« An Essay about Kenneth Gaburo from June | Main | New Videos from the April 11, 2010 concert at The People's Culture Palace »

Three Found Object Microtonal (Virtual) Piano Pieces - and the joy(?) of quotation

Brian McLaren sent me the URL of a website with thousands of piano rolls converted to midi. I'm sure many people (at least those with access to microtonally retunable synthesizers and samplers) have done the party trick of taking a midi file of a pre-existing tune and playing it in a new tuning.  The fun is in hearing the shape of the original tune almost surrealistically stretched into the new tuning.  At times, however, certain segments of the tunes lose their original identity and become "abstract" - new tunes from old, as it were.
I selected a zip file called Ampico1 - because I remembered that people like Ravel had recorded for Ampico, and because I knew that Ampico rolls had a wide dynamic range, derived from the original performances. I took the midi files of Ampico1 and played them on the Modartt Pianoteq (virtual piano) with the Erard 1922 setting (a model of an early 20th century piano that was Ravel's favorite).  I put the piano into a microtonal scale that was 25 9/7 intervals stacked with 5/1 as the foldover point. (Those without microtonal knowledge or access to the Scala tuning program can just enjoy the sound of the scale without needing to worry about the technical details.)  At first, I made a collage of fragments from midi files several layers thick.  But that ended up sounding too much like a piece by Charles Ives.  The quotes, and the juxtapositions of different styles was just too obvious. The fragments of the music were mostly old chestnuts whose basic contour came through even with the microtonal tuning.  However, I did notice that fragments of the tunes, as I said, became abstract.  So I decided to try to create a piece made entirely of these "abstracted" moments, selecting areas of the midi files which seemed to not refer to the original tunes too closely, and stitched those midi files together into a continuity.  No matter what I did, though, the quotational idea still came through - it's amazing how little of something - two or three notes, half a measure of a recognizable rhythm -  needs to exist before it's heard as a quote.  At least by me, who knows the source tunes.   But at least when the quotes are stitched together one at a time, if there is a quote, it seems quickly erased, or commented on, by the next fragment.  Since the tune which opened and closed the piece was "Memories of You," following an old joke Joel Chadabe liked to tell and retell back in the 1970s, this piece is called:
Memories of You Two.  
Then I put the Pianoteq into a different tuning: A 14 note tuning based on a stack of the interval of 11 steps out of 31 note equal temperament.  I also set the tempo on the midi file player in the Pianoteq to .1, so the midi files would play VERY slowly.  By being played this slowly, any reference to the original tunes seemed to be eliminated.

I used an improvisatory process to generate this piece: I selected an arbitrary midi file, selected an arbitrary point in it, and then played the midi file for about 30 seconds.  After 30 seconds had gone by, I waited for the next note to begin, then I turned off the midi file.  This created a cut-off note at the end of the fragment.  I then selected another midi file, another arbitrary point in the midi file, and played about 30 seconds, and stopped after that, making sure I had a "cut-off" note at the end of the fragment.  I collected 3 tracks, each with 6 fragments on them in this way.  I then took each individual track, and cut off the "cut-off" note, making sure that the note before that went right up to the attack of the first note of the subsequent fragment.  This made the whole track have continuity - as if there had been a performance which instantly went from one fragment to the next.  I did this for all the tracks, and mixed all three tracks together.  Because the sun was going down while I did this, and there was a transition from day to night while I was working, I called this piece:

