the bitKlavier Commissions: Pascal Le Boeuf
the first tracks for a new record in the works...
The bitKlavier Commissions is a collection of pieces composed for bitKlavier by a group of wonderful composers I’ve known for many years. With funding from the Cone Foundation through the Humanities Council at Princeton, I was able to commission this group to explore the instrument and create some small pieces; I am SO excited by what they have written, and am learning a lot about the instrument in the process. When I first created bitKlavier, it was a direct outgrowth of my own compositional process, and after initially sharing some of the pieces I had made with/for it, I learned that others might be interested in working with it as well, but given how idiosyncratic and personal it is, it’s a fair question whether it’s toooooo much mine for others to be able to make it their own. For me, these pieces put that question to rest.
The composers are:
Pascal Le Boeuf
and the pieces are being recorded by Cristina Altamura and Adam Sliwinski.
For each piece, I am asking the composer if they would like to write something about the piece to share here; some may have lots to say, others not so much so. We’ll release the tracks individually, composer by composer, and when we’ve shared them all, we’ll put them out as an album on Bandcamp and all the usual streaming sites.
Our first pair of pieces is by Pascal Le Boeuf, recorded by Adam Sliwinski. Read on for some of Pascal’s thoughts about these pieces, and to hear the initial recordings!
Synchronic: A Sonata for Prepared Digital Piano by Pascal Le Boeuf
words below all by Pascal Le Boeuf
Composing for bitKlavier, I was of two minds: 1) I wanted to create something exciting and experimental that would encourage others to engage with bitKlavier by showing off some of its special qualities; 2) I wanted to create something approachable for beginners that would allow them to explore the instrument with minimal technical barriers. This led to two distinct pieces of music: “Synchronic” and “Monk Circles.”
“Synchronic” is named after one of the core elements of bitKlavier which uses MIDI input to trigger repeated pulses of notes—the velocity and pitch of these notes is customizable. Initially, I was interested in using bitKlavier in combination with a Disklavier piano (an acoustic hybrid-piano that can send and receive MIDI data) so decided to limit myself to using exclusively synchronic treatments due to their applicability to MIDI and acoustic reproduction.
My approach to creating a patch for “Synchronic” involved three stages of patterning:
1. The pitches…
…are based on the use of single performed notes to trigger a transposing arpeggiated pattern resulting in fast developing sequences that are easy to play and fun to improvise with. After an initial pair of leaps, a 7-note pattern repeats moving up in 5ths until the piano runs out of notes or the sequence is interrupted by another performed note.
2. The sequence…
To provide some creative variation and to keep the sequence from moving too quickly, I employed a technique I learned from listening to Elliot Cole which involves moving through a series of notes (such as a sequence or an arpeggiated chord) in an asymmetrical forward and backward pattern. Referencing the above pitches numbered in order G2=0, E3=1, C4=2, E4=3, B4=4, etc.) the following arrangements patterns appear in this composition:
0 [1,2,3] [2,3,4] [3,4,5] etc.
0 [1,2,3,4] [2,3,4,5] [3,4,5,6] etc.
0 [1,2,3,4,5,6] [2,3,4,5,6,7] [3,4,5,6,7,8] etc. *accent every 5th note
0 [1,2,3,4,5,6] [2,3,4,5,6,7] [3,4,5,6,7,8] etc. *accent every 4th note
3. The accents…
After consulting with bitKlavier programmer Mike Mulshine I decided to accent notes (*using MIDI velocity every 4th or 5th note—misaligned from the sequence pattern) resulting in ghost melodies from the accented notes.
I didn’t being composing in earnest until after the above patch was established. I then spent a great deal of time improvising with it and soon realized it quickly became very dense (many notes all the time) and sometimes overwhelming. Thus the challenge of composing with the patch emerged: How can I approach this dense content to make it listenable and multi-dimensional? How can I carve out space? Which parameters can I explore to develop ideas? How can I structure these ideas once they are established?
