Integrating new technologies as a vehicle for spontaneous music making

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The following ESSAY was WRITTEN in November 2019 as part of the ‘Composing for Improvisors’ course AT CALARTS instructed by Prof. Steve Lehman

GREG LEWIS

            I was first introduced to electronic music in 2012 while studying for my BM at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was and am still captivated by artists such as Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares, and Flying Lotus, each of who demonstrate a unique approach to composition, rhythm and sound synthesis. As a drum set player and composer who privileges improvisational music, I began to wonder how integrating electronics into my music would affect my compositional voice on the drums. I discovered the OP-1 synthesizer from Teenage Engineering™ at a house show in 2013 and was immediately sold by its unique features and portable size. I purchased my own OP-1 in 2015 and began integrating the technology into my live performance setup alongside my drums. This instrument has given me the option to explore live looping, sampling, sequencing sounds and much more without the assistance of a digital audio workstation. Through an analysis of my composition Tombola (2019), I hope to address a few of the many immersive OP-1 features that I have found successful in making spontaneous music, as well as provide a historical context.

‘Tombola’

(Greg Lewis 2019)

Score

tombola 333

Tape Mode

An underlying drone remains consistent throughout the piece, creating a space for the events, melodies and samples to exist. Drone-based music has been prevalent for many centuries, appearing in such contexts as Hindustani classical music, Japanese Gagaku, electronic music and much more. In José Maceda’s essay ‘A Concept of Time’, Maceda discusses not only the musical role of a drone in music, but also the social role it plays in many cultures. “A bilateral relationship between drone and melody describes not only the music but also the thinking behind the music, for different combinations of drone and melody represent an expression of a group of people, perhaps a reflection of a social organization, a representation of values, and a view of time.” I am interested in the way in which a drone can affect a listener’s experience when dealing with overlying music and text. The audio of the drone has been pre-recorded as a loop in OP-1 tape mode. This feature is very useful for creating loops that can be easily manipulated with built-in effects. After the drone reaches its peak dynamic at mezzo forte, the performer is instructed to begin using the frequency and pitch-shifting delay effects following the trajectory displayed on the score.

Tombola Sequencer

Similar to Bingo, tombola is an Italian lottery-style board game that uses a rotating tombola drum to randomize raffle tickets to be drawn. The creative designers at Teenage Engineering developed a setting for OP-1 that has been inspired by this fun classic. In the setting, a hollow hexagon can be rotated 360 degrees in either direction and at any chosen speed. As notes from the keyboard are struck, they appear as tiny dots that are dropped into the hexagon from its centroid. As the notes strike the inner edges of the rotating hexagon, sound occurs. Many factors play into the rate in which sound occurs in this setting including how many notes exist within the hexagon at a given time, the speed and direction of its rotation, and the density of each note, all which are determined by the user. My composition includes five random tones that are to be dropped into the vortex one at a time. The performer may choose any sound produced or sampled by the machine. I assigned each electronic sound to a different texture on the drum set. After the first synth note begins its course through the hexagon, it cues the snare drum cross stick with the opposite hand to begin its own improvised cycle. The second cued synth note introduces the bass drum, and so on. This concept allows the performer to improvise around the dancing synth patterns within the limitations of the assigned acoustic percussion instruments. An increase in dynamics takes place as more notes are added into the rotation, and vice versa.

Endless Sequencing

The next electronic feature used in Tombola is the ‘endless sequencer’. This setting allows the user to sequence up to 128 notes or rests that once set can be manipulated in multiple ways. While in the process of composing the piece, I improvised a sequence a 64 random beats using only 1 pitch. That way, when I press any key on the keyboard, the sequence will be transposed to that pitch. This OP-1 feature is called key transposition and is an effective way to improvise melodically within a composed rhythmic structure. After setting my random 64 beat rhythmic cycle, I slowed the tempo down and transcribed the rhythms so that I can play along on the drum set at a later time. I made the decision to not alter the rhythms after my initial sequence improvisation. Whatever rhythms I chose during the improvisation would be set for the composition. This is a fun and time-efficient way to compose. The performer should set these rhythms into the sequence prior to performing the composition. After the sequence has been repeated and altered through transposition a number of times, the sequence finds its way to the key of G, and the drum set is introduced. Something to keep in mind when playing along with a sequencer is that the durations of time are equal, as opposed to playing with a human in which the durations of time will naturally fluctuate.

