The problem with writing for an ensemble such as UPROAR is that the performers can cope with almost anything you throw at them. Add to this the seemingly wide-open possibilities offered by the inclusion of electronics then the first problem becomes what to leave out. I have composed several electronic pieces to date but not, hitherto, felt comfortable in combining an acoustic ensemble with live electronics. Much of this reticence stems from not fully grasping the possibilities which live electronics offer, as well as not wholly understanding the limitations or problems they can cause in performance. Much of the electro-acoustic music I admire fully integrates both elements so that neither is used superfluously and the end result is cohesive. The first stage for me, then, was to narrow down the seemingly endless options in front of me. As my initial drafts had already indicated the kind of material that I would use for the ensemble, the choice of electronics gradually began to fall into place.
One thing that the application of electronics allows is the manipulation of a fixed-pitch instrument such as the piano. Whilst I don't write in an exclusively microtonal language, I do like to use small variations of pitch as an expressive device and one of the first things that I wanted to experiment with were ways of pitch shifting sounding piano resonances so that range of the instrument can be expanded further.
As much of the piece occupies the lower end of the dynamic spectrum, the spectre of feedback would soon raise its head. However, a potential solution was to be found Murail's use of electronics in 'Winter Fragments'. Gradually, I came to the conclusion I wanted to use pre-recorded material which could function in a flexible and musical way within the ensemble.
By recording piano resonances (I have, to date, used three piano's, each of which possesses a distinct quality) and treating them in various ways, the same effect can be achieved by the pianist triggering the sound file in question from a midi keyboard either before, after, or in conjunction with an acoustic sound source. I still, however, want to use some live processing and as triggering delays from the same midi keyboard is a possibility, this offers a way of subtly layering certain materials played on other instruments.
In addition to the various piano recordings I decided on several other sound-sources that I wished to include. I have a great fondness for early British Electronic Music, particularly the early work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the circle of composers in and around it. In particular, the work of Tristram Cary (who would later be a key figure the creation of EMS and their VCS3, a synthesiser responsible for bringing a whole new range of sounds to British rock and pop and heard extensively on 'Dark Side of the Moon') and Delia Derbyshire have been hugely influential in my musical development.
Derbyshire is arguably most famous for realising the original Dr Who theme, but recent research into her work has begun to unearth a treasure trove of innovative electronic music. The incidental music she created for television and radio at the workshop is all the more impressive considering the meagre budget and limited time afforded to the composers to get the job in question done. On key work is 'The Delian Mode', which used recordings of a sonorous metal lampshade as its sound-source. By applying tape delays, filtering and other manipulations such as varying tape speed to alter pitch, Derbyshire created a piece of simmering, haunting beauty that for me stands up there with any of the masterpieces of the genre.
Happily, the lampshade that hangs in my hallway is of a similar construction and is used as a major sound-source in my pre-recorded material. The recordings are used in essentially the same way except the manipulations are achieved digitally (no tape loops or razor blades for me!) and some spectral analysis of its untreated sound has provided some pitch material for the acoustic ensemble.
The initial workshopping of ideas has been very fruitful and as the piece begins to take its final shape, I must say the process has been extremely enjoyable and enlightening.