Roger Reynolds - All Known, All White

ROGER REYNOLDS NOW: It is interesting, though often disconcerting, to re-engage with what one has done at earlier stages of life. The three works finding re-issue here originally appeared on CRI long playing vinyl records, and have long been unavailable. . I decided to re-present the notes written at the time of the original publications, but to interpret them, from time to time, with comment from the vantage point of a new millennium. Two general remarks before proceeding:

My thoughts about it is appropriate to write in program notes continue to evolve; at this time, I am inclined to offer no more than certain perspectival, dramaturgical suggestions to a listener: On the other hand, one also recognizes that there is little writing that grapples in detail with the actual nuts and bolts of the music itself. I try to address this (important) need now, not through program notes, but rather other channels such as my recent book: Form and Method: Composing Music (Routledge Publishers, New York, 2002)

All of the music on this disc was originally conceived for multi-channel presentation, where the spatial choreography and acoustical interaction between live instrumentalists and loud-speaker emanations add - as they must if they are to be integral aspects of the composition - a dimension that can only be “glimpsed” by the ear in the mixed-down versions presented here. Happily, the DVD medium now offers an opportunity to hear music conceived for multi-channel presentation as it was intended to be experienced. Mode Records' WATERSHED DVD, contrasting several such works of mine, is the first example of this new and welcome possibility.


...the serpent-snapping eye

...the serpent-snapping eye (1978) was composed for trumpet, percussion, piano and 4-channel tape. The phrase quoted in the title comes from "The Quarterdeck" chapter of Moby Dick, where Ahab, distributing grog to the crew, draws all into a directed abandon.

"Drink and pass!" he cried, handing the heavy charged flagon to the nearest seaman. "The crew alone now drink. Round with it, round! Short draughts — long swallows, men; 'tis hot as Satan's hoof. So, so; it goes round excellently. It spiralizes in ye; forks out at the serpent-snapping eye. Well done; almost drained. That way it went, this way it comes..." I from Moby Dick by Herman Melville]

My intention, then, was to explore those situations in which a loss of orientation leads us more deeply into the moment itself. There is a certain aquatic feel to the music, in which the performers are joined with a complex and sonorous fabric of computer synthesized sound.

REYNOLDS NOW: In the Summer of 1977,1 went to Stanford University's CCRMA facility to begin serious work with computers. I decided to explore two paths: that of synthesized sound (in relation to the historical steps taken in Koln by early explorers in purely electronic music) and also that involving the computer processing of previously recorded natural sounds (in relation to the musique con Crete pioneers in Paris). The richly sonorous quality of synthesized sound obtainable by strategic use of John Chowning's frequency modulation algorithm is featured in ...the serpent-snap­ping eye, and one of my later compositions, Eclipse (1979). Nevertheless, I became convinced at that time that the province of transformed natural sound was the more attractive one from my per­spective, and that remains my conviction.

THEN: The work is twenty minutes long, divided into three roughly equal sections. In the first, the primary aim of the performers is to match, submit to and intensify the taped sounds. The second, in which the synthesized sounds are sparse, introduces a feeling of independence as the performers respond, reflecting on models pro­vided by the tape. In the final section, the live performers complement and elaborate upon — they attempt to augment — the synthesized sound.

The structure of ...the serpent-snapping eye is based upon various series of gradually expanding and contracting durations; in addition, the shape of each component instrumental phrase parallels one of the three models used to program the computer in synthesizing the sounds that appear on the tape.

NOW: In 1966, en route back to Europe from Japan, I spent some time in a Hong Kong book shop, and came across Paul Fraisse's path breaking work, The Psychology of Time. Reading in this and related lit­erature in experimental psychology opened a path for me away from an abstract and — I had come to think — too arbitrary treatment of temporal organization in my music. One insight which had immediate and lasting influence arose from learning that the human nervous system is attuned to change, not consistency of input, I thought that it might be effective to organize the events within a musical work as features of accelerating or dissipating waves of sectional duration, where events tended to temporally compress as they approached a point of formal demarcation, growing more relaxed and expansive as they fell away from it.

THEN: Thus, the models for the electronic sounds find a second, more flexible expression in the activities of the live performers. There is, I hope, at every level, an evident concern for matching and conformation.

