I: Beauty From Nothing

Where does beauty come from? Did we invent it, or was it always here - a property of the universe?

As you read this, astronomers and particle physicists are drawing closer and closer to an explanation of our beginnings: how the universe transitioned from nothing into something. These discoveries are thrilling to follow, but what is their connection to our everyday experience? We live in a world of values - love, truth, beauty - did these also come into being in an instant? Perhaps, in the interaction of quantum chaos and physical laws, the seeds of beauty can be found.

This is a piece about chaos and order, and how these forces interact to spark creation. The process begins with a resonant chime, bubbling out of a quantum soup of piano clusters. This is the beginning of a chain reaction which ultimately gives rise to the melodic rhapsody at the heart of the piece. At the centre point, an explosion of matter is heard - an expansion, and the setting in motion of violent physical forces. Where will beauty be found when the dust settles?

Credit: John G. Cramer - 2013 for his sonification of the Big Bang and the first 760,000 years of universe

II: Web of Life

In July, 1837, Charles Darwin drew the first evolutionary tree in scientific history in his Transmutation Notebook B:

Tree of Life

Since then, the metaphor has evolved to encompass a wider animal kingdom:

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Hillis Tree of Life (Science, 2003, 300:1692-1697)

More recently still, the idea has been challenged by research into horizontal gene transfer between unicellular organisms (Olendzenski L and Gogarten J.P., 2009). In this case, the ‘tree’ may be more accurately described as an intricate ‘web’ of genetic relationships.

What we know, beyond doubt, is that every living creature on earth is connected by DNA. When walking in a garden, we are just a few genetic steps away from the birds, the grass, trees and insects that surround us, and the science can help us see this plainly. For me, this sense of connectedness is an essential source of joy, and one that continually takes new forms as I increase my knowledge. This piece follows the evolution of these emotions in a chain of songs and dances.

BEAUTY FROM NOTHING for piano and electronics [2016] - 20'00"

I: Beauty From Nothing, II: Web of Life

Commissioned by Sophia Vastek for the Music of Reality concert series, premiered at Spectrum, NYC on the 5th of May, 2016.

Composed in two movements, the piece can either be played as a whole, or each movement can be performed individually, as each deals with a different perspective on the title.

Forces

  • Amplified Piano
  • Optional: Electronics Performer/Live Sound Technician

Equipment Required

  • PC/Mac running a suitable DAW - e.g. Ableton or Logic

  • Amplification: piano amplified in stereo, recommended a pair of AKG 414s placed close to the hammers

  • Audio interface with one input and a minimum of 3 outputs, recommended 9+

  • Sound system: minimum stereo, recommended 8 speakers in "French 8" format plus subwoofer

  • Foldback monitor for the pianist

Performance Instructions

The Electronics for Beauty From Nothing are provided as a set of fixed-media stereo stems to be played in order. These should be set up in the DAW to be triggered at the appropriate time as notated in the score, either by the pianist, for example with a foot pedal, or by a live electronics performer.

Synchronisation is achieved by listening - the pianist must listen to the cues in the electronics as shown in the score, and the electronics must be cued in time with the piano at the indicated times.

The pianist must familiarise themselves with the fixed-media elements of the electronics in order to understand the underlying rhythmic relationships. Rhythmic cues are provided at key moments, i.e. when a new electronic element enters the texture. For passages indicated as free time, the pianist has rhythmic flexibility, and is encouraged to play with a pronounced rubato. Opposite to this are passages marked as fixed time, where the pianist must precisely follow the pulse as set down by the electronics. Unless otherwise notated, cues are triggered at the beginning of a bar

The piece can be realised in stereo, or for larger sound systems employing live diffusion - the art of painting sound into space.

The piece can be performed with or without an electronics performer, but it is recommended to have one present during rehearsals in order to treat the piano amplification and Electronics tracks with appropriate EQ, and the piano with appropriate reverb to match the acoustic of the room. When performing with a multichannel sound system, an electronics performer is necessary in order to diffuse the stereo Electronics into the space.

Download sample score pages or purchase the score below: