fluid dynamics

Following the release of their first compact disc, 3+3, a hybrid cross-section of the two members’ artistic lineage: free jazz (Keyser) and contemporary music (Couroux), the tandem confirmed their resolutely postmodern approach with the “Fluid Dynamics” event in 1994.

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Philippe Hode-Keyser – drums, percussions
Marc Couroux – piano

Live at the Redpath Hall, McGill University
Montréal, November 7, 1994

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Fluid Dynamics

I had been interested in the marriage of science and music for many years, hoping eventually to be able to present my findings in concert. I came across Chaos theory in 1993, while studying the music of Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who unabashedly acknowledges its influence. In particular, he was attracted to the Mandelbrot set, “discovered” by Benoît Mandelbrot, a pioneer in the area of fractal geometry. Ligeti is one of the first composers to have attempted a musical representation of fractals, present in particular in his Piano Etudes (1985-1994) and his Piano Concerto of 1988. Here, he attempts to create a world which is self-similar and recursive (without being repetitive), a complex fabric of recurring motives that are subtly different each time. Another very important influence on this project was the music of James Harley (1959-) whose computer-assisted compositions have made much use of chaos theory.

While both Whorls and Eddies and Deterministic Non-Linear Americana are inspired by chaos theory, there are other influences. We have attempted to present a non-literal portrait of self-similarity, while not rigorously rejecting other ideas that do not pertain directly to chaos theory.

At another level, Fluid Dynamics is for me now, three years later, a fitting summary of all the musics which I had been assimilating in the course of my work in contemporary music. The tributes are thus fully intentional…I was impressed by the manner in which Ligeti always took the time in interviews to enumerate his battery of influences and to situate himself at the crossroads of all of them (a strange kind of modesty?!)

Fluid Dynamics was presented for the first time in concert on November 7th 1994 at Redpath Hall at McGill University. The following summary represents only this version. Whorls and Eddies can contain as many or as few parts as are determined by the circumstances of the concerts. There exists thus no final and unchangeable version.

The general characters described will be traceable in future versions, but organized differently. This approach is “Zen-like” in its desire to not coalesce into a predictable format, and to “forget” any previous versions, reinventing the structure at each new presentation.

Whorls and Eddies

The influence of Ligeti is clear in Whorls and Eddies, the first part of Fluid Dynamics. The title Fluid Dynamics refers to the behavior of bodies of water in constant motion, one of the many branches of modern physics. The musical correlative has to be, in my opinion, merely a poetic one, based on a visual impact and understanding of the motivations of such dynamical phenomena. It is not our intention to create music with the same strict mathematical rules which are at the basis of physics but, rather, to emulate and to allude to. The title was taken from the book The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Benoit Mandelbrot as he describes the famous “wave” painting by Hokusai, which can be seen to contain a multitude of currents of different sizes, interacting in complex manners. Likewise, we have attempted to present in Whorls and Eddies a suite of movements each containing their own form of motion (fluid, static, stationary, even, jagged…), and within each movement as well, a myriad of fluctuating speed-characters. The principle of “scaling”, a locus of fractal theory, has been applied to several strong “thematic” elements: scale figures (usually non-octaviating), non-functional chord progressions, rapid alternation, etc. are repeatedly transformed and cast in new cloaks. The aim is not however to create an evolution of material in the traditional sense, but more or less to deny it, maintaining the more objective principal of contextual readjutment.

Whorls and Eddies is divided into eight sections (the titles of which have been established for the sake of clarity alone): Introduction-Descent-Discourse-Impulse-Clocks-Presto-Apocalypse-Blues

The Introduction begins, solo piano, with a very narrow range of pitches, in the very centre of the keyboard, with an extremely fluctuating rhythm; there is no perception of downbeats, only one extremely long sustained line. Gradually, the register expands and triadic chords puncuate the continuous fabric rendering it gradually mountainous and jagged. This principle emulates the idea of the Koch snowflake, which has a boundary apparently fluid but, which reveals at close scrutiny an extremely jagged edge whose length is infinite. The piece recapitulates with an extremely metric theme, reminiscent of the Player-Piano music of Conlon Nancarrow, one of the great pioneers of American music.

Descent is more direct in approach. A sequence of major and minor thirds begins at the top of the keyboard and descends three-quarters of the way, gradually acquiring a “grittier” consistency (including other intervals, fifths, fourths and later tritones and major/minor seconds) and including a non-octaviating descending scale, punctuating the regular rhythmic discourse. The descent is halted and then begins a descending chorale in 7th harmonies (major, minor, dominant) which begins over and over again.

Discourse presents an alternating series of fragments, in a dialogue format between piano and drums. These fragments are either two-part melodies, with varying modes of attack in each hand, or irregular chord progressions (or in combination). The guiding principle is one of resolute non-thematicism but also a fractal sort of recursion, i.e. similar patterns seen from a quasi-infinity of different angles (the piece needs to be long enough to allow for the scaled character of the fractal music)

Impulse is a personal attempt to transfer pure electrical energy onto the keyboard without recourse to musical constructs (structurating bodies). The piano figurations are at once reminiscent of Cecil Taylor, whose inspiration seems rootless, and Italian composer Claudio Ambrosini (1948-) who sees music as existing in one of three states: solid, liquid or gaseous. The latter state is explored by the use of cluster-glissandi (played with wool gloves) and dense masses of undifferentiated sound-noise. This technique was introduced in Klavierstück X by Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1960. Impulse ends with a series of fractal-chords (with equally fractal dynamics) played at both extremes of the keyboard.