—Roger Reynolds (1984)

...the serpent-snapping eye-. C. F. Peters (BMI): 20' 02"


Edwin Harkins, trumpet

Cecil Lytle, piano

Daryl Pratt, percussion

Recorded by Josef Kucera, July 3,1984 in the Recital Hall of the Mandeville Center for the Arts at the University of California, San Diego.

[The American Academy of Arts and Letters and its parent organization,

the National Institute of Arts and Letters, every year awards fifteen

grants to young artists in recognition of distinction and promise.

The following two works by 1971 award-winner

Roger Reynolds, were recorded with such support.]

Ping (1968)

PETER YATES THEN: The two pieces, Ping and Traces, were composed to complement one another. Ping repre­sents a continuing interest in theater and intermedia running through Reynolds' compositions since The Emperor of Ice Cream (1961-62).

REYNOLDS NOW: My entwined concern with text and the spatial disposition of music first emerged in this very early work, written for the ONCE festivals in Ann Arbor. It continued in the VOICESPACE series of quadraphonic compositions on tape (1975-86); Odyssey, for voices, instrumental ensemble and 8 channels of computer processed sound, written on a bilingual text from Samuel Beckett (1989-93); and, most recently, JUSTICE, for soprano, actress, percussionist, real-time spatialization, and computer processed sound on a text from Aeschylus (1999).

YATES THEN: Traces follows a more abstract succession of instrumental works, the pockets of predefined order being gradually more localized, the temporal and sensory content expanding in importance. Traces was stimu­lated by the frequent recurrence of that word in the Ping text, a short story by Samuel Beckett.

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one yard square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white.... ["Ping" from The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, by Samuel Beckett]

The conception of Ping, evolved during a two-year germination period, includes three elements: the Beckett text on 160 slides designed by Karen Reynolds; a film; and combined instrumental, taped, and electronic sound.

REYNOLDS NOW: / read Ping first in the English magazine, Encounter. Its mesmerizing, irritating, per- mutational recycling stuck in my mind; it provided a model of a chaotic yet organic alternative to the strictures of the formal serial processes I had been using. Beckett's canny restatement with continual readjustment of detail manifests a compelling, malleable insistence.

Such forms of emphasis are central to my current work on The Red Act Project (which includes JUS­ TICE, mentioned above). I value the mind's tendency to squirrel away bits of thought and impression

which then murmur to the unconscious for years, sometimes, even decades, before finding their fated outlet in a musical context.

The film (/Ping was made in Tokyo. I conceived, wrote the scenario for, directed, and then edited it. Toru Takemitsu introduced me to one of Kurosawa 's cameramen. I had also located the extraordinary Butoh actor/dancer known as Sekiji Maro; he was then notorious for running across the backs of audi­ torium seats bare-footed, while swinging a samurai sword.

YATES THEN: In live performance the three strands of events occur simultaneously but are not synchronized. As a recorded performance, Ping is a self-sustained composition of instrumental improvisation over taped and electronic music. The conditions circumscribing the improvised sound in the total intermedial context were used as a basis for creating an independent sound piece. The four performers, accustomed to improvising together under intermedial conditions, had no trouble concentrating a higher event density within the music alone for this recording.

Ping is the first break in the composer's commitment to fully defined, ornamental textures. The piece is with­out a score, although the individual parts are detailed. The overall flow is divided into three sections, approxi­mately 5, 10, and 7 minutes long, defined and confined by four types of limits within which the performers improvise. These limits consist of assigned pitch, materials, dynamic shapes, rhythmic relations, and instru­mental performance techniques.

REYNOLDS NOW: From my current vantage point, I see flexibility in performance realization, and the variability entailed in re-framing a musical work created in one context (and for a particular resource) in another medium, even at another scale, as an acceptable, even inviting aspect of the composer's life. The crucial difference for me between composition and what is normally thought of as improvisation lies in the nature of the preparation. The composer has a repertoire of strategies which are applied in planning and then composing a specific musical work. His process might be thought of as an almost "architectural" one' he plans, adjusts, continues, backtracks, and, in the end, comes up with something (a score) that attempts to adequately foresee what will be necessary for an act of music making itself.

