IN PURSUIT OF THE IR/RATIONAL:
Ir/rational music is a useful pun to describe what I try to manifest in my compositions.
I would invariably and eventually be asked Well, just what kind of music do you make? This question might be asked after having heard me or before. To me, it was the music that I do. At the time I moved to New York City in 1979, I began to clarify how to explain and categorize it - a process not only of focussing my own processes and concerns but of separating them from the surrounding genres and movements.
Certain elements of sound and process were clearly manifest as overriding concerns in my work. I also had a very clear notion of what it wasnt: I felt no resonance with the academics - I used rock instrumentation and dynamics and tended to play in clubs and lofts but my own music wasnUt considered rock by most who heard it. It definitely wasnt jazz although filled with improvisation. Even with improvisation as a vital and major element, structure and syntax were always prime considerations. Sometimes I used elements of motoric repetition (inspired by funk and rock and non-Western musics) and accretive or phasing processes, but I knew that it was not minimalism (especially given the socio-cultural milieu of the Minimalists - the Soho 70s) nor did it carry the baggage of socialist realism or the appropriation and irony of post-modernism. As I scanned the list of isms, I deleted them.
The solo concerts were always the most concentrated and truest representations of what I did and the essence lay somewhere within them. I decided in December1980 to release on my zOaR label a cassette of excerpts of solo gigs from the previous year and decided on the title Ir/Rational Music - a title that would include this cassette, a series of future solo releases, and a general description of my approach to composition.
ir (an IRresistable pun) - the acoustics of sound in space and in the ear and its
connection to the to perceptual engine: the overtone series, difference tones,
feedback, volume effects, <define melody>, <define groove>.
the rational: structure and order, algorithms of use and process, formal
systems of organization, social and genre context, cross-reference.
overall - the ir/rational - chaos, intuition, the tangential.
Non-linear improvisation is an essential part of ir/rational music - improvisation brings the music to life; it transforms the static into the dynamic; the individual effector in the sonic flux.
A BRIEF CARBONic HISTORY
The band CARBON was first conceived in April 1983 to be an anti-silicon sound: earthy, jagged, pulsing, and direct. It emerged from work on the fringes of the early hardcore and improv scenes with my band I/S/M and with The Hi-Sheriffs of Blue and Mofungo. Powered from the bottom by Jonathan Kanes monster drums and Rick Browns hammered bass and steel drum and fueled mostly by rage and amphetamines, the band made an ugly blur of sound at our first gig, THE SPEED TRIALS Festival (captured in the track YKK KYTYD on the Homestead SpeedTrials compilation.) Personnel shifted in the ensuing months and Marie Pilar entered the picture to sing, scream, yammer, and to play the slab and David Lintoneventually replaced Kane on drums plus metal percussion.
The slab - homemade horizontal bass with four strings, movable bridge (to yield different tuning ratios), and pickups at each end with separate outputs (to yield stereo fields). The pantar - a steel top from a large storage drum fitted with tuning pegs for four strings plus a domed cymbal serving as a bridge, amplified by contact mike and with a sound not unlike a tamboura crossed with a dumpster. The violinoid is a violin neck mounted on a solid wooden body with guitar tuners, a metal bridge, and picku ups on either side of the bridge.]
In the Fall of 1983 my growing disenchantment with Rthe Downtown scene and my own work and personal life led to a seven-month hiatus from music. I felt that CARBON had become a reactionary band - not in the notion of anti- progressive but in that that music was too-much filled with anger; too-much in reaction to external events. I was disgusted with the insular, smug and predictable music of the scene. At this same time, I completely lost patience with the sacred totems of post-modernism: appropriation, deconstruction, and irony; and found myself attracted to mathematical studies that had been put aside for some years - especially that of the Fibonacci series and the geometry of the Golden Section.
The Fibonacci series is a number series generated by summing a number and its predecessor, beginning with (0,1). Thus, (0,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144 . . ). The average of the ratios of adjacent numbers in the series forms the proportion known historically as the Golden Section, PHI (1.61803...). PHI has been employed for millenia in architecture and art and reveals itself in nature as the logarithm representing the spiral found in such places as galactic form and construction, the cochlea of the ear, the shape of the DNA molecule, and growth patterns of flower petals, seedcones, ramhorns, and the shell of the chambered nautilus.]
