Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Andrew Swanson - May 2nd, 2010


Prelude and A Storm for Synthesizers, Voice and Drums 

About the composition 

      Hey there, Racer gang (and newcomers alike).  I’m going to go ahead and apologize for the parenthetical discourse in advance, but when I write in the same way that I think, it just sort of comes out this way (see?).  OK, so in order to explain this Sunday’s piece (which I have composed, which is why I find myself writing this here essay), I must give you a bit of a historical account of how it came to be. 

      I had been borrowing Kristian Garrard’s Korg DS-8 and just sort of fiddling around with it at night before I passed out.  Generally, when I get ahold of an older keyboard it sort of feels like digging through a gigantic treasure chest (you know, with a few hunks of fool’s gold here and there, but by-and-large full of gems).  I initially gravitated toward the outwardly hilarious patches (slap bass, steel guitar, ad nauseam), and many of them have become the basis for some of my other recording projects.  But, as I burrowed more deeply into this machine, I began to realize that beneath the pleasing veneer of knee-slappers, there were actually some incredible sounds in the old storage bank. 

      One thing led to another and some night or maybe another, I stumbled upon this square wave patch.  In terms of sound, a square wave is naturally rich in harmonics.  To me, the compelling aspect of this particular patch is that in addition to using the square wave as its fundamental building block, it also allows the player to activate different sets of harmonics within the wave by depressing the keys at different speeds.  For the sake of elucidation: pressing down the C key hard enough will squeeze an E out in addition to the fundamental tone (not to mention a bunch of other notes in the harmonic series).  Also at your command on this console are various sliders and what-have-yous that allow you to control other malleable parameters of the sound such as timbre, attack and decay. 

      Because of all that business, the piece was largely inspired by the pre-programmed, harmonic-producing velocity sensitivity that was built into the patch by some thoughtful synthesist at Korg in 1985 or so. That being said, the piece is predominantly oriented around exploiting the capabilities of the synthesizer, and the main focus is sound (as opposed to rhythmic vitality or you know, whatever else).  In terms of textural contour, the piece oscillates between periods of harmonic density and also thinness.  After the keyboard “prelude” for has finished, the rest of the instruments layer in very gradually.  While this layering will necessarily result in increased volume, the guiding compositional principle is the augmentation of textural density.  Things will certainly get loud at a prescribed arrival point, but know that the thunderous denouement is a direct consequence of textural development, and isn’t necessarily because the musicians are playing more loudly as the piece goes on (loud for the sake of loud is ok sometimes, too, but it’s not really what I had in mind).  You’ll also probably notice that I’ve taken the sort of “man in the middle” sort of approach to the orchestration A Storm, in that my own part stays generally constant (as it is composed) while the other members of the ensemble are charged with the task of improvising and moving the piece forward until we all dive into the territory of fully collective improvisation. 

The plan for the evening 

      I wrote this piece to reflect a very specific emotion, or maybe it’s a specific set of emotions.  In either case, the text will probably give the emotional content away right off of the bat, but I suppose the point is that I’m not exactly trying to hide the intentions behind the piece.  That being said, I would like to refer to a comment that Aaron Otheim made after the very first Racer Session (with regard to of some of the improvisations that have taken place recently): 

Described more or less objectively: 

      1) atonal ideas by everyone, often presented in either very short attacks or long  tones (squawking, warbling, moaning, etc.). 

      2) a dynamic contour that involves building (i.e. getting louder) into a “groove” or  some culmination of an idea that people have latched onto, which inevitably  dissolves after so long or becomes the finale statement of the improv. 

