One Study One Summary - Marimba, Junk Percussion, and Digital Audio (2005)
One Study, One Summary (commissioned by Pedro Carneiro with funding from Creative New Zealand) is a virtuosic work for marimba, with optional junk percussion & digital audio, that has become a favourite among solo percussionists. As suggested by the title there are two movements (which can be played in any order). While the piece exhibits the ‘busy’ motoric textures for which I'm known, reflective, atmospheric textures also feature in the Summary movement.
Technical setup; 5-octave marimba (no amplification required), junk percussion (optional, only required for the Etude movement), and audio playback system. The playback track is designed to be played through a stereo-pair of high quality monitors and provides the performer with all necessary information for rhythmic synchronisation. A separate click and in-ear monitoring is not required and not provided (although some performers have created their own click tracks and used in-ear monitoring).
This is the first piece I wrote that involved an audio backing track. It set in motion a entirely new way of writing for me that has generated Ukiyo, Between Zero and One, Songs for Simon, No Man’s Land, Voices at the End, a ‘karaoke’-version of View From Olympus and, more recently, Mentacide.
Score and Recordings
"One Study" by John Psathas, Pedro Carneiro (iTunes)
Interview with Kellen King about the work:
JOHN PSATHAS INTERVIEW: APRIL 8TH, 2018
Kellen King: One Study One Summary commissioned by Pedro Carniero. Did he have any sort of stipulations for the work?
John Psathas: The only thing he said was, he said I've got this crazy idea of these junk instruments and I wonder if you might include them in the piece. And so, he actually sent me the menu of those instruments and he sent me some samples of each of them. I was able to bring those samples into Logic software and make a sampler instrument, and so as I was composing, I had his junk samples as a separate instrument and was able to build it in that way. But apart from that, he had no stipulation whatsoever and he didn't ask for an electronic backing. He just wanted a piece for marimba and these junk instruments and so this might have been the one and only piece I wrote with electronic backing. Since then though, it has led to a whole lot of other pieces. It was a kind of an explosion for me that I got really inspired and stimulated by. But, Pedro originally just wanted a piece for marimba.
King: So that leads into my next question about the junk percussion. When someone performs One Study, do you want the junk percussion to exactly match the pitch and timbre of the reference sounds provided with CD and score, or can the performer take liberties with their instrument choices?
Psathas: Basically, it's either end of the spectrum. I think if a performer is going to go for a similar outcome in trying to emulate the actual sound of the junk percussion, then I would prefer them to get as close as possible to the actual pitches of the sounds as well, because there is a place in the junk percussion where the pitches are very much aligned or relating to what's happening in the backing track. So that's one end of the spectrum where you get as close as you possibly can. The other end of the spectrum is if you're not going to do that, to really free yourself up, to basically redefine that element of the work so that it becomes your own contribution to the outcome. The metal should be metal. The plastic should be plastic. Those sorts of things should remain the same, but it's either one or the other. The least desirable outcome for me would be something that's kind of half like what it is in the original.
King: When you were when you're writing One Study One Summary, did you write the electronic backing track or marimba part first, or did it they happen simultaneously?
