The Latest Update
“…nervosity and concentration…”
The Spektral Quartet has released their second performance of pathways, bursting, and I’m so excited to share it with you. It was a wonderful culmination of this project, and I’m so grateful to Russ, Clara, Doyle and Maeve for their work. Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein summed up their performance as follows:
“Violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen threw themselves into the dense thickets of notes with a nervosity and concentration that was nothing short of astonishing.”
Finally, I have plans for future Neurosonics works, so please stay tuned!
Premiere this Friday!
It’s finally happening! The Spektral Quartet will premiere pathways, bursting this Friday (5/5) at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, and again at Constellation Chicago on Friday 5/12.
The Logan Center performance will feature 6-channel surround playback, and I’m really looking forward to presenting the electronics in such an immersive way. (Here’s a stereo reduction of one excerpt – it’ll be only a fraction of the experience!)
Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts
915 E 60th St
Chicago IL 60637
3111 N Western Ave
Chicago IL 60618
$15 ($10 students)
wistful, harrowing optimism
Score and electronics are now complete, and I’m so excited to have Spektral performing it in May – twice!
So I’ve been making the electronic portions more and more dense and heterogenous over the past few months, mostly by adding variant after variant of the sounds I began the project with. I’ve mostly done this to paper over similarities between sounds, or to obscure the source material and/or methods behind them. (And not simply because sine tones can sound like robots…see my previous post!) The result has been textures that become harrowingly dense, even when the electronics are not particularly loud. This certainly is part of my intention: after all, this project is about overloads of electrical activity in the brain.
The question I’ve asked myself, however, is whether it’s too harrowing. Portions of the electronic track are uncomfortably loud, overwhelming, and even violent. (This is all done within reason, of course – there are no truly dangerous volume levels, and certainly no representations of actual seizures.) But part of my motivation for this project has always been to communicate aspects of my own experience with the condition, as it has been quite harrowing at certain points in my life. So instead of mediating the experience of the electronics, I’ve set up the quartet as a foil, particularly in the latter portion of the 21-minute piece. (In the first portion of the piece, the quartet largely reinforces and supplements the uncomfortable tension of the electronic track.)
When the electronics reach their loudest, most explosive point (not long after the excerpt I’ve posted) the quartet reenters following nearly 5 minutes of silence, struggling against the overwhelming electronics. The quartet continues to push back, in fits and starts, as the electronics subside. Their jagged polyrhythms slowly become more regular, and they eventually achieve a much more peaceful space, one that I think realistically counterbalances the violence of the electronics.
I presented my opera Killing the Goat to a group of people a few years ago, and I received some extremely vocal criticism for the ending, which resolves to a pure, gentle F major chord. Aesthetic legitimacy of this move aside (I reference two 19th-century operatic finales in this last scene, one of which resolves in precisely this way), it was a conscious decision on my part to resolve the opera’s harrowing story in this manner. I think I’ve taken a similar approach here: for instance, I recently made some incremental adjustments to the harmonic language of the ending. It was darkly lyrical to begin with, and there’s no real tonality, let alone an F major resolution – very far from it, since the quartet’s final harmony is the justly tuned odd partials of Bb (5/7/9/11/13). But there’s a slightly brighter consonance that bolsters the quartet’s role as a relieving counterweight to the harrowing electronics, one that may even provide an affirmative message in the end.
R2D2 or BB8?
You know that thing where people tell you what they really think of contemporary music? A few weeks ago, someone close to me asked if I was “going for R2D2 or BB8” in the excerpts I previously posted.
Star Wars robots in a piece about 3D brain space?? Obviously this is a problem! She was half-kidding and certainly wasn’t trying to be negative, but I found her honest opinion of the sounds I had created refreshing and very helpful. It drove me to make some detailed changes to the throughout the entire electronic track, and to create some new, more distorted sonic materials with my existing methods.
I still consider the sine tones, and many other sounds in the piece, to be crucial material for the concept behind it, but I figured there must be a way to improve the impression they make. Once I had settled on sounds that felt less recognizable, I folded them into the preexisting texture, with the hope that the increased complexity makes it sound less like a cute robot happens to be in the mix.
I’ve made plenty of other modifications, so please check out the clips above!
