Notes on the Composion of Reality House
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This essay is excerpted from my article, "Oblique Strategies", published in Current Musicology, vol. 66/67, 2002.
Please contact me at the above email for a hard copy of this text.
In 1998 I was lucky to have been selected by the Columbia Composers organization to write a piece for Ensemble Fa, a French contemporary music group. They were planning a series of concerts in the United States, one of which would consist of four premieres of pieces by graduate students at Columbia University, to be performed at Miller Theater in New York City. The performers participating in this tour included conductor Dominique My and instrumentalists playing flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, trombone, violin, viola, cello, and contrabass.
When preparing to write for this group, I noticed that this instrumentation was the same as that of Gérard Grisey’s Périodes (composed 1974) from his six work cycle, Les Espaces Acoustiques. I had just spent the 1997-98 academic year studying composition with Tristan Murail, a friend of Grisey and, like Grisey, one of the earliest practitioners of spectral composition methods. With these facts in mind, I decided to use this commission as an opportunity to explore some spectral techniques. Later, after Grisey’s unexpected death in November of that year, this work also became an homage to him and his music.
The work I wrote for this occasion is a sixteen-minute piece in one movement entitled Reality House, named after a methadone clinic located a couple of blocks away from my apartment in Manhattan. In this essay I will limit my analysis of Reality House to my formation of its harmonic materials and its general form.
For this composition, I decided to follow a deliberately corrupted variation of typical spectral methods. First of all, while the majority of spectral compositions base their harmonies upon variants of one or just a few spectra, I decided to employ several sets of source spectra. Second, in a nod to my enjoyment of pop music, I took all but one of my source spectra from my favorite timbral moments on the Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I added to these one other set of spectra, taken from the title track of the punk rock band The Clash’s album London Calling.
To identify and extract spectral data from these source recordings I used a computer, following essentially the same procedure for each of them, and I will now describe this with an example. This particular set of harmonies was derived from the transition between the first two songs on the Sgt. Pepper album (The title track and With A Little Help From My Friends). The precise moment I was interested in is the 2.1 seconds when the band sings the name "Shears," and so I began by isolating it from the Beatles' recording by means of digital audio editing software.
Next I transcribed the timbral content of the recording into harmonies, using the computer music applications Audiosculpt and Patchwork. First, in Audiosculpt, I performed a sonogram analysis of the recording. This displayed the spectral content of the composite timbre of voices, guitars, drums, etc., as a whole (see figure 1). (Although figure 1 cannot show this, one of the joys of the Audiosculpt program is that it allows the user to zoom in visually and see intricate details of a sound’s timbre, in effect acting as a kind of timbral microscope.) The analysis showed that as the Beatles sing the word "Shears" the timbre changes significantly, evolving from the initial "sh" through the vowel, the "r," and final "s." Given the variety of timbral content there, I decided to create a series of chords from this analysis rather than just a single harmony.
Figure 1. Sonogram analysis of "Shears"
To get from a single analysis to a series of chords, I first instructed Audiosculpt to divide the analysis into shorter segments of time. I decided to divide the 2.1 second sound into twenty such segments, because I knew from experience that shorter segments would be more idiosyncratic and thus probably more interesting to me. Since I wanted each segment to be a different harmony for Reality House, I set the software to indicate the beginning of a new segment whenever the timbral content of the analysis had changed significantly since the current segment had begun. In order to divide the analysis into twenty segments, I found that I needed to set Audiosculpt to indicate a new segment whenever the timbre of the analysis had changed by 22 percent or more. Thus each chord would share about three quarters of its frequency content with its predecessor and its successor. Plus, since Audiosculpt used frequency content to determine where to begin each new segment, the time duration of the segments varied widely, from slightly over 0.01 second to about 0.26 second. Where the timbre was stable the segments were relatively long and where the timbre was unstable there were more, shorter segments. So in effect I had set the software to seek out the most novel timbral moments of the analysis. This was fine for me, since I was looking for interesting timbre, not trying to duplicate the Beatles’ performance.