Psathas: The only way I ever write, there's no exception to it really, is to start at the beginning and find out what's going to happen. So, I'm discovering the work as I write it. Because of that I tend to be pushing all the elements of the work on the same front going forward. It's like when I write for orchestra, I write a total sound moving forward bar-by-bar. And so, with this one, it was the marimba, the electronics, and the junk percussion when they finally appear. I do it this way because I’ve always worked with playback. I've always been hearing the music I write, as I write it. The only change over time has been that the quality of the playback has gotten better and better (which means my tempos have gotten slower!). The sample libraries have improved, and the overall technology has improved. I’ve always used playback, that's important, because the way that these elements interact and the way the piece is unfolding, I get excited by it and I get inspired by those relationships; it's a kind of a feedback loop. So then, I push the piece forward by the next few notes, or next few bars because I'm hearing it back and I can just kind of hear somehow - some magical way - I can hear what it is that's supposed to happen next. But in order for it to work, I have to be hearing all of the elements. I can't really go very far with just the marimba or with just the electronics because I need everything to be integrated all the time. And I've only ever been able to work like that. When it comes to orchestra, I've never written a piano reduction and then orchestrated. I've always written for the whole orchestra because of the way the whole orchestra functions. The orchestration is so innately related to the material, and how the material unfolds that I've never been able to separate those things apart and compartmentalize them. So, with One Study One Summary, one of the sounds that really means a lot, in terms of pushing forward is a low sort of thuddy sound down in the bottom that moves quite fast. It's like a very weird bass drum and it's sort of spastic in its rhythm most of the time. It was a big moment for me when I realized that I didn't have to worry about this ever being played, this element of the work. It released me in terms of rhythm (that element is called Ultrabeat by the way, one of the packages that comes with Logic). It's a preset synthesizer and I just found this thing and it had a very weird way of working, which is to create it and shape the sound, it wasn't the volume or velocity. It was the modulation wheel that did strange things, and I found myself programming it, not completely understanding how the result was being generated, but getting really excited. I proceeded through the writing of that entire movement with a managed ignorance of how this plugin was working. It was down low, and it was able to be very active and not get in the way. If you hear it through a big system it actually provides a lot of intensity, that low element. It’s a real driver of the piece.
King: Your electronic backing tracks tend to be very unique across the range of all of your electroacoustic compositions. Do you have a particular sound library that you use in Logic to create these backing tracks?
Psathas: Look up MC-500. That's what I originally started writing music on. And that's a little box I programmed with a little wheel. That was back in the late 80’s, and that was the thing of its time, the best piece of software for sequencing music. And I've just worked with software, always on Mac OS format and I went through a whole bunch of sequences and different kinds of software. Now I write with Logic. Once I realized I'd be working with it for a long while I started investing in a ton of libraries. But I'm a Luddite when it comes to technology, in the sense that I don't really know how to use a lot of things. I load up a sample library, it might be one of the Kontakt instruments, it might be something that's in Reaktor (all of this within Logic) and I'll start going through the sounds. Sometimes I’ll find something like that thumping sound in One Study One Summary that's in Ultrabeat, and I'll just go “this is cool”, then I'm adding the marimba to it. I'm very easily satisfied with that stuff. I have friends who are serious electroacoustic composers. They wouldn't dream of ever using a preset in a synthesizer. They create their own sounds from scratch. When I talk to them, I can see they’re frustrated with me; that I'm so easily satisfied with my choices. I don't have really extensive production skills either. I use EQ and I kind of know how to use compression. I use some limiting, some reverb, just really basic stuff. I'm still a kid when it comes to that stuff. What I’m drawn to is the play of rhythm that this technology allows. It's the ability to have different layers playing together in a kind of improvised composition. I don't know what's going to happen, so I am making it up as I go, and it's like I'm playing all of these instruments all at once and I'm listening to everybody else from all the perspectives and gradually creating this piece. And that's what technology does for me. I don’t spend ages and ages refining sound. To give you an example of just how much of a kind of “cheat” I am, there's a bit in Buyan in which this West African ensemble emerges out of music and it starts flowing this kind of groove. It's a sample player called West Africa and it's a really great plug-in. If you're a hardcore electronic composer it's kind of shameful the way I work, but the thing is for me, it's really not about the sounds. It's about the way the parts interact and the excitement and energy and sense of collective purpose that comes from it.
King: Electroacoustic music has been around for some time. Do you have any specific works or composers that influenced your writing style in the genre of electroacoustic music?
