This series of pieces was requested by Ross Healy for release on the VicMod label late in 2011. Since VicMod is a group that builds their own analogue synthesizers, I thought it would be only appropriate if I similarly restricted myself to one particular set of resources, as happens when one works with an analogue synthesizer, and try to get the most I could out of it. For the project I chose Martin Fay’s Vaz Modular softsynth, which I was very familiar with, and which Martin has recently expanded to include a number of new modules, some of which are modelled on older Serge and Buchla analogue modules. I decided I would only work with Vaz, if possible, returning to my many years of working with analogue synthesizers, both composing with them, and building them.
Starting in 1968, when I began working with the Moog (at the SUNY Albany Electronic Music Studio), I subsequently went on to work with Buchla, EMS, and Serge analogue synthesizers, among others, as well as building my own machines. Some of these can be seen on my www.warrenburt.com
website. I hadn’t worked exclusively in the analogue realm (or only in the virtual analogue realm) in many years. Since Vaz allows unlimited microtonal possibilities, I thought I should also return to an interest of mine, which I’d been ignoring of late, microtonality. In 2007, I’d completed a PhD on the subject, and had developed a catalogue of about 167 new microtonal scales based on the work of the microtonal theorist Ervin Wilson. PhD burnout must have set in, because I had hardly used any of those scales since. Obviously, after 5 years, it was time to start working seriously with them. Additionally, working with bare analogue timbres once more gave me the challenge of developing pleasing timbres, and a sensible progression of timbres with which to play these scales.
After all these years, the question still was: What is the compositional potential of these modules, and how can they be combined together to make interesting structure, interesting patterns. So my quest in these pieces was threefold: 1) to develop interesting musical structures using the resources supplied by Vaz Modular (all of them automated and algorithmic, none of them using a keyboard in any way); 2) using some of the microtonal scales from my “Triangle Scales Microtonal Catalogue” of 2007; 3) with electronic timbres that had some amount of life and interest to them.
The first six pieces (the Preludes) use the Vaz sequencer, which is modelled on old analogue Moog or Buchla style sequencers, but with a lot more possibilities for layering and structuring. It was my self-set challenge to see how far I could push those sequencers, especially using them for playing different sub-sets of the six just-intonation scales which were used for these pieces, one scale per Prelude. Dividing the just-intonation scales up into subsets and alternating between them gives a sense of harmonic progression to the pieces.
The last six pieces (the Postludes) use some of the many chaotic and quasi-random information generating modules in Vaz to provide structure and melodies, putting them through the Quantizer module which renders them into a selected microtonal scale. In this case, the 6 quasi-Pythagorean scales are also derived from Wilson’s work. That may sound complicated, but what it basically means is that these scales are the prototypes, or templates upon which all of the other just intonation scales in my catalogue are based.
The use of these scales produced a much more harmonious sounding music than I’ve been composing lately, where I’ve been working with noisebands, or found object timbres based on extreme electronic modifications of real-world sounds, or graphics to sound conversions of complex images. It was fun thinking harmonically again, and discovering just how consonant many of the scales in my catalogue were.
Sitting between these two sets of six pieces, like a large fish, is A Meeting with the Giant Murray Cod.
Shortly after I finished the first set of six pieces, we visited the Giant Murray Cod in Swan Hill, Victoria. And after we visited the Cod, I realised that I could make a second set of six pieces, so these pieces really ARE preludes and postludes to the meeting itself.
The score to A Meeting with the Giant Murray Cod is indeed a photo of me meeting the Murray Cod turned into sound with Nicolas Fournel’s AudioPaint. The photo was just processed a bit (mostly colour scaling), and then used straight. The scale for the timbre of the piece is another Erv Wilson just intonation scale, but it’s played using a sample of a harp arpeggio in 11 tone equal temperament. The intersection of these 2 scales gives the piece its piquancy. Plus, the vocal phrase in the exact centre of the piece is in 12-tone equal temperament, the only time in the entire CD that that tuning is used.
All the pieces consist of algorithmic automated processes. I composed by a patient process of setting up self-performing patches and testing how they behaved in combination with other patches. The only other program used was John Dunn's SoftStep, which was used to make a simple chord selection switch for the Preludes, and a single on-off switch for all the voices in the Postludes. The composing mostly happened on V/Line, Victorian Regional Trains (how appropriate for preludes and postludes to a visit to Swan Hill) using an ASUS Netbook and a pair of Sony noise-cancelling headphones. My work and teaching schedule was so crowded during the first half of 2012 that the only time I could actually compose, undisturbed, in private, was during morning and evening commutes on Victorian regional trains. Post production of the pieces only involved editing the beginning and ending of the pieces in Cool Edit, and deciding which take of a piece to use. For the most part, the pieces are heard in the same form that they were generated by the computer, straight off the machine.
For my hearing, the final result is more melodious and harmonious than much of my usual recent work, and I hope this produces an interesting experience for the listener, especially the VicMod listener; exploring what kinds of structures and harmonies are inherent in these materials and this analogue - or virtual analogue – technology, and finding what kind of music I could extract from these processes. Also, another factor which is interesting for me, but which may not be hearable by the listener, is the exploring of what kinds of music result from working in the very contained, private, yet totally public world of a crowded commuter train. In my listening, I can hear this most clearly in the very first Prelude, which to me has the feel of a very rushed commuter. It was only later in the process that I managed to slow myself down, and begin to compose in a more relaxed manner, sinking into a greater sense of harmony with the railway environment.
2 June 2012 Daylesford, Vic. Warren Burt