Through further experimentation, I've found that granular synthesis effectively achieves textures of fragmentation that complement the piece's soundscape. Using the granular synthesis module in Max, I've been able to think past the details of making individuals segments work together and compose the interacting sonic textures and overarching structure more intentionally.
So far, I've used granular synthesis to treat a sample of extended techniques I recorded on the yangqin and an electroacoustic composition of mine entitled "The Conversation." One function they currently serve is as a way to transition between the songs that mark the beginning, centre, and end of the piece, and segments of improvisation on yangqin. The intersecting textures create a dynamic bed of sound upon which I intend to layer sparse acoustic playing and harmonic drones generated by the resonance of the yangqin (my next task). At this point, I expect that I will be investing more energy in composing these textures and manipulating them onstage through a MIDI controller in between playing the pieces, and triggering some segments while playing. I'm still interested in working with reactive sampling for some parts of the piece, but to ensure these textures don't overpower each other, I believe it will be best to work with them in a more controlled way.
These sources represent different elements of my practice that are informing the piece. By reconfiguring these source sounds into randomised textures and composing with them, weaving them together, I'm attempting to musically represent the psychological process that the piece comments on: taking the fragments of one's "sources" and weaving together a cohesive narrative. I've included two rough unmixed samples of the textures below.
The resulting amalgamation of sounds represents a synthesis of the different styles of sound-making I have worked in: traditional and contemporary yangqin playing, alt-folk songwriting, soundscape composition, and recorded conversation. The end product is intact, if unstable. And this sense of cohesive instability is an essential feature of the creation. It evokes one formulation of the transcultural self: an ever-shifting vessel through which intersecting forces (cultural, psychological, philosophical) converge and coalesce.
At times, certain textures emerge and can be heard over others, before they dip back down into an underlying murmur again while another sound takes the foreground. This mirrors the way certain influences, cultural practices, and aspects of our personalities interact within us and surface alternately in different circumstances. Perhaps what is heard, though, is what the audience is listening for. In a crowded room filled with dialogue, the words that stand out tend to be the ones that pique one's interest -- striking a subconscious chord -- or simply the ones spoken in one's own language.
Over the last two weeks I've been experimenting with different ways of combining the acoustic sound of my instrument and voice with the found sounds and conversations gathered on my field recorder.
One of my findings was that I feel quite comfortable performing to pre-composed tape. I think this is due to my experience as a performer, and a musical training that emphasised learning by ear and memorisation over sight-reading, I find that it feels quite natural to remember the cues and timings in a pre-composed tape of found sound and adapt my playing accordingly. This follows the format that appears in some new experimental classical music settings, in which a performer is given a score accompanied by tape, and they are either asked to sync their performance to certain moments in the tape, or another person at the mixing desk triggers each segment of the tape as they follow the performance and score. My goal is to trigger compose segments of tape and cue them myself at certain moments of the piece, as I'm performing. I plan to control this using a MIDI controller that I'll activate with my left foot.
The end product I'm aiming for is a live version of something like this, a template I mixed of the song that will close my set, "Practice."
Note: I will be editing the song a bit, to take out some of the found sound samples obscuring voice and instrument, and also add a bit of variation to the singing and playing to make it less constant.
Another one of my findings is that velocity detection and pitch threshold detection should allow a straightforward way to design a reactive sampler, for improvisatory sections of the performance. I'll compose a variety of samples using the found sounds as well as newly generated sounds using objects and the yangqin itself, and load this into lists in the patch which will be triggered and cycled through when particular events occur in my playing, e.g. when the velocity and pitch exceed or go below certain levels. My focus in creating the samples will be found sounds and sounds I generate physically, rather than synthesised sounds, because this fits the overall aesthetic of the piece. Given my qualification of the sound as an extension of folk aesthetics, I want to maintain a sense of physicality in the sounds for the audience.
Following these discoveries, I have reworked the set to consist of the following 20-minute progression:
"Garden" (1') -- the Mandarin verse of an original song, acoustic
Improvisation (5') -- Free improvisation, reactive sampling of found sounds
"Weather Balloon" (4') -- a song with composed with simple effects. Here's an acoustic section.
