Splinter Cell and Maggini Quartet — March 2016

Polytemporal Ensemble Pieces

The Maggini Quartet

Score — Splinter Cell (+ instructions), Maggini Quartet (+ instructions)

These two pieces are polytemporal works for Splinter Cell and the Maggini string quartet, and are conversions of previously written rhythm pieces exploring the method of composing the overarching high level structure before refining lower level instrumental elements. At instrumental level, the parts had only two timbres each (these were written with individual drums/percussion in mind). This could be considered as a regular note or accented note, or left hand and right hand hit, or two different pitches if played on tonal instruments. The goal of this approach was to create works where having a focused structure (which could be considered a ‘macro-rhythm’) is of paramount importance, within which instrumental parts were based on strictly rhythmic cells, with minimal distraction by pitch. As the piece is directed collaboratively by the ensemble in real-time, it is not forced to follow a rigid structure.

The instructions above denote how to progress through the pieces; divided into three sections, rhythmic cells are performed and looped by players. These can be looped as many times as desired before moving sequentially into the next, returning to the first cell after finishing the last in the section. On cue from a particular player, the performers would move into a convergence point. This would involve the leading performer to repeat a new cell, and all other performers would aurally mimic this rhythm, on any pitch(es) of their choosing. The leading performer would then cue out of this, at which point performers return to their independent tempi to begin the next section. In this way, there is a balance of independence in polytemporal activity in the main sections, contrasting to the communicative and collaborative process of the convergence points. When composing the sections, I increased the rhythmic complexity with each section, to see how clearly this would come across in the final performance; Section A features standard rhythms of crotchets and quavers, Sections B and C adding in semiquavers and tuplets. Likewise, when considering pitch content I largely kept to two notes per instrument, wanting to adhere as closely as I could to the original concept of having two sounds per part. As the sections progress I chose to add more notes, considering the pitches vertically — in this way, depending which cell a player was on, different chords and voicings were phasing in and out, including harmonic dissonances like major and minor thirds together.

Technical Set Up

As with previous pieces, a laptop was used to send independent click tracks to the performers via headphones. As a strongly interpretive piece basic clicks were used, not requiring any additional cues or preparation. During the convergence points, players were encouraged to remove their headphones to distance themselves from their tempo, so as to concentrate on aurally mimicking a different one.

Splinter Cell

As before, the Excel formula was used to devise the tempi:

  • Piano — 144bpm (this is the base tempo)
  • Violin — 96bpm
  • Cello — 108bpm

The temporal relationships between these tempi are shown below.

Maggini Quartet

  • Violin 1— 160bpm (this is the base tempo)
  • Violin 2— 120bpm
  • Viola — 70bpm
  • Cello — 64bpm

Reception and Feedback

The pieces were generally well-received, both ensembles taking a few rehearsals to get used to the form. Both groups remarked on the visual cues being an effective means of transition, however noting that the headphones were somewhat cumbersome. The Maggini Quartet was attended also by Paul Patterson, who (with Matt Wright) made some additional suggestions on varying articulations (as the piece as per score did not feature any), in order to better differentiate the sections. The result of this can be seen on the video clip; Section A is performed entirely pizzicato, the attack of the plucked strings emphasising the dissonance of the tempi. Section B is performed arco and molto espressivo, creating a much thicker texture as the rhythmic patterns become more complex. Finally, Section C is performed as a very soft and gradual diminuendo, which I felt enhanced the increasing harmonic dissonance present in the pitch content.

The use of minimal pitches was commented on as being effective, in particular the subtle use of dissonances. The Convergence Points I found particularly effective during the Maggini Quartet performance; while any pitches were available, the ensemble appeared to naturally harmonise in a very consonant way, particularly at the final Convergence Point. It could be argued however that their rhythmic unison could be enhancing the perception of consonant non-functional harmony, in the way that Frank Zappa’s ‘Approximate’ piece might.

While Splinter Cell adhered to the instruction to remove headphones to aurally mimic lead players during Convergence Points, the Maggini Quartet chose to keep these on at all times, instead mentally ‘shutting out’ the click track to listen to another player. A potential solution to the removal of headphones (should a player find this cumbersome, or difficult to mentally detatch from the click) may be some sort of controller (a pedal, for example) each player could use to mute and unmute their headphones, or someone to manually mute and unmute via laptop in real time.

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