Ritual no. 1: Ascension of the Primes

Ritual no. 1: Ascension of the Primes is a 5 movement audio/visual composition for computer and a human soloist. The piece begins in 3-limit just intonation and gradually adds prime numbers with each movement, finally ending in 13-limit just intonation. Originally composed as purely musical work, Ritual no. 1 was composed from October of 2019 through August of 2020. Each movement is assigned a poetic title. These titles fit together to give a brief and surreal narrative, which weaves together a number of historical and religious people and images.

I. As Pythagoras Enters into Heaven

II. Ptolemy Sings in the Court of Akhnaten

III. and Mary Dances on back of the Terrapin

IV. Christ Prays Under the Seven Faced Marble Eye

V. and the Angels Chant in the Womb of the Tathagata

Movement 1, As Pythagoras Enters into Heaven, is in 3-limit just intonation. There are several pitch collections which can serve as the melodic and harmonic content of the movement. The pitch collection, and other factors of timbre and time, are determined by three distinct values produced through the use of Pythagorean numerology. One number is determined by the present date, another by the birthday of the performer and the last by the performer’s name. These three values are then distributed into three pairs and processed using the Pythagorean Theorem to produce three more distinct values. These six values are factored into nearly every musical aspect of the movement. Interestingly, the form of the movement is in three parts. These three sections are proportional to one another according to the Pythagorean Theorem. The text of the movement is taken from the end of “The Golden Verses of Pythagoras.” The text is attributed to Pythagoras but it is known today that he is not the author as the earliest sources date the text to some time in the third century BC.

The second movement, Ptolemy Sings in the Court of Akhnaten, is directly inspired by the Hymn to the Sun from Act II Scene IV of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten. The movement begins with an extended introduction produced in the Arturia Synclavier and CMI plugins which concludes with the clear articulation of the fifth harmonic. A song then begins – a setting of “The Epigram of Ptolemy.” The text was written by Claudius Ptolemy himself in the second century AD. The texture of the movement was adapted from Glass’s Hymn: A steady bass articulates the meter throughout, a simple chordal accompaniment carries the harmony, and melody insistently cadences on the major third of the central chord.

Movement three, and Mary Dances on back of the Terrapin, was the first movement of the piece to be composed. It is influenced by the form of a Hindustani raga. Set in 7-limit just intonation, it begins with an opening alap-like section. The singer improvises melodically, following a strict order of introduction for each individual pitch. This section is followed by a Gat-like section that introduces a primary theme. This section’s pitched texture was inspired by Philip Glass’s Music in Changing Parts and Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air.The pitched materials are accompanied by a tabla-like drum synthesized in Max. During this section the singer controls the harmonic movement of the patch by means of a frequency follower programmed in Max. Similar to the first section, the order in which the harmonies are introduced is fixed – only the timing is improvised. The movement ends with a return to the texture of the alap-like introduction but in a minor mode. The third movement is the only movement that does not use a text.

The fourth movement, Christ Prays Under the Seven Faced Marble Eye, takes on many characteristics of American popular music styles. The main riff heard throughout the movement is a conservative quotation of the riff from the Grateful Dead song Estimated Prophet. The strong drum and bass evokes the sound world of EDM and hip-hop music. The free, tonal recitation approach to the spoken text is reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s performance on Ballad of the Skeletons as well as some of Lou Reed’s songs with the Velvet Underground such as Some Kind of Love. These popular music elements are juxtaposed with the use of a septimal meter (a result of the Grateful Dead quotation) and the chromatic planing technique which makes up the movements harmonic language. Perhaps the greatest juxtaposition, however, is the use of 11-limit just intonation.

The text of the fourth movement was created using a Max patch that generated random phrases words from the three other texts of Ritual no. 1: The excerpt from “The Golden Verses of Pythagoras,” the “Epigram of Ptolemy,” and the beginning of the Gloria text of the catholic mass. Each word from these texts was then sorted into linguistic categories like nouns, verbs and adjectives to create a word bank. Kelly Swenson created a set of 11 linguistic phrase blueprints of three, five, or seven words. These blueprints told Max how to sort words which the computer randomly selects from the word bank. After the computer had written a phrase they were captured and then arranged to create aesthetically pleasing poetry. This approach was deeply inspired by the cut-up writing techniques developed by William S Burroughs in works like Naked Lunch and the books of the Nova Trilogy.

Movement five, and the Angels Chant in the Womb of the Tathagata, is perhaps the most austere movement of the piece. A series of 7 chords slowly fade in and out over a rapid semi-random arpeggio figure. When these chords reach their peak amplitude a chant begins on the lyric, “Glory to God in the highest.” Each chant is in a different tempo, derived from the ratio of the root note of the chord. The approach taken in this movement is heavily influenced by the music of La Monte Young.

