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Sax & cymbals duet

The second section (bars 34–71 of the finished score v1) of the piece is an improvised duet for tenor saxophone and bowed cymbals. I've already referred to the ensemble part for this section, see here for an explanation of the system used to generate the asynchronous ensemble part from the magic square.

The duet uses exclusively multiphonics on both instruments. "Multiphonics" are not chords (collections of single notes played simultaneously on different vibrating objects), rather they are multiple-sounds, metastable vibrations where more than one pitch is vibrating simultaneously on the same object so they interfere with each other to form complex timbres of difference tones. Playing multiphonics requires practicing a specific skill to learning to balance the multiple-pitches. For saxophone, the tonal flexibility of the usual monophonic (single pitch) technique is sacrificed because the multiphonic will only stay balanced with a very specific mix of embouchure-position, breath-pressure, etc: here's some examples in a jazz context. The cymbal is the opposite because we go from a noise-sound—which is multi-multi-multi-phonic, so many pitches that we can't reduce them to one so we perceive it as noise—to a single pitch—or a less complex multiphonic that can be perceived as a couple of pitches rather than noise. Here's an example of a bowed cymbal moving between a single pitch and two pitches a semitone apart (multiphonic). Here's another piece of mine, cartographies of sheet metal where one player aims to repeatedly play a single harmonic, alternating with a group of players all trying to find that pitch on their own cymbals. In most cases, the sound slips between mono- and multi-phonic, which is what I'm after.

For the duet in this LSTwo piece, the two players use the piece's basic material (the chord E, G#, D, F#, A# [and G♮]) as a set of common points to anchor their exploration. The multiphonics on both instruments are unstable and unpredictable, with an almost infinite number of possible pitches arranged hierarchically according to the resonances of the across the so most of the solo involves the players taking one of these pitches as a starting point, allowing the material-agency* of the instrument to alter the pitch and add in other components as it unfolds. The players attempt to balance this slow unfolding of sound, responding both to each other and their instruments. There is no score for this, just the principles outlined above that guide their developing practice, and the constraints of working around the ensemble part. The material forms a harmonic core of the duet, organised as a set of continuous chords by the players (improvising), that the instruments then augment, distort, and extend through their own complex interactions.

* For more discussion of material-agency in my early work, see my article "intra-agencies" in CeReNeM Journal issue 4. And some scores and recordings of my neither wholes nor parts pieces exploring this practice on winds.


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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…