One cold night in March, having eaten a supper of psylocybin mushrooms, I set out to explore the ratios of the Fibonacci series. In so doing, I found that certain ratios of adjacent Fibonacci numbers coincided with ratios of just- intoned intervals. I translated these ratios to a tuning on electric guitar with 1/1=C and restricted myself to playing only the open strings and overtones using various picking and tapping techniques. The intervals from low->high were C(1/1) Ab (8/5) CU (2/1) GU (3/2) AU (5/3) and CS (3/1). I was astounded at the results - liquid harmonic melodies pouring off the strings. It was just after midnight when I began playing, sunrise when I stopped. The results were so encouraging that I decided to dig in deeper with a number of strategies for utilization of the Fibonacci series. Besides the primary approach of harmonic tuning, these included mapping the ratios to rhythms and to proportions for structures. In addition, the ratios were applied to various other instruments, including bowed strings (a natural), saxophones (because I played them) and trombones (because I liked that instruments purity of tone and the relative ease of producing overtones, its ability in the wrong hands to produce an astounding array of onomotopoetic sounds, its relation to the dijeridu and the ragdung, its pedal tones, and its essential simplicity.)
Over the course of the next two months, I composed the cores for six pieces that were fleshed out in rehearsals at the basement of One Morton (aka Studio Henry) and in one concert at Plugg, Giorgio Gomelskys loft on 24th street. I wanted to fuse the old math and the natural overtone series with sounds and techniques from many of the non-European musics that I loved and learned from and the extended techniques and sounds and rhythms of the urban life. The band included Linton, Mark Miller, and Charles Noyes on a variety of drums and percussion instruments, plus Lesli Dalaba on trumpet. I played an old Hohner doubleneck guitar/bass that I had rebuilt, soprano sax, bass clarinet, sopranino clarinet, trombone, and voice. We soon went to Martin Bisis studio in Brooklyn to record the pieces that became the album CARBON.
The next phase consisted of building a performing band and a repertoire. The band clarified into a loose pool of players who knew the vocabulary and syntax of the pieces and my approach to the why of them. CARBON varied in size from a duet with Bobby Previte to the nine musicians required to perform MARCO POLOS ARGALI. In 1985, I became aware of the fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot through an article in Scientific American and became increasingly excited by it. I felt a resonance with Mandelb brotUs mapping of mathematical functions to forms and phenomena from nature including turbulence, chaos, and seeming randomness and felt that my approach to music was also a mapping of these forms and phenomena. Exploring on my computer the many regions of an iterated Julia set, I felt that I was looking at a picture of time - not linear at all but jagged, reticulated, and looping. With the album FRACTAL (1986), I set out to construct pieces based on various aspects of fractal geometry. Each piece had shifting elements of structure and guided improvisation, layers of interlocked order and chaos. I looked to the math for catalysis, inspiration, and allusion - I was not interested in generating tables of fractals to construct musical material - too mechanistic, too academic. At this time, I also began using a MIDI converter on the guitar-half of my doubleneck to drive a sampler. By sampling sounds, processes, and phrases produced through the extended techniques that were to form the sonic cores of compositions and from the various homemades, an additional reflexive and recursive element could be layered into the mix as well as greatly extending my timbral range.
LARYNX was the piece that prompted the next manifestation of the band. Commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Musics NEXT WAVE Festival and performed Nov. 13-14, 1987, LARYNX was composed for a 13-member version of CARBON including the Soldier String Quartet, four drummers, and four musicians doubling brass instruments and slabs and pantars. LARYNX is analogy: the orchestra as throat. It follows as corollary to the throat as orchestra: throat-singing as practiced by the Arctic Inuit and the khoomei singing of Siberia and Mongolia, as well as by related jawharp techniques found throughout the world. The natural overtone series is the melodic core of much of these musics and of much of LARYNX. The Fibonacci series was used to generate tunings, rhythms, and melodic/harmonic material as well as shape general structural proportions. I wanted the music to dance on the always- changing boundary between a structural geometry derived from the Fibonacci series and a fractal geometry of turbulence, chaos, and disorder. The explicitly-ordered materials are embedded in a dense flux of multiple processes - layers of micro-melodies and micro-rhythms, dense cross- talk between the players. With each transformation, new landscapes and new processes emerge.
LARYNX is constructed in six major sections with five interludes. The opening and closing use all four drummers: Bobby Previte, Charles Noyes, Samm Bennett, David Linton; the remaining sections each feature one, with the others playing slabs or samples. Each drummer has developed a unique sound and vocabulary; I enjoy the contrast between them as well as their understanding of my compositional syntax. This applies to all of the musicians in CARBON who are given instructions of varying degrees ecificity in the different sections (ranging from exact rhythms, notes, or playing techniques to more general notions of density and texture.) The same processing algorithms are mapped into each section, cross-referencing them while yielding radically different sonic results. One is transported (via the interludes) into each section - the terrain is different yet the functional identity of process is the same (an analogy from topology applies: a torus is a torus is a torus.) The interludes form a cycle of their own while connecting the cycle of main sections. The first interlude is brass and brass samples, the second - pantars, the third - the string quartet, the fourth - slabs, the fifth - the doubleneck alone.
