Sep 3, 2013

.com pieces

The .com pieces are a series of pieces I started in early 2013 dealing with form/memory as content. So far I have finished two of them, (for snare, microphone and DMX lights) and (for amplified wind instrument and amplified snare). I made a video of at the start of the year demoing some of the DMX light interaction stuff I had been developing for use in a massive revamp of Takahashi’s Shellfish Concern.

The second piece was written for/with flautist Richard Craig after discovering that we had both been exploring similar sound worlds (instrument + feedback). That spawned a collaboration that ended up producing Amp/AL, an album by Richard which I recorded in late 2013.

Here is a performance of at the Amp/AL launch party at a Distractfold concert.

Here is some writing on the concerns and motivations for the two .com pieces. It’s a bit dry/academic (as it’s from a dry/academic document I wrote), but contains some cool info.


Even though I found Weak Without You (my previous composition) to be effective and successful in terms of the compositional and aesthetic questions I postulated, I decided to abandon this method of composition and performance for the rest of the pieces I composed. In I wanted to confront some of the more general questions I had about the processes of creating music as a performer/composer/improviser/luthier raised in section 2.

I chose a performance technique that emerged during an improvised performance last year while on a tour of solo drums + electronics. During that particular performance I discovered that I could musically control feedback by placing a condenser mic directly on the head of a snare drum and varying the angle at which the microphone touched the head. The technique of using a microphone to create feedback is nothing new, but the microscopic scale of movement involved provided for a dynamic and expressive control. The proximity of the microphone to the head also allowed for friction as a means of actuation. These two approaches, feedback and friction, became the sonic basis for

Since I was using improvisation as a starting point for the compositional process, I wanted to take on what had become a large compositional concern—why compose at all?

The question is simultaneously more complex and more simple it would initially seem.
An obvious answer is the creation of very discreet and specific material. This, however, overlooks the fact that improvised material can also be discreet and specific. Synchronicity and intricate orchestration are things that seldom appear in group improvisation, but being a piece for solo performer, not applicable here.

The longest part of the compositional process of this piece was spent considering that very question. I wanted to avoid conceptually easy or technologically-centric solutions, choosing instead to tackle the problem head on. The solution I settled on was form as content.

The approach is not dissimilar to John Coltrane’s compositional process in A Love Supreme during which he made the following comment.

“I’m working on approaches to the problem of writing for a group [of improvisers]….I’m going to let the nature of the songs determine just what I play”. (Porter 2000)

The context is different as he was working for a group of performers, but the openness of the content, with only a skeletal formal framework, is the same.

This produces a type of overall form that has shape and coherency, but does not prescribe the smaller details, leaving me free to improvise inside of that framework. Much like how Eco describes the works of Stockhausen and Boulez as “examples of ‘open’ works and ‘works in movement’ have latent characteristic which guarantees that they will always be seen as ‘works’ and not just as a conglomeration of random components..” (Eco 1962) There is an explicit collaboration in the works he refers to where the composer “seems to hand them on to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit”. (Eco 1962) In this context the composer and performer are the same representing a temporal displacement in the creative act.

For the formal and transitional content I limited myself to A, B, and C, and two transition types, sudden and transformation. I later introduced some variation and modifiers to the A/B/C sections, such as discreet phrases, multiple simultaneous layers, and time directionally. The implementation of these are by no means exhaustive, but their inclusion adds a variety to the formal materials that would otherwise not be present.

I then composed various pages of material using these building blocks and underwent a rigorous empirical testing process. Every day, while composing the piece, I would compose new material, record a free improvisation session using the snare/microphone instrument, record all of the pages up to that point, and then critically listen to all of the recordings. This feedback cycle formed a crucial part of the compositional process where I was simultaneously expanding my feedback/friction vocabulary as a performer and then exploring their implementation within the formal constraints as a composer.

One aspect of the work which is not immediately present from an aesthetic or compositional perspective is the challenge of generating material and negotiating the complex structure with it. This etude-like challenge is central to the piece. It charges the piece with a tense energy where the performer is creating and negotiating a memory space without the reference point of a fixed score to rehearse from.

Physicality, which can often aid memory in percussion music, is greatly diminished the piece due to the the manner in which the snare is played. Schick, in his book The Percussionist’s Art mentions the importance of physical memory when memorizing percussion music with his “heavy reliance on kinetic memory” where memories “are loaded with kinetic information, each consisting of trained and reliable physical reflexes” when memorizing a piece of percussion music. (Schick 2011) Although is for snare drum, the friction-based method of playing, microscopic movements, and somewhat unpredictable nature of feedback mean that physical movement is not explicitly tied to sound production and therefore not a meaningful hook to which attach memory. This is particularly apparent in the 5th page of the score dealing with a sequence of individual gestures one after the other.

Schick goes on to give a detailed account of his memorization process which involves the “juggling” of memory chunks, where older sets of material are refreshed by bringing them into the foreground in between the learning of new chunks of material. Both of these techniques, using physical memory and shuffled/staggered chunk rehearsal, do not apply to leaving the performer without established mnemonic devices to aid the recollection of material adding to the performative tension of the work.

