Posts Tagged ‘Xenakis’

Earle Brown | Available Recollections: Paradigm

July 27, 2012

Earle Brown’s seminal masterpiece “December 1952”

Nowadays, many composers write music using sequencers. One of the paradigms of the sequencer is the ‘piano roll’ view, where one can ‘see’ the music in space and time. Lines represent notes and their durations, and pitch is based on a high or low placement. Other parameters, such as loudness, are viewed numerically or with a separate graphic. Earle’s scores in graphic notation from the 1950s saw the future and at the same time built off the past. They also went one step further than the ‘piano roll’ window of modern sequencers, as the thickness of a line could be interpreted to mean loudness, relative to lines that were thinner. His graphic scores allow the musician to interpret a soundworld with freedom and discipline simultaneously.

When I compose, I often view and edit my music in the ‘piano roll’ window (using either LOGIC or Digital Performer) because of its ease in interpreting and editing patterns. (Many years ago, I first discovered this “piano roll” view in the book Sonic Design (1981) by Cogan and Escot and found it to be a revelation. In 1982, I analyzed and graphed in color a movement from Boulez’ Le Marteau sans Maître.)

In the same spirit, Xenakis’ UPIC system, a graphic computer music program from the late 1970s, allows the musician to draw patterns on a tablet that are then interpreted by the computer and converted into sound. In the 1950s, when Earle had these scores performed, there was David Tudor.

Originally published in: “Earle Brown: From Motets to Mathematics” Contemporary Music Review, Volume 26, Issue 3 & 4 June 2007 , pages 371 – 375


Earle Brown | Available Recollections: Intersection

July 11, 2012

Earle Brown conducting his music

In 2007, I was asked to contribute an essay to Contemporary Music Review, a UK publication with the title “Earle Brown: From Motets to Mathematics”. Earle had a huge influence on my work. I wrote twelve short essays called AVAILABLE RECOLLECTIONS. Here is the first one with more to come…


I met Earle Brown for the first time at the 1985 BMI awards for young composers. I was 24 and had studied his works for many years. If it had not been for Earle, I would not have been invited there. I had composed Pentateuch, a grand divisi orchestral work in quarter-tones, including three choral groups and soprano solo with strong hints of György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. Because of its size, Earle was the only judge who took the time to open it up and understand it. ‘I had to fight for your score,’ he told me. ‘No one else wanted to look at it.’ Earle did not mind ‘rolling up his sleeves’, so to speak. It was serendipity that he was a judge that year. My life changed.

Available Recollections
Author: William Susman
Published in: Contemporary Music Review, Volume 26, Issue 3 & 4 June 2007 , pages 371 – 375

N.B. What I failed to mention in the original publication was that the score Pentateuch was 6 feet long and Earle told me he spread it out on the floor. The BMI judges were passing around scores and there was not enough space at the table. Back then, I copied this oversize score at a blueprint shop in Palo Alto and it could not be cheaply reduced to a manageable size as it is today.

Tempo is the Only Constant

September 9, 2009
Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Thoughts on the Typology of Central African Music:

Melody in Central African music is determined by the tones of the language. As I mentioned in a previous blog Steve Reich uses this approach in his work Different Trains. Also the melodic line can be transposed allowing a wider range of intervals. Often the lines descend in the form of terraced movement resting on “successve levels”. (Arom, 19)

Tempo is the only constant. The speed of a piece of music never varies. Only melody, rhythm and instrumental patterns may change in a musical discourse.

There are different techniques of plurivocality or multi-part singing: Heterophony, overlapping and homophony. André Gide relates his impressions of a ‘tam-tam’ in 1928, “but imagine this tune yelled by a hundred persons not one of whom sings the exact note. It is like trying to make out the main line from a host of little strokes. The effect is prodigious and gives an impression of polyphony and of harmonic richness.”

Simha Arom aptly describes the features of this heterophony which I will delineate in a list:

  1. A melody whose outline is refracted by a kind of halo
  2. The voices are slightly unfocused
  3. Minute variants
  4. A coming and going of dissonances
  5. Overlapping between solo and chorus parts (Gide called this ‘brocading’)
  6. Often in the middle of this process a singer will sustain a single note thus creating an intermittent drone. (Arom, 21)

Homophony on the other hand is the most common form of multi-part singing. This form of plurivocality involves parallel movement of the voices. Typically they are in intervals of 4ths, 5ths and octaves. Often certain tribes are known for singing distinctly with these intervals as 8-5-4 tribes and some sing in 3rds. (Arom, 22)

In Pentateuch (1983) a grand divisi orchestra, choir and soprano work written when I was 23 (with influences from Ligeti and Xenakis) the three male choir groups sing for an extended period in 5ths. Each group takes its turn singing a phrase in 5ths while the soprano voice predominates above in a quasi call and response. My intent was to create a very raw, basic and forceful sound in the midst of a constellation of divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections.