In a coalescence, two or more things become one, larger. Rand Steiger has been working with coalescences of instrumental performance and electronic transformation for more than a decade, during which time most of his pieces, whether for soloist, ensemble or orchestra, have involved computer processing. The effect is not so much to estrange the sound as to enlarge it, to expand the space within which the musician can perform, to add to the scope and generosity that are among Steiger’s characteristics, along with his evident joy in sound.
However, amalgamations of other kinds go back even further in his music. Timbral mixtures, where instruments playing the same note combine to make a single sound, can provide points of departure or moments of finally achieved togetherness. Perhaps above all, though, what counts in his music is harmony – not the harmony of textbook tonality but that which comes from the overtone structure of sounds, a harmony that not only seals chords but gives fluency and rightness to melodic gestures. It is also a harmony that gains some of its zest from instrumental projection, there being very little vocal music in Steiger’s output, which now goes back three decades.
A native of Queens, he moved as a student from the Manhattan School to CalArts, and has remained in southern California, teaching at CalArts and then, since 1987, at UCSD, as a key member of an adventurous faculty. He was also founding artistic director and conductor of the California EAR Unit, and has conducted new music with other orchestras and ensembles. His own recent works include, besides this evening’s cycle, several larger scores that have to do with the earth (Ecosphere, 2002; Cryosphere, 2008), suggesting that this is a composer for whom coalescence, or at least collaboration, is a matter of survival.
-Introduction by Paul Griffiths
Coalescence: a cycle of six new works with electronics
I have long been fascinated by the way we perceive separate sounds fusing into one – how a complex contrapuntal texture can become a continuum when heard in a reverberant environment, or how tones, precisely tuned, fuse into a single timbre. This delicate perceptual cusp between a chord and a timbre is of particular interest to me, and it is one of the reasons I draw on the natural intervals of the harmonic series as my primary guide for pitch structures. Likewise, my desire to explore the blurring of events has led me to work with real-time signal processing, so that I may alter the acoustic environment in which my music is heard over the course of a piece.
My recent compositions have been characterized by this striving for synthesis through an embrace of instrumental virtuosity, a hybrid approach to harmony (exploring the intersection of tempered and just intonation), and the integration of digital audio signal processing to enrich orchestration. Through these means I hope to create a musical landscape that sounds novel yet feels natural.
Composed specifically for ICE, Coalescence Cycle explores the concept of fusion through performance. Some of the constituent pieces show off individual members of the group as gifted, charismatic soloists, each with a unique musical personality and set of virtuosic capabilities. Other pieces depend on the dynamic chemistry ICE members have when playing together in various combinations, retaining their individual attributes while also merging synergistically. Just as musical elements may fuse in our perception, so do these individual musicians coalesce into a single inspired unit.
The audio signal processing is the result of my longstanding collaboration with my friend and colleague Miller Puckette, who has made some of the most important contributions to the development of computer music technology. In all of the pieces, the musicians play into microphones. The signals are then routed through a computer running Puckette’s “Pd” software. The sound of the instruments is transformed in various ways and then disseminated out of eight speakers located throughout the auditorium. This setup enables me to dynamically vary the acoustical conditions in which you hear the music, and also to move the sound around the room, often following the dynamic shape of the musical gestures. Among the processes that I work with are resonant filters (a kind of simulated piano resonance provoked by the ensemble’s instruments), delays and echoes, and just-tuned harmonizing that creates chords out of single notes. My goal is for these transformed sounds to merge with the natural, unamplified instrumental sound, to produce a sonic fabric that is in constant transformation and that brings greater expressivity to the musical gestures.
Cyclone for clarinet and electronics (2013)
Around the time I began this piece, two tornados touched down in Brooklyn (not far from ICE headquarters.) Having grown up in nearby Queens, I was struck by the almost comic novelty of a tornado in Brooklyn and momentarily seized with the sense of excitement that dramatic weather can induce before its real danger becomes apparent. I envisioned the electronics in this piece sweeping up and spinning the musical material the clarinetist plays, just as a tornado sweeps up and churns out everything in its path. Later, as I contemplated using Cyclone as a title, I realized that it would carry a different—and equally specific—meaning to Brooklyn residents, for whom the huge roller coaster at Coney Island is a looming and iconic presence. In the end, the title refers to both cyclones, which gives some clue as to what to expect from the signal processing.
Concatenation for bassoon and electronics (2012)
Concatenation revisits an approach I have explored in previous solo pieces that I call “nested etudes,” in which a set of contrasting materials, any one of which could have been the subject of an etude, are laid out and interwoven into a continuous conversation. In this piece, there are seven different kinds of material, each with a unique approach to signal processing:
fog: fast, low phrases echo and resonate into a rich texture that moves quickly among the speakers;
bloom: a single, long expressive note blooms into a complex, just-tuned chord;
climb: gestures spin around the speakers as they rise in pitch;
flutter: tremolos echo and move;
metal: loud tones with distortion;
cry: long notes with glissandos excite resonant filters;
scurry: fleeting gestures are harmonized in trichords and spun.
After the initial exposition, these musical elements reappear in varying orders and phrase lengths as the piece plays out. The result is an elaborate conversation among the various elements.
Light on Water for flute, piano, and electronics (2012)
I live near the Los Peñasquitos marsh in San Diego, and walking past it every day I have been struck by how many different ways light reflects off the surface of the water. Sometimes it mirrors dull morning grayness; at other times, when the sun is bright and the water high, it produces brilliant, sparkling flecks. These conditions can create a sense of disorienting beauty, and these feelings and images were on my mind as I developed the material for the piece.
Template for Improvising Trumpeter for trumpet soloist, with ensemble and electronics (2013)
Template is a collaborative work that relies on the performers to make a significant creative contribution. Almost the entire solo trumpet part is improvised, with only a few brief notated phrases (or prescribed rests) appearing at key moments in the score. There are opportunities for others in the ensemble to improvise at particular times as well—sometimes in a brief solo, sometimes in groups of various sizes—which enables me to explore a kind of cross-fading of creative control from my predetermined contributions to those made by the performers in real time.
Joust for bassoon, flute, and electronics (2011)
Starting with a gesture that inverts the traditional relationship between these two instruments (with the bassoon playing an octave higher than the flute), this piece attempts to embrace the high energy, colorful personalities, and wonderful chemistry between Claire Chase and Rebekah Heller. Like Concatenation, the form of Joust presents a variety of different types of material that recur in different orders and proportions. The title is meant to suggest a playful sparring conducted with instruments instead of lances.
Coalescence for thirteen soloists and electronics (2013)
The final piece is a chamber concerto that passes the role of soloist from instrument to instrument until every player has been featured. The piece begins as a trumpet concerto. The piccolo then evolves into a counter-soloist as the trumpet fades and the piccolo takes over as the exclusive soloist. A similar process follows that cross-fades successively from piccolo to violin, bassoon, piano, cello, horn, cor anglais, double bass, bass clarinet, drums, and, finally, flute. The accompanying ensemble music does not always change in phase with the soloists, so two scenarios are playing out simultaneously. This keeps the piece in constant transition until we hear everything at once in a complex explosion of activity that brings the concert to a close.