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 Forum index » Discussion » Composition
Thoughts on composing for theremin
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kkissinger



Joined: Mar 28, 2006
Posts: 1265
Location: Kansas City, Mo USA
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PostPosted: Sat Mar 11, 2017 3:33 pm    Post subject: Thoughts on composing for theremin
Subject description: new music to perform at the 2017 electro-music festivals
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Hello to all!

Well, I have slowed down on my postings here not in small part due to my struggles with the theremin.

The theremin presents numerous challenges all of which involve intonation.

The theremin is great for longly-held (slow) pitches because it gives the performer time to "fade" into the pitch and make corrections. The shorter the notes' durations, the less time there is to make quick pitch adjustments.

Since I do live-looped music, this situation is distressing because if I hit an off-key note, the listeners are then subjected to it as long as the loop plays! As a performer, the pressure is pretty intense, I must admit.

And then, there is the issue of precision -- there are some notes that I really want to "hit" -- that is, I don't want to "fade in" to them, I want them to play on a precise beat. My solution has been to use an audio pitch-preview. Even with the pitch-preview, one doesn't always "nail" the needed pitch.

One obvious solution is simply to pitch-correct the instrument -- however a pitch-corrected theremin no longer sounds like a theremin!

I discovered that my equipment allow me to selectively pitch-correct notes in real time. This means that for certain pitches (mainly short staccato notes) I can correct them but then immediately play subsequent notes "uncorrected".

For example, I composed a rather lengthy live-looped composition a few years ago and I have never been happy with my performance of it. And indeed, out of the hundreds of notes that comprise the work, all it takes is a few out-of-tune ones to kill the music's effect.

So, for a number of months, I have asked myself if I even want to bother with the theremin!

Anyway, I have been experimenting with the notion of some individual pitch-corrected notes -- not enough that the theremin loses its identity but enough to reduce my stress level! I am very excited at the result and truly look forward to this year's performances.

I am planning to play the Rotations_II work (my most recent live-looping composition) with improvements and I am working on a brand-new work for 2017 that will exploit all the compositional/technological ideas that I've been developing over the years.

Thanks for reading. Look forward to seeing friends at the 2017 electro-music festivals!

For an example of my approach to live-looping with theremin, you can view me playing "Rotations" on YouTube (this recorded without any pitch-correction):

https://youtu.be/VareBYVQms0

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Acoustic Interloper



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PostPosted: Sat Mar 11, 2017 4:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I feel your pain, Kevin. I do a lot of high speed banjo finger picking into delay paths, and those sour notes sure do stick around a long time. It's problematic for the banjo because in its natural habitat, it has very fast attack & decay, and a lot of banjo instrumentals in bluegrass and jazz make good use of out-of-scale passing notes as sonic spice, which works as spice because it decays rapidly. When it doesn't decay rapidly due to using delay fx, it's like dumping a large amount of pepper into the meal. I am sure it's even worse for an instrument like theremin with microtones. I never got any good at playing the fiddle because I was always fishing around the pitch.

My solution for the banjo has been, not only to clean up slop in my playing, but also to curtail the practice of using out-of-key passing tones, and also out-of-rhythm-pattern time variations, when playing into a delay line. Much harder on theremin, I am sure.

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mosc
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 15, 2017 1:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Every instrument is good at some things, and poor at others. Why not use the Theremin for what it's good at and use something else for what it's not?


I have a Clavia G2 patch that does pitch quantizing. I still miss notes, even when I force it to play only the notes in key. Sad


Kevin, how to you like the pitch quantization on the Moog Theremini? It has pitch correction built in.

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kkissinger



Joined: Mar 28, 2006
Posts: 1265
Location: Kansas City, Mo USA
Audio files: 31

PostPosted: Tue May 02, 2017 6:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I am looking forward to performing in Asheville this coming Friday. On one of the works, I had really reached a point of frustration and then discovered that with a different approach to phrasing and dynamics I could make the music come alive.

One of the issues with the theremin is the sustained nature of the tone. Too much of it in a looped texture leads to a muddy texture -- kind of like when watercolor paints run together and result in a cloudy, greyish mass.

I have no problem to augment my theremin with other equipment but the center of what I do depends on the responsiveness (zero latency) and expressiveness of a traditional theremin.

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PostPosted: Fri May 05, 2017 2:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

kkissinger wrote:
I am looking forward to performing in Asheville this coming Friday.

Hope you are having a good day, Kevin. Just got home from classes, I've gotta get upstairs & check the stream.
Quote:

One of the issues with the theremin is the sustained nature of the tone. Too much of it in a looped texture leads to a muddy texture -- kind of like when watercolor paints run together and result in a cloudy, greyish mass.

So I have found that picking banjo into feedback delays, including ebow on sustaining electric banjo, that I need to avoid dissonant passing tones (not too hard on a fretted instrument) and passing variations in picking patterns that would normally work in acoustic playing, because they don't blend well when sustained in the delay line. Also, it forces me to clean up my articulation.

So I image that microtones that you get in an instrument like theremin (or violin or slide guitar) with continuous pitch changes between the "official" equal temperament pitches, the sustain on the microtones would be even more of a problem. How do you avoid it? Faster transitions between the equal temperament pitches, with clean landing on the target pitches? I can't imagine what else you might do, but, I am here to learn. Smile

Thanks.

Dale

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mosc
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PostPosted: Sun May 14, 2017 1:28 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Kevin's performance at Asheville was splendid. I could hear the difference from previous performances.

I watched closely and didn't see any switches or foot pedals that he touched while playing. He explained afterward that changes to pitch corrector and, I presume, the looper are embedded in the score.

At first I was overwhelmed because I improvise when playing, and dealing with "patch" changes on the fly seemed exceedingly difficult. I perform with multiple synths and processors and changing patches in real time seemed out of the question, but I use a program for MIDI control called Bome MIDI Translator Pro which makes this possible. I'm inspired to give it a try.

(I use Bome because MIDI OX doesn't seem to work with Windows 10. What a shame).

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PostPosted: Wed May 17, 2017 12:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

mosc wrote:

At first I was overwhelmed because I improvise when playing, and dealing with "patch" changes on the fly seemed exceedingly difficult. I perform with multiple synths and processors and changing patches in real time seemed out of the question, but I use a program for MIDI control called Bome MIDI Translator Pro which makes this possible. I'm inspired to give it a try.

It may depend on the granularity of the improvisation. I am used to improvisational frameworks with cues for moving into the next sections. Using a timer to schedule the cues->transitions is feasible. I program my controllers in ChucK or Java, so you can do whatever you like, as long as you don't mind coding. It beats grading. Shocked

My improv frameworks tend to be stochastic in the sense of generating sounds according to some probability distribution. I have found much of the writing about "aleatory music" to be somewhat basic in terms of assuming a uniform distribution. There are other probability distributions. Some of my first, effective improvisation grew out of transcription errors in writing bass lines for Jeremy when he was first learning to play back around 2004. Our duets would go in and out and in sync with respect to harmony or rhythm patterns in ways that can be generated using probability distributions that are mostly but not entirely in sync. The piece breathes in and out. I think generating a backing track on the fly with perceptible but nondeterministic improvisational sections can work without using interactive controller devices.

Of course, I don't know whether this has anything to do with Kevin's performance, which I have not heard. I saw comments about his microtones somewhere, maybe on the chat or on FB. This discussion inspires me to try some things with zero-input mixer, which also allows the performer to glide across the pitch space. In spring 2016 at a PA State University computing conference session in the planetarium, as I was setting up my ZIM, someone from another school who couldn't see me asked if it was a theremin. Cool

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