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.


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.

©2017 Joshua Harris