Program notes

Emancipation (2012-13, 7:30, stereo)
(This piece is dedicated to George Steeley III)

If I have done the job right then after you’ve listened to the piece the title should be self-explanatory. That said… here is your map (or cheat sheet).

On a sound production level the composition is about additive, subtractive, and what I’ll loosely call “replacement” synthesis. On aesthetic, spiritual, and therapeutic levels Emancipation is about the limit of our capacities to ingest and process information, as well as about the forces that compete for our information-processing powers and ultimately threaten us with sensory overload.

The structure of this piece has a distinct and steady evolution over its course, save for the minuscule foreshadowing at the onset. It begins with a uniform distribution of many sounds; their bandwidth and average register, for example, as well as the natures of the sounds that comprise the vocabulary of the piece, create a uniform, dense, and rich (white noise like) environment.

The greatest originality, in the sense of Information Theory, is in the opening sections, where one must try the greatest number of tests — do the most processing — in order to divine a message from the environment. This is because the sounds are evenly distributed or equiprobable.

As the piece evolves, some messages are clearly deciphered and poke their way through the dense fabric. Acoustically this is due only to subtle subtractions, or an overall narrowing of the distribution of sounds.

But in the third section where they suddenly become apparent, the messages just as suddenly fade because the very vocabulary of sounds goes through a radical replacement process: pitched sinusoids replace some of the broader bands of “white noise.” As a result our orientation bobs and weaves; comes and goes.

And in the final section, waiting for us, there is an aural epiphany — an emancipation. Here the task of navigating the information environment becomes effortless and relaxed. It is easy to decipher. A sigh of relief comes from simplicity and understanding…. But nothing lasts forever and indeed so much is cyclical. Now, the foreshadowed beginning makes sense.

Post from Rajasthan (2005, revised 2011) is a brief, abstract audio travelogue. It is a rendering of my wanderings around Rajasthan, India spanning a week before and after the year 2000 Millennium. It moves at a walking (sometimes brisk) pace through the territories and cultures it explores. This 2011 version adds another layer here and there onto the original, composed in 2005.

Couplings (2012,6:35) Independent and distinct threads of sound come into contact, or “couple,” at the exact instants at which they strongly exhibit either complementary or common sonic attributes. These are transient moments in which the different sounds might have been been one. Initially these couplings are expressed abruptly, as if a switch was encountered that forced a change in the sounds’ established courses or behaviors. Approximately midway into the piece the coupling takes the form of a fusion of these sounds, creating a new and singular sound that is defined by the combination of the input sounds’ dominant, or most perceptible, attributes. This marks a unifying moment in the piece and continues to define the work until the near-end, at which point some of the components detach and separate from the fused sound and reestablish their presence and independence.

TimePiece (Berlin, September, 2010) (2010, ~15 minutes of a 14-hour installation, recorded at Gallery Ohrenhoch der Geräuschladen in Berlin)

The project takes the form of a site-specific and very compact sound installation, consisting of multiple sound playback devices (“players”), each of which responds to a hand-held remote control unit. Each player is associated with a particular physical zone within the small gallery space, and each player is programmed with a distinctive collection of sounds that will be most audible within that player’s physical zone.

The “remotes” can be used by up to 8 people at a time to start, pause, skip, choose sounds, and control the volume of the individual players.  The playfulness of the sounds and the remote controllability of the players will invite participation, particularly by children. But one goal of this piece to entertain anyone attending the gallery, even if no one chooses to take the controls.

The piece is written for and inspired by my father, who will turn 101 this year. On a narrative level Timepiece (Berlin, September, 2010) is about the passage of time and, more specifically, lifetimes. Many of the sounds in the piece denote time. For example, clocks and clock-like sounds signify the counting and passage of time, while the chimes also mark time, but in slightly larger chunks, and the sounds of children, while playful, become strong reminders that “youth-time” is fleeting. Clocks, chimes, children…, these are some of the sounds that make up the “terrestrial” plane – one of three spatial and symbolic planes on which the piece unfolds.

The other two planes are the so-called “celestial” and the “subterranean.” The celestial plane takes place above the listener, as much as is possible, using the gallery’s acoustically-optimized fixed loudspeaker installation, while the subterranean happens below, in a stairway leading down to the cellar. The terrestrial plane consists of sounds from this life and from this Earth. These are concrete sounds, as mentioned above, and many serve to mark time. The celestial world, which is projected from the ceiling, is painted with extremely high frequencies and barely audible materials – more audible to children, perhaps, than to adults — creating a sheen or a faint glistening that radiates over the entire space. Lastly, the subterranean sound world spews forth lower-register and guttural sounds.

The physical structure and layout of the sound zones, and their players, and the sounds that are audible in and from each zone will help to direct the walk of the listener through the space. Although a listener’s path of motion through the space will influence their experience of the piece, there is no “one way” to proceed. All paths through and around the small space will be equally valid and will permit a unique but hopefully fulfilling and thought-provoking experience. This, of course, is the overall goal of the installation, Timepiece (Berlin, September, 2010).

[Voiceover talent: Cheyenne Buzzelli, Alex Keagle, Charlie Keagle, and Annika Steeley.]

Combustible (2008-09, 9:30)
Intricate combinations of combustible materials (fuels, oxygen and ignitions) are brought into close proximity, sparking processes in the early phases of the piece that sputter and die out, leaving trails of heat and exhaust. The combinations become more efficient and volatile and begin to propel semi-stable processes that strive to connect and evolve. But after a few false steps this theater self-destructs, blowing itself to smithereens. Then nothing; an interlude in a void. But the vacuum gets penetrated and smashed then refilled and pulverized, only to make way for new combustible combinations and processes to flourish.

Squelch (2005-06, 14:10)
The title Squelch refers to two things. First, repression. It is about the tendency of forces, both internal and external, to repress or squelch self-expression. One battles and negotiates with these forces, striving to give priority to the creative endeavor but not always winning. The second reference is to the so-called “squelch filter” that was built into higher priced consumer radios during the 1970s and 1980s. Before the squelch filter, tuning into a station meant you had to continuously dial through and listen to all of the “out-of-range” noise and distortion; stuff in the nether-regions of terrestrial signal emission and reception. (It was great fun hearing it, if you were aurally warped.) The squelch filter helped, kind of. It detects when the coherent signal becomes too weak and it mutes (squelches) the radioÕs output. Often the gate came down only after you got a very noticeable glitch of noise or a faint but apparent fuzzing out of the signal. You would hear silence until you dialed into a clearly receivable signal again. I found a metaphor in the two references to “squelching.” Inspiration and creation is a fragile state, like the small frequency bands and physical ranges to which a radio station transmits and receives. Concentration and steadiness is required to maintain that state, and it can be so easily interrupted, much like a radioÕs reception is thwarted by the slightest turn of the dial. Inspiration evaporates until it can be dialed in again. In this composition, which is three interwoven pieces, there is some music, representingÉ music. You may hear it. There is also a lot of everyday concrete sound — real life, interrupting yet fueling inspiration and self-expression. And, there is the noise, fuzzing-out, distortion and breakage, representing the pre-squelch moment — that point just before the squelch filter kicks, or you reach a new “station” in the composition. The squelch moment can be either the end or the beginning of creation and abstraction. It just depends on how the dial is moving and your reception.

Cycle (2004, 7:22) After 30 years of composing and exploring diverse styles, Cycle is another of my little mutants. This deviant takes the form of so-called “Spectral Music”. The source sounds for Cycle are drawn almost exclusively from
traditional orchestral instruments — thanks to The Electronic Music Studios of The University of Iowa . These sounds are processed to varying degrees, from untouched to completely unrecognizable, depending on the function they serve within the piece at any moment.

After Cycle’s initiation – the “breath of life” – the sound at any point in the piece could be classified in one of two states; either in-formation (fluid, evolving) or ossified (a solid block). Transients are introduced that either pulverize, absorb, or cause the current solid to diffuse rapidly. These transients also act as catalysts, influencing the evolution of the next formation.

Note from Patzcuaro (2003, 4:17)
The latest in a series of “audio postcards” (or abstract travelogues), which also includes portraits of Japan, Morocco, New York City, and Dalyan, Turkey. Patzcuaro is a relatively small town (population 45,000) nestled in the volcanic hillsides of the State of Michoacan, Mexico. The cultural center of this town is found in its 16th Century churches, outdoor markets, and Lake Patzcuaro. The piece is assembled from raw and processed field recordings that I made while visiting Patzcuaro in 1995.

We open on a small church social; the church having a rather boisterous cricket within its congregation. The last half of the piece is drawn from recordings of a strolling mariachi group who, after several minutes of tuning up, rendered our request for Una Vez Nada Mas beautifully, as my wife and I sipped cervezas at a taco stand by the Lake. The middle section utilizes heavily processed versions of some of the original field recordings and is intended to paint some impressions of my 24 hour stay in this lovely town.

nomen plaid (2003, 8:00)
nomen, v.t. To take, to steal, to filch, to pilfer;

n. Name.

