I recently released an album of my compositions. It’s called Ichor of the Earth, it’s available on all the streaming and download services (I’ll put links below) and you should go listen to it.
This album was a long time in the works and is fairly significant to me, not just because it’s another vehicle into the world for my music, but also because I did virtually everything to make it. I performed electronics parts on pieces that used that instrument, I recorded, mixed, and mastered all of the audio, and I did the jacket design.
Oh, I also wrote all the music on it…
That’s certainly not to say that I didn’t rely heavily on the artistry and expertise of a host my very talented, friends.
Ryan McCarthy and Jasper Schmich Kinney both played piano.
Gil Selinger and Julia Emory played cello.
Philip Strom played bass clarinet.
Sam Liddel played bass.
David Bernot played saxophone.
Kyle Hughes played percussion.
Emily Gradowski provided her voice.
Leah Mack did the cover art.
Of course, my wife Kelly provided patience, encouragement, and her wonderful musical ear.
So it’s fun to take credit for this thing happening, and it was a lot of work personally, but ultimately there’s no way that this could have happened without the community of musicians and artists around me.
So go listen to it. And buy it. And tell people about it. It’s good.
The process of writing this piece was unusual for me. Generally speaking I am mostly concerned with the sound of a piece and the emotional reaction that it generates. For this piece, since the compositional process was almost algorithmic, with each dimension of music mapped to a particular dimension of the chemical synthesis, the process and primary concerns were much different. For this piece, the process was mostly centered around precompositional decisions surrounding what musical features correspond to what chemical features. The primary concern, then, was simply realizing those decisions as accurately as possible, while still attempting to retain some element of playability for the musicians.
In this post, I wanted to provide a bit more insight into the precompositional decisions that formed this piece. As I mention in the printed program note, the piece is inspired by the structural changes that occur in a molecule during a chemical reaction. So the idea was to have a musical structure that slowly changed and developed over the course of the piece until the “product structure” was reached at the end, in this case, a musical structure that corresponds to D-luciferin.
In this piece, pitch corresponds to molecular structure as determined by hydrogen nmr when possible, and carbon nmr or parent mass spectrometry when necessary (for example, since phosphorous oxychloride lacks hydrogen for h-nmr, and also lacks carbon for c-nmr, the mass spectrum was used to determine the pitch structure).
Below are shown the two h-nmr spectrum for the reactants from the first movement: p-anisidine and ethyl oxalate respectively. Generally speaking the c-nmr and mass spectrometry data tend to look more or less the same, so these are representative.
p-anisidine h-nmr spectrum
Ethyl oxalate h-nmr spectrum
In order to map these spectra to a pitch collection, I actually just held up an image of a keyboard up to these spectra and marked where the spectrum peaks aligned with the keyboard, rounded to the nearest quarter tone. This is shown below.
p-anisidine h-nmr spectrum mapped to the keyboard
ethyl oxalate h-nmr spectrum mapped to keyboard
These two reactants are combined to form the first product in this synthesis. The h-nmr and associated keyboard mapping of that product is pictured below.
h-nmr of XII
keyboard mapping of XII
Having now determined the pitch structures that represented the two reactants in the first movement, the next step was to determine how these structures should shift and change over the course of the movement to form the first product. This was done through simple interpolation, which I did the old-school way with colored pencils. As you can see in the image below, the p-anisidine pitch structure is shown on the left in orange, the ethyl oxalate pitch structure is shown on the left in purple, and the product is shown in black on the right. Each pitch on the left moves by quarter-tone steps to the closest pitch on the right.
Pitch interpolation of the first movement
Obviously this process is simply repeated through all eight movements until the end product is reached.
Deciding how to approach rhythm in this piece was a challenge. The solution that I arrived at was to use the molecular structure of the solvents used in the various reactions of the synthesis. I think this makes a kind of sense: rhythm and pitch can be thought of as separate (non-interactive) elements in music. One could say that a rhythm is imposed onto a pitch structure. Similarly, the solvents used in these reactions don’t directly contribute to the structural changes that occur throughout the synthesis. The reactants exist within the solvents.
Further, rhythms are made up of individual values of varying sizes. This is also true of molecules, where the composite molecule is made up of individual elements of varying atomic sizes. So, carbon has a molecular weight of 12, and hydrogen has a molecular weight of 1. If a sixteenth note is used to represent hydrogen, then the value that represents carbon would be a dotted half note (a dotted half note is 12 sixteenth notes). This is ultimately how I mapped solvent molecular structures to rhythmic values.
So, in the case of methanol, which is a solvent used in the fourth, fifth, and eighth movements, three sixteenth notes and a dotted half note correspond to the methyl group on the left side of the molecule, and a whole note and sixteenth note correspond to the oxygen-hydrogen bond on the right side of the molecule. This is shown below.
In cases where a solvent contains several different isomers, as in xylene, the three different isomers were each mapped separately and assigned to instruments to create a distribution that represented the distribution of each isomer within the given solvent.
