Chance vs choice: Composing with dice

Composing with 12-sided diceOne of the pieces I’m working on for my song cycle Crossing Dartmoor is based on Richard Long’s Two Continuous Walks Following the Same Line. The basis of the artwork is that Long walked the same path in 1979 and again in 2010 and each time recorded the things he came across. This work’s incarnation in Crossing Dartmoor sees the piano part work with the landmarks, the things that are still there 31 years later, while the singer’s text is the transient things that change position or were only observed on one of the walks.

The idea is to have this piece exist in two versions. In each the piano part is essentially the same while the vocal part changes (except for the final “Railway Line” which will be in both pieces). However, having an identical piano part for both versions disturbed me – while fixed landmarks such as rivers and “old china clay workings” will still be in position, they won’t be exactly the same as they were thirty years previously – they can’t be. Simple principles of erosion forbid it. Whether by rain, wind, animals or people, small details will have changed. Possibly beyond the determining of the human eye, even if a photograph had been taken, but they will have changed – and the person viewing them will have changed even more dramatically.

I first thought that I would ask the pianist to repeat notes at random, but not the same notes or the same number of repetitions each time the piece was performed. In a recent meeting with my supervisor, Sam Hayden, though, the project took a decisive turn towards experimenting with techniques that removed elements from my control, and Sam suggested that I use dice to determine the repetitions and create a fully notated part for this piece.

I was a little apprehensive, I’ll admit – I’ve not done anything like this before and I’ve never been a fan of the plinky-plonk random school of composition (technical term). What I hadn’t expected though, was that using dice to determine which note would be repeated and how many times to repeat it (purple die to choose the note, orange to determine repetitions – thank you, Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot) would give me a whole new perspective on what I’d written.

The pitch material for the piano part already demonstrates one layer of control removed: it is all generated using a cipher. Yes, I picked and chose from the notes provided by the cipher, but each section’s piano notes use only pitches from the cipher for the word it represents. I’m finding that this has turned my attention from inventing the ‘right’ melodic material for the piece (always a fraught experience – what if it sounds right but is actually wrong?? says paranoid-brain) to thinking more about resonance and movement, balancing stasis with activity, with the result that this piano part is a lot more rhythmically varied than anything I’ve ever written before.

Devolving the choices of where repetitions happen and how many times a note is repeated to the dice is now allowing me to work more carefully on how the repetition functions in the piece. On my own, I might not have the guts (yet) to repeat a single mid-phrase note 12 times (hurrah for 12-sided dice!) but faced with a predetermined decision, the question is no longer “gosh – should I?” but becomes “how should these repetitions be paced?” “what are their dynamics?” “how do I shape the repetitions so they create suspense and momentum and don’t just interfere with the piece’s progress?”.

Dealing with these questions, even on a simple run-through, has totally reshaped the piece – for the better, I think! – and made me reconsider things which had seemed very straightforward. I’m really interested now to see how different dice rolls will affect the same piano part for the second version of the song. Maybe one day soon I’ll even brave the 20-sided die 😀

Tagged with: article, work in progress | 1 comment

One thought on “Chance vs choice: Composing with dice

  1. Pingback: Positive changes: Exploring the I Ching for composition: