Trigeminal Neuralgia Video with 5.1 surround to be performed @NCH 8.30pm Friday 31st August 2012

Trigeminal Neuralgia is a nerve disorder where the sufferer experiences a stabbing pain in parts of the face. It is a very serious and uncomfortable condition which can cause severe psychological trauma, and it has been nicknamed as ‘the suicide disease’ by medical practitioners. The idea behind this composition was an attempt to simulate the emotional response to the above mentioned conditions through a sequence of auditory events. The piece, in its acousmatic form, was chosen from an international call for works by the Spatial Music Collective for performance in the Royal Irish Academy of Music in October 2011.

My brother, Luke Balbirnie, worked with me to develop the visuals. The video was composed using a combination of 2-Dimensional and 3-Dimensional animating techniques. The basic idea of the visual composition was to develop the themes of each of the sections and to add to the overall narrative of the piece. The piece plays between black and white, light and dark, structure and noise, and our individual concepts of perception. You can see a preview of the work here.

Tickets for the event can be purchased either on the night or by going to the NCH website.

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Contour (infinite variant) and the challenges of composing for solo Marimba

I tend to approach every composition project as if it is a completely new endeavour. I don’t believe that I have a style of composition (although some people have said that I do), and this often worries me. Should I have a sound? Does this mean that I have in some way failed as a composer if people don’t listen to any one of my pieces and immediately exclaim “That has to be a piece by Marc Balbirnie” … assuming they somehow knew me already. To be honest I haven’t come to any conclusions on this question, only that a composition should be true to the composer and maybe capture some essence of them in that moment. I have been told before that this is a romantic notion which should perhaps be left behind with the romantic period itself. I find this rather unfair and hard to stomach as a concept – to believe that self expression (or rather the expression of oneself) is in someway irrelevant or separate to the creative process. How is it that individualism and emotion are in conflict with modern compositional techniques? Traditional diatonic harmony is not the only means of emotional expression. However, this is all beside the point, and yet exemplifies some of the questions that a modern composer may pose to themselves before engaging in a new work.

The BLANK page

At a fundamental level there are really only two things that a composer must deal with when writing a new piece – an awareness of the technical and idiomatic writing for the instrument(s) in question, and their own choice of musical language, whether it is automatic or specific to the piece itself. Trying to create a synergy between these two areas can be daunting at times. The easy solution is to write idiomatically for the instrument(s), but in some ways this could be seen as cheating. It can be more challenging for both the composer and the performer if the piece does not conform to the usual idiomatic approach. I want to clarify that by non-idiomatic I am not suggesting the partial or complete use of extended techniques, or using the musical instrument for a function other than that it was intended for; i.e. burning a piano as in Annea Lockwood’s Piano Transplants. Not that I have any aesthetic or philosophical issues with these approaches. Extended techniques have been nearly completely explored and exhausted for all existing instruments – can they really still be regarded as being extended techniques? For the latter, I would describe the burning of a piano and subsequent recordings as being more of a spectacle or performance art, and sonically they could be described as electro-acoustic – but not as an acoustic composition, as the only musical performance score direction is ‘Play whatever pleases you for as long as you can’. Is this enough to be regarded as a score? Is intent or concept enough to define a work as being a musical composition? If so, can I merely hand a blank page to a performer and not say anything. Whatever they do, whether they play or not, is what I intended. Their actions for a period of time are in some way loosely defined by me (or at the very least in response to me), and are therefore proof of composition. Is this what it all boils down to at the end of the day? Obtaining the focus of an audience?

Annea Lockwood with her burning piano

My first approach to writing for the marimba could be described as wanton naivety. There are several classes of instruments; wind – a performer blows through a tube of some description and either the vibrations of a membrane at the mouthpiece are amplified or a column of air is vibrated, string – a performer causes a string to vibrate through a single attack or continuous friction, and percussion – a performer or mechanical device hits something and the object itself vibrates in some way. The last category is probably the most misleading in its apparent simplicity. It covers a huge range of different instruments – some pitched and some unpitched, some with keyboards and many without. The marimba is a pitched keyboard percussion instrument of African origin, although its current chromatic form was developed in Guatemala, where it is the national instrument. It is very similar in design to a xylophone, which is made of varying sized wooden laths. The larger the lath is the lower the resonant frequency when struck, and hence the perceived pitch of it. Therefore the laths decrease in size from left to right (from the performer’s perspective) as the pitch increases across the keyboard. As the xylophone is a percussion instrument the energy of the notes come from the initial contact made between beater and key, which tends to dissipate over a relatively short space of time; i.e. the xylophone has very little capacity to sustain notes. However, the marimba has resonating chambers which hang below each of the laths so as to allow the notes to resonate longer. This is particularly noticeable in the lower range of the instrument. This means that notes can ring out for a short period, but cannot be sustained for a predefined amount of time unless the same note is continuously struck by the performer.

