LyonFest 2019 Program Notes

LyonFest 2019 – Set #1, Areté Venue & Gallery, March 13, 7:00 PM

Coronation is my first composition to employ Ableton Live to coordinate rhythmic and signal processing elements of a work for acoustic instrument with computer. I have long been interested in beat-oriented music, having first written custom software drum machines in 1987. Beats are quite common in much of my computer music from the late 1980s forward. The word “coronation” suggests an endorsement of an expected outcome, congruent with the notion that we pretty much know how things are going to go. This view is comforting, though it might get a bit boring over time. For better or worse, the unexpected has been making a comeback. Coronation was composed for Jason Crafton, to whom it is dedicated.

Viola Rhizome
The rhizome is a subterranean stem of a plant that sends roots and shoots from its nodes. A new rhizome can be formed from a segment of an existing rhizome. Ginger and turmeric are examples of rhizomes. The musical rhizome is a technique I developed in which repeated materials gradually send out musical roots and shoots, becoming nearly unrecognizable in the process. The Viola Rhizome opens with a somber melody that is characteristic of the instrument. As this short piece develops, rhizomic procedures gradually open up space for unexpected and dramatic outbursts.

Smeared Hexachords articulates each of the 50 hexachords present in the 12-tone scale as a micro-composition, aggregated into a larger form. The hexachords are split into two books, each of which presents 25 hexachords.  The character of the musical treatment for each hexachord is determined at random. The work balances a simple, large-scale form against maximized variety and unpredictability at the musical surface. The work was composed for Jay Crone, to whom it is dedicated.

Hyperion is inspired by the music and performance practice of Bootsy Collins, and by Max Reger’s “The Theory of Modulation.” Bootsy exemplifies Funk, and Reger’s theory maps out the tonal system as a conveyance – a way to get from one place to the next. Hyperion is structured in sonata form, which is the most classically narrative form of tonal music. Within this sonata, chaos is employed to effect an aimless system of modulation. In addition to employing chaotic formulae, Hyperion embeds two formlets within the sonata-allegro – a fugato (a traditional formal technique), and a rhizome, which is a formal technique I developed a few years ago, based on the shapes of naturally occurring rhizomes, such as turmeric and ginger. The title Hyperion derives from an irregularly shaped moon of Saturn whose rotation is chaotic. Hyperion was commissioned by the Kandinsky Trio, and is dedicated to them.

Three Melodies for Vibraphone is an early articulated noise composition in which three simple and distinct melodies are placed into structural relief, and varied with extreme ranges of speed, according to random processes that only operate at higher levels of musical structure. The piece is nearly impossible to perform accurately as written.

Onceathon II: The Kiss of Constable was created for Margaret Lancaster, who premiered the work at the 1998 Bonk Festival, and has given it many performances since. Onceathon II incorporates many disparate elements and styles and attempts to integrate them into a unified rhetorical statement. The original version of Onceathon II was for flute and tape. I revised it in 2001 to include processing of the live flute and an internal section of computer improvisation using a sample of the live performance. The work now exists as a hybrid between instrument/tape and instrument/live computer music.

Red Hot Polka is an articulated noise composition. The premise of articulated noise is that ubiquitous Internet is a new form of environmental noise that is significantly transforming human thought and behavior patterns. Articulated noise compositions are random at large-scale structural levels, with most compositional decisions limited to the surface level. In the case of Red Hot Noise, all ideas were crowdsourced through the following status update on the composer’s Facebook page: “Say you wanted to write the craziest polka ever. What would you put in it?” All responses were collected and then randomly selected and sequenced by a computer program. The compositional process then consisted of making the connections by navigating the noise. 

Loose Canon is an articulated noise composition for improvising performer. Noise builds temporal structures of improvisatory guidance, and assembles DSP configurations for the live processing of the performer. In addition to the live performer, a second “ghost” performer is assembled from samples recorded earlier in the improvisation, and is then sent through further random DSP processing. The highly contingent and immediate nature of the software interface prevents the performer from comprehending the large-scale form, but could inspire the performer’s playing with the intensity of the computer-improvised enhancements, creating a sense of surprise and apprehension.


LyonFest 2019 – Set #2, Areté Venue & Gallery, March 13, 9:00 PM

Bouncing Betty is an early work from my graduate student days at UC San Diego. At the time of its composition, I was obsessed with the possibilities of musical form. A bouncing betty is a particularly nasty bomb from WWII. The composition is an exploration of the idea of an exploding bomb as a musical form.

The Book of Strange Positions is a musical present for String Noise, the violin duo that can and will do anything.The score is a mischievous screenplay, a game of Twister on the fingerboard. The work is sometimes a duo, sometimes a solo for a violin beast with four arms. At all times it pushes the limits of what actions one might decently ask a violinist to perform.

Noise Triptych is an articulated noise composition in three movements. Folk Noise articulates plainchant, North American folk songs, and invented melodies with various noise-driven transformations. Noise Impromptu combines performance strategies in a temporally indeterminate, uncorrelated fashion. Two Kinds of Noise imposes different filters on the two violin parts. The selection of filters is totally random.

Variations on “Psycho Killer”
When Pauline Kim Harris asked me to compose a new work for solo violin based on the music of David Byrne, I was immediately drawn to the iconic Talking Heads anthem “Psycho Killer.” The song has many memorable musical elements, harmonically motivically and through the musical imagery embedded in the strange lyrics. As the song lacks a proper guitar solo, my variations could function as the absent, imaginary solo that the song might be dreaming about. The conventional variation form that I chose suggested formal connections to the new wave genre. In his essay “Exchange Theories in Disco, New Wave and Album-oriented Rock”, musicologist Charles Kronengold writes: ”new wave treats conventions as a necessary evil, or attempts to ironize them, or uses them without acknowledging their status as conventions.” All of this comes to bear on a 21st century set of variations, which is inevitably drawn toward a historicist view of the variations genre, which is also the classical music form under the most pressure from modern intellectual property regimes.

The song “Psycho Killer” does indeed end with an instrumental section that could be described as a guitar solo, and which adheres with striking precision to Kronengold’s description of the new wave guitar solo, which bears quotation in full: ”New wave’s guitar solos can lack inspiration and even competence according to the standards of seventies rock, but new wave’s listeners understand that these deficiencies don’t prevent a guitar solo from fulfilling its functions: the guitar solo may serve as an allusion to earlier genres like rockabilly or surf, or as an ironic deflation of rock’s conventions.” This instrumental attitude formed one pole of my approach to the violin writing in Variations. The other pole was provided by Paganini’s 24 Caprices, which elevate virtuosity to an extreme level. The caprices often advertise a comic mismatch between their utterly convention harmonic formulae, and the wild virtuosic writing that activates them. This comic disconnect appears to have motivated numerous composers such as Johannes Brahms to write their own variations on Paganini’s variation theme from the final caprice.

Finally, my variations had to be for Pauline, and to pay respect not just to her incredible musical virtuosity, intelligence, and sensitivity, but also to her complete fluency in border crossing between the worlds of classical music and other, more popular genres.