1. Theoretical Background: Complexity and Simplicity

.Terms such as these are more difficult to define precisely because of their everyday connotations.Also, they are highly polysemic terms, with varied shades of meaning depending on the context.It seems pointless to attempt to define complexity and simplicity in terms that apply to all musical situations.In place of that explanation, I will examine several relevant examples of these concepts in music history and scholarship, and then discuss them in relation to my own work.To make this approach work, I assume everyone has an intuitive sense of what complexity and simplicity are, accepting the very high degree of subjectivity and the likely differences in interpretation.In addition, as with so many other major concepts, including music itself, I think we shouldn't avoid diving in simply because of the absence of a universal definition.

Complexity in polyphony

Firstly, I will mention polyphony as an example of musical complexity.Due to its multiplicity of concurrent parts and their contrapuntal independence, polyphony, in general, is more complex than monophony. Polyphonic complexity has traditionally been admired as a musical quality, An association with the "learned style," such as those associated with elevation, sublimity, elegance, sophistication, and so on.Western music education has long included counterpoint, and As an example of complexity born out of simplicity, this is a prime example.

Perceptual Limits of Polyphonic Complexity

Nevertheless, musical complexity cannot be infinite: there are limits to the complexity that listeners are able to parse and appreciate, beginning with the sheer number of contrapuntal lines. However, even as the sonata withcontinuo flourished, the forces of tonality, which determined key organization, developed vigorously toward the use of key contrast that drove the trio sonata from the scene.

“If a composer intends to write music in which independent parts are easily distinguished, then the number of concurrent voices or parts ought to be kept to three or fewer.”

Huron also draws on many studies in music perception to ground the canonical rules of voice leading in tonal and modal counterpoint, such as preference for steps and common tones over leaps, avoiding part crossing, avoiding parallel perfect fifths and octaves, and so forth, demonstrating that these rules allow listeners to follow independent lines.


“Listeners do not have an unbounded capacity to track multiple concurrent lines of sound” (David Huron, 2001, “Tone and Voice: A Derivation of the Rules of Voice-Leading from Perceptual Principles”)


Complexity in Serialism

Those rules, of course, were rejected by many composers of the twentieth century, notably in the practice of serialism, which is the next example of musical complexity I will mention. Many serial composers maintained respect for the value of polyphonic complexity in their music,

Developing ever-more elaborate contrapuntal constructions in their works while also writing more complex individual lines full of disjunct leaps, part crossing, unrestrained use of dissonance, and other such deviations from the practices of the past. All of this led to the well-known criticism that the complexity of this music exceeds the aural comprehension of most listeners. This critique was succinctly stated by composer Iannis Xenakis:

“Linear polyphony destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is really nothing but a mass of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum. There is consequently a contradiction between the polyphonic linear system and the heard result, which is surface or mass.” (Iannis Xenakis, 1955/1971, Formalized Music)

Responses to Serial Complexity

Descendants of the serial tradition responded to the contradiction Xenakis names in several ways.

That is to say, a simple perception emerges out of a complex musical texture that itself emerged out of simple musical lines: simplicity out of complexity out of simplicity.


Example of Minimalism


Example of New Complexity


Example of Sound Mass

Paradoxical Complexity

This is an instance of what composer and musicologist Lasse Thoresen calls “paradoxical complexity”:

“we now find a category in which the very complex and the very simple meet in a paradoxical, ambivalent union. We shall call this form-element paradoxical complexity—a specific case of the classical coincidentia oppositorum, the unity of opposites. It applies to objects with myriad details, but with a perceptually simple overall character.” (Lasse Thoresen, and Andreas Hedman, 2015, Emergent Musical Forms)

Composers have achieved this effect of self-canceling complexity resulting in perceptual simplicity in many ways.

I detail some of them in my paper “Sound Mass, Auditory Perception, and ‘Post-Tone’ Music,” with reference to the perceptual principles listed by David Huron which I mentioned earlier. Most obviously, the Principle of Limited Density, which states that listeners are most likely to follow contrapuntal lines if there are three or fewer active at a time, can be overwhelmed by adding more voices, in some cases many more. This was demonstrated forcefully in compositions in the 1950s and 1960s such as Metastaseis and Pithoprakta by Xenakis, Atmosphères and Lontano by György Ligeti, and Polymorphia and Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki. In these pieces, the orchestra is divided into dozens of lines, sometimes with each individual string instrument given a separate part, vastly exceeding the listener’s ability to follow them as individual voices. As I detail in my paper, there are many other ways sound mass assimilation has been affected by composers, including exploiting registral extremes where our sensitivity to pitch is less precise, voicing chords so closely that auditory masking makes individual notes difficult or impossible to hear out, using semblant or otherwise coherent motion to cause the parts to group into a single gestalt, and so forth.