Clocks fuses the approaches of Conlon Nancarrow (1912-) and English composer Harrison Birtwistle (1934-), whose music is often an expression of ritual, layering pulses of different speeds to create a consistently changing rhythmic profile. Clocks is the longest section and creates contrast (against the backdrop of a mechanical pulsation) by alternating strings of chord-qualities, creating fields with a certain harmonic halo (though distinctly a-polar). A recurring dominant-7th chord (invariant) returns regularily announcing a change of halo. This chord is one of the most potent signals in Western tonal music, however, this chord never resolves to the tonic! Different levels of density alternate but always suddenly, without recourse to mediating transition.

Meteorologist and “chaos pioneer” Edward Lorenz’ term Sensitive Dependance on Initial Conditions and the work of Mitchell Feigenbaum on chaotic behavior has been the main inspiration.

The shortest movement, Presto, is an anticipation of the Apocalypse. It is simply based on a series of triadic harmonies, which is presented pianissimo in a chorale fashion beneath the murmuring drum activity near the end of the movement. This full-frontal presentation, bare tonality without the scumbling effect encountered earlier, is surrounded by rapid tremoli which activate and deactivate central harmonies. The quivering mass is “overdubbed” with a loud non-octaviating scale traversing the entire keyboard, attempting to unify the whole progression.

The minor-chord premonition, or “pre-echo”, is given full body in Apocalypse, an extended “fantasy” based on the juxtaposition of recurrent elements: fortissimo minor chords and hesitant pianississimo fragments (atonal) or melodies, which are first presented in rather regular alternation, a study in extremes. Gradually throughout the piece, the hesitant aspect becomes suppressed, leading the way for a more continuous assertion of the dramatic minor-chord presentations, in a sense, allowing for a deeper exploration into one region of the initial design, a fractal “penetration”. Apocalypse ends with a somber reassertion of the main progression.

The Blues for Conlon is a tribute to Conlon Nancarrow, the basis of whose music was American jazz and blues, a fact evinced by a close study of his first ten Player Piano Etudes. This blues is also fractal, providing several leaps into increasingly jagged territory. It is intended that the listener perceive cycles (much as one hears verses and choruses), by the use of a cut-and-dry textural identity. These cycles can be summarized thus: 1) left hand quasi-tonal basis, blues quality, 2) same underlying harmony with the addition of a non-concordant melody, independant, 3) sustained chords are introduced in the right hand moving at a different speed as the left, which has now become more jumpy and less predictable. The schismic tendencies of both hands is amplified until we reach a point when the beginning and end of cycles are no longer perceivable and we seem to be in the presence of an increasing number of seperate “blues” strands. We have been experiencing scaling once again! 4) Splice. Sudden progression of lower register chords, the quality of which is fractal, i.e. seemingly infinitely variant and non-directional. The tone is laidback. The bass gradually seperates from the top (schism). 5) Suddenly fff, expanded register and glowing luminous conclusion to the blues on a major chord (again reminiscent of early Nancarrow.)

There is a certain post-modernist quality to Whorls and Eddies; the apparent reintegration of tonal conceptions into a chaotic fabric can easily pass for pastiche or quote music. However, what remains the central focus is the interest in reexamining certain shared signals and experiences, and incorporating them into a more austere, scientifically minded structure. What is fascinating is the degree to which these elements retain or relinquish their identity depending on the factors they are multiplied by, or the grid they are passed through and seperated into components. Whorls and Eddies represents a starting point for a greater investigation into fractal-chaotic territory.

Deterministic Non-Linear Americana

In 1994, I became an American citizen and was surprised to confront a great deal of Americanism in myself. It turned out to be fortunate, because I had long been fascinated by the tradition of American artists who pushed the boundaries of new music: Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Roger Reynolds, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Glenn Branca, Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa. Their rich tradition of folk music, first exposed to me through the music of Ives, also began to touch me

During the first rehearsal sessions of Keyser-Couroux, we were both equally surprised at the frequency of references to American folklore that came up in the maelstrom of free improvisation. What had previously slipped my attention during 24 years of exposure to American folk music were certain ramifications of the minimal use of stock functional harmonies, within any given key. It was a Fractal moment. I began to realize the potency of triadic harmony (and how it related to every American on an across-the-board gut level). The first experiment we realized consisted of continuously varying, subtly, a three or four chord progression, with corresponding tunes, also varied. The result, after ten minutes was similar to a fractal design: minimal material, maximum differentiation. It became impossible to remember any particular version of this “gospel-tinged” tune, but one could always recognize it and relate to it immediately. It seemed that our piece had nudged its way into a strange region of the mind: Fractal Americana.