Here are excerpts from the Spektral Quartet’s material. It hasn’t changed all that much, but I’m still tweaking it here and there as I move toward finishing very soon!
neuron grains, spatial vibrations, inharmonic sine tones – and also a string quartet!
There is so much wonderful instrument(s)+electronics repertoire in which acoustic and electronic sounds are continuously interwoven, each part of one set of musical ideas. I wanted to take a different approach in this piece, however, for the sake of representing both commentary and conflict. The quartet and the electronic playback are resolutely independent musical worlds, each overlapping with the other for only portions of the piece.
In the electronic part, I’m trying to create a 3D depiction of an occasionally overloaded neurological space, with odd, highly active sounds surrounding the listener. It’s largely a soundscape, however, where precise alignments are less important. The SoundCloud link contains several stereo-reduced excerpts from this sound world. (Some of these underlay the quartet, but most are for electronics alone.)
Here’s a general description of some of the sounds you’ll hear:
direct sonification of the neuron pulses (white noise)
filtered, drastically slowed down neuron pulses
neuron data manipulating the pitch of justly tuned odd partials of Bb
granulation, with neuron data controlling speed
fragments of various string samples from various sources
frequency and/or amplitude convolution of all of these sounds
The quartet is meant to provide commentary on this crazy neurological space. There are a few bridges between acoustic and electronic; these include the transcribed rhythm of neuron pulses that appears in the quartet part (page 3, bar 36, vla and elsewhere) and ephemeral string samples in the electronics. But the quartet – particularly towards the end – becomes a refuge external to the electronics as it flirts with consonance and tonality.
Some quartet score excerpts are here. I’d love to hear what you think!
Getting started, and a recording of “embers”
I’ve begun work on this new piece and look forward to posting about some of the ideas I’m working with very soon! In the meantime, though, Alarm Will Sound has released their performance of embers, fused to ash from the 2015 Mizzou International Composers Festival. I hope you enjoy it!
During my time as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, I participated in the Reva and David Logan Center’s Arts|Science Collaboration Initiative, which allowed me to work with neuroscientist Tahra Eissa on creating electronic sounds derived from the electrical behavior of rat neurons. The goal of this research is to better understand epilepsy in humans. (More information is available here.)
I recently began a long-term, multi-work creative project that has grown out of this collaboration. Earlier this year I completed the first work, a multi-channel electronic playback piece Neurosonics I. The piece uses data from these neuron pulses to create and transform certain sounds, and also features drumming patterns derived from the rhythms of these electronic pulses.
For my next step in the project, I’m looking to expand the ideas of Neurosonics I into two new works for string quartet and electronics, both in collaboration with the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet. The first work, set for premiere in May 2017 at the University of Chicago, will be a short preview (ca. 8′) for a larger-scale work (ca. 20′) for Spektral to be premiered at a later date.
My motivation for this work is personal, as I was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2004, and providing artistic responses to the experience of this condition is very important to me. Having the condition has been a formative experience, and this is why my ambitions for this work – and the next in the series – extend beyond simple concert performances. Performance by the Spektral Quartet is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2017, but I am also exploring a collaboration with both the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago and the University of Chicago Medical Center on a patient outreach program. I intend to use my artistic response to the condition to encourage others – both patients and their families – to not only open a dialogue about their personal experiences, but to potentially develop their own responses.
All of the sounds in my first “Neurosonics” work bear some relationship to the neurons: murmuring pulses of raw noise directly sonify the data, while the unstable vibrating sounds use the neuron activity to manipulate filtering and some spectral frequencies. There are also drum sounds: Tahra plays percussion with the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, and she had previously noticed a relationship between certain drumming patterns and the electrical activity in the experiments. So I recorded her playing a handful of these patterns on her darabukka.
This work, premiered by Alarm Will Sound at the Mizzou International Composers Festival in 2015, is an example of the type of commentary the Spektral Quartet will provide on the harsh world of the electronic sounds. “embers” is an intensely diverse collection of ideas: twisted references to Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” from “Die Walküre”, chaotic fits and starts, bluesy lyricism, spectral harmonies, wispy strings struggling to rise from the ashes at the end.
Start and End Dates
01/01/2017 — 05/31/2017