I've noticed that in the past few years I've come to rely more and more on generative systems or algorithms--various devices that output specific pitches and rhythms. It's not that I don't have musical ideas spontaneously arising in my mind, it's that those ideas are usually textural, not thematic. In other words I hears sounds and shapes more often than specific melodies. Dictating a texture directly from the brain has proven a complicated challenge for me, so I've developed intermediary techniques. This is the story of the system I composed on Friday to get the right texture from the vocalists in my dissertation.

I chose the text from Samuel Beckett's

Waiting for Godot

. At the beginning of the second act Vladimir sings a short recursive song that could loop indefinitely. I see this song as a microcosm for the entire play, and think it represents the aesthetic of my dissertation piece quite nicely. Here is the text in French (the original language of the play) and in English (the playwright's native language) from Beckett's translation.

Un chien vint dans l'office
Et prit une andouillette.
Alors à coups de louche
Le chef le mit en miettes.
Les autres chiens ce voyant
Vite vite l'ensevelirent
Au pied d'une croix en bois blanc
Où le passant pouvait lire:
Un chien vint dans l'office
Et prit une andouillette...etc.
A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a piece of bread
And cook up with a ladle
And beat him until he was dead.
Then all the dogs came running
And dug the dog a tomb
And wrote upon the tombstone
For the ages of dogs to come:
A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a piece of bread...etc.

I knew I wanted this text to evolve in a specific way: beginning as vowels, gradually changing to non-sense phonemes, and finally becoming clearly understood as language at the very end of the piece. This process will probably begin around five minutes into the piece and take around 10 minutes or so to work itself out. The trick was to find a logical process by which the text could gradually evolve over that period of time.

I started with the text, then broke it down into syllables. Here's the 56 syllables in the English version:

ə dɒg kem ɪn ðə kɪt tʃən

ænd stol ə pis əv brɛd

ðɛn kʊk əp wɪθ ə le dəl

ænd bit hɪm ən tɪl hi wəz dɛd

ðɛn ɒl ðə dɑgz kem rən nɪŋ

ænd dəg ðə dɒg ə tum

ænd rot ə pɑn ðə tum ston

fɔr ðə edʒ əz əv dɒgz tu kəm

I had to manipulate the French text a little bit to get 56 syllables:

œ᷉ ʃjɛ᷉ vɛ᷉ dɑ᷉ lɔ fis

e pʁi yn ɑ᷉ du ɪ jɛt

a lɔʀ a ku də luʃ

lə ʃɛf lə mi ɑ᷉ mjɛt

le zo tʀ ʃjɛ᷉ sə vwa jɑ᷉

vi tə lɑ᷉ sɛ vɛ li ʀɑ᷉

o pi je dyn kʀwa zɑ᷉ bwa blɑ᷉

u lə pa sɑ᷉ pu vɛ li ʀ

So with each text now divided into 56 syllables and each one labelled 1-56, I could use numbers to effect an even distribution of changes over several iterations of text. I used a random sequence generator to create a the order of syllable for the first iteration of text. I created a different initial sequence for each of three soprano parts. The first two sopranos will sing "toward" the English text and the third sopranos will sing "toward" the French text. Here are the basic distributions for the first two sopranos:

Soprano 1
Soprano 1

Soprano 1

Soprano 2

In the charts above each column represents one sequence of syllables. The first column on the left contains the first


 sequence and the last column on the right contains the syllables in original,


, sequence. The changes found in each iteration of the text (i.e. each column, top to bottom) are shown, otherwise, the empty squares mean nothing has changed at that position in that sequence. I left most squares empty so that the changes will stand out.

The pattern of changes is mirrored between the two English parts above. In the first, two "correct" syllables enter the sequence on each iteration, beginning at the middle first, then expanding outward. In the second, "correct" syllables enter the sequence at the beginning and ending first, continuing toward the middle. I opted not to move directly from center to ends and

vice versa

 because I felt that with 26 sequences intelligible text patterns would become apparent too early. In other words, if the soprano 1 began to make sense with a string of intelligible words by the third or fourth iteration, that string would simply get longer each time via a simple additive process that would get extremely boring. By reiterating the pattern four times nothing becomes intelligible as language until the final few iterations. There are persistent gaps in the middle.

Soprano 3

For the French text in the third soprano part I doubled up on changes and combined both patterns shown above.

I liked the pacing of this part and began to wonder how to deal with the difference with the pacing in the other two parts. They take 26 iterations to arrive at the original text, while this one only takes 16 (there are some minor errors in the Soprano 3 chart). Since these parts will probably be proportionally notated I didn't need to figure out how to fit 16 into 26--I could just pace it more intuitively.

