Windows Left Open (2010, rev. 2011)
for 2 or more instruments and electronics // duration: 8'30" (approx.)
- UnBalanced Connection #48, Gainesville, FL (Oct 28, 2011) download .mp3
- Performed by: Laura Maule (cello), Michael Polo (bass), Michael Smith (classical guitar), and Ben O'Brien (electric guitar)
- Electronic Music Midwest, KCKCC, Kansas City (Oct 1, 2011) download .mp3
- Performed by: Stamos Martin (cello), Brian Padavic (bass), Elizabeth Hougland (violin), and John Chittum (trombone)
- UnBalanced Connection #48, Gainesville, FL (Oct 28, 2011)
Generative Pitch StructureThe piece sets the pristine character of algorithmically generated material against the backdrop of a nature preserve soundscape (Florida's Payne's Prairie), the combination of which serves to inform the performance of live musicians. The expanding palette of just-intoned pitches are derived from scales generated by successive branching from the harmonics of a given frequency (fundamental) for each section. The harmonics of each section's fundamental are introduced sequentially as potential reference frequencies (tonics), which when multiplied against members of an expanding set of just-intoned ratios (increasing in complexity), generates a number of just-intoned diatonic scales. Therefore, scales are related to one another only on the basis that each tonic is a member of the same harmonic set. Within each of the piece's five sections, scales branch off of the harmonics of the fundamental in a non-deterministic way. Tonics for each scale, and the particular collection of scale degrees, are sequenced using a random selection algorithm with statistical feedback in order to vary the juxtaposition of both scales and scale degrees, cutting down on direct repetitions.
Placing Material in TimeEach section can be understood as a canon, wherein voices enter according to some temporal offset. Each voice explores a unique scale (built off of a particular harmonic of the given fundamental for the section, as described above). Note durations within each voice are also selected randomly, using statistical feedback. Durations are chosen from a set of proportional values relative to an underlying tempo for the section. Durations are chosen until a specified metrical block of time is filled precisely. Between successive voices within a section, this metrical block is zeroed out, and its size increased by adding a constant value. Voices, once introduced, repeat for a while, and then stop. The number of repetitions is inversely correlated with the voice's temporal offset. This process results in the accumulation of material and its subsequent slow decay across the section.
Soundscape as ConfoundAttending to algorithmic process is however not the piece's aesthetic focus. Five soundscapes (one for each section) recorded at different places in the Payne's Prairie Nature Preserve are also heard, and provide a backdrop for the computationally derived instrumental sounds. By layering/juxtaposing the algorithmic material with soundscape recordings, a disjunct emerges. This disjunct becomes the main focus of the work, a gap between harmonicity and inharmonicity that live performers must bridge. In this way, the electronics are not proffered as an accompaniment to live performance, but rather, a sufficiently interesting and nuanced musical supposition intended to elicit a meaningful musical engagement on the part of the performers.
An Argument for PerformanceIn live performance, a small chamber ensemble of two or more instruments capable of playing microtonal pitches mediate the disjunct between algorithmically derived instrumental sounds and the background soundscapes. For each section of the piece, the score presents musicians with the sequence of voices, and the sequence of pitches within each voice, they will hear in the electronics. Musicians then listen to the electronics and choose how and when to match pitch, playing softly when they are confident about their intonation, and loudly when they are less confident. By attempting to match pitch, while improvising articulation, rhythm, and dynamics "in tune" with how they hear the electronics and each other, performers begin to place themselves somewhere between the indeterminate characteristics of a soundscape and the computational, harmonic purity of the algorithmic processes. Through performer interaction with the electronics (listening and voicing) the algorithmic material becomes infused with a degree of dynamism, performability, and presence that would otherwise be absent.
Live performance marks a point of tangency between how we hear the world and how we model it. It should be reflective of a deep reciprocity between listening and voicing. Windows Left Open presents such a tangency directly, allowing the reciprocity inherent in our aural engagement with the world to come to the fore. In this way, performer musicality becomes contextualized as a larger exploration of "natural" phenomena. By leaving performers to engage with the piece's sound world on their own accord through microtonal pitch matching and aural feedback, the nuance of performance itself highlights a reasonableness for juxtaposing soundscape and algorithm. Through our awareness and sensitivity to performative provision, response, and imprecision, us listeners begin to take a few tentative steps towards situating ourselves somewhere between the two.