Improvisation (5') -- Free improvisation, reactive sampling, emphasis on conversation snippets
"Practice" (5') -- a song with composed tape
The form of the set now embodies more clearly the notion of weaving together fragments. The samples used consist of short phrases of different sonic textures. Playing the improvisations will involve consciously activating cues for these fragments of sound, enacting a form of sonic weaving. As a whole, the set will bring together pieces of songs I have written with the other materials and styles my practice reaches -- alternative folk song, soundscape composition, audio ethnography, and improvisation.
I will be performing this set as part of a show at The Victoria Dalston on 18th September.
When I traveled back to my home of San Francisco, I expected to experience a clear sense of rootedness when seeing my friends and family, in the significant contexts of a wedding, a farewell party, and a meeting between my significant other and family members. The latter was quite meaningful, but the other two events felt surprisingly casual. At the wedding, I was more preoccupied with the activities and emotions of the wedding itself than I was with the emotional significance of reconnecting with childhood friends. Similarly at the farewell party, it felt more like a normal party than anything else, with some touching moments of music and reminiscence, but the moments of transcendent connection I had imagined simply did not happen. I did sit down with my friends, teacher, and mother on separate occasions to record conversations surrounding the topic of rootedness, which yielded some interesting quotes that I intend to incorporate into the tape element of the set, but the experience as a whole inspired me to adjust my question slightly.
The primary lesson I took away from the experience of the trip is that the reflection I have been engaging in has more to do with myself than it has to do with the people in my kinship network. I am the person feeling fragmented, stretched across cultures, uprooted, and my questions about rootedness are more about my internal state and perception of relationships than the relationships themselves.
Transitioning back into life in London led me to a renewed question and focus for the set. The question is: how does transcultural experience fragment identity, and how do we attempt to weave ourselves back together?
Some songs I have been writing on the side took on a new life when I focused my ideas around these questions. As a result, I have decided to centre the set around a core of songs, which I will enhance with live processing and electro-instrumental improvisational interludes.
The structure of the set became clear after I made this decision. While the conceptual characters in the previous structure remain almost all the same, the development of the set is different now. The table below shows the new structure.
The set will be 45 minutes in total. "Revolution" and "Strange" I composed last year; "Garden" is mostly composed from last year but I intend to re-write parts of it; "Practice" I composed recently. Here are some samples of the new songs I have yet to write, "Battleground" and "Weather Balloon."
Quite simply, this set is my answer to the question above, as it applies to my life. As an artist, making music is the best way I can make sense of the complex and elusive challenges of a transcultural existence. My hope is that by animating these questions and my own reflections around it, I can inspire the audience reflect on how the themes intersect with their own lives.
Having ruminated over the wide range of themes my research question touches on -- sense of self, sense of place, rootedness, and fragmentation -- I have chosen to draft a structure of the piece to use as a framework for organising my ideas.
Thinking about the structure of the piece at this stage also helps mitigate the risk of putting the cart before the horse, or over-intellectualising the music to the point that it becomes aesthetically flat or conceptually overwrought.
In this structure, I have mapped conceptual "characters" onto the elements I will be working with in the piece. For example, the sound of my voice will serve as a representation of "the self," while the live processing will represent external forces, such as the pressures caused by globalisation. The interaction between these elements represent dynamics between the conceptual characters. For example, distortion of the live processing on my voice could be an expression of the distortion that the fracturing of social fabrics caused by globalisation may have on one's sense of self. Organising the concepts in this way gives me a clearer idea of how to craft a story about an experience of transnational existence.
This table or "map" weaves together six conceptual characters – "Self," "Others," "Place," "Occasions," "External forces," and "The Vessel" – in a story consisting of seven vignettes. These vignettes, currently titled "Genesis," "Tradition," "Sojourn," "Rupture," "Distortion," "Gathering," "Dispersal," trace a journey through the phases of a transition from a fixed model of identity and community toward a more fluid, ephemeral, digitally rendered model of existence. The titles hint at the musical qualities of each section, with the earlier parts conjuring elemental music and folk aesthetics and the later parts involving electroacoustic, atonal, and noisy atmospheres. This contrast between the folk style, acoustic yangqin playing toward the augmented sound parallels the contrast between a traditional notion of rootedness and a post-modern conception of mobile identities.
