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."

The first of the forms

I've been continuing with the vocal parts that enter around 6:00. The previous post explains the order of syllables in each soprano part. I began by writing out the first iteration of the text (i.e. the first column on each spreadsheet above).

First iteration of text in three soprano parts. NB: the notes are

placeholders, not actual pitches yet. Rhythms are precise, however.

I clocked it at about one minute, and then realized that it could take up to 18 minutes to get through each iteration of text if I maintained that pace. That's longer than I had planned, so I began to look more closely at pacing. Eighteen minutes of a linearly progressing pattern is not what I had in mind for this piece (I want to avoid the perception of process music--that's too big an issue to discuss here, though).

The image below shows my notes scribbled along the top of the 1st and 2nd soprano spreadsheets. First, I broke up the part: there's a break between iterations 7 and 8 (big check), and another between 14 and 15 ("railroad tracks"). Iterations 13 and 14 have the letters O and K, which indicate only vowels (O, open) or only consonants (K). I mean "only consonants" literally--just aspirated consonant sounds. The final four iterations contains the culmination of the process that reveals the text as having linguistic meaning.

I feel like this gives the process some shape. It is still goal oriented, but the movement toward the goal is nuanced--sometimes moving linearly, sometimes faster or slower, sometimes hesitating, etc. This is what form does--it gets you from the beginning to the end. Now the vocal parts have an independent, fully operating form, even though in the finished piece these parts will constitute only a portion of the form.

More on the composing out of the vocal parts

Below are the next iterations of the soprano 1 and 2 parts, the text simply written, not notated. Now consonants are coming into the mix. Soprano 1 begins to add consonants to the beginnings of certain syllables while soprano 2 begins to add consonants to the end of certain syllables. The intended effect is that of composite syllables becoming intelligible to the listener. The soprano 3 part will join the other two parts in a similar way--French nonsense and English nonsense being equal after all.

More on the text later...

©2017 Joshua Harris