Mazes, Traveling Salesmen, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity: Stephen Goss, Labyrinth

Labyrinth, by British composer Stephen Goss, was commissioned by the Guitar Foundation of America for their 2016 International Concert Artist Competition, where it received some outstanding performances, particularly by competition winner Xavier Jara and runner-up Andrea De Vitis. Dedicated to the memory of Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, Labyrinth takes inspiration from Eco’s book From the Tree to the Labyrinth. Eco contrasts the images of the dictionary or “tree of knowledge,” which organizes the world into a finite, closed loop of connections that can be exhaustively known, and the encyclopedia or “labyrinth” of knowledge, which allows for practically infinite ways of connecting the dots to find order in the world.

Goss sees this distinction as parallel to the difference between a classical labyrinth (traditionally found on the floor of a cathedral), consisting entirely of “a single path from the mouth to the goal,” and a maze, “which gives the traveler choices for the route, some of which lead to dead ends.” An even better metaphor, he suggests, might be a network of points “in which every point can be connected to any other point.” This suggests the classic computational problem of the traveling salesman, who seeks to find the shortest route that visits each of a certain list of cities.

France, Eure et Loir, Chartres, Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Labyrinth of the Cathedral

Labyrinth, Chartres Cathedral, France

Thus, Labyrinth is constructed in a series of 13 short fragments, played without pause. These may be literal quotations, clever reworkings, or outright forgeries of works from various periods of music history. Goss specifies which fragments should be played first and last, but instructs the performer to play the remaining fragments in a different order every time, without omitting any. This instance of mobile form (that is, the piece has no determinate order of sections) presents two related challenges to the performer: one practical and one aesthetic.

The practical problem is one of memory. For many musicians, playing confidently from memory is one of the greatest hurdles they have overcome in their training, and they feel a certain pride in being able to play an entire piece, start to finish, without the score. The problem with a work like Labyrinth is that it must not be played start to finish. Nor, if you take Goss’s instructions literally, can it be played in any of the orders one has previously used. No need to worry about running out of possible orders, though: there are 11!, or approximately 40 million, possible permutations!

Instead, the challenge in playing the fragments in a non-linear fashion is to remember not only which fragments one has already played in that performance but also which orders one has followed in previous performances. When Labyrinth was the set piece for the GFA International Concert Artist Competition, the judges employed someone to mark each contestant’s ordering of the sections to ensure no one played in the same way in different rounds of the competition. Some of the contestants I spoke to solved this problem by dividing the fragments into three or four chunks of fragments which always occurred consecutively, so that they only had to remember which chunks they had already played.

In my opinion, this solution follows the letter but not the spirit of Goss’s instructions. One of the beauties of mobile form is its potential for improvisation, the ability to choose in the moment what you will play next. Therefore, as I practiced this piece, I decided to also practice making up the order on the fly. To be sure, this comes at the cost of a less-than-perfectly-smooth transition now and then, but I think the marvelous freedom it affords is worth the price. I think of it like a maze, where each junction requires a choice: sometimes the choice can be made decisively, but other times there will be a slight hesitation, and that’s okay.

Whether the performer plans the order of sections in advance or decides it spontaneously, they will then have to confront the aesthetic problem of performing Labyrinth: how to decide which sections should follow one another. One approach would be to do so randomly or by some statistical process: one could roll dice to determine the order, play every other (or every third, etc.) segment all the way through, follow reverse alphabetical order of the fictional composers’ last names, and so on. However, such a mechanical approach seems lacking in artistry. For me, some segments will naturally follow each order in a more aesthetically pleasing way, especially if they are tonally related or have pitches in common.

In other words, the performer of Labyrinth is obliged to execute a sort of real-world traveling-salesman problem, determining which fragments lie “closest” together in musical space and constructing a route that connects them all in an efficient—and elegant—manner. This process could very truly be described as playful, even competitive. I remember visiting the Human Maze in Winter Park, Colorado as a child and trying to find my way to the stations with the letters M, A, Z, and E to stamp my passport and get out of the maze. At the age of four, I was only able to complete this quest after several trips up the lookout tower in the middle of the maze and a good deal of help from my father. Meanwhile, older children and adults would dash past me, trying to complete the maze in record time. (Two decades later, I read that the creator of that maze started a successful business franchising his setup to other amusement parks and resorts throughout the country.)

