Author Archives: philbrownlee

About philbrownlee

Composer, sound artist, sound engineer in Wellington, New Zealand

Some thoughts on Degraded Echoes

I should have written this months ago – some comments on the performance of Degraded Echoes. The piece was performed (twice) in April, by Stroma, as part of their programme ‘The Mirror of Time 2‘, at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington. And I’d call it a success.

The players understood it straight away, and gave a very sensitive performance. Thanks, Stroma!

In short, the things I was worried about in my last post turned out pretty well. I take that sense of doubt as a good sign – I think it’s important that each new piece contains something I haven’t done before, and a corresponding element of risk.

The most significant departure in this piece was building it around the existing materials of a Gabrieli motet. Even in their fragmented form, these materials retain some of the harmonic flavour of their original context. The tension between this (and in places the original harmony was deliberately retained), and the sonically-based development going on around them, produced some musically useful tension. There’s also an interesting harmonic ambiguity created where the modal materials are overlaid, but set adrift from their original metrical grid.

And this piece represents another step in my attempts to incorporate aspects of improvisation into the context of composed materials. I’m really enjoying the results of sharing creative control with the performers, asking myself the question ‘how much notation is really needed?’ There’s more I could do in this area – I don’t think I’ve found the answer to the notational question yet. (And of course it’s going to be different in different pieces.) So, something to do in the next piece, whatever that is.

Here’s a recording of the second performance:

There’s also a video, filmed by Chris Watson.

The sound of paths not taken

The new piece is written, and the score and parts delivered. The performance is set for 26 April, as part of Stroma’sMirror of Time 2’ programme. The underlying thread of the programme is the same as last year’s ‘Mirror of Time’ concert, bringing together early and contemporary music. The early music is mostly things that were the avant-garde of their time, and often styles and technical approaches that weren’t developed in later, more familiar music, so they still sound strange to us today. I think this is a really interesting way to construct a programme; last year’s concert was great, and I’m looking forward to this instalment. As with last year, the performers are Stroma’s regular string players, with soprano Rowena Simpson, and recorder player Kamala Bain.

My contribution is a short piece for recorder and string quartet, provisionally titled Canzona per sonare: degraded echoes. That title seems likely to stick, barring a sudden flash of inspiration between now and the concert. I generally find this stage of the process the most uncomfortable – the pause between letting go of the music, and hearing it in rehearsal. This is the time when the doubts set in: does the score convey what I think it does? Have I found notational solutions which make sense to the players? Do the sounds the notation stands for work together as I imagined?

Perhaps because of my attempts to document some of the process, I was conscious of some aspects of the creative process involved in this piece. I’m thinking particularly of the step from the open-ended planning stages, where I have a general image of what the music might be like, to the point where I have to commit to something, and start filling in details. It’s probably more accurate to describe the initial stage as a number of competing images, some of which are incompatible, in a way that they couldn’t all be part of the same piece. I think the friction between these multiple possibilities is necessary to the formation of a piece, but at some point I inevitably have to choose to let go of things that earlier seemed like really good ideas. Or, it’s not always a conscious choice: more than once I reached a point where it became apparent that certain directions were now inaccessible, and indeed, looking at a more-or-less finished form, realised that several promising strands had been left unexplored.

It’s compounded in this case by the piece’s short duration – probably about five and a half minutes, and mostly moving quite slowly, so there’s less scope for covering a lot of ground. None of this should be read as suggesting that I’m unhappy with where I’ve ended up; but some of those paths not taken are still enticing. Actually, it’s probably quite useful to have material in reserve – some of the things that didn’t fit this time could be adapted to other contexts, although by the time I come back to them, who knows if they’ll still be interesting?

So now I’m in the limbo between finalising the score, and hearing it played. I often find that this is the lowest ebb of the creative process, particularly if I haven’t had a collaborative relationship with the performers along the way. (I did manage one very productive session with Kamala, trying out some options for manipulating the timbre of the recorder, in which I learnt two things: the acoustics of the Ganassi recorder are even more interesting than I expected, and I’m in awe at the subtlety of Kamala’s playing. There’s the beginnings of another piece right there.)

Usually what happens is that once I hear a piece played, I can start to appreciate it as it is, rather than seeing it in terms of how it diverges from the original idea. And more often than not, the surprises are good ones – the overlay of the performers’ interpretation onto the notated score. But I never feel that I can count on that until it happens.

With this piece, I feel that there are some risks involved, and I’m waiting for a rehearsal to see how they turn out. The first of these is the use of the Gabrieli motet as a source of material. There are direct quotations, and isolated melodic fragments, and aspects of the motet’s modal harmonic framework underpin sections of the piece. There’s a degree of tension between that soundworld and a layer of harmonically static, timbrally driven music – it remains to be seen whether this tension propels the music, or whether it’s just uncomfortable.

