Quasar Quartet, Le Gesu, Montreal, Canada, 19/1/17:


It was disappointingly warm in Montreal. I’d promised Martin temperatures of -20C and below (it reached -33C on my last trip) but it hovered around zero for the duration of our seven-day stay this time (reduced by a day due to cracks in our airplane’s windscreen—glad that happened before we took off but it meant a cancelled flight, sadly).

My Edinburgh colleague, composer Martin Parker was along to work with the Quasar Saxophone Quartet and myself on a performance we put on together at Le Gesu, a stunningly beautiful church in downtown Montreal. The performance space in there has a seven-second reverberation time. With the stage at the opposite end of the massive cupola seen in the picture above, we had a flatteringly decaying halo of sound surrounding us from behind throughout the whole performance.

This was the premiere of my hyperboles 3 (“so vast a vacuity”) for saxophone quartet (SATB) and computer (eight channels). You can read all about the first incarnation of this project in a previous post. The algorithmic substructure of this new version is very similar but the main departure here is the inclusion of four live instruments rather than just one. There are always four contrapuntal parts in this project but usually three are presented by the computer in the form of sound files created from samples of the solo instrument. This version had no need for these. It also dispensed with the computer sequencing of the performance (including page turns) and relied instead on more traditional means of reading from a paper score and my triggering of events on the computer.

The nominal solo part in hyperboles 3 is the alto, though this is not audible in performance. Like the original version for flute, the parts are organised around delicate multiphonics on four fundamental pitches. These were carefully selected from fingerings and examples taken from the excellent book and online resource by Marcus Weiss and Giorgio Netti. The multiphonics are chosen by the algorithmic substructure to cluster around shared pitches (or their octaves), thus creating anchor points between the four saxophones as well as opportunities for delicious subtle beatings between tones slightly out of tune with each other. The algorithms also provide for lots of rhythmic unison playing by creating an automatic “load balancing”, adding doubling where one part is less active than another until all four players are as equally active as possible.

Also different in this performance was the inclusion of three of Martin’s scripts. These are pieces created using machine listening, FX sequencing, and real-time processing of live sound. Martin had the difficult challenge of finding structures and sound worlds that fitted the already established ambience and pacing of my work. We inserted one script each between sections 1&2, 2&3, and at the end of hyperboles. If you listen to the entire live recording above or watch the video below (both 63 minutes) you can hear what a great job Martin did. His pieces are quite distinct but nevertheless fit very well, offsetting the mood established by my piece without disturbing the flow or concentration.


pre-concert discussion

There was a pre-concert discussion, or rather a rencontres incendiaires before the concert chaired by French composer Philippe Leroux and including myself (to the extent that my French allowed) along with composers Jimmie LeBlanc, Chantal Laplante, and Simon Bertrand. The topic was emotion in music, as provoked by the last sentence of the programme note to hyperboles 3 (“So, here’s a piece of purely intellectual artistic construction, devoid of any emotional content whatsoever.”—the full text is copied below).

There’s also a pre-concert write-up in French which included a video discussion involving Marie-Chantal Leclair (soprano sax) and Jean-Marc Bouchard (baritone).

technology works

Reflecting back over my by now many years of performances with computers  I have to say how much more confident I feel about taking complex digital systems on stage these days. Ten or fifteen years ago I’d be hoping with all my heart that my computer would make it through a ten-minute performance without falling over (e.g. a failure even to boot at Darmstadt in 2004). The Montreal performance involved two CPU-intensive pieces of MaxMSP software running simultaneously on one MacBook Pro, each with different sound card settings (though the same sampling rate, of course). Each piece of software ran as a separate application rather than in the MaxMSP software itself, but they communicated with each other via UDP network. I was able to pause my piece, switch to Martin’s piece, then back to mine to continue with the performance. Martin and I were sitting in the audience: I had an iPad running the Mira software to control my app; Martin used a MacBook Air running Miraweb to control his; both were connected via wireless network to the main MacBook Pro. The Midas mixing desk and other hardware was at the back, along with the MacBook Pro which, by the way, used the desk as a sound card via USB connection, thus obviating even the need to cable connections between the computer and the mixer. The whole system ran without a single glitch for over an hour, controlled by Martin and I from the sweet spot but having no larger a footprint than any other audience member. We’ve really come a long way.


Of course many thanks go to the Quasar Quartet for the commissioning of this project but also for their genial and generous hosting. Their dedication and professionalism went above and beyond what the majority of composers can reasonably expect. They must have had about seven rehearsals before we met in Montreal and then roughly twenty hours of rehearsal while we were there. What luxury! Thanks also to Guillaume Barrette for technical support, solutions, and insights during and before our time in Montreal; as well as to Jean-Francois Laporte of Totem Contemporain for hosting me at his new home.

programme note

Humans exaggerate on a regular basis. Typical hyperboles might be
“this bag weighs a ton”, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”, or any
of the invariably (!) hilarious “Yo’ mama so fat…” jokes. Perhaps
even worse than footballers (“I hit the post. I was gutted”) are
artists. Have you ever sat silently suffering (“dying”, anyone?) at a
contemporary poetry reading, as the reciter over-emotes their way
through a litany of subtexts we can summarise by “me, me, me! I’m so
deep and clever!”? Such occasions often merely reinforce the popular
perception of artistic outputs as being expressive of the creator’s
emotions. But that is less interesting than artworks’ invitation to be
social, communal, and at the same time to introspect and inspect our
personal, perhaps emotional reactions to intrinsically neutral

The beautiful hyperbole relevant to this piece, with its “vast
vacuities” in the formal proportions and note-to-rest ratio, is the
following quotation from a piece on culture in the southern United
States one hundred years ago. It’s the kind of thing we read today
about TV/internet/pop culture and it’s reassuring to know that we’ve
always had our noses in the air whilst pointing at others’
perceived deficiencies:

“It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal reaches of the now mythical ether. Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles. And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the ‘progress’ it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” (H.L. Mencken, *The Sahara of the Bozart*)

So, here’s a piece of purely intellectual artistic construction, devoid
of any emotional content whatsoever. Time to ponder.

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