FM Radio Wave Drum Sampling

The OP-1 makes it very easy for the user to access FM radio, as well as sample moments from the radio to be triggered as drum samples. In Katherine Norman’s Sounding Art, Norman discusses the use of radio waves and voices as authority in electronic compositions. ‘The speaking voice on radio is an intriguing paradox. Voices ‘off the radio’ are ready-made material for composers, and are ripe with parody and collage. But they are also alluring in that they transmit both the ‘romance’ of disembodiment – an inexplicable mystery – and the chummy informality of being a friend in your ear. Sounds that reach us over the radio waves appear to be magical; they are flying, dislocated, free, and liberated – however mundane their origins.’ (Katherine Norman, 2004). The last six bars of the composition include 3 radio samples that have been pre-recorded by the performer before the performance. After the first sample has been fully stated, the performer is instructed to improvise using the drums and broken up clips of the original sample. This idea continues with the second sample as well.

In 1952, Cage premiered his unique composition Water Music. The instrumentation includes a radio that is cued to turn on at specific moments in piece while tuned to specific stations (see Figure 1). I have recently felt inspired by the aleatoric music of Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Earle Brown. I decided to take a similar approach as Cage in my composition, but rather than instructing the performer to tune the radio to a specific station, the performer is instructed to surf the radio at whichever rate they choose and may decide in the moment whether or not to tune into specific channels. In Stockhausen’s 1966 electronic composition Telemusik, he used tape recordings from religious ceremonies and music festivals from all over the world to create a composition that would meld these sounds through various forms of modulation. “You do not hear this “found” music in its original form. I have attempted instead to bring these so heterogeneous phenomena together into close relationships—to be precise, through various forms of “modulating”, of changing to another tonality, is here applied to styles. I modulate from one musical event to another; or else I modulate one event with another, as I have learned through recent experiences. (Stockhausen, interview with Christ und Welt, 7 June 1968). I am curious to further explore the endless possibilities in which everyday sounds can be sampled and modulated in music.

Figure 1

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Taking inspiration from Anthony Braxton’s graphic notation Language Music, I created a key of symbols including signature OP-1 images that demonstrate the sequencers, effects, and sounds that are needed to perform the composition. The symbols are laid out onto a maze-like track that also incorporates western style musical notation. The performer is to follow the course of the roadmap, choosing the duration of each event as they appear. In order to perform the piece affectively, the performer must be familiar with these OP-1 features beforehand and must practice transitioning seamlessly between settings. The performer should also have spent a fair amount of time dealing with improvisation on drums and cymbals alone. I am curious to hear what kind of music could be created if these key symbols were drawn on large board to be cued by some sort of higherarchy or conductor similar to the styles of Butch Morris or John Zorn’s Cobra.

Conclusion

Using the OP-1 to compose and create spontaneous music has opened my mind to the many possibilities that can exist with human-computer musical interactions, and with that came many questions. Could improvising with the tombola feature make my drumming sound less composed? Is it possible to make the computer sound human like, or making meaningful musical decisions? Many of these questions have been and are still currently being addressed by composers today. I am excited apply some of these electronic concepts to non-electronic instruments and involve more performers in the near future. While I took significant inspiration from many composers who stem from a Eurological perspective on improvisation, I have also taken a great deal from the fundamental understandings of Afrological improvisation when composing the piece. The performer must have a strong musical foundation, but should be willing to step into unknown musical territories. It is very important to articulate one’s personality when performing the composition. I hope that this analysis will spark further exploration in OP-1 music making and electronic composition in general.

Works Cited

Maceda, José. Zorn, John. Arcana II: Musicians on Music. Hips Road, 2007.

Norman, Katharine. Sounding Art: Eight Literary Excursions through Electronic Music. Ashgate, 2004.

Stockhausen, interview with Christ und Welt, 7 June 1968, Licata, Thomas. Electroacoustic Music: Analyitical Perspectives. Greenwood Press, 2002