Sunday, October 7, 2007

POLYTOPIA questions

This is the cover art of my new CD, POLYTOPIA which came out from Bridge Records in September. I love it and so grateful my mother in Japan didn't hate it! (in fact she LOVED it, too)

Anyway, many have asked about my title piece of this CD, POLYTOPIA for violin and signal processing and how it was done, so here are some pointers. I am using an interactive computer music program MaxMSP ( which has been the main tool I have been using for more than a decade. I basically only use two techniques in this piece; pitch shifting and delay. I am using SIX independently controlled pitch-shifters in MaxMSP (harmv2~) and delays, and also they are independently panned, as it was originally (still is) conceived as a Surround 5.1 piece. My visual image was that if it were a real-life situation, 6 vioinists will have to be running across the hall really fast without tripping over, while playing like mad: it's kind of a funny picture!

If you would like to know more about nuts and bolts, here are some nitty-gritty details:
When there are chords in unison, I make sure that the 6 voices are not exactly aligned--I make sure that they are about 5-50 milliseconds apart, as it would add a 'fuller' or 'real' feel as if those chords are played by humans. No REAL six human players will ever exactly come in absolutely the same time, zero milliseconds apart! I also make sure that these 'artificial delays' in unison is not always the same--i.e., if delays on each voices are: voice#1 = 0ms, #2 = 10ms, #3 = 50ms, #4 = 30ms so on, then the next chords I switch the delay times to 20, 36, 5, 54ms so on, so the chords don't sound uniform.

I had also made my own tuning table for my pitch-shifting, thinking that the string tuning is very different from equal temperatment--so I built my own pitch-shifting intervals by ear. Then, I listened to the result and it wasn't as 'beautiful' as I thought it was going to be, aside from the fact that I am not staying in one key (which would have made sense). So, I bravely discarded my 'beautiful' tuning table which took HOURS to build, and went with equal temperament tuning (1200 cents devided by 12). I often find that even in acoustic composition, just because you spend many hours on something, doesn't mean the result is good, and I need my courage to say NO :)

In my opinion, the 'death' of computer music can be easily achieved by your LAZINESS :) I try to vary as much details as I possibly can, since I think audience is acutely aware and sensitive to monotony---if they catch on something that is exactly the same, you would be surprised how fast you can lose their interest. You have to keep them wondering---besides if the details vary you can also react more musically, as well as amuse yourself and keep yourself fresh :)

Time to read some Japanese books for my son since he brought me one... a GOLDEN opportunity for a poor boy whose parents are trying to raise him trilingual... more later...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Risset Concerto premiere in Japan

On Sept. 5th in Tokyo, I had one of the best musical experiences in my life, giving the world premiere of Jean-Claude Risset's violin concerto written for me at Suntory Hall in Akasaka, Tokyo. I also played my own cadenza which Jean-Claude let me write --- I am so very grateful for the honor. The concerto is the first one in the world using Subharmonics all over the place, aside of my own Concerto I wrote and played in 1999 for a Mexican orchestra. (I like the first 2 movements but desperately need to rewriting my 3rd movement. And exactly when do I have time to do that....)

I said in a speech I gave at a small toasting backstage after the concert that Jean-Claude made a history in violin concerto literature that night.

If you are a violinist you might shiver hearing what I am about to tell you, but the day before my big Concerto premiere in Tokyo, the tip of my bow BLEW OFF. The ivory that holds the hair simply came off. I was loaned a wonderful bow, but at the end I had to use my own second bow priced Canadian $5 bought in a flea market about 20 years ago! It has a fake "Tourte" engraving---but somehow I felt I could control it better. But all worked, although it was SCARRRRY!

Anyway, my biggest challenge was to create a Cadenza worthy of this monumental concerto (it's nearly 25 minutes long), compositionally sound so that I don't ruin Jean-Claude's music (!!) but also, as a violinist composing my own cadenza one needs to SHOW OFF your ability, right? So what I did was in fact -- believe or not -- first systematically making a list of what I want to show off (!) unrelated to the concerto itself---I want to show that: 1) I can play one octave below on the G string, while playing normally on D string thus creating a ultra-wide double-stop like diminish 18th :) etc; 2) I want to show that I can play the Subharmonic 3rd--which is to say if I play an Open G I get the E (3rd below); 3) then I want to show that with those Subharmonic 3rd I can still play normal notes on D string, so again a double-stops with Subharmonic 3rd nobody has ever done before, etc. etc. Then I went back to Jean-Claude's 1st movement and went through it compositionally, picking materials that I can use or modify and made the 2nd list. When I combined these two lists, I pretty much had put together the Cadenza.

Also, since Jean-Claude Risset is world famous for using Shepard Tone: so-called "un-ending glissandi" in his compositions, I made my version of an extremely long glissando from one octave below open G (cello's G) all the way up, SIX octaves up on the E string while switching the fingerings seemlessly as possible, and sliding up on the fingerboard at the same time. It is quite tricky but again, "Wow" factor + "Homage to Risset" factors both accomplished. I thought first that this is where the orchestra should come in to end the 1st movement. Then I had thought that coming in after the long glissandi must be a bit unnerving for the orchestra+conductor, and also I wanted NOT to be jumped or cut short of this glissandi by accident. So I added a three-measure pizzicato phrase using both hands (in 4 vs. 3 rhythm, in homage to the melodic segregation technique Risset uses, I did the rhythmic one--plucking in 4 with the right hand, while plucking in 3 with the left hand on the fingerboard) after the glissandi, a kind of a way to 'get back to reality' from the Cadenza, back to the final part of the 1st movement. These are all the compositional creative process. Then I moved onto my performance process, which is an entirely different one. In any performance, even in improvisation, I typically frame myself with some kind of an 'emotional logic', to be able to deliver the music to the audience while I remain emotionally committed but also able to be objective -- that is to say that I will not break down and cry or laugh while performing since that is the job of the audience :) -- it's what I learned from reading Stanislawski's "Actor Prepares". But this is a topic for another day....

This must be hard to understand without listening to it, so when I get a recording I will try to post it somewhere... But I got so much reaction from this Cadenza and people really liked it, and so says ever-gentle and kind Maestro Risset... in any case I thought that those who really liked the cadenza maybe interested in how I composed it.

Another news is that my new solo CD of electronic music for violin came out from Bridge Records, officially on 9/18 in the US. ( In fact I was able to sell nearly 50 copies while in Japan already, thanks to YAMAHA which came and opened a little booth for me at the concerts in Tokyo. I guess I work so slowly in terms of recording -- everything in this CD was recorded in 2004-5 (!) but it was like a baby that I couldn't give birth waaaayyy past the due date :) It took me forever and ever to finish mastering. My resolution (as if that means anything!) or my hope is to start working a little faster, a faster turn-around on recordings which I really want to do a LOT more in the coming years... It was such an honor, pleasure and a learning experience working with everyone at Bridge. I had never really understood the art of recording, which I am absolutely convinced now that it is a very, very different art from performing live.... I learned SO MUCH from working with the wonderful recording engineers for this project.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

OK, let's start :)

I had set this blog up quite a while ago, but didn't get to do anything yet. I thought of starting up again for real this time, since I just had some life-altering experience (musical! not serious, bodily life -- or are they separate? :)

This week, I just was loaned a gesture tracking device developed at IRCAM in Paris called Augmented Violin. It attaches to my bow and measures the acceleration and movement of my bow, which I will now be able to use as yet another mode of interaction with the computer.

I feel that this is completely going to renew the way I interact with the computer through my violin and needed to keep track of my daily 'feelings' and thoughts about bowing, movement, sound and musical expression.