bellona

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bellona was inspired by Brian Eno's Music for Airports and Samuel Delaney's Dhalgren.

I composed this piece using Common Music. It was my first, and so far only effort with Common Music. I'm not a programmer, so my understanding of Lisp was fairly shaky to begin with. I absolutely enjoyed using Common Music to generate the score file for CSound in Bellona.

I have had plans for more Common Music pieces, but I just haven't found the time to explore it more deeply yet. I was using Mac OS 9 at the time (which shows you how long ago this was), rather than OS X. Lisp support for the Mac was a bit hard to find for me, but once I got it set up properly on my G4 at work, things went smoothly. Fortunately for anyone wishing to use CM now, there is a wonderful book by Rick Taube. Eventually, my plan is to work through this book and try to actually understand what I am doing! The book does a good job of explaining common music, but I have another book that I used to write this piece. It's more of a straight-ahead common lisp book, but it taught me a lot.

I had the idea to borrow Brian Eno's concept of Generative Music. It's probably best to follow that link to get the idea straight from the composer's mouth, so to speak, but as I saw it at the time, generative music is the idea of setting up a sound then having it repeat at various intervals against other sounds. This appealed to me primarily because it is a similar idea to Steve Reich's phase music and early tape pieces in which a recorded sound was looped against itself with one loop gradually slowed down. The resulting mosaic of sound is stunning.

Eno's take on this was to have one sound (three voices singing, or an electric piano chord, etc.) repeat at regular intervals. For example, the voices might repeat every 74 seconds while the electric piano might repeat every 92 seconds. What happens is that none of the sounds ever quite line up into a pattern. Or the pattern becomes so excruciatingly long that the listener gives up trying to follow it. And yet, the repetition itself is soothing and familiar.

My own take on this idea was to use motives that repeated at irregular intervals. I'm not really a "process" composer in the way that Reich or Eno (at least in Music for Airports) are. Rather, I tended to use this idea to construct subsections of the larger work in Bellona.

I used three CSound instruments for my orchestra. Two of these instruments are quite simple. Common Music was used to "generate" the time intervals at which each motif would repeat. Where I diverge from the "process" of generative music is in the fact that I fudged a bit in when these time intervals are changed. For a true "process", the time intervals would be set up initially and then be left to run their courses. I was more involved in the decision making process than a "process composer" would have been. For me, that's no big deal. I'm writing music that I want to write. I'm borrowing Eno's idea, not copying it.

You can look at the orc and sco files if you like. You can also download them along with the .lisp files I used for Common Music. The sco file in particular is an ugly mess, but you can get the idea of how it was constructed by looking at the lisp files.

Bellona was the fictional apocalyptic city in Samuel Delaney's Dhalgren. This book was wacky. I absolutely enjoyed it, though. ...to wound the autumnal city... I thought it would be nice light reading for a beach vacation that year, but I was wrong. It's one of those Ulysses stream-of-consciousness-type books. The subject matter is quite "loopy". Events come and go in shifting temporal order. One can't make heads or tails of where one is in the story most of the time. It's thoroughly disconcerting, but thoroughly wonderful.

I won't go into great depth about why I loved this book so much. Suffice it to say, there are things in the book that I can relate to fairly easily. Again, there was a rough time in my life that this book helped me through. It gave me a sense that I wasn't the only one lost. Even if I was relating to a guy in a dystopian reality. I sort of felt like I existed in a dystopian reality.... That probably ought to scare the hell out of you.... Nonetheless, the cyclical stream of events and thoughts in Delaney's book seemed a perfect fit for the music I was trying to write. In a sense my piece was inspired by Dhalgren before I even read it.