Winter Park Amaze'n Maze

Human maze, Winter Park, Colorado

However, you cannot simply calculate the ideal ordering of fragments in Labyrinth in advance and then play that. More specifically, you can never prove that you have found the ideal order, according to your aesthetic tastes or anyone else’s. Remember, once the number of points gets large enough, the actual traveling-salesman problem can only be solved by a computer large enough to pass for a minor planet. Various algorithms can generate reasonably good paths, but it is extremely difficult to prove that no shorter path exists. In particular, so-called “greedy” algorithms, which operate by simply traveling to the nearest unvisited point to one’s current location, tend to fare poorly in finding an optimal solution, since they run the risk of having the last two or three unvisited points be widely separated from each other. Similarly, it would be easy in Labyrinth to get stuck with only one or two segments left to play which didn’t pair well with each or with the ending.


Visualization of the traveling salesman problem

My personal solution to performing Labyrinth was to envision each fragment as a point in a network, with paths connecting each pair of points, but with some paths weighted more heavily than others according to their efficiency. (In computational theory, this is apparently known as an “ant-colony” algorithm.) That is, I will tend to choose certain transitions more often which I think flow more smoothly. These weights may be stronger for certain pairs of segments than others, but in every case, but I will allow myself to choose even “awkward” transitions a small percentage of the time. For example, I particularly liked following up the “Scherzo” segment with “Contrapunctus,” both because of their common pitch B-flat and because of the musical humor of following a quote from a witty scherzo by Beethoven with one from J. S. Bach’s incredibly serious Art of Fugue. I thought of making a rule that these two segments would always appear next to each other in my performances of Labyrinth, but the few times I allowed myself to break this rule, I always seemed to come up with an especially intriguing order! One of my solutions is recorded at this link.

Chartres Labyrinth Outdoor

Garden labyrinth behind Chartres Cathedral, France

Classical performers in the Western tradition are trained to learn pieces of music linearly and by exact repetition. Everything is scripted and rehearsed, thought out beforehand; non-linear, spontaneous, or improvisatory performance feels strange and uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if this dynamic carries over into my life outside of music as well; I often find myself rehearsing what I will say in various social situations beforehand so I can put on a polished show when the time comes. Learning and performing Labyrinth has led me to explore an alternative mode of performing—even a mode of being—which I have found incredibly freeing and stretching. Having a flexible repertoire of responses which I can draw from at will, leaning more on tried-and-true favorites if necessary but mixing in new ventures as well, feels empowering, both in music and in life.

The Gift of Immediacy: A Meditation on Being Late for a Concert


Andrew Wyeth – The Carry

Me senté
en un claro del tiempo.
era un remanso
de silencio,
de un blanco silencio…
I sat down
In a space of time
It was a backwater
of silence,
of white silence…

Claro de reloj (Pause of the clock), Federico García Lorca, trans. Stanley Read

Actually, I stood up – at the back of the King Center concert hall with two of my friends, because we had arrived late. As the Lorca lyrics of Morton Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones wafted to us in a shimmer of vaguely Messiaen-ish harmonies and Crumb-ish timbre-textures, it was a backwater of crystalline sound – an unexpected music. The usual ritual of sitting down, clapping, and program reading foregone, we had walked in at the start of the Playground Ensemble’s October 26th, 2015 performance of this movement as though it had always been happening in that space. We had entered with no idea of who we were hearing, or of what; immediately, our empty hands had been filled with the molten, colored jewels that adorned that white silence.

One of the gifts of lateness and of not having sufficient time for anything (once you let go of the stress and the self-condemnation, that is) is immediacy. Immediacy is the elusive treasure of the 21st century, arriving secretly and remaining for a time veiled and useless to the possessor behind daily layers of panic and dissatisfaction. If those layers are peeled away, immediacy is revealed as the resolve to jump in and do what can be done now without fear; to let go of unhelpful expectations and worries that get in the way of now; to listen to intuition, allowing an experience or an atmosphere to have free reign in your consciousness without your own interference; to capture the absolute essence of something without trying, painting a truth in the broadest possible strokes; to engage in listening and conversation without the background noise of ego and preconceived notions. Immediacy is the sensory experience of a child – all eyes and ears and uninhibited fingers that reach without hesitation for the crayon.

