Electric Counterpoint : Part I

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This is the first post of a five-part blog on my recent performance of Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint,” a classic minimalist composition written for electric guitar and tape. In order to make the 15 minute piece more accessible to fresh listeners, I dressed up the performance by visualizing the score in real-time. Here is a quick snippet:

In this first post, I’ll chat about the piece and goals of the performance. In the follow-up posts, I’ll detail the hardware and software that ultimately drove the performance. Let’s jump right in:

True to minimalistic style, Electric Counterpoint makes heavy use of “phase-shifted overlapping parts.” Don’t be fooled by that jargon, it’s a simple minimalist technique that is analogous to singing a staggered chorus of “row row row your boat.” When singing RRRYB in a group, everyone sings the exact same thing, but they all enter at different times — the parts “overlap” and we refer to the staggered entrances as being “phase-shifted.” In a simplistic way, this is the exact same technique at play throughout “Electric Counterpoint.” But why should you care about the phase-shifted overlapping parts in “E.C.?” Excellent question!

Phase-shifted musical parts can quickly max-out our perceptual abilities. By the time the third or fourth person starts sining “row row row your boat,” we stop hearing the individual melodic streams and start perceiving something way different. While some people find it really neat to tease out individual musical threads in a rich texture. others find it to be aggravating (like having an obstructed view at a baseball game). As an “research-art” experiment, I decided to use visual cues to help separate the individual streams of music, with the goal of off-loading some of the required cognitive capacity for following this piece music. Put simply, my approach to visualizing Electric Counterpoint was to assign each musical part to it’s own speaker, and then to simultaneously visualize the output of each speaker via LED lights that were embedded in each speaker. Specifically, the music and the lights were mapped by intensity: the intensity/loudness of each musical part generated the intensity/brightness of the embedded lights.

There was one other major experimental goal for this work, namely to explore the feasibility of a “Light Conductor.” As mentioned above, Minimalistic music is often difficult to follow…both for the audience and the performer. Therefore, performing Electric Counterpoint has a few unique challenges, one of which is timing the entrances of motives against the complex backdrop of other similar entrances. In order to make these entrances easier to perform, I coded the musical score for the “live” guitar part into a simple light signal (i.e., The Light Conductor). During the performance of the piece, I was able to use this light as a cue for not only entrances and exits, but also for dynamic/intensity information.

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Lower-left:  “THE LIGHT CONDUCTOR”

In the next post, I’ll be discussing the process of encoding the score for Electric Counterpoint and share more details on the unique challenges of the work.

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