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An introduction to Beat Music

by Roger Smalley

The following article was published in The Listener of 12 August 1971, as an introduction to the first performance of Beat Music, which took place on the selfsame day as part of a triple Promenade Concert. This programme, typical of the Glock era in its thought-provoking juxtaposition, began at 7.0 pm with Roberto Gerhard's Libra and progressed through works by Bach, Smalley, Stravinsky and tippett before concluding after 11.0 with Berio conducting his Laborintus II.

My overall impression, at the time, was that Beat Music was not particularly well received. To begin with the members of the London Sinfonietta were (justifyably) upset that their parts were not complete until the fourth rehearsal. They also took exception to some passages which were (and I chose my words carefully) at the very limit of playability. Intermodulation, for its part, found it difficult to cope with the regimented structure of an orchestral rehearsal, so different from our usual relaxed way of working. And, of course, there were the usual struggles with recalcitrant pieces of electronic equipment.

At the performance the conductor forgot to cue the triple bass drum stroke which should begin this work, which consequently spluttered into life somewhat unconvincingly. This aside the performance was much better thanone might have anticipated.

The critics were kinder than I had remembered, although they were undeniably less than enthusiastic.

The general tenor of their reviews is encapsulated by Dominic gill's remark (in the Financial Times) that Beat Music was " a fairly exhilarating disappointment". Gill also came up with the most memorable (if somewhat opaque) sentence when he wrote that "the overall impression is of a kind of Bacchic music without frenzied impulse or heart: Pulses rewritten, if you like, by a teetotal Bacchus, with an eye on the audience-rating, and on the clock".

Pulses and its accompanying article were written during a period (the early 1970s) when I held very intransigent views on the future of music, and they both show it. Parts of the article make for embarassing reading now, but my feeling is simply - that's the way it was. I had discovered a new idea, and I was going to let the world know about it.

My music of this period is similarly single-minded. Works such as Strata, Monody, the 2 Melody Studies, Zeitebenen and Beat Music relentlessly explore the ramifications of one all-encompassing idea. The prevailling mood is one of cool objectivity, and this emotional distancing of the listener is reinforced, I believe, by the use of electronics, in one form or another, in most of these pieces.

Rehearing a tape of the first performance of Beat Music (there has never been a second) after a gap of many years my overall impression was that it did basically sound as I had intended it to - like a rock group permanently on the edge of feedback. The way in which it veers from moments of dangerous simplicity to passages of impenetrable complexity reminds me of Xenakis (in retrospect - I don't think he was an influence at the time). The three solos for the members of Intermodulation are completely unnotated (we worked them out in rehearsal) and would probably have to be at least partially written out for any future performance. The uncomfortable size of the ensemble (55 players - too large for a chamber ensemble, too small for an orchestra) plus the fact that it was written to feature a group of musicians which no longer exists make this an unlikely prospect.


Roger Smalley writes about his new 'Beat Music'

(The Listener of 12 August 1971)

I began Beat Music on 28 December last year and finished copying out the full score on 21 July - just in time: the first three rehearsals had taken place with incomplete orchestral parts. The BBC, who commissioned it, were totally unspecific in their terms and so I was able to fulfil an ambition to write a work which combined Intermodulation, the live electronic group in which I play, with an orchestra. This combination of electronic with non-electronic instruments had a decisive influence on the instrumentation and physical lay-out of Beat Music. The orchestra, consisting of 55 players, is divided into three groups, situated on the left, centre and right of the platform. Each of these groups is led by a member of Intermodulation. Group One (left) is composed of bass-register instruments - brass, cello and double basses - and is led by the electric organ (played by myself). Group Two (centre) consists of predominantly middle-register instruments - mixed brass and woodwind, cello and violas - and is led by the solo viola. The solo violist (Tim Souster) uses an electronic device called an octave divider which enables the pitch of the C-string to be lowered by one octave, thus giving the instrument the range of the viola and cello combined. Group Three (right) is predominantly high in register (woodwind and violins) and is led by the soprano saxophone (changing in one section to the bassoon), played by Robin Thompson. The fourth member of Intermodulation, Peter Britton (percussion), sits apart from the three groups in the centre of the platform just in front of the conductor, and his part articulates the entire rhythmic structure of the work. In addition, each group has a second electronic instrument (bass guitar, electric piano and electric harpsichord respectively) and a percussion player. The notation of these three percussion parts is, apart from a few isolated indications, only rhythmic, with a visual lay-out which suggests approximate pitch.

The loudspeakers of the electronic instruments in each group are placed above and behind the group in question so that all the sounds of each group come from the same direction. Beat Music is not a spatial work: each group is a self-contained unit which does not share its material with the other groups (although of course, all the material is part of the same musical process). The groups must therefore be situated just far enough apart for them to be seen and heard as individual entities, but not so far that pronounced stereophonic separation occurs.

