This piece is featured on NPR's and Q2's stream of 100 Composers under 40
Date Completed: Winter '02
Part of Series: PortRait
Recording: You can get it for free at SoundCloud or through this player:
Performed by: ME! (piano)
Oh, and Tolga Tüzün helped me make the recording sound better
Like all of my PortRait pieces, the title is designed to look something like a computer filename. Since these pieces (and this one in particular) tend to be concerned with the collision of humanity and mechanicity, it seemed appropriate to give them titles which look more like they're part of a computer's complex filing system. Otherwise, the title just indicates that it is the second PortRait piece I wrote and that it was completed in 2002.
This piece is a piano solo with pre-recorded electronic accompaniment. The central idea of the piece investigates the human/machine dichotomy—sometimes simply placing them in opposition; sometimes making them interpenetrate each other. At the beginning of the piece, the pianist plays a loud chord and the electronic part slowly fades in with a reversed recording of the same chord. Various electronic spurts in the track goose the player into playing snippets of the upcoming ostinato.
The chord finishes swelling, and the human pianist plays an ostinato that is decidedly mechanical while the electronic part plays a more-or-less unrelated melody that is in some sense far more "human", in that it has more rhythmic flexibility and emotional dynamics. After a brief metrical suspension, both of these ideas repeat, but with the actors switched—normalized so that the live piano is playing the human role and the machine is playing the mechanical.
After a dramatic buildup characterized by rapidly multiplying pianos, the middle section of the piece begins. Here, further ambiguities in the roles are introduced until the piano plays a much higher version of the opening chord, and again the electronics respond with the same chord reversed. This ushers in a key section of the piece wherein the piano plays repeating musical fragments that get gradually more human while the electronics fixate on single pitches—capturing them and propagating them thoughout the stereo space. These captured notes eventually coalesce into an oppressive ostinato which the piano in turn tries to capture and humanize. This ultimately fails, and the composition concludes with a death march of proliferating pianos and distorted terminal chords.
Although a number of different programs were used to generate the sounds in the electronic track, there are two that are particularly notable. First, I used a sampler to create an instrument I call the "string piano". I took regular piano sounds and removed their attacks and looped them so that they became sustained pitches more like a string instrument. Most of the "human" electronic parts are played on this constructed instrument. I also used the complex Csound programming language for some timbres. In particular, I used it's comb filter to robotocize a bunch of otherwise banal sounds and in order to get an edgier distortion.
I wrote this piece in the same computer lab at the CUNY Graduate Center in which I composed the the first PortRait piece for cello and electronics, but the circumstances were very different. That first piece was composed during a time when I was suffering writer's block and was deeply unsure about my musical place in the world. This piece was written after I'd mostly broken out of that block and had officially joined up with Anti-Social Music as both a composer and a performer. Although this piece is also cathartic for me, it is far less personal. It was the first time I started thinking about the idea of musical "humanity and mechanicity"—a concept that increasingly shaped both my compositional and academic work. Indeed, my dissertation on Nine Inch Nails written a few years later was titled Humanity and Mechanicity in the Music of Nine Inch Nails.
I wrote this piece for piano because I wanted to explore a different soundworld than the first PortRait, and because I wanted an excuse to build back up my (admittedly meager) piano skills. The interplay between the solo instrument and pre-recorded track is much more intricate in several places, and thus the piece is substantially more difficult to perform properly. There have been at least a couple of largely disastrous performances that I try and fail to forget about. In other words, I generally have to be drunker than usual to calm my nerves before a performance of this piece, and this pretty obviously makes problems more likely to occur, which makes me even more nervous at the next performance, which...& c. ad infinitum ad absurdum.
COMING SOON (maybe)