Shorts: #22 For Benjamin Britten
Shorts: #22 For Benjamin Britten (2007)
Commissioned and titled by Michael Strickland (aka sfmike)
Mike gave me the title before I wrote the piece. I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do with this. This last year, I learned that the Phillips Corporation had intended to get Britten to do the music for their pavilion in the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.. They first went to their preferred architect, Le Corbusier, and he insisted that they use the music of Edgard Varèse. instead and Philips agreed. Their reason for initially wanting Britten was due to the popular success of his orchestral piece, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It’s a piece with an optional vocal part which explains what instruments are playing as the musical themes pass through the different sections. They thought he could do something with a Young Person’s Guide to Electronic Music.
This came up in my classes because the studio that Philips built for Varèse eventually become the Sonology course, in which I am now enrolled. We have a large portrait of Varèse working on his composition on one wall. But what if they had not given into Corbusier’s demands and had just picked a different architect? I purchased a copy of the Young Person’s Guide and listened to it a few times, trying to imagine what Britten might have done with the Phillips Pavilion. It was boring! So I listened a few times to his much preferable War Requiem. Testcase suggested that I do something with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, since Britten used his work. I decided to combine both approaches.
After Varèse, Koenig started a course in electronic music, which also helped form Sonology. I got a copy of the instructions on how to realize Koenig’s Terminus. His instructions were more or less state-of-the art at the time, and thus would be related to what Britten would have done. I focussed on attacks and synchronization, synchronizing to the middle of every note except for the last few notes. I used some voltage control to change attack shapes – something that couldn’t be done at that time, but is labor-saving. The attack shapes are two different kinds of triangles, sines, sawtooth going up, sawtooth going down and square. Most of the sounds are tuned sines, but I added some variation later by using triangle waves and FM modulation, the later of which was definitely not available, but there were way more complicated techniques at the time that lead to similar sonic results.
The poem is Anthem for Doomed Youth, read by me. It’s stereoized by putting the right and left slightly out of synch, and is quiet. However, this doesn’t make it sound far away, because it sounds so close miced. This is the only non-mono part. The Philips Pavilion was all about spatialization, but this is an alternate universe where Philips refused Corbusier’s demands and got a different architect. Xenakis never wrote Metastasis. Curtis Roads never wrote his book on microsounds. River Runs was never written. Computer music takes a drastically different direction. And we all wear silver clothes and have flying cars.
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