A critical feature of this structure is the role of the yangqin. The yangqin is the center of this piece, and the character I have assigned it is "The Vessel" or "The Mentality." This is the part that transforms the most through the piece, and it represents an element of creation, the small shell/valence/mindset one surrounds oneself with, to stay protected and sustained through the turbulence of modern life. For me, the yangqin is this vessel, it is the literal instrument I use to adapt to an ever-shifting environment. For others, this vessel may be their work, their sense of purpose, their inner narrative. As I create the piece, I will reflect more on the meaning of this aspect of the story.
How do the conditions of transnationalism affect a conception of kinship premised upon genealogical and geographic fixity? What does a new model of kinship, one that accounts for mobility, multilocality, and transience in contemporary relationships, look like? Or sound like, rather?
My final project will explore these complementary questions. Through a combination of yangqin, voice, field recording, and live processing, I will develop and perform an "electroacoustic folk" set that reflects on themes of relationality, rootedness, love, and fragmentation as they relate to notions of transnational kinship. I will draw on field recordings and interviews conducted with close friends and family on a trip I am taking from London to my home of San Francisco. There, I will be attending a wedding and a farewell party, among other events that will bring those whom could be considered my "kin." These gatherings will serve as an apt opportunity for sincere discussions around how we relate to one another when we live so far apart.
My research will begin with a deeper investigation into the theoretical underpinnings of traditional conceptions of kinship, which tend to revolve around families who live in a specific locality over a long period of time. I intend to survey sociological, anthropological, and literary work on the topic. I will then conduct a similar investigation into the theories behind transnationalism and its effect on familial and social relationships. I am curious about multiple areas related to this, including: post-structuralist theory, diasporic identity, definitions of community in the Digital Age, and "place" vs. "space."
Today, with 244 million people in the world classified as migrants,* and a media filled with emotionally charged debates surrounding national identity and the impacts of migration, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold onto traditional ideas of what constitutes kinship, and how it is created and maintained. There is a need for new models of determining how to relate to the important people in our life, and who they are in the first place.
My hypothesis is that for migrants and diasporic communities, a traditional model of kinship that rooted in one locality for several generations is insufficient. We may have grown up in a place different from where our parents grew up; we may have moved across cities or countries in our lifetime; we may regularly commute between different places, and so might our family and friends. Our experiences are more multilocal, and so are our relationships. They are not defined by one fixed place.
Moreover, our opportunities to connect with each other and be present with each other are sparse. We are only able to see each other during brief visits, either when the migrant visits the family or vice versa. For those who are more mobile, we experience various crossings, during important events such as holidays, or on spontaneous occasions. Our relationships are thus do not consist of contiguous periods of time spent together, but rather episodic segments of time surrounding particular experiences.
In addition, when we live far away from our family, in their absence we must find people to stay connected with, to stay socially active and to feel loved. Friendships we develop in our day-to-day lives might take on a new significance, if friends become the closest thing to family we have available. Some of us may identify as having "chosen family."
Within these conditions, our understanding of kinship, of the set of close relationships that are most important to us, becomes less contingent on a fixed location, a biological bloodline, and a contiguous period of time. These factors become fragmented by the forces of globalisation. In this context of fragmentation, what kind of structure holds together our close relationships?
My project will postulate that a transnational model of kinship is more multilocal, episodic, and unpredictable, and bases itself on shared experience more than shared blood. The conditions of transnationalism also reached toward a more pluralistic social infrastructure, which makes ethnicity a less fundamental characteristic of close community.
Within this model of kinship, conversation plays an important role in facilitating and holding together shared experience. Conversation is a unifying, sonic form that makes people feel connected to each other. Conversations can happen in person during those brief visits on special occasions, and they can be continued digitally. Because of the primacy of conversation in this model of kinship, it will be an important component of the sonic landscape of the piece.
My goal with the piece is to use music and sound to represent my own experience of transnational kinship and offer a template for the audience to consider. Much of the piece will be shaped by the conversations I have with my family and close friends. The music will respond to that content as well.
A series of papers I intend to read on this topic comes from the Leeds University research project, Care, Values, and the Future of Welfare. The strand of research is called "Transnational Kinship" and can be found here: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/cava/research/strand3c.htm
*World Migration Report, UN Migration, 2018: https://www.iom.int/wmr/chapter-6
"Practice" is a song that I intend to incorporate into the set. This was a song I wrote recently that was originally just about the difficulty of loving someone. Now, I am reshaping its form to comment on some of the structural aspects of my postulated model of transnational kinship.
The song is about when you find it hard to love someone, and the difficulty is not about "whether" you love them, but about "how" to love them. One feel on a fundamental level that they love another, but so much of the barrier to achieving a lasting connection is the circumstances, the impracticalities, incompatible orientations and situations. The song asks, how does one go about loving when the circumstances, the practicality, the "how to" considerations get in the way?
The song has a very sparse texture, which leaves ample room for field recordings I gather to played in conjunction with the music. The song begins with a simple procession of chords, and the first vocal moment is just the word "sometimes." This word is repeated three times with slight melodic adjustments. In the next cycle of the melody, this word is extended into a full sentence: "Sometimes it's not easy to love." The words are coming together slowly. The next lyric has more words in the same amount of melodic space. This accumulation of words mimics the tentative, uncertain quality of a person gathering their thoughts. As the song continues, the sentences become clearer and more specific. The tempo increases, and (not in this sketch, but in a future iteration) the harmony becomes more dense and the volume increases.
This accumulation of disparate elements aims to create a sense of coalescence, of gradual building, like a crowd gathering together. A quickening occurs, both in terms of the speed and the stimulation of something coming into being.
The climax of the song comes at the most poignant of the lyrics -- "How do put this theory into practice?" -- at the creation of the meaning. This creation of meaning is the culmination of the metaphorical gathering of the musical elements. After this, the elements separate and dissipate again. This coalescence and dispersal, models the fluid way in which communities form, around some central creation of meaning, and then disappear.
The song suggests that love is just a theory, and it can only be realised through concrete decisions and actions. In transnational contexts, loving can be particularly difficult because of the practical considerations. The physical distance, the asynchronicity of time, the difference in cultural environments can create barriers in these relationships.
The "you" that the song refers to is ambiguous, and as such the "love" described in the song could be interpreted as various kinds of love. It could describe romantic love with a long-distance partner, or familial love with a relative, or xenophilic love for a stranger. The simplicity and open-ended nature of the lyrics results in a multivalent meaning, inviting any interpretation from the audience and allowing them to choose whichever resonates most with their experience.
Nevertheless, a risk with this song is that the audience may default to construing it as a love song, with its meaning directed towards a specific kind of person and a specific kind of love. In order to take the song past this surface level meaning, I will use a simple performance element to make clear that the song is not directed at one character in my personal life. When I perform the first stanza, I will look at a different audience member each time I utter a lyric. This will first occur every four bars (or 8 chord repetitions) each time I utter the word "sometimes". As the song, develops, the frequency with which I look at different individuals increases. This will draw a connection between the "individual" and each sung word, to animate the metaphor described above, of the song's elements mirroring a gathering of a crowd. At the culmination of the song, beginning with the lyric "how do we put this theory into practice?", I will scan the audience as a whole, visually gesturing toward the collective as I sing the core question of the song, one that can be interpreted within the framework of pluralist ideology. In other words, asking the audience, the larger human collective, how do we learn to love each other as groups of people? As communities? As nations?
Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes, sometimes,
Sometimes it's not easy to love.
Sometimes it's not easy, not easy, to love, to love you.
It's not a matter of whether or not I love you, now,
It's more a question of howâ¦toâ¦doâ¦thisâ¦
How do we put this theory into practice?
How do we turn this feeling into action?
Shouldn't loving someone be somewhat simpler than this?
Loving someone is easier said than done.
Sometimes it's not, not easy to love, and I don't know why, but
I'll try, if you try, and if I try, will you try?
The song is saying it's hard to love "you," it is hard to love the other, despite espoused ideologies around loving "humanity" or loving people from other cultures, this feeling is not real until its actualised through concrete actions. The song throws into relief the difficulty and the mystery of how that process works, and how that process can only be approached a mutual agreement to "try. "
I previously posted this song in the background of video clips sent to me by my friends (see embedded video below). This may be useful just as an example of how field recordings could sound when incorporated into the song.