Sehnsucht

Soundscapes and images inspired (at least in part) by avant garde composers of the last century, including Karheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti.

Sehnsucht is a one those German words which are impossible to translate succinctly into English. It means something like “A kind of wistful longing for that which cannot be obtained.” – although that probably doesn’t do it justice. I chose it as the title of this work after reading Stockhausen: A Biography by Michael Kurtz. Stockhausen was an insane genius – something I greatly admire in a person.

This suite of six pieces is highly programmatic, in that each is closely associated with a visual and narrative inspiration. I attempt to explain these relationships below.

Note: These soundscapes are designed to be rendered on high fidelity sound reproduction equipment – so if you can, please download and play them on a good system with decent speakers. Other wise you will miss a lot of what is going on here.

(01) PSR B1913+16

PSR B1913+16 was the first binary pulsar to be discovered in 1933. It earned Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor of Princeton University a Nobel Prize. Space-time in the vicinity of the pulsar is greatly warped. This curvature causes the pulsar orbit to advance.

Musically this soundscape is all about about tonality, resonance and timbre – which is to say, about what happens when you minimise or even exclude things like rhythm, melody and growth. The result in this instance is an immersive soundscape which simply takes you along with it (if you wish!) regardless of the fact that it is not producing anything that you might normally expect from a “tune”.

Inspiration: I remember being bowled over when I first heard “Lux Aeterna” by György Ligeti – which Stanley Kubrick selected (somewhat controversially) for inclusion in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

(02) Vietnam

In Theravada Buddhism the ultimate goal is the attainment of the sublime state of Nirvana, achieved by practising the Noble Eightfold Path, thus escaping what is seen as a cycle of suffering and rebirth.

I found a .wav file of a Buddhist priest chanting in an online public domain mp3 library a long time ago, and saved it – not knowing at that time how it might be useful. Having “rediscovered” the file gathering virtual dust, I had an idea to combine the otherworldly chant with wide, evolving synthesiser pads.

At the end of the piece, the metaphor of enlightenment is enacted as the human voice sonically mutates until – for a brief final phrase – the listener can no longer distinguish between voice and synthetic sound.

(03) Continuum 2017

Our perception of time is defined only by change. There is chordal progression in this piece, but it is disguised by substituting a continuous cross-fade for the more usual rhythmic transition. This interferes with the brain’s ability to encode change, and hence our sense of time.

The intention was to induce in the listener a curious but not uncomfortable sense of displacement. One is aware that the music is changing, but one may not be able to describe exactly how it is changing.

Inspiration: György Ligeti  employed a similar technique in his “Continuum” for harpsichord, 1968. I can’t imagine many harpsichord players being able to render that composition – it is frightening. Of course I don’t have to play my own soundscapes – the digital audio workstation does that for me.

(04) Submarine

Underwater sound is generated by a variety of natural sources, such as breaking waves, rain, and marine life. It is also generated by a variety of man-made sources, such as ships and military sonars.

Inspiration: “Echoes”, 1971, Pink Floyd.

(05) March of the Mechanical Toys

Future history: The ‘internet of things’ surged into the domestic marketplace when it became practicable to inject AI into children’s toys. What parents would not want a teddy bear that warns the child of danger, reminds it to use its inhaler, plays games, tells stories and sings the child to sleep? The problems began with emergent AI behaviour – when the millions of cloud-connected toys began to share data on a planet-wide scale…

The drum loop came from the wonderful library of royalty-free resources at www.looperman.com.

 

(06) Trinity

The code name “Trinity” was assigned to the first atomic weapon test by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, inspired by the poetry of John Donne.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

I have never really set out with my soundscapes to scare people. Until now. The voice at the end of this track is an audio-enhanced version of an actual recording of professor Oppenheimer.

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