Music

Aasai Neelaavey

(2008)
excerpt Oren Fader, Guitar, Christopher Creviston, Saxophone

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“Aasai Neelaavey” traveled a long road before assuming its present form. While living in Chennai (a.k.a. Madras) India in 1999, I decided to try my hand at setting some Tamil lyrics to music. The original poem was by Mr. S. Vaidheewaran who I met through Dr. K.S. Subramanian and mournfully ponders a lost love. I “tuned” the poem with a couple of South Indian classical (Karnatik) singers in mind and thus the melody has a firm tonal center and a near-modal quality. The rest of the ensemble used a simple rock band format with drums keyboard, bass, and guitar, but the project was never completed.

After returning to the U.S. I was unsuccessful in attempts to find a Karnatik singer who could sing the melody and read Western notation. A few years passed but the melody stayed with me. I revised and rewrote the song for alto saxophone and guitar for Christopher Creviston, Noa Even, and Oren Fader. Not surprisingly, the piece retains its songlike character. The rhythms of Tamil, however, give the melodic line a quality it would not have otherwise. In any event “Aasai Neelaavey” means “lovely moon.”

Simulacres

(2007)
for computer with synthesized voices

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Simulacres (2007) features a passage from “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” (c. 1350). The unknown author claimed to be a British knight who had traveled to the Holy Land and Asia. Much of the book is an artful compilation of earlier accounts by others. Descriptions of fabulous creatures and people coexist with accurate observations of places and practices a traveler may see today.

Software used to create this piece include Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Paul Lansky’s RT mixing program ported to Mac OSX by Douglas Scott as QRT, and Max/MSP including Dan Trueman’s and Luke Dubois’ PeRColate objects, and the speech synthesis process known as concatenation.

Here is the passage:

Of the Difference Betwixt Idols and Simulacres THE folk of that country have a diverse law. For some of them worship the sun, some the moon, some the fire, some trees, some serpents, or the first thing that they meet at morrow. And some worship simulacres and some idols. But between simulacres and idols is a great difference. For simulacres be images made after likeness of men or of women, or of the sun, or of the moon, or of any beast, or of any kindly thing. And idols is an image made of lewd will of man, that man may not find among kindly things, as an image that hath four heads, one of a man, another of an horse or of an ox, or of some other beast, that no man hath seen after kindly disposition.

Loose Canons

(1995)
excerpt Steve Mackey, Matt Wuolle, Mark Zaki, guitars

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“Canon est regula voluntatem compositoris sub obscuritate quadam ostendens.”
(A canon is a rule which shows the intention of the composer in an obscure way.)

-Tinctorus, Diffinitorium (ca. 1500)

“What does it mean to engage in canon formation at this historical moment? In what ways does the prevailing crisis in the humanities impede or enable new canon formations?”

-Cornel West, Keeping Faith (1994)

Loose Canons was written in response to the music of Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410-1497) in particular to his Missa Prolationum, which consists of a series of canons in different time signatures and at different intervals of imitation. Ockeghem’s music has been described as idiosyncratic, without system, even as ‘sounding improvised.’ On the other hand, he has been characterized as a “pure cerebralist, almost exclusively preoccupied with intellectual problems.”

Like other composers of the time, Ockeghem was trained as a singer and his music was vocally conceived. In our time composers are often trained, or self-taught, as electric guitarists and the electric guitar could even be described as the voice of our era. Loose Canons downplays the usual rock-star effect and pyrotechnics and focuses instead on sound.

Loose Canons utilizes a device known as an ‘ebow’ (electric bow) which the guitarist holds above the strings, causing them to vibrate indefinitely without being plucked. Thus traditional contrapuntal activities like passing tones and suspensions can be greatly prolonged, which both exaggerates and disarms their power and function. In addition, as the distorted guitar sounds interact with one another, rich patterns of overtones and dissonances are produced, beyond the written notes of the piece.

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UnPact

(2003)
excerpt John McDonald and Ryan Vigil, piano

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UnPact (2003) In 2002 John and Ryan asked me to write a piece for their duo. Initially, I had difficulty conceiving of interesting ways for the two pianists to interact. The Winter Olympics were on television at the time and I thought I might get some ideas by watching the figure skaters in pairs. But I found the skaters’ routines rigid, lacking in originality, even tedious. Their strived-for ideal of perfectly controlled interaction induced a feeling of claustrophobia in me.

I liked thinking of the pianists as two characters but wanted them to interact more as real people do. The image of two pianists sitting side by side, trying not to bump elbows or get in each other’s way suggested discomfort, tension, and humor, but also the potential for great power and complexity. Thus John and Ryan’s parts are sometimes harmonious, sometimes slightly out of synch, and sometimes at odds with one another.

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English Medicine

(1998)
Oren Fader, guitar, William Anderson, mandolin, Tara O’Connor, flute, Rob Ingliss, oboe, Calvin Wiersma, violin, Susannah Chapman, ‘cello

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Engish Medicine is one of five pieces that make up the suite Gone For Foreign written for The Cygnus Ensemble in 1998-1999. The suite was commissioned by The American Composers Forum and premiered at Merkin Hall in New York in 2000. The piece was recorded for Bridge Records and released on CD in 2005. Much of the piece was written in Chennai, South India while I was living there on a grant from The American Institute of Indian Studies.

The titles of the movements are taken from the Indian English dialect used in Southern India. “Gone for foreign” means “gone abroad,” usually for work or education, as in, “My brother has gone for foreign.” “English Medicine” simply refers to Western medicine, as opposed to indigenous Indian forms such as Ayurvedic or Siddha medicine. These titles obliquely suggest the odd experience I had of composing contemporary American music in South India.

I believe that the music I wrote was altered—much like the English language in India—in interesting and surprising ways due to the cultural context and environment I inhabited.

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Piece of Work

(2005)
excerpt David Claman, laptop

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“Piece of Work” is for live improvisation using toy piano samples. It uses a Max/MSP patch I wrote. (Thanks to Matt Ostrowski at Harvestworks for the great Max/MSP tutorials. Highly recommended.) A series of events led to the composition of this piece and also followed from it. While teaching a course on experimental music in 2002, I became reacquainted with John Cage’s wonderful toy piano pieces and wanted to write something new for toy piano, but using samples and electronics rather than an acoustic toy piano.

I began scouring the web for toy piano samples. Free samples of just about any other instrument were available–this was in 2004–but not toy piano. I asked Matt Malsky at Clark University to help me record toy piano sounds and these have been used to create this piece. These samples were subsequently posted on the internet for others to use and the Extensible Toy Piano Festival (XTP) and other performances developed from this.

This piece has four tracks that loop the toy piano notes. The loops can be independent of one another or linked. Playback volume, speed, and tempi can be adjusted, creating a kind of primitive polyphony which often sounds remarkably complex. I sometimes made use of that ambiguous area of auditory perception where rapid pulses begin to be perceived as low-frequency pitches. The obliquely humorous title refers not only to the fact that artistic creation is, in fact, labor and ought to be compensated as such but also to a former colleague whose behavior frequently elicited the selfsame exclamation from others.

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