On Impetuses For Making Views From A Flying Machine

by Thomas Brett

I recently finished a series of nine electronic music pieces begun in December 2009.  One impetus for collecting and finishing the works came by way of an organ recital I heard at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London this past spring.  (I was in England to give a paper at a conference for the British Forum For Ethnomusicology.)  The organ pieces (by a 19th century French composer whose name I can’t recall) were dazzling technique-wise (after all, one has to use two hands and two feet to play the church organ), but what caught my attention was the overall form of the music.  It sounded to me like one big cluster of sound—a sonic blob of energy that ebbed and flowed in a continuous, ever-shifting blurry motion.  Part of this sonic impression is no doubt due to the liquid acoustics in a place the size of St. Paul’s, where a single sound can hang in the air for a half a minute, or so it seems, its reverberant tail echoing in a multitude of directions.  But I also noticed that the organ composition had many layers to it.  Some of these layers were twinkling parts that chattered away in the highest, delicate registers; some were mid-register open (2-note) chord tonalities in the middle register; and way, way down below, as if resonating from the catacombs deep underneath the church, were single note pedal sub bass tones.  What a magisterial sound it all made!

As I listened I made note of some keywords to help me remember what I had experienced: “chord clusters”, “drone”, “common tones”, “sub bass”, “slowly changing harmonies”, “limited number of timbres.”  These keywords became guides–soundposts, really–by which I organized the pieces that make up Views From A Flying Machine.  The nine pieces that comprise this work are scored for a series of pad sounds (some presets, some homemade), a few varieties of organ (surprise, surprise), sub bass, bells and glockenspiels, and percussion.  Interestingly for me–since I am a percussionist–is that the percussion is almost more textural than rhythmic in function.  These pieces are less about rhythm and more about layers of harmony.  Finally, if you’re wondering where the title comes from, all I can say is that it just seemed appropriate.  And also this: there is a fascinating New Yorker article called “Angle Of Vision” (April 2010) on the aeriel photographer George Steinmetz.  Steinmetz custom-built his own paraglider–a real and rickety “flying machine”–for taking low-altitude photos of deserts.  As I remember it, the article had nothing to do with music, but was all about views from a flying machine.  Click here to listen.

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