Described in very subjective terms (think: if it were a movie soundtrack): 

      1) the music is often eerie, spooky, angsty 

      2) …or aggressive, rock-ish 

Obviously, this does not apply to all (or even all that many) of the improvisations that have been happening over the weeks that we’ve been holding these sessions.  In working together to progress artistically as individual musicians and in endlessly permuted ensembles, I have been absolutely astonished at so much of the music that I have heard over the last few months.  But, I still think that we could take a step back again and sort of try to focus on Aaron’s comment a bit more in future jams.  I know that when I get up there to play and allow myself I feel insecure for even ONE femtosecond, I find that it’s pretty easy to default to one of the zones that Aaron mentioned (and I do it all the f—ing time!!!).  Insecurity (even if momentary) is problematic in improvisational music (and is the root of all evil otherwise, but that would require another essay).  In the hopes of ridding ourselves of this insecurity and at the risk of sounding reallllllllly holistic, I want each improvisation for the evening to be rooted in a very specific emotion.  You know, starting off with everyone on the same page.  Imposing these sorts of guiding principles seems to work well with concrete musical ideas, but for this session I’m more interested in how a group of people will collectively portray a specific feeling.  Maybe it’ll be successful, maybe it won’t.  Worth a shot, though.

      One improvisation that blew my mind a couple of weeks ago was when Ivan pointed at one of the more disturbing paintings in the O.B.A.M.A. room and told the group to “play how that makes you feel” or something to that effect.  I’m certain that some other limitations or structures were imposed upon the piece as a framework, but I felt that each player’s contribution to that performance reflected a generally uniform feeling.  For the first several groups, I will have selected a couple of discrete pieces of emotional source material.  I realize that even something as pedestrian as telling everyone to think about their favorite toy as child will resonate differently with each individual musician, but as a general aesthetic launch pad, things like that should be sufficient (don’t worry, I’ll try to avoid being that trite when it comes down to the real deal). 

A Departure Gift 

      As a parting note, I would like to leave you with an ostensibly irrelevant little passage from one of the very first books I found laying around on the floor in the basement in the music building called The Enjoyment of Music (and an accompanying personal edits/a note): 

      “The printed lines of a play do not indicate the many nuances of expression–– the continual shifting of pace, the changes in emotional tension, the accenting of one word rather than another, the pauses, inflections, movements, and gestures––that create a living character.  It is here that actor and director make their personal contribution, as a result of which one performer’s interpretation of a role differs markedly from another’s The notation of music is even more limited in this regard than language.  The composer is able to set down the pitches and their values in time; he/she indicates whether a passage should go fast or slow, soft or loud; and he/she may add other details that serve as clues to the character of the piece.  But the life of the music, its mood and feeling, cannot be written down in symbols.  This is where the sympathetic imagination of the performer comes into play, his/her intuition, his/her sense of timing, above all his/her understanding of style.  The performer makes the notes come alive, he/she unlocks the composer’s intention; his/her temperament serves as a kind of colored glass through which is refracted the creator’s.

      There is no single recipe for the proper performance of a work.  Two great artists will differ in their interpretation of the same piece, yet each will be convincing on his own grounds.  The great artist is one who strikes an exceedingly difficult balance.  He/she asserts his own personality sufficiently to re-create and project the music effectively.  At the same time he/she enters imaginatively into the spirit of the creator and reverently transmits the latter’s intention.

      It is the performer’s high duty to transform the symbols on the page of music into glowing sound.  To this task he/she brings the insights that talent, training, and years of experience have given him/her.  When he/she discharges it well he/she makes a real contribution to our musical experience; he/she becomes the vital link between the composer and ourselves.” 

BUT WAIT!  We’re totally spoiled as spontaneous improvisors here, gang, in that we are both the composer and the performer in one body.  So, in taking advantage of that direct conduit that you (the player) have between yourself and yourself (the composer), consider the limitless depth and breadth of emotion beyond angst/aggression that you can draw from to transform the symbols in your own heart into glowing sound  Of course, working side-by-side and in the heat of the moment amidst a constellation of other spontaneous composers is another story.  But to beat an old dead meat horse here: if your initial intentions are clear, the rest will fall into place.  It juuuuuuuuuust works! 

The performers are: 

Andrew Swanson - Korg DS-8 and voice 

Aaron Otheim - Korg M3/voice 

Chris Icasiano - drums/voice 

Evan Woodle - drums/voice