These days the only justification I can see for embarking on a new composition is that it must be founded on a radically new idea, and must explore as many of the implications of this idea as possible. By 'new idea' I don't mean writing a fugue with the answer at the tritone instead of the dominant, or using a ten-note row instead of a twelve-note one, but something much more fundamental. The basic idea of Beat Music is to establish a real, as opposed to arbitrary, relationship between all musical parameters. Of course this has been attempted many times before, especially in the years of integral serialism during the early Fifties, but (with the exception of Stockhausen's Gruppen) was rarely successful or meaningful, because it was approached in such an unscientific way. I cannot describe exactly how the solution used in Beat Music occurred to me, but it certainly had a lot to do with my previous work, Strata for 15 String Players (still unperformed). This work is based on a single chord which contains all the 11 intervals within an octave (from major seventh to minor second) arranged in ascending order. The chord is therefore rather like a distorted harmonic series, and it suggested to me the use of a real harmonic series, without alterations, as the basis of a work. I was partially fascinated by the fact that if one lowered the frequency of the fundamental of a harmonic series to below about 16Hz (ie. 16 cycles per second) it would no longer be heard as a sustained tone, but as a rhythmic pulsation whose speed would be directly related to the frequencies of the higher partials of the same harmonic series, which would be heard as pitches.

The pitch C natural, if lowered by enough octaves, eventually gives a vibration of 1 Hz. Obviously the second partial of the harmonic series on this same C (the C one octave above) will have a frequency of 2 Hz and the third partial (the G a fifth above that) a frequency of 3 Hz. In fact if you lower the pitch of a diatonically tuned keyboard attached to a sine-wave generator until its lowest C pulsates at a speed of 1 Hz and then play up the harmonic series to the 12th partial you will obtain a series of pulsations from 1 to 12 Hz.

This is exactly what happens in Beat Music. The electric organ, viola and soprano saxophone/bassoon are each fed into one input of a ring-modulator. The other input is a sine-wave generator whose frequency is controlled by the player with a keyboard tuned in the manner I have just described. Each pitch of the basic harmonic series becomes in turn a new fundamental on which a new harmonic series is constructed, making twelve in all. When the player is using, for example, the harmonic series on the 11th partial (F sharp) he presses the F sharp on the electronic keyboard, which makes all the sustained pitches he plays pulsate at a speed of 11 Hz. Thus the parallel between audible pitch and sub-audible pitch (=rhythm) is made clear.

Without 50 pages and as many music examples I cannot hope to describe the ramifications of this system. What I do want to establish is that what I have just been describing is the raw material of composition. It is not the composition itself, but everything in the composition arises out of it. In the long period before the dissolution of tonality composers never had to concern themselves with this stage of creation. Composition began at the level of forming themes and motives from the rich - although evidently not infinite - resources of the tonal system. Subsequently Schoenberg's 12-tone system attempted to provide an equivalent basis for an atonal music. However, much less common ground was provided - the basic series for each work did not pre-exist, as did the scalic and key relationships of the diatonic system. Schoenberg's 'rules' merely provided certain criteria for the selection and treatment of pitches. Today we must go even deeper in our search for the basis of a composition.

Although Beat Music is thoroughly serial in its behaviour, its materials are, in a sense, pre-diatonic, in that they go back, by definition, to a stage which antedates any musical system whatever. Therefore the work is both serial and tonal. One might almost say that it was 'in' C major (I was not influenced by Schoenberg's much-abused dictum here). This just goes to show how irrelevant are those earnest 'anti-serial' and 'is tonality dead?' pontificators: while we are already witnessing the rebirth of (among other things) tonality, they are so obsessed by their disputation at the graveside that they have failed to notice that the procession has already passed by.

I am continually trying to get away from the feeling that I am composing the music, and closer to the sensation that the music is composing itself. This sensation, which I experienced more strongly than ever before while writing Beat Music, is extremely difficult to verbalise, but I could describe it as the feeling that if you descend deeper and deeper into the materials of music until you reach the smallest and most insignificant-sounding object (say a C natural so low that it is no more than a click every second), you will merely have to disturb it slightly with the point of your pencil - push it around on the manuscript paper a little - and it will release the most phenomenal amount of energy. The analogy which occurred to me several times while composing was with the Roman candle in Kenneth Anger's film, Fireworks. The coda of Beat Music where the music sprays out in all directions and then rapidly subsides to its source, was directly inspired by this image. This coda is also like a very fast film montage in which all the key moments of the rest of the piece pass before our ears in the space of a few seconds, not unlike a speeded up version of the last seven minutes of Antonioni's film The Eclipse.