Symphony with Electronics
Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann, conductor
Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University
2. Aria Noir
3. Telemetry of the Cosmic Elvis
The Symphony for Orchestra with Electronics was funded by an Indiana University President's Arts and Humanities Initiative sabbatical grant, which provided an academic year's release time. I found the sudden freedom from everyday obligations both musically and personally liberating. In fact, the sense of abandon took my composition to some surprising and novel places. Knowing I was writing for the Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra with its youthful virtuosity, the work really became a concerto for orchestra and electronics. The premiere performance was dedicated to the memory of Albert Wertheim, a true champion of the arts on the IU-Bloomington campus, whose enthusiastic encouragement and help with the grant process made this work possible.
The inspiration for the Symphony came from an unlikely source, Thomas Edison, my lifelong hero, whose stern, disapproving portrait hangs in my studio. While perusing his archives on-line, I came across a patent "Method and Means for Improving the Rendition of Musical Composition" (U.S. Patent #1323218) that to my humorous dismay, showed a complete lack of understanding of the performance dynamics between orchestral musicians. The patent states,
"Ordinarily during the orchestral performance of a musical composition, no effective pitch guide is furnished the players with the result that the renditions by the several players of the stringed instruments in the orchestra usually vary more or less in pitch, thereby producing beats or pulsations and rendering such performances disagreeable and unpleasant to listen to. In order to overcome this objection, I propose to provide the orchestra, preferably in addition to the usual leader or conductor who gives the tempo, with a master artist or player, who may be termed the pitch leader, to play any composition which is being played by the orchestra. The rendition of the master artist is preferably transmitted to only one ear of each player of a stringed instrument in the orchestra, the other ear being left free to hear his own instrument." [what follows is a wiring scheme for the full orchestra]
The notion of using electronics to ‘enhance' the listening experience sparked my imagination. The design and structure of the three movements with electronics address his "complaint" and method of "solution," with particular attention paid to intonation between the electronics and ensemble and the concept of a "pitch leader." Unusual interactions of tuning and other pitch- and timbre-related elements are used to create composite sonorities between the performers and the pre-recorded materials in a manner perhaps not anticipated by Thomas Edison.
In this work, the conductor is furnished with a click track in order to keep the tempi in synchronization with the electronics, which are played back from a multi-track DVD-Audio disc. He is also provided with a line in the score that does its best to notationally and verbally describe the electronic sounds The electronics were generated at the I.U. Center for Electronic and Computer Music. In a modern computer music facility, the most ordinary of sounds can be transformed into wondrous and unidentifiable sonic events. For example, the bulk of the sounds in the first movement were generated from recordings I made of a greasy brake drum being struck with a hammer and a wooden ruler vibrating against a board (both together create the first sound heard).
The double meaning of the movement title derives from the ‘patches' or wiring schemes used to generate specific timbres from older synthesizers (a term still used today). It is also indicative of the disparate musical elements ‘patched' together to make a musical whole including rock-style drumming, oddly syncopated rhythms and short lyric contrasts in the strings. Beginning with a traditional slow introduction (Lento Misterioso), the untraditional contrabassoon solo outlines the primary melodic and harmonic materials used for the entire symphony, particularly the falling and rising third figures (the first and third note of a minor scale). The electronics and special techniques of other instruments comment on the unfolding bassoon section's rising soli until the Allegro Energico. Here the electronics take the previously recorded chords of the strings and winds and, using a technique called granular synthesis, chop these sonorities up into percussive rhythmic tickings. Additional techniques take recorded instrumental timbres and gradually morph them into something else entirely as an extension of the orchestral timbre. There are deliberate ambiguities as to whether you are hearing the real instrument or a modified recording. I am certain there are enough pitch bendings and timbral shifts to drive Mr. Edison quite mad.
2. Aria Noir
Aria Noir was the first movement written, begun in summer 2002. There was still enough daily news from the Middle East to perhaps have had that on my mind, but I also wanted a vehicle for a slow expressive movement featuring both percussion and oboe. The movement begins, however, with a mixed meter Allegro Arabesque featuring Arabic percussion instruments such as a riqq (a Middle Eastern frame drum) and oboes playing a quasi-improvisatory duet on the strings of their reeds, thereby emulating a Middle Eastern shawm (a Middle and Near Eastern forerunner of the oboe). The opening provides contrast to the slow plaintive writing that follows, featuring the oboe in its highest register, expanding on the falling-third motive of the first movement. The title reflects this aria-like solo, combined with the movement's subtle orchestrational hints at the film noir musical tradition. The movement intensifies in waves, anticipating the return of the arabesque.
3. Telemetry of the Cosmic Elvis
The third movement was both initially titled and composed by free association-I had always intended to change this working title, but it mysteriously grew on me as I wrote. The ‘ticky-tacky' granulated electronics reminded me of the sounds of early space program telemetry, or the automatic transmission of data by radio from remote sources, be it a space capsule, a hospital patient's monitor or even the spirit of Elvis flying through the cosmos. The notion of Elvis entered purely by accident-the bassoon section comes back in force from the first movement and the thought of Michael Dougherty's Dead Elvis, scored for a bassoonist dressed as an Elvis impersonator stuck in my head, leading me to wonder how far the electronic radio and television signals of the Elvis phenomenon had traveled out into the universe by now (at the very least, 50 light years or 286,837,559,278,811 miles).
The movement is in some ways a traditional scherzo (marked Scherzo del Re or ‘Play of the King'), being wholly metered in 6/8 and lighter in texture. The electronics feature sounds described for the conductor as ‘cosmic hound dog howl' and ‘cosmic laser' and ‘cosmic distorted guitar.' Towards the middle of the movement, a ‘cosmic cymbal roll evolving into chorus' makes use of a vocal synthesis technique called FOF or ‘Function d'Onde Formantique,' which is used more extensively in the last movement. The movement ends with the electronics still reporting back data as he sails off into the cosmic void.
Dicontinuoed takes a "Junk Yard Wars" approach to composition, using, as in the popular TV show, discontinued or discarded musical styles and sound events as its primary material. As in the show, these contrasting styles are tenuously glued together, in this case with a persistent ‘continuo,' itself a discontinued baroque practice, consisting of running 16th notes, often broken up between instrumental groups and the electronics. Brass chorales of common practice (17th and 18th Century) harmonies with added synthetic reverberation, synthetic choirs with oboes, and horn calls of many varieties are resurrected. Of particular interest might be the Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony-like quote which combines the Bavarian-inspired work with sounds of an older BMW, a Bavarian kindred. After a cathartic climax, when the whole structure finally falls apart, the work ends suspended with a Ligeti-like tone-cluster chorus (another discontinued technique familiar perhaps from its use in the film 2001), which evaporates into thin air.