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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:

Full ensemble contrasts material presented in two forms; static chords (reeds/brass/perc/cello), and falling “scales” (flutes/pno/gtr).
technique: Magic square, randomness.
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.
Guitar & Piano duet
Guitar and piano play almost together, pushing/pulling each other, the ensemble play sparse additions to support or undermine the duet.
Technique: magic square [failed], random markov-chain, ghost-cubes.
116–164 (end)
Cello solo + All solo
“Prepared” cello solo with ensemble playing on the border of noise.
Technique: Ghost cubes [failed], isorhythm, magic square.
Links: cello "preparation" and generating solo

The title is Variations and repetitions transform each other, which is a fairly literal description of the piece. The piece all springs from one piece of material (the chord E, G#, D, F#, A# [and G♮]) and proceeds to repeat this through pitch transformations (based largely on magic-square technique) and timbre transformations using so-called extended techniques of the instruments: see John Butcher's discussion of the issues with the term "extended-techniques" here.

The piece is structured around solos and duets, in which the solo part was written first and then the ensemble part generated around this. See the links in the table above for blog posts that deal with specifics [more blog posts will follow to cover areas not yet discussed ... email me if there's any specific point you'd like expanded]. The sax/perc duet and cello solo are much more like my usual composition style, since they tend to begin with some unstable technique that I can map onto the pitch-material above. The guitar/piano duet is different since it's based more around specifically pitch variation, but there is some timbre manipulation in the ensemble part especially. Since the focus of the project was on using the techniques taught in level-1 composition classes, I wanted to ensure these generative techniques were the focus, but I twisted the brief back towards my own compositional interests by making allowing the generative systems to intertwine with the timbre techniques:
  • for example the cello solo is entirely generated from isorhythmic techniques, but the isorhythm parameters are based in manipulation of the prepared-cello timbre; 
  • similarly, the material for the saxophone and cymbals duet is chosen by using the pitch material (the chord E, G#, D, F#, A# [and G♮]) as the focus point for multiphonics on both instruments, but knowing that the unstable instrumental techniques will de-focus this.

Key Commentary Points:

  • It's useful to begin the commentary with an overview of the piece and the important (for you) compositional ideas. Note that the specific techniques are not foregrounded here because what's important is what the musical idea is, then the techniques are selected and fine-tuned to best realise that idea. It's enough to say what technique was used, why it was used (i.e. what it's doing and why this technique is most suitable), and provide a brief example from your piece that shows detail of how you've developed or altered it to suit your needs (relative to the models shown in class). If you need to outline the technique in detail (i.e. show the magic square or routes through it) then use an appendix to show this. 
  • For my piece, the important points are: 
    • a single piece of material forms the basis of everything (later I'll specify some varied examples of how I've done this differently, and how they were influenced by other pieces).
    • the piece is structured around solos which intertwine the abstract pitch material with indeterminate timbre techniques specific to the instruments.


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cello solo v1

Cello solo v1 The cello solo will use my prepared cello: not a million miles from a prepared piano as mentioned in previous blog post. The preparations make pitch quite indeterminate, so rather than generate a stream of pitches (like for the guitar/piano) what I wanted to generate was essentially a tablature score for the cellist to create a stream of actions that would limit the indeterminate pitches in different ways to create loose patterns. Tablature notation differs from standard notation be being more about telling the player what do (what actions to carry out, where to put fingers etc.) rather than what sound/note to make. It can be especially useful in situations where the specific pitch result is indeterminate so instead the notation deals with timing, positions etc. See Aaron Cassidy's scores and writings on this as a good example. Below is a page of his solo for any bowed-string instrument, with staves for: (top) fingerings and bowing on the four strings; (middle) fing…

About the project

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, celloRehearsals begin in February 2018 with performance in…

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…