(Lasse Thoresen, and Andreas Hedman, 2015, Emergent Musical Forms)

Sound Mass and Metaphor

Sound mass composers describe their aims through many vivid and evocative metaphors: clouds, galaxies, the edifice of a cathedral viewed from afar, with many details that are not visible from that distance but that nevertheless contribute to the overall impression of the whole. One particularly beautiful analogy drawn by György Ligeti is the way simple colours in perception are the product of complex molecular structures:

“I can perhaps make this clearer through a comparison with painting..the effect of each colour is the result of the chemical combination of certain dyes. As far as the picture itself is concerned, the chemical composition of the dye is of no immediate relevance..the effect ‘white’ is produced by a certain arrangement of lead and oxygen atoms or of zinc and oxygen atoms, but in regard to the picture it is only the effect ‘white’ that is significant, not the question whether the dye contains atoms of zinc or lead. In place of zinc and lead atoms one could speak of crystal lattices, electron orbits, light absorption, and so on—each plane has another plane beneath it—but I am painting directly with white and only indirectly with crystal lattices.” (György Ligeti, 1983, Ligeti in Conversation).


György Ligeti, excerpt from Atmosphères (1961)

Empirical Research: Fusion, Density, Complexity, Homogeneity

Several years ago in the Music Perception and Cognition Lab at McGill University, I conducted a perceptual experiment to explore how metaphors work in sound mass music, under the supervision of Stephen McAdams. The experiment aimed to provide a better understanding of sound mass perception, and the semantic associations listeners may have with sound masses. Listeners heard 40 short excerpts of contemporary music, and rated them on about two dozen semantic scales. Four of those scales are Fusion, Density, Complexity, and Homogeneity, which were chosen because the terms come up often in published literature on sound mass. So listeners heard excerpts of music, and had to rate how fused they felt the excerpt was, how dense it was, and so forth. They were instructed to consider Fusion to be synonymous with sound mass. Based on the way the terms Density, Complexity, and Homogeneity are used in the literature, I expected all three to correlate strongly with fusion, as all three are described by many authors as conditions of sound mass perception. But to our surprise, while


Density correlated positively with sound mass Fusion,

Complexity showed a strong negative correlation with sound mass Fusion, meaning that the more complex listeners found an excerpt to be, the less fused they found it to be. This was the first discovery in my research that led me to consider the paradox described by Thoresen, the contradiction between acoustical and perceptual complexity. It led me to offer the following definition of sound mass:


Defining Sound Mass

Sound Mass: A perceptually homogeneous and dense auditory unit integrating multiple sound events or components while retaining an impression of multiplicity. Although their acoustical correlates may be highly complex, sound masses are perceptually simple because they resist perceptual segregation in one or more parameters (e.g., pitch, rhythm, timbre).

I’ve taken some time to explain this theoretical background, because these ideas have influenced me greatly as a composer. I think this will become obvious in the main piece I will be presenting in Part 3, fantaisie harmonique for two guitar orchestras. But before we get there, I would like to share with you my first composition for guitar, Shadow Prism, because many of the ideas in fantaisie harmonique grow directly out of it. Part 2 begins with a score-following video of it, which runs just under 6 minutes long.

Thu, 26 Nov 2020 12:08:00 +0000https://www.tkclo.com/tor/research-creation-series/paradoxical-complexity/part-2/shadow-prism60808497d3ad1e29c346fe97:6080eeec2980e13e08d7536f:6080eefe2980e13e08d753c3Simplicity out of complexity out of simplicity: The “paradoxical complexity” of massed sonorities Part 2 of 3: Compositional Background: Shadow Prism (2015)by Jason NobleResearch-Creation Series | Timbre and Orchestration Resource

Published: November 25th, 2020 | URL: https://www.timbreandorchestrationresource.org/tor/research-creation-series/paradoxical-complexity/part-2/shadow-prism

Shadow Prism was my first piece for guitar, and at the time I had very limited experience with the instrument. I could play some basic chords, and that was about it. I felt like I barely knew what I was doing when I was composing it, but to my surprise it has become one of my most successful pieces. The score is now published by les Productions d’Oz, recordings appear on two albums by different guitarists, and it has been performed dozens of times by many different guitarists around the world. I owe a lot of gratitude for this success to Steve Cowan, for whom the piece was composed, and who championed it many times in concerts and around the classical guitar world.

