Solo/Tutti: Variations on an Irrational Number (2002)

Duration – 16’30”
Recording – Garth Knox, viola

My works for live performer with real-time computer processing, such as Solo/Tutti, tend to be explorations of the genre of the musical solo using the computer to extend the instrument in a number of ways. A great player of a traditional musical instrument carries within themselves hundreds of years of cumulative knowledge of music which is deeply internalized and physically embodied through their relationship with their instrument. This complex, physically manifested knowledge still can’t be synthesized or simulated electronically or mechanically. While inventing new instruments is an important way to go forward, by definition performers of new instruments will not embody hundreds of years of performance knowledge. When I compose a work like Solo/Tutti, I do not think about composing for viola but for violist. The merging of person with instrument interests me greatly. Each player is one manifestation of the current state in a long oral history of the instrument they have mastered. The history is physical, living within their bodies as much as in their minds. Along with my interest in performers’ “body knowledge” (which I believe is real and substantive knowledge; I’m not being metaphorical), I believe that there is very little chance that new pieces composed for traditional instruments can add much of real importance unless the instruments are transformed physically orvirtually to open up new possibilities for exploration. Just as scientists and other scholars and thinkers create new knowledge through innovation and discovery, artists must also add to the body of human knowledge and experience. We can do this by building on the work of others who came before us. Towards this end, I use computers to create virtual but substantial extensions to instruments so that composer and performer have new territory to explore and to increase the probability that we can contribute something of lasting value to the continuum of music making past, present, and future.

The title, Solo/Tutti, refers at the same time to the traditional musical meanings of these terms and to the nature of the performer/computer interaction. All of the music exists within the soloistic viola part. The computer part results entirely from the real-time computer processing of live input of the viola. All of the expression, timing, musical phrasing in the computer part comes directly from the performer. The processing is used to extend the range in pitch and sound color of the instrument and perhaps more importantly to extend the viola beyond what would be playable by one performer playing one instrument. It’s as if the performer now has many arms, hands, and fingers that can play several instruments at the same time always based on their visceral knowledge of their one instrument being played with their one body.

The computer part for this work relies heavily on the real-time version of my sndwarp software for time-scale modulation of sound. The computer captures the sound from the viola and alters the speed to create a sort of alter-ego to the viola materials. The relationship varies throughout the piece, at times creating dense polyphony, aggressive virtuosity, delicate heterophonic textures which through filtering are like shadows of the viola. At times the computer is completely in-sync with the viola in all but pitch but then suddenly slows to 1 percent of real time to create a soundscape accompaniment. At the end of the first section of the piece the violist simply plays a one-minute long double-stop on open strings while the computer creates a dynamic harmonic undulation using the signal from the viola as the source.

The subtitle: Variations on an Irrational Number, refers to the value π. The work uses π as a source of pitch material and structure, as well as a source of inspiration. The work has four primary sections each of which uses the values of π in a different way to create form and materials. Solo/Tutti was composed for violist Garth Knox who recorded the viola part for this CD in May, 2003 at the studios of Radio France, Paris.