Secret Geometry in Birmingham

Pianist Jon-Luke Kirton (at left) will play my Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound this Wednesday in the  Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatory. This is the first performance in the UK.

Secret Geometry was the first piece I made in the Presser Electronic Music Studio at Penn. It dates from 1993, and used the midi technology of the time, including a DX7, a Proteus, a few other synths, and a couple of samples triggered from an Akai sampler, including my favorite – the sound of hitting a metal music stand with a pair of pliers. Sequencing was done with what was then simply called Performer (now Digital Performer) and sounds were edited with Opcode’s Galaxy universal librarian/editor (would that there was a truly functional such program on the market today – I’ve been disappointed in Unisyn and MidiQuest.)

The piece is in three movements, sort of a short sonata. (Jargon Alert. Skipping to the next paragraph is perfectly reasonable.) The opening is a set of variations, and is the first time I tried a procedure that I subsequently used in a couple of other pieces: it’s a twelve-tone piece, with 12 transpositions of a row stated in an essentially monophonic texture. The same music is then counterpointed with a similar succession of derived rows, forming aggregates. This music is repeated one more time, but now with four rows going. From the point of view of the overall form, it is like playing three choruses of the same tune. Rhythm and dynamics are treated freely. All this is rather simple by the standards of  composers more seriously invested in 12-tone possibilities. The point is not that I think a bell goes off in your head when you hear the 12th note of an aggregate – I find that a little silly. Rather, it is a way of saturating the music with a few motivic cells. As George Perle said to us in class one day, Schoenberg’s Op. 33a isn’t about 12-tone rows, it’s about four chords. The second movement is not twelve-tone, but floats a few motifs over  slowly changing clustery chords that gradually expand in register, then contract. It’s back to a simple 12-tone procedure in the last movement, a toccata that is basically a very fast single line, with a few moments where the line coalesces into three-note chords.

My point of departure for the idea of combining piano and tape is the Davidovsky Synchronism model: a tight interweaving of electronic and live sounds.  I was not particularly interested in novelty of timbre for its own sake although I have tried to employ an attractive palette of colors.  The function of the electronic sound varies throughout the piece: sometimes it fuses with the piano; sometimes it provides a subsidiary accompaniment; sometimes it is an equal partner, like a chamber music collaborator or an orchestra accompanying a concerto soloist.   As I was working on the last movement, I felt a need to bump up the tempo, just to kick it along a little more. The new tempo (sixteenths notes at quarter = 180) that sounded pleasingly lively when played by the computer turned out to sound omigod fast when played by a live pianist. Aleck Karis, who premiered the piece, handled this challenge, indeed the whole piece, brilliantly. You can hear this on the CRI recording of the piece. CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) is out of business, but theoretically New World Records has the catalog, and will burn the CRI cds on demand, though I have to say I haven’t tried this yet.

As for the title, the phrase “secret geometry” is used by art historians to describe the play of forms in certain paintings, referring to structural patterns that are employed to organize the pictorial elements.  Since the electronic medium permits a composer to focus on the micro-structure of individual sounds, as well as more customary concerns with patterns of pitch and rhythm, it seemed appropriate to choose a title that emphasizes the careful shaping of every compositional element.  But this is not to neglect the spiritual impulse of the work.  After all, the obscure motion of the Holy Spirit herself describes a secret geometry, what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness”.

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