The guitar can be an intimidating instrument for non-guitarist composers. It is a polyphonic instrument, but visualizing how polyphonic patterns will work can be quite difficult. Most notes exist in multiple positions, and non-guitarist composers have no reliable way to visualize the fingerings and physical movements required to execute them. So in composing Shadow Prism, I decided to focus on natural harmonics, both because I love the sound of them and because they present a way to avoid these challenges of visualizing fingering. The left hand need only touch the node at the moment of attack, and is instantly freed to move to the next position, unlike fretted pitches in which the string must be depressed for the full duration of the note. I also decided to give the player some freedom in terms of timing, note sequences, and so forth, in the hopes of avoiding unintentionally writing music that is excessively awkward, difficult, or unpleasant to perform.

Tuning System in Shadow Prism

The piece uses only natural harmonics and open strings. To make things more interesting, I devised a new tuning system that combines elements of equal temperament and just intonation.

I lowered three of the strings by a semitone, so that instead of E-A-D-G-B-E, it would be Eb-A-C#-G-Bb-E,

which works out to an Eb major triad and an

A major triad, a transposition of the Petruschka chord.

I further made each of these triads just-intoned by instructing the guitarist to tune the third strings (G and C#) to the fifth harmonics of the root strings (Eb and A). Accordingly, the G and C# strings, and all of their natural harmonics, are lowered slightly with respect to equal temperament, resulting in a microtonal tuning system grounded in triadic harmony but based on a nonfunctional tritone relation between fundamentals.

I charted this system out by writing out the first seven partials for each string,

and then grouping the partials that approximately corresponded with each equal-tempered pitch class. From there I planned out the scales and harmonic structures that make up the piece.


The piece uses only natural harmonics and open strings.

Geometrical notation in Shadow Prism

In much of the piece, I thought of the harmonic structures not as precise series of notes but as global fields with the order and density of events left to the free choice of the performer. The approach is comparable to granular synthesis:

For example, in this image of a spectrograph from Barry Truax’s Riverrun, the distribution of grains follows a readily apparent geometrical plan over the course of the piece, but the grains themselves are distributed with stochastic procedures rather than being individually specified by the composer. The effect is also comparable to things like windchimes and Aeolian bells, and to naturally occurring sound masses like flocks of birds and rustling leaves. There is a certain charm in the freedom and spontaneity that such systems exhibit: in some ways they are closely controlled and predictable, but in other ways there is subtle variation and potential for new discovery on every encounter. Many composers have called for such effects by writing a set of elements on a normal staff and providing the instruction


Spectrograph from Barry Truax’s Riverrun

I have adopted a flowchart-like geometrical notation that presents more explicitly the many pathways between a given set of elements without prioritizing any particular orderings. Here is the opening system of Shadow Prism, which begins with a network of two nodes, then expands to three, then four, then five, with pacing left to the free choice of the performer. The bottom staff indicates playing position and the top staff indicates sounding pitch. The only rule in terms of event order is that any two consecutive harmonics must be played on different strings, in order to maximize resonance. This is why some arrows between nodes are missing: those nodes contain harmonics on the same string


The opening system of Shadow Prism

Later in the piece, this concept is expanded to include networks of networks, recursively expanding the piece’s nonlinear organization. Additionally, feathered beam symbols are provided to indicate accel, decel, accel-decel, or decel-accel rhythmic contours. Geometrical networks are interspersed with more conventionally notated sections, whose event order is specified. I’ve loved hearing different guitarists interpret this piece: there really are striking individual differences, even as it remains unmistakeably the same piece.


Networks of networks


Thu, 26 Nov 2020 04:31:02 +0000https://www.tkclo.com/tor/research-creation-series/paradoxical-complexity/part-3/fantasie-harmonique60808497d3ad1e29c346fe97:6080eeec2980e13e08d7536f:6080ef064fbe6204af2ec67aSimplicity out of complexity out of simplicity: The “paradoxical complexity” of massed sonorities Part 3 of 3: fantasie harmonique (2019, guitar double orchestra)by Jason NobleResearch-Creation Series | Timbre and Orchestration Resource

Published: November 25th, 2020 | URL: https://www.timbreandorchestrationresource.org/tor/research-creation-series/paradoxical-complexity/part-3/fantasie-harmonique

Several years later, and after composing much more for the guitar, I was commissioned to compose a piece for an orchestra of classical guitars and an orchestra of electric guitars, which would be premiered at a conference in Ottawa called “The 21st Century Guitar.” The concert was in a church with a dome roof, and featured 3D projection art by German light artist Kurt Laurenz Theinert, which you see in the image at the top of the page. The orchestras were assembled from conference attendees and community members. The premiere was a success, but due to limited rehearsal time, many nuances and details in the score were not fully realized in the performance. Steve Cowan expressed interest in doing a one-man orchestra multitrack recording of the piece, which we produced over the last few months, and which we will show publicly for the first time at the end of this presentation.

