Thursday, April 16, 2009

In 1990 I wrote a piece for choir called Canntaireachd ("caunderakt").

is a Scots Gaelic word for a system of remembering bagpipe music through sung syllables. This idea of using syllables to remember music is also found in very sophisticated systems of remembering drumming patterns, as in the classical music of India. I had always wanted to make a piece around that and the puirt-a-beul sung dance music of Scotland, which I heard in several different contexts when I was there in the late 70s. To me the most interesting interpretations I heard were produced by the Bothy Band, a legendary Irish group that was just breaking up when I came to Dublin.

Listen to Canntaireachd

Armed with Donal Lunny's dense harmonies, some old records of Scottish field recordings (the first part of the piece is based on my twisted transcription of an old Alan Lomax recording of the legendary singer Mary Morrison of Barra in the Hebrides), and memories of a bunch of performances, I sat down in 1990 for the first time with notation software and a little MIDI rig. The idea of being able to hear ideas instantly in real time as they were written and edited was a catharsis for me. Because the classical European tradition focuses on the understanding of music through the filter of notation, allowing the non-corporeal experience of music outside of time, I had always had such a difficult time getting my notated music to feel right to me when I finally experienced it in real time. This epistemological flaw in the Eurocentric musical system as taught academically is the elephant in the room in the discipline of music, as far as I'm concerned. When I made music through playing in real time, repeatedly going through things in performance to create, revise, and tune a composition (starting with the Ellipsis experiment of the 1980s) I could get closer to what I was trying to do, but the vast number of repetitions of ideas in this process was ultimately numbing to me. I could and did produce work through these methods but both seemed to me inadequate to represent what I could imagine.

With this new technology, I was able to create music notation that like canntaireachd or solkattu could be experienced in time; I could not only properly revise and edit my ideas based on how they actually felt in real time instead of how I thought that they would feel through symbols, but I could also create textures that could make a machine swing. What better way to test this than on a group of classically-trained singers, singing an unfamiliar language of dance music? Once the piece speeds up into the Brachan Lom part, I stay only tangentially connected to any actual traditional music and derived most of this part of the piece from playing the fiddle, ending up in a place that is as much South Africa as it is Scotland.

Working with digital audio editing in the modern computer-based recording environment has been the next quantum leap for me, where music can be preserved and altered and the experience in time can be worked as though it were sculpture in sound. I have found the visual representation of sound files in a digital editing environment to be a new form of notation, actually. Not that traditional European notation isn't useful--it is enormously useful in causing performances and capturing extremely complex performance information--but these new technologies have transformed the way a composer can create music to such a degree that it is clear to me that the tired systems of European harmonic analysis and counterpoint are hopelessly anachronistic as the sole foundation of professional music education. Musicians learn how music works in spite of that education, not because of it.