Delay: Watching the Music Flow

I’m sitting in the Winter Garden as Steve Reich’s Six Pianos fills the space around me. No delay or reverb effect can match the sound of a piano note traveling 500 feet, hitting glass or stone, and returning. Reich’s pieces mutate slowly and powerfully, and in this space the change happens in stages, with the new patterns arriving on top of the melded decays of previous patterns. Six grand pianos, almost 1,400 strings, weaving and interlocking into a pattern as intricate as the network of struts that support the glass panels of the ceiling.

Notes seem never to die, but instead to live on among those glass panels, and the leaves of the transplanted palm trees that die every few years. When the dynamics swell, the attacks are piercing and the music surges like the tide; when the music softens you can almost feel it tugging at your feet.

If there’s been any consistent theme to my own fitful musical explorations of the last year, it’s been delay. (Including delaying the playing of music at all, sad to say.) Sometimes notes are so beautiful you don’t want them to go away; this weekend I did a piece that in its unedited form was almost 20 minutes long, but probably contained less than 30 seconds of playing. Every note was captured in a loop, which was then captured in another lop, and another one, and in between and within every loops were many different delays, most of which mutated the sound on each iteration.

The music literally takes on a life of its own. And with as many delays and loops as I usually use, the interactions are not always predictable and the music can quite literally go off in a direction that was never intended. In the case of this most recent piece, I enjoyed the initial direction (what I’d started out meaning to do) much less than I liked the decaying and decayed result after untold numbers of loops and mutations.

Sometimes these pieces are so long simply because I get lost in listening to them; the slow changes as the loops intersect and decay are as endlessly interesting as waves on the beach. “Is anything ever going to happen? It’s already happening. In fact, you might have missed it wondering what was going to happen.

Following the Reich performance, a DJ performed, remixing some of BOaC’s work. It was lovely; he explored the same kinds of changes and mutations, but I can’t see myself ever working like that. I’d rather start with an empty space than move someone else’s furniture around.

The piece of mine I’m discussing is Parsing Priests with Perl, and the second half that I like better is Parsons, Priests and Pearls. Both were inspired by my workday Friday, during which I converted a few thousand bylines from a religious magazine from unstructured text to formatted “author” objects, using the programming language Perl.

I did the conversion by parsing a large text file containing all the original bylines. Generally you do this in a series of nested loops; you go through the lines of a file and break them into components, then loop through the components, sometimes processing them into smaller components.

The improv piece is also a series of nested loop: the innermost one is various brief harmonica phrases, the next one is an analog delay with a filter and a ring modulator in the feedback loop, then there’s another loop with a variable filter around that, which in turn feed into two long double-track loops. The performance consisted of playing the various phrases into the first loop, and “playing” the filters, the modulation and analog delay’s feedback control.

All performed live, with me playing not only the role of musician, but also of producer (changing the music after it had been played) and audience (listening to, being surprised by, and not always liking the results).

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