Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our story thus far

I’m currently working on an extravaganza for theremin and wind ensemble, to be titled Aether/Ore. The planning started last spring, and (thanks to a busy teaching schedule) stretched out over the summer. My original idea was to try something like unto a good ol’ 1960s Moment-Form, because I’d written several pieces during the Aughts that turned out a bit more predictable than I intended, particularly with regard to the lengths of contrasting subsections. For inspiration, I turned to images of fractal basins of attraction, e.g.,
A nifty feature of such a pattern is that if you zoom in on the boundary between two colors, you discover a small zone of the third color ... f’rinstance, in the image above, if you zoom in on the boundary between a red zone and a yellow zone, you find some blue ... but then if you zoom in closer on the boundary between the blue and the yellow, you discover a bit of red ... and if you zoom in between that red and the yellow, you find more blue ... etc., ad infinitum.
The horrible part of trying to realize this idea in sound is that early this fall, when I started to convert miscellaneous spreadsheet data into pitches and rhythms, I discovered almost instantly that I was writing something that student ensembles wouldn't stand a chance of performing! So, back to the drawing board ...
The good news is that the revised process has been going much faster. In the interest of keeping things simple, I’ve been indulging in multiple “sins” that I normally, Puritanically avoid, e.g.,

     1. moving chords relentlessly in parallel,
     2. favoring a regular rock backbeat,
     3. favoring homophonic textures (i.e., limiting contrapuntal interest), and
     4. sketching in short score.
The first three liberties derive directly from the Ore part of the title (referring to heavy-metal and proto-heavy-metal styles). And to achieve a more convincing state of quasi-randomness, I’ve been using lists of genuinely random numbers to determine when motives occur in the piece. The resulting process has left me slightly in the dark about the overall form, as the sketch pages start blank and then gradually accumulate patches of dots and lines in unpredictable fashion. Right now, I think I’m about 40% of the way along ... which is to say, some pages are half full and half blank, while others are one-third full and two-thirds blank. So the overall Gestalt is starting to take shape, but there’s still plenty of room to surprise me.
Initially, I worried that the random numbers might distribute the material too evenly, but already there are several pile-ups where two things might be happening at once. In light of item 3 above, these might become passages of rapid alternation ... or if they do manifest a textural pile-up, I won’t attempt any treacherous polyrhythmic tricks. If nothing else, I need to make sure that I won’t trip myself up with regard to finding my marks in the solo theremin part (on which count I’m firmly resolved never again to shoot myself in the foot).

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