This piece was recorded using sfrecord~ in Max/MSP for the audio, and OBS Studio screen capture for the video. The audio and video tracks were then synced up and rendered into a full length lossless video file in reaper. The lossless file was then brought into DaVinci Resolve and rendered into an MP4 file to be uploaded to YouTube. The hardware used for the recording process included a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB audio interface and a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone.

The materials used in the production come from a wide array of sources. Instrumental samples of orchestral instruments were recorded in the Owen Hall Recording Studio at University of the Pacific during sessions for my piece Jesus in the Shade of the Bodhi Tree. Most of the digital sound was created in Max/MSP using Additive, Subtractive and FM synthesis. All live digital processing including reverb, ring modulation, pitch shifting, and comb filtering was done in Max. The Arturia CMI V and Synclavier V were used in the production of the backing track for the second movement. The Synclavier was particularly useful for it’s resynthesis capabilities.

Ritual no. 1 is the product of nearly a year of work. The piece is intended to be viewed in a single sitting. It is my sincerest hope that listeners may use the piece to find a place of presence, meditation and peace. The piece unfolds slowly but it is also very eclectic. In this eclecticism there is, hopefully, something for everyone. This range of accessibility is aimed, in part, at making the piece accessible for a diverse range of audiences. On the other hand, the moments of the piece that are unfamiliar for particular listeners aim to create a sense of curiosity and awe.

Ritual no. 1 is currently the best incarnation of my aesthetic principles and I thank you most sincerely for engaging with it.

Click here to access a complete performance guide for the piece, including tuning charts for each movement.

Truth. Liberty. Peace.

kJs

Probably Blue

Probably Blue is a fixed media work realized in Max/MSP. It is written in 7-limit just intonation and is comprised of 3 overlapping timbral layers: an FM synthesis ostinato, filtered cello drones, and delayed trumpet samples with ring modulation. Multiple parameters of the FM and trumpet sounds are governed using probabilities including spatial placement, inharmonicity ratio, and ring modulation frequency – even the likelihood of their occurrence.

These layered materials span a series of seven justly tuned chords which have a duration of one minute or greater. The durations of the various chords are proportional and they correspond to some the ratios used in the harmonic schema. Each chord change is punctuated by sampled voices which sing the following lines:

Give me Freedom,

Give me Liberty,

or Give me Death.

Give me Life,

Give me Harmony,

To Feed my Head.

The title refers to both the use of probabilistic processes in creating the musical textures as well as to the music form of the blues. The piece itself is not directly derivative of the blues form. The lyrics, however, are reminiscent of the longing for freedom that is rightly associated with the blues in light of it’s roots in the spirituals and work songs of African-American people who were enslaved in the United States.

The inclusion of Patrick Henry’s famous phrase “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” is deliberately included to evoke a sense of juxtaposition and irony. After all, that phrase, inspiring as it sounds, was uttered in 1775, a time when around 20% of the American population was kept in bondage. For these people, the attempt to reclaim their liberty, an unalienable right which they were granted by their creator, often meant capture, punishment and death. The willingness of people to bear such tragedy reveals the natural yearning of human beings to be free.

Another, lighter reference is made in the final line of lyrics to the 1967 Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit. The year 1967 was the “Summer of Love.” It was a time when the psychedelic movement of the San Francisco bay area flourished into a national Dionysian craze. This craze was accompanied by the blues based music of bands like the Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead. At the same time, 1967 was a year which, like 1775, bears a host of contradictions. Amidst the back-drop of the Summer of Love, war raged in Vietnam: two million young American men were drafted to fight against their will. 282,000 of them died. Over 600,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed and many more suffered for years to come as a result of the use of Agent Orange.

The piece itself may seem to have its own inherent contradictions. The music is seemingly simple and serene, unfolding slowly and tranquilly. Yet the concepts that underlie it are tied to complex, sometimes dark issues of the past. Perhaps the space provided in the piece’s unfolding, coupled with the meditative nature of the textures, gives the listener a chance to contemplate these contradictions. Perhaps the listener may reflect on similar contradictions they observe in our own time.

I give no answers – feed your own head.

Reflection no. 2

Reflection no. 2 was composed for the 2020 Cazenovia Counterpoint Festival in Cazenovia, New York. It was premiered at the Rising Stars concert on July 28th, 2020, a program which featured young, award winning performers.

