of the original composition

The original composition for mixed chamber ensemble will focus on formal counterpoint. By formal counterpoint I mean relationships and interactions between temporally discrete sections of music that will be cut, superimposed, merged, and permuted in a variety of ways. Each of three formal sections ("sections" is used loosely since they will overlap with each other temporally) will focus on a single, distinct systematic approach to composition and, to various degrees, on groupings of instruments. The first section will be primarily played by the flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, and electric guitar. The second section will be primarily played by the piano and two percussionists. The third section will be primarily performed by three sopranos. I have chosen these grouping to achieve a relatively homogenous tone color in each section (although there is obviously variety in the degrees of homogeneity in tone color—the singers being more so, for example, than the winds and strings). Sometimes various instruments may leave their group to join another group or to perform in a secondary section.

Section I (flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, electric guitar) will focus on isorhythm. I will base all of the parts in this group on four taleae and four colores. There will also likely be taleae based on patterns of accents and dynamics. The taleae will also be permuted by various processes and may migrate among the five instruments.

Section II (piano, percussion) will focus on tempo curves. These tempo curves will be transcribed from click-tracks generated by a computer. The content of these instruments' parts will be single notes or short non-pitched gestures that accelerate or decelerate according to the tempo curves. Not all of the curves will be heard all the time, but they will fade in and out. Other instruments outside this group will be included as the gestures become more pitched. A single audio file will be created to be played along with this group to bolster the texture and to ensure precision with very small tempo variations.

Section III (singers) will be more focused on teleological motion from speech phonemes devoid of linguistic meaning toward clearly discernable, meaningful language. This motion will be imperceptibly slow and follow a complex system with multiple layers of change happening constantly. The text will finally be heard at the end of the composition as the song sung by Vladimir at the beginning of Act 2 of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. This song summarizes the themes of circularity, stasis, and deferred hope that pervade the play—a verbal analogy for the kind of music explored in this dissertation:

A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a crust of bread.
Then cook up with a ladle
And beat him till he was dead.

Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb
And wrote upon the tombstone
For the eyes of dogs to come:

(repeat) A dog came in the kitchen, etc.

The overarching compositional idea governing all these sections is the notion that counterpoint happens on larger levels than traditionally understood by composers. This is merely an extension of the conceptual evolution of counterpoint during the past 100 years. Each of the sections described above will have an independent form that could serve a stand-alone piece of music. The setting of these multiple pieces against one another in counterpoint, however, conveys a different level of meaning to each section.

Overview of the critical essay

I have always thought of composition as being, at its heart, a balancing act between various simultaneously occurring materials. This original composition will be an exaggerated expression of that idea. The critical essay will trace the process of composing this work and analyze the final product, but will also examine the musical and extra-musical influences and precedents for the work. Among the formal and compositional themes influencing the original composition are notions of the Void, stasis, patterns, and non-linearity. Among the many influences for this piece I will focus on a few especially relevant ones: isorhythms and serial procedures in Morton Feldman's Why Patterns?; patterns in Jasper Johns's crosshatch works like Usuyuki; formal counterpoint in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot; and The Void as perceived through a Sufist reading of the late works of Shakir Hassan Al Said.

Below is a proposed outline for the critical essay as well as a list of proposed resources.

Outline of the critical essay

Chapter I. Introduction

Chapter II. Patterns and Systems
    A. Historical precedents
        a. Serialism
        b. Minimalism
        c. Process music
    B. Patterns
        a. Analysis of Why Patterns and Usuyuki
        b. Analysis of the original composition, Section I (isorhythm)
    C. Algorithmic composition
        a. Analysis of the original composition, Section II (tempo curves)

Chapter III. The Void
    A. Notions of the Void
    B. Musical applications of the Void
        a. Negative space (Beethoven)
        b. Evocations of memory (Schubert)
        c. Inversion and other permutations (Webern)
        d. Defamiliarization and recontextualization (Wagner and Lachenmann)
    C. Semiotic networks
        a. How a thing might be emphasized or pointed to by its absence
        b. Sufist reading of Shakir Hassan Al Said's work
        c. Analysis of the original composition, Section III as a process that illuminates emerging signification

Chapter IV. Formal counterpoint
    A. Brief tracing of thought about conterpoint from Bach to Penderecki
    B. Juxtaposition and simultaneity
        a. The problem of non-linearity with respect to music as a temporal art
        b. Formal counterpoint in Beckett
    C. Counterpoint and memory
    D. Analysis of form in the original composition

Chapter V. Conclusion

On counterpoint

I'm almost finished with my dissertation proposal, and it seems fitting that certain themes are rising to the surface without any digging around for them. The concept that pervades the whole concept of this piece is counterpoint, specifically, what I am calling formal counterpoint. I'll post my proposal in a day or two, but this morning as I was working I suddenly had some clarity regarding counterpoint that I thought I should jot down.

Counterpoint is simply a re-contextualizing of material. It's not the same as permutation of material--although that is often crucial to counterpoint--it's taking the material from one situation and putting it into another. Bach placed fugue themes in different voices and different keys and even on different scale degrees within keys so that they would have different tonal functions.

Throughout my musical life I've been fascinated by counterpoint. I took lessons in 16th century and 18th century counterpoint from a mentor as an undergrad. I never felt like I really got it, but it is a pretty dated set of rules (I mean I don't feel like I've internalized the way contemporary composers would have). Since then I've come to realize that it's not the rules of any specific model of counterpoint, but it's the abstract notion of music set against music in some kind of conceptual space. I figured that out in David Sargent's seminar on 20th century counterpoint where we studied, among others, dynamics counterpoint in Ruth Crawford Seeger's string quartet and textural counterpoint in Penderecki's Threnody.

I recently heard a lecture by the composer William Kleinsasser who took the abstraction a bit farther. He talked about pieces being in counterpoint with the memory of other pieces. For him it was kind of a mode of influence. In other words, when he composes he sees the current project as having a contrapuntal relationship with earlier pieces that he has written.

When I heard Kleinsasser's lecture I felt like he hit on something I had been thinking alot about lately--counterpoint between pieces (or between formal sections--formal counterpoint). Except in my concept, the pieces are literally existing and being heard simultaneously. In a sense it's like hearing a fugue answer and countersubject played simultaneously. Both are fully formed, legitimate melodies, but it's in the counterpoint between them that the real musical interest lies. If the melodies move to other places (keys, registers, tonal function, etc.), that is if the composer re-contextualizes the melodies, then the space between also changes. In other words counterpoint focuses on the space between and through various contrapuntal techniques, the composer can manipulate that space.

A couple of tangential ideas:

By placing the "real musical interest" in the space between the two melodies, it also point to a breakdown in the subject-object binary, something I'm also very interested in.

I will need to look at Lachenmann again now. He has been my primary example of re-contextualizing, though I haven't considered his music in terms of counterpoint. If counterpoint is simply a re-contextualizing of music, then his music is likely in counterpoint with something, albeit possibly an unheard something--memory? tradition?

©2017 Joshua Harris