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.

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