Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators
“On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon”
In the mid-Sixties I was composing works for performers with specialized electronic equipment, including brain wave amplifiers, handheld echolocation devices and vocoders. I was inspired by the live electronic performances of John Cage and David Tudor who discovered a direct way to present their work to audiences. I had witnessed bitterness and frustration among my teachers and colleagues who had to wait around for established ensembles and institutions to play their works. They would work on a piece for a year, then wait another year or more for a performance. Around 1980, however, musicians of conventional instruments began asking me for pieces. I was happy to accommodate them and looked for ways for them to explore the natural characteristics of sound with their instruments in ways similar to my earlier works with electronics.
Since then I have made a series of solos, ensembles and orchestral works which employ the phenomenon of audible beating as a structural component. A few of these works are purely acoustic, the musicians closely tune their pitches with one another. The results are often subtle and require close attention from listeners. More often I have used electronically generated pure waves in conjunction with the instrumental sounds. Because of the purity of sine waves—no overtones—the resulting beating patterns are more vivid. The pure waves either stay fixed or sweep up and down, drawing various shapes and images in the air. In the first instance, the players micro-tune their pitches against the fixed waves creating beats of different speeds. Against sweeping tones, however, the musicians sustain fixed tones across them, creating interference patterns at continually changing speeds, depending on the distances between their pitches and those of the moving waves. The farther apart, the faster the beating. At perfect unison, no beating occurs. When the tunings are very close the slowly beating waves may be heard to spin through space. In all these works, beats are not used as ornaments or coloration but are the essential material from which the pieces are made.
In Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators two pure waves slowly sweep up and down the range of four octaves, forming a large irregular diamond shape. As they do so, the pianist plays single tones across the sweeping waves. She has specific notes to play, with suggested timings. She may, however, anticipate or delay a tone thereby changing the beating pattern. If the piano tone sounds before the wave arrives at unison with it, the beating starts fast and slows down. If it sounds after the wave has passed it, it speeds up. If a tone is sounding when the wave reaches unison with it, the beating stops momentarily.
Music for Piano was written for Aki Takahashi who premiered it on October, 1992, in Yokohama, Japan. Marilyn Nonken first performed the work on November 16, 1997, on the Salvatore Martirano Composition Award Concert, University of Illinois.
In “On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon” a single pure wave sounds throughout the duration of the performance. While it does so, a koto player plucks single tones against it creating patterns determined by the closeness of the tunings and the decay characteristics of the plucked koto string. For this performance, Ryuko Mizutani removed all the strings and bridges of her koto except one. For each successive plucked tone, she moved the bridge under the string downward in extremely small steps, causing the pitch to lower slightly. Starting a semitone above the fixed oscillator tone, tuned to F-sharp at 370 cycles per second, she stepped downward through unison, stopping a semitone below. As her tones approached unison with the oscillator tone, the beats slowed down. As they passed below, the beats speeded up. Occasionally Ms. Mizutani reversed direction and backed up a few steps, then resumed the downward movement.
The title of the work is taken from the title of a chapter in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. On page 199 one reads:
“The gingko leaves fell like rain from the boughs and dotted the lawn with yellow. I was walking with Mr. Okeda on the path of smooth stones. I said I would like to distinguish the sensation of each single gingko leaf from the sensation of all others, but I was wondering if it would be possible...”
“On the carpet of leaves” was written for Ryuko Mizutani who gave it its first performance on April 26, 2000, at Wesleyan University. An alternate version for cello was written for Michael Moser who premiered it on June 25, 2000, on the Inventionen Festival in Berlin.
When pianist Joseph Kubera asked me to compose a work for him, I decided to write a suite of eight short movements. For the shape of each movement I simply looked around my house and selected images and objects that came into my line of vision, including the hammock strung between two trees in my back yard, a diamond of sunlight on the living room floor, a pair of chopsticks lying on the kitchen counter. I drew the shapes on paper, with precise timings and pitch information, and sent them to Bob Bielecki who programmed them on a computer and recorded the waves on DAT tape. I copied the shapes on music paper, then notated pitches for the piano which would cause audible beating: the near-unison, and, because of their strong overtones, the near-octave and -twelfth below the sounding waves. The piano tones are notated simultaneously with the waves against which they are to beat, but the pianist is free to anticipate or delay them, causing more varied forms of beating.
Still Lives was written between July 26th and August 20th, 1995. It was first performed by Mr. Kubera on March 18, 1999, in Merkin Hall, New York, on the Interpretations series.
Produced by Alvin Lucier.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
Copyright © 2001 Alvin Lucier (BMI)