Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Young and the Restless

When I first heard Gyorgy Ligeti's Atmospheres, which like most people was when I first saw 2001:  A Space Odyssey, it blew me away.  Later, I learned that Ligeti wrote the piece as an answer to the question (I'm paraphrasing), "How might one write music if everything but pitch and timbre were eliminated?"  I found this severe narrowing of the compositional toolkit very intriguing and even more in the when applied to the potentially vast timbral palette of electronic music.  Thus, one of my goals in my current work is to explore this ground for myself. 

I recently ran across Wim Merten's book on minimalism that includes overviews of the work of four composers from the 1960s and '70s, including LaMonte Young.  Among other things, he was known for, on the one hand, a rather anarchical approach to music and, on the other, an abiding interest in the subtleties of sound.  One piece he wrote that embodies both of these interests, and which is discussed in the book, is Composition 1960 #7.  The piece consists of two notes played simultaneously, the B below middle C and the F# above it, and the instructions "to be held for a long time."  As I understand it, one of the intentions of the piece is to direct the listener to the complexity of the sounds being made, without the distraction of melodic or harmonic movement.  Imagine these two notes being played by a violin, for example:  regardless of the skill of the violinist, the sound would subtly change with minute differences in the bow’s movement across the strings, as well as through small shifts of the player's left hand.  These fluctuations in the sound would be objective, but additionally, the listener's attention can shift across violin's rich sonic structure, yielding subjective changes in perception of the timbre. 

Young’s piece seemed like the perfect platform for an initial foray into the timbral vocabulary of the synthesizer -- or at least the ones I have on hand.  There are only two notes in my variation, the B and the F# Young delimited, but I have doubled them several times, and I have purposefully varied the sonic playing field to a significant degree relative to that of an acoustic instrument.  Given the complexity I have added to it, I suspect Young would consider my treatment of his piece to be counter to his initial intention; it is for this reason that I call it a variation on his theme, rather than an arrangement. 

I invite you, nonetheless, to listen to this in much the same way as I understand Young intended his piece to be listened to:  give yourself over to the sound, let it wash over you, and notice what presents itself.  There is a great deal going on texturally, despite the melodic and harmonic stasis.  You will very clearly hear in several places the 4th partial, D#, giving the sound a warm, major consonance.  There are also two resonances that pop up fairly prominently in different places, one is a clean sine at D# and the other is a more ragged tone that includes a very high C#; both result from the electronic engines’ filters self-oscillating.  And, of course, there are a great number of higher partials to chase. 


Some technical notes for those interested:  The two main engines here are Logic's ES2 and Greenoak's Crystal.  The former holds two F#s with three voices one octave apart; the oscillators are a saw wave, a square wave, and a bright “wood” sampled wave, all oscillating both independently and in frequency modulation.  These are collectively filtered with a 12db low-pass filter and a resonance filter controlled separately by very-low-frequency, sample-and-hold and random-wave oscillators.  Crystal, holding two Bs an octave apart, is also running three voices:  two saws and a synthetic voice sample.  These voices are filtered independently using low-frequency oscillators and/or multi-point looping envelopes.  Finally, the bottom end, a B one octave below Crystal's low B, is held down using Logic's EXS24 sampler playing a choir sample; this voice is run through a static low-pass filter just to get the color right but is otherwise left alone.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Losing Tracktion but Getting Logical

Well, thanks to some generous holiday gifts, I have been blessed with a bit of mad money and, nearly as quickly as it came, I have sent it on its merry way to fetch me a copy of Apple's premiere DAW, Logic Pro.  I have read nearly everything I could find online about it and even asked some questions on the user forums (Whoohoo! I can write in 23/64 time if I want!) before deciding to take the plunge.  I've been downloading chunks of the suite for an hour and a half already and it looks like there's still another two hours to go before it's all loaded.  Yes, it's big. 

The main parts of the program are up already though, so, by way of exploring, I opened up a GarageBand piece in it (Nine).  It sounds pretty much the same, although the dynamic range seems a bit broader (I'm assuming that's artifactual and not part of the upgrade as such).  Looking at the interface, I think I know what most of it does, but there is so clearly so much more going on, so many more control points and options, so much greater power and flexibility, that I now feel lost. 

Tomorrow is my first day back at the counseling center and we've got lots of post-vacation catching up to do this week, so I don't expect to driving this mûmak of a program too quickly.  However, I have a new piece I've been working on over vacation that seems much better suited to the depth of control that Logic provides than what was available in the three DAWs I started out on (LMMS, Tracktion, and GB), so I already have something to use it for and will definitely be diving in as soon as I can.  Meanwhile, Apple has lots of tutorials to help me get my bearings.  Very exciting to start the new year with a DAW that I feel like I can really grow with!