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Twisted Tonality

Composer Chris Warner talks about the mathematical writing process behind his Album Twisted Tonality, published by Audio Network.

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TWISTED TONALITY

PUBLISHED BY AUDIO NETWORK

Number Crunching

“Let's make music by numbers!”

Not the most creative or inspiring proposition you might think. But it was in large part a mathematical exercise that resulted in the distinctive and intriguing sound world of my album Twisted Tonality, published by Audio Network and recorded at Abbey Road with players from the English Session Orchestra, solo woodwind performances by the legendary Andy Findon and percussion from rhythm meister, Matt Whittington

One question often asked of composers is, “what inspires you to write a piece of music?”. There could be as many answers to that question as there are pieces of music. Maybe it’s a beguiling riff teased out from some piano noodling, or a catchy rhythm tapped out on a tabletop, perhaps an unusual chord progression, or a very predictable chord progression. Maybe inspiration strikes with a lyrical hook, a picture, a memory, a sound or simply a prevailing mood. It's a mysterious process. However, in the case of this particular album a lot of this mystery was removed. That’s because every track of Twisted Tonality owes its origin to a row of digits, from 0-11. The rest is, as you will hear, a matter of carefully ordered chaos.

Ordered Chaos

The tone row that forms the basis of all the tracks in  Twisted Tonality

The tone row that forms the basis of all the tracks in Twisted Tonality

I’ll admit that the numerical system I employed to write this albums is not some new, revolutionary composing technique. I can't claim to have invented it. I wasn't even a twinkle in my mother's eye at the time of its invention. But in the early 1900s when the system in question was first developed, resulting in hitherto unheard, unimaginable music being tried out in the concert halls of Austria and Germany, it definitely was revolutionary, not to mention hugely controversial. So step forward Arnold Schoenberg and the other composers of the 2nd Viennese School who, like Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, tried to take music beyond what they thought were its natural limits, and in the process created a new musical language that some people will always call monstrous, whilst others hail it as sublime.

Musical Revolution

The track Ink Flicking track is inspired by the strange but true account of how, when signing the death warrant of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and his officers were overcome with giggles and started an ink fight. Many of the tracks in the album are inspired by revolutionary events that have shaped our lives and societies over the centuries. To the extent that it is shaped by the men and women who write and perform it, and the social and political ages in which they live and attempt to define themselves, music is a living art from. So it will come as no surprise that simmering amongst the deep cauldron of ideas, tensions and world views that shaped the early decades of the 1900s, music too was struggling to work out its identity and purpose. By the way, musically speaking, this philosophical and aesthetic struggle was confined to that broad genre of 'Western Art Music', as there was no pop or commercial music as we know it today. And those - I'm afraid mostly - men who felt it their duty to redefine the language of art music were immersed in revolutionary, political circles of continental Europe (particularly the musical powerhouses of Germany and Austria) whose manifestos pledged to redefine society in terms of suffrage, class struggle, individual freedom, and free speech. Western Art music didn’t escape these trends. Furthermore, up to this point in the early 20th Century, just like the society in which it found itself, Western music had also been constrained in a strict hierarchy. For some composers it was an overbearing and outmoded ‘class system’ of scales, chords and functional harmony. The composers of the so called 2nd Viennese School dared to propose a new musical democracy in which no single note, scale, key held ultimate power.

The composers who became known as the  2nd Viennese School  and developed serial techniques

The composers who became known as the 2nd Viennese School and developed serial techniques

A New Musical Democracy?

You can find these notes by counting up 12 tiny steps - or  semitones  - on a keyboard until you get to the same note you started on (but an  octave  higher)

You can find these notes by counting up 12 tiny steps - or semitones - on a keyboard until you get to the same note you started on (but an octave higher)

Although Schoenberg and his pupils didn’t name it, the technique they devised has become known as ‘serialism’. The basic serialist method involves taking the 12 chromatic notes of the musical scale, and giving them a number from 0-11.You then randomise the order of these notes to create what’s called a prime row. Every note in a note row is of equal importance, and the row should be organised so that no one particular note sounds more important than the rest. The concept of scales and keys is abandoned for something that sounds more like a musical democracy, but which also, when played, sounds a long way from the kind of diatonic melodies to which our ears are more accustomed.

This is what the prime row for the Twisted Tonality album looks like written out as music:

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You can hear most of this prime row played in its entirety in the track Gathering Of Elders

It’s probably not the catchiest or most hummable tune I’ve ever written. I didn’t really craft it in the sense a composer usually crafts a melody. I used a mathematical note selection process to come up with this prime row. Here’s how the prime row ended up being manipulated into the score for this particular track:

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Geeky note: There’s even a Sibelius software plug-in that will generate all these note row inversions for you.

Geeky note: There’s even a Sibelius software plug-in that will generate all these note row inversions for you.

But on its own, this single prime row was not enough to supply the musical material for a whole album. So I employed another serialist technique. You can take a prime row and apply a sequence of mathematical re-orderings of the pitches: inverting and reversing the intervals to create a whole family of related note rows. In fact this process generated 48 possible note rows.

I could then set about choosing a unique and specific note row to form the basis of each track. I also love the emerging sense that, because each of these computed note rows share the same musical DNA, there is a unifying force working across the album as a whole. I wanted to include the performers in this thought process too, so when it came to preparing the scores for the various sessions at Abbey Road, I made a point of including each track’s note row at the top of the score.

The relevant note row for each track appears as a header at the top of the session scores.

The relevant note row for each track appears as a header at the top of the session scores.

Endless Possibilities

The great thing about this method of composing is that you can use these note rows in so many different ways, and they suggest a variety of styles. Sometimes a chord progression emerges, as in the jazz and swing inspired Clueless Sleuth (featuring Matt Whittington’s vintage vibes):

 
The building blocks for  Clueless Sleuth  were taken from retrogade row 5, a mathematical inversion of the original note row

The building blocks for Clueless Sleuth were taken from retrogade row 5, a mathematical inversion of the original note row

 

Or a fanfare as in March of the Iconoclasts, which again continues the theme of disorder and revolution:

 
Elements of prime row 10 were used to create the 3-part harmony for the trumpets in  March Of The Iconoclasts

Elements of prime row 10 were used to create the 3-part harmony for the trumpets in March Of The Iconoclasts

 

Or the romantic, lyrical 12/8 accompaniment found in Yearning for More, with a lyrical clarinet solo, courtesy of Andy Findon, that also draws upon the note row for this particular piece:

Other World Harmonies

There’s no doubt that using random, mathematically derived ‘note rows’ yields up unfamiliar and alien sound worlds. I enriched this musical language further with the addition of many layers of glitchy percussion beds and sound design elements. Here the phenomenal skills of percussionist Matt Whittington came into their own. Matt and I spent several days incarcerated in his percussion lock-up - an Aladdin’s Cave of every imaginable percussion instrument under the sun, including many rare and antique instruments. Our battery included an antique marching snare, orchestral bass drums, cajons, toto toms, toy snares, assorted nuts, garden canes, metal boxes, marimba, xylophone, antique cymbals, sizzle cymbals, and more shakers than you can shake a shaker at. Check out some of the roto tom, micro snare and marimba work in Turbulent Toccata:

Mix engineer and fellow composer Rob Kelly.  Twisted Tonality  certainly wouldn't have sounded anywhere near as vibrant and wacky were it not for his immense sonic couture skills.

Mix engineer and fellow composer Rob Kelly. Twisted Tonality certainly wouldn't have sounded anywhere near as vibrant and wacky were it not for his immense sonic couture skills.

Woodwind legend Andy Findon furnished me with some wind tracks via. remote session, and the Harp tracks came courtesy of Harpist and fellow composer, @beckyapplin. The final mixes were crafted by the sonic masterchef, fellow composer and all round genius Rob Kelly, who relished the freshness of the sound world we had created, and seized the chance to play with an arsenal of mixing toys in order to ramp up the strangeness factor. Reflecting on the final mixes he points out that: “this is definitely the first time i've used a flanger, auto-panner, distortion and Portishead style compression on an orchestral mix!”

 
At a concert in Vienna in 1913 (nicknamed  Skandalkonzert)  where Schoenberg and his followers first tried out their new serialist music on an unsuspecting audience a riot ensued. One witness described the sound of the concert promoter punching a member of the audience as the most ‘harmonious’ sound of the evening.

At a concert in Vienna in 1913 (nicknamed Skandalkonzert) where Schoenberg and his followers first tried out their new serialist music on an unsuspecting audience a riot ensued. One witness described the sound of the concert promoter punching a member of the audience as the most ‘harmonious’ sound of the evening.

 

Far from being a sterile and mathematical composing system, using serial techniques has been a revelation to me as a composer. I’ve travelled along new musical avenues and visited some quirky and sonically interesting places along the way. I’m also very grateful to Audio Network for their support and guidance in the making of this album and to all the aforementioned artists for their immense talent and generosity.


Twisted Tonality is published by Audio Network and available to purchase here.