Avant-Garde Composing

When I was an undergraduate — majoring in English, minoring in music — I had a professor who seemed very much out of sync with our small state college surroundings. Dr. Peacock seemed to have come from the fabric of New York City’s avante-garde composition scene and what he was doing at our college was never quite clear.

But it was with Dr. Peacock that I first learned about how a composer could push the boundaries of the norm when it came to creating music. He taught me about using synthesizers (we had this old monster of a keyboard that you had to program to make work — it was like hacking into a computer); how to cut “tape” of musical recordings and re-fashion those pieces into something new (the forerunner of remixing); and how to create atonal pieces of music. Oh, yeah, and how to open up the top of a grand piano and tinker with the insides to create strange, beautiful sounds from the percussion elements of the Grand. (This did not go over well with his teaching colleagues and more than once, I watched him argue with another teacher about why his students had their hands in the strings of the Grand and why were placing objects along the percussive hammers.)

He was all about pushing the boundaries of music. And he was all about the “doing” as much as the theory behind what was being done. I felt like an explorer moving into unknown terrain most of the time, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

I was reminded of him yesterday as I followed  a link from Larry Ferlazzo’s blog to a site by Jason Freeman called Piano Etudes, where Freeman has worked to create an interactive site in which the viewer can use fragments of his piano pieces to refashion them into something new. It’s a very visual experience, as Freeman has mapped out how the pieces of a composition might intersection, and you grab elements and pull them together. Then, you can add your piece to the gallery at his site, download the music as an MP3 file and/or get a PDF of the score (see the image above, which comes from the PDF).

Freeman writes:

Inspired by the tradition of open-form musical scores, I composed each of these four piano etudes as a collection of short musical fragments with links to connect them. In performance, the pianist must use those links to jump from fragment to fragment, creating her own unique version of the composition. The pianist, though, should not have all the fun. So I also developed this web site, where you can create your own version of each etude, download it as an audio file or a printable score, and share it with others.

I plunged right in, and created a version of Freeman’s “Reading  Poem,” which I called “Writing a Poem by Starlight.” I downloaded the mp3 file, and then write a poem inspired by the music, which has a lot of space and open air to it. Then, I recorded the poem in Audacity, with the Freeman-derivative score as the background music.

Want to hear it?

Listen to Writing a Poem by Starlight

Here is the poem:

Writing poetry by starlight,
I touch the keys
so that I may coax
the darkness
to play a duet with light,
and shimmer until morning
comes …

Give it try. Write some music. Remix and create.

Peace (in the exploration),
Kevin

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