Actually, come to think of it, we did sit down – once the Lauridsen piece was over and the stage was being reset. But for me, at least, the immediate hearing remained – that coming in out of the cold and dark to meet unknown sounds without context or expectation. I looked with only half an eye at my program, not wishing to spoil the feeling, and I half-learned that Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union was for “any group of loud-sounding instruments.” From the stage, one of the performers explained that Andriessen’s notation only specified rhythm and contour – not exact pitch. Then the framework that is Workers Union began to unfold, and I recognized again the gift of immediacy, remembering a quote by Andrew Wyeth: “That’s why I like fencing so much…it’s very much like painting. It’s that decisive, sharp, quick stroke that captures the essence of a subject.” I could hear how Andriessen captured the essential vision in the broadest strokes, and how the performers seized it, bringing their communication, their letting go, and their commitment to the immediate interpretation of those strokes.

When Workers Union came to an end, a conspicuously immediate conductor (viz., clothed in a tattered ball cap, unsuitable pants, sweatshirt, and well-worn shoes) took the stage and began to direct the Playground’s closing soundpainting. I’ve heard many soundpaintings before, but none as fresh, as energized, or as seemingly-composed-yet-also-seemingly-improvised as this one. A construction of sound emerged with flawless logic but the unmistakable torn edges of the immediate vision. I heard sounds I wanted to hang onto and dwell with for a while, letting the immediate experience continue on without me…But still immediacy held me in its grip, embodied in the hyper-alert musicians and their conductor. Together, with effortlessness and razor focus, they animated the living, growing organism of structured sound.

Actually – now that I think of it – we were neither sitting down nor standing up when the first movement of the Lauridsen began. We were hovering in the foyer, our own backwater of silence, because Claro de reloj was already underway, and the ushers were softly preparing to open the doors for us between movements. “When you go in, try to grab a seat at the back, or just stand until the piece is over,” they said, and handed us our programs. They might as easily have said, here, you lucky latecomers; take a double portion of the gift others left behind –

anillo formidable
donde los luceros
chocaban con los doce flotantes
numeros negros.
a formidable ring
wherein the stars
collided with the twelve floating
black numerals.

Yes, you missed the first piece; you are tired, you are late, you are burned out, and you have no good ideas left.

But your inheritance is immediacy.

Thomas Adès, In Seven Days

The title of Thomas Adès’ piano concerto In Seven Days is, of course, an allusion to the Biblical account of creation. With each movement titled after the aspects of nature referred to on the corresponding day of creation, one naturally expects some parallelism between the structure of the music and the literary structure of the creation narrative. Indeed, Adès provides just enough numerology to satisfy curious minds without overloading the music with symbolism. Many sections of the piece have time signatures in seven, and the prevailing number of voices in the piano part increases progressively in each movement, from one to seven. However, Adès’ genius in this music goes far deeper than mere mathematical ingenuity, as he brilliantly manages to embody the essence of creation and the natural world on every level of the piece’s structure.

After an spiky, energetic orchestral introduction, the latter part of the first movement (“Chaos – Light – Dark”) and much of the second (“Separation of the Water into Sea and Sky”) are built around long chromatic lines in contrary motion. Somewhat surprisingly, these lines do not expand the register outward as if to represent a nascent expanding universe, but actually converge towards middle C. However, Adès is constantly sneaking them back out by octaves (almost like a Shepard-Risset glissando) to stretch out this process over several minutes. Thus, Adès has foregrounded register as a primary compositional element, which serves as an apt figure for the concepts of “void,” “space,” and “expanse” in the creation narrative.

In the third movement, “Land – Grass – Trees,” Adès retains register as a primary compositional element, while adding another process on top of it. This movement (my personal favorite) is a majestic passacaglia based on a spiraling chord progression with smooth voice-leading which transposes itself up a semitone every 8 chords.[1] Thus, the pattern must cycle through all 12 transpositions of itself before duplicating itself an octave higher. Over the course of the movement, the pattern repeats almost four full sets of 12 cycles, thus rising about four octaves in register. However, Adès does not deploy it in a static fashion as in traditional passacaglias; instead, the rhythmic values of all the instruments and thus the speed of the progression become gradually faster with each set of 12 cycles. This recursive process, musically akin to fractals in geometry, suggests the organic growth patterns of living plants branching out geometrically into smaller and smaller leaflets and fronds. One can almost feel the first plants and trees solemnly unfolding towards the sky.

Literary scholars of the Old Testament have noted how the creation account is structured to match days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6, and Adès’ music does the same. Thus, movement 4, “Stars – Sun – Moon,” returns to the massive, long-lined trajectories of the first movement, but with a much more active texture in the piano part, as if the primordial light has now been differentiated into multitudes of stars. Similarly, movements 5 and 6, two fugues dedicated to the “Creatures of the Sea and Sky” and “Creatures of the Land” respectively, continue to develop the elements of register and recursive growth even further. For example, the first fugue has a lengthy exposition in the winds, ranged from high to low (flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons),[2] after which the strings take up the subject in order from low to high. However, the distinctively polyphonic nature of the fugal process, as opposed to the more diffuse, almost sound-mass textures of the previous movements, suggests the “teeming” nature of the animal kingdom highlighted in the creation account: many different instruments are doing essentially the same things, not clashing against each other, but not totally in harmony with each other either.

