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7 November 2013

Insight: Freedom within the prism

the pre-recorded electronic domain

Insight: Freedom within the prism

Composer Peter McNamara writes about extending his palette of timbres by combining live instruments with pre-recorded electronics in his works Landscape of Diffracted Colours, Krazny and Amplitude - a new work to be premiered by percussionist Claire Edwardes in Sydney's Campbelltown on 16 November.

> More 'Insight' articles by the AMC's represented artists are available on our Scoop page.

I have long been interested in combining live instruments with pre-recorded electronic musical accompaniment, and the many possibilities that this presents. While preparing for the performance of my latest venture into this musical domain, my composer colleague at the Sydney Conservatorium, Dr Brad Gill, raised the following question: why pre-recorded electronics? Considering the possibilities of modern technology, particularly interactive technology, pre-recorded electronics could seem a little old-fashioned.

Combining live instruments and pre-recorded electronics is not a new interest of mine. As far back as 2001 I was writing in this form for Gordon Monro's 'Live Wires' concert, where my work Krazny for trombone and pre-recorded electronics was first performed. There is also my 2005 work Landscape of Diffracted Colours for octet and pre-recorded electronics, performed by a variety of ensembles in Europe and New Zealand. The reasons for choosing this medium in these works do vary slightly, but a common thread is to increase the palette of timbral possibilities by combining the two performing media.

I have always had an interest in expressing tone colour in my work, and combining electronics with live instruments provides a unique opportunity to synthesise new timbres that would otherwise not be possible. This is particularly true of Landscape of Diffracted Colours, where the ensemble and electronics work together to create new timbres expressing the rich colours of the Australian landscape. My visual cue for this work was the shifting colour tones of sandstone: the way shades of light reflecting off sandstone cliffs vary from light to dark depending on the time of day or direction of the sun, and so forth. This is very characteristic of the Australian landscape, for example in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and is represented in musical form by contrasts of bright tone colours and darker tone colours in the opening of Landscape of Diffracted Colours. Shimmering tone colours are also a feature, representing the effect of Australia's extreme heat on how light is diffracted, particularly characterised in the electronic component by spectrally mutated sounds where there is a rapid and continuous alternation between two synthesised timbres.

Landscape of Diffracted Colours is influenced to a large degree by Tristan Murail's work Disintegrations written for large ensemble and tape at IRCAM in 1982-83. I analysed this work for my Master's thesis in 2004, and after studying it came to the conclusion that the two components were very homogenous and Murail predominantly used the two performing media to synthesise one tone colour entity. This is a technique that I also incorporated into Landscape of Diffracted Colours, but I decided to extend on this further by creating timbre metamorphoses between ensemble and electronics.

An example of this can be found in the work's first section, where the reverberation of the ensemble and electronics is transformed into another timbre by a subsequent sound emerging from the electronic component. This technique makes it particularly difficult for the audience to know from where exactly the sound is emanating. This was illustrated by composer Michael Daugherty, one of the judges when Landscape of Diffracted Colours was performed at Gaudeamus Music Week in 2008, who said that he often couldn't tell the difference between the ensemble and electronics. I find this is a very interesting effect that results in a more vivid tone colour experience for the listener and is heavily reliant on the work's use of electronics.

In Krazny, the electronic component is often an extension of the live component, or vice versa. This is an interesting concept outlined by Simon Emmerson in his article 'Acoustic/Electroacoustic: The Relationship with Instruments'1, and leads to extensive interplay between the two components in Krazny. The opening of the work is an example of this: the live trombone and electronics engage in an interplay of pitches where the fp dynamics in the live trombone are inverted by the electronic component and extended by delay. Conversely, there are frequent occurrences where the pre-recorded component accumulates energy and density, which triggers explosions of material in the trombone. This is developed further in the contrasting second section, where the climax point of various trombone glissandi often triggers a response in the pre-recorded component.