The main concern is with the rhythmic notation. Most of the piece is without a metrical grid, so it’s left to the players to form the relationships between the parts. This follows on from some of the approaches taken in The stars like years, particularly the idea of de-emphasising counting, while still allowing for the possibility of rhythmic complexity. I’m excited about the possibilities of sharing creative responsibility with the performers in this way, and it’s been quite effective in earlier pieces; but I’m still not sure I’ve found a reliable way of notating these sorts of approaches. There’s a delicate balance between too much notation, and not enough (and this piece probably leans towards the too-much side). I think the greatest concern is whether the notational solution I’ve arrived at makes sense to the people who have to play from it – again, time will tell.

And, on a more practical level, there’s the question of balance between the recorder and the string quartet. I’ve written it for Ganassi soprano, in the hope that the high register will help keep the recorder audible, and the Ganassi design is generally stronger in tone than baroque-style recorders. And of course, I don’t doubt that the players are sensitive to these issues, and for most of the piece, there’s plenty of space around everyone’s contribution. And, for the most part, it isn’t a soloist/accompaniment kind of texture, so that should work itself out when it’s played.

But that’s probably enough of my insecurities. I’m really looking forward to the next part of the process, when the musicians turn my score into music.

Appropriating Gabrieli

One of the characteristics of the new piece, and something I haven’t tried before, is that it needs to make reference to other music – specifically, early music. To this end, I’m looking at ways of incorporating aspects of a motet by Giovanni Gabrieli.

I’m at a slight disadvantage, in that I don’t have the full source: I came across this piece several years ago, when I was editing a recording of a performance. But I didn’t copy the whole score; I transcribed the notes, without text, so that and a title is all I have now. I’m reasonable convinced that this is it (Thanks, Michael Norris!), and from that I deduce that the text is Psalm 7, but that’s where it stops. As reference material, I’d prefer now to have the whole thing, but I’ve got the part which struck me when I first heard it, which is the harmonic effects arising from the relationships between the parts.

(Here are the notes:)

So the question is how to use this material in my own piece. At this point, the options are open – I haven’t yet settled on how things fit together, although I’m leaning towards a fairly open notation, seeing where else I can go with some of the approaches I used in The stars like years.

Of course, ‘harmonic’ has a slightly different meaning in the context of sixteenth-century music. It’s not functional harmonic progression – the harmony is a side-effect of the voice-leading, and the polyphonic relationships between the parts. Extracting the chords from the points of consonance gives a progression which preserves the flavour of the original, but what happens between those points is much more interesting. In particular, some of the passing note/suspension action produces a high level of dissonance, and the voice-leading generates some interesting major/minor ambiguities, so that the perceived tonal centre moves about quite a bit.

On a more abstract level, the real interest is in the relationships between the parts – how the music arrives at, and departs from, the structural points. I think that’s the part which is useful to borrow from. At the same time, nearer the surface, the style of ornamentation, both as written in Gabrieli’s motet, and also more generally from sixteenth-century performance practice, could be a useful point of reference.

The other aspect which interests me is the texture. As far as I can remember, the Gabrieli motet treats each line of the text differently, and the texture moves between imitative polyphony and passages of rhythmic unison, through various gradations between those two states. That’s also something I can use. (That raises questions of synchronisation if the notation is rhythmically free, but that’s probably another post.)

If one end of the continuum is direct quotation from Gabrieli, the opposite pole would be to use these technical ideas in a new context. I suspect I’ll end up somewhere in between.

EDIT: With a bit more digging, I’ve found the text. It’s not Psalm 7 – it’s a composite of various sacred texts (including several psalms). Many thanks to my esteemed brother, the music librarian.

And if you’re on Spotify, here’s a proper recording.

Work in progress, with documentation

I’m happy to say that I’m working on a new concert piece, for performance in early 2013. I’m going to attempt to document some of the process of making it here. It’s probably not going to be a detailed diary – more an occasional discussion of some of the larger questions in the background.

I’m hoping that attempting to write about some of the questions I’m addressing will clarify them for myself. And of course, conversations in the comments would be welcome.

I’m also interested in the idea of putting some of my creative process into the open – I’d love to read this sort of thing about other composers’ work.

Perhaps the biggest risk will be speculation about the paths not taken. So others will be made aware of how the final piece falls short (as it inevitably will) of the original ideas.

Or it might be that too much thinking aloud will get in the way of the actual work, in which case I’ll stop. One way to find out…

What’s my instrument?

About a week ago, I recorded an interview with Bryan Crump, for his Radio New Zealand Nights show. It’s a regular segment, where Bryan talks to a musician about their instrument, without mentioning the instrument by name. Previous episodes can be found in the Programme Library, on each Friday. It’s an interesting angle, and there are some good conversations there.

