A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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So it's 2009, and I'm sitting in a comfy chair celebrating my sixtieth birthday with a new recording of a childhood favorite, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The piece was a muddy mess in every LP release, even the CD releases were pinched, and the downloaded versions hopelessly compressed into sonic muck. But this new version is meant for the Hafler Advanced Remixing & Presentation Optimizer Experience (HarpoX), which promises superior listening to any format yet devised. I'd heard friends talking about bootleg HarpoX re-releases tumbling out of the studios from Eric Clapton and Jane Siberry and Justin Timberlake and We Might Be Giants.

The full HarpoX console is virtual, taking advantage of holographic location technology -- really just a comfortable set of glasses that shows a setup of your choice. Its early home version reveals the musical group on stage, but as with chess pieces, you can move them around and bring them closer or push them away ... or sit in with them. You can slide a mixing board out from the side, and give them the balance you like -- and grab equalization and effects, too. Maybe Clapton really should have cranked up the distortion, and simply never gone unplugged. Or Hendrix all acoustic on The Star-Spangled Banner. Your choice, the HarpoX offers.

The HarpoX recordings aren't just copies of the multitrack, but a complete end-to-end resampling. And here's where it gets interesting. Push a (virtual) button and the stylistic parameters panel opens. That vintage Modern Jazz Quartet too cool? Hottle it up by sliding the control from blue to red, and Connie Kay starts to swing harder, pushing to the front of the beat. Too pure? Wag your fingers in the 'purity sphere' to bend some of Percy Heath's bass pitches and change Milt Jackson's mallets. Even John Lewis gets to switch to a concert Bösendorfer for Under the Jasmine Tree. Like it? Good. Grab the blue ribbon and it packages up the settings for your next listening, or for sharing with friends, or for extracting your sonic taste to apply to other recordings.

That's only the beginning, and I know it. That Rite recording is ready to go. Kristjan Järvi has sat down with the extended Chicago-Norrlands Symphony Orchestra -- conductors sit now, the better to work with the musicians' neural adjusters -- and created the first major orchestral HarpoX recording. It was no mean feat, because the long-term contract with the American Federation of Musicians hadn't anticipated the role of the listener as a musical participant, nor the way the players' lifetimes of hard-won techniques and even their very personal sounds would be massaged (to their detriment, most felt) in the living room.

But Järvi had convinced them with the absolute sense of his argument: that nonpop had no life as a non-interactive museum piece. Every listener, he argued, wanted a personalized version of music since TotalRemix -- developed by an obscure Vermont composer for a virtual opera game -- had swept into the music scene the year before. TotalRemix competitions using multitracked rock'n'roll recordings of the 1970s were already passé, and the real challenge was to extract metadata from acoustic shellacs of the 1920s. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After the Rite recording was underway, it became clear to the producers that they were facing no ordinary studio challenge. Sure, listeners could grab the musicians and mix them up -- but who really wanted the trumpets in front of the violas, or the timpani between two oboes? Yes, one could reposition the Tchaikovsky Sixth with the violins next to each other or in the original arrangement of opposed firsts and seconds, but this was a musicologist's deal, a curiosity. Berlioz's surround brass ensembles in the Requiem had been done, too. The nonpop realm listeners were still a conservative lot, but their sense of personalizing performances was rabid and always had been, which accounted for the sheer number of releases of the same Top 40 classical compositions.

Something else was needed for HarpoX, so they called in the Corwin Professor at UCSB, Clarence Barlow, whose parametric analysis of music dated back forty years. His recently developed algorithms not only could extract gross musical characteristics by brute force, but they could analyze, catalog and resynthesize the entire metadata for a composition of any complexity. His studio demo of a re-parameterized Stockhausen Gruppen had not only stunned the composer niche (and raised the ire of the antediluvian German icon himself), but had attracted the attention of Hollywood studios wanting to form-fit the music and sound effects of every film to the audience in the theater. Though only a nonpopper's musical sideline, this profit-enhancing scheme (quietly put into test markets, where reviews soared with praise for the film afterward) was a new cash cow for the studios, and they financed the commercialization of HarpoX.

