Chris Thompson: Composing With Hammersmith Pro

Chris Thompson: Composing With Hammersmith Pro

By Dan Powell  |  09.12.2020

Chris P. Thompson is a New York based composer whose new album ‘True Stories & Rational Numbers’ was recorded entirely with the Soniccouture Hammersmith piano. The album is scored for four pianos, and features extensive microtuning of the instrument. I spoke to Chris about the album, his compositional process, and the tunings he explored.

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Dan Powell: Did you choose Hammersmith specifically because of the microtuning feature?

Chris Thompson: Actually when I purchased Hammersmith I don’t remember being aware of the microtuning capabilities at all. I had really enjoyed using a couple other SC libraries on my previous albums, specifically the Xtended Piano and the Speak&Spell, and I wanted an upgrade on my standard piano sound going forward.

I just thought it sounded great and I liked you guys’ approach in general.

DP: Your website mentions that True Stories & Rational Numbers was written for four pianos in just intonation. Is it simply one unique tuning for each piano? In other words, would it be possible to perform the piece on retuned acoustic pianos?



CT: There are lots of tuning changes throughout, my approach was to treat each like a patch change. I did a couple workshops with pianists on keyboards at the beginning of the year and I had it set up so that there was a different instance of Hammersmith for each tuning, and the player could switch around.  In practice, for live performance, the players will probably perform to a click track, with the tuning patch changes automated so they won’t need to think about it at all. It is a nice solution because it meant I could notate all the extended accidentals and tuning information into the parts, and the pianist can see and have access to that if they want, but ultimately that detail is all handled by the tuning patch and the pianist is still just reading a normal equal tempered piano part.

To be played on acoustic retuned pianos I will have to catalog all the pitches used and make a new version of the score with them dispersed among four pianos. I know it’s possible to find tunings that would cover a couple movements at a time but to find one that would work for the entire piece remains to be seen. It will be a big project, and I’m not going to start it unless there’s a lasting interest in the piece. But for the time being, we are working on booking some performances on keyboards.

 

An excerpt from the score, with marked tuning changes

 

DP: I hear many instances of overtone series tuning, but are there others? Could you talk about the various tunings you explored?

CT: Yes, the album really chronicles the journey as I learned about various strategies for tuning. My first sketches used the harmonic series tuning that is pre-programmed in Hammersmith: there is a fundamental somewhere in the low register, and each midi half-step takes one step up the harmonic series. This gives access to the range from a fundamental up to around its 85th partial.

By combining multiple instances of Hammersmith with nearby harmonic series tunings (for example F, C, G), I could improvise really fresh sounding tonal colors without even necessarily knowing what partial I’m playing at any given moment (although figuring that out later was really interesting and involved drawing cool looking geometric lattice diagrams!). Anna, Sirens, and Professor H at Twilight were composed completely using these tunings.

Later, I created octave-repeating versions of these scales that include only the partials I was using. For example, a C major scale constructed with partials:

Partial: 1 9 5 11 3 27 15
Note: C D E F G A B

I took to calling these “harmonic scales.”   These have been crucial for transcribing or analyzing music composed using the harmonic series tunings (since the pitches don’t match the key that triggers them).

As I started to learn more about how the harmonic series translates into octave-repeating scales, I did more experimenting with shifting harmonies and modulations by constructing my own just tunings. I was very curious what western pop-music chord progressions would sound like in just intonation, and by making multiple instances of Hammersmith with different just intonation duodene* tunings I was able to find out.

A simple example: in a justly-tuned C scale, the distance from D to A is a little narrow, causing a dissonant “wolf tone.” However, the scale centered on G has the different, higher A. So by simply creating a second instance of Hammersmith with the tuning centered on G, I now have access to both versions of the A I need to keep any chord in pure tuning.

Hearing pop chord progressions stay in pure tunings was like hearing music in color for the first time. It was thrilling! And weirdly… relaxing? This was how I tuned the left-hand harmonic motion in Splitting, and the subtle “melting” effect in Five ‘Til between the two tonal centers.