We received funding from the ACTOR Strategic Project Fund to create this recording, so we were able to hire recording engineer Denis Martin and recording assistants Nick Pelletier and Will Sylvain to produce a recording in 3D audio. We were also able to hire Kurt Laurenz Theinert to adapt his projection art from the premiere into a video and, eventually, a virtual reality experience, and Simon Rouhier, a member of the UdeM community, to do additional work on animation and visuals. Our collaborators overseeing the project are Caroline Traube at UdeM, and Martha de Francisco at McGill. We currently have a 2D video with a stereo mix of the recording; future deliverables will include 3D renderings, a virtual reality experience, an installation version, and a concert version for live performance. Before I show the video, I will discuss several aspects of the composition that I hope will demonstrate the idea of simplicity out of complexity out of simplicity: its tuning system, its notation, its perceptually-grounded orchestration, and its spatialization-as-orchestration.

I. Instrument-Specific Tuning System

By instrument-specific, I mean that this tuning system is meant to work idiomatically for the guitar, and is not necessarily transferable to other instruments. It may be possible for other instruments to produce all of the same pitches, but the system is designed as a complex scordatura for six-stringed instruments with the standard tuning of the guitar, and realizes the pitches with the open strings and natural harmonics available within that scordatura. Additionally, the timbre of the guitar’s natural harmonics is at the heart of the concept of both the tuning system and the composition. It would therefore be very difficult or impossible to reorchestrate this piece for any other ensemble without changing the tuning system, and therefore reconceptualizing the piece.


Shadow Prism had succeeded, and the results and response it received encouraged me to extend the concept to an orchestral scale.Remember that its scordatura retuned the strings to an Eb major and an A major triad just intoned.Suppose we were to divide the orchestra into six groups with the open strings of each group covering two triads each. Then we could devise a tuning system that would cover all twelve major triads in a similar manner. With its origins in the past participle of sonare, "to sound," sonata originally referred to a composition performed by instruments rather than one sung by voices.1561 was the first time it was used to compose dances for lute.Several different meanings have resulted from the term since then.It includes compositions in two or more movements, or separate parts played by a small ensemble, with no more than three parts.Usually a piece of this type is for one or two instruments, like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (1801) for piano.A sonata can also refer to a composition for a larger instrumental group that has more than two or three parts, such as a string quartet, provided it is based on the principles of form used in sonatas for small instrumental groups during the center of the 18th century.


I modified Shadow Prism to use harmonics up to the seventh, but I decided to limit the palette in Fantaisie Harmonique to no more than five partials (the open string and the first four natural harmonics), because they are the easiest and most reliable to produce.Thus, a total of 30 pitches per group or 180 pitches altogether were collected, as well as 60 single-position major triads (e.g., a triad produced by three partials of the same harmonic rank on one guitar group).In this system, the data was much larger than the one from Shadow Prism, and it was impossible to work with it by hand, so I used a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet as a compositional tool.Then I could order them as a continuous scale, or group them by pitch class, or sort them by harmonic rank, etc., which was very useful.

Melodic hocket

During an extended hocketing section, the guitars are divided into smooth, microtonal melodies.


Triadic hocket

This passage is constructed using single-position triads in an earlier part of the section. .An entire tuning system can never exhaust all of its possibilities, especially one with such a rich tuning system.As best as I could, I chose a few ideas and explored their potentials as best as I could, but it was humbling to consider just how many other possibilities there are within this system that I had not even considered.


II. Nonlinear Notation

With a few minor differences, the main ideas of nonlinear notation in fantaisie harmonique were already discussed in relation to Shadow Prism. In order to reduce the performance time, it would be more efficient to group all harmonics on one string within the same node, allowing the performer to choose one before moving to another.Five of the six strings are represented on this slide by nodes, and each node has between one and four harmonics.As the performer gets used to the appearance of this notation, I believe it is easier to read than some of the larger polygons in Shadow Prism. Among the key differences between the two pieces is that, with more instruments, I had multiple simultaneous types of temporal organization available to me.Thus, some voices have unordered geometrical networks on top of another voice. The score below shows that repeat cells are arranged in some cells.


