The Time It Takes for an Idea to Speak…

While at the Warsaw Autumn I was reminded of a lot of compositional ideas that I had not thought about actively in quite some time, some as back as far as when I was first seriously starting to compose in college. One observation that was particularly influential for me was in considering harmonic and inharmonic sounds and how that works on higher scales of time (or levels of form). In thinking about inharmonic and harmonic sounds, I found that they are really not so different, just that with harmonic sounds the fundamental frequency is audibly present, while with inharmonic sounds the fundamental frequency is audibly missing.

For the frequencies given in an inharmonic sound, one normally states them as being a fundamental with non-whole number or irrational multipliers to show the relationship of other frequencies present. However, one can see them in a different light as a sound where the fundamental isn’t present.

Let’s say a sound is broken down into frequencies 500, 700, 1300. This can be stated as a fundamental of 500 and then harmonics at 1.399 and 2.6 times the fundamental: a common way to state the present frequencies when working with additive synthesis. However, to look at it as a sound with the fundamental frequency missing, one can state it as the 5th, 7th, and 13th partial above a missing 100 hertz fundamental.

With a harmonic sound, the period in which the content of the sound repeats is audibly present and is the duration of one cycle of the fundamental. If one considers all of the frequencies each as an identifiable pattern, then the total pattern will repeat itself every period of the fundamental, regardless of phase of frequency.

However, for the inharmonic sound, the period in which the content of the sound repeats is not present and will always be a duration longer than any of the periods present in the audible frequencies. In the inharmonic example above, the pattern of the frequencies repeats every period in the 100 hertz missing signal.

This way of looking at sounds greatly affected my way of working with music on all levels of time. In my listening experience, I found that harmonic sounds naturally spoke more quickly than inharmonic sounds. I found that with sounds like bells or gongs, that the natural thing when hitting them was to let them ring and have a long decay, and that it would take longer for my ear to adjust to really hear the sound of the bell than it did for harmonic sounds.

Taking this observation and applying it to higher levels of musical time structures, I found that harmonies which were complex were dissonant when held short amounts of time but became softer in quality (more consonant) when they were present for a longer amount of time.

On a different level which I’ve been most involved with, for complex time relationships and layers of time to speak, I found that using simpler material and at slower rates allowed establishment of different temporal layers to occur, while not giving ideas enough time for the layer of time to speak would result in the composed layers to bind together into a single layer perceptually.

The observation on harmonic and inharmonic sounds has long held an impression on me and continues to affect my own way of working with music today. This observation has not lead to the formulation of hard rules to music, but rather has acted as one of a number of guiding impressions for me when composing music. (Afterall, rules derive from taste, do they not?)


The weather here has turned much cooler the past week: 60’s in the day, 40’s in the night. Having lived in San Francisco the past four years before coming to Warsaw, it’s strange but serenely beautiful to see the leaves turning colors and to have the sensation of Autumn. Strange to think the last I remember Autumn like this was four years ago during my first time in Poland in Krakow…
I had grown up mostly on the East Coast, earlier in New Jersey and later in Georgia. After college I moved to New York for a few years before moving out to San Francisco. I remember being a young kid living in New Jersey and playing in the woods, everything covered in leaves, the sound they made as you walked through them, the smell… In Georgia, Autumn was different: not so many leaves but mostly pine needles, which seemed much trickier to rake than leaves. A different smell and color, and not quite the same sound. Autumn in New York was more about the quality of light than the color of leaves. A beautiful time to walk around, so comfortable amongst the people, the buildings looked beautiful with a deep blue sky and apple cider from the farmer’s market in hand…

Living in San Francisco the past four years, Autumn was a different experience. The quaity of light, the days shortening, yes, but a warming up from Summer and I can remember some of the most beautiful days walking to work up Polk Street back when my old company was at Ghirardeli Square, walking slowly with a cup of tea and the water in view…

Sitting here and looking out from our apartment to see the colorful trees and beautifully rich light, I’m happy to have another experience of Autumn, with many memories of Krakow, New York, and childhood in New Jersey coming to mind. After San Francisco, it’s fascinating to see the world with seasons again, to feel the days growing quieter…

Categorized as General

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – Festival Retrospect

The past week at the Warsaw Autumn was really a fantastic experience: 16 concerts in 8 days, a wide variety of modern music, and a great deal to think about. I was very glad that the focus of this year’s festival was on Polish Music as I have been very interested in a number of Polish composers for quite some time and had wanted to become more familiar with the music going on in this country. It’s really amazing to me to think about the festival as an institution, as something that has been going on here every year, how composers here have opportunities in not only getting performances but also to hear a great deal of new music from both within the country and abroad. It was great seeing the composers who would have their pieces performed also showing up to just about every concert as well, just as interested in hearing these concerts as everyone else.

