Monthly Archives: May 2013

Composition Study #9

Posted by PH on May 25, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

Picking up the “story” in the late 1950s and early 1960s we moved on to consider Minimalism.

And before we go any further of course we’d need to at least mention in passing the dubious provenance of that moniker and the fact that it’s almost meaningless when one considers the diverse outputs of four composers normally associated with it (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass). Admittedly they emerge from a common milieu and share at least one important conceptual frame—a rejection of both the straightjacket of serialism and Cage’s indeterminacy, and a subsequent embracing of the consequences of these rejections—but their solutions are all markedly different. Even the apparent family resemblance between the key Minimalist works (Riley’s In C, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and Glass’s Music in 12 Parts) is deceptive: as compositions and as musical structures they have very little in common. If there is a “minimalism” here it is at the most superficial level.

Steve Reich then. I chose Reich to introduce the subject because—accepting the genre stereotyping—his work seems most typical, and in it we can trace the music’s development most clearly. To start with then we have his early tape pieces (in turn inspired by his work in San Francisco with Terry Riley):

Having “discovered” the phasing process, the next step was to apply this to performances on “real” music instruments:

Experimentation with this limited palette was then developed to embrace his own ensemble and a wider (and by now typically Reichian) tonal palette:

Crucially, this was followed by the realisation that the actual “phase transitions” were unnecessary, and that is was both possible and preferable for parts to simply “jump” to the next beat. This, along with an expanded harmonic language and the introduction of strings and woodwind into the existing mallet-dominated ensemble sound, allowed Reich to produce his only bona fide masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians. This ECM recording remains the definitive version:

Following this piece (in 1976) Reich moved away from Minimalism, firstly by writing for standard orchestral resources and secondly by embarking on a musical investigation into his own Jewish roots (and all that implies). His later major works such as Tehillim and Desert Music are just not very good. Perhaps his most successful “post-Minimalist” piece is Different Trains, but even though this is musically and sonically successful it is hamstrung by the stubbornly undramatic nature of the speech materials that form the central armature the work (which, considering the almost cosmically tragic nature of the subject matter, is difficult to overlook).


Anyway. We created a set of compositional rules for this week’s piece:

  1. Create a modal pattern using quavers in 12/8.
  2. Build up texture and harmony using canonic “phase shifting”.
  3. Use substitution: rests for beats and vice versa.
  4. Try and experiment with dynamics to accentuate rhythmic interplay.
  5. Homophonic instrumental texture.
  6. Produce a ‘B’ section using another mode.
  7. No bass line or downbeat.
  8. Try and keep it under 5 minutes long.

Here’s mine:

This one’s in danger of being a pastiche—and I hate pastiche—but because I’ve had to jam the whole thing into two-and-a-half minutes and because it’s 2013 not 1976 I think I just about get away with it. You may disagree…


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Composition Study #8

Posted by PH on May 04, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

This week’s class looked at drones and modes. A very straightforward session on two related and relatively straightforward musical ideas that pre-date the Western tonal system (although the modes we use today are “rationalized” versions of archaic proto-modes). Modal composition and drone-based musics have become far more visible and “respectable” since the late 1950s, particularly because of the interest in non-Western music.

Here’s a YouTube version of the sort of things we listened to (again accepting the range of possible musics we could have listened to here is very broad indeed):

The composition specification simply said create a piece using two main elements:

  1. A drone. Use any sound source but it must evolve (be “organic”).
  2. At least one mode (from a basic set of seven as described in a handout).

There were some very inventive and fresh compositions from the students. Here’s my rather conservative attempt that uses the Aeolian and Locrian modes in A:


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Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern

Posted by PH on May 04, 2013
Marshall McLuhan, Painting, Visual Culture / No Comments

Last weekend I went up to London to see my long-time friend Julian, who had very kindly offered to take me to see the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern (as he’s now a member).

I very much enjoyed the show. Lichtenstein’s work has been worn very thin through over-exposure, but the dead hand of cliché was put firmly in its place by confrontation with the real thing. The first room was dedicated to a number of his “brushstroke” paintings and their impact was immediate and profound: simply being exposed directly to these iconic images at full-scale transforms the experience into something emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating.


Close-up the paintings come alive: one can’t help but be affected by the colour, the craftsmanship of the outlines, the interplay of the textures, and the painterly eye realized in the coherence and artistry of the overall image.


With Spray (1962) for example, I spent a long time looking at that thumb: the elegance of those curves, the simplicity of the nail-varnish effect, the quality of that red. And at this scale one can’t see it, but at this relatively early stage in his career those Benday dots are hand-painted.



These Seascapesfrom 1964 and 1965 are gorgeous.


Hopeless 1963. 33 years between this one and:


Landscape with Philosopher 1996.

I thought it significant that the last room of the exhibition had been made-over into a Lichtenstein-only shop (in addition to the substantial one on the ground floor), just in case we forgot why we were really there…


Afterward we had a whistle-stop tour of some of the other standing exhibits. I spent a quarter of an hour sitting in a room of full-on Rothko’s but, I’m afraid, no good: I just don’t get Rothko at all. Here are a few random snaps:


Choucair sculpture room. Derivative painting, but everything else very impressive.