On instrumentation: All string instruments were tuned to the Just ratios of 1/1, 3/2, 8/5, and 5/3 (translating to C, G, Ab, and A.) Throughout the piece, string instruments were predominantly played using only open strings or their overtones while brass instruments used open pedal tones of these notes and their overtones. There are, however, a number of places in LARYNX, where the players are called upon to use the variety of their own idiosyncratic extended sound-production techniques, well ou any Rsystem.S ]
After LARYNX, I wanted to return to a small band-format and assembled Samm Bennett on drums, percussion, sampler; Linton on drums and tapes; and electric harpist Zeena Parkins (doubling on slab and keyboard). All players had a huge timbral range - anyone in the group could deal the woofer frequencies or the tweeters, beats, melodies, or pure noise. This group played a few versions of the extended piece JUMPCUT and a number of short pieces, issued as DATACIDE in 1989. The focus was on song-forms, each defined by widely varied parameters.
Personnel went into flux again and the European touring band in 1990-91 included Parkins, bassist Marc Sloan, samplist David Weinstein, and BLIND IDIOT GOD drummer Ted Epstein. For these tours we were joined by Bachir Attar, the leader of the Master Musicians of Jahjouka, on rhaita, guimbri, and flute. The CARBON sets were filled with 3- and 4-minute blasts - the sets with Bachir were pulsing psychedelia, a mythical locus halfway between NY and Morocco. Around this same time, I was asked to be part of a new klezmer compilation being produced by Edek Bartz and Albert Misek (who perform as Geduldig and Thimann) for an Austrian label. I adapted a 17th century melody for a version of CARBON consisting of Epstein on drums and metal and Mark Feldman on violin and baritone violin. I played bass clarinet, soprano sax, and the doubleneck and came up with STETL METL, the sound of CARBON as a WarsawGhettoBlaster.
For the next record, TOCSIN, Joseph Trump replaced Epstein on drums and the bands groove deepened. TOCSIN was mostly song-structures with very little formality - I had decided that CARBON should not hew to any specific agenda but should be the carrier of many mutant strains. Central to the bands sound was the use of extended timbres - sometimes to orchestrate a melodic or harmonic idea, sometime to function as the entire sonic hook. To todays ears, a pungent sound can function just as a catchy me melody or lyric refrain once did.
SERRATE (May91) and ABSTRACT REPRESSIONISM (Feb92) extended CARBON again to ORCHESTRA CARBON. SERRATE used pairs of instruments: strings, brass, samplers, guitars, bass and slab and based on processes of fragmentation, decay, and violent change. ABSTRACT REPRESSIONISM was written for eight string players, drums/electronic percussion, and the doubleneck and reprised many of the processes at work in my string pieces but recast for low-budget orchestra.
The personnel of the TOCSIN band continues to work together even though all the members pursue their own musical visions in various projects and bands. We recorded the songs for TRUTHTABLE in September of 1992 after a few weeks of rehearsal and sample programming. KJ brought her cyberblues-from-hell vocals to two numbers. The songs were recorded live in one or two takes with overdubbing for vocals and some solos plus SoundTools to edit and process the mixes. In some cases, SoundTools was used to creat the new songs from fragments using: a few bars each of a few drum grooves; odd sounds from everyone else sampled, sequenced, and twisted; the whole thing re- mixed and edited.
It was a happy coincidence that Paul Dunkel (Associate Conductor of the American Composers Orchestra) contacted me in January 1986 about a commissioned piece for the orchestra at the same time that I had been thinking about applying my Fibonacci-series work to an ensemble of strings, essentially re- orchestrating ideas evolved on the guitar. In its original conception, the piece RE/ITERATIONS, was to be a concerto of sorts, with percussionists Robert Previte and Charles Noyes (and myself on doubleneck guit tarbass) improvising along with the structure as performed by the orchestra (14 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 contrabasses.) Its only performance was at Merkin Hall, NYC in June 1986 revealing both possibilities and problems. At the same time, another useful coincidence - David Soldier had formed the Soldier String Quartet and asked me for a piece: I decided to re-orchestrate RE/ ITERATIONS for quartet - TESSALATION ROW was the result.