Metrical vs. Ametrical

As well, in some sections of the piece, synchronized, metrical patterns in one orchestra are offset against ametrical material in the other.We originally intended to have two conductors at the premiere; I recreated this in the click track we used for the recording by including the beat pattern only where needed for metrical synchronization, and not including duration markers otherwise.


III. Perceptually Grounded Orchestration

The third aspect of the piece I would like to mention is perceptually grounded orchestration, which requires a little explanation. Stephen McAdams and his colleagues in the ACTOR project are doing a great deal of work on the multidisciplinary study of orchestration, which has traditionally been an underrepresented area of music scholarship. One particular focus is developing a theory of orchestration, which does not really exist at the moment in any way comparable to theories of harmony and pitch structure, for example. To be sure, there are many orchestration guides and treatises, but these usually consist of series of examples from the canonical repertoire, and recipe-like instructions for the kinds of instrumental combinations that work well. McAdams wants to bring orchestration scholarship to the next level by categorizing such combinations with a taxonomy of orchestral effects that describes their perceptual results.


The diagram you see on this slide summarizes this taxonomy in three hierarchical tiers: simultaneity, which describes how concurrent timbres combine or separate in the formation of musical events, sequentiality, which describes how events combine or separate in the formation of musical streams or layers, and segmentation, which describes how streams or layers combine or separate in the formation of larger-scale musical units such as phrases or sections. McAdams and his team have catalogued many examples of all of these effects from the orchestral repertoire, but to date this has mostly focused on the symphony orchestra with its heterogeneous combination of instruments. But as I hope to demonstrate here, the same principles are operative in orchestration for homogeneous ensembles such as guitar orchestras. I consciously applied them in composing this piece, and they are a very useful aid in naming the simple perceptual outcome of a complex compositional process. I’ll demonstrate with a fairly detailed discussion of perceptually grounded orchestral effects in the opening section of the piece, and briefly mention a few other examples from later.


One concurrent effect that I expect everybody is familiar with is blend, in which different sound sources fuse into a more or less unified auditory event. McAdams’ taxonomy differentiates between timbral augmentation, in which there is one dominant timbre that is embellished, highlighted, or reinforced by one or more other sound sources, and timbral emergence, in which there is no one dominant timbre but a new timbre emerges from the fusion of more than one sound source. An example of timbral emergence is found early in fantaisie harmonique, in the orchestra of electric guitars. The notes are all synchronized but have niente attacks, followed by hairpin dynamics. As more and more notes are added in the different groups, the harmony thickens, and a new, transforming timbre emerges.


Surface Texture Integration

In the classical guitar orchestra, there are alphanumeric patterns with identical notes to that of the groups in electric guitars.As these notes are not synchronized, they are not blended as such, but are instead integrated into a texture, which becomes more and more rich as more notes are added.



Because of their different timbral and rhythmic profiles, the two orchestras form two distinct musical layers, even though their pitch contents are globally identical


Gradual Addition

There are no static layers, but both are constantly evolving as new pitches are added and timbres are correspondingly altered.There is no clear line between harmony and timbre, and timbre is covariant with pitch as well as the spectralists note.Although traditional methods of analysis might emphasize how the pitch structure changes over this section, I would argue that the timbre changes through spectral filling as well, and this was my purpose in composing it.The orchestral layers are individually added until, as the layers unfold, the entire ensemble becomes a coherent whole, while the layers remain distinct.


Sectional Contrast

After a long process of addition, there is an abrupt section contrast with fortissimo dynamics, the addition of distortion to the electric guitars, and sul ponticello plucking in the classical guitars. The repeated figures in each orchestra lose their distinct profiles and become identical, causing the whole ensemble to function as a single layer for the first time. There is then another process of transformation, a gradual reduction of timbral intensity, dynamic level, and rhythmic activity, thinning the whole out until only one part remains, splitting off from the global layer as a distinct auditory stream.

I’m going to play this section for you now, so you can hear all of these things playing out. At this point my two fantastic visual artists have been producing exciting ideas, and I have two very different versions of animated videos. In time we will produce a unified final version, but we haven’t had time to do that just yet, so for this presentation I will showcase each artist’s work individually. In this excerpt I’ll show the work of Simon Rouhier, who some of you might know is a member of the UdeM community.