Simple small Xylophone

Concert Marimba

The next notable point about the instrument is the sheer size of it. This is easy to overlook as a composer sitting at a desk, often looking at a computer screen or playing a MIDI keyboard or guitar. The marimba is no ordinary keyboard instrument, nor is it just another percussion instrument. The sheer size of the instrument (approximately 2 metres long, but varying, depending on range and register) presents practical problems and limitations for the performer, and therefore composer. For example, it is not realistic to ask a performer to play continuous and simultaneous melodic parts at the extremities of the instrument. The reason for this is simple when you think about it – the performer cannot see both of their hands at the same time and so cannot be sure of accuracy … and then there is trying to read the score to consider as well.

Burton grip for two mallets

In addition, the performer can use up to two mallets or sticks per hand whereas a pianist can use all five fingers on each hand independently. It is possible to play intervals with one hand on the marimba, but some intervals are trickier to play than others as the key spacing is different depending on the register being played. Some of the restrictions of the instrument are apparent and obvious, whilst others are not. When faced with these challenges as a composer the greatest asset to be deployed is that of the knowledge and skill of the performer themselves. No one knows the instrument better than the performer, and Alex Petcu was most gracious with his support and patience when it came to ironing out the performance problems with Contour (infinite variant).

The most difficult challenge of composing this piece was trying to marry the conceptual aspect of the piece with the practicalities and technical aspects of the instrument it was being written for. The idea for this piece initially came from the impending deadline, but after much consideration it became a lot more than that. What if the computer wrote the piece for me? What would this mean and how would I go about it? The piece was composed in two processes. The first was by ‘performing’ a generative MIDI software patch written by the composer. This patch had controls for tonal palette, number of voices, voice register and range, note rate and note to rest ratio. This provided the raw material for the piece. The second process was to manually edit this material to provide more dynamic and musical expression to the piece. The purpose for using the computer generative algorithm was so that there would be as little melodic repetition as possible. This type of random or complex variation is very difficult to achieve as a human being as we always tend to drift towards repetition of patterns or complete dissolution of pattern – this process falls somewhere in between and so the piece could therefore be seen not just as algorithmic or generative, but as a cyborgian composition.

Artist Masaki Batoh using a modified EEG device to compose and perform music

Contour (infinite variant) for solo marimba will be performed by Alex Petcu, percussion and director of the Cork New Music Ensemble, at the June 2012 ICC concert in the Kevin Barry room of the National Concert Hall.

Date: Friday 22nd June
Time: 8.30pm
Venue: Kevin Barry room, National Concert Hall, Dublin
Admission: €10 or €5 with concession
Tickets can be purchased online from the NCH booking office.

The score for Contour (infinite variant) can be downloaded from the following link Contour (infinite variant).

Waking Up [poem]

A warm breeze, not baking
But pure and natural,
Walks softly on my face.
Its soft hissing as it
Talks to me, the grass
Beneath me firm and soft.

Light breaks through with
Dark shards, becoming
A warm glow, white and
Soft, brilliant and healing.
Sitting up, I brush my hands through the grass,
As to an affectionate
Lock, the birds chime
To the call of a rumbling
Stream.

Their sweet rhythms come
To me as flowing vapours
The senses are at one.

Running, I become the
Vapour, flowing towards
The sky, the wind rushing
Through my hair, becoming
Me, becoming more,
Becoming everything,
Becoming nothing.

The wind falls, dropping
Faster and faster, down
Towards the ground, through
The ground, through the
Water, into a tree.