The above musical results can of course be achieved with other forms of electronic composition so the original question must still be answered. This can be addressed by studying my new work Amplitude for vibraphone, tam tam and pre-recorded electronics. With pre-recorded electronics the composer can exercise a great deal of control over the results and present a particular sound or effect at a certain point in time. This is often the case in Amplitude, which uses a number of bowed tam tam sounds as its musical basis. Various forms of re-synthesising these bowed tam tam sounds, combined with the re-enforcement of their physical-acoustic properties in the live percussion part2, forms a large component of this work. To present these timbres at particular points in time required a great deal of control, which for me necessitates the incorporation of pre-recorded electronics.

Although Amplitude, just like Krazny and Landscape of Diffracted Colours, is often strictly co-ordinated between the acoustic and electronic components, this does not leave the performer without any freedom. As Brad Gill describes it, there is a certain 'freedom within the prism' with Amplitude (as well as Krazny and Landscape of Diffracted Colours) that he noticed while preparing the piece for a recording venture of ours. This 'freedom within the prism' provides an environment where the performer can express certain gestures freely in response to stimuli from the electronics within a defined temporal space.

There are a number of different examples of this in Amplitude, including the transition into section C where the performer uses wire brushes on the vibraphone. The material is very rapid and improvised at this point, interrupted by a number of brief pauses that the performer must interpret individually and fit into a defined temporal space before the next response from the pre-recorded component triggers the next improvised passage. There are also some examples in both Landscape of Diffracted Colours and Krazny. The characteristic oboe solos in the middle section of Landscape of Diffracted Colours provide freedom for the performer as the ensemble and electronic accompaniment is very sustained at these points. In fact, when Ensemble Modern performed the work in 2008, the conductor Peter Eötvös had the oboist play the solos to me to ensure I was happy with the interpretation. The muted trombone passages in Krazny's second section are similar in character, in that the performer (Steve Smith) was able to approach the rhythmic interpretation with some freedom after the initial response from the pre-recorded component.

Brad Gill - a composer colleague and percussionist based in Sydney - assisted me greatly to come up with some interesting new effects for vibraphone in Amplitude. Some of these include allowing a chopstick to buzz or bounce on a vibrating bar, bowed pitch bending (by pressing a heavy mallet into the bar) and accel and decel vibrato sounds (by manually moving the louvers). The use of these techniques necessitates a certain degree of freedom for the performer, given their semi-improvised and occasionally unpredictable nature, and therefore fit appropriately into the 'freedom within the prism' concept.

In conclusion, the 'freedom within the prism' demonstrated in these works means that, as a composer, I can have the best of both worlds: the control of knowing a certain timbre or combination of timbres will occur at a specific point in time, but also a degree of flexibility for the performer to add the human element to a performance. This is a unique and fascinating product of combining live instruments with pre-recorded electronics and is in fact essential in my work in this domain to prevent an overly mechanical and inhuman musical result.

Amplitude will be premiered in Sydney on 16 November by Claire Edwardes at the Campbelltown Arts Centre - the same place where Krazny was performed in 2005 at the opening of the Centre. As it happens, I will be only just back from my third ISCM World New Music Days performance in Vienna - the last time that Claire Edwardes performed a work of mine (The German Hills) in 2008, I also had a performance at the ISCM WNMD of, wait for it, Landscape of Diffracted Colours! Brad Gill and I also hope to include a performance of Amplitude at next year's Aurora Festival and eventually release a CD recording.


1 Emmerson, Simon - Acoustic/Electroacoustic: The Relationship with Instruments. Journal of New Music Research, 1998, Vol. 27, No. 1-2, p 151.

2 This is a further-developed technique from works such as Lonh by Kaija Saariaho, outlined in the article Desire and Distance by Anne Sivuoja-Gunaratnam, Organised Sound 8(1): p. 72.

AMC resources

Peter McNamara - AMC profile


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