Saturday, February 13, 2021


Crash performance, New Langton Arts, San Francisco, CA, 1986. (camera: Steve Felty)

Crash was written in the summer of 1986 as the musical accompaniment for a dance of the same name created by choreographer Gay White. Based in part on the J. G. Ballard novel, the work tells the story of the destruction of a car and the maiming of its occupant. The work is com-prised of three broad sections. The first is a garden scene, where a young woman sleeps. The landscape is cold and damp. She has a dream of surrender, of a woman in mourning and of a funeral. In the second section, the woman accelerates onto a freeway on-ramp, where she is awakened, seduced by speed and exposed to impact. In the third section, a new sense of beauty evolves from the changes to her anatomy. 

"I searched for my scars, those tender lesions that now gave off an exquisite and warming pain."

Performance of the dance at New Langton Arts, San Francisco, California, 1986, included the display of two videotapes prerecorded by Mark A. Z. Dippe. One provides a documentation of the dance, combining several camera angles. The second deconstructs the dance, illuminating small details that might otherwise be missed by the audience.

The score for the music of the third section is shown above. This recording was realized on an NED Synclavier II synthesizer. Digital control over the work allows the tuning of the pitches to be set precisely. Attention to tuning was something that was common to much of my music at the time. In this case, the static pitches are based on the simple scale shown at the top of the score. The moving pitches flirt with the tones of this scale and generate controlled beating effects. 

Except for the instrumental (drum and string) samples, all of the component sounds in the last section are modifications of recorded natural sounds. One is an extremely high vocal sound. It appears in the piece replayed both in a very low and a medium register. Sampling can introduce spectral aliases, which are typically filtered out in digital-to-analog conversion. For the very low sounds, the sampling rate and filter cut off were chosen so that the first spectral alias was not removed. This alias is very interesting, as it is a mirror image in frequency of the original image spectrum. The addition of this alias lends a high, rich timbral edge to the sound. Also, as the original sound moves up and down, the alias mirrors its movement. Another sound source is a small Godzilla toy. I like to think that the semantic content of this source unconsciously contributes to the scariness of the finale.


Saturday, October 3, 2020

A quiet year

I'm still pushing through She Who Is Alive during this year of enforced stillness and isolation, an isolation broken by our visitor above. With it arrives the alien ship arriving, and the following doxology is sung. 
This message is addressed to no one 
Who does not already possess it
As his own life or as a yearning
Of his heart.
Let us hurl ourselves
Into time's dynamic sweep
And hear age-old tales
As if they were new
That they may teach us to speak. 
Pharaoh foretold it in his day
And Sibyl the prophetess too
With neither fault nor error
That redemption would come to us 
For the greatest guilt.
At night the leaping fountains speak 
In a louder tone and make
The heart a leaping flame.
Into the nighttime is expelled
What once ruled during the day. 
Whence all this?
Not from this world.
From another world.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Showing off

If there's anything one doesn't want to do, it is letting The Empress know one is depressed because they aren't getting enough attention for their art.  There is no way to more reliably cause her to roll her eyes and maybe kick one down the stairs just on her say-so. 

So come with me into the little hidey-hole under the kitchen sink, yes, that's right, I know it's really not for two, but let's just squeeze in, and I'll whisper this: I had planned so much this year and nothing much at all is happening. And it's depressing. I miss it all: the audience's adulation of course, the glowing reviews, the hugs, but also the thrill of creative society, the first hearing of the orchestra, the smell of sweat and greasepaint. It's well-known that we are the most productive when we are busy and, when we are not, well, we are not much of anything at all. 

And, to be honest, I am a vain person of great puffery.  I remember when I was a little boy I carried around a copy of Ulysses, which I was in fact reading, but about which I also thought it important that people knew that it was a book I was reading. I fed off it: I loved when people said I was the smartest boy there, and I loved the awards and the pettings of the teachers.  

