John Oliver, composer

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Orchid Ensemble commission "Celestial Storehouse" completed

Last week I completed the commissioned work for the Orchid Ensemble, a work designed for concert and theatrical/multimedia presentation entitled Celestial Storehouse.
The composition is inspired by the following text from the Chuang Tzu: "Who knows the unspoken explanation, the unexpressed Way? Among those who do know, this is called the celestial storehouse: we can pour into it without filling it, we can draw from it without exhausting it; and yet, we don't know where it comes from. This is called hidden illumination."

The score consists of a limited number of musical materials all based on the "D pentatonic" mode (B D E F# A). The music is intended to be performed in a number of different contexts, such as: concert piece, music for dance or other visual or (non-verbal) theatrical presentation, music with added electronics. Suggested extensions of the music with electronics or computer processing are made at various points in the score. These are rudimentary and may be elaborated by the creative team in collaboration with the composer.

For composers, theorists, and the curious, I start with something somewhat predictable in terms of musical material, beginning with a single note. I slowly add more notes until all five are used. It seems a sensible thing to do given that my focus in the music is on the very different timbres (colours) of the three instruments: the very dry, short envelope of the marimba stroke, the more resonant and longer envelopes and moveable sounds of the erhu and zheng. And of course the erhu, as a bowed instrument, can sustain the sound. A close look at the score will reveal that even in the simplicity of the opening, there is an ambiguity of pulse: written in 3/4, the marimba motive could be heard as 3/8. The other parts move at different cycle lengths. There is a medieval quality to the entire concept (see isorhythm). Rather than compose the relationships between the materials for each instrument manually and entirely from my imagination, I decided to use Ableton LIVE software to "mix" the materials according to the probability settings in each "clip." Essentially, I composed each stage of development of the materials, saving each one as a separate MIDI file, then set them in linear order in LIVE, then set the probability settings in each clip to either repeat, move forward or backward one step, or freely choose from among several adjacent steps in the development. Extending this logic to the entire composition, I was able to create a global structure that is clearly linear, but the succession of events at the local level remains somewhat unpredictable. Toward the end of the piece, I ended up improvising with the materials somewhat the way a DJ intercuts materials from different recordings.

Another innovation is found in the printed score. Using Sibelius 6 software, I coloured some notes to indicate to the musicians when they are playing in unison. I felt I needed to communicate this due to the rather continuous nature of the music and a tendency musicians may have to become mesmerized by the music, due to the high level of redundancy. Colours are much quicker to take in than verbal instructions.

There may be much more to say about the music after feedback from the musicians.

John