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About the project

Photo: Kerstin Schomburg

I'm a composer and lecturer at the University of Leeds, UK. As part of our undergraduate composition teaching we introduce various flexible generative techniques, and an expectation that students write a commentary that outlines their compositional process. To give the students another example of how this can be done, I've decided to compose a piece [jump to final piece] for the student new-music ensemble that explores several of these techniques; to augment existing examples, and give a more first-person account of using them. This blog follows my process as I compose using some techniques that I've taught often but wouldn't normally used myself: see here for examples of what I do usually.

[Impatient? go straight to the finished score, or watch the video]

Here's what I begin with:
  • the ensemble is unusual to say the least, but I like a challenge!
    • 3 fl, 2 cl,  sax, tpt, cornet, euphonium, perc, piano, guitar, cello
  • Rehearsals begin in February 2018 with performance in April.
  • Techniques I'll use include:
    • Peter Maxwell Davies' magic squares
    • Xenakis' 3D hypercube rotations; and other permutation approaches such as isorhythm 
    • canonic imitation
    • random-number mapping
    • non-standard instrumental techniques
    • open-form and non-metric notations
Because the student commentaries are only 1000wds, they need to ensure that the commentary only 'comments' on the process, and use appendices for any lengthy descriptions of techniques etc. My posts are often longer than 1000wds in themselves so I'll try to finish with a recap of the key commentary points.


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piano & guitar 3 - orchestration

[general apologies for the images in this post, which don't always link easily to the text. My parameter names kept changing over the few days spent composing this, which looks confusing now because the parameter names (descriptors) aren't always the same.]
Having generated the phrases for the guitar and piano, I need to decide how this 5-mins of duet will relate to the rest of the ensemble. I decided to use the Xenakis rotating-cubes technique to generate a phrase-by phrase orchestration behaviour. Crucially, this only defines the type and size of orchestration, not the specifics: I could have generated very specific limitations on instruments etc but wanted to keep this free to save time really, and allow a more intuitive shaping of that aspect. I also wanted to avoid this being too 'blocky' and only mirroring the phrasing of the duet, so I allowed for some orchestrations to reach forward or backwards into neighbouring phrases. My first thoughts on this is that I ne…

cello solo v2 - orchestration

Re-working the generated part: Before I get to orchestrating the cello solo, I decided I need to re-work the generated line. The previous line (ex.1 below) wasn't too practical, and didn't give the cellist enough leeway to work with the prepared-string to bring out the desired sounds: the whole point here is that the preparations allow for different harmonics and multiphonics to emerge, and that the tablature-style notation constrains the player's actions to limit what specific sounds emerge.

In the notation (as explained in earlier post) there's a 6-line stave to indicate not pitches but bow positions, between the preparation (bottom) and bridge (top); essentially sul-tasto to sul-pont. The part mostly only uses the right hand for playing, with the left hand occasionally used for timbre variation through interference (see b.143–145).

To generate the part, I allowed the isorhythm (ex.2) to run for nine iterations of the pitch line ('color' seems somewhat meani…

Finished Piece (v.1...)

The concert is on May 4th, so at some point I had to finalise the piece, though I could keep tinkering forever. Here's the full score as of 12/4/18, there will still be some minor changes I imagine; some things need tidying up, and at the moment it's missing performance instructions (most of which are in the score, but an instruction sheet will be added. Here's the structure of the piece:

bb.1–33 Opening Full ensemble contrasts material presented in two forms; static chords (reeds/brass/perc/cello), and falling “scales” (flutes/pno/gtr). technique: Magic square, randomness.
Links:Opening Section + Magic Squares 34–71 Saxophone & Percussion duet Improvised duet of sax multiphonics and bowed-cymbal harmonics. Ensemble plays Feldman-like gentle background of overlapping melodies and soft noise. technique: Magic square. Links: generating ensemble part. 72–115 Guitar & Piano duet Guitar and piano play almost together, pushing/pulling each other, the ensemble play sp…