The New York Stock Exchange. The violin.
The Sun3 computer system. Radio. What do these four have in common?
Skibell is currently Composer-In-Residence at Brooklyn
College's Center for Computer Music. He is using the Center's Sun3-based
direct digital synthesizer system to organize the sounds of the New
York Stock Exchange and the violin into a 26-minute composition for
public radio's New American Radio series.
Reflecting on this curious association, Skibell
says, "I guess being an outsider, a musician, I wanted to use the
violin to combat the Exchange, or deal with it. And then the idea
just grew from there, from the opposition between what is represented
by the Exchange and what is represented by the violin."
And what is represented by the violin is a certain
notion of art. The violin has its own culture, Skibell points out,
a culture derived from the character of the instrument and from the
literature that is always defining and redeeming it. It has an aristocratic
aura. "To me," he says, "it is the icon of European art music. And
it;'s associated with the virtuoso -- most notably Paganini -- who
in turn conjures certain ideas about what music is. The great virtuoso
is inseparable from his instrument, completely immersed in his playing.
So to be convinced by him is to be seduced into this separate world
of music, with its own values, rules and limitations." The Exchange,
on the other hand, lies at the heart of the everyday world. "It's
a powerful American symbol," Skibell says, "of the world whose business
is business, where profits and the bottom line rule. At least on the
surface, that seems antithetical to the world of the violin."
But as Skibell thought more about it, the distinctions
began to blur. "It's not that easy. The relationship between the two
worlds is complex, and I don't propose to encompass all of it. I'm
trying to get to something beyond them both by taking them out of
their literal context. I'm thinking of other relationships, like mapping
the ups and downs of a market onto musical structures -- drawing similar
abstractions from two similarly mathematical worlds. Or pitting the
violinist's virtuosity against that of the brokers -- so that you
hear this intense work going on in two different ways." It became
Skibell's idea to challenge the notion of two worlds. But even more
importantly, it was his idea to make music from the widely disparate
sound elements of the violin and the Stock Exchange.
With a commission from the New American Radio series,
Skibell approached Brooklyn College's Center for Computer Music, which
already had a history with radio. Charles Dodge, its director since
1977, has created a number of exceptional works for the medium, and
it has a visiting composer program. The initial months of Skibell's
residency were devoted almost exclusively to learning how to use the
Sun3, a large, general system that supports a number of software programs
from different research centers -- CSound from MIT, CMix from Princeton,
and CARL from the University of California at San Diego -- and that
allows the user to mix the various resources they offer. "It's a less
intuitive way of working than the way I used to work," Skibell says.
"My primary experience was in the analog studio, where I worked in
a kind of improvisation -- splicing tape, twisting knobs, multitracking,
etc. in real time -- so I could make decisions as I went. But here
I must conceptualize what I want before I act -- so that I can tell
the computer how to produce sound or process a source sound. That's
involved some reorientation."
Under the guidance of the Center's Technical Director,
Curtis Bahn, himself a composer and performing musician, Skibell has
learned to do a number of things involving complex digital filtering
to analyze and process his sounds. Sometimes he uses banks of 5000
or more filters at one time, all precisely tuned and controlled. "I
guess I have four or five tricks up my sleeve now," he says laughing.
"I'm using comb filters that ring in certain frequencies in reaction
to a sound source. I've been feeding the Stock Exchange sounds into
them. You can still tell they're sounds from the trading floor but
they have a pitched quality. And I'm doing subtractive synthesis --
applying multiple digital filters to trading floor sounds and closing
them down to get string-like sounds. I'm using that as a way to establish
a continuum sonically between the world of the Stock Exchange and
the world of the violin.
"I'm also using the phase vocoder, which is one
of the packages from CARL, to stretch sounds so that I can either
use them on their own or feed them into other processing units. And
then I'm using the phase vocoder to analyze sounds for resynthesis.
I recorded the opening bell at the American Stock Exchange and wanted
to separate it from the background noise of the trading floor. So
I analyzed the component frequencies in the bell and then used a digital
instrument design by Jean-Claude Risset to resynthesize it from scratch.
That's something I couldn't have done with any other kind of system.
"While I talk about all this stuff I'm doing with
the computer, I'm also writing out music for the violinist. This is
a performance oriented piece and you know that is one of the most
exciting things to me about it. I'm thinking of it as a kind of concerto
for violin and NYSE AMEX Orchestra. I'm writing it for the violinist
Rolf Schulte. He's especially committed to new music -- he's premiered
pieces by Milton Babbitt, Tobias Picker, Georgy Kurtag and Mario Davidovsky.
But he also is involved in the more traditional solo literature of
the violin. And that whole continuity and tradition is what interested
me for the violin part in this piece. So I'm very excited and honored
to have the opportunity to write for him."
Exchange will be a dialogue between two powerful
symbols from the worlds of commerce and art. Skibell says that he's
inviting the listener to say, "What the...?" when confronted with
the dual subjects. And to that question, he says, "the music of Exchange
is the only answer."