After Audiosculpt had found twenty such divisions in the analysis of "Shears," I saved the data for these twenty spectra and then imported them into the Patchwork program for further manipulations that were not possible in Audiosculpt. This step was necessary since the timbre of a musical texture such as a Beatles song, even merely one syllable’s worth, likely contains thousands of partials; and I wanted a set of frequencies small enough to score as harmonies. Thus my goal in Patchwork was to discover and pull out the most salient pitches from each of my twenty spectra. So, once I had configured the software properly I instructed Patchwork to discard all of the partials except for the 32 strongest in each of the twenty spectra. This allowed me to retain in effect a simplified spectral outline of each segment, and these twenty 32-note pitch sets were now ready to be used as harmonies for Reality House.
It is worth reiterating here that these harmonies were representations of the timbre of the entire musical texture present during twenty tiny slices of time as the Beatles sang "Shears." Thus, each of the twenty chords contained a wide range of pitches, from very low to very high. Some of these were pitch class equivalent to each other, but there was no regular pattern of intervals between pitches as in triadic harmony, for instance. Plus, quite naturally, the general pattern of intervals in the harmonies was that of wider spacing among lower pitches and tighter spacing among higher pitches, in rough congruence to the phenomenon of the overtone series (see figure 2.) Given the wide range they cover, one may also think of my "harmonies" as being non-octave-repeating scales.
Figure 2. Seven chords derived from "Shears"
Since my intention was to seek the most interesting timbral moments within the analysis of the recording of "Shears," I then listened carefully repeatedly to each of the 20 chords. I found many of them uninteresting or redundant, and so I discarded those, leaving the seven chords of figure 2. I left these seven ordered as they had appeared chronologically in my analysis, but even though in the analysis they had had dramatically differing durations, I now weighted them equally. Figure 3 shows an excerpt from Reality House which uses this chord sequence with one harmony per measure. (Only the first three harmonies are shown in figure 3. Consult the full score for the remainder of this progression.)
Figure 3. "Shears" chords in Reality House.
While composing Reality House, I chose one progression from these to use at any given time. However, I played with the material freely, transposing entire progressions as I wished, running them in part and/or backwards, and juxtaposing the progressions in whatever ways seemed most interesting to me.
For me, this method of creating harmonies for Reality House was quite satisfying. The use of spectral methods based on pop song spectra enabled me to create an homage to Gérard Grisey while simultaneously defying the conventions of his style and commemorating some of my favorite pop songs. Moreover, since I find the timbre of some pop music to be quite interesting, this piece became an experiment to see whether I could transfer those sound components from pop music to acoustic chamber music. The result sounded nothing like pop music, but to me it did capture some of the sonic attributes I enjoy in pop, which is what I wanted. The point for me in this endeavor was to create interesting harmonic colors for Reality House–not to simply imitate the Beatles–and I believe I achieved that goal.
I should add, however, that technically the harmonies I created for Reality House and the way I used them were more "spectrally-inspired" than spectral. First, as I mentioned above, I used a very large set of source spectra from varying sources that were primarily related to each other because I found them all timbrally attractive. Secondly, for practical rehearsal/performance reasons, I decided to refrain from the use of microtones; thus my harmonies were less precise approximations of the source spectra than the harmonies of most spectral pieces would be. In addition, I injected some sense of tonality into my harmonies in that I composed several sections of my piece by re-using progressions, transposed to new "tonics," based on a scheme of tonal centers derived from the succession of tonics of the songs on the Sgt. Pepper album. Finally, as mentioned above, I juxtaposed progressions from separate source spectra throughout the piece. I also linked progressions via common or related tonal centers rather than through processes of spectral manipulation. Thus I purposely chose to digress from conventional spectral composition methods in order to create my own sound and structure for Reality House.