An artistically licensed (loose knit) plaid, woven from disparate sonic threads, broadly grouped by bandwidth and density — from pure sine tones to white noise, from continuous to particulate. Many switchbacks occur and the threads doubleback on themselves as the fabric materializes. But the end reveals the patternês loop point, and the plaid is complete. This piece is dedicated to Debra.

Things Frankie Heard (2002, 12:23)
What if we heard the world the way cats do? To start with, our perceptible
frequency range would increase five fold, topping out at 100kHz (versus
human’s measly 20kHz). Our ability to pinpoint the location of a sound
source would also improve immensely. Cats can distinguish the locations
of two sounds emitted just 18 inches apart, at a distance of over 60 feet.

Our first reaction to this proposition might
be, “Sounds great! Where do I sign up?”  But, imagine how severe
and frightening all of that sound might be, especially, if like cats, we
were unable to grasp the meanings and relationships of those sounds.
With our new hyper-acute sensitivity to sound, combined with our lack of
understanding about their sources, we would react fast and be perceived
as quite skittish.

Sonic events that we too often take for granted,
such as the sounding of a car horn or siren, could be completely unnerving.
And simple changes in context of our sonic environment such as a phone
or doorbell ringing in a previously “bell-less” room, could send us through
the roof, at least the first couple of times.

The proposition — to hear like a cat — was
one starting point for Things Frankie Heard.

I didn‰t attempt to play with the outer bounds of our frequency range
or localization capabilities. Instead, I opted to experiment with the effects
of context changes on our perception and orientation (or disorientation).
The hypothesis is simple: our reaction or degree of disorientation to a
context change is proportional to the discontinuity and abruptness of the
transition. To evoke the wits of a cat, I magnified the temporal transitions
on multiple time scales. from the sub-phrase level (sound events in the
one-quarter to one-second time frame) to the contextual level (sound segments
in the thirty-second to one-minute range).

The sounds I put under the microscope are
a combination of very familiar everyday sonic events, as well as purely
abstract sounds. The interplay between known and the unknown sounds are
used to either orient or disorient us.  (Curiously, it‰s often the
entry of everyday and familiar sounds in this piece that disorient us the
most. )

Most of all this piece is about (and for)
Frankie, who died in April 2002 of natural causes.  For 18 years she
was my constant feline companion and Miews.  She sat with me, attentively
or not, through all my tinkerings with sound, and she taught me many things
about listening.

J-Wake (2001, 12:45)
J-Wake was inspired by the gradual erosion of footprints in sand, caused
by forces such as wind and repeated waves lapping up and over the shoreline.
It is a process of deconstruction; the disintegration of that which was
initially whole and identifiable, into that which is indistinguishable
from its surroundings.

This disintegration process is a continuum.
Only if it is observed from beginning to end can one say exactly when the
impression, which was initially distinct from its surroundings, became
so deformed that it was no longer identifiable as a distinct entity. At
what point does any object that is subject to disintegration, erosion,
and decay lose it‰s identity and cease to be what it was? This is the process
I attempted to model — the question I attempted to answer — when I set
out to compose J-Wake.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of a
departed friend, Steve “Jake” Jacobson.  His proactive, exuberant,
and uncompromising personality made an indelible impression on  all
who were privileged to know him.

five haiku (2000, 20:38)
The inspirations for this work came during sittings atop the Broadway steps,
overlooking San Francisco’s Financial District, North Beach, and Chinatown.
Here, numerous “haiku” blew into mind, effortlessly and as naturally as
breathing.

Written over a two-year period, each of the
five pieces interprets a different poem. There are no clear divisions between
the poem-pieces, instead the music illuminates each poem through the choices
and relationships of the sounds, moment by moment. Rather than literal
renderings of the poems‰ rhythms or texts, the pieces are abstract translations
from the word-verbal to the abstract sonic realm. In the end, “the voice”
of the poems is preserved. (All of the following poems except the last
are by Thom Blum.)

old day, café

thoughts and smoke drift out the window

onto the streets below

–tb

big city glowing

fingers of light poke through

billowing fog mist

–tb

bright day car

taped-up door-window

bakes in the sun

–tb

a pin dropping, sounds

shattering the silence that

cradles the sleeping drunk

–tb

old pond

a frog leaps in

water‰s sound

–basho

five haiku is electroacoustic music. The raw materials include
field recordings made on walks in San Francisco that were processed and
mixed using a variety of computer software: U&I Software’s MetaSynth,
Digidesign’s ProTools, Cloud Generator (Roads and Alexander), Alberto Ricci’s
SoundMaker, various signal-processing and effects software created by Muscle
Fish, Steinberg and Digidesign.