Finally, there are several instances where no solvent was used to dissolve a reactant, or at least none mentioned in the experimental procedure I followed. In these cases, I allowed the performers to improvise a non-period rhythm. The solvents and associated rhythms are shown in the image below.
Solvents and associated rhythms
Other dimensions generally had simper mappings related to the larger scope physical elements of the synthesis. The tempo of each movement maps relatively simply to the temperature of a given portion of the synthesis. The only work that was really done was to find a reasonable maximum and minimum tempo to generate an effective range for tempo across the piece.
The length of each movement is proportionally relative to the length of that step in the synthesis. So, if the overall synthesis takes 10 hours (it’s actually much longer), and one step of it took one hour, that constitutes about 10% of the overall synthesis time, so the corresponding section in the music would constitute about 10% of the length of the piece.
Dynamics are mapped to the volume of the reaction. So, if the size of a reaction is large, the music is played loudly, and small equates to a softer dynamic. This also seemed appropriate since “loudness” can sort of be thought of the “size” of a particular sound. Again, the only process involved in this mapping was what working out the size of a particular reaction step, and finding a dynamic range that seemed reasonable for the music.
Lastly, if a recrystallization step occurred as part of a reaction within the synthesis, the players use extended techniques to brighten their tone, and pause between movements.
This year I was commissioned to write a new work to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation. The commission came from Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church and Evan Mazunik. The work was performed on reformation Sunday at CCPC and the recording is here.
To The Sons of Korah celebrates the 500th anniversary of the reformation. It is based on the reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” which itself is based on psalm 46. The piece moves gradually through various dissonant collections towards a final, celebratory statement of the hymn itself. The two trumpets are also asked to play in separate parts of the performance space, only physically joining together in the middle of the piece. Both of these effects symbolize the unification and emergence of the church from a period of separation, corruption, and debauchery.
The title pays homage to the authors of psalm 46, the Korahites, who were an important branch of singers from the Korahite division of Levites. I think it would be interesting for these ancient musicians to see the many different permutations their work has taken over the centuries, not least of all this one.
Unfortunately the recording itself wasn’t amazing because this was performed as part of a service, rather than a concert, but it’s still worth listening to.
Years ago I wrote a paper on a piece by Stockhausen called Solo. The paper itself was long and boring, so I’ll spare you a reproduction of it here. I recently suffered through a rereading of it and discovered that there are some interesting thoughts in it about improvisation which I do find worthwhile to explore a bit. One of the most interesting things about Solo is the methodology of improvisation that it asks the player to use, which I believe is a very rare kind of improvisation.
It’s a bit difficult to describe Solo briefly since it is such a complex work. Solo is an electroacoustic work for a single player and feedback delay. The delay times are much longer than those that we usually associate with delay as an effect, which tend to have delay times in milliseconds. Rather, the delay in Solo uses times in multiple seconds, so whole or multiple phrases could be repeated by the delay after the performer has played them.
The notation consists of six form schemes and six pages of notated music. An example of a page of notation is shown above, and a form scheme is shown below. The player is instructed to letter the pages of notation A-F and place them in order. Since the lettering is left up to the player, the order of the pages ends up being more or less arbitrary. Stockhausen then refers the player to different divisions of the material on each page. Specifically, pages, systems, parts, and elements. Pages and systems have the same definitions that they would in other notated music. Stockhausen defines a “part” as any group of notes contained within a pair of bar lines. This is not called a “bar” or a “measure” simply because the printed music contains both proportional and mensural notation. An “element” is any single normally printed note, any grace note by itself, any group of grace notes, or any single grace note and its associated normally printed note.
The form schemes represent the way in which the player will interpret the notated music. For a performance, only one form scheme is selected to be played. Each of the form schemes are broken into smaller sections made up of cycles and periods. A cycle is the group of periods between two letters as determined in the form scheme. Each form scheme has six cycles which are lettered to correspond generally to the similarly lettered page of notation. So, cycle A is the first cycle of periods on all of the form schemes and generally will contain material from page A of the notation. Periods are smaller groupings within cycles which have time values in seconds assigned to them based on the delay time of the electronics for the corresponding cycle. So, as we can see in the image taken from form scheme II below, in cycle A, there are nine periods of twelve seconds each. Within cycle B there are seven periods of twenty-four seconds each, and so on.
A performance of Solo is never a “start at measure one and play to the end” kind of endeavor. Rather, the player is at liberty to select portions of each page to play in a given cycle. Below each cycle there is a group of symbols that tells the player relatively loosely how they should perform the music for that cycle. Stockhausen calls these “what,” “where,” and “how” symbols. A “what” symbol tells a player what size of gesture they should select (systems, parts or elements); a “where” symbol tells a player from where they should select these gestures (from the current page, the current and the following page, the current and the previous page, or all three); a “how” symbol tells the player how the gestures they select should relate to each other (different, the same, or opposite). The criteria for the how gesture is up to the player. So, the player might decide that the how symbol relates to pitch. In this case, the “same” symbol would indicate that the gestures within a cycle should all have more or less the same pitch range.
