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