The piece ends with a brief “Contemplation” representing the seventh day, one of rest. However, Adès has one last secret of structure to reveal: the ending of the piece seems to fade back into the beginning, so that the last two chords of the piece are the same as the first two. Thus, the entire piece is itself a circular process which ends where it began. Indeed, the piece can be seen as a self-encapsulating fractal as well: the melodic motive which gradually coalesces out of the opening “Chaos” section underlies each of the movements, like a giant kaleidoscopic theme and variations. Yet this is itself a marvelous metaphor for our natural world, in which the same patterns (again, often fractals) often recur on vastly different levels of structure, from molecules to mountains, cells to cyclones.

In Seven Days is also a multidisciplinary collaboration between Adès and Israeli video artist Tal Rosner, creating what they call a “visual ballet.” Rosner overlaid video and still shots of the two venues which hosted the premieres of the work (London’s Royal Festival Hall and Los Angeles’ Disney Hall) into an abstract montage which spawns a healthy dose of fractals of its own (visible at times in the recording linked above). The film seems to represent Rosner’s visual interpretation of the patterns of the music in architectural terms, both in the sense that his subject matter is strictly buildings, and that he is translating the structure of an intricate work in one medium into another medium, purely through symbols, without the aid of verbal signifiers. Which is, of course, exactly what Adès has done in the music.

[1] Actually, the pattern transposes up a perfect fourth with each cycle of 8 chords, creating a sort of circle progression. However, each of the three voice-leading strands (the prevailing texture since this is the third movement) skips down to the next lower voice at some point during each cycle in a sort of three-way voice exchange, so that the net ascent in register is only a semitone per cycle. In addition, the three voice-leading strands are often interwoven in the orchestration and difficult to distinguish aurally.

[2] In a manner strongly reminiscent, I think, of another work by a British wunderkind—The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Intimate Conversations: Thoughts on Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD and Stephen Bailey’s Love Story

love story
A few months ago I had the privilege of hearing Denver composer Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD performed by the Playground Ensemble at Regis University. As I sat in the concert hall and watched the composer approach the podium – about to deliver a prepared talk as a preface to a panel discussion of postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – I had my doubts about the appropriateness of conducting a mental health discussion in a concert setting. A few minutes later, however, I was fully engaged, listening to Notareschi and the other women on the panel share their stories of struggle with postpartum mood disorders, and eventual healing with the proper support. Much to my surprise, I was in no hurry for this personal storytelling to end and the music to begin. Yet, when the music did begin, it felt like an organic continuation of the stories I had just heard, a way for my intuitive brain to engage with the information about postpartum OCD that my intellectual brain had just acquired. It was a poignant experience that challenged all my previous notions of what music is and how it functions; Notareschi’s quartet – presented in the context of this postpartum mental health event – demonstrated that a piece of music can function as a vehicle for conversation, creating a safe space in which listeners can grapple with concrete ideas. This realization raised a number of questions for me about the writing of socially conscious music, or music that involves personal storytelling.

 Just a week after the Notareschi concert, I heard Nebula Ensemble premiere a new electroacoustic work by my colleague Stephen Bailey called Love Story, created in close collaboration with soprano Emily Gradowski. Like Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, Love Story addresses a serious issue that affects many women in our culture and does so by telling a deeply personal story while inviting listeners to construct their own stories. The storytelling and the music are fully integrated in Love Story, as the pre-recorded voice of Gradowski poses several personal questions to the audience, and then answers a few of the more difficult questions, constructing a truthful narrative that reveals the body image and self-confidence struggles affecting an overwhelming number of women in our society. As the story unfolds in the electronic element, the acoustic instruments help to create an emotional environment for that story, a space in which the audience can ponder the questions Gradowski and Bailey pose, and contemplate Gradowski’s answers as well as their own (unspoken) answers.

