Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Musical Phasing

(Note: this is a work in progress...keeping it public to motivate me to finish it!)

When I first started studying classical music, there was a period in time when I got pretty obscessed with phasing, largely influenced from the early musics of Steve Reich. Over the course of several years I analyzed and practiced the process of musical phasing to the point where it could be explained and executed fairly succinctly. I felt this process of simplification was necessary in order for the technique to be used within an improvisatory context, since trying to perform Violin Phase or Piano Phase in whole proved to be quite a challenge. Phasing on simplified 1-3 note patterns made learning the technique much easier and much more pleasurable to learn, and I've used it as the model in which I teach this technique to other people.

For a while (maybe even now?) I was known as the "phasing guy" since I would pretty much try to "phase" with most people I improvised with. The nice thing about the technique was that since it was an auditory phenomenon rather than a type of stylistic practice, I was able to teach and perform the exercise to people outside of the classical music realm. I've also used the technique pretty extensively even in my own piano solo performances as well -- phasing between the right and left hands work pretty well, for the most part.

It may at first be helpful to listen to the two pieces to get an idea what the effect sounds like:

In both works, 12-beat patterns are used as its original material, which is then "phased" through the act of speeding up one pattern while the other pattern holds still. Phasing requires at least two voices, which requires either two instrumentalists or a polyphonic instrument of some sort that would allow for a right/left split between the two hands. (Which usually means a keyboard of some sort -- octave splits provide a pretty good approximation of phasing between unison patterns.)

The basic idea behind phasing is that there are two (or more) performers playing the same thing, which is then phased by having one of the performers "pull ahead" of the group by slightly increasing their tempo. The resultant effect is that, depending on the type of patterns you use, you get new harmonic and rhythmic combinations out of the process despite originating with identical types of material.

So, phasing with 1, 2, and 3 notes:

1-Note Phasing

On an audible level, phasing on 1 note may sound fairly tedious and unremarkable, but it's useful in that it highlights what's exactly happening between the two patterns. One person (or one hand) plays one note over and over at a steady tempo, then the second person joins in. As one person begins to "pull ahead" of the other, then the notes start to go out of sync with eachother. There may be moments where the feeling is that the two patterns are in syncopation with one another, and this is normal. What the phasing process does, on its most basic level, is create a microscopic sycopation between the two patterns, which then resolves back into playing together back in tempo. An example:

[recording example -- will get on this]

Granted it's not the most exciting thing in the world to listen to, but this exercise tends to be immensely helpful for musicians -- it demystifies the technique to an understandable level, while at the same time giving the ear something to latch onto as the process unfolds.

2-Note Phasing

Phasing with two notes is just like phasing with one note, only that there's two notes instead of one...well, OK, that's stating the obvious. The thing to listen for in this exercise is the new pattern combination that emerges out of the phasing process. As with the 1-note example, the first person chooses a 2-note pattern which is then replicated by the second, which is then "phased" by the process of one person speeding up slightly.

The difference here is that because there are two notes, the new pattern combination that emerges from the process will produce new harmonic combinations that becomes immediately audible to the ear. Probably better to listen to the recording than a long-winded explaination:

[recording example -- will get on this]

So, it starts on the 1)unison pattern which then moves to the 2)second pattern that comes out of the phasing process, then back to 1)unison. Still sounds very clinical and mechanical, but as with a lot of fundamentals, that's just how it goes.

3-Note Phasing

Patterns with three notes and above start to become more interesting to listen to, since the process begins to form into a progression. For 3-note patterns, there will be the 1)unison, 2)second pattern, 3)third pattern, then back to the 1)unison again.

[example 3 -- coming soon!]

Phasing can be a somewhat of a bewildering experience, since it tends to go against most of our intuitions about how rhythm and repetition works. I've heard people equate it to auditory hallucinations, since it "produces" notes and rhythms that previously didn't exist. The trick is not to let the disorientation get to you and just allow for the patterns to naturally phase in and out. At times you may end up skipping a pattern or 2 or lose track of where you might be, but that is OK -- the main goal is to acquire the feeling of what it feels like to depart and lock back into different types of pattern combinations.

Once you get the hang of the technique it sort of becomes like riding a bike -- you never really forget how it "feels" to phase from that point on. After three notes and onward there is no significant difference in how the technique is applied, other than the fact that the patterns are longer and have more generative pattern combinations. So if you can master phasing between 1-3 notes, you've pretty much got it under your belt.

Using Phasing in a Musical Context

Of course, after getting through all of the technical stuff there's a time when you just have to make music! An older recording of the A-Tribute Ensemble's "Phasing Out":

Monday, April 27, 2009

Variations (Example 1)

As an example from a previous post here, I made a recording that shows one possible way of how to develop and vary a theme within an improvisational context:

I start off with a simple 3-note motif as the melody with some accompanying chords on the bottom. (If you were to verbalize it, it would sound kind of like "Ta-ta-taaaaa".) I play around with it for a while, establishing the idea as something prominent within the context of the music. Although the point of the exercise is to work on one's variationing(?) chops, performers really shouldn't feel like they need to rush the process -- in fact, sitting on one idea for longer periods of time may even make its transition to something else that much sweeter. It also has the added benefit of freeing the mind from having to make too many decisions at once -- in this particular example, since the theme is already decided for me, it allows me to focus most of my attention toward the harmonic aspects of the music.

Around 1:30 or so, I take the idea of "a 3-note theme" then turn it into a sequence that moves upwards. Perhaps a more skilled/anal musician might think about the original theme's interval structures and transformative possibilities and such, but in this case I just took the general idea of moving upwards 3 notes at a time then used it as an excuse to move the music toward the upper registers. Variational processes can be very structured (the music of Bach) or very intuitive ("free" improvisation) depending on the personality of the musician, although in most cases what happens tend to lie somewhere between the two polarities.

