A few words about Stephen Bailey’s “The Uncurling Nautilus”

posted by: Sarah Perske

Nautilus - Version 3One of my goals for this blog is to periodically say a few words about works posted on the “Listening” page in the hope of initiating conversation about those works. This week I’d like to highlight Stephen Bailey’s “The Uncurling Nautilus” for cello and laptop. Please take a moment to listen to the piece if you haven’t already done so (click the image on the left). For that matter, take a moment to listen even if you’re already familiar with the piece! I’ve heard the version for horn and laptop in live performance several times now, and new details have emerged upon each hearing.

Both versions of the piece strike me as particularly compelling integrations of electronics and an acoustic instrument. The electronic element functions both as a virtual space in which the cello resonates (I think this is most audible in the outer sections of the work), and as an “instrument” in its own right (this can be heard in the inner sections, starting at 2:37 in this recording). It is also notable that the laptop performer’s role is truly performative, with a high degree of interaction between the laptop performer and the cellist. At 2:37, for example, the laptop performer must trigger groups of notes in response to the cellist’s pacing. I appreciate the sonic depth and richness that the electronic element creates in this piece, and the timbral variety created by the use of vocalization and percussive sounds in the cello part.

Stephen Bailey has interesting things to say about the structure of the piece:

“Many notable composers have had a fascination with the Fibonacci sequence. This is a series of numbers where the next number is reached through the addition of the previous two. The order of these numbers is 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Another important element of this sequence of numbers is the ratio between each consecutive number after the third. This ratio is about 62% and has for many years been known as the golden ratio. This ratio also describes the spiral curling of the shell of a nautilus, a sea-dwelling cephalopod related to, but far more ancient than, the squid and the octopus.

The Uncurling Nautilus is not me expressing my own fascination with the Fibonacci sequence, though I do use the sequence as a compositional tool. The initial concept behind this work was one of gradual accumulation of elements over time and the Fibonacci sequence stuck out as a significant and interesting pattern through which to accumulate elements that wasn’t simply 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. The work is split into three main sections: in the first, the cello plays brief gestures which are played back by the computer as microtonal clusters through a delay. The Fibonacci sequence governs the accumulation of attacks in this section. So first the cello plays one note, then one again, then two, three, five, eight and so on. This creates micro-level call and response periods of growth and decay which, together, create a macro-level accumulation of sound. In the second main section, the cello plays a lyrical, rhythmically free melody and is accompanied by chords played by the computer. The accumulation of texture within the accompaniment is governed by the Fibonacci sequence: first the cello is accompanied by one note, then two, three, five and so on. The third section is a shortened recapitulation of the first. Each of these sections is separated from the next by a cadenza, first improvised by the cello, and then played by the computer based on recorded and highly altered material from the cello’s cadenza.”

About Stephen Bailey:

SBaileycolorcropA fierce experimentalist, Stephen Bailey is a Colorado-based composer of chamber, choral, and electronic music. Stephen’s music embodies a language in which the primary concern is expression, and the primary tool is texture. This language borrows techniques from composers of minimalism, sound mass, and post-serialism. The result can be both ecstatically serene and forcefully chaotic, both sumptuously beautiful and disturbingly ugly.

Because of a strong background in audio engineering and music production, Stephen fully embraces the incorporation of technology into music, while also respecting the beauty and expression of classical forms, genres and instruments.

Stephen’s music has been featured twice on the Playground Ensemble’s annual Colorado Composer’s Concert, as well as their 2013 New Creations concert. Stephen was also one of
three composers to have their music performed at The Classical Salon at Dazzle Nightclub. His devotion to modern music has garnered him commissions from the Metropolitan State University of Denver Men’s Choir, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church and a number of Denver-area musicians and chamber groups. He has studied composition with composers such as Conrad Kehn, Leanna Kirchoff, Fred Hess, Cherise Leiter, Abbie Betinis, Brian Johanson,
 and Chris Malloy. He holds an Associate of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Music degree in music composition from Arapahoe Community College and Metropolitan State University of Denver respectively and is currently pursuing a Masters of Music in composition from the University of Denver.

Raphaël Cendo, “Registre des lumières”

by Nathan Cornelius

I recently had the opportunity to hear French composer Raphaël Cendo’s Registre des lumières performed live at Citè de la Musique in Paris. In his work, Cendo aims for what he calls “saturation,” that is, overloading the sonic environment so that unforeseen qualities emerge in it, like overloading a microphone with a signal so strong that it generates distortion or feedback. This process can take many forms, such as dense unsynchronized textures, radical extended techniques, or the buildup of contrasting timbres (tone colors). Although I am not yet a fan of all of Cendo’s music, Registre des lumières left a deep impression on me, radically reshaping my conception of musical timbre.

This piece particularly explores timbral saturation, stretching listeners’ ability to perceive many diverse sound qualities at once. At any given moment, one’s attention might rapidly be shifting from the violinists playing col legno, to the pianist hammering on the strings with felt beaters, to the trombonist playing multiphonics with a double reed, to the choir stage-whispering into their microphones.

In this context, Cendo achieves a radical reversal of the qualities of “normal” and “unusual” timbres, so that a simple piano note or plucked cello string seems a fresh and almost alien sound.  I find a parallel here to certain works by composers such as Penderecki and Rochberg, where the prevailing atonal harmonies are suddenly interrupted by pure tonal triads, which seem to break in from another world.  Now that our ears have been violently awoken from their well-worn habits of hearing, we can hear Penderecki’s traditional chords, or Cendo’s traditional timbres, for what they really are—and what they really were all along.

Means, ends, and “the law of the gift:” What should I write, how should I write it and…why am I doing this?