Both pieces use the Fibonacci series to generate tunings, rhythms, and forms. All pitches are played on open strings (tuned to 1/1, 3/2, 5/3, 8/5) or overtones of those open strings. The modules in the score contain information on the various operations to be performed and give exact rhythmic, timing, and pitch information. There are times when the players can vary the overtone melodies and timbres in a section. I was very concerned with identity - the ability of sonic flux and internal detail to vary greatly without destroying the perceived essence and proportional shape of the piece.
Perhaps the greatest problem with the full-orchestra version of RE/ITERATIONS was amplification - or the lack of. It just was not to be. The orchestra was not overly receptive to any composition that required retuning instruments and retuning score-reading skills and they were even less receptive to the idea of amplifying their instruments and/or playing with an electric guitarist and not just one, but, two drummers! They appeared onstage with their ears overflowing with fluffy white cotton. One first violinist was heard remarking, RWhy didnUt he just ask us to stomp on our violins?S - a rather tempting notion in the highly-unlikely event that I am ever commissioned again by ACO.
Unfortunately, the density and transients produced by electric guitar (even a Just-intoned one) and drums would mask the delicate Rghost instrumentsS produced by the difference-tone effects of even well-amplified strings; in performance, our incredible restraint in the desire to produce transparency of sound backfired and just resulted in a bloodless simulacrum of the piece as intended. Even in the controlled situation of the recording studio, the subtleties of the strings were masked by the guitar and drums and the final version committed to disc consisted of strings only: six violins, three violas, three cellos, and two contrabasses; a virtual chamber orchestra produced by overdubbing the SSQ three times with contrabass added on two of the dubs. The instruments were recorded acoustically as well as with contact mikes through RTube Screamers,S distortion devices that enhanced the production of even harmonics. The multiple tracks of acoustically miked and direct electronic sounds combine to give the effect of a much larger ensemble.
Also recorded at this session were DIGITAL, DIURNAL, and RINGTOSS. First is a re-orchestration of music played on prepared guitar. The instruments are prepared with flat strips of spring steel woven through the strings near the bridge which have piezo contact microphones on them. There are six unison rhythms serving as connection points. Players improvise rhythms, always tapping on the strings with the fingers of both hands. The only requirement is that things groove. The combined effect of the preparation, tapping, and amplification is that of a mega-mbira. The best performance of the piece is still the original; a good version was performed by the Smith Quartet at the London Musicians Collective Experimental Music Festival in May 1993.
HAMMER ANVIL STIRRUP is an algorithmic piece commissioned by the 1988 Ultra Music Meeting in Pori, Finland for the Avanti String Quartet. The piece is based on core rhythm and melodic materials which are used by the players explicitly as foreground, as background for a variety of operations (including timbral transformation over a repetitive groove, difference-tone droning, pop- outs as a way of manifesting improvisational cross-talk simultaneously with the other core processes, and superimposed metric modulation) and as source material for improvising.
My next string pieces were written during January 1991 as the Gulf War unfolded - there was no conscious link to the horror show unfolding on the tube, but . . . SHAPESHIFTERS could serve as a soundtrack to a vampire or were-creature film (were-humans?). The key elements are hocketing and a melody that creates a spliny thicket of verticality when the players throw the unison out of phase. Improvisation rears its ugly head in the form of pop-outs over given material. TWISTMAP uses a large proportion of through-composed cores to guide the quartet overland through rough terrain. More hocketing, overtone grooving, explicit melodies appearing and evaporating, improvised solo features, some open looping, and once again, IDENTITY: the internal detail can change greatly from performance to performance while the overall structure and identifying characteristics of the piece remain the same.
At the end of 1991 I began using SoundTools on a Mac iix. The first project was CRYPTID FRAGMENTS. Margaret Parkins (cello) and Sara Parkins (violin) were digitally recorded performing a series of core sounds and shapes. The sounds were dumped into the computer for editing and then subjected to a series of processing strategies where the raw string sounds were transformed: samples in the computer could be expanded or compressed in time, transposed (sometimes by five octaves), reversed, chopped, merged, and radically equalized. Samples could then be brought back to the analog domain for further processing (delays, ambience, modulation) and then returned to the computer for more of the same. Eventually, the material was filtered down to four sections. It appeared on the Extreme disc CRYPTID FRAGMENTS along with a live version of TWISTMAP, a version of SHAPESHIFTERS with the quartetUs sound processed using the Buchla Thunder to control a multi-effects device, and UMBRA (for Thunder-controlled sampler and cello in a guided improvisation played by Michelle Kinney.)
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