Around 2:00-2:15 I probably got overly excited and added more notes to the upward sequence. You can hear bits and pieces of 4 and 5 note sequences that helped to propel the music further up. I reintroduce the original motif around 2:20 just to keep things from getting too out of control. Some of my teachers might say that by doing so I just lost an opportunity to push things further; for the sake of this recording, however, it probably didn't make much sense to do so. Either way, there's all kinds of decisions performers have to make on whether or not they might want to "push" things further, or simply stick to an idea for a while. There's no right or wrong way to do it, although an awareness of these vantage points gives the musician the power to play with these types of tensions.

The end is a hodgepodge of thematic ideas, some from the original theme, some from the 3-note sequence, some from the 4-5 note developments -- after a while they begin to blur together and new ideas begin to emerge even if I wasn't purposely trying to do so. Coming up with new material is actually not all that difficult, so people shouldn't really feel like they need to be particularly "creative" in order to do so. Ideas really are a dime-a-dozen, especially in this day and age of the internet -- it's mostly what you do with them that creates interest.

Monday, March 16, 2009


The use and implementation of recordings have always been a controversial issue in music circles, since the technology in a lot of ways had managed to revolutionize people's conceptions of the musical experience in itself. During the Romantic and late-Romantic eras (~19th century), music establishments began to facilitate the "genius" narrative into its cultural discourse, emphasizing the "vision" and enlightened ideals of the composer over the expression of the performer. As a result, notational practices became more specific as to tailor the music towards the composer's subjective experiences and perspectives.

The invention and implementation of the recording, however, allowed music to be abstracted in a completely different way, turning Romanticism up on its head. The technology allowed music to be "captured" into a fixed form, after the fact, as opposed to notational practices in which the abstraction exists a priori. Popular, folk, and jazz musics partially owe its success (at least in terms of its commercial and influential value) to recordings, because it was largely the technology that enabled those styles of musics to disseminate into the public sphere.

With that in mind, as an improvisor I think that it is important to recognize the fact that the recording medium is largely used for two purposes -- as means of capturing a musical event, while at the same time providing a vehicle to broadcast it beyond its original context. The question of whether or not musicians should be recording their improvisations is something people have been asking themselves ever since the invention of the phonograph, and now that access to cheap and reliable recording equipment is fairly commonplace the issue has become something that musicians face on a fairly regular basis. Broadly speaking, within the world of improvisation there seems to be three main attitudes toward the recording medium:

1) Purists - Opposed to recordings on any level, arguing that performances should be live and live only. The defiant attitude against the technology usually stems from political reasons, arguing that recordings distort and filter out too many things from the live experience, as well as commodify the event in such a way that makes it vulnerable to political appropriation.

2) Documentors - Are willing to record their sessions, but with minimal or no edits. Tries to maintain the objectivity of the event as much as possible by treating the microphone as an outside observer/listener.

3) Editors/Composers - Are completely willing to edit, process, and alter the recorded material after the fact. This approach is much closer to the act of composition compared to the other two, and includes musicians such as DJs and laptop performers who use process-oriented tasks as their primary means of achieving variation.

These categories tend to be hyperboles, however, and it's rare (especially nowadays) to find people who would strongly identify themselves as being part of one of these "camps". In reality, most improvisors tend to use each approach methodically according to circumstance, although some may find themselves more comfortable doing one thing or the other as a matter of personal preference.

"Pure" improvisation tends to be good for pedagogical situations or playing with someone for the first time -- this relieves the pressure of having to "produce" something and allows the musicians to perform privately amongst themselves. The musicians can then focus more on communication, listening, and developing a relationship with the other performers rather than worry about the product that might come out of the process.

The "documentational" approach is useful for reviewing and reflecting on the sessions that had been recorded. Good or bad, how a musician "feels" after a jam session can sometimes be deceptive when compared to the actual result -- this helps to ground the experience into something tangible, so that it can be viewed from a different perspective. Many musicians have used self-recording as a way to gauge their skills and identify areas in their performances of where they might be able to improve upon.

The "editing" approach tends to find itself most often used in electronic music, where recorded samples are used as building blocks for creating larger-scale pieces. It is also used heavily in film and video productions, where improvised musics are used to "fill-in" certain durations of time, or in other cases, used as material for the mixer's whim. Samples can also be used as a basis for composed works, which seems to be gaining a lot of traction in the electronic music world at this point.

For better or worse, the presence of the recording device tends to do something to a person's state of mind, and it's fairly remarkable how drastically some musicians' playing styles change with the knowledge that they're in the midst of being recorded. It's kind of like being looked under an aural microscope, where your every move is being monitored and recorded, which can greatly increase anxiety levels for many performers.

In order to get more comfortable with the idea, it may help to remember that the recording medium is a fairly new technology and Western society has not yet developed proper "methods" of how to behave in front of a microphone as of yet. So there aren't any real "rules", per se, although there are certain physicalities that the musician has to consider if they're looking to get a clean, commercially viable recording. But if that's not really the intension of the session -- say, if you were only recording something to get a general idea of where your current skills lie -- then it doesn't really make sense to spend a great deal of time worring about the gritty details of how the recording might sound post-production.

The relationship between the musician and the recording medium can vary wildly according to the needs and long-term goals of the performer. Thinking about these things in advance can help the improvisor make intelligent decisions as to how to deal with the microphone during their performance sessions and hopefully be comfortable with it in its place. A string quartet playing something by Bartok might treat the microphone as an outside observer, while a rock band might use amplification and processing in order to vary the captured sound in itself. Ideally, if a recording device is being used, the musician should be comfortable enough with it that it becomes part of the performance itself. More details will be written about this on a later post.