Psathas: I think that One Study One Summary was the result of a kind of process of frustration. Do you know Conlon Nancarrow, the composer? He wrote a lot of music for the player piano, you know with the piano rolls? And he wrote the absolute craziest music in the sense that a whole lot of what he did, you can't even sequence it easily today because it requires multiple clocks for counting time. It's incredible what he did, and he arrived at doing that, basically in exile from music and musical culture. He wanted to hear certain things and he couldn't find people to do it. His innovation was the result of failing a lot of the time in not being able to realize what he wanted to with the means that were at his disposal; which were human beings. And so, One Study One Summary was actually me responding to this frustration of how to get more out of potential rhythmic interaction. If you put two people together, they would have spent years learning how to play this piece together. What if I took away one of those things and made it absolutely consistent every time it was played back? I then added a part to it which was live and dynamic. So that's how it came about. But the next thing - which is still answering your question - is how do you make it work live? The question I repeatedly confronted was, "Why do you need the live player?". If you've got this really great backing track and you've got really great marimba samples, why don't you just create a piece that is all played by Logic? Why do you need a musician to be on stage? That's a question you can ask about a lot of ‘electronic plus tape’ music. Why do we insist on having the live part there, why can't it just be an electroacoustic work that we're supposed to listen to through a stereo system? For me, it comes down to one very important thing, which is the idea of narrative. Music is always telling us some kind of narrative because it starts here, and it ends there. So, we are going through time, and something is happening and as humans with the minds that we have, the way that we’re wired, we will try and make sense of it. We'll try and figure it out so that it means something. So, we are caught up in this narrative. I think it's very important that there is a narrative that takes you, the listener, from "A to Z". And by the time you get to "Z" you go, “far out look where "A" is”. And (this is the important thing), as crazy as the joureny was, the destination feels inevitable. We got here in this way that I would never have expected, but it feels completely inevitable. When writing these karaoke pieces, (solo or musician and pre-record), what's really important is who is in control of the narrative. And for me it has to be the live musician. So, in One Study One Summary it's the marimba player that's telling the story it's not the backing track. The role of the backing track is to reinforce, strengthen, and make the story that is being told by the live musician more intense. What's very important in composing is controlling the presence of the backing track. I spend a lot of effort managing it so the backing track doesn’tbecome too interesting, doesn’t take too much control of the narrative arc of the work. You're always waiting for the live player to come back in, because they're the ones that are telling you the story. And so, I think that's sort of fundamental to this way of working.
King: Do you notice that there has been a trend over the past ten years of pieces that are being written in the same medium as One Study One Summary?
Psathas: If you sit down to write your orchestral work and you've got your big open manuscript paper with all the staves, and you might have a something like Sibelius or Logic to play you back the music is you write. The software is not going to offer you any shortcuts in that process because eventually it’s going to be played by an orchestra. You've got to think it all through. You've got to get it all right. But when you're writing a piece where half of what we're going to hear is being performed by a computer, then it is such a temptation to build shortcuts to quickly copy parts, because the technology, doesn't just enable it, it encourages it,. So, the thing for me is when I write anything with electronics, I spend a lot of time on the backing track with every single note. That low stuff you get in the ultrabeat, that sort of thuddy sound, it's through-composed, throughout the piece. I don't grab stuff and then paste it. For me, that's adding a kind of death energy. Composing which is like a balloon with a very tiny hole in it. When you start writing a piece music, its natural state is to lose intensity, to lose energy. It's like air is coming out of the balloon and slowly shrinking. And as a composer, one of the things you have to do is push energy back into the work so that it stays buoyant. I think that repetition - unless it's deliberately used the way minimalist music uses it - repetition can easily be a drainer of the life force of a work and actually accelerate the air going out of the balloon.So for me it's all through-composed. There isn't a lot of repetition in there and every second has to be alive. You can't lose focus or concentration anywhere in the work. To cite three of my inspirations: Beethoven, Keith Jarrett, and Pat Metheny; one thing they all have in common is they never ever lose focus. There's no downtime. It doesn't matter what the intensity level is whether it's loud, quiet, fast, or slow. It doesn't matter. It's always utterly focused, whatever they're doing.
King: I found that when practicing and performing this piece I had to make a click track to help align my playing with the backing track. Since the piece, does not come with a click track, do you have any comment about playing the piece with a click track vs. without a click track?
