Saturday, May 31, 2014

Grumble, grumble, grumble

For the past six weeks, my aspiration to blog more frequently has collided smack-dab with my disinclination to report failure ... or rather, flailing away at things without making clear forward progress. ("Flailure"?)

On the physical-assembly front, I've discovered to my chagrin that I simply don't have the means (and/or skills) to saw fret slots sufficiently precise to mount new frets by the traditional hammering technique. So, today I removed the botched frets; in the next week, I'll fill those slots, sand the neck to a smooth surface, and procure half-round wire (without tang) to glue into place. On the bright side, the loss of some sound conduction should be more than made up by greater precision of positioning.

On the abstract-assembly front, I've been wrestling with various arpeggiation patterns for the first "fantasy-transition" of Tapestry and Otter. It's a weird balancing act, trying to find a happy medium between What I Could Conceivably Play Myself, Molto Adagio (i.e., something too simple) and What Would Sound Utterly Awesome If Human Beings Could Learn to Execute (i.e., something too complex). And in characteristically amnesiac fashion, I've found myself circling back to rediscover patterns that I tried a week (or two, or five) ago, though now enriched by a bit of quasi-Schenkerian composing-out.

I've probably made things needlessly difficult by not paying enough attention to the transitional aspect ... i.e., the first section of the piece is firmly in place, and I have a very clear sense of how the third section will proceed ... so perhaps all I'm missing in the current sketches for the second section are more details from the first and third, suitably transformed (and/or transforming).

Friday, April 11, 2014

Stretching the canvas

Activities of the past fortnight have included:

1. Plotting (in Excel) the timings of five chromatic sinusoids, each sweeping from the midrange down to the low bass, then back up through the midrange to the high treble, and then back down to the midrange. But as in prior works, each traverses a different total span, and these different cardinalities cause the voices to change pitch at different times, generating a smorgasbord of suspensions.

2. Transcribing that numeric data onto musical staves. Given the close registral quarters, colored inks are essential for keeping track of which voice is on which pitch:

3. More or less concurrently with steps 1 and 2 above, deciding on an overall form of nine sections, in an approximate arch. The original extremes-of-the-piano-keyboard "frame" still opens and closes the piece, and will still push its way to the fore from time to time in between. From that, and from the tremolando chords that I doodled after Victoria's dry run for her performance at the Bulgarian consulate last month, I settled on an alternation between sections of irregular rhythm and those with a more regular pulse.

3. Changing my mind about the total duration of the piece; in hindsight, I ought to have delayed steps 1 (and especially 2) until I'd settled on the proportions of the various sections. Shameless Fibonacci fetishism leads to a total duration of 18:17, vs. my initial guesstimate of 17:30. Replacing the appropriate values in the Urlinien spreadsheet took 10 minutes or less, but then ...

4. Recalibrating the Ursatz. Rather than re-create the entire page, recopying hundreds of noteheads, it's a lot less work simply to relabel the x-axis:

And that brings us to today. This morning, I rewrote the Prelude (per my previous post, replacing the foreshadowings of a texture that is now destined for a different piece). Because I'm happy with the frame as is, the path of least resistance was simply to sketch directly onto the first page of the theremin part. First step was to add time indices (in orange ink) ... then to remember (duhhh) that I had previously disregarded the duration of the frame gestures ... hence the second layer of time indices (in red ink). Soon enough, I wound up ignoring the Ursatz for the Prelude, instead respecting the integrity of its pitches and composing a simple countermelody for the piano to interject during the theremin's sustained tones:

In compensation, the start of the first fantasy-transition includes quite a few embedded augmented triads, which simply aren't my cup of chai. I had originally imagined that I would need to add a sixth and seventh voice, hovering above and below ... but while playing with different arpeggiation textures, I hit upon one that doesn't resort to additional voices, other than a couple of octave duplications. The latter simplify the rhythm (vs. quintuplets or septuplets or what-have-you) and the harmony (ranging from four to five pitch classes, rather than five to seven), and (surprise, the surprise) contribute to a richer timbre.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Approaching monthly content

(sort of)

Hokay, it's done: Score and parts for the new, improved version of A field guide to North American car alarms are in the hands of Boston Musica Viva for their May 10 concert in Pickman Hall (see details here), following the usual spiral into madness brought on by parts editing (in which preparing the parts reveals errata in the score, which then bring on additional changes in the parts, rinse, repeat). Also, the opening fanfare, which I had intended to leave unchanged, on closer inspection called out for some teensy changes to reinforce the sense of parallelism among the various instruments swooping, honking, and chirping gestures.

Moving right along = returning to composing my theremin-and-piano extravaganza Tapestry and otter, for the pianist Victoria TzotzkovaThe title derives from Jon Carroll's brilliant and/or wacky description of precision theremin technique, from his review of a concert by Dalit Warshaw: "Her right hand looked as though it were picking lint off a tapestry; her left hand looked as though she were petting an otter.").

I originally imagined the piece as only 10 minutes long, and sketched an arresting introduction (about one minute long), followed by ... um ... an okay sequel (another minute or so), which I now realize belongs in another piece. Specifically, it's not pianistic enough; it's more of a texture for string quartet, or perhaps winds. And as I've played a bit more with improvising theremin melodies over tremolando piano harmonies, I've decided to open up the piece: the target duration is now around 17 minutes or so, with nine sections, ranging from one minute to three minutes in length, alternating free (or seemingly free) rhythm with more regular pulsation. And yes, there will be chimpanzee vocalizations.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ogblay? Atwhay ogblay?

Yet another stab at reinstating the habit to ... scribble? ... in public (and why, in this day and age, do we still lack of typographic/keyboard equivalent of the word "scribble"?).

Plugging away at the long-deferred tempo fugue that was at least half the raison d'etre for A field guide to North American car alarms. Taking shape, it is, in despite of (or precisely because of?) the decision to rewrite all the pitches ... partly a matter of thinking more carefully about gestures that can be passed around the sextet (and thus, thinking more carefully about how to translate among percussive, woodwind, and bowed-string media), and partly a matter of being more deliberate about setting certain pillars (following some very strict transpositional plans) and then embracing the sheer ad hoc opportunistic possibilities for pitch levels of the countersubject(s).

Okay, that covers the past few weeks. Today's specific mundane epiphanies are:

1) Dagnabbit, notational clarity can be a pain in the @#$. It finally dawned on me that a gesture in which a grace note is sustained (forming a held dyad) requires notation as two voices. It seems pretentious for such a simple gesture, but goshdarnitmakesadifference.

2) On the other hand, I realized I've been creating extra work for myself, overmarking the dynamics of the countersubject. Eliminating the redundancy provides cleaner copy for the players, and (special bonus) Sibelius was overplaying the overmarked dynamics, effectively dropping notes at the end of diminuendos, so now the piece sounds better in crude MIDI playback (longer gestures / better phrasing ... well, duhhh).

3) Not beating myself up about the above, as so much of this seemed okay with only a few phrases occurring simultaneously ... but as the chaos, er, I mean, counterpoint really gets going, it matters more and more. As the whole Gestalt develops, the forest more clearly dictates the requirements of each tree (duhhh redux).

That's enough for one morning; time to break for lunch. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, mark your calendar for Saturday, 10 May.