But then I started wondering if there was a way to speed up the pacing of the other two parts. I have used this method of reiteration with small changes in the past. The third movement of


 for string quartet is basically one 10-bar melody that takes 17 iterations to moves from 10 bars of one single pitch to the "original" 10-bar melody at the very end. I like this idea of revealing the original idea at the end. There are pitfalls, the biggest of which is pacing--it can be boring without tweaking along the way. The other major pitfall is creating a sense of linearity. In other words, the sense that the music is progressing directly along a straight path. Without getting into more detail, it's the difference between a straight line and a curve. The music should move along a curve, not a straight line. Straight lines arise from one-to-one relationships. I try to build more complexity into my systems so the outcome doesn't feel too predictable.

So, here are the revisions I made to the first two soprano parts. I've overlapped the iterations of the patterns. I think this will improving on the steady (plodding) pacing and shortening the process and also by increasing the number of changes in each iteration.

Soprano 1, revised

Soprano 2, revised

The process at this point is simply filling in the empty squares with whatever is left of the empty square:

Soprano 1, mid-process

Soprano 1, complete

Soprano 2, mid-process

Soprano 2, complete

Soprano 3, mid- process

Soprano 3, complete

Finally, I used find and replace in Excel to fill in all the syllables in International Phonetic Alphabet symbols.

Footnote--I will begin with vowels alone and gradually add consonants in the piece.

The sunken monadnock

Two weeks ago I didn't know what a monadnock was and now I'm thinking of using it as a guiding principle, if not the title, of my dissertation. In an epic coincidence of web browsing I happened upon something that could generate the music I'm going to compose. It all started when a high school friend posted an article from ESPN on Facebook, which links to City Prints Map Art, a company that makes monochromatic prints of maps with streets like look like veins. Here's a map of Appalachian State University (my undergrad alma mater):

I love minimalist monolithic art (is that a thing?) and I love maps. Add school colors and I would gladly drop $180 to buy this (my wife said no). When I shared this company's website on FB, I got a comment from a Texas friend who shared the online map archive at UT-Austin. After a few hours I got around to looking at the archive and realized they had historical maps from every state, so I clicked on North Carolina, and then found a more complete NC historical map archive and started looking at places I've lived and visited.

It was surreal to see what was missing one hundred years ago. Some towns weren't there. Many roads were dirt. I spent awhile looking at Watuaga County, where I've spent a lot of time over the past 16 years. I was fascinated that highway 194 was the main road from Boone to Avery County, not 105 as it today. Accordingly, the towns along 194 seemed more important on that map. 105 wasn't there, but a dirt road went as far as Shull's Mill. Shull's Mill is no more than a crossroads today, but on that map from the early twentieth century it was so important that, along with Boone, it was featured with an inset street map. One map of Charlotte pointed the way to Blowing Rock, though a dozen larger towns dot the highway to Blowing Rock today.

I spent several hours looking at these maps, becoming engrossed in how much I could tell about what life might have been like from them. At some point I was looking at western Watauga County, noticing that the road today still follows the same path out toward Watauga Lake. Except Watauga Lake wasn't there. I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that when the TVA dammed the Watauga River, they flooded the town of Butler, Tennessee. Suddenly images of a sunken town flooded my mind, as did memories of O, Brother Where Art Thouand my wife's phobia of dead bodies in large bodies of water (they got there, she claims, because old graveyards lie at the bottom of lakes). I ordered a book on the history of Butler because it was so intriguing.

That reminded me of some online browsing I had done recently on the geology of Pilot Mountain, a peculiar monadnock I saw every day as a child in my hometown of Pilot Mountain, NC. A monadnock, I learned, is a mountain that rises suddenly and in isolation on a relatively flat plain. Here is the picture (of Pilot Mountain, coincidentally) on the Wikipedia entry:

After several days these two ideas, the sunken town and the monadnock, started to interact with each other in my mind. I began to see a relationship: Both were connected by the flatness of their environments--the surface of the lake and the plain surrounding the mountain. Both deviated from their surroundings in some way--one rising above and one sinking below. The one jutting up, in view for miles and miles, the other completely hidden from view despite the people driving boats and skiing directly above it.

I really liked the inversional, yin-and-yang relationship between these two things and began to think of how this relationship might be abstracted musically. The more I thought about the sunken town, the monadnock, and music the more I started see this in my mind:

Which is an abstraction of this:

Which is a sound wave.

See. Everything has a musical application.

So the title of this blog is a conflation of the two in a way that makes syntactical sense, though semantically it's paradoxical. More on the musical development of this concept next time.

©2017 Joshua Harris