Pandemic Quartet

Virus

009VIRU, 11'20, 2020, stereo

The first response to a pandemic is fear.      

This virus infects you, takes control of your cells, propagates, spreads, and ultimately eats you alive. Your consciousness fades and fights through fever and your choked and faltering breaths.

It isn't personal, you see, you are simply a host.

My mother in law had strong opinions, one of which was that she was never afraid of anything that was smaller than her. She would use this assertion to taunt people who feared spiders or rodents, and lived in terror of mosquitoes and other biting insects. I do fear things that are smaller than me: fungal infections, bacteria, viruses. After all, germs spread by mosquitoes have killed far, far more people than people have. 

Virus has 13 sections plus a short outro, each section lasts about 50 seconds.  

  • The first section is a statement of the original theme as composed, looped, and layered in Animoog.  
  • For the following sections, the bass spectrum is filtered from the higher frequencies, processed to emphasize the low frequencies, and mixed in the center of the stereo field. The higher frequencies are processed and mixed through multiple effects. As the sections progress, these higher-frequency mixes shift in pitch a quarter tone down, a semitone down, a quarter tone up, a semitone up, all while the bass-frequency part remains at the steady, core pitch.  
  • The outro section fades to a heartbeat-like loop.  

Virus is not tonal; it sustains the same pitch throughout like a drone but in conflict with the quarter-tone shifts. The idea is to evoke the action and effect of a viral infection. As the immune system responds to and fights the virus, consciousness fades and floats through a queasy blur of sickness. Survival is paramount as you fight death. 

As of April 2020, this was the ugliest music that I had made in many years. There is nothing uplifting here. I only hoped to see the other side of the pandemic, God willing.

Bounce

011BNCE, 14'47, 2020, stereo

Disclaimer: No stringed instruments were harmed in the composition of this music.

The Covid-19 pandemic made the city and its airport quiet, so it was an appropriate time to capture quiet sounds at home.    

I bounced the strings of three guitars and one baglama against a bookshelf. Three sets of microphones simultaneously captured the sounds of the bouncing strings. I edited the source recordings into motifs - mostly as wave-shaped envelopes - by layering the recordings, and then processed these motifs through effects. 

The structure is in three movements introduced, separated, and concluded by four "ludes" - a prelude, two interludes, and a postlude - made up of waves of bounces. The movements express themes in mono and stereo variations in fugal exploration. Movements 1 and 2 follow similar layerings of textures; Movement 3 starts with a raw guitar phrase which it repeats with varying textures. 

This composition has no accompanying narrative.

Bass Meditation

010MLLO, 8'25, 2020, stereo 

Time to take a deep breath and lie on the floor.

Armour

014MASK, 14'11, 2022, stereo

Armour is a concerto between solo guitar and layered guitars, organs, and effects. The alternating textures reflect the struggle to reconcile fear and danger with openness and safety. 

Armour started as a finger-picked chord sequence – long, repetitive, and watery – it was acoustic and folky but in 5/8 time.

In the mid-1980s, I worked with a friend – Karen Melady – to explore whether we could make a song out of this chord sequence. The title and her lyrics explored the masks, shields, and armour that we don to protect ourselves from other people. In contrast, we need to remove those same masks, shields, and armour to gain intimacy. To learn and grow, we must risk and feel.

We never finished the song and left it behind after exploratory rehearsals. 

At various times, I recorded the chord sequence but remained bound to the original structure. In this manner, Armour hibernated for several decades. 

During the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the city and its airport were quiet enough that I could record acoustic guitars at home.

I rethought Armour as a series of motifs that I isolated and reassembled into fugal variations of the original chord structure with rhythmic, timbral, and harmonic layering. 

Thematically, Armour became a tone-poem for the pandemic years; a concerto of instruments against textured, processed layers. 

  • Solo guitars are naked and exposed. The performer is vulnerable. Exposure leads to judgement. Is the guitar in tune? How is the intonation? Are there any bum notes? Is the pacing steady? Or is he rushing? How good is the microphone placement? Is the signal-to-noise ratio of the recording chain adequate? How effective is the balance of technique with emotion? Hey, is this guy any good? 
  • The layers and electronics are comfortable masks. You don’t have to breathe in any cold, dusty, acoustic, organic air. This is the safe place, the comfortable space where you cannot judge because all is thick and hidden. No germs touch these electrons. Control is deep as I chop, stretch, process, reassemble, and glue. This is an awful lot of work, but it feels protected, walled in, and cozy. However, isolation never ends well, guaranteed. The comforting boundaries of the cocoon cool into the stark walls of a prison as the walls move steadily closer to the heart. 

Of course, all of this narrative and interpretation is mine. The great beauty of instrumental music is that no words direct your attention, and you can make your own interpretations. 

Armour is constructed in sonata form with a prelude and 3 fugues as follows: 

  • Prelude: Presents the full, 4-section chord sequence twice. First as unmasked guitar, then a swirl of organs floats like a drunken, drifting calliope. 
  • Fugue 01: Presents the first two chord sequences in fugal layers of guitars and organs. 
  • Fugue 02 Largo: Presents the first two chord sequences three times: very slowly, slowly, and at full speed.
  • Fugue 03 Finale: Presents the last two chord sequences of simple and suspended harmonies and cadences. The fugal layers of guitars shift in time to reveal poignant harmonies until the solo guitar returns unmasked. By the end, almost everything has changed though much seems the same.