Eventually I started sprinkling different pitches from the harmonic series or subharmonic series onto certain scale degrees — and this is the real MSG for the bag of chips. There’s nothing like the sound of a familiar interval with a more consonant tuning, yet that somehow sounds less familiar… like an alien voice to our equal-temperament adjusted ears. Lots of these abound in Fractionally-Souled Beasts.

DP: Did you explore harmonic rhythmic relationships at all? (I’m occasionally reminded of Nancarrow’s player piano work.)

From Chris’s sketchbooks, working out performance scales.

CT: I’m so psyched that this connection comes across as this whole project traces directly back to Nancarrow. There was a point where I suddenly realized that my journey has some real similarities to his, and that his work had really seeped into my subconscious as a performing member of Alarm Will Sound; playing and studying Nancarrow is our bread and butter, and has always been some of the most satisfying work for me personally. He (and also Henry Cowell, who influenced him) created a lot of very fertile ground that I was excited to explore.

We share piano-roll notation in common: an ideal medium for visualizing rhythmically complex music. I would love to know what he might have done with a tool like Hammersmith in a modern DAW. In my imagination he might have expanded upon his ideas by adding realistic dynamic expression and humanization, and this is definitely what I set out to do.

And yes, harmonic rhythmic relationships are the driving force for me formally — tempos metrically modulate in simple harmonic ratios. For example Nine Past repeatedly steps up in tempo by a ratio of 9:8. Going “nine-eighths faster” could be seen as going a “major second faster” (a realization which made me go 🤯 over my oatmeal one morning). And on a more local scale the rhythmic material is always based on simple polyrhythmic ratios.

As I started to see all elements of music through the lens of just intonation, tempos became analogous to pitches and rhythms to timbre — just on a slower scale of time. This makes sense to me when I think about the rates of vibration registered by human eardrums vs. the rate of the human heartbeat: same meaningful ratios, different units of speed or number of zeros.

DP: Is the music freely composed, or did you use any algorithmic or other compositional devices?

CT: My starting point was to generate material using polyrhythmic or “euclidian” step sequencers. Lots of trial and error created many happy accidents that defy what is notate-able in standard notation (this caused the creation of an actual score to be a really fun but totally maddening project). But nothing was ever randomly generated.

Whenever I had a certain amount of interesting and varied midi data I’d improvise with it to make a big messy arrangement, and then start adding material by hand and edit, edit, edit. Very few notes went untouched in terms of placement in time and velocity and touch. So I’d say it felt like a nice middle ground between real “free” composing vs writing a program and pushing “go.”

 

Listen to True Stories & Rational Numbers.

 

*Duodene is just a fancy 19th century term for a just chromatic scale constructed using only 3rd and 5th partial relationships. It is the justly tuned scale that most closely mirrors our familiar equal tempered scale, defined by Alexander Ellis in the appendix of his translation of Hermann von Helmholtz’s On the Sensation of Tone (a book that is the primary theoretical and narrative inspiration for the album).


 

If you want to explore harmonic intervals and just intonation, have a look at the script in the previous blog post.

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JUST INTONATION KSP SCRIPT

JUST INTONATION KSP SCRIPT

By Soniccouture  |  09.12.2020

This is a KSP script to facilitate the creation of Just Intonation scales. It requires the full version of Kontakt 6.2.0 or later. It assumes octave equivalence and a scale of 12 pitches.

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For each key class you can define an interval as a fraction, typically the Root key is set to 1/1, but this is not required by the script.

You can shift the Root key with the knob and keep the interval relationships constant.

If no other scripts are running in your instrument, you will hear your tuning and can make adjustments as necessary. If other scripts are present however, it’s not possible to guarantee you will hear the results of the script.

For example, most legato scripts do not account for microtuning and will overwrite any tunings you create here.

