Helical Pastimes

duet for mechanical pianos


“I imagined the melodies both spinning across and between the two keyboards and rotating above the pianos in a circular motion, between the open topboards beneath which the strings resonate. Seen flattened and frozen onto paper, the two-dimensional melodies intertwine helically around each other, forming a popular generative embrace of Piscean possibilities. Best enjoy the shape of the passing of time.”

There should be a link to a “listening score”, on this page. This is a transcription of the midi data that drives the piece into something more or less traditional Western musical notation. It can be interesting to follow along while listening if that is your cup of tea, or with your cup of tea.

Additional information:

Helical Pastimes:

duet for player pianos


My approach in this work is thus both similar and divergent from my earlier work for mechanical piano.

As with Unnatural Processes, in Helical Pastimes I create a context to examine aural attention and perception of musical structure. However, in contrast to the immersive, Dionysian presence of the earlier work, Pastimes instead suggests coldness and control. From the beginning, a sense of order is established, yet as the piece progresses this reveals itself to be deceptive. The piece is long, and cyclic material continuously unfolds or unravels without a clear thematic statement, in the manner of a Baudrillardian simulacra. Mirroring and circularity are present in the piece, as well as a simultaneous sense of forward motion and stasis. Like waves on the surface of a river, the movement is continuous but the form remains consistent.

The manner in which the piece is presented in concert and how it is presented in the live video recording I designed are similar but different. The orientation of the pianos for live performance is seen below. This design is intended to emphasize the circular motion of the melodic activities across the keys. This also emphasizes the fact that the listeners and the sounds are in a shared situation together, an encounter, which, should the audience be allowed to move about freely, creates a performance that borders onis also an installation. From no vantage point, save above, would the audience apprehend both piano keyboards simultaneously, but by moving around them circularly, they could construct a sense of the similarly circular movement across the keys of both keyboards.

Conceptualizing a way to capture this piece as a recording presented a special challenge. Video helps to convey that this is not a recording of several overdubbed piano parts, but rather a “situation” between two pianos. I felt that a full view of both keyboards was needed onscreen to spotlight the visible circularity, hocketing, and other patterned activity between the two pianos, despite the fact that this is precisely what is counter-indicated in an optimum live presentation. However, many options I experimented with resulted in compromises that either did not leave the full keyboards visible or did not preserve the equality of the two pianos. The compromise that solved the problem, obvious from the onset of the video, is that one of the pianos is presented upside down. As a result, this video offers a vantage point on the action of the piece that cannot be seen in any live performance, at least not until someone stages it with one piano suspended inverse above another one.

Helical Pastimes is the most thoroughly deterministic piece in my recent work. The relative uniformity of timbre that could be achieved with these pianos suggested the perfect medium to test diagonal metamorphism. Here this is applied to a determination of the large-scale form of the piece. This best illustrated by the gradual increase in chromatic alterations from the opening pitch material, progressing to the midpoint of the piece. At this point, what was just heard is then verticalized and performed in retrograde (with some modifications) to end the movement. I also subjected the underlying temporal grid to periodic expansions and contractions. The temporal curves are sometimes in unison between the two pianos, but more often diverge, rising and falling at different rates, to different extents, and eventually contrasting one another, to resemble a landscape shorn in divergent directions by underlying forces.

These temporal fluctuations have a noticeable perceptual affect in that streaming, as discussed in Chapter 1, is greatly enhanced as the tempo increases and then diminished as it falls again. This was expected, as fast tempi are known to enhance the likelihood of experiencing this perceptual effect, especially when the material is presented in different registers as it is here. In this case, the listener is presented with sequences of material that seem to separate into treble and bass voices, from the two melodic lines incessantly travelling up and down. The continuous speeding up and slowing down, while making it rather difficult to remain focused on the piece, has the benefit of framing the fact that these segregated streams emerge from the texture again and again as the tempo changes. The repeated changes foreground how similar material is experienced differently in different temporal contexts.

The swelling and constriction of the temporal grid on which this material is situated causes longitudinal waves of temporal acceleration and retardation to run through the material. Combined with the smaller transverse waves of up and down frequency activity across the piano this is again suggestive of fracture in the most hectic bitsactive sections, and a sense of stretching of texture in the gradually slowing sections. The rhythmic contour of the piece as visible in the midi data of the piece looks like a view of an area of landscape subjected to seismic activity, in which the land has been alternately stretched and folded in response to energy currents beneath it.

​In Helical Pastimes the elastic treatment of musical time frames coupled to the use of diagonal metamorphism creates material that is already in transformation at the moment it is heard. The piece creates the conditions for listening to sound structures that are being modified by the same processes that are simultaneously creating them. These processes themselves are the subject, and the notes are the material, through which they are audibly embodied. Following the development of this piece, my treatment of both musical material and temporal frameworks has become more free, guided by an interest in how the overall experience of the work develops for a listener. As such, later pieces set aside any formal need to visit every possibility within a permutation of material, and in general do not focus on mechanical aspects of material processes.

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