Posts Tagged ‘electronics’


  • Instrumentation: SATB, SuperCollider
  • Duration: 16'00
  • Commissioned by SoundStreams Canada

Program Notes

An ensemble of four unaccompanied singers is not a particularly common arrangement nowadays, but it just happens to have been one of the most popular configurations of medieval Europe. Therefore, when I started on Longuement me sui tenus, I decided to use a text by 14th-century French composer/poet Guillaume de Machaut as the genesis for my piece. Machaut has long been one of my favourites, and I was happy to have an excuse to work with his words. The text of my piece is drawn from his song Le lay de bonne esperance and is sung in Old French.

However, I purposefully chose not to listen to Machaut’s piece before starting on mine, and I haven’t included any of his musical materials. I also haven’t used the text in its original form: instead, I cut it up into fragments that draw out alternate meanings, even going so far as to dig up reference texts on medieval French grammar so I could adjust some of the phrases and conjugate verbs differently. Putting materials in new contexts is a longstanding interest of mine, so I wanted to go beyond simply setting his text to music. Instead I set out to reinvent the lyrics—to use his voice but tell a different story altogether.

Similarly, I wanted to transform the ensemble of singers into something beyond the everyday a cappella group. To do this, I built an electronic patch in SuperCollider that creates an ever-shifting “sustain pedal” of sorts for each singer. Then, as I composed, I used the patch to test every phrase of music, painstakingly verifying that I was treating the combination of “singer + sustain pedal” as a single instrument, not just slapping sound effects onto regular vocal music after the fact.

As such, I think of this piece as having been written for “prepared voice,” analogous to John Cage’s prepared piano. Cage put pieces of material into the piano strings, listened to the sounds they made, and then composed something expressly designed for the new, alien sonorities that wafted from his soundboard. I took a similar approach with the prepared vocal sounds in this piece, such that the fused sonority of voice with electronics is integral to the conception of the musical lines.

Gardiner Museum
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Culminating my SoundMakers composer-in-residence position with SoundStreams, I’m premiering a new piece, Longuement me sui tenus, in Toronto on March 20. A vocal quartet for electronically prepared voices, this piece is based on an Old French text by 14th-century poet Guillaume de Machaut.

I’ve been blogging about the piece on the SoundMakers website for the last few months, describing my compositional process, text-setting considerations, and the technology involved. The electronics processing changes the fundamental nature of the vocal sound, which forced me to write very different vocal lines. The end result is a lush, reverberant piece where layers of harmony cascade over each other, and I’me very excited to see it come to life.

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. (more…)

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. (more…)


  • Instrumentation: m-sop, laptop, perc qrt
  • Duration: 15’00
  • Performers:Amy X Neuburg & the William Winant Percussion Ensemble
  • Commissioned by the Other Minds Festival

Program Notes

Work Around the World is the third Around the World piece that I have written, taking a single word—in this case work—and presenting it in a wide variety of languages. In each piece in this series, I explore the nuance of meaning that the word has across languages and contexts.

For this piece, I chose four different connotations of the word work, which I’ve translated as work, toil, solve, and hone. Not all languages used have exact analogues for these connotations, but in each case I found the best fit by consulting with native speakers.

The mezzo-soprano sings each of these words in 12 different languages. Her voice is also looped and delayed strategically throughout the piece to create counterpart and harmonizations. This ma- terial is juxtaposed against four percussionists playing glockenspiels, xylophones, and non-pitched percussion.

This instrumental setup provided me with an unusual and interesting palette that stretched my materials in new directions. For instance, the mezzo is the lowest pitched instrument in the ensemble and the only sustaining pitched instrument, making any traditional notion of voice + accompaniment impossible. On the other hand, pairing the mezzo with a looping device creates an “ensemble” that contrasts to the four percussionists. As such, we find ourselves with two roughly equal groups of very different sounds. The dialogue between the groups becomes the main focus of the piece as they “work” through the process of developing the material.