Prelude #2 for bitKlavier
Ligeti’s Continuum is a glorious little gem. It is fascinating, fun, occasionally grotesque, an intense challenge for keyboardists, and also pretty damn cool when a machine takes it on. Ligeti said of the piece:
I thought to myself, what about composing a piece that would be a paradoxically continuous sound, something like Atmosphères, but that would have to consist of innumerable thin slices of salami? A harpsichord has an easy touch; it can be played very fast, almost fast enough to reach the level of continuum, but not quite (it takes about eighteen separate sounds per second to reach the threshold where you can no longer make out individual notes and the limit set by the mechanism of the harpsichord is about fifteen to sixteen notes a second). As the string is plucked by the plectrum, apart from the tone you also hear quite a loud noise. The entire process is a series of sound impulses in rapid succession which create the impression of continuous sound.
A kind of granular synthesis, then. Composed the year I was born (a banner year: Stockhausen’s Stimmung was also composed that year, just across the Long Island Sound from where I came to be; of course, a lot of really bad stuff also happened that year), Continuum is marked prestissimo, with a footnote that it should be “extremely fast… play[ed] very evenly, without articulation of any sort.” Perhaps… like a machine? And indeed, Ligeti himself oversaw the creation of machine versions of the piece, with a barrel organ and player pianos. Ligeti’s fascination with machines is well documented, and I share it, but more specifically, I hold a fascination with the relationship between musicians and machines—what happens at the interface between musician and machine, and what kind of music emerges when that interface is engaged with focus and intensity, both by the musician and the designer of the machine?
Even just listening to machine and musician versions of Continuum is fascinating, and I will say at the outset that picking favorites doesn’t really interest me. Here is Joyce Chen and her magnificent version of Continuum (Joyce is, coincidentally, a PhD student here at Princeton):
And then here is a mechanical version for barrel organ:
I will not impose my observations, as I don’t think they will be more insightful than what anyone might notice, I will just say that I love both of these, and find different things to listen for in each. But, this pairing isn’t really about that line of interaction between musician and machine that I was just describing; rather, we hear a musician trying to be a machine, and then a machine, well, being a machine, and the differences are revealing, if not particularly surprising.
Like Continuum, Continuing is granular in nature, with lots of repeated notes going by very quickly (though not necessarily as obsessively fast as in the Ligeti) to make a continuous texture, and I also aimed for it to continue, keeping its momentum, casting onwards, a continuum that continues. bitKlavier repeats every performed note very shortly after it is played—a simple singular delay; the tempo of these delays is very high, resulting in just over 100ms gap between the played and repeated notes, barely entrainable for the player. If there were more of these repetitions so we could group them into 4s, we end up with a very manageable tempo of 135bpm, but we don’t, so the player is left with something that is quite flexible in tempo, but also with a bit of resistance, a trailing wake; this is where the friction between musician and machine lies in this particular piece.
Here is what Continuing sounds like, in its original version, performed by Cristina Altamura on bitKlavier:
Inevitably, pianists will take the bitKlavier scores I give them and try them on the acoustic piano; this can be misleading, in that the challenges that the pieces present may not be apparent without bitKlavier, but it can also be revelatory—some of the Preludes work great on acoustic piano, and in at least one case (which I’ll write about later) the piece worked so much better on acoustic piano that I don’t think the original bitKlavier version is worthwhile—in that case, bitKlavier was generative in helping me find the original piece, but not actually the best instrument play the piece in the end.
With Continuing, I love how it works on the conventional piano, and am grateful to Cristina for showing me how well it transforms into something else on the acoustic instrument. It’s different, not quite as continuous, without the trailing wake (so without that musician/machine friction, but that’s ok!), and also equal-tempered (the bitKlavier version is in quarter-comma meantone tuning), but it is rich and beautiful. It’s also, well, just convenient, since acoustic pianos are ubiquitous. Here are two versions that Cristina recorded, each taking a different approach, primarily with articulation and pedaling:
Continuing, acoustic piano version #1
Continuing, acoustic piano version #2
While we’re at it, how about a version for harpsichord:
which is of course more akin to the Ligeti piece. This one is actually played on bitKlavier, so it has both the delays and the quarter-comma meantone tuning. I confess I love all of these versions, and, as with the Ligeti, I’m not particularly interested in picking favorites and am delighted that the piece can take on so many forms. I also don’t think of Cristina as “trying to be a machine” while playing these, and am drawn to how her own energy inhabits the piece, enhancing the sense of continuation that I’m after; it swells and subsides in ways I hadn’t imagined, and ways that a machine wouldn’t (at least not without specific instruction). On the other hand, while playing the acoustic piano, she does try to “imitate the machine,” to bring some of that wake and friction that the bitKlavier preparations insist on; Cristina had this to say:
Pianists are often reaching for and imitating the sound of something else. It is ingrained in our training, like the cultivation of a legato lyric vocal line (think Chopin's bel canto melodies), the suggestion of orchestral instruments in Beethoven sonatas, the tight sound of Baroque harpsichord when approaching any Bach, the solo-tutti alternations of a baroque chamber work, the big city traffic sounds of horns honking in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and the list goes on. I was excited when I discovered that I could recreate the compounding layers of echoes effect from the bitKlavier settings programmed for Continuing on the piano (using lush, blurry pedaling combined with quick, steely finger strokes to generate a firm tone). Imitating the machine was a fun challenge, stretching my imagination to use piano technique in new ways. Initially, we thought Adam would learn and record this prelude. His early readings had a strong percussionist's perspective that echoed minimalist performance practice. He came to believe that my technique with scales might be better suited to this piece. To me the piece was a bit more impressionistic. Once I had that sound world in my inner ear, I went back and let Adam's perspective give it a compelling propulsive rhythmic performance.
Returning to the Ligeti “meccanico” version of Continuum, for barrel organ, I made a mechanical version of Continuing; this was done by exporting the MIDI from Dorico and then in bitKlavier completely flattening out the velocities (since, ironically, Dorico attempts to “humanize” the MIDI playback by adding metric accents and subtle dynamic variations and so on) using the velocity curve feature in bitKlavier. I also increased the tempo to a slightly uncomfortable place. I tried a variety of sampled instruments, and eventually settled on this Rhodes piano, which sounds pretty great to me:
Again, I won’t impose my observations about the varying characteristics of these performances, but they do leave me with the clear sense that there is plenty of room for both human and machine performers, and that the space between them is intriguing, to say the least. This is mirrored by the room I see for old fashioned analog instruments and new-fangled digital instruments—this isn’t a zero-sum game.
For your convenience, here is a Soundcloud playlist with all five versions of the piece, and of course they will be part of the record when it is released next year.
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