I'm not the only one you know. Gravitation was published in 1973, the year before I arrived at CalTech, and at that time it was what Ulysses had been for me, a book one had on the shelf, or lying casually about one's room, making it clear that you were reading it and, by extension, where you were in the order of things. CalTech had a clear caste system with physicists way up on top (Feynman was there, Gell-Mann, Stephen Hawking for a time, Kip Thorne (on book cover above)). After that I'm not even sure of the pecking order, but I was a math major when I got there, and mathematicians were seen as so far outside of the realms of Science that they were simply ignored. 

[You know the bit in The Hunt For Red October where Seaman Jonesie, teasing his underling who is failing to identify a whale sound or some such, says, "Beaumont, at CalTech we used to do this in our sleep." Right, we didn't do that or anything like that. It's just one of those Hollywood misunderstandings of any actual profession, at best poorly attempting to attend to their teen demographic.]

Eventually I wandered even more afield from the physics seminarians. I took philosophy classes - - which appealed to me. I always loved the philosophical arguments - can it simultaneously be raining and not raining? (don't ask this of a group of smug and too-smart kids at CalTech), the language-musings of Wittgenstein, and Quine and Hume. I loved the foundations of Mathematics, the paradoxes, the models and the axioms and Gödel and whether axioms were even the thing. I loved the foundations of Quantum Mechanics, the interpretations and Bell and Einstein vs. Bohr and Bohm and the squishiness of it all. Even   Gravitation had its kookiness, the "it from bit" of Wheeler, who also wandered through campus from time to time. But then I took Art classes - from the now-Chevalier Aimée Brown Price - and soon. with my roommate Robert Erickson, started to attend the composition classes at Occidental College nearby and fell hard in love. When Occidental gave me a composition award, well, that was it, I was betrothed to music for ever and until death. I did finish at CalTech, but in Electrical Engineering, doing electronic music, and seeing some kind of future there, which has all rolled out for me. 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

She Who Is Alive, as it goes

The Pigeon Cooing

On nights when I cannot sleep, I think often of puzzles, like this: no matter how large the number, the no closer one is to infinity.  When we believed in heaven and hell and the sins that brought us to one or the other, we knew that, no matter how adamantly we strove toward perfection, we never approached it. It is in this light that I see my latest endeavor, to finish the opera on which I have been working these last several years - She Who Is Alive - fast approaching the three-hour mark with no end in sight. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Loss of process

It's a common question: Erling, how do you go about writing music, what's the process, and my standard pat answer has become just that, a well-rehearsed bit about how there is no process, how I do just about everything, sometimes sketching, sometimes improvising, direct-to-score, piano-vocal score thence arranged, on planes and trains and in the basement, hot and humid or cold and dry, oftentimes late at night, tired, during the drugged-out being of oh-so-tired, and oftentimes prodded by an external force, often a deadline, or a feeling to just to be done with it, sometimes a new sound, a new instrument.

All this is true, but what has become the most common in my golden age, is to improvise a bit, usually at the piano, often with the text - did I mention I write a lot of operas? - and scribble down something until I get tired of having to drag the heavy pencil across the page, and I realize that every mark I make on paper is one that has to be re-made in the computer, so I soon fire up the laptop and just start doing it all there.  Which is maybe a little bad, since the music I write depends so much on the tools I use, and the computer feeds my laziness.  The above are all the paper scribblings that exist for Chapter 6 of She Who Is Alive, about 15 minutes of music. The final score, in the version that Earplay and West Edge Opera presented, is about 100 pages.

Almost always I have to make the requisite piano-vocal score after the fact.  It's so tedious to do it, and one that feels so bad when death is rushing toward one so quickly, and which one feels could almost surely be automated once they get the mall robots to stop falling in the central water features and the automated cars to stop killing pedestrians and learning to drive in the snow. Even better would be for them to automate the whole process: the robots composing, playing, listening and then writing the review for us to scan the next morning bleary-eyed, up too late watching Roma Citta Aperta. 

Laura's day

Another voyeuristic dream: Laura Bohn enflamed, sodden of a sad care, too bright, too dark, to the strains of Brett Dean's One of a Kind,  
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