The pages of material form the medium scale timeframe of the piece. The large scale shape takes inspiration from long-form comedy theatre improvisation. Long-form comedy improv traditionally involves many short scenes which are interrelated in some way, be it themes, characters, or story. (Halpern 1994) One long-form comedy exercise or game is called The Harold. The Harold has many variants but is primarily composed of three groups of three scenes, A/B/C, which are interspersed with improv games. The three scenes are transformed each time they return by either displacing them in time, location or context. A Harold typically begins with an arbitrary seed from the audience and end is a mesh of the themes, characters and stories developed up to that point. (Halpern 1994)

The specific implementation in can be seen in the structure page of the score. It is scaled down slightly, to a two by three form as a Harold can typically last between 45 minutes to an hour, and the sonic material of the piece would become exhaustive for that length of time. The piece still begins with purely improvised material and each page, or beat to use Harold lingo, is interspersed with other improvisation. The three sections labeled as “Improvisation” in the score are very different in functionality. The opening “Free Improvisation” is exploratory and is meant to generate material for use throughout the piece, a sort of instant exposition. The second “Improvisation” is meant to function as a palate cleanser, resetting the memory space of both the performer and the audience. The final “Improvisation” is summative, trying to incorporate and contextualize all the material developed throughout the performance. Much like in comedy improv, the piece can fail to make any of these connections, producing a flat form that, although it may be aesthetically pleasing, lacks formal interest.

The visual component of the piece developed independently of the compositional process. The synergy between aural and visual art has long been a part of my practice, though generally through the form of collaboration. I had been developing a DMX light-based performance set up for use in a live painting collaborative project and when I decided to make a video documenting some of the playing techniques and formal ideas I had been working with, I decided to incorporate the light setup. The simplicity and nakedness of the use of light in the piece, and how it casts shadows behind the performer, exaggerates the violence of the sound world of the piece. The use of shadows in particular, though not present in the included video due to the tightness of the shooting angle, adds a second layer of visual focus with the interaction between the illuminated performer and the shadows they create. Depending on the viewing angle this can produce a “misled perception” producing a visual language similar to Marian Zazeela’s The Magenta Lights, in which objects and shadows interact in a manner which is illusory. (Duckworth 1997)

Click here to read about the recording of the full length studio version above.

I wanted to re-approach the sonic and compositional world of, but for a duet. This required some fundamental changes in how form and time worked as in the performer is free to move from section to section (A/B/C) and page to page. That structural freedom would not work for two performers as it would be difficult to move through material synchronously.

Having begun development on my dfscore system a few months before, I wanted to implement a notation which was not fixed, remained synchronous, and was transparent. I adapted the dfs Performer application discussed in section 2.3.2 to suit Using that for the studio recording session on two computers. The score was later adapted to work on iPad’s running Cycling74’s MIRA application, making it much easier to implement.

The dynamic notation was more than practical in it’s consideration. Since the piece was based on memory, I wanted to decouple the ability to log and recall memories from the performer. I wanted the improvised material to flow naturally where the performers are only concerned with the small and medium scale passing of time and not trying to prepare or “cherry pick” memories.

Memory serves as the center piece of the composition defining the type of material which persists into a new section as well as the structural changes produced by their recollection. The idea of form as content in this piece differs from in that in the first piece form exists as blocks of material, which can have internal development. In this piece the form exists as a pivot point, or pivot cue as defined by Zorn. (Zorn 1999) There is no implicit section to adhere to, only the shift in material, which serves as the formal content in the piece.

The memory space of the piece is multidimensional which brings a difficulty/tension to the work as well as a transformative element. Memories can be defined as physical: what one is literally doing, aural: the literal sound of something, and interaction: the relationship between the two performers. Since the primary sound world of the piece is feedback based, the first two memory types (physical and aural) are very different, where this would not normally be the case in piano music where physically playing the same key will produce the same sound.

Having to negotiate this multidimensional memory space is the central challenge of the piece and makes it incredibly difficult to rehearse, as memories begin to bleed into each other after two or more run-throughs of the piece in rehearsals. Furthermore, the memories stored are nearly always recalled as long term memories, while the performer has to engage in echoic and short term memory spaces. There are physiological limitations in how these types of memories interact with one another, primarily in terms of which type of memory is consciously (foreground) and unconsciously (background) available. (Snyder 2001)

As mentioned above, the ability to log and recall memories is decoupled from the performer. The dynamic score gives the performer only two seconds warning before a new memory is being introduced and gives no indication wether the memory being displayed is to be logged (the first time it is presented) or being recalled (any subsequent time). This is a conscious decision from a compositional/programming perspective. Keeping track of, potentially, nine separate memories is no trivial task, and is part of the challenge of the work.

Unlike in there are no transition types defined. This too is a deliberate decision. Since the memory points can happen asynchronously, I wanted to let improvisational context dictate how transitions are handled. I, as the composer, am not merely disregarding how material changes throughout the piece, but rather am placing increased responsibility on the performer—both of which happen to be me.

Several rehearsals of the piece were needed to refine the timing engine of the score producing patch. My initial idea of having each section randomly be between 20-120 seconds proved to be much longer than I wanted. At that time scale, improvisational development tends to begin which blurs the function of memory and form in the piece. The final length can be between 10-60 seconds in length, but rather than being determined randomly, a tendency mask is applied. This tendency mask is initialized randomly and changed to a new random value after between two and twelve memories have been produced.

This weighted randomness is crucial as each individual performance develops a formal shape, but the performer cannot predict and become comfortable with the upcoming durations.


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Rodrigo Constanzo
-makes music and art
-lives in Manchester, England
-is a crazy person

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