Textural Integration -> Punctuation Blend

Later in the piece, a different kind of process unfolds. As explained in the table on this slide, which appears in the performance notes for the piece, the process is of different degrees of synchronization of strum patterns. At first, the notes are very diffuse over a wide interval of time, with just a slight accel-decel pattern indicating the location of the downbeat. The coordination then becomes greater, with a slow rolled chord, then a faster rolled chord, which are fast enough to be perceived as a rhythmic unit as opposed to a diffuse texture. By the end of the process, the strums are so fast and synchronized that they are perceived as single, fused events, with the near-perfect synchrony of the onsets causing all of the notes to group together perceptually; this is an instance of what McAdams calls “punctuation blend.” Although I notated this process with the four distinct symbols pictured here, as shown in the excerpted staff at the bottom of the slide, I ask the performers to think of it like a continuous process. I picture it as a statistical distribution around a mean, with the bell curve getting narrower and narrower. There are many other examples of perceptually grounded orchestration effects in this piece, but hopefully that should be enough to give you a sense of what is meant by that term.


IV. Spatialization as Orchestration

The last concept I would like to touch on before we watch the video is spatialization as orchestration.

Although we have exciting new technology to work with today, this is in fact an ancient idea, with precedents such as antiphonal and processional choral music.

More recently, 20th and 21st century composers, including in the sound mass tradition, have been very interested in musical space.

In compositions such as Lontano, which translates to “far away,” Ligeti was expressly concerned with creating the illusion of movement in virtual space.

The architect Xenakis sometimes used physical space as a compositional parameter, as in Terretektorrh in which the musicians are dispersed among the audience, and their listening experience is position-dependent.


And although I do not know the piece, a colleague recently informed me of a Canadian example, Stereophony by Harry Somers.

In his treatise On Sonic Art, composer Trevor Wishart also laid out a theoretical foundation for spatialization in electroacoustic music.

For me, the idea of spatialization as orchestration is that the distribution or movement of sound sources in space adds a new layer of aesthetic interest to the composition, and provides new grouping cues that influence the perception of concurrent, sequential, and segmental orchestrational effects. These can interact with other orchestrational cues, either reinforcing them or contradicting them in interesting ways. These spatial effects are most effective in a 3D audio rendering, which we have produced but which is unfortunately not available at this point in an online format. In the stereo mix that you will hear shortly, they might be only subtly present, or you might not be able to hear them at all. I will nevertheless take a few minutes to talk about the spatial design and its role in the piece’s orchestration.

Spatialization in the Hocketing Section

On the other hand, in the hocketing section, we used spatial orchestration and timbral orchestration at cross-purposes. This seemed a logical extension of the spatialization already implied in the tuning system, which divides a smooth microtonal scale between six different instruments. We gave each of the six instruments a stationary spatial position around the listener, with no added animation. The result is that the timbral homogeneity and smoothness of the microtonal melodic lines strongly imply stream integration, while the spatial dispersion of the sound sources strongly implies stream segregation, creating an interesting perceptual ambiguity that I believe enhances the listening experience.


Audio Files

Full version, all tracks




Works Cited

"Learned Style and Learned Styles," in The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, Keith Chapin, 2014. Complexity of polyphony has long been regarded as an important musical attribute, Associated with "learned" or "high styles," and with superlative associations such as elevation, sublimity, sophistication, prestige, etc. However, Western music practice and scholarship have long recognized the value of the virtuosic craftsmanship involved in creating complex textures from simple lines. As an example of complexity born out of simplicity, this is a prime example. Music composed by Iannis Xenakis, 1955-1971

Seven Beginnings

by Jason NobleResearch-Creation Series | Timbre and Orchestration Resource

Published: April 1st, 2020 | URL: https://www.tkclo.com/tor/research-creation-series/seven-beginnings

Seven Beginnings (2019), for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, and cello, was composed as a deliverable of my ACTOR postdoc. It was premiered in the Bathurst Chamber Music Festival, 2019 (due to a late cancellation, the bassoon was replaced by a second cello in the premiere performance). The piece builds upon the trend of speech transcription in recent music, with a focus on spectral transcription and cross-modal composition. But far from being a technical étude, it is a very personal piece with a very specific motivation behind its materials and methods.