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by Sarah Perske

After reading a bunch of articles about the writing process in connection with my writing center job this year, I was inspired to embark on a yearlong obsessive inquiry into the composing process. I searched for language to demystify the compositional thought process, tested different working methods, and tried to develop personal solutions to the age-old problems of procrastination, “composer’s block,” and indecisiveness.

When I discussed some of these explorations with my colleagues a few weeks ago, Stephen Bailey made the comment that for him, the question of “what” to write is more important than “how” to go about it, and that thinking too much about the “how” without enough attention to the “what” yields poor musical results. In other words, as Stephen pointed out more recently, “the process is usually less important than the result.” I agreed with him – and sent Nathan Cornelius into fits of convulsive laughter – by remarking that sometimes the “what” is the “how” more than the “how” is the “how.” Chaya Czernowin states the same idea in more elegant terms when she writes that “every separation between means or technique on the one hand and expression or concept or idea on the other is totally false.”[1] Czernowin explains that different ends demand different means. As she humorously puts it, one composer may conceive of his/her music as “a circus of freak creatures” while another conceives of his/her music as “a garden,” and it’s important to realize that “a circus of freak creatures will lead to very different techniques than a garden.”[2] In other words, the “what” must determine the “how,” and not the reverse.

I’m beginning to think my extensive search for answers to the “how” of music composition was partly motivated by subconscious unwillingness to confront the “what.” It isn’t difficult to find something to say musically, but sometimes it can be difficult for me to determine whether what I said is really what I meant, and whether the means I chose to communicate a particular idea were really the most effective means. Did I really feel a strong commitment to this or that harmonic language when I chose it? Does my choice to write this particular kind of music come from a place of authenticity?[3] Am I communicating something that I truly believe in? Or am I just rehashing the languages of composers I like, practicing techniques my mentors said I should get acquainted with, and filling pages with notes because I have a deadline?

At the risk of making Nathan laugh again, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if the “how” is dependent on the “what,” the “what” is dependent on the “why.” If I have trouble discovering the “what,” or if I have any doubt about whether what I’m saying musically is really what I mean, the reason could be that I have failed to come to grips with the “why.” As composers, we’re motivated by a variety of “whys;” sometimes the “why” is that we have an opportunity to write for a particular performer, or that our deadline is next Thursday. Sometimes the “why” is that we want to write something as good as the piece our colleague so-and-so wrote last quarter. These kinds of “whys” are often the most immediately compelling, but I would argue that they are unlikely to produce satisfying, believable results unless they are accompanied by a deeper “why.”

The deeper “why” is slightly different for each of us, but it always has its origins in the idea that writing music is an act of communication. We write music because we have something to say to a human “other,” and that something needs to be more than just “look at me, I’m writing good music.” If my compositional choices are excessively influenced by trying to be “as good as so-and-so,” or by worrying about how others perceive me, the process is miserable and the product is unsatisfying. If, on the other hand, I compose with the feeling that I am secretly wrapping a present to surprise and delight a beloved friend, the process is fun and the product is something I can be proud of.

This reminds me of something violinist Danica Smith once told me: that the deepest truths of any discipline are reflections of universal truth. Ceasing to be “self-oriented” and becoming “other-oriented” is a necessary part of becoming a better person; for me, at least, it’s also an essential part of becoming a better composer. I’m convinced that the creation of good music demands that an individual composer reach his/her full human potential through what the Polish philosopher and theologian Karol Wojtyla called “the law of the gift,” the necessity of making a gift of oneself to others.[4] For these reasons, discovering the “what” and the “how” of music composition is more than a step in artistic or intellectual growth. Writing music must be, by its very nature, an action or series of actions oriented toward affirming the intrinsic value of human life – other’s lives as well as one’s own.

 

[1] Chaya Czernowin, “Teaching that which is Not Yet There” (Stanford Version), Contemporary Music Review 31, no. 4 (August 2012): 285.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Czernowin also has interesting things to say about authenticity – I hope to cover this in another post.

[4] Better known today as Saint Pope John Paul II. To the best of my knowledge, Wojtyla’s ideas about “the law of the gift” derive from lectures he gave as a professor at the Catholic University of Lublin in the 1950s, though these ideas were further developed in some of his post-election writings as John Paul II. See George Weigel, Witness to Hope: the Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999),136-37.

George Crumb, “Star Child”

posted by: sarahperske

This monumental work by George Crumb made a big impression on me recently and I wanted to share. The score of this piece is a work of art in itself and is well worth trying to find (thank heaven for interlibrary loan). The text is an interweaving of medieval Latin texts (including the “Dies Irae”) and a Biblical text (John 12:36) that convey the apocalyptic theme of hope in the midst of destruction.

On my first hearing of the piece, the form struck me as a spiral or corkscrew; new elements are added as the piece moves forward in time, but previous elements keep cycling back either through periodic re-introduction (as in the shouted “Dies Irae” sections in the male speaking choir) or continuous repetition. The idea of a spiral form is graphically reflected in Crumb’s use of circular systems in certain sections to show musical elements that are repeated continuously as a “background” under other musical elements. Crumb labels these continuous sections as “Musica Mundana” and “Musica Humana.”

Crumb uses the human voice in intriguing ways in this piece. Trombone I, for example, is directed to speak through the instrument, creating an eerie, “disembodied” echo of the soprano’s speaking part. I also appreciate Crumb’s use of striking timbral juxtapositions in this piece. For example, after the luminous string sounds and bowed crotales of the first “circle music” have been established, a trombone with a metal plunger mute enters at 3:10, creating a ragged, jarring sound that contrasts sharply with the shimmering “Musica Mundana.”

I look forward to hearing what other people have to say about this piece – please comment!