Category: Perfomances

An Expanded Program Note for Total Synthesis: D-Luciferin

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.

Casper College New Music Days

In October I had the pleasure of going out to Casper Wyoming to work with Ron Coulter on presenting some of my music and some of my ideas on compression at Casper College New Music Days.

The experience was amazing, and there is at least one forthcoming blog post coming out of it, but I wanted to take the opportunity to share the performances that came out of that weekend here. Enjoy!

Alpha Performances

Alpha, a new work commissioned by the Keith/Larson Duo, is being performed a bunch coming up. I’m really excited to see this piece come to life in such capable hands.

Feb. 17th 7pm @ Louisville Center for the Arts (801 Grant Avenue, Louisville,  CO 80027)

Feb. 19th 6pm @ Church of the Ascension (600 Gilpin St, Denver, CO 80218-3632)

Feb. 22nd 7pm @ Mutiny Information Café (2 So. Broadway, Denver, CO 80209)

(Plus a bonus performance of Terry Riley’s In C and Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union that I’ll be playing on)

ZAHA Disklavier Performance (UPDATE w/ VIDEO!)

A concert is upcoming very soon at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church which will feature Evan Mazunik’s ZAHA soundpainting ensemble. Click here or here for more details.

For this concert, Evan asked if I would do some max/msp programming to make it possible for the disklavier that the church owns to be played by a computer.

For those that might not know, a disklavier is the more modern version of a player piano. (You can learn more here). Conrad Kehn turned me on to the idea that a disklavier can take midi input from a computer via finale and max/msp.

The goal of the specific programming that I’m doing is really to take control of the piano out of Evan’s hands. It’s all about these layers upon layers of random and stochastic decisions that are made by the computer and fed into the piano. This is a project that I’m really excited about as it embodies an element that tends to be consistent across much of my work: the marriage of digital technology with acoustic instruments.

I’ll be making some videos of the disklavier in action and updating this blog with them as the project goes on. Check back for more.

One of the things I’ve been considering as I work on this project, and really since Conrad brought this up the first time, is what kinds of things a disklavier can do that a person playing a piano cannot. Generally this falls into two categories: speed, and density.
Obviously the “ultimate density” on a piano is all 88 keys being played simultaneously.
Unfortunately, even robot pianos have limitations. And telling one to play all 88 keys at once is one of those limitations.
When I asked it to do this, it did, indeed, do it.


And the result was impressive.

And then it wouldn’t play anything at all.

Fortunately the Yamaha tech support team is really helpful. So I learned that when you ask a robot piano to do something a little crazy like play all 88 keys at once, this happens:

imag0552Yep. That’s a blown fuse. Like, EXTRA blown.

So when that happens, this has to happen:

But the good news is that once both of those things happen, this can happen:

and this:

and this:

You can watch more videos of this in action on my youtube channel here.

And make sure you come to see ZAHA next weekend!

Upcoming performance: The Noise Gallery at Dazzle

“The Noise Gallery Presents” Living In The Moment: A musical representation of Life w/ Alzheimer’s
Dazzle Jazz
930 Lincoln Street
Denver, CO, 80203
Monday, June 16th at 7pm.
$8-$10 tickets available here.

"The Noise Gallery Presents" Living In The Moment: A musical representation of Life w/ Alzheimer’sJoin The Noise Gallery for an evening a live composition that represents the day to day, and minute to minute lives of those living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.  Alzheimer’s disease is responsible for a loss of communication between cells, affecting memory, thinking, and communication.  Experience for yourself the sights, sounds, and sensations of living life in the moment.

A portion of the evening’s proceeds will go to support SPARK! Cultural Programs for people with Memory Loss.

The Noise Gallery is Denver’s first fully dedicated Soundpainting ensemble. Made up of some of the area’s best improvisers, classical and jazz players, composers, electronic musicians, weirdos, and visual artist instrument builders, The Noise Gallery is the perfect collective of spontaneous and creative thinking in the art of live composition. Expanding minds and challenging norms, we invite everyone to enter the Gallery and be adventurous listeners.

Soundpainting is the universal multidisciplinary live composing sign language for musicians, actors, dancers, and visual Artists. Presently (2016) the language comprises more than 1200 gestures that are signed by the Soundpainter (composer) to indicate the type of material desired of the performers. The creation of the composition is realized, by the Soundpainter, through the parameters of each set of signed gestures. The Soundpainting language was created by Walter Thompson in Woodstock, New York in 1974.

Denver’s soundpainting ensemble: The Noise Gallery

Soundpainting is a visual live compositional language created by Walter Thompson in the 1970’s. Generally the way it’s used is in large group, directed improvisations. You can learn more about it here.

I was asked a few months ago to join a dedicated soundpainting ensemble. I didn’t have much experience in the language itself at the time, and still don’t, but have really enjoyed the learning process that has come from this experience. Several members of the group have vast experience with it and have been excellent tutors.

The ensemble is made up of some of the area’s best improvisers, classical and jazz players, composers, electronic musicians, weirdos, and visual artist instrument builders. There’s some really serious talent involved. People like Conrad Kehn, Lynn Baker, Evan Mazunik and Mark Harris just to name a few.

We’re playing our first show on June 6th at Dazzle Restaurant and Lounge. Stay tuned here for more info.