Signal to Noise
for chamber orchestra
// Duration: 9'
// Date: 2012
// Instrumentation: fl-cl-sx-bsn; hrn-tpt-tbn;
2 perc; pno; vln-vln-vla-vc-cb
// Premiere recording: December 8 & 13, 2012, Ann Arbor, Elim Chan, conductor
Conductor: Elim Chan
Recorded at the University of Michigan
Recording engineer: Suby Raman
Signal to Noise was written, in part, to express thoughts and feelings surrounding a number of major changes in my life in the two years before it was written. It is a snapshot of my busy mind in that moment, as I pushed toward mental calm and spiritual growth, a state Buddhists call “no mind.”
The piece consists of two primary background materials. An 18-note cyclic melody forms the backbone of the piece, repeating in various guises 11 times; integrated into the cyclic material is a 24-syllable mantra that, in its first appearance in the brass instruments, comprises all 18 notes of the cyclic melody at the same time. As the mantra repeats insistently throughout the piece, it sheds notes one at a time, until it consists of a single note, played by the cello at the end. The mantra is based on the first three lines of T.S. Eliot’s haunting and gorgeous poem, “Ash-Wednesday;”
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Thus, the music progresses from complexity to simplicity while never losing the importance of its cyclic nature.
The following essay from 2013 details, in a more in-depth way, my thoughts and feelings surrounding the creation of this piece:
Signal to Noise began as a happy distraction. When I conceived the piece, in August of 2012, I had just come off of a failed collaboration with a dance-theatre group in Chicago. The sour note left by that failure made me want to write a piece just for myself. Recycling some of the music I had already written for that show, I had begun work on a nine-song cycle based on Wallace Stevens’ "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Looking ahead to December, I thought this would be a good showcase piece for my doctoral applications, granted I could finish at least a couple of the movements and get a demo of them them recorded in time.
The logistics proving too risky to undertake, I decided instead to write a piece without singers. I set aside 13 and decided instead on a different kind of showcase piece, for chamber orchestra or sinfionetta instrumentation. This was intended to show my skill at orchestration while also handling exposed, at times virtuosic instrumental parts. I would also keep its length under ten minutes, in case the piece could enjoy an actual performance life. Performing ensembles will typically not consider pieces from unknown composers if they are too substantial in length.
I looked up the instrumentation for my ideal performing ensemble to play this piece- Alarm Will Sound- and my instrumentation was set: flute, two clarinets (or, as it ended up, one clarinet and one saxophone), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion, two violins, viola, cello, and bass.
Three new things in my life that influenced the music I wrote in 2012, as well as the music I continue to compose as of this writing (January 2013), were my nascent exploration of Zen Buddhism, particularly self-guided meditation; my trip to Tokyo in May 2012; and some scholarly readings I had done on Indonesia gamelan composition methods.
The gamelan study (not informed by any actual practice of the art, mind you) provided the architectonic structure for the piece. In gamelan, a core melody called the balungan (literally “skeleton” or “frame”) repeats a number of cycles until the piece is finished. Therefore, a gamelan piece is at any given moment on a certain note of this core melody, and the melody itself informs the tonal material of the entire piece. The balungan notes are usually of equal value in relation to each other, but can be flexed into different rhythmic values so that a single cycle can last upwards of two minutes, or a mere few seconds. Strikes on different-sized gongs mark the beginning, mid-point, quarter- and three-quarter points of the cycle.
The balungan as a composition tool appeals to me during this time of great spiritual transformation in my life. As I’ve approached and transcended my thirtieth year, I’ve begun to question many of the governing philosophies that have guided my thinking and politics for a long time now. An atheist since the age of thirteen, I’ve lost touch with those aspects of spirituality which inform the lives of most self-aware people on earth, namely a healthy appreciation for irrationality, cycle, ritual, and timelessness. As I’ve begun to explore these new territories in my own spiritual life, I find myself attracted to aesthetic expressions of such.
Signal to Noise, then, like the music I had begun sketching for 13, began as an 18-note balungan of my own, which I erroneously labeled in my sketches as the “Fundamental Melody.” An early version was first sketched on Sept. 10, and settled into its final form two days later. As for how the cycle would play out, I had this to say on Sept.12:
Concept: one 12-30 note cycle, repeated many times, sometimes changing tempo/frequency of F.M. [Fundamental Melody] notes. Progress from noisy/busy/dense/contrapuntal to simple, melodic (over drone?); pitched percussion to non, very note-y to more sound-like, breath, taps, movement, etc.
I decided on 18 repetitions of the core melody, that number thus providing a jumping-off point for ways to organize the piece’s form. I often find numbers useful in this way. Deciding on a certain numerical scheme, say the number 18 divided into Fibonacci numbers 5, 3, 5, and 5, helps me make decisions as regards the timing and organization of the piece. I don’t intend my listeners to hear these numbers in any way, and I make no claims that the usage of such numbers somehow imbues my music with cosmic mathematical authenticity. They’re merely a convenience, a launching point for compositional decisions that I do intend to be heard, or at least felt. For instance, I may arrange to have some sort of climax five minutes into an 8-minute piece, and then another three minutes later at the end. Five, eight, and three are of course Fibonacci numbers that can help govern satisfying proportions of duration of major events like climaxes, but God forbid a listener were to ever actually think about those numbers while hearing my music.