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Dystopian Birdwatching


I’m a saxophonist, a composer, an administrator–The Interface is an interactive electroacoustic live performance and sound installation. Not exactly a match made to be. My experience with electronic music is limited to a course I took in my undergrad, some seven years ago (damn has it been that long?!).

Recently, I dusted off vague memories of feaverish all nighters finishing projects in the electroacoustic studio buried deep in the basement of Brandon University, and convinced myself that I could probably write some music with a computer again. How hard could it be?  Honestly, when I set out to create a piece for this thing, I had NO idea where to start. It actually ended up being a whole lot of fun, and I’m now convinced that anyone with a little bit of computer knowledge could write for The Interface.


Okay, so this Interface thing–what’s that all about? Well, Spectrum composer Matt Roberts designed a participatory interface that allows the audience to influence the development of the performance by using a real musician as a live switch. We’re going to unveil it at our season launch party. You should come.


For a composer, The Interface presents a unique set of limits to create within. Perhaps the biggest difference from typical composition is the fact that I can’t plan how the piece will unfold. Since the audience members are choosing to turn loops on and off at will, and the loops are fixed, I can’t plan the development of the piece. Although this might sound limiting, it was also quite liberating. In a way I felt as though I was creating a sketch, from which the audience actually creates the final product.


Along with my activities at Spectrum, I’m also thrilled to be working with Soundstreams. For those that don’t know, Soundstreams is a contemporary music presenter that commissions, and presents the work of Canadian composers, and they’ve been doing so for 30 years. In fact some 160 pieces have resulted from their commissions, representing a significant parcel of Canadian music. In an effort to do justice to this collection, they created SoundMakers, an interactive website and iPad app which lets you explore and listen to hundreds of works online. That alone would be cool, but the platform also lets you download prepared samples of these pieces, inviting people to use them in their own creations and then share back with the online community. Yeah, I’m pretty excited about this. Can you tell?


In my endeavor to create a piece for The Interface, SoundMakers presented a perfect opportunity to explore an intersection between the worlds of acoustic and electronic music. I’ve been looking for an excuse to dig into SoundMakers for a while–how perfect. Just for fun, I decided to use exclusively SoundMakers samples for my piece.

Flipping through the vast library of samples, I selected a handful of what I thought to be musically complementary materials. These source samples actually came from strikingly dissimilar works. I sourced interlocking rhythmic patterns from a few percussion pieces. Peter Hatch’s Timezones has an ostinato which I thought would make a groovy underpinning for the piece. It’s actually altered so much in the final result, that I bet it’s hard to point out. I used it to trigger a midi gate, and then fed that into a satisfying deep dubstep bass patch. Yum. The search for rhythmic samples also led me to extract and tempo-match rhythmic samples from Andrew Staniland’s HexI tired to be attentive to the fact that these loops had to play nice when layered together. I also ensured the loops didn’t have the same length, so that the rhythms could layer and unfold with complexity and wouldn’t repeat in a short period; the last thing I wanted was for this to start sounding like a cheap drum machine!


Choosing melodic and harmonic material demanded a lot more sleuthing though the SoundMakers sample library. Again, the integrated unpredictability of The Interface provided a refreshing challenge. I knew that I needed materials that could provide a framework for the improvising musician, while at the same time being sort of nebulous so that they could layer together to create unpredictable harmonic environments. I also wanted some melodic material to add excitement and inspire the improvisor, without getting in the way or being overtly tonal. I was able to concoct a nice mix of sustained tones from Gary Kulesha’s Without Fanfare, and Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Indelible Lines, Invisible Surface. I changed the pitch of some of these samples so that together, they outline a cluster of close tones. A nice blot of colour from which the improvisor can hopefully feel liberated to flow freely inside and outside of this sudo tonality.


These two pieces also provided interesting melodic materials. The fanfare was an great place to grab shorter melodic interjections, which also have clear and colourful harmonic implications. Murphy’s piece delivered very compelling melodic material by way of several samples of soaring oboe passages. Coincidentally, Soundstreams‘ Artistic Director, Lawrence Cherney is the oboist on this recording. Neato. With a strong and clear melody, this layer is also the least vague. In my mind there was only room for one such sample in the piece because there must also be room for the improvisor to weave their own melodic lines.


Arrive at Dystopian Birdwatching, my first piece for The Interface.


All in all, I used a very light amount of digital processing on these samples. Pitch and tempo shifting were important to create a shared canvas, but I felt compelled to leave the intrinsic qualities of the samples intact. I wanted there to be room to hear the ‘humanness’ of the acoustic instruments come through in the final product. Other than my lack of advanced technical ability with the software, I think this approach stems from the fact that I’m an acoustic musician myself, who performs with and composes primarily for acoustic instruments.


There is such a vast amount of electronic music being made in the world today.  I humbly wonder if perhaps the Spectrum composers can share a slightly different offering by coming to this genre with a naive sense of the medium, bringing our contemporary music sensibilities to these creations. This notion carries through to the idea of the interface itself, bridging the gap between human performers and our digital counterparts.


On Friday, September 13th, we’re going to try my work, alongside four other new pieces composed for the interface. Join me for a drink, and see what you think of all this noise about interfacing while improvising. Have some fun hijacking our creations and see how the live performer reacts to the changes you make. I’m very excited about this and want you to be a part of the experiment.


See you there!


- Ben Dietschi

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