CALCULULATIONS [NB not "Calculations"] was completed in 1990. It was made in the composer's home studio, using a Yamaha TX802 synthesizer controlled by a Macintosh Plus computer. The computer was running the Opcode sequencer "Vision".
All of the notes were entered one after another (in some cases certain editing shortcuts sped up the process); the music was not "performed" in real time. Unreal time is actually one of the piece's principal concerns. The "calculations" implied in the title were most conspicuous in the computation of different curves of accelleration and ritardation (linear to extreme logarithmic) for the three different FM instruments (quasi flute, quasi clarinet, quasi saxaphone).
These curves are expressed through repeated statements of patterns in the different instruments, statements which speed up or slow down over periods of time. For example, the "flute" might come to the foreground repeating a fixed pattern; then we hear its pattern gradually accellerate. As it reaches its maximum speed (at which it will stay for a while) it fades into the background while the "sax" emerges, perhaps slowing down from some previous high speed. Equally important are the transformations of the repeated patterns which often take place during these changes of tempo. Thus it was possible to use the computer's calculations quite creatively, in a flexible and playful manner.
The piece begins without any hint of the complexities to come: two instruments play at an unvaried tempo with a strong pulse. When the third instrument enters however, it is playing the opening melody at one third the tempo of the other two. From that point the instruments quite rapidly part company, proceeding at their own fluid tempi. The piece "builds" to an anticlimax --- a point of extreme quiet. After that, as the volume builds back up we hear the first two instruments come back into sync, then, for one brief moment, the third --- and all three are playing the same figure. The opening melody returns; but things fall apart, again; then with one final effort things are pulled back together at the very end... almost.
"Calcululations" is dedicated to the composer John McGuire. Discussions with him during the planning stages of his own (very different) piece "Vanishing Points" were, in some subconscious way, influential in the design of this piece.
It is somewhat misleading to discuss this piece in such technical terms. I was led on during its composition by the opening up of horizons, and the methods I used were only ways to move toward those. An "ululation" is a kind of wild cry, a shout; I think sometimes that the piece is (yet another!) attempt to achieve a unification --- or synchronization --- of calculation and exuberance.
GHOST SONGS (2004)
on texts by Charles Simic
Charles Simic was born in Belgrade in 1938. He is a prolific author with over 60 books published to date. His book of prose poems The World Doesn't End was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1990. He has long been one of my favorite poets, and I can't resist quoting the opening of an interview with him, which conveys both his eccentric humor and the underlying darkness of of his outlook (the entire interview is available at http//www.cortlandreview.com/issuefour/interview4.htm):
Could you talk about your early years and your life before you realized you were a poet?
Charles Simic: Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor. I would go boom, boom, and then they would go boom, boom. Even after the war was over, I went on playing war. My imitation of a heavy machine gun was famous in my neighborhood in Belgrade.
When did you first feel what Pound called "the impulse" to write?
When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems.
How did you act on this impulse?
I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.
How did being born into a war-torn Europe affect your writings later on?
My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin. Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I'm still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.
Certainly these ghost poems mix dark and light just as do his comments here. I have tried in these songs to remain faithful to this complexity, and to bring to the surface qualities the poet may have been too demure to reveal...
These songs were first performed in 2005. Since then they have been performed again in San Francisco, in Portland Oregon, and in Mutiara Damansar, Malaysia.
LETTER FROM LINDA - “Letter from Linda” is based on an actual letter “found Easter morning, Youngstown Ohio”, by poet Frank Polite, and published by him in the form of a poem. With very few modifications I have set the words as he presented them.
MARTIN PUT THAT GUN AWAY was composed in the electronic studio of the San Francisco Conservatory in the spring of 2000. At the outset I imagined that what I was engaged in was merely an exercise, a way for me to learn some new techniques of digital signal processing. I chose the sentence that forms the basis of this piece simply because it was near at hand. (It was a recording made for a radio mystery play.) When I realized what a wealth of material was being generated I understood that a piece was being born, and I needed to start making some decisions. One principal decision I made was to design the piece around five different ways of saying the phrase: funny/slapstick; robotic/chanting; lyrical/sensual; panicky; and ghostly. Thus the piece ends up being a "Theme and Variations", though a few other sounds besides the voice are introduced from time to time. The possible meanings of this piece are fortunately too numerous for me to state. I am happy to leave it to the imagination of each listener to explore the possibilities.
