Splinter Cell — January 2016

Polytemporal Ensemble Piece

The work is an arrangement for an augmented Splinter Cell group - it is a polytemporal work for six players, each with their own tempo. In order to create the piece I first had a 150bpm monotemporal composition of two sections (A and B), which I then chose to convert to multiple tempi. Section A of the piece then consists of the following (links to scores):

The tempi were again chosen based on my Excel formula, with the following temporal relationships:

The master tempo for the piece remained at 150bpm

This provided a broad range of tempi. The piece itself is based primarily on repeated ostinati, not too dissimilar to minimalist works, in particular that of Steve Reich. These ostinati begin based on 3-note harmonised arpeggi in Cm, played in quavers by all performers. This provides constant overlapping of rhythms with the independent tempi, upon which a single-line melody is added by the violin at 0:58, then harmonised by the second pianist. After the melody has taken place, performers move from ostinati in 12/8 to 7/8, and later to 4/4, exemplified in Piano 1 below:

12/8 ostinati
7/8 ostinati (1:35)
4/4 ostinati (3:30)

This creates a fragmented sound when distributed among the tempi, in particular with the addition of rests, which becomes more pronounced as these move from 7/8 to 4/4. The bass guitar also enters at 1:55 with a somewhat conventional, driving bass line, firmly establishing the tempo as 150bpm. This is then reinforced with the second repetition of the main melody. After a short pause Section B enters, with new tempi shown below:

I chose much slower tempi to give the final section a slower and more deliberate feel, characterised also by its harmonic minor tonality. The fastest tempo used is 125bpm, which I chose for the violin — this tempo does not have a relationship to the other tempi, and so I would observe whether this provides a more unique temporal dissonance than those having temporal relationships. In this closing section new ostinati are played, shortly afterwards being accompanied by a new melody, ascending on the violin to end the piece.

Notation and Accessibility

As a polytemporal piece, I could not notate all instruments on a single score — this instead had to be done individually. I saw this as an opportunity to enhance the accessibility of the notation for each performer, rendering the piece easier to play on an individual level. An example of this is shown below.

Violin, 150bpm
Piano 2, 100bpm

The above passages show the main violin melody (beginning on bar 7), harmonised by the second piano (bar 19). These melodies are in unison, at two different tempi, however both can be notated very simply. The use of the Excel formula made this simpler in the first instance, as due to this the two tempi already have an accessible temporal relationship (a ratio of 3:2), however as each performer’s score is devised individually meter can be used more liberally and to greater advantage for technical accessibility. As a result, although the phrasing of the main violin melody was composed as a 5/4 and 6/4 structure at 150bpm, this can be translated into a very playable 4/4 part at 100bpm, seen above in the Piano 2 extract.

Practicalities and Technology

In order to realise the piece in a live setting, I used laptop to send each performer their own click track from a central project, allowing the full piece to stay completely synced from start to end. Considering the content of each part individually, I added accented clicks (using a xylophone sound) to signify entrances and exits, or where a new section is approaching. This is also represented in the score, and allows players to avoid counting every bar — they could instead repeat their ostinato or rest until they hear and see the cue for the next event.

Notation for the Violin’s click track cue

I also added additional numbers to the bars to aid performers in counting the repetitions of their ostinati, if indeed players wanted to approach the score in this way.

The additional numbers denote phrase repetitions

Reception and Feedback

The piece was performed by James Widden (violin) and Alison Holford (cello) as part of a compositional workshop; I used backing tracks of the remaining instruments to give an idea on how the work would sound with the full ensemble. The piece was very well received, with the performers considering the concept and execution of the work interesting and innovative, although finding the headphones somewhat cumbersome. They found the use of prepared click tracks easy to work with after a few rehearsals, commenting that the audio and visual cues made it much more intuitive and accessible than my previous pieces. It was noted also that having a monitor feed may help maintain a natural playing style, so performers can hear eachother fully and hence not become isolated. The ostinati placed a strong emphasis on individual pulses, allowing greater differentiation at low level for the listeners to the differing tempi, demonstrating a repetitious, minimalist approach, however taking place in a piece where the higher level macro structure moves quite quickly.