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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