There were glitches with the Chicago-Norrlands Rite. The recording equipment and parametric followers had to be synchronized for a performer motions. The opening bassoon solo wouldn't stay put, for example, and the sound resembled the look of 1950s 3-D movies where the top of the bassoon would reach out from the screen to touch your forehead. It was a kind of seasick sound, but artificial and tiring. The installation of a grid of infrared real-time location sensors eventually stilled the virtual motion; even if the bassoonist kept rocking back and forth, the sound was perfectly captured in steady space.

With the fully captured and described recording finally edited and ready, it became clear to the producers that their HarpoX virtual console was incomplete. If the recording had the metadata -- the full description of musical activity in terms of pitch, rhythm, orchestration, articulation, emphasis, texture, structure, etc. -- there had to be a way to use it, or be relegated to a Twenty-First century equivalent of ping-pong recordings that dominated the transition from mono to stereo in the early 1960s.

So the metadata worksheet was added to the console. That's what I have in front of me (or rather, around me). It is crude, and my recording has a beta version -- I am a senior composer now, and receive a few perquisites -- whose worksheet is a blinding array of text and sliders, more reminiscent of the erstwhile Soundhack than the beautiful holographic stage of musicians the designers had created for living-room listeners. Still, everything musical can be pulled up: a score, a Schenker analysis, a soundwave, a spectral view, the convolution of the recording hall (all a fiction, because there was no 'hall' -- just a set of choices Järvi made as to how his orchestra should sound out of the box), even the old-style visualizations that were pretty but largely meaningless.

It's been a struggle to work with the implications of so much metadata, but I'm getting it. Where a producer might use a slider, I virtually highlight a hairpin in the score, and since the score is a three-dimensional representation, I can even soften an entire section by pushing its musical staves further away. My changes show up in the other views, too, so I can get the hang of easier ways to achieve my goal of re-thinking -- heck, re-conducting -- the entire Rite from the comfort of my old velvet chair. It's a beautiful thing to finally hear those Ancerl-like timpani in the Glorification of the Elected One! And to pull back the tempo and highlight the usually rushed harmonics in the Mysterious Circle of the Adolescents! It is just stunning, marvelous, overwhelming and intimate as promised. I am more than a participant ... I can play every one of these instruments and become the orchestra and be the Rite.

It's tempting to change everything, and it brings back the memory of conducting the Washington Post March with the high school band. They didn't look at me once it had started, and oh how hard it was to get them to perform that brilliantly expressive rubato I'd conceived! Cheap it was, really, but I was 15 and full of hormonal angst. I'd ruined a perfectly good Sousa march with my mucking around, and it is a temptation indeed to alter every parameter of these musicians' individual performances today so they are all me, me, me -- the entire conception of the Rite I've held in my head for forty-five years. And now I realize how much better Järvi is at all this than I. But, hey, I am keeping those Ancerl-like timpani and the unrushed harmonics! Damn your eyes, Kristjan, I still have something to contribute!

There are visitors coming later today. They heard the HarpoX beta console also came packed with a few other recordings, notably Bob Dylan's classic release of Modern Times a few years ago. They want to see if HarpoX will let them change the parameters of Dylan's voice to give it his politically youthful 1960s sound of Highway 60 Revisited. Bah. Always living in the past.

I'm loving the HarpoX. Clarence privately promised me he'd talk to the studio folks about recording some of my densism pieces from the early 1990s, maybe Softening Cries, but I have my own thoughts about creating a piece that would have subtle metadata already built into it. Tampering with the music using HarpoX would totally transform it in upredictable ways. Maybe I'll hide a complete set of Mozartean structures inside...

Dennis working with the HarpoX beta
Dennis working with the HarpoX beta renders him unable to grasp reality.

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