Crónica 200 CD
Release: 25 April 2023
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This album collects works created for or with Drumming GP, a percussion ensemble founded in 1999 by Miquel Bernat, a world-class performer and teacher. Drumming works across styles, from contemporary composition to jazz, from music for theatre and dance, to a timbila orchestra that explores the traditional African instrument in its traditional repertoire and contemporary compositions. Drumming has partnered with dozens of composers to create new works that have significantly contributed to expanding the contemporary repertoire for percussion ensembles. They have released multiple works, from monographic albums to collaborations with composers such as Jesus Rueda, António Pinho Vargas, José Manuel López López, Luís Tinoco, Joana Gama and Luís Fernandes, Vasco Mendonça, or Mark Fell.
This collaboration led to reflect upon and reconsider our working processes. When we make music, we usually do not write for other musicians but rather for ourselves, and for our computers, we program. Perhaps because of that, we tend not to think about what we do as “composing”.
A composition prescribes the results of a process that, in general, it does not detail. A program, on the other hand, is focused on a process. Both are information. The composition is a description and the program is an instruction. But a composition can, of course, contain or be procedural information, information that does. A composition can be a liminal object that is part abstraction and part embodied activity.
When Miquel Bernat approached us with a proposal to compose a piece that could bring us together on stage: our computers and their percussion, our lack of musical gesture and their finely honed stage presence, we had to, for the first time, compose for other musicians. We had to consider how our processes of programming could become processes of composing.
This led us to experiment with several approaches and methodologies, not only for that first commission but also for subsequent collaborations. In this process, we discovered ways to collaborate and to create with Drumming.
Some of the results of this work with Drumming are already published in other contexts: 62, created from recordings with Miquel Bernat, published in 2008 in the album Up, Down, Charm, Strange, Top, Bottom; or 88 (two firsts) published in 2011 in a compilation. Several of these compositions were performed live, and they are now presented in a recorded format for the first time.
58, for two marimbas and two computers, was developed from mapping chaos to musical actions. When we composed this piece, we were interested in exploring indeterminacy within the boundaries of seemingly regular processes. One of the equations we worked with was the logistic map, a classic example of a simple non-linear dynamical equation from which chaotic behaviour arises, particularly when the values of the parameters are modulated. Within the complexity of chaotic behaviour, exciting phenomena are revealed, such as bifurcation, symmetries, and other patterns that we tried to explore musically by deriving the score for two marimbas from this equation. Further indeterminacy is fed to the system by how this process pushes the limits of the complexity requested from the performers, creating various physical barriers to the flawless execution of the score that need to be negotiated during the performance. Following a common approach to our live performances, the parts for both computers were not written in the score but instead structured around a pool of sounds that are selected and manipulated during each performance in a semi-improvisational process that takes cues from the marimbas but also the acoustics of the room, the audience, and other elements in the context.
The score for the marimbas was computer-generated and highly detailed. The parts of the two computers were almost the polar opposite of those. Not scored, free within the space of possibilities defined by the pool of sounds. There was no synchronisation between marimbas and computers, either through the score or by mechanical means. The marimbas followed the score but were not timed by in-ear clicks or other devices because, in a durational piece such as this one, we were also keen on exploring any drifts caused by the difficulties in following the score and keeping tempo for such a complex structure.
This piece was commissioned for a programme of original compositions for percussion, paying homage to Frank Zappa. Our contribution was the outcome of a long process because while one of us is a long-time Zappa fan, the other barely knew anything about him or his work. The process, therefore, had to start with a crash course on Zappa’s music that involved a systematic and chronological listening of most of his œuvre. From this exercise emerged a picture of complexity and wonder with the process of music-making, of a passion for discovery and the non-conformity that leads to treading new ground. It also led to pinpointing some concepts later explored in the piece.
In Zappa’s work, we discovered tape manipulation and editing as compositional tools; we have “strange synchronisations”, or “xenochrony” as he called it, the extraction of musical parts from their original contexts and their reframing; and, finally, his idea of “conceptual continuity”, the interconnectedness of musical themes and ideas across different pieces and works. All of these resonated with us because they were close to aspects of our practice.
The piece we composed for percussion and tape was structured around ideas of transcoding — using as the starting point for the composition rhythms that one could describe as “appropriated” or “found” — of contrasts of scale — both in the instruments performed as in the techniques used in their performance — and of narrative structure — not only in the score and its musical output but also in scenic aspects of the performance, with five percussionists gathering around a bass drum. The tape is mixed from samples and synthetic percussion. The 2006 version recorded at the program’s première used several short samples from Zappa’s 1994 posthumous album Civilization Phaze III, direct references that felt natural in the context of the complete program of the performance. The reworked 2022 version, more distant from that original context, is more abstract and reworks this layer of samples, not eliminating them altogether but removing the vocal samples and leaving a distant echo, a reverberation from a long-ago performance.
Many but not all of the pieces we created with and for Drumming started from commissions. In some cases, pieces were developed as a consequence of these commissions or were inspired by aspects of the collaboration or by materials collected in that context. That was the case with pieces included in the album Up, Down, Charm, Strange, Top, Bottom in 2008, but also with this work, created from samples that we collected at Drumming’s studio of their extensive set of standing bells, sometimes also referred to as singing bowls. These instruments already have something of a tradition in Western music, and Miquel Bernat was interested in exploring them.
We took several samples of each bell, alternatively performed by Bernat or ourselves, exploring different attacks and decays, variations in resonance or the transformation of their pitch. These recordings were intended to feed a sampler in composing a piece for live performance to simulate a performer during the compositional process. There was a subset of sounds that particularly drew our attention: that of the standing bells struck while resting upside down, muted by the pillows that usually allow them to vibrate freely. We used these sounds to start composing a piece that, although intended for live performance, quickly became very abstract and complex, populated with synthetic sounds — not only percussion but also synthesised and sampled sounds — and with constant tempo changes that were also dictated by the generative algorithm that performed the standing bells and mangled some of the samples. Mostly finished in 2008, this piece was premiered live in 2012 in Espinho in a program for percussion and electronics with pieces by various composers.
This piece was composed of two performers and a set of minerals and stones. More than a score, it consisted of modular moments organised as pairs of implements and actions to be used. The composition is procedural, developed as the rules of a game for two players/performers around a board. The first action that the performers take is to trace a plan for the performance on the board, thus determining all the subsequent steps and the overall structure of the performance.
Back in 2008, we joined Drumming to perform Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I (1964) in Madrid, an experience that directly influenced the composition of 88, namely in the usage of microphones and amplification to uncover sounds that would otherwise be too difficult to perceive. In 88, there is no direct handling of microphones, but they are placed above, underneath and in the performance surface, capturing vibrations in the air and in the stone that are amplified to the room via a PA. Besides equalisation, a hint of reverb and the natural reverberation of the performance room, no other sound sources were used in the live performances. This version of 88 was mixed from live and studio recordings and tried to present the piece as it can be performed live. As an experimental, procedural, and ultimately irreducible piece, 88 has no canonical version, no stable form, and therefore no single recording may capture it fully. This mix nevertheless tries to be true to the choices made by the performers in the recordings and to the structure of the piece as a procedural composition.
One of the recurring strains in our work over the years can be well described by Zappa’s “conceptual continuity”. We often revisit compositions and other works — such as sound installations — either reframing them in new contexts, developing their central ideas or themes, or further developing the works. We rarely think of our pieces as stable and static structures. Instead, we consider them dynamic ideas that can evolve, develop new relationships, and transform. Ideas that can be revisited and brought back to the conversation can be revised and updated.
All our pieces are processes, and this is more the case with pieces that are scores meant to be performed by others. Part of this ongoing process is related to live performance and sound installations, contexts that are naturally ephemeral, situated, and experimental. But another part is related to the work we do in the studio, creating works for linear media. In both cases, remix, as the act of creating from something, of creating in continuity with something else: a history, a concept, a sound or set of sounds, a context, is something that has been very present in our practice. Nothing is ever created ex nihilo, but in processes like remixes, one brings pre-existing works to a central position, dissects, deconstructs, and rebuilds them to create something else.
In this sense, our remixes are not reinterpretations that intend to preserve the “aura” of a previous piece of music, but rather processes through which we excavate existing pieces to discover something that could have been latent there but that would not otherwise manifest. Unlike the mix of 88 in this album, 88R eschews any illusion of faithfulness to the score or even to the critical concepts of 88, and uses its recordings as materials, chiselling a new piece from the exploration of contrasts in dynamics, decays, resonance, and impact.
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