The improviser also has a store of strategies and capacities honed by use "under fire" in performance, and these are brought into a flexible interplay with other musicians and their capacities in a situation where editing, changes of mind and backtracking are literally impossible. My hope is to increase the flexibility that a musician has in performance without relinquishing a composerly control/responsibili­ty over the total experience and its course.

YATES THEN: Section A assigns 5 pitches, with octave transpositions and microtonal deviations; section B, three chords without transpositions; section C, the remaining 7 tones (the twelve tones minus the 5 used in Section A) with the same rules of treatment as in the first section.

Required dynamic shapes and performance techniques restrict the possible affective impulses in each section. The pianist plays predominantly on the strings using inverted microphone stands (rocking back and forth on the strings) to produce rapid, fluttering ostinatos; blocks of steel to give high, shrill squeals; timpani mallets; and a small, high­speed electric motor equipped with a plastic gear which is used to agitate individual piano strings, causing them to vibrate in complex modes. (This technique, developed because of the musical necessity to achieve continuous sound from the piano, explores the natural modes of harmonic vibration of which massive strings are capable.)

REYNOLDS NOW: This process sensitized me to the richness of the harmonic and timbral interplay pos­sible by the — in this case mechanical — exploration of natural harmonic constructs. In ...the ser­ pent-snapping eye, the same phenomenon was revisited from the perspective of computer synthesized sound. For this work, I designed a faux-spectrum in which each harmonic of a fundamental was itself a richly evolving entity with characteristic pitch drift. It had not occurred to me until now that I was, in effect, mimicking the sonority offing's buzzed piano strings.

YATES THEN: The flutist constantly inflects pitch or draws from a set of multi-phonics (several pitches produced simultaneously) prescribed for each section. The third performer employs a harmonium, a cymbal and a tarn tarn, the latter two played with a cello bow and stopped at experimentally determined nodes to produce specifi­ cally pitched, resonant sounds.

The rhythms, differing but related for each instrument in each section, are treated in a variety of ways. Each player determines independently a constant basic pulse, grouped in continuous but proportionally regular seg­ments (e.g., 3: 2: 5 for the piano in section B).

REYNOLDS NOW: The assumption here is that proportion is fundamental to rhythm. This allows one to think in parallel (though not identical) ways about both the moment to moment lilt of the music and also the phrase or even movement structure of the whole. After all, sixteenth-notes are to quarter-notes as 4:1, and there is, thus, a potential proportionality inherent in whatever rhythmic vocabulary the composer uses as a resource (sixteenths, triplets, eighths, quarters, etc.) and also underlying the par­ticular way in which s/he exposes these values over time.

YATES THEN: The four classes of restraints and stimulants, with the central taped sound, shape the musical char­acter of each section and define the continuity. "Timed Mixtures," always 7, 14, or 21 seconds in duration, are inserted abruptly on signal from the pianist to interrupt or redirect the improvisational continuum.

REYNOLDS NOW: The idea of the "Timed Mixture" was developed first in the choral composition Blind Men (1966), in response to reading the Fraisse book cited above. I sought textures that were intriguing in their overall impressions and constantly varying in micro-structure, but that did not display any overall trends. These mixtures were simply a sonic landscape to be inhabited for awhile, a particular but undirected relief from the ongoing nature of the surrounding music.

YATES THEN: Ring modulation is between instruments directly, rather than between instruments and an electron­ ic signal generator, giving more complex resultant sounds. The bowed cymbal, flute multiphonics, buzzed piano strings, and taped sound share a roughness which adds to the timbric weight of the piece, compensating for the necessarily diminished control of relational details.

REYNOLDS NOW: Critic Peter Yates heard a performance (/Ping at a music festival in Canada, one in which 1 was not involved. In a letter he indicated the degree to which the performers there had found the "roughness" of timbre and intensity that he refers to in the present notes: "It was like being seared under a broiler," was his memorable phrase.


Roger Reynolds, piano

Karen Reynolds, flute

Paul Chihara, percussion and harmonium

Alan Johnson, live electronics

Traces (1969)

YATES THEN: Traces was written for the composer-pianist Yuji Takahashi. Scored for solo piano, with flute, cello, ring modulator, signal generator, and 6 independent channels of taped sound, this work is concerned not f only with events but their residues (traces).