Speaking of everyone else, how great is it to see not only younger people at these concerts but also women and men of all ages, including many older people as well as children! Not only that, to feel a real genuine interest in the music as opposed to the pageantry of being at a classical music concert. I imagine some of the older people may very well have been attending these concerts for the past 50 years…

Thinking about the Polish composers specifically, I found that most of the composers had a really good taste for extended techniques and thought how the composers learning composition here must have access to a great deal of knowledge and experience from the older generations. It was interesting to see how a lot of the composers seemed to greet and know each other and how that there was a sense of community. I never felt that sense of a real music community anywhere else where composers, performers, and listeners seemed to be in tune. (It may very well be just an impression really and I do not know if that is how it is, but even if not, it was a very nice impression to have…)

Regarding the music, looking back and reviewing on a piece by piece basis, there were only a handful of pieces where I felt a really strong listening experience. However, overall I think the quality of composition and technique was on a high level, and if anything found that a good number of the composers weren’t playing it safe and were really pushing for something in their work and had a lot of great moments in them. Also, I think some composers may very well have achieved exactly what they were trying to achieve, but perhaps simply not what I am interested in exactly. I think when you can go to concerts and hear pieces where you’re not spending most of your time criticizing compositions on basis of form and technique but rather spending time contemplating aesthetic values and the efficacy of music, it’s a good place to be.

Thinking back, I also noticed that for pieces that used electronics, I found that as a general trend I did not care for pieces which involved live processing of performers, those with tape parts could go either way depending on the content, and those where electronics parts were used more like instruments left the most impression on me. I think it’s just a matter of my personal taste, but it was interesting for me to put it so concretely to myself and to get to know my own taste a bit better. Of course this is just a general trend for myself and tastes change, but good to know nevertheless.

Being at these concerts reminded me a lot of being back in college when there were far fewer distractions and music really was more omnipresent in daily life. Spending a week doing almost nothing but listening to concerts and really listening to music (as opposed to just casually listening) made me feel very opinionated but also very focused, rejuvenated, and inspired to work.

I think it’s a very good thing to listen carefully and to expose one’s self to as much music as possible, even if one finds it flawed or completely flat in experience, as one often learns a great deal from these pieces and about one’s own self. It’s good to think the experience all the way through too, that if you did like a piece or if you didn’t like a piece, to think why you did or didn’t like it, why someone may have wrote it, to try to think of the piece and the experience of the piece from a different point of view, from a different person’s shoes.

Overall I found the Warsaw Autumn to be a really fantastic and inspiring experience. A wide variety of wonderfully performed music, great venues for listening, and a great deal to think about. I am sure that the experience will stay with me quite some time and hope that we will have more opportunities to attend this excellent festival in the future.

Right on, Ruskin!

Just read this on the quote of the day:

What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.

John Ruskin

Right on, Ruskin!


Categorized as General

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – XVI

The final concert of this year’s Warsaw Autumn festival was orchestral music at the National Philharmonic Concert Hall. In the end it was sort of a very strange concert and for me a rather anti-climactic way to end the festival. The pieces performed were:

  • Roman Haubenstock-Ramati – Symphonie ‘K’
  • Juraj Beneš – Piano Concerto No. 3
  • Eugeniusz Knapik – Introduction to Mystery

Some notes on the pieces:

Haubenstock-Ramati- incredible writing, very physical sound, string glissandi writing particularly excellent, great sense of timing and form; end felt little flat; would have liked to have heard it in a louder hall as the sound felt muted and wondering if it’s inherent to the writing (frequencies canceling out) or just that our seats weren’t in the best place for acoustics(more likely I think); didn’t have a strong listening experience but recognized there was a lot there and the listening situation sub-optimal; want to listen to this piece again

Beneš-circus of a piece, number of quotations; not serious in tone but not very entertaining either; not really sure what this piece is after and even if it achieved it if it’d do much for anyone; orchestra often covered the piano (partially the performer but I think more so in the writing), was not very interested in the piano part and was more curious about the cimbalon than anything else; did not find the form well shaped; seemed trying to be witty

Knapik- mostly tonal, lots of big chord progressions of full orchestra and choir; seemed to keep on going but without draw to do so; lot of ideas reminded me Stravinsky “Firebird” and Wagner in general; didn’t like text setting for baritone(English sounds strange sung in most cases for me though), could have been performer as he seemed a bit out of tune at times; some parts had Hollywood film-score feel

Not much to say on this concert except I’d like to listen to the Haubenstock-Ramati again (and more of his work in general, it’s been a while since I heard much of his work and even then I didn’t spend enough time with it or learning about him). After so many concerts this week where I felt there was a lot to think about I felt strange to leave a concert pretty unmoved.

Overall though I found the festival a very successful one with a great deal to think about, but will reserve that for another entry when I have a little more time to review and contemplate…

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – XV

The 12:00pm concert (well, 12:30pm, as it was delayed due to the traffic from the construction on the main street in Praga) yesterday at the Koneser Vodka Distillers was all for percussion quartet or trio. I have to say that before going to the concert my expectations were not so high as I had never really been into percussion music but this concert really changed my mind as it was a truly excellent concert performed by a fantastic group (Schlagquartett).

The pieces performed were:

  • Nicolaus A. Huber – Herbstfestival
  • Caspar Johannes Walter – Luftspiegelung
  • Guo Wenjing – Parade
  • Younghi Paagh-Paan – Tsi-Shin-Kut
  • Encore: Guo Wenjing – Stück

Some notes on the pieces:

Huber- very nicely composed music, wide range of sounds and all very well used, blanket with water was inventive but also every effective(performer had towel in water and raised it from the water, the water dripped from the towel producing sound); earlier the very quiet sections had to compete with car sounds and sirens from the street but later in the piece I found myself so focused on the piece that I didn’t even hear the street sounds, very serious tone and very controlled/disciplined, very evocative, great contrast of soft and loud as well as movement between sections; very focused and quite nice!

Walter- beautiful piece, gorgeous sound world; primary sounds were bowed vibraphone, stroked wine glasses, blown bottles, whistling and wonderful use of simple electronic (sine and triangle) oscillators that were active for most of piece; oscillators faded in and out(but not completely out, receded into background), holding a pitch, slowly moving to another; very nice blend of sounds, quiet and introspective

Wenjing- fun, very active, lively groove, impressed with variety of sounds; three players around six small gongs on table, often they would play and share gongs using different mallets, seemed tricky for each to get out of each others way; a piece both to hear and to see performed

Paagh-Paan- percussion and electronic tape; not as focused, used a lot of wind chimes(not sure what they are called) made of glass, wood, shell, metal; electronic tape part was alright; didn’t find the ideas had strong enough identity nor felt they were used long enough, having a gestural quality; nice piece but perhaps should have been performed earlier in the concert

Wenjing – short, similar in style to Parade, three performers with instruments crouching on ground; false-ending where they threw sticks in air and covered their heads; audience clapped then funny gestures hitting ground and moving body to make percussive sounds and ends with one person yelling; very fun and humorous ending

It was very interesting to hear such a wide variety of pieces be so well done but each in their very own ways and each creating their own unique experiences. I appreciated both the intense focus of the compositions and what the composers must have put in to create that, as well as the performers ability to not only play the piece but truly perform them to such a high level. Before this concert I found most percussion pieces I had heard to be extravagant and virtuosic but was gladly surprised to hear music with such depth. A wonderful concert of excellent music.

Critical Mass

Just a quick note: the other day after the Krauze opera we had walked out after the end of the performance to see the street full with bicyclists going down the street and was happy to find that they do Critical Mass here.  It was always nice to see it in San Francisco and seeing it here makes me think we should do it sometime when we get back to California…

Categorized as General