What is Context, Really?
When I proposed this independent study for approval, I included that my final project would be a “work of an agreed-upon length to be performed, to be performed on Dec. 5th as part of the Hartford New Music Festival’s concert Moans, Drones, and Cellular Phones. I know a guy that is involved with the festival, so it was fairly easy to get him to allow this. (Spoiler: it’s me, I’m the guy). That work ended up being called [needs context]. Also included as part of the requirements for the independent study was something more academically related. The paper that was originally proposed turned into these posts that you are reading now. As I prepared to write my first real piece involving the techniques that I had been practicing, I began improvising and thinking about how to approach the work.
I knew that I wanted to piece to have motion and not get stuck in the aforementioned glob, which meant that when new music is played it needs to change the way we hear the already-looping music. The easiest way that I could think of achieving this goal was to mix tonalities. Adding in unexpected notes, in my eyes, progresses the piece forward in a way that rhythm alone cannot do. Sure, one can use rhythm to build tension and motion but with the inherent pitfall of pan-tonality that is associated with looping, it is a bit like running on a treadmill. It is an interesting phenomenon when you hear a scale. Take the notes C-D-E, for example. When you hear that, you cannot help but think “major scale,” that is until an F# is heard and then it is Lydian. It is Lydian until a Bb is heard and now it is a gypsy or overtone scale. My point is that looping is a prime scenario to take advantage of those psychological aspects of music.
In my work, I attempted to mix major and minor together, both by use of register and focusing on different tetrachords within the scale. In the beginning of the work, a simple pizzicato line is heard that is undeniably C-major. The first four notes make it sound pentatonic until the F is heard, which is then followed by a B that acts as a quick leading tone back to the original C. The fact that 6 of the 7 notes in the scale are being used in this opening figure, and that they are so close together makes it hard to fit any other notes within it, so I turned to register. A low Eb is played on the downbeat of the figure which created some tension. The Eb moves down to D, which moves down to C and feels like a resolution of sorts. The interest comes from hearing the higher figure in a fast-moving, short C-major above a slow C-minor figure. To make things more C-minor, I focused on the top part of the scale in a higher register than the opening figure. Up to this point no type of A has been heard. This is then exploited by using Ab both as an upper leading tone to G, and as a way to climb up to C (through a Bb). Even though there is much clashing theoretically, the use of register is enough to separate the ideas and create clarity. To recap, there is C-minor on the bottom, C-major in the middle, and F-minor on top (which is more thought of as the upper tetrachord of C-minor).
The second section, after the interlude, also mixes modes like the opening section, but does so in a slightly different, slightly more raucous way. The first figure is in A-major and covers the entire scale so once again, register is used to alleviate density. A low figure comes in after, which sounds in A-phrygian, with the notes A-Bb-E. Then, similar to the beginning, a higher third figure begins playing on an F. What begins in A-minor ends in A-major as the F moves to G, down to E, down to D, down to C#. This figure is the embodiment of this work a whole, as it combines an A-major tetrachord below a D-minor tetrachord, to create an A-major-minor scale. There is a pesky F# at the very end of the figure but it is quickly put in its place by moving back down to F. To recap this section, there is A-phrygian on the bottom, A-major in the middle, and A-major-minor on the top.
The techniques described above allowed me to change the context of the music that was already playing, but how was I going to get from one section to another? This is where that fourth loop station that was mentioned before became vital. The three main loop stations that I had set up were all routed to a fourth loop station that was completely independent. So as the music was playing back I was able to control what was being routed to this fourth loop station and begin recorded. Since it was completely independent, and also because it has some very heavy effects on it, it sounds very disruptive. Any semblance of tempo is obscured by un-quantized looping lengths. This fourth loop station acts as a bridge to get me from section to section. I call them the “interludes.” The first interlude is only one of the layers, albeit a heavily effected one. The second interlude, however, is all 3 of the sounding layers in a cacophonous mess, which is then further cacophonized (I word I just made up) through the use of the Michael Norris’ spectralmagic plus-ins, as well as Mainstage’s own pitch shifter. This is where the pedals on the foot controller become crucial. One pedal was set to the “blur amount” in the spectral blurring plug-in and the other was set to the “mix” of the pitch shifter. The “blur amount” was not necessarily a wet/dry mix, but it acted very similarly. Basically, the higher the blur amount the calmer and quieter the sound. This is a great starting point because when I route loop stations to this fourth looping station it is by use of a bypass trigger. That hard shift in sound can be jarring, but having the “blur amount” up high makes it almost unnoticeable. When the “blur amount” is lower, it makes a more raucous and louder sound. The pitch shifter is set before the piece even starts and, in this case, it is set to a perfect fifth above. The “mix” parameter acts as a wet/dry mix and tells you what ratio of effected pitch you hear with effected pitch. With these two pedals, I was able to change and destabilize the sound, all the while preparing the other three loop stations for the last section of the piece. The last section is a celebration of all things C-major, with a copious amount of pizzicato and flowing lines.