Marshall McLuhan has presumably been into this Cy Twombly room: “Art is anything you can get away with”. He would have had plenty to say about this too, no doubt:



Finally up to the member’s lounge for a cup of tea. Stunning view. Shame about the freezing cold weather and massive hailstone deluge…



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Composition Study #7

Posted by PH on May 01, 2013
Composition Study, Music & Technology, Students / No Comments

The first week of term after Easter things were slightly disrupted because of a trip to Dublin, but in the Thursday session we got around to looking at John Cage’s work in some detail.

Of course no review of 20th Century music could claim to be complete without at least some consideration of Cage. In our case we only looked at a limited number of his compositions, specifically those that used electronic means as an important element of the composition or realisation. Having said that, it could reasonably be claimed that, in any case, it is Cage’s ideas that are the crucial aspect here. Briefly, his key ideas are:

  1. All sounds are equal. The naturally occurring sounds around us are as important as those we deliberately make with musical instruments.
  2. Silence is never really silent. There is always some sound. In his most famous book (Silence) he repeatedly uses the example of where he went into an anechoic chamber but could still hear two sounds, one low pitched (his blood circulating) and the other high (the whine of his central nervous system).
  3. Indeterminacy: using random numbers or the I Ching to remove the “intentionality” of the composer from the work.
  4. Composer = “organizer of sound”.

The perfect realisation of all these is his infamous 4′ 33″, almost certainly one of the key conceptual works of art from the last century. Labelling it as such should not deter us, because at the end of the day it’s very, very, simple: all he’s really doing is asking us to actively listen without prejudice to the world around us. These are some of the works we listened to:

Fascinating. Finally, though, I wonder whether this non-intentional approach isn’t basically flawed: because everything is random the pieces lack formal development and therefore the emotional and intellectual satisfaction that we seem to crave. Surely the whole point of art is that it isn’t random in the way that nature is; it is the very shaping and manipulation of the materials that determine its special quality.

Taking all this into consideration the specification for this week’s composition looked like this:

Use a random process as the core generative element of your composition, but organize it in such a way that it has development, an emergent musical structure. In other words use a Cageian algorithm but without the piece being a shapeless mess.


  1. Finished piece.
  2. One or more spreadsheets (or similar).

Pseudo-Random Composition

For the “vocals” there were two basic sources of inspiration. Firstly, I had just read Steve Reich’s Writings on Music and became interested in his ideas on speech melody. Secondly, I had just been watching The Wire on DVD and thought this would be a good source of speech: some of the dialogue is fabulously colourful.

I used seasons 1-3, each of which had either 12 or 13 episodes each. A random number generator was used to choose in turn the season, episode, and instant (in minutes) where I would sample. I decided to take five samples: not too many, but enough to give me a bit of leeway…


As we can see, one of the samples didn’t record: very professional. Of course I took this as a Cagean random event and moved on…

For the music itself I used a random website generator (after briefly considering using YouTube). I simply kept clicking until something suitable came up. The first usable site was, which had 208 podcasts of House mixes done by a couple of guys called Apollo Lee and Jay Def. Each of the podcasts was a continuous mix around 80 minutes long, giving me over two weeks worth of music to choose from. Using the random number generator again I ended up with podcast 103, and from this I generated four random instances where I took samples (4, 32, 47, and 74 minutes).

Putting it all together: I had four speech samples but only used one. I also had four music samples: I took a two-bar loop from one, a kick drum from another, and discarded the other two. The whole track was made from these three elements.

I improvised a single EQ “performance” on the synth loop but edited quite heavily afterwards. I then improvised a dub-like echo track from a part of the vocal sample using a software delay line and an external tube EQ unit. I made three passes, discarded one, and edited the other two together into a single track.

Finally, I just edited more stuff out (e.g. an intro, drum fills, FX): it’s pared down to an absolute minimum. It seemed right to me but judge for yourself:

Can I just say I loved making this track? I love its simplicity, I love its funkiness, I love the way different elements of the loop emerge as the EQ sweeps across it, and I love the way it appeared magically out of thin air. I’m sure John Cage would approve…


It also brings up some interesting questions. Is this track something I’ve “composed”? All the sonic materials were derived using random selection, and I didn’t play or compose a single note of the music. However, there are clearly crucial points where I have made artistic decisions that have shaped the outcome decisively: I chose to use vocals, I chose to use The Wire, and I chose which samples to use and which to discard. I am the epitome of Cage’s “organizer of sound”, but whether that makes me a “composer” or not is another matter. Perhaps what it means is that our definition of “composer” needs to be reviewed (as perhaps it has done since the “Electronic Tonalities by Louis and Bebe Barron” credit on Forbidden Planet)?

Taking this one stage further: is my track “original” or is it a “remix”? The main loop I’ve used is from DJ Moguai‘s 1998 track Beatbox. But it isn’t the original version I’ve used, it’s the Inpetto remix and the synth loop is from this latter version: it’s not on the original at all. So, in theory, the track should go down as a remix of the DJ Moguai track, but he hasn’t actually contributed to it in any way!

Finally: assuming we credit Inpetto with writing the loop, at what point does “organizing sound” take us from making a “remix” into the creation of an “original” work.

My point being: the technology takes us into very strange places where our archaic copyright laws just don’t go. And it just isn’t as cut and dried as the music business lawyers would have us believe…


And this is why we should all spend some time listening to and thinking about John Cage’s work: he calls into question some very basic conceptions we have about music, composition, and listening.


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