Seven Very Unique Works For The E-Cello
I have discovered positive answers and more to all of the above questions. Since 1989 I have been experiencing these possibilities through performance on the e-cello. The following list of e-cello repertoire with electronics is intended to help lead the experienced cellist through three levels of difficulty. Beginning repertoire has easy digital delay settings. The intermediate section progresses to works that use real-time control over the effects. The final section is directed to advanced pieces that use a computer with multi-media software.
Whether performed on an acoustic cello that is amplified or on a true, non-acoustic electric cello, it is challenging and fun to perform the works in this article. The advantage to playing on an electric instrument is that the sound can be completely transformed (the sound not being heard coming from the instrument but from the speakers). I have used an Alesis Quadraverb, a Digitech Harmonizer, and a Jamman Digital Delay/Sampler for the past fifteen years as Multi Effects Processors. There are many new digital sound processors from which to choose. I began with a very simple setup that has grown into my traveling, interactive studio (see extensive setup diagram below). This article should help you decide your goals before you go shopping for new gear.
I like to describe digital delay as being like a tape recorder that you don't have to rewind. The repetition is set at a specified time in milliseconds. Further, the number of repeats is called the feedback percentage. When sound is played into the digital delay, it repeats at a set time in milliseconds. For example, a setting of 1000 milliseconds will repeat at exactly a one second interval. Think of the endless canonic possibilities! If the feedback is set to a high percentage the sound will keep repeating and slowly decay. This makes layering sound on sound possible.
There are different types of digital delay. In Tom Flaherty's Trio (1991) for e-cello and digital delay I recommend a Ping Pong delay type and a setting of 468 milliseconds delay time on an Alesis Quadraverb Multi Effects Processor unit. The Ping Pong delay type setting means that in a stereo playback system with two speakers, the sound will first repeat in one speaker, then in the other, creating a trio effect between the performer and the two speakers. This music would be virtually impossible to perform with three live performers because of the precision and endurance that is necessary. Single staccato notes played together with the digital delay create playful, rhythmic hockets (a texture between two voices) and long tones explore rich, sonorous textures. There are beautiful and free, bowed harmonics, clever, composite rhythmic pizzicato, and rising natural harmonics and double-stops. The exploration of all registers of the instrument are used to great effect. At one moment there is almost a 'Rite of Spring' quality to the music. The composer says that there are various points of reference to music as diverse as Varese's Poeme Electronique and Bach's Chorale Es Ist Genug. This is a great piece to start your e-cello exploration.
If Bach only knew he had influenced electronic music! Carlos Rodriguez, the composer of the 5-movement suite titled Crater Lizards (1986), found his inspiration in the Bach Solo Cello Suites. The funky titles of each movement, except for the third, are anagrams of the composer's name and the cellist, Matt Cooker, for whom the work was composed:
This is a very clever work indeed, and fun to play! The gear necessary to play the piece is a digital delay unit that can be turned on and off with a foot pedal and can also be used as a sampler. A sampler captures only a portion of what is played. Then this portion can be used in various ways in real-time, as an accompanist, or by adding new material to the original sample.
In the first movement, the delay setting of 35 milliseconds creates a slapping effect in passages of fast arco, col legno and left hand tapping on the fingerboard. The tapping is greatly emphasized by the amplification. The delay effect creates a great sense of urgency throughout the movement. The second movement is entirely pizzicato played in the style of a funky, electric bass player. There are fast, light, passages, rolled chords, glissando and slap pizzicato. An optional use of an octave divider pedal dropping the sound down an octave makes a cool, solo passage stand out. The movement ends with two slap pizzicato notes played as if working a vibrato bar on the instrument that creates a funky waver pitch. The beautiful and eerie third movement titled The Plateau emulates a vast, natural environment. A long delay setting of 1240-1260 milliseconds layers the sustained sounds. A long delay setting of 1240-1260 milliseconds layers sustained natural harmonic double-stops. Another world of sound is created by double-stop harmonic glissandi sometimes played in contrary motion, and bowing behind the bridge. In the fourth movement, the delay setting is 800-950 milliseconds. The movement begins with the cellist playing an open G and D string drone that is sampled and held. This sample creates a regular, rhythmic beating pattern. The cellist plays a funky, 'raga-like' improvisation in sync with the regular beating pattern as an accompaniment. The movement ends with the cellist sampling sixteenth notes, gradually slowing down then speeding back up, going out and back in sync with the sampled rhythm. The fifth movement, a ferocious finale, begins hesitantly with the 750-800 millisecond delay turned off. The delay is turned on and off throughout the movement helping to keep momentum and excitement. The piece comes to a close with a huge downward, double-stop glissando beginning on the highest possible pitches and ending with a final fortissimo chord. Audiences love this work for its humor and blend of musical styles not traditionally found on a cello recital.
In this level of difficulty you must learn how to edit and save a patch on a Multi Effects Processor unit. A Multi Effects Processor (MEP) is a unit that can do more than one effect at a time. An Alesis Quadraverb, for example, can provide four effects at once: a reverb type, a delay type, chorus or flange, and equalization. It is important to understand the concept of a patch. A patch is comprised of all of the edited settings that make up a particular sound within a MEP unit. When you connect your cello to a MEP unit the patch is what alters the sound. MEP units usually come with preset patches but they are often tailored to the guitar or keyboard. You can not only optimize patches for your cello and repertoire, but also tailor them for the performance space. The two scores in this section come with clear settings in the instructions. This repertoire is the beginning of true interactive electronics with the use of MIDI pedals controlling an effect in real-time. An effect can be gradually added in or taken away while playing. MIDI pedals eliminate the need to have an assistant run the electronics for the performer. You must gain some additional coordination while playing the pedals with your feet just like an organist. It is necessary to read about MIDI and have a clear understanding of how it works and thoroughly read the manuals that come with your MEP unit and MIDI pedals.