After recording and editing some improvised content, I began structuring it in Logic to resemble a sloppy sonata form. I don’t typically think in terms of classical forms, but was enjoying a residency at the historic home of Aaron Copland and, reading his books, I felt like I should give it a try. Here’s an annotated screenshot of the Logic piano roll to clarify the form:
Next I simply separated the two hands into two long midi regions, imported them into Sibelius, cleaned them up, and voilà!
With help from Dan Trueman and Matt Wang, I spent some time subsequently recording the synchronic MIDI data to attempt the piece with a Disklavier, but without access to a Disklavier I haven’t been able to try it. Perhaps someday Yamaha will endorse the project by donating a Disklavier for my experiments and we can make this dream come true.
Apart from the technical approach described, this music is about honoring the community based around bitKlavier. During my tenure at Princeton as a composition student, I was greatly inspired by a number of kind and talented musicians who naturally gravitated towards bitKlavier. It became a rallying topic for composers and performers interested in novel approaches to the piano (and in hanging with each other). For me, this project and the resulting composition(s) became an excuse to think of this community of musicians and meditate on their positive influence in my creative and personal life. Big thanks to Dan Trueman, Adam Sliwinski, Mike Mulshine, Florent Ghys, Molly Herron, and all my friends at Princeton for their kindness and inspiration.
Here is Adam Sliwinski performing “Synchronic,” by Pascal Le Boeuf
and here is the score, and bitKlavier gallery, if you’d like to give it a try:
“Monk Circles” is one of a number of compositions dedicated to Meredith Monk that I composed during the height of the pandemic as a way to calm down and establish a foundational emotional and creative balance. During lockdown, the way I listened to music changed. I became less interested in exciting stage-oriented music and hungered for atmospheric music—by this I mean music that establishes a consistent feeling or space. Although this feeling is sort of like Brian Eno’s ambient music, what I am describing also applies to works by minimalist composers like David Lang, jazz pianist Bill Evans, and—especially in this case—certain works by Meredith Monk.
When I heard Meredith speak about her compositional process at a Princeton colloquium, she described it as letting the music take form of its own accord, thinking of her part as that of a vessel for some external creative force. This is closely related to how one might approach improvisation. I too like to think of the music “taking form” but I see it as more of an internal discovery (i.e. self-expression and emotional processing). Either way, it can be a centering meditative process which I needed at the time.
I began a practice of doing yoga and listening to Meredith Monk, then improvising on piano to imprint the mindset I was attempting to establish in my life. This led to a number of simple improvised pieces exploring minimalist language inspired by Meredith. “Monk Circles” is one of these.
Enter bitKlavier! As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to create something approachable for beginners that would allow them to explore the instrument with minimal technical barriers. I decided to use bitKlavier to create something like a guitar effects pedal that would modify a more conventionally composed piano piece. After seeing Dan demonstrate the latest spring tuning feature, I decided to create a patch that would make a piano piece drift in and out of tune intentionally according to the harmonic progressions and note combinations present. The results reminded me of analog tape wobble/flutter. I used mostly triadic harmonies to establish strong tuning references for bitKlavier’s spring tuning function. As the piece develops, these harmonies are skewed by occasional dissonant melodic notes that float over them without ever landing together. They dance around each other with a carefully crafted awkwardness providing a chance for the spring tuning to chase them.
Here is Adam Sliwinski performing “Monk Circles,” by Pascal Le Boeuf:
The score is in the same pdf as above (scroll down in the pdf for “Monk Circles”), and here is the bitKlavier gallery, if you’d like to give it a try.
—Pascal Le Boeuf
Dan here… about the artwork: Noël’s Garden, by Judy Trueman (my mother), will serve as the foundational artwork for this album. My mother has a series of pieces where the work of another artist is imagined as a garden and then painted, in her own abstract style; in this case, the garden artist was Georges Noël. Some of my mother’s work along these lines was the basis for a piece I made many years ago, Five (and-a-half) Gardens.
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So happy about this project!