The piece commemorates the birth of my daughter Lily, so I wanted it to be a kind of origin story. Most origin stories I know posit a single starting point—“Once upon a time,” “In the beginning”—but the experience of becoming a parent has reminded me that our early lives are in fact marked by a whole series of beginnings. I noticed that quite a few of these beginnings involve sound images, and decided to compose a piece about seven of them: (1) the first auditory experiences in utero, (2) the moment of birth, (3) the first bonding between parent and baby, (4) the baby’s early vocal explorations in babbling, (5) the first meaningful words, (6) the baby learning their own name and corresponding sense of self, and (7) the ability to use language to tell stories. This progression seemed to me highly amenable to a musical form, beginning in amorphous noise and developing into fully intelligible speech in successive stages. I decided to realize this with projected text and live music, such that the music initially has only abstract or semantic connection to the text and gradually adopts speech-like qualities over the course of the piece, eventually merging with veridical speech. The audience reads the text as the music is performed, and hopefully becomes aware at some point of the changing relationship between text and music as the piece unfolds.

Relations between speech and music are endlessly fascinating, and are well-trodden territory in both research and composition. Studies such as Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh Patel<1> and “The ‘Musilanguage’ Model of Music Evolution” by Steven Brown<2> draw detailed comparison between speech and language in terms of their sonic properties, cognitive processing, and evolutionary origins. In addition to various types of prosody, rap, spoken word, recitative, parlando, and various other genres of singing and recitation that blur the lines between speech and music, there are many outstanding pieces of contemporary music that take speech as their source material in various ways. A few that have inspired me are Different Trains by Steve Reich (1987) which employs melodic transcription of speech samples, Speakings by Jonathan Harvey (2007/2008), which employs computer-aided orchestration of speech, and Deus Cantando by Peter Ablinger (2009), which uses a custom-built piano playing mechanism to realize spectral analysis-resynthesis of speech. I have used speech-based processes in several pieces, especially through my longstanding collaboration with guitarist Steve Cowan. We delivered a public lecture recital on our work in the McGill Research Alive Series (2017). Seven Beginnings is unique in my work in that it focuses on evolving relationships between text and music. I also do not know of any pieces by other composers that approach text-speech relations in quite the same way: if anybody reading this can refer me to pieces that do, I would love to hear about them!

In what follows, I will briefly discuss some textual, technical, and musical aspects of each Beginning.

1. The First Beginning


The first beginning was noise, and it was as a liquid, suffusing and subsuming, filling every crevice, and of silent space there was none. Given what we now know, we can say with certainty that the noise was not mere chaos: out of its rush and flow would emerge approximate regularities, periodicities, pulses. And while much of how we understand the world was lost therein, the noise was not without comfort. It was not a cold noise, nor was it hard, but it contained within itself the seeds of all things.

The sense of hearing is already well-developed before birth, and in the third trimester, the unborn baby can hear sounds from outside the womb. I imagine these pre-nascent auditory sensations as the child’s perceptual entry into the world. My goal in the First Beginning was to convey this. A sound file simulating in utero auditory experience was prepared, combining biological and instrumental sounds, low-pass filtered to remove most frequencies above 500 Hz.


Spectrograph of Beginning 1 audio file Aside from that, the performers are instructed to improvise gentle sounds with their instruments in order to blend into the muffled, indistinct soundscape.

2. The Second Beginning

Another beginning came following the cry, a dazzling, scorching sound, tearing through the noise like Moses cutting through the sea. A reverse tsunami, a tide ripping back from the shore, an instant of desperate, gasping gasps. As soon as the fluid drains from a newborn's ears, the filter that has shaped his auditory experiences up to this point is removed, and the full range of hearing becomes available for the first time.At the beginning of the Second Beginning, this combined with the screams and cries of childbirth motivated a dramatic surge into the high register.


First system of the Second Beginning.

3. The Third Beginning

A song soothed the crying as the third beginning.Love was the song, a love more powerful than pain or terror.Without words it said one simple thing: you will never be alone. Parents treat their children by singing as a means of soothing and bonding.My daughter and I interacted in that way pretty early on, and my singing to soothe her was one of the first things she encountered after the shock of coming into the world.Musically, the Third Beginning is very simple and is built on a single major triad.It also contains a vocal part.Using a singer will help keep the setting simple and gentle. The singer should avoid singing bel canto style, but rather improvise pitches from a lullaby:


Lullaby pitches for improvisation in the Third Beginning

4. The Fourth Beginning

Fourthly, I answered the song with a speech.The speech was carried along by the song, was in the song, and the song itself, in a different voice under a different sky.A fish testing the waters of water and a bird testing the air, such were the charm of discovery, of spontaneity and chance happenings.A dramatic collision of atoms in the void made the speech chimerical, spontaneous, joyful, and curious.First voluntary, the birth of comedy, haphazard, graceless act that said, endearingly, gutturally: I am here! Additionally, the performers are instructed to use their instruments to produce subtle sounds to fit into the muffled, indistinct sound environment.