Mine was on air tonight, and it’s now online.
(Looks like WordPress won’t let me use the RNZ’s nice-looking embedded player – that’s disappointing.)

When Bryan’s producer first approached me, I was apprehensive, since I’m not particularly active as a performer at the moment. The conversation was more about the instrument than about me, and Bryan led me through some thoughtful questions. I even managed to fit in enough practice to (mostly) get away with playing on the radio.

Leading up to the interview, I was thinking about the role of playing in my musical activity – what is my instrument? A lot of the music I’ve made recently has taken shape in editing software, but I’m not going to argue for that as an instrument. I’ve become aware of an issue with projects such as Domestic Recordings, and collaborative work with Lee Noyes (of which another instalment is forthcoming): while much of the source material is instrumental improvisation, there’s a long process of editing, which distances it from the spontaneous starting point. I’m imagining getting myself into a position where I could play more, and edit less.

(And I’m aware of the need to write a section for my website that covers this stuff – it’s all composed music at the moment.)

There’s also the proxy performance of working closely with performers, which is intensely rewarding when those conditions come about. Recent ventures into open-ended notation seem to help with this – I’m thinking of the rehearsal process of As if to catch the fleeting tail of time, with Dylan Lardelli and friends, and the collaborative process with the New Zealand Clarinet Quartet, which led to The stars like years. I’m hoping to extend this approach in a piece I’m working on over the Summer. (And also to document some of the process here, once it’s under way.)

And right now, I’d like to back up writing about these things with actually doing some of them.

Remastering electroacoustic music

I’ve been working on a project preparing archival recordings for broadcast. This is part of the Resound project, a collaboration between Radio NZ Concert and SOUNZ which aims to make Radio NZ Concert’s New Zealand Composers Archive available—selected works are being broadcast in Sound Lounge between now and the end of the year, and most of the archive is available online, as media on demand at the SOUNZ website. I don’t think there’s a direct entrance there—the audio files are embedded on each individual piece’s page—although a search for ‘Resound’ produces a lot of results…

From the point of view of remastering, the pieces for broadcast generally fall into two categories. There are older works, which have uneven audio levels, and tape hiss, and sometimes tape degradation—some of these need significant amounts of work. The more recent recordings generally only need level adjustments—many of them are mastered as if for CD, using the full dynamic range—what I’m aiming for are files that can be dropped into a compiled programme without any further treatment, so the levels need to be inside a range that won’t freak out the transmitters.

Most of the time, this is straightforward—it’s the same balancing act we do in making feature programmes, dealing with the technical limits, while not doing too much damage to the music. But for a few pieces this balance is problematic. It’s most obvious in electroacoustic music—in an instrumental piece there’s a perceptual separation between the recording and the music, whereas in electroacoustic music those two things are (usually) much more closely intertwined. So there’s a stronger sense that, in changing things like the balance and the dynamic range, there’s a risk of making musical changes—a risk of going beyond making the piece come across more clearly on radio, into altering the work itself.

Of course there are also instrumental pieces that veer into this territory, especially those that use very quiet sounds. Music that’s very quiet all the time is particularly difficult on the radio.

But the example that really raised these questions was a piece of my own—Mists and Voices, from 1999.

The piece was designed to be presented in a room full of speakers. On the radio, its dynamic range is problematic. The loud stuff is easy enough to control; the real problem is that a lot of the piece sits near the threshold of audibility. So the difficulty is as much aesthetic as technical—simply turning up the quiet bits changes the music. In particular, if the dynamic range is narrowed too far, the distinctions between foreground and background are removed. There’s a lot of detail in the quietest parts, but if it’s raised to the point where it’s clearly audible, then it assumes an importance it wasn’t meant to have, and changes the balance of the various materials that make up the piece. But the original master couldn’t play on air—on most people’s radios, it would be mostly silent, and that’s not the piece either.

As far as I can remember (1999 was a while ago now), I intended for the quietest parts to be ambiguous—for the listener to be uncertain whether the sounds were in the music or in the room. So it’s already risky in the concert hall; the question here is how to replicate that in a way that will work within the technical constraints of a radio broadcast. At the time I made it, I had one kind of presentation in mind, and there’s one version of the piece that’s made for that context. Now, however, I’m coming to the view that there can be multiple versions for different listening conditions, and I’m still working out whether different contexts need different mixes. (Of course, it depends on the piece—this particular piece seems to be especially sensitive to these questions.)

The version above is closer to the original than the broadcast version, but the dynamics are tweaked a little, so it should be audible on computer speakers. I’ll find out whether the radio version works when it’s broadcast on 16 October.