Psathas: It’s all a big experiment, you know. You need to see a lot of people play the piece to see how it works best. I have always planned these pieces so that they don't need a click, but then I don't play them. What I can say is that in most videos I've seen of the work the percussionists don't seem to be playing with a click. Everything at least is designed to not need a click, and also because for me, the idea of these pieces is that you should put an iPad on your music stand with your score and the audio, press play, then just play off the iPad.You don't need anything else, any other wires or anything. No headphones, no extra stuff. But you're not the first person that's made a click track!
King: When analyzing this piece, it seems that it’s based around a B-flat melodic minor scale with a sharp four. Is this based around a certain mode that influenced you or is it just what ended up happening?
Psathas: Well yes, it's definitely in B-flat minor. But because I've worked quite a bit with musicians from other cultures. I have a Greek background and I've worked with Greek melodic instrumentalists, clarinet or the lyra, those sorts of instruments. I've had some pretty amazing discussions with them over the years and developed my way of thinking about modality. The best way of explaining it is that there is a basic modal color which is your tonic and your third. You know, initially that's what defines the mode, in the case of One Study One Summary. And then there is a relationship between the fifth and the notes around and it, so whether it's a sharp four or a flat six, they flavor the fifth a certain way. But the thing is, your basic mode is this minor context. And if you think about it, you've got a B-flat harmonic minor, B-flat melodic minor, you've got B-flat melodic minor with the sharp four and I'm moving through any and all of the possible B-flat minor modes. The only things that need to be really consistent and stable, other than the tonic, is the minor third because you'll never lose the minorness. But the second [scale degree], could be a C or C-flat, but it could also be a C-half flat, and it's all dependent on the expressive need of the moment. Essentially, I think of it as modally free within a B-flat minor universe.
King: There are lots of articulations throughout One Study One Summary, particularly with the frequent use of tenutos and accents. How do you want the performer to treat these articulations in relation to one another?
Psathas: It's been a lifelong project to figure out how to properly articulate what I want using notation. For me, the tenuto is a soft emphasis, not quite an accent, but it definitely stands out from the surrounding sixteenths. These days Iprogress through tenuto, an accent, and then I put two accents one on top of the other. It's just a question of “How do you get the different levels of accentuation?”. I guess the really obvious solution would be to have one accent, two accents, three accents, four accents; or to have an accent with a number: accent #1, accent #2, accent #3. The problem working with Logic is you work with velocities. You have this 0-127 or 1-128 range. But what you actually have in sample libraries is usually a minimum of three dynamic samples, so you've got your soft, medium, and hard; and they are velocity 0-70, 70-100, and 100-128. You get three different colors, and this is the real problem for me; when you play the marimba, you sort of have infinite color. Depending on what you're doing, and if you have the conversation about mallets, it creates even more possibilities. And then where do you hit the bar? You know all of that stuff. It's really challenging to think about exploiting all of that color when you're working with midi. That in some ways is the biggest limitation in my writing, what midi is imposing on me is an extreme timbral limitation. I've arrived at this kind of space where I'll use a tenuto like I do, an accent like I do, and then I'll generally think of something that's even harder. I'll have those three kinds of emphasis, and then non-emphasized notes. Usually, what you find is that the levels of accentuation have their own sort of meter rhythm so that the most accented notes are sort of linked together in a larger structure or larger phrasing.
King: Because the piece itself is called One Study One Summary, is there related material in the second movement that summarizes the first movement?
Psathas: No. The title itself is a reduction of the original title which, for the second movement was called A Brief Summary of the Human Presence. That's why it has these moments in there with the sounds of civilization. There's a place where you hear children playing. Another part is where you hear a distant cityscape. You can tell that there are cars in the distance, and there’s the atmosphere of a city. Then at the very end as it's finishing, you hear just the sound of nature and there's no human presence there. That was a kind of end of the world, "what happens when we've gone and nature reasserts itself" question. It was trying to show different elements of civilization, like the big city, the children in a playground. That's where that title comes from. It was supposed to be A Brief Summary of the Human Presence, then I thought it was a bit pretentious as a title, so then I changed it to One Summary. I'm still sort of mixed about that. I don't really know what I think of it, because titles are a whole thing of their own. They’re a big issue, because they flavor the audience's experience and the preconceptions of the piece before you play it.