Descent from the High Arches and the Bog Chorus

quartet for waves and woodblocks

Premiered at Total Inertia Festival in Leeds. Later performed at and Fuse Gallery in Bradford, and Café Ollo on a programme with Scott McLaughlin and Morgan Evans-Weiler. The concert was organized by AME and curated by Ryoko Akama.

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Descent from the High Arches and the Bog Chorus:

a quartet for wood and waves


Descent from the High Arches and the Bog Chorus is a twenty-one minute piece for four musicians playing one woodblock or temple block each, and loudspeakers. Seating follows the approximate arrangement for a traditional string quartet. All performers respond to a single score, which is a piece of software run on a computer with a display visible to all players. The software is a Pure Data (Pd) patch that both synthesizes electronic sound used in the performance, and simultaneously cues the actions of performers. Thus, a piece of software functions both as the part from which the performers play, and simultaneously synthesizes some of what is heard.

For the duration of the piece, performers produce a steady stream of pulses from their instruments, as cued by visual metronomes that appear in the form of flashing coloured circles in fig.46. The metronomes follow continuous curves of acceleration or deceleration. Each is matched by a tone that varies proportionally with the flashing indicator. These tones are broadcast from the loudspeakers. Since the woodblock players strike their woodblocks every time their light flashes, their parts are each fundamentally tied to one of the four broadcast sine waves. Each of the woodblock parts is simply a proportionally slower copy of the synthesized tones.

In practice, and as is the case with In Warmer Seasons, performers are encouraged to think of the metronomes as calibration devices, anticipating the tempo’s trajectory at each moment. An effect of this for those performing can be that of surfing between moments. Each subsequent pulse is separated by only slightly greater or less time than it was from its immediate predecessor, so there are no abrupt changes of speed. The exact speed with which one is asked to play is neither predictable nor perfectly definable, and so, strictly speaking, the task is impossible if rhythmic perfection is what is sought. However, as in the earlier work, perfection is not the goal, and the solution is simply to play, watch, and listen, rather than count. The frustration built into this situation serves to highlight the fact that the goal is not rhythmic perfection.

Instead, the goal is to engage with the immediate present through performance. The strategy for doing so is to establish and then immediately dissolve a series of nested referential frames, and this is enacted in performance of the piece. The presence of time is demarcated by a cloud of differently pitched reference points, articulated by the metronome-like attacks of the instruments. These shift in ways that keep attention focused on the space between them. As in some of the work of my former teacher Pauline Oliveros, this piece is something of a meditation, an activity to be undertaken and experienced. In dealing with the circumstances created through performing the piece, performers and listeners can engage with unfolding sense of the present moment, further creating the conditions for awareness of their own sense of awareness.

For performers, locating and applying an appropriate degree of precision and focus to the task at hand is part of the practice needed to perform the piece. A question each performer must individually negotiate is: what is the appropriate level of detail with which to respond to this anti-metronome? As a question of quantization, this question frames a basic principal of interaction by which we engage phenomena in the world (and especially when dealing with digital technology).[1] What level of detail results in the best response?

Meanwhile, for audience members, the piece frames exploration of another perceptual phenomenon, developed from working on my trio piece In Warmer Seasons. In Descent, perceptual grouping by timbre is highlighted by the fact that although each sine tone is structurally welded to the pulse played by a particular quartet member, the sine tones are heard as a group. The wooden instruments, heard as a collective cloud of sound, oppose their own construction. This result extends observations of a similar phenomenon in In Warmer Seasons, and in Descent, testing this in a focused way was a priority. In Island in Natural Colours, this effect is applied in yet another way in which varied attack envelopes of synthesized tones are used to create percussive clicks that move about the room with different degrees of sharpness.

[1] Quantization is the process by which a smooth and continuous signal is constrained around a discrete set of values. This occurs when smooth analog sound-pressure waves are recorded as discrete digital signals in our computers, for example. Within all applications of digital technology, an appropriate amount of quantization is applied to information in a particular situation in order to achieve the desired field of meaning, or quality, termed resolution.

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