Several weeks before the premiere of Bailey’s work, and shortly before hearing Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, I had an email conversation with Bailey about his goals in the creation of Love Story. Bailey expressed the opinion that music must be allowed to tell these kinds of intensely personal stories in order to be relevant in today’s culture. In his view, then, the benefits of writing this type of socially conscious music  – music that strives to inform and provoke an audience to wrestle with a particular issue through the sharing of a personal narrative – outweigh the potential risks. I agreed with this view; an important lesson I learned during my time as a creative writing major was that the telling of stories that seemed weird or extremely personal to me would always earn peer comments along the lines of “I totally know what you mean,” whereas any deliberate attempt on my part to write something with “broader appeal” would leave my readers cold and indifferent. It’s a lovely paradox: the more particular and personal the story, the more universal it actually is.

This conversation with Bailey was in my mind during the performance of Notareschi’s work. Prior to the performance, Notareschi explained that one audience member at a previous performance of the work had confessed to initially “hating” and “judging” the composer as she spoke about her personal struggle with postpartum OCD, and then “loving” the composer – in other words, being reconciled to the personal story and gaining a better understanding of it – after hearing the music. Clearly, if a composer chooses to make difficult personal disclosures through a piece of music, there is always the risk that listeners will find this off-putting. For that matter, a listener’s preconceived negative idea of a composer’s personality could lead them to judge the music unfavorably before they even hear it. That Notareschi was able to win this audience member over through her music is a testimony to her compositional skill and judgement; the risk was mitigated by the high quality of Notareschi’s music and its ability to serve as a compelling and comprehensible emotional context for her personal story.

It isn’t difficult to find less successful examples of this type of personal storytelling through music. For instance, I once heard a microtonal “protest” piece (written for a specially constructed electric guitar with quarter-tone frets) that told the story of the composer’s unfair arrest and time in jail during the 1970s. At the conclusion of the performance, I overheard another audience member – who had found the piece painfully long and grating on the ears – comment that they wished the composer had remained in jail to prevent him from writing the piece. If the composer’s intent was to illustrate his experience and protest his incarceration by plunging the listener in the same monotonous suffering he endured, then he succeeded. If his intent was to raise awareness about unfair arrests and gain sympathy for other individuals in his position, however, his musical efforts failed to reach his audience. The audience as a whole remained unmoved by his story, and several audience members made unflattering jokes about the piece during intermission; sadly, the audience member who wished the composer had remained incarcerated was not the only person I overheard expressing such sentiments.

So, I suppose the takeaway for me is that a successful effort to write socially conscious/deeply personal music of this type must achieve two things: the telling of a personal story with profound honesty and humility (hubris must be left outside the door), and the creation of a high-quality musical representation of (or context for) the story that a listener can readily connect to. The composer who chooses to write music of this type undertakes a far more difficult task than the composer who writes “absolute” music, or the composer who is inspired by less intensely personal ideas related to nature, art, or spirituality. Notareschi’s and Bailey’s efforts in this arena are exciting to me because of the hyperengaging cognitive-emotional experience they created for me as an audience member, vastly different from the usual experience of hearing new music. Let us hope that they and other composers will continue to make successful experiments in this genre.

Daniel Sharkey, untitled no. 267

Recently, I’ve been writing about how careful listening can lead us to discover new dimensions of sound, and of the world. Rather than talking more about this topic this week, I’d like to take a few minutes just to watch this short film by Daniel Sharkey, with music by my friend Jasper Schmich Kinney. Sharkey’s images and Schmich Kinney’s music speak to this idea far more incisively than any of my words could.

untitled no. 267 was a collaboration between Colorado filmmaker Daniel Sharkey and Nebula Ensemble, a group which with deformingprisms writers are involved in bringing “the now of music” to the Colorado Front Range. The film will be screened at Nebula Ensemble’s upcoming concert, ACOUSMA: Film and Electronics in New Music on Saturday, February 20th in Denver. This exciting concert will also feature another film collaboration between Sharkey and Schmich Kinney, a new electronic work by deformingprisms contributor Stephen Bailey, and much more. Details on the concert are available here.

Worth the Risk? Thoughts on the Music of Eric Mandat and the 2014 Colorado Clarinet Days Composers Competition

clarinet3At the Colorado Clarinet Days Composers Competition concert in September, I had the unique opportunity to hear three new works for solo clarinet by emerging composers – including myself – alongside the music of veteran composer and clarinetist Eric Mandat. This experience initiated a great deal of reflection on my part about what it means to write well for a particular instrument, and whether composers ought to push the technical capabilities of an instrument to their outer limits, or stay within friendlier parameters. The works I heard on this concert made convincing arguments for both approaches, making this question a difficult one to resolve.

