Instrumentation and Inspiration in Problem Zero

(If you don’t know what Problem Zero is, check it:

Let’s begin with two specific examples:

Tae-ch’wit’a (Korea):

Cherd Nawk (Siam):

Obviously these are of particular relevance to the saxophone writing, the rest of the instrumentation and the manner in which I approached writing for it filled themselves out naturally as a response to my ideas for the saxophone. The percussion is Korean in origin, although I made no attempt to remain faithful to the trappings of traditional samulnori performance*, and I also leave out the large gong that completes the samulnori quartet. My reasons for avoiding the complete quartet were that the samulnori is a very powerful ensemble, and also a complete one, like a gamelan. Adding instruments to that complete quartet, especially to play the kind of music I was writing in this piece, I felt that was simply too much. The gong was my first choice to drop specifically because its low, dull resonances were either lost in the fray of loud “action” sequences, or were too strong to play well with the others in quieter, slower parts.

So I have taken the techniques of Korean and Siamese woodwind instruments (really oboes in this case) and translated them for soprano saxophone, and I have taken Korean percussion instruments and effectively ignored their traditional usage. In either case I am significantly transposing the geography of one thing or the other, the technique or the instrument, towards the west. Don’t take my use of “translated” as any sort of theoretical thing combining some linguistic idea with a musical one, I’m using the term very loosely, though it is reasonable enough to say that there is a vocabulary of technique native to each instrument that can be “taught” to others to some degree.

My reasons for choosing the soprano saxophone in the first place came from many years of faithful listening to Captain Beefheart, whose records often feature his unique approach to sax playing, and the many jazz records featuring soprano sax that I’ve heard. Not that the physical playing of a saxophone has much bearing on what I can and cannot do with a computer and a sample library, but I think exposure to it in a variety of styles surely gave me a push in that direction. When I started writing with it, I realised it was lithe enough to approximate and expand upon the things I’d heard in the various traditional Asian music types I’d been exposed to.

Of course, Asian music is not the sole focus of the piece, and doesn’t even underpin it, it’s just there with a bunch of other stuff that I wanted to explore. The harpsichord is one of my favourite instruments, along with the accordion, and I don’t need much of an excuse to put either one into anything, but here my interest was in exploring its diversity of sounds. While it’s often thought of as a very bright, in-your-face instrument, it can also produce very soft sounds, dark bass tones and twinkling trebles, as well as smooth midrange harmonies with a wide range of other instruments. In addition, it is a very agile instrument, and its sharp attack, graceful decay, and accentuated release all play a part in its suitability to computer rendered music, especially of a complicated, dense and/or fast nature. So while it has nothing particularly in common with the potential or actual “Asian flavour” (a very inaccurate descriptor for a hugely diverse range of musical traditions) of the other instruments, its agility and versatility, and through these things its compatibility with pretty much anything (don’t quote me on that), made it an easy choice for the ensemble.

The psaltery was kind of an experimental choice to begin with. I had never worked with one before, and I wasn’t sure that something with such a lengthy decay would work with the ensemble or my natural stylistic inclinations. But the challenge of pulling it off was interesting and eventually it became a very comfortable part of the group dynamic. I didn’t really have a plan for it, it was just something I thought I could chop and change easily if it wasn’t working out. Ultimately it came to be the real link between the harpsichord and the saxophone/samulnori, since it can approximate certain techniques of the Chinese guzheng and similar Asian string instruments, but it also complements the harpsichord’s capabilities. Rather than the strictly tiered and strongly linked timbrel/dynamic range of the harpsichord, the psaltery gains increased granularity and thus flexibility in these areas, but comes out weaker in pitch range, having only a few octaves where the harpsichord can reach many. Together, with sensitive application, they are a robust combo.

I decided to diversify this half of the ensemble further by giving them distinct tunings that would clash, and this is another major inspiration I took from Asian traditional music, specifically the gamelan. Gamelan ensembles are uniquely tuned to operate almost as a single instrument, but they are not tuned uniformly, a certain amount of microtonal spacing between the component instruments creates the effect known as “beating.” Essentially the frequencies of each component in traditional gamelan harmonies beat against each other in a certain way, which influences the rhythmic flow of the musicians in performance. I didn’t want to have the tunings control fundamental aspects of the piece, but I did want the harpsichord and the psaltery to clash in this microtonal way, not enough to clutter the ensemble with abrasive tonal contrasts, but enough to make the instrumentation naturally lively and dynamic, thereby avoiding reliance on harmonic contrivances in the composition itself through which I would potentially write myself into many corners. These two are also clashing with the 12-TET of the soprano sax, so really you’re getting three different flavours of the twelve-tone octave that are close enough to harmonise, while also being separate enough to create interesting dynamics of colour on the fly.

For these reasons, I think the whole thing comes together in a very interesting and intricate way. Though I did not formulate all these connections before writing began, an analysis after the fact, such as this one, does give quite a few interesting points concerning the network of relations between the component instruments and the ways in which they support each other throughout the piece in a very natural manner. Thanks for reading, if you got this far, and I hope this has proved to be an informative and interesting little read.

*traditional samulnori performance:


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