At Sunset.
The title still maintains the "late 19th century parlor music" feel of the original piano rolls, but 
the music doesn't (at least to my ears) have a quotational feel, although i think it does have a 
very pleasing collection of mostly dissonant harmonies.
While I was doing this, I was also involved in investigating how the "bias" and "immobile bias" options in Andrew Culver and John Cage's IC program worked.  This was a program made by Culver and Cage in the mid 1980s for use in Cage's composing work, and which has since been made freely available on the web.  With IC, one can generate lists of random numbers which have varying characteristics, ranging from a very close approximation of equally-weighted random (the normal option) to lists of numbers where the "dice are stacked," as it were, in various ways.  The "bias" option generates a list of numbers where certain numbers appear a LOT more than others for a brief time, changing at an unpredictable point to having a different group of numbers favored, which then changes to another set of numbers happening more than the others, etc.  The uneven weighting of the numbers, and when the weighting changes, both are also determined randomly.  This option is called "bias."  Another option, called "immobile bias" simply generates one random weighting of the numbers chosen, and sticks with that for the duration of the run.  In my looking into this, I was helped quite a bit by James Pritchett and Bill Brooks, both experts in matters Cagean, and I'd like to send them a big thanks for their insights into this.  And for those interested in more technical details, I prepared a small document (hardly a "paper") showing what I did when I looked at IC.  You can download it here.

So if the Ampico rolls provided me with found objects for the first two pieces, my use of the IC program, and its "bias" option would provide me with a found object for the next piece.  Wanting to make a little gift piece for Ben Johnston, I decided to use a 12-note scale made from harmonics 5, 11 and 17.  This would have familiar major chords, but also very dissonant chords as well.  (For the technically minded, it's an Euler Fokker Genus 5 11 17 17.)  Then I decided to actually refine the harmonic materials further, and just select a "diatonic-like" 7 note scale out of this.  I was wondering if the "changing bias" nature of the IC numbers would produce mostly one kind of chord at one time in the piece, and different chords being favored at different times in the piece, etc.  And I felt that a "diatonic-like" scale would be the best way to hear this quickly.  I decided to set up a gamut of 2 octaves of the diatonic-like scale - that is, 15 notes - for the IC numbers to control.

I generated 1000 numbers from 1 to 15 with a "moving bias", and converted that run of 1000 numbers to a data file that John Dunn's ArtWonk algorithmic composing program could use.  I then set up a patch where the same run of numbers was used to produce pitches, durations, and loudnesses for 5 voices - three making chords, and two making single notes.  Each parameter read the numbers beginning at a different point - all 4 numbers apart. (Pitch 1 begins at 0, Duration 1 begins at 4, Loudness 1 begins at 8, etc.)  I listened to the results, and after tweaking of ranges to put the chords into a nice register, tweaking of the overall tempo so there was a sense of "flow" etc to the rhythm, and a nice chorale resulted, which I call:

Chorale for Ben, with John's Moving Biases.


However, before I finished the piece, I sent an earlier version to Bill Brooks, to show him what I was doing with the stuff he had helped me with.  He emailed me back saying that he heard a quote from the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of the piece!  Since the piece was made with random numbers, I was pretty amazed.  (And remember, my problem with the first movement was that it was sounding "too Ivesian.")  But I listened again, and yup, about 15 seconds in, it was very clear: "by the dawn's earl....." However, since sending the piece to Bill, I had made some changes to it - moved the register of the chords, changed the tempo, etc.  Did the final result still have SSB  quotes in it?  I listened, not too carefully, and sure enough, the quotes were still there! And not just at the beginning, but several places throughout the piece, as well!  And the quotes were not made by one part of the random number list having inadvertent quotes within them - no, the quotes resulted from the interplay of the different musical voices which were reading from different parts of the random number list simultaneously.  (Shades of Cabbalistic Gematria, etc!)  By this time, I can't listen to this piece without hearing the Star Spangled Banner peeking out from the tune, almost everywhere.  I'd just deepsix the whole project, (I mean, American foreign policy is so conflicted and negative these days, who wants to refer to that?) except for the delicious irony that the piece that has no intention of being quotational at all, and with material that is supposed to be "quotation proof" ends up being the most quotational-sounding one of the bunch.  So to share it with friends, maybe as anecdotal evidence (inadmissable in any court of scientific musico-theoretical inquiry,of course), you can hear it with the player above.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend