A Complex Music Composition Project based on Nova Express by William S . Burroughs (part 1)

This is my first post since last summer – but I was not idle – too busy, actually, for spending much time writing articles.

I built an installation at the Hilltown New Music Festival, based on the subject of what was still my most recent post until earlier today.

I then went on to program my own tool kit for Granular Synthesis, which widened the scope of what I can do with my Cork City Gamelan samples – the Cork City Gamelan can now play drones and melodies live.

I also started working with Massimo Davi on one of his projects – very exciting, and an important practical learning experience – it snaps me out of my common “self-centric” mode … which I _do_ enjoy, nevertheless, there _is_ a lot of inspiration to be had from collaborations. It actually works a little like genetics, I reckon, or evolution, even.

But most importantly, I prepared my main music composition and fixed media production project for the year: a substantial piece of work based on Nova Express by William S. Burroughs. I am doing it all with Granular Synthesis. I shall explain in a future article.

My first experience of listening to Granular Synthesis was Riverrun by Barry Truax – a 1980s piece of music, but I did not get to hear it until a few years into the current century… and I knew immediately that I had to learn how to do it.

Riverrun is based on Finnegans Wake (I never knew, and I just double checked it: without apostrophe is actually the correct spelling). For years (decades, even) I had wanted to do something based on Nova Express, and here was THE obvious technique for doing it. Shooting for something on a similar scale, I did several tests and attempts over the years, using all kinds of programs and plug-ins, leading to lots of false starts, however: in order to match and exceed what Truax had done, I needed to program my own tool kit.

I had to learn some basic Max/MSP patching – a daunting undertaking at first, and I tried to get by for a while using AudioMulch for processing and playback with Max for custom MIDI applications … but only for a while. The work of Barry Truax was the minimum benchmark for my own efforts, and the minimum requirement for achieving it was to learn MSP processing. The results I achieved took me nicely beyond what Truax did – they HAD to – considering that HE did it over 30 years ago!

I also got permission to use readings of the text as a source for some of the sounds. I don’t believe anybody would have sued me for making “fan art”. Dozens of people publish similar work every week. But there is a feel good factor attached to being able to say something like: “lyrics © William S. Burroughs, used by permission” … and to have offered and paid a token fee for it. It is the “proper way”. I was dealing with a large agency. It took me more than five weeks to get somebody to listen to me, and then I felt I was being put on the spot, being asked to make an offer. Thanks, Bernard and Ian, for your help with it.

Unusual for my music: this piece has no title yet. Usually, I have at least a tentative or working title before I start sketching or recording. Anyway, it is mainly about control, manipulation, and about the instruments of control.

I made three related pieces along the way and posted them to Soundcloud:

Escalate, Walk Away … And Say Nothing

Subliminal Entrainment

Phun with Phil Spector’s voice reading from Nova Express


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3 Responses to A Complex Music Composition Project based on Nova Express by William S . Burroughs (part 1)

  1. Mick Shanahan says:

    This does indeed all sound really cool and promising.

  2. Bruce Hickey says:

    Very interesting work. I’m excited that you are including granular synthesis in your work…I anticipate great results! An interesting inspiration as well. I have never read Burroughs, but I note his influence on the arts. Must add reading this to my bucket list.

  3. Massimo Davi says:

    It is a pleasure and a privilege, for me and Monica, to work with you Günther. Congratulation for your project on Nova Express and for the development of your Granular Synthesis tool which we had the opportunity to follow from its early days!