Of all the works on this concert, Mandat’s works were the most impressive and also the most technically challenging. The Jungle (1989), performed by Jacob Beeman, necessitated circular breathing and involved the very unusual extended technique of muffling the bell of the instrument using a pillow that the performer held between his knees. The Moon in My Window (2007)which Mandat performed himself, also presented special technical challenges; this delightfully whimsical yet extraordinarily difficult piece involves copious multiphonics, many of which seemed highly unpredictable. Mandat executed these with incredible skill, but I sensed that many of these multiphonics were very difficult to control. I found Mandat’s works very satisfying in terms of their overall shape, pitch content, and musicality, but I was also a bit awed by the difficulty level of these works, and reflected that very few clarinetists possess some of the specialized skills that Mandat’s works demand. For example, not all clarinetists can circular breathe, and I suspect that a large number of the multiphonics in The Moon In My Window are only obtainable with very skillful adjustments of the oral cavity. Still, the performances and the works themselves made a convincing argument in favor of taking such risks.

With the sounds of Mandat’s unpredictable multiphonics – and the questions they raised – still ringing in my ears, the second half of the concert featuring the works of the three finalists commenced. I was very impressed with Ryan Kargoll’s Polvo Lunar, an atmospheric piece that also involved multiphonics. Kargoll’s work was given an excellent performance by Jacob Beeman that almost made the difficult moments sound “easy.” Still, as with Mandat’s works, I sensed that this was a technically difficult, risk-taking piece.

Multiphonics in Ryan Kargoll’s Polvo Lunar

My own piece, Devotions and Dialogues, enjoyed a highly skilled and thoughtful performance by Michael Moy, but just as I noted instances of technically challenging writing in Kargoll’s piece and in Mandat’s pieces, there were a few moments in my own piece (in particular, passages that made heavy use of the altissimo register) that made me question why I had made such great demands on the player. The execution of my piece was highly musical, virtuosic, and sensitive, but I sensed that my performer was anxious about the high potential for mishap in certain sections of the piece, and I felt strangely guilty about putting him in that situation.

Use of the altissimo register in
Sarah Perske’s Devotions and Dialogues
(audio to be posted soon)

Of the three finalist’s works, my personal favorite was Tim Girard’s Complements V. In the weeks following the concert, I asked Tim to share a bit more about this piece, and I was fascinated to learn that he was working within very specific technical limitations set by the commissioning performer (e.g., no extended techniques). For this reason, Complements V is comparatively unintimidating in the demands it makes on the performer, yet it is expressive, enjoyable to listen to, and convincing in form. Tim was good enough to share the score of his piece with me, and I was struck by his sensitivity to the performer’s need to breathe – demonstrated by a large number of skillfully incorporated rests, breath marks, and frequent fermatas over rests – and the fact that the pieces stays within a very friendly register (presumably another stipulation of the performer). The highest note of the piece is the written E natural (sounding D natural) three ledger lines above the staff, and though this pitch sounds quite high and climactic (particularly if this register is reserved for key moments and approached carefully, as it is in Tim’s work), it is well within the bounds of what the average clarinetist can execute successfully without much danger of mishap.

The climatic ending of Tim Girard's Complements V

The climatic ending of Tim Girard’s Complements V

Tim’s work makes a convincing argument in favor of “playing it safe” with regard to instrumental technique, and suggests that this kind of “safety” does not in any way limit a composer’s ability to write good music. Why, then, do so many of us – including myself and veteran composer Eric Mandat – persist in writing difficult music?

In my own composing, I often feel trapped into writing difficult moments; the music seems to want this or that, I can’t find a better solution, and so I ask the performer if this or that is possible. The answer is often “yes – unfortunately.” Some years ago, I was present when guitarist Jonathan Leathwood recounted a conversation in which a fellow performer made a distinction between “impossible” music like the work of Brian Ferneyhough (which invites a certain amount of “faking” on the part of the performer), and music like Elliott Carter’s string quartets, unbelievably difficult yet “unfortunately possible.” Mandat, who is both a performer and a composer, seems to think that the “unfortunately possible” is worth writing, even if it may not always come off exactly the way he wants in performance. Perhaps the answer to my initial question – should we take risks or play it safe when it comes to instrumental technique – really depends on the individual who asks it. For me, I think the answer hinges on the answers to a few other questions: am I willing to accept something less than technical perfection in the performance? Do I care enough about this or that musical idea to run the risk of it possibly not happening at all? Finally, is this kind of writing in my best interests and in the best interests of the people I’m writing for? I continue to search for the answers to all of these questions with each new piece I write…



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.