With my harmonic scheme in place, I next planned the form for Reality House. In brief, the result is a chain of successive sections, which, like beads on a flamboyant necklace, tend to be fairly self-contained, recur in patterns, and often contrast with their immediate neighbors. The ordering of these sections in Reality House reflects my interest in combining overall trajectories with unexpected twists and turns. Thus, to unite the piece and imbue it with continuity, I decided that many moments would be variations on or recurrences of musical ideas presented earlier. Then, to lessen regularity I added sections of non-recurring materials scattered among these. Moreover, the lengths of sections vary widely and some end unexpectedly. I will now illustrate these techniques through contrasting examples.
Reality House begins with a fifteen measure quick-cut montage of thematic ideas that reappear as the piece continues. One of these is a motto-theme I call the "‘London Calling’ motto," which first appears in the trombone and strings, mm. 3-6 (figure 4) and varies in length from 1-4 measures in its reappearances. As one might guess, this motto uses harmonies derived from the Clash song, "London Calling." It also uses a signature rhythm of insistent quarter notes and triplets also derived from the song "London Calling."
Figure 4. "London Calling" motto in Reality House.
This motto is the most prominent of several thematic materials that recur quite clearly in the piece and which I conceived of as constituting a "frame" around the other sections. My intention was that just as a hiker in the mountains might regain orientation by sighting a particular peak from several points of view along the course of a day’s excursion, listeners could recognize ideas such as the "London Calling" motto as they return, varied, in Reality House. The "London Calling" motto appears a total of six times in Reality House (mm. 38-88, 155-58, 241-243, 299-300, 303, 306-322), including its dramatic extension at the end of the piece. This particular motto gains further importance as Reality House continues, since it usually enters as an interruption, and is followed by different material after each of its appearances.
Other clearly recurring materials in Reality House include the following: the melodic theme introduced in mm. 5-6 (recurring in mm. 85-90, 211-230, and 274-279); a half step upper neighbor note motion first seen in measure 7 (recurring in mm. 92-109, 126-131, 231-238, and 272-273); a rhythmic pizzicato gesture in measure 8(recurring in mm. 53-57, 280-284, and 291-294); and a short rising melodic line first heard in mm. 23-27(recurring in mm. 31-35, 42-45, 47-50, and 284-291). These, like the "London Calling" motto, are altered in subsequent each appearance. I believe that their referential nature helps provide continuity to the work–the "frame" idea I introduced above--while the uniqueness of both the treatment and the context of the material upon each appearance help the music express new ideas/emotional states. Since the variations of these materials are scattered through the piece, I see the result as a sort of weave of variations holding the piece together while at the same time the alteration of sections of differing materials creates an effect similar to the necklace analogy I made earlier.
Scattered among the recurring musical materials are several sections that are more self-contained and which feature materials that do not appear elsewhere in Reality House or take materials that were peripheral earlier and treat them at length. An example of a unique section is the soft Klangfarbenmelodie interlude of mm. 244-259; and the technique of dramatically expanding earlier material is exemplified in mm. 263-271, 276-277, and 293-298 , which are based on the harmony and glissando of mm. 1-2. Other examples are the three sections of mm. 58-84, 136-154, and 160-209, which do not share thematic materials with each other or the rest of the piece. These sections are related to each other, though, in that all three are realizations of the same formal process, as I will briefly explain next.
The three sections of mm. 58-84, 136-154, and 160-209 are noteworthy from a formal point of view in that each is an iteration of a single formal process. Many of my works use processes to alter/develop material, and these sections of Reality House illustrate how I embed them into larger forms. The process utilized here is a one of accumulation: each of the three sections begins with sparse, pianissimo, relatively low-pitched materials, and progresses into a loud, dense heterophonic texture filling a wide pitch range. The first two instances are truncated, but the third one completes the process and achieves the most powerful climax of the entire work.
While this explication of Reality House has focused rather narrowly on issues of harmony and form, I think that it has provided some insights into my compositional methods. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have further questions.
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