MENAGE --- This piece is written for synthesizer, piano and marimba (with some other percussion). The synthesizer changes its timbral identity from time to time. While this is not an especially number-conscious piece, it is not entirely by
accident that there is a lot of Three-ness about it. Beyond some suggestion of it in the title, there are three players; then there are three principal ideas, presented very blatantly one after another, at the beginning; and then there are three main parts of the piece as a whole. One of the things going on in the piece is a progressive commingling of these three ideas. At the end they try to get disentangled again, but keep colliding, like the Three Stooges.
OH IT’S YOU --- This piece started its life about ten years ago as a poem, which might account in part for the “cubist” mode of exposition. At the same time it may be that when we zero right in on our mental activities we become aware of the high-speed craziness of our thought processes. So in spite of her incoherence I don’t wish to suggest that the lady in this piece is crazy in any way. She is you, she is me, whenever we meet The Other.
It is a poem that evolves into song.
OGNAGGIO AD ANZZONIO --- The materials for this piece are drawn entirely from a list of words selected and read by the artist and artisan Anthony Gnazzo, and from a recording of him walking in some unusually squeaky shoes. The list given me by Mr. Gnazzo was arranged according to the impersonal logic of the alphabet. This sequence is preserved in the live recitation. However in the recorded portion I have rearranged his list, not using some words, repeating others, finding glints of meaning and intention that I am sure he did not intend. The squeaky shoes are taken from a recording of a performance piece created by Gnazzo and the actor Jim Cuno some twenty years ago; I have removed them from this context and recycled them. All of this was done entirely without the artist's permission.
The words in the title have undergone processes rather like the processes undergone by the sounds in this piece. I could have called it "Omaggio al'Antonio Gnazzo" but I thought it would be undiplomatic being so direct to a person who dodges praise and winces at the spotlight. Better to salute him in the medium in which he has been a pioneer, a model, and a teacher to several generations of Bay Area composers, including myself. The remarkable Mr.Gnazzo has done work in a great variety of media, including dance, performance, film, poetry, and graphic art as well as music and electronics. Images shown are from Mr. Gnazzo’s private collection.
Anyway this little robot, that skitters around and rants and raves and sputters and sings, is something I made for my friend Tony.
THE SOUP is based on a long poem by Charles Simic (author of my “Ghost Songs” texts). The soup under discussion is the goddam soup we're all marinating in, the soup of history. The irony is irresistible, the underlying intent, well, heart-breaking. This is a very difficult piece for the singer; this performance by Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai is astonishing. Text used by permission.
TIME SUITE – Seven songs on texts by Jim Harrison. The “Ikkyu” songs are Harrison’s responses to poems by a Japanese poet of the 15th century. The song called “Time Suite”, and “Lullaby for a Daughter” are from a different Harrison collection. Texts used by permission.
TOKYO CROW --- This piece is based on recordings of the sounds of a number of different environments typical of this large city: underground supermarkets, train stations, small, oddly deserted streets, news broadcasts, parks crammed with families ---- and crows.
The crows of Tokyo are quite large, and quite fearless. They perch high above the frenzied activities of the people on the streets, calm and disdainful; or they fly down to examine something in the gutter, and swagger about the sidewalk with an air of ownership.
Yet in the end there is something not particularly humorous about them. To some observers they may seem even sinister. They draw one's attention because they emerge from the wilds, the natural world, into our synthetic city. But there is something super-natural going on --- the mythic character and history of the bird is if anything made more distinct by its appearance in the modern urban environment. As a result the listener to "Tokyo Crow" may experience multiple and even contradictory responses.
Unrestful Sleep - This is a composition in three movements for piano solo. As a composer I move restlessly between works involving electronic technology, and music for instruments alone; as tonight’s program shows, sometimes I work in a middle ground using both together. "Unrestful Sleep" was composed after I had finished a piece requiring an arduous struggle with technology. In spite of the title (which came after the piece was composed), composing for piano alone was somewhat restful.
MARRYING MUSIC – First performed by Mr and Mrs John McCarthy, a happy coincidence. Word play in title points up the complexities of the relationship between the two pianos, as well as the over-all happy character of the music. The piece is extremely difficult in some places, which may account for its infrequent performances.
Notes on the music
AFTERWORLD - full info here: