As some of you know, I’m working on a piece called Willingly, for David Chavannes and the most appropriately named flutist ever, Lily Floeter. The piece is based on samples of people saying “If you had told me ten years ago that some day I would willingly _____, I wouldn’t have believed you,” where what goes in the blank has to be something they’ve actually done.
In one section of the piece, these samples are presented very straightforwardly, with a sparse accompaniment that adds a layer of emotional inflection but doesn’t “get in the way.” Over the last couple of days, I’ve been working on writing that accompaniment, and I haven’t been getting very far. The problem: I’ve transcribed the pitches and rhythms of the samples in traditional notation, but people’s speech rhythms aren’t actually metrical, so nothing quite lines up with the accompaniment I’m writing. I could write a non-metrical score, but it’s not really my inclination, and it’ll make it much harder for the performers to synchronize with the pre-recorded electronics. So just now I had another idea: cut the samples into individual “beats,” and either speed them up or slow them down them so that they line up with a metronome.
The downside is that slowed-down bits have a “grainy” quality, at least with the software I’m using (ProTools LE). But then I realized, that’s not a downside. First of all, it gives the samples a subtly unreal quality, which makes even the less emotionally charged ones (something like “…that some day I would willingly eat tofu…” as opposed to something like “…that some day I would willingly walk into an abortion clinic…”) seem a bit ominous. (Think of the reconstructed answering-machine message in Twelve Monkeys: “Haaaave a meerrryyy Chriiisttmaaass!”) But it’s also, in an unexpectedly Lachenmann-ish way, structurally and timbrally related to another section of the piece! In that other section, I’m taking advantage of the fact that nearly all of the people I sampled went into vocal fry on the last word of the sentence, “you,” and writing an all-fry section. Vocal fry and slowed-down speech graininess are awfully similar acoustically!
Composing can feel like banging your head against a wall repeatedly, but the unexpected moments when things come together make it all worth it.