by Dan Trueman



Year: 2007

Duration: 13:00

Instrumentation: violin, hardanger fiddle (or violin), bass clarinet, piano, laptop


Program Notes:

In the study of musical scales and meters, the notion of well-formedness usually manifests itself as a set of specific constraints. For instance, one common constraint is maximal evenness; in the case of a well-formed diatonic scale, the seven notes will be distributed as evenly as possible across the twelve half-steps that divide the octave. Similarly, the beats that define a meter will be spread out as evenly as possible across the smallest pulse that evenly divides the measure. Scales and meters that satisfy these constraints are deemed "well-formed" (see Justin London's work for further information about this concept with regards to meter) In this context, there were several starting points for this piece. The first is the Norwegian telespringar, a dance that has a decidedly unusual meter; each of the three beats are of significantly different lengths and it is impossible to evenly subdivide the meter—it feels as if time has been warped. Another starting point is the North Indian dhamar tala (5+2+3+4), and while the metric theory has a way for explaining such uneven divisions, its asymmetries are still somewhat unsettling. Two particular experiences with metronomes also provided some initial inspiration for this piece. The first came years ago while I was practicing rapid spiccato with a metronome, gradually increasing the tempo of the metronome while endeavoring to keep the bow strokes even. I was struck by how my sense of time changed whenever I stopped bowing — the metronome seemed to speed up! It was as if time slowed while I was paying such close attention to playing rapidly, and then resumed its normal rate when I stopped. This experience was clear as day and reproducible; if somehow we could quantify our cognitive sense of time’s speed, I am sure this would be measurable. The second experience came during rehearsals of another piece of mine (“Matisse’s Garden Lesson,” from Five (and-a-half) Gardens) which features an old-style mechanical metronome tick-tocking away on top of a toy-piano. During the rehearsal, it became clear that the metronome was malfunctional and a bit asymmetrical; one beat (with the ticker moving from left to right) was a bit longer than the other. Remarkably, we adjusted to this asymmetry and became accustomed to this lopsided quality. Variations on an Ill-Formed Meter uses an audio-visual laptop-based click-track to explore one particular metric structure. The click-track, which is audible to the audience (no headphones), reveals different aspects of the meter to each player independently and changes over the course of the piece, sometimes from bar to bar (each player follows their own laptop’s click, and the four laptops are networked synchronized). It begins in a somewhat simple 7, and remains in 7 throughout, but the nature of the 7 changes dramatically, even while the overall tempo remains constant. The players can see their click-track via an on-screen rotating phasor which helps coordinate the players the way a conductor might, keeping the orientation of the meter transparent. Naturally (or unnaturally), this click-track is no ordinary click-track, and at times the underlying pulses speed up and slow down, but in highly consistent, programmed and learnable ways. It also is a pitched click-track, providing a changing harmonic backdrop for each variation. Of course, there are many other aspects to this work and in particular I am inspired by the awesome and wonderful Scandinavian fiddle bands JPP, Frigg, Våsen, and others; in a way, I think of the click-track as a lasso used in a valiant attempt to corral an out-of-control fiddle band. I am also naturally inspired by the mechanical rhythmic explorations of Nancarrow. Finally, the harmonic material for this piece is largely driven by the possibilities of an unusual tuning (AEAC#), itself asymmetrical and seemingly ill-formed, for the Hardanger fiddle.

First Performance Information:

Variations was composed for Todd Reynolds, Ken Thompson, Kathy Supove and me for the New Interfaces for Musical Expression festival in NYC 2007. Subsequent performances at Banglewood Mass-Moca and ICMC in Copenhagen with the Finnish group Uusinta.