A collection of microphones (photo credit)

Once I settled on the “prepared voice” concept for my SoundMakers commission, I had to figure out how to make it a musical reality. I had tested a few simple delay lines, but they weren’t great: I was either getting mechanical-sounding echoes or washy reverb. I needed something that blended more completely with the acoustic component of the voice.

To be able to fine tune my delay patch however, I first needed some kind of vocal synth. After all it would be hard to figure out if I was going in the right direction if I didn’t have a voice-like sound to plug into it. I could tune the patch to a certain extent using my own singing voice, but that wasn’t going to tell me if the patch works in a polyphonic setting—I needed either four singers at my beck and call, or a synthesizer patch with the appropriate acoustic characteristics. Read on ››

Choir Psallite Deo (Photo Credit)

For the January installment of my SoundMakers residency, I want to write about setting words to music. The piece I wrote for SoundStreams posed some interesting text-setting challenges, given the fact that it’s in Old French and every word echoes for 5–10 seconds after being sung. Text setting is an area where composers often miss the point, so I’m going to look at some of the key considerations involved, and then I’ll describe how those play out in a piece like Longuement me sui tenus.

Too many composers treat text setting like part making: an obligatory chore you have to do when you’re working with singers, but not an integral part of the compositional process. That’s a huge lost opportunity. Read on ››

Gentrification in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood. (photo credit)

Living in San Francisco, you can’t avoid the anti-gentrification rants—and my fellow artists are some of the loudest participants. The Mission District, once a bohemian enclave, has become astronomically expensive and a playground for obnoxious Tech Bros. Longstanding arts organizations in SoMa and the Tenderloin have had to relocate or shut down to make room for new luxury apartments, to the point that the city is considering a tax on new development to subsidize nonprofits. Shady landlords find underhanded ways to evict rent-controlled tenants and sell the properties at a handsome profit. Even formerly unredeemable neighborhoods of Oakland have started to succumb to baby strollers, designer boutiques, and rising rents. All the while, artists and the poor get pushed out, and any last remnant of cultural life goes along with them. Or so the story goes.

In reality, gentrification has an artistic upside, even when you factor in all that bad stuff. Gentrification is not just about the disneyfication of formerly quirky neighborhoods at the expense of anything unique or original. Read on ››

Photo CC by Anthony Kelly, posted to Flickr

I ended my last SoundMakers post by discussing how John Cage’s prepared piano studies influenced the approach I took to processing the voice in Longuement me sui tenus. Here, I want to go into a little more detail on how the electronics changed the type of vocal writing I used.

Writing for voice is not like writing for most other instruments, largely because each voice is unique. Singers take liberties with a score that other musicians wouldn’t in order to make the music work for their vocal chords. This isn’t a criticism—it’s one of the things I love the most about working with vocalists. However, it also means that I need to have that in mind when I “prepare” their voices digitally: even though I am changing the fundamental characteristics of the sound, I have to preserve the singers’ ability to adapt the piece to their individual voices. Read on ››

Machaut at a banquet (Bibliothèque National, Paris, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

In the second of my SoundMakers Composer-in-Residence posts, I want to describe the piece I wrote (to be premiered spring 2015) and why I wrote what I did. Titled Longuement me sui tenus and scored for four vocal soloists (SATB) + electronics, the piece is based on a text by 14th-century French composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut. I didn’t set out to write a piece on a Machaut text, but as I did more research on themes connected to SoundMakers, Machaut kept coming up.

Longuement me sui tenus is the first line of Machaut’s Lay de Bonne Esperance, an epic 20-minute love song, to be performed a capella by a single singer. Musically, it doesn’t fit modern ideas of what a love song is, especially considering that it addresses unrequited love: it’s monotonous, strangely chipper, ramblingly bouncy, goes on forever, and doesn’t have much variety in terms of phrasing. Frankly, it’s kind of boring and I’ve never listened through an entire recording of the piece in one sitting. Yet still, something about the poetry stuck in my head. Somehow it felt like it was the right fit for my piece, even though I didn’t like the original very much. Read on ››