Maroc (1998, 21:13) is an audio
postcard, or abstract travelogue, composed from over 500 found (live) and
imaginary (constructed) recordings, which were drawn from a trip I made
to Morocco in December 1997. The sounds include many street scenes made
in the medinas (old cities) of Fez, Tanjer, Marrekesh, and Chef-chaouen.
Both secular and sacred life of the country is represented.

The piece represents roughly one day in the
life of Morocco, compressing 24 hours down to roughly 20 minutes. The piece
traces my December 1997 trip to seven cities in Morocco in quasi-chronological
order, however Morocco is not the least bit “linear,” and therefore the
work makes no attempts at one-to-one correspondences between the original
and compressed time scales. The resulting piece is much like the country
itself: Getting one’s bearings and staying on course are not easy tasks,
but trying is a lot of fun.

passages/roadmap

1. Night train from Casablanca

2. A thousand welcomes/Alf-marhabat

3. Outdoor reception/The Pond

4. First call to prayer

5. Door’s open: rocked innocent & pure

6. Inculture shock

7. Second call

8. a’maze’in’ Medinas (Fez & Chaouen)

9. Third call

10. A twist in the maze — mint tea & kif

11. Square ecstacy (Marrakesh)

12. And so it goes, In’sha-Allah

13. Last call

14. And on it goes, Allah willing

All of these raw recordings were digitized
into an Apple Macintosh computer, and then mixed and processed by the composer
using a variety of sound-processing software including Turbosynth and Sound
Designer II (Digidesign), Cloud Generator (Roads & Alexander), Hyperprism
(Arboretum), Deck II (OSC), and MF-DSP (Muscle Fish). The work was realized
over a four-month period, from December, 1997 through March, 1998.

To My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room
(1996, 9:34) The poem To My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room was written
by Bob Kaufman sometime around 1960 as an ode to his son, named after Charlie
Parker. Although less famous than his cohorts in the Beat movement (Ginsberg,
Ferlinghetti, Corso, McClure, etc.), Kaufman was nevertheless held in high
esteem by them and with good cause.

Parker is an awesome and apocalyptic poem,
almost biblical in temperament. It’s an epic work in scope, though not
in length. In the course of its brief duration, the poem offers a startlingly
comprehensive history of Humankind. It focuses both on our seemingly innate
desire to enslave and conquer each other, and on our need to succumb to
some forces outside our self: some god, idol, totem, or monolith.

But more than an epic, this poem is a prayer
for an evolved humanity — what else would we expect from a Father to
his son.  In the final stanza, Bob Kaufman sketches a new faith based
on freedom, self-determination, and mastery of self rather than of others.

I would like to thank Vic Bedoian for graciously
agreeing to send me his cassette tape recordings of readings of Bob Kaufman’s
poetry.  Roscoe Lee Brown provides the reading of the poem used in
this piece. Two books of Bob Kaufman’s poetry, both published by New Directions,
provided the inspiration.These are Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness and
The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978.

Source sounds for this piece consist of natural
field recordings and voice. All sounds were processed on an Apple Macintosh
computer using a variety of software, including Turbosynth and Sound Design
II (Digidesign), Hyperprism (Arboretum), Alchemy (Passport), assorted DSP
algorithms (Muscle Fish),Cloud Generator (Roads & Alexander), and Deck
II (OSC).

Japanese Postcard (1995, 14:18)
is the first in a series of “audio postcards”. It is mixed from on-location
recordings I made in Japan in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Japanese Postcard
is somewhat narrative in that it attempts to document the impressions,
before and after the visits. The source recordings were made in Tokyo,
Hamamatsu, and Kyoto.  The sounds are intentionally left in a somewhat
raw, unprocessed state so as to capture the actual Japanese soundscape.
In general, my “postcard” pieces are more documentary than musical but,
of course, that opinion may vary from listener to listener depending on
the ear of the beholder.

Three Studies for Pedal Steel (1995,
9:07) “Pedal Stolen”, “Stedal Peel”, “Sample Bash Rag”. These brief pieces,
each approximately 3  minutes in duration, are a culmination of the
composer’s life-long love for the pedal steel guitar, and the  genres
in which it is typically heard.  The original content for these pieces
consists entirely of recordings of pedal steel which were digitally processed
using Turbosynth and Sound Design II (Digidesign), Hyperprism (Arboretum),
Alchemy (Passport), and Max (Opcode).

The forms for the pieces are quite simple
and are derived from typical Country & Western songs. Only as the three
studies unfold do the more traditional sounds of the pedal steel guitar
reveal themselves.

The composer acknowledges Peter Siegel
and Buddy Emmonds, whose pedal steel playing served as both the source
and inspiration for these pieces.