Reflection no. 2 for Flute and Piano is a continuation of the sound world of Reflection no. 1 for piano solo. Like that earlier piece, Reflection no. 2 expresses a predominately lonely character which is interrupted by a brief period of agitation. Perhaps they are two parts of the same piece? The piece was constructed using the four note pitch class set from my first string quartet. This set was then processed as a rotational array to create four unique harmonic configurations related by a central pitch. Such an approach is influenced by the serial music of Igor Stravinsky. The piece also bears some influence from Olivier Messiaen; the opening texture was taken from his piece Le Merle Noir.

Vita Marie Dean – Flute

Sar Shalom Strong – Piano

Reflection no. 1

Reflection no. 1 for solo piano was constructed with two interval sets which are also tied to two distinct characterizations. The piece includes something of loneliness and solemn reflection in the space which pervades it. It also hints at an agitation, which bursts forth in the middle of the piece before sinking back beneath the surface.

Premiere Recording, March 12, 2020 at Syracuse University.

Adrei Skorobogatykh – Piano

Kevin Muldoon – Sound Engineer

Mixing and Editing – Kevin Swenson

Reed Quintet no. 1 ( Reading by Akropolis Reed Quintet )

Reed Quintet no. 1 – Reading by Akropolis Reed Quintet

Reed Quintet no. 1 was a piece composed in contradiction to my typical process prior to the Fall of 2019. Each movement was completed as a sort of “process piece,” generated by Fibonacci relationships. I then performed “composition surgery” on each movement to craft the product presented here. The piece therefore represents an acceptance of the limits of systematic composition, and the synthesis of the initial process with subsequent intuition.

Fibonacci numbers were used in the generation of the pitched and rhythmic material. For example, Fibonacci numbers are evident throughout the piece in the division of beats into multiples of 2, 3 and 5. In pitch space, Fibonacci numbers were often interpreted as melodic or harmonic intervals, measured in semitones. The most radical application of Fibonacci numbers is seen in the second movement. Ironically, the second movement is also the movement which underwent the highest degree of “composition surgery.” Interestingly, Fibonacci numbers also govern the approximate length of each movement in minutes in the ratio 1:3:2.

The piece is composed in three movements, each with a contrasting character:

I. With Light Intensity

II. With Individual Precision

III. With Flowing Movement

The recording provided was recorded in a reading session with the Akropolis Reed Quintet:

Tim Glocklin – Oboe

Kari Landry – Clarinet

Matt Landry – Alto Saxophone

Ryan Reynolds – Bassoon

Andrew Koeppe – Bass Clarinet

Kevin Muldoon – Sound Engineer

Recorded in the Setnor Auditorium at Syracuse University – 2/25/20

and Mary Danced on Back of the Terrapin from Ritual no. 1 (Ascension of the Primes)

This is a recording of the third movement of Ritual no. 1: Ascension of the Primes, titled and Mary Danced on back of the Terrapin. Scored for for voice and electronics this movement of the piece is set in a 7-limit just intonation tuning. The electronic sounds were created inside of Max using FM and additive synthesis, in Melodyne by retuning samples from Jesus in the Shade of the Bodhi Tree, and in the Arturia CMI fairlight.

A human vocalist triggers changes in melodic sequences played by the computer by means of a frequency follower. The vocal part is semi-improvisational. In the first section, inspired by the Alap portion of Hindustani ragas, the order of introduction of the pitches of an E-flat mixolydian collection is fixed but the melody and rhythm is entirely improvised. The sequence pattern which dominates the middle dance-like section is hinted at during the introduction. In the dance portion a series of 7 different sequences can be triggered by the vocalist. Again, their order of introduction is fixed but the melodic movement of the vocalist as well as the timing with which they chose to trigger the sequences is improvised. The piece ends in a C phrygian and the material of the singer is entirely improvised save that they must end on the pitch C.

Kevin Swenson – Voice

For a chart which details the ratios, the notes used to trigger changes in the patch and the scales which accompany each sequence see the PDF hosted at this link.

The Body Where I Was Born

This is an interactive piece for trumpet solo or duet and computer (Max/MSP) in 11-limit just intonation. The live performer(s) play improvisatory material governed by a performance algorithm. By means of a frequency follower the live performers can trigger samples stored in the computer which were recorded by Professor Leonard Ott in the Owen Hall Recording Studio. The combination of the sampled and live materials forms a drone-based texture that envelops the listener in a quadraphonic speaker array. In the quad version the samples for the ratios 7/4, 9/8, 11/8, and 15/8, are panned around the audience in slowly phased Lissajous patterns. The Lissajous patterns are generated by two sub-audio sine waves which are tuned to the ratios they are panning. The title and character of the piece were inspired by this stanza from Allen Ginsberg’s 1954 poem “Song:”

yes, yes,

that’s what

I wanted,

I always wanted,

I always wanted

to return

to the body

where I was born.