REYNOLDS NOW-. I first encountered Yuji Takahashi in Berlin in 1964, where he was working with Senakis under a DAAD award. I had been composing my Fantasy for Pianist without any expectation of mmediate performance. He agreed to play it at once and did so — memorably (though I recall him commenting about the fearsome technical challenges in the piece, that it was "too pianistic"). In the late '60s, at the time Karen and I were about to relocate in Japan, Yuji was in Buffalo as a "creative associate" in Lukas Foss' program at SUNY. I conceived the idea of Traces in relation to the Center's plans, and out of the growing admiration I had for Takahashi's capacities.

YATES THEN: The pianist makes a series of 9 statements in the form of 3 interrelated groups of three short movements. The flute and cello draw on events (traces, clues) in these statements, extending them simply, with­out development or elaboration. There is a quality of timeless dwelling on some of these inter-piece extensions (vestigial sound-traces).

(Dictionary: trace. A mark or line left by anything that has passed; footprint, track, trail; a sign or evidence of something past; a vestige.)

Traces refers, with admitted casualness, to classical formal patterns. The first, fourth, and seventh movements are introductory; the second, fifth, and eighth are studies in imbalance and abruptness; the third, sixth, and ninth are more variable, linear, and lyric. The first three movements, though sectional, are each unitary in conception. Single notes and their accumulations define almost exclusively the harmonic and temporal patterns. The second group of three employs primarily chordal sounds and explores two-part structures in contrast, inversion, retrograde. The third trio of movements is made up of tripartite forms, more improvisatory and cooperative than those preceding. Here the entire range of the piano is brought into play, from single pitches to cluster-glissandos, performed (on the keyboard] with a gloved left hand, and noises produced directly on the strings by combs with variously spaced teeth.

REYNOLDS NOW: Frederic Rzewski (I believe) used talcum powder in his early performances of Stockhausen's Klavierstiicke X, which we heard first at Boulez' Domaine musical concerts in Paris in the early '60s. While writing Traces, Iread Mauricio Kagel's article on the notation of clusters in die Reihe magazine. I thought his conventions ingenious and adopted them. Further, it occurred to me that a much less messy alternative to the talc (though also less theatrically outrageous) would he a white athletic sock. It was a wondrous feel.

YATES THEN: The compositional techniques include loose serial patterns, cyclical relationships, predetermined durations, densities, tempo relationships, etc. Each technique is confined to generating materials within one or more of the movements. Frequent caesuras, with the pianist's granted latitude in judging spacing and duration at many points, provide considerable performance freedom, despite the controls exercised over the individual notated and procedural components.

The taped materials include both concrete and electronically simulated sounds, so devised that the six simul­taneous but non-synchronous tracks produce mixtures of combination and difference tones; these are promi­nent when heard in performance with the instruments. The auditory result of the six-track mixture is far more complex and rich than a hearing of the individual elements on two-track, stereo mix-downs would sug­gest. To these pre-stored sounds are added ring-modulated products of the piano or cello with a signal gen­erator. The electronic dimension gives an almost "orchestral" backdrop against which the soloist can per­ form with utmost expansiveness.

Though flute and cello elongate and intensify pitches within the individual movements, the most extended and complex "traces" occur between certain of the movements in order to increase overall formal coherence.

(Dictionary: trace. A traced or lightly marked line; a barely discernible quantity, quality, or characteristic.)

The total effect of the work — highly ordered concentrations of events strung along extended and always mutat­ ing strands of sound — necessitates dwelling upon these reflective trailings-away of selected elements from each movement after its organized detail is completed. The introductory statements, one, four, and seven, all employ taped sound, providing opportunity for the expansion of these movements to unexpected length. The traces that follow statements four and seven overlap with the following movements, suggesting the coexistence of several time frames and the resonances of memory.

REYNOLDS NOW: The form of Archipelago (commissioned by and realized at Ircam in 1981-82) is, in effect, a mosaic of fifteen small thematic cells and their associated variations. There are, that is, fifteen

"theme and variation" forms going on at almost the same time. What is novel, in addition , is that the "theme" of any set may not come at the beginning of its string of related variants, but in the middle or even in extreme, cases, at the very end. The importance of memory and expectation, of a mosaic-like weave of musical ideas and their reformulations manifested in Archipelago carries foreward processes first broached in Tracts.