Earlier this month I had the opportunity to perform Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath with TURNMusic. We’ll be performing it again so if you missed it you can still catch it.

The piece involves ceding control of tempo to the individual biology of the musicians. This loss of control is interesting because the pulse (literally) comes from the musicians. But the alignment of it all is outside the traditional spectrum of a shared, steady tempo.

In the parts that I’ve played (the optional double bass part in the Quartet and as the bass clef hands in the Sextet) the bio-control signals operate in a few different ways: to set a pulse for an ostinato-like bed of music, to demarcate sections, to indicate specific lengths of tones while ensuring the durations are not under the control of the ensemble.

I think the most common control signal in the Quartet and Sextet is the heartbeat: a collection of musicians playing so that the tempo of the music is one eighth-note is one chamber of the musician’s heart beating. Since all the musicians will have different pulses there will be no real beat alignment. The audible effect is, to me, reminiscent of wind chimes or a sort of audio kaleidoscope.

While this kaleidoscope is running, there are often more lyrical passages being played by other instruments. These lyrical passages are timed to the musicians’ breath. So a section may take place over the course of a breath.

These two control signals don’t perfectly align of course. So in the notation there’s a sort of vamp while we get the courtesy notes for the lyrical part and can shift our kaleidoscope with the breath of the lyric players while maintaining our individual heart-driven pulse. Once the desire for things to “line up” is released the result is very magical and delicate.

So that the work doesn’t lose all focus as each individual musician’s heart or breath changes and drifts from the others, there are brief pauses at the end of segments. This let’s everyone, errrr, catch their breath, and start up again together, refocused on the next passage. It’s an elegant solution: short pause, begin next section together, then slowly drift apart.

Here is yMusic performing these works:

A friend, upon hearing that I was playing these works, mentioned another work with similar control signals: Scott Wollschleger’s THE HEART IS NO PLACE FOR WAR. This work is scored for two vibraphonists and two pianists and uses heartbeats as pulse for the music.

The instrumentation is especially interesting because of the similarities of sound production: a bar of metal struck by a padded striker, a string of metal struck by a padded striker–this makes some great tones in a slow kaleidoscopic way.

In my explorations of synthetic music I frequently come to the realization that “the music” is almost always in control signals. I’m definitely a tone junkie (when in doubt, add germanium) but the real moving things happen, for me at least, when the signals controlling the sound have a life in them.

Knowing about this music where my own biology controls the sounds I produce has been fascinating. Experiencing making the music is, of course, far deeper than the intellectual knowledge of the signals themselves.