Thomas Hubel and Kevin Swenson – Trumpets

For the scale with ratios and their order of introduction see the document hosted at this link.

Jesus in the Shade of the Bodhi Tree

This piece was recorded in the Owen Hall Recording Studio in the Spring of 2019. A plethora of instrumental techniques were captured spanning all of the orchestral families. After tracking was completed, samples were chosen from the recorded materials and sequenced to form a linear composition. In the piece the recording studio becomes a vehicle for orchestration.

An in depth essay about the piece’s conception, recording, and composition is available on the writings page.

Performers

Andrew Lu – Flute

Alelih Galvadores – Oboe

Scott Pastor – Clarinet

Arturo Garcia – Bass Clarinet

Mitchell Beck – Tenor Saxophone

Sam Berris – Bassoon

Braydon Ross – French Horn

Thomas Hubel – Trumpet

Felix Contreras Diaz – Trombone

Robert Huntington – Tuba

Tyler Golding – Glockenspiel, Crotales, Marimba, Vibraphone, Xylophone, and Timpani

Micah Vogel – Violin

Krista Swenson – Viola

Malcolm King – Cello

Antonio Sarzi – Contrabass

Kevin Swenson – Voice and Piano

Recording Engineered and Produced by Kevin Swenson

String Quartet no. 2 – “The Void”

This piece was inspired by the 36th koan listed in Nyogen Senzaki’s collection of 100 Zen Koans, The Iron Flute. 1It reads:

36. Where to Meet After Death

Tao-wu paid a visit to his sick brother monk, Yun-yen. “Where can I see you again, if you die and leave only your corpse here?” asked the visitor. “I will meet you in the place where nothing is born and nothing dies,” answered the sick monk. Tao-wu was not satisfied with the answer and said, “What you should say is that there is no place in which nothing is born and nothing dies, and that we need not see each other at all.”

When I first read this koan I was immediately fascinated with the concept of “the place where nothing is born and nothing dies.” I believe it boils down to a single word: the void. However contradictory to Yun-yen’s statement it may be, Tao-wu’s insistence that there is no such place also suggests a certain idea of something void. Simply put, the phrase is what brought about the initial inspiration regardless of philosophical interpretation.

As a result the concept of the void is entertained throughout the piece by the sustaining of single harmonies for long periods of time. At times, particularly during the middle of the piece, this sustenance is masked by a higher level of rhythmic activity and timbral transformation. Silence is also used as a means of illustrating a sense of the void. In light of this conceptualization it is my sincerest hope that listeners might enter a reflective, even meditative state of mind by experiencing the piece.

1Senzaki, Nyogen, The Iron Flute: 100 Zen Koans Tuttle Publishing. 2000.

For detailed information about the scordatura tuning used in the piece see the document hosted at this link.

Performers

Micah Vogel, Sabrina Boggs – Violin

Krista Swenson – Viola

Malcolm King – Cello

Generative Meditation


This generative piece for Max/MSP and a human improviser is constantly changing. The piece is based on a drone made up of the first 16 harmonics of the overtone series. The fundamental of the overtone series is determined by the year, month and calendar day on which the piece is being performed. The algorithm which calculates the fundamental takes the year/100, the month/10, the day/10, the hour/100, the minute/100 and the second/10000 and adds the 6 values together. As a result the tuning of the piece is in a constant state of flux from day to day. There is no notated score for this piece. Instead there is a general form and rules that govern the performance of the piece related to the day of the week (Monday-Sunday) and the time of day. While the piece is intended to involve a human performer it is also usable as an ambient Max patch for computer alone.

The present recording was captured on Tuesday, May 7th, 2019  during a 4.5 hour installation of the piece in the Owen Hall Recording Studio at University of the Pacific. 2 hours here is excerpted for the listener which includes 2 extended chants as well as moments of the patch alone. Note that the patch is intended to be performed in a quadraphonic speaker array despite the fact that this recording is captured in only two channels. The drone was captured using 2 AKG C414 microphones set to omni-directional pickup patterns. The chanting was captured with a Beyer M160 ribbon-dynamic microphone.

This PDF shows the modes for each day of the week and their corresponding tuning ratios.

You may request a copy of the Max patch on the Contact page.

Max Patch and Chant by Kevin Swenson

Recording Engineered by Darla Testino and Professor Jeff Crawford