Two additional symbols indicate the length of time a player may pause between periods, and how the player should attempt to relate to the electronics part within a cycle.
The image below is from cycle B of form scheme V. These particular symbols indicate that, within this cycle, the player must draw musical material made up of parts, from pages A, B, and C, which are either the same or different, with medium pauses following each part, and entrances staggered so as to create a polyphonic texture with the electronics.
So, in actual performance, the player might play this part from page B , then this one from page C , this from A , this from B ,and so on until they had played a 45 second period from the cycle. Then the player can take a medium pause before they continue the same process again, trying to create a polyphonic texture as the electronics play back what they played from the previous period.
Whew! Remember when I said it was difficult to describe this piece simply? There’s actually quite a bit more to the performance of the piece (for example, we haven’t really discussed the electronics at all!), but I think that’s all you’ll need to know for now.
Solo represents an excellent example of what I would call “composed improvisation.” The term itself seems like an oxymoron, but the concept is actually much more common than one might think. For example, virtually all ‘traditional’ jazz is composed improvisation. Jazz players are generally given, or have learned, some kind of chart or lead sheet which contains the chord changes and melody of a piece, and then improvise based on that information.
In fact, it’s fairly common for this same kind of controlled improvisation based on notation to occur in contemporary classical music as well. What I have seen most commonly, and have used the most in my own music, is a section wherein only pitches are notated and everything else is left to the player to decide. An example from my music is shown below. Note that the given pitches can be used in any order, in any octave, with any rhythm, dynamic, articulation and so on.
These are by no means the only ways that notated improvisation can occur. There are probably as many different ways to utilize these kinds of ideas as there are composers using them. But Solo is actually an example of something very rare in the world of composed improvisation. To work out what that is, we have to take a quick step back.
Music is fundamentally organized into a series of impulses. A note begins on an impulse. That note can be combined with other notes into a larger phrase, which has its own larger impulse. That phrase is then grouped with other phrases to form a section, which has its own, still larger impulse. Sections can be grouped into a large form which we might call a movement, or a complete work, each of which also has its own much larger impulse. Sometimes people refer to this concept of grouping things into larger and larger impulses as “the big beats” of music. I’m deliberately avoiding the word “beat” here because it can be misleading.
This concept is actually alluded to in a Ted talk by Benjamin Zander, which you can watch below, and is more scientifically stated by Stockhausen himself in an essay which appears in Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone.
Composed improvisation can generally be organized into three levels based on with what level of impulses the player is being allowed to improvise and what levels of impulse have been predetermined. In the first level, the form and the phrases are both predetermined, but the specific notes which are played are up to the performer. In the second level, the form and the specific notes are determined, but the phrases which are constructed out of those notes are up to the performer. In the final level, specific notes and phrases are determined, but the form of the piece is left to the performer.
So, the two forms of composed improvisation that we have discussed thus far are both level-one improvisation. Consider jazz improvisation: the form of the piece and the phrase structure are already given based on the notation within the chart, but exactly which notes are played when is up to the player to decide. Specific notes are undetermined, but the larger impulses are predetermined.
An example of third-level improvisation would be the “open form” music found in some of the works of Pierre Boulez is an example of this as are numerous works by Stockhusen (Zyklus, and Licht, for example). In this kind of improvisation, while entire sections of notes and phrases are specifically notated, the order in which those sections occur is determined by the performers.
Solo is a rare example of level-two improvisation in which specific notes and gestures are determined, as is the overarching form, but the way those notes and gestures organize to make phrases is left to the player. I have not yet encountered another piece of composed improvised music that contains large-scale, level-two improvisation, even among Stockhousen’s works. What’s more, the understanding by the performer that this work functions as level-two improvisation is absolutely imperative to a particular performance faithfully representing Stockhausen’s intentions for Solo.
For those interested in hearing Solo, below is a recording of me and horn player Briay Condit playing this piece.
The fact that this work is, as far as I am aware, unique in the world of improvised music makes it more meaningful to the cannon, and likely explains why the work is so notationally involved and difficult for performers to meaningfully understand. And, frankly, this only begins to deal with the things about this work that are fascinating and misunderstood, which probably explains why my previous paper was so long and boring… perhaps more on this another day.
I’ve recently started another project. It’s an improvisation duo with Jasper Schmich Kinney that we have decided to call J A N U S. The name comes from “J and S” (get it?). The name seems very fitting. In Roman mythology, Janus was a god with two faces who ruled over beginnings, gates, transitions, passages, and endings.
Jasper plays a really fascinating dulcimer that he has detuned and altered in several ways. I do my electronics thing with loops. We’ve played a few gigs thus far, but hadn’t formalized anything until recently.
We’re going to be pretty consistently posting music to social media and other places. Here’s the first taste you’ll find on this site. Enjoy!