BIFEM: Peter Dumsday and Samuel Dunscombe, Pluton

Peter Dumsday and Samuel Dunscombe
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Old Fire Station
2:30pm, 6 September

Pluton, Philippe Manoury’s epic composition for piano and electronics, was the first ever work to use the Max program designed by Miller Puckette. Just over twenty-five years later, Max/MSP is now a ubiquitous set of tools that composers and performers use to produce and alter sound and video in live performance. Its graphical user interface allows people with minimal programming experience to produce sophisticated performance and compositional systems without writing a single line of code. Those who are so inclined can produce their own objects to use in this immense musical sandbox. Pluton inaugurated an epoch of interactive instrument-and-electronics composition, including a repertoire of live sound transformations and spatialisations that are the mainstays of both contemporary computer music and classical composition.

But with audience members standing by the door of Bendigo’s Old Fire Station to hear the work, there was no sense that they were expecting to hear something old-fashioned or cliché. They were not disappointed. In an age where the electronic part of an instrument-and-electronics piece can sometimes dominate, it is refreshing to look back to this first Max/MSP piece and realise the importance given to Manoury’s traditionally-notated musical language. The piece is a true meeting of worlds, with the electronics variously complementing, modifying and enhancing the harmonically-rich, serial piano part. The piano is equipped in turn to send MIDI signals to the computer, ensuring precise synchronisation of effects and also controlling certain parameters of the electronic part. This enhancement of a seemingly-complete instrumental part comes out particularly in the final of the piece’s five movements, where the electronic part seamlessly modifies the resonance of the instrument. The sensitivity of Peter Dumsday’s playing seemed to bring the entire history of this comparatively ancient instrument to bear upon the new contender.

In earlier movements the piece shows its age with what can today be heard as crude granular synthesis.Technology has moved on somewhat in the past twenty-five years and the Max patch had to be rewritten for Pure Data in a feat of research and engineering worthy of the most laboured reconstruction of a renaissance score or period instrument. Max’s designer (and the original engineer for Pluton) Miller Puckette performed the core translation of the patch, while Samuel Dunscombe implemented the interface and communication design (along with some additional signal processing). As Dunscombe told the audience after the concert, he had consulted heavily with Puckette throughout the process. The pair even organised dates for Puckette to hack into Dunscombe’s computer to help troubleshoot the patch.

Pluton will no doubt endure as a classic, especially now that the hard work of updating it for contemporary software and hardware has been accomplished. I just hope that performers keep the piece’s final stunt. The piece ends with a two-minute sample of the piano. The lights fade to black and are then brought up again with the pianist having fled the scene, but the music still playing. Cute.

Edit: Since publishing this review I’ve had some interesting discussions about the piece that warrant mentioning here. The effect referred to above as “crude granular synthesis” is in fact nothing of the sort, as it predates granular synthesis as such. In fact, Dunscombe informs me that all of the processing is accomplished with hardware, not by the computer. In Pluton, short samples are repeated in different rhythms and diffused around the room in a manner that could be considered proto-granular, but which have an entirely different intended effect. They are supposed to be heard rhythmically, rather than timbrally. It is interesting that with today’s ears we cannot help but hear them as an attempt at granular synthesis. It is also interesting that this use of samples has by and large disappeared from contemporary music in favour of more processor-intensive timbral experiments.

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

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