The tree throbs, pulsing
Vigorously as life flows
Through it. In its trunk
A core of pure radiance,
Of brilliance itself, its ebb
And flow pouring to distinct
Tips, each individual alone,
And yet all is one.

The tree shifts with the
Breeze, a leaf cracks
Free, as it swoops and
Falls, the wind stills
And does the leaf,
A part of the golden mosaic
At the foot of the tree.

Seething [poem]

With the intellect to
Lack ignorance, comes
The awareness, of
One’s self, the
Representation of the
Flesh, its meaning
And all its glory.
To be inhumane, to
Be unnecessarily
Cruel, or destructive,
Irony screams out
To the aware,
Screams of outrage,
Seething; slow,
Bubbling, blackness.

Contour (Infinite Variant) to be performed by percussionist Alex Petcu @NCH 8.30pm 22nd June 2012

A new composition of mine for solo marimba will be performed by Alex Petcu, esteemed percussionist and director of the Cork New Music Ensemble, in the Kevin Barry room of the National Concert hall on Friday 22nd June at 8.30pm. The piece was composed by controlling an algorithmic computer code to create a constantly varying musical line without repetition. This raw generative material was then contoured to develop its musicality. I would describe the piece as Steve Reich without repetition … which I know is a bit of an oxymoron. Tickets for the event can be purchased either on the night or by going to the NCH website.

Astroflare OST – Duplicate

I have finished my first track for the re-release of Astroflare on Windows Phone 7. It’s a synthy rock out anthem called Duplicate and you can hear it on my showreel page. The track has been written to loop perfectly so it may seem to end quite abruptly, but if you play it on a loop you’ll see why. I am now working on another new track for the game called Incineration.

First ever Games Music Ireland social event Tues 29th May 2012!

It’s an exciting time for composers in Ireland. When most areas of service and industry in Ireland are falling apart and receding, game development is advancing at such a rate that it is thought that Ireland will become the social and casual game development hub of Europe over the next 2 or 3 years. This says great things about the creative talents and technical skills of Irish computing graduates. There is also now the possibility to develop these opportunities further.

Music is a very important part of the computer game experience – be it console, casual or social game, etc. Up until now there have been very few opportunities for Irish composers in games development, and so the educational and institutional structures have not been in place either. Irish games developers have had to contact agencies and composers abroad, or use generic library or royalty free music. We at GMI (Games Music Ireland) want to show Irish games developers that we have the home grown talent to make the music that fits whatever projects that they are working on.

If you are a games developer looking to make contact with composers for future projects then join us on Tuesday 29th in the IMRO building, Copyright House.

Full details of the event are available here.

Clean (poem)

Tunnel me a hole,
In flesh, In Fact, or lies.

I am besotted with a portrait that never ages.
It is not real.
Tell me more.

I came upon the weak with virtuous kneeling,
Humbled by selfless acts,
Building bridges – boundless – joyful.
If I could but bring a flower to a heart,
I could rest that day.
I must say I have rested so very well.
See my hands spread before you.
Taken as fact.
The Lord shines through this one.

If I can but force a hand or two,
I can rest a while.
Several more, and many more,
I’ll twist the screw.
Smiles are my cunning,
Words draw the blood.
You’ll see me – You’ll know me
But draw me close or don’t,
My rope is looped all the same.

And so you see my portrait never ages,
But tired eyes and tired smiles –
And schemes and Lies –
Melt to ash.

Not Just Yet (poem)

Tickle, tracking and yawn with sighs to dawn
The Maker greets his man –
Luminescent and feral radiance
The Creature grasps and extensions are entwined
A slow paced release with warm decay
Not Just Yet

Entered for the MAG Poetry Prize 2010

The knowledge that burns (poem)

As I make my way up and
down the lines in shades
of green are parted by a
furrowed brow and I
wonder will she cry
when I tell her.

My concentration is marred
and I can think of no
other but still I must
steal a furtive glance as I
wonder will she turn her
rage on me when I tell her.

It is as they say that
time will wait for no man
and now time having run
out has become timeless
and unhurried and every
second counting and so
I wonder will she say
that I took too long
when I tell her.

I have done what I can
but even in moments of
extremity we are not free
and I wonder will she say to
me that he is better off and
now he is free
when I tell her.

Entered for the MAG Poetry Prize 2010

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