Chris McCormack on the endlessly fascinating blurring of acoustic and electronic


On Saturday 27 May at LSO St Luke's, LSO Soundhub composers will be showcasing some of their new works – seven in all, by seven composers. In this blog, composer Chris McCormack, whose work Fields will be premiered at the concert, explains how he combines the worlds of acoustic, live and electronic and how the friction between them has created his unique soundworld.

Fields was written in the early months of 2016, while I was studying at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. An opportunity presented itself to write for a trio of players from the wind, brass and percussion departments. I had been interested in writing a piece for bass clarinet and electronics for some time, but at a meeting outlining the parameters of the project, someone suggested, in passing, that ‘someone could even write for two percussionists!’. This immediately got me thinking, and I quickly made the decision to combine both ideas. Dual percussion immediately opens up a myriad of possibilities for dialogue between the players, but I also realised that in employing combinations of bass clarinet and electronics, I could create harmony. Additionally, I was also curious as to what dialogue would emerge between the live players and the electronics.

The title of the piece refers to its formal construction – the piece is conceptualised as several material spaces, or ‘fields’ of sound, through which the listener and the material moves. The opening of the piece is also concerned with generating a sense of stillness and suspension through non-development, and in turn, manipulating the subjective experience of time. The opening operates in cycles of relatively static material. Pacing is generated through both expansion and contraction of the material, and of variation of the space between statements. This expansion and contraction was conceived of as being comprised of moments of electrical ‘charge’, and the dissipation of that charge.

Electronic music exerts a massive influence on the way in which I hear sound, and I think that this is true of many composers working today. Using combinations of live instruments and electronics can be extremely challenging, as often, it is possible for linguistic and rhetorical problems to arise. These problems occur in part due to the wide dissemination of electronic sound in popular culture, and frequently, the issue is one of taxonomy – the electronic and acoustic sound-worlds are frequently too different from one another to create a meaningful dialogue in non-postmodern compositional idioms. It is clear to me that there is always going to be a certain amount of difficulty and friction in the combination of these media, but this friction is lessened the more one can blur the distinction between them. This blurring of electronic and acoustic sound is endlessly fascinating to me, and I find it to be incredibly creatively fruitful.

The electronics in Fields consist of artificial ‘trails’ of the material that is being played by the ensemble at any given time – the effect could be best described as being akin to depressing the sustain pedal on a piano. These trails were generated by recording drones on the pitches I needed, and ‘stretching’ them artificially, using Melodyne. Melodyne is a piece of software more customarily used to correct poor timing or tuning in vocal performances, but it is also an unbelievably powerful sound design tool. It is possible to take a recording of a four-part choral texture, for instance, and change the voicing of chords, to transpose pitches, or radically change the spectral makeup of individual sounds, and this is only to scratch the surface. The crucial thing about using Melodyne in this context is that it allowed me to create infinitely sustaining textures using only the raw sound of the acoustic instruments themselves, thus immediately assisting me in blurring the distinction between the raw, and processed sound.

Melodyne in action: the red lines are pitches which have been stretched, forming dense chords.

melodyne

Fields opens with ‘dry’, or unaffected acoustic material, but, over time, the electronics gradually begin to interfere with this dry sound world. The point at which it becomes clear to the audience that electronics are actively interfering in the live sound world is dramatically interesting to me, and the alternation of subtle and blunt oppositions of electronic and acoustic material is a way of dealing with combinations of extreme electronic processes and live sound. I am keenly interested in the moment in which it becomes clear that the live sound is being affected by something, as there is something inherently surreal in sound being ‘stretched’ in this manner. For this reason, initially, the sustain trails are very subtle, but later they become increasingly disturbing to the closed, acoustic world – eventually, they force the narrative to fracture and the music moves into a new space, or ‘field’, characterised by extreme use of the ‘trailing’ effects.

I am very interested in this idea of the electronics exerting a profound influence on the trajectory of the music. They have now ‘interfered’ to a point where change is inevitable, and the piece does change. Approximately halfway through the piece, the potential energy that has been stored up by the electronic interventions results in the music arriving at a point of no return – the piece ‘pushes through’ this point, as if punching a hole in an invisible wall. At this point the electronics take on a more independent role – they take a bass clarinet pitch and map it onto chords, creating a timbre that is somewhat akin to an organ, and this provides a backdrop against which the live elements can move and interact. Twin vibraphones engage in a dialogue with each other, performing quick figuration. The overall mood is much more extrovert at this point, and this extroversion is a place from which the material cannot return – a line is drawn that defines this section as the inevitable consequence of the earlier material, and so when this section of the piece reaches its peak it must then move into a different space, where the piece closes.

 


 

Hear Chris' work Fields on Saturday 27 May at LSO St Luke's, performed by members of the LSO and conducted by Darren Bloom. The concert also includes works by Ewan Campbell, Bethan Morgan-Williams, Daniel Fardon, Rob Jones, Alex Roth and Brian Mark.