Spectrograph of infant vocalizations


Score excerpt from Beginning 4, corresponding to the above spectrograph

5. The Fifth Beginning

It connected the particles of speech by drawing them together. .Initially incidental explorations, phonemes, syllables, vocables, and utterances are now signposts pointing towards the real, and the virtually real.With everything forever changed, the present became a window to the absent. .During the recording, I read the text aloud while transcribing the fundamental pitch into a melody in one instrument, surrounded by the others creating a soundscape around it.Under each transcribed line - in this case, the bassoon - a note is annotated so that the performer can replicate the spoken quality as closely as possible.As much as possible, we want the speech character to be clear, but not overpower the whole musical environment.The range of speech and rhythmic profile differ significantly from that of the previous Beginning, although the syllabic articulation may provide some continuity.'Speech rubato' indicates that the rhythms should not be realized too mechanically, but that there must be a slight pushing and pulling of tempo in their delivery, just as there is almost always in natural speech.


Score excerpt from Beginning 5

6. The Sixth Beginning

The sixth beginning was the self, the consequent and antecedent of sense, the crystallization and consecration of the I. Once stated, it was as if it had been said all along, had had to have been, as though nothing could have been prior. The self as epicentre, the measure of all things, the ultimate context, the subject. The self: and with it, the world. The self: henceforth, the baseline condition of all existence, the horizon of memory and comprehension, the starting-point, the arbiter, the origin.

The emergence of the sense of self is represented in the Sixth Beginning by uniting more of the instruments into the speech character: the crystallization of a prominent voice from elements of the sound world, such that the voice comes to the forefront of the musical texture. In addition to notating the fundamental in one instrument, other partials from the voice’s spectrum are transcribed in other instruments, bringing them together into a coherent gestalt. As visible in the spectrograph below, there are often more partials and/or noise components in the sound than there are instruments in this chamber orchestra, so a complete transcription seemed like a fool’s errand (and in any case is impossible, since each instrument produces not just a partial but its own complex spectrum). I therefore notated the first and second partials as accurately as possible in parallel octaves between the bassoon and horn, but the clarinet, oboe, and flute vary in their assigned positions in the harmonic series depending on the distribution of energy of each syllable. If it is a “bright” syllable with a strong upward spread, then the partials are spaced more widely with the flute and oboe in their higher registers; if it is a “dull” syllable with most of its energy in the lower portion of the spectrum, then the partials are spaced more closely, and in some cases the flute and/or oboe drop out. The result is a changing timbral quality between syllables similar to the changing formant structures of different vowels, resulting in a fairly veridical representation of speech. It is unlikely that the vowel analogy will be strong enough for a listener to understand the words from the musical sound alone, but if the text is read along with the music, the music-to-speech illusion can be convincing.


Spectrograph of spoken text from the Sixth Beginning (mm. 80-82)


Score excerpt from Beginning 6, corresponding to the above spectrograph

7. The Seventh Beginning

The seventh beginning is the story told by the self to the self, as well as to the other, and to many others.The story had enduring sense, composite sense, stability through change, and coherence.Speech and song come together in the story, the unification of things, the beauty and narrative of the story, the emotional contour of things, the mysterious appearance of purpose, and the trajectory of the cry.A succession of coincidences did not make up the silver thread, the choral refrain, the divined wisdom, the lesson, the point.The point was something that must be recognized and cannot be overlooked. A child at this stage of cognitive development is able to situate themselves within a larger temporal narrative that includes memories and anticipations, and to articulate these in language.The emergent process of composition is brought to a head in this Beginning, culminating in actual speech.A cello continues to translate the spoken word, and the winds repeat it in rhythmic unison.The text that the audience has read all along now reinforces what they hear rather than presenting a cross-modal element.It may be a surprise, or it may be a logical conclusion, depending on how aware a listener is of the evolving relationship between text and music over the course of previous Beginnings. In a textural layer that is inspired by Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, the strings continue to sustain the chorale-like texture that has been present since the Fifth Beginning.Chorale and the optional vocal improvisation Third Beginning are based on the same lullaby, but this chorale is transposed, harmonized, elongated, and staggered over many minutes.


Beginning 7 score excerpt There is a complete recording of the premiere performance of Seven Beginnings as well as slides containing the text. There will be a second performance of this piece, followed by an introduction. Airuddh Patel.The Brain and Music.Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Steven Brown.1999.The Musical Language Model.Steven Brown and Nils Lennart, The Origins of Music, Wallin..