There is an Options menu with two command: Initialise the tuning (to a 7-limit chromatic scale), and Export the Tuning. The format of the exported tuning is the same as that you can Import/Export from many other Soniccouture instruments that support microtuning.

Screen Shot 2020-12-09 at 10.56.38

 

Download:
Just Intonation Script

Requires Kontakt 6.2.0 or later.

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Vibraphone + Grand Marimba Updates

Vibraphone + Grand Marimba Updates

By Soniccouture  |  11.11.2020

We have big updates to our invincible Vibraphone + Marimba instruments, available now.
The new instruments give a clearer layout with enhanced functionality and a full new Kontakt 6 effects section.

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Grand Marimba has been completely rebuilt into our new intelligent round-robin system. The old sample set was 15 velocity layers x 5 round robins. This has now been combined into one ‘high-res’ stack of 70 velocity layers. To prevent sample repeat adjacent samples in the stack are used when required.

Additionally, to both instruments we now add our Generative Tools: Weaver and Jammer for inspirational jamming, and our micro-tuning module for the interval-curious.

No new sample data has been added.

These new updates are free and require Kontakt 6.2. Available now in your User Account

 

 

Vibraphone-Main_2

3GrandMarimba-Main

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All Saints Choir Video Review

All Saints Choir Video Review

By Soniccouture  |  02.07.2020

Cory Pelizzari has made another of his informative, no-nonsense walkthroughs, this time featuring All Saints Choir.

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He tells it like it is.

All Saints Choir Webpage

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Hannah Peel: composing with All Saints Choir

Hannah Peel: composing with All Saints Choir

By Soniccouture  |  30.04.2020

Hannah Peel is an artist and composer who seems to defy easy categorisation. On Chalk Hill Blue, her collaboration with Will Burns, she combined spoken word poetry with music with bewitching effect. Under the alias Mario Casio, she sets the (analogue) controls for deep space exploration. She has arranged strings for Paul Weller, and creates atmospheric indie-folk as a member of band Magnetic North.

Then, after hours, she presents Night Tracks on BBC Radio3, pulling all the different strands together in one place.

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We got in touch with Hannah last year when she tweeted about The Attic 2. Her sound has such an original combination of modern classical elements with synthesis that she seems to perfectly represent Soniccouture’s sensibilities. So we really wanted to hear what she could do with All Saints Choir. Hannah repaid our persistent nagging with two tracks, immediately exceeding expectations by 100%.

Hannah Peel: “This a beautiful library with high quality recordings, a great range of spaces to play with and a lot of flexibility within the sampler to play with. I also love to find ways of creating sounds that wouldn’t be possible if using a live choir and so enjoyed using techniques that could test that. ”

 The Lost Manor at St Marie

“I used the ‘Sing’ controller to expand parts and to play with textures. Gentle at first with an Ooh vowel on Sopranos and Altos. Then erratic in the middle section using cluster on all voices. I added some extra plugin effects here too, like the Soundtoys Crystallizer, distortion and a long shimmer reverb on the loudest parts.
The ending was on a Mm with a close mic. When the music is composed within the breathing restraints of the human voice, and the dynamics of the Sing Controller are used, it feels very real. ”

HP-Cluster-Midi-controlled

A screenshot from Hannah’s Logic session, showing the Cluster modulation programming.

HP-choir-Sing-control

The Sing controller modulation lane

 

Beyond The Door

Hannah’s second track builds Reich-like layers and synth bass to show All Saints Choir’s versatility with modern styles.
“I really like the cluster function – contrasting the pure choir voices with the more out of the ordinary adding drama and tension was fun to play with. Especially using this with the filters and choral effects in the effects panel, alongside a midi triggered arpeggiator.
I played with these functions for the end of Beyond The Door – a track written with some layers of a Juno 60 and Model D MiniMoog. This library works really well when layered within textures and other instruments too.”

Hear more of All Saints Choir here

hannahpeel1

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