The score to Shadows and Light (1989) by Ken Steen has settings for the Alesis Quadraverb that are simply plugged into the unit from the instructions in the score. It is possible to use comparable settings on similar units. The performer must control the percentage of reverb and the dry signal of the instrument with two separate MIDI pedals. The pedals are notated directly under the musical staff in the cello part.
MIDI pedals can be connected directly to the Quadraverb, or connected to a MIDI interface as suggested in the setup in the next advanced repertoire section. Real-time effects add a new dimension to performance, greatly expanding traditional composition and the sound of the instrument. This technology allows the performer to create the illusion of the expansion and contraction of 'acoustic' space, as well as other timbral manipulations. The work starts with a long, distant sound of a natural harmonic high up on the G-string with a quarter tone pitch bend as if the sound is trying to grow. The dry signal of the e-cello has been removed making it as if the cellist is 'bowing the space.' The sound comes closer to the listener. The music hesitates and the space expands and contracts through the use of a MIDI pedal controlling the reverberation. The music finally expires only to give way to a loud, intensely dramatic section using the full range of the instrument. Each moment changes through a maze of human emotions and subtle electronic manipulations. The piece settles into a huge cavern of sound with the cellist suggesting an ethereal melody by bowing the harmonic series of the C-string. Abruptly, the music tries to make a full return but expires. The music ends with a delicate ascending scale and artificial harmonics high on the G-string, the sound never more distant. The extended range of emotion and play of sound in this music would be impossible on the acoustic cello.
Shadows and Light was a poignant response to the AIDS epidemic. The music composed to be danced by a solo male dancer who very ironically fell ill just before the premiere. Shadows and Light was performed without a dancer.
The electronic setup in Kaija Saariaho's Petals (1988) is very much the same as the above. The score is very clear about the electronics and even has a diagram for the setup. The MIDI pedal control is shown just below the cello part in the score. However, besides a MEP unit such as the Quadraverb you will also need a Harmonizer. One MIDI pedal will control the amount of reverberation from the Quadraverb and the other pedal will control the Harmonizer. The setting for the Harmonizer is a quartertone harmonization above and below the note played, creating a thick cluster of sound. When the two effects are combined in various ways a coloristic, at times thunderous, sound is achieved. The work is compositionally dynamic and sonically stunning and is highly recommended.
The two musical works in this section have extensive electronic setups and require the computer and software (see diagram below). They take the e-cello to its limits! There are a number of reasons why using the computer at a certain stage becomes so important. First, a MEP unit has limited storage space for edited patches. A computer with librarian software allows storage for a vast repertoire of e-cello patches. Secondly, the computer and sequencing software, and a sound module or digital audio for playback, make it possible to assemble tape parts when needed. The accompaniments can be edited at any time. Thirdly, as the electronic setup becomes more complex, the computer and multi-media software such as Cycling '74 MAX/MSP (http://www.cycling74.com/index.html) becomes essential. For each work on a program, opening a computer file will set up all of the effects units flawlessly. The software can control multiple tasks such as patch changes on several effects units and trigger digital audio all at once with a click of a MIDI pedal.
Michael Gatonska was inspired to compose On Connecticut Naturalism (2003) while riding his bicycle along the Connecticut River. MEP unit effect patches are created on the Quadraverb and Harmonizer, or similar such units, according to the narrative descriptions for each section. Because the instructions for the e-cello patches are so broad, each performer's electronic interpretation will be quite different from one another, now and in the future. One way to accomplish what may seem like an overwhelming task of creating the e-cello patches would be to morph patches you have already successfully used in performance. But what makes this work so outstanding and exciting to perform is the use of the digital delay/sampler unit. The cellist is able to build up the sound by adding more and more layers to a sample in real-time, creating long, sustained phrases. I use one of the oldest real-time electronics, the wah-wah pedal, introduced in the 60's by the famous rock musician Jimi Hendrix, to create the wonderful wind sounds that begin the piece. There is a strong sense of nature in this work as well as a loud, imposing human presence. Among the gentle musical references are a gathering mass of birds, humming power lines, a huge underwater cavern, and the brushing of a hand through still water. In contrast to all of this beauty and peace is the interruption of cement mixers, street bands and Harley Davidson motorcycles!
It is recommended to create a MAX/MSP software file for the above work to consolidate the number of MIDI pedals down to two. The MIDI pedals will control multiple tasks of patch changes, real-time effects and sampling.
Landmine (2001) by Anna Rubin is a work exploring the landmine crisis, especially as it affects Cambodia. The text has been drawn from various sources including demining observer David Levi Strauss, whose recorded voice is heard in the work. Material from the Human Rights Watch Report on Landmines and demining organizations is heard as well. The performer triggers digital audio tracks of text and sound with a MIDI pedal for each section of the piece. This allows the cellist to be at times a chamber musician engulfed in the texture, and at other times emerging as a soloist with virtuoso, cadenza-like material. A pitch-tracking device makes it possible for the cellist to randomly trigger digital audio files from the fingerboard of the instrument making each performance unique. The pitch tracker converts the analog signal of the e-cello into digital information the computer can recognize. E-cello patches that transform the sound are created on a MEP unit and a Harmonizer from precise instructions in the score. It is recommended to create a MAX/MSP software file to control all of the above tasks. This is truly a computer interactive work, sometimes poignant, other times riveting.
A complete list of e-cello repertoire with description and level of difficulty of the electronics is available at the web address below. If you are successful working through the list of repertoire in this article you will be ready to take on your own creative projects.
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