Technique II: In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence

Performance (video)

In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence was written for pianist Zubin Kanga in 2018. The title is taken from a line in Liza Lim's essay Patterns of Ecstasy (2011). 


This piece applies the same core idea of material indeterminacy to the prepared piano, which differs primarily from the violin because the preparations make the strings inharmonic, radically altering their pitch/timbre content, and leading to different material behaviour. The piano is also not a sustaining instrument like the violin: once struck by the keys/hammers, the piano sound instantly begins to decay to nothing. Material indeterminacy in the form described previously requires a continuously sustaining instrument, so for the piano, the idea is transposed using Ebows and a mains-powered electromagnetic resonator to continuously excite the strings in a similar way to The endless mobility of listening.


EBow and electromagnetic resonator

Although there is now a significant body of composition using Ebows in the piano, they mostly use the standard (off-the-shelf) EBow, while this work uses EBows that are modified specifically for the larger (and multiple) strings of the piano. The EBows in this new work are modified with a 3D-printed case to fit onto the piano’s triple strings (see Fig. 6), and supercharged (using two batteries) to provide a slightly louder output. Even with the extra power, the EBows are only effective in the piano’s middle register, but the mains-powered resonator is significantly more powerful and works well across the whole register, making it a much more versatile and powerful tool.

Each of these tools has their own particular characteristics. Despite the extra power, these Ebows still take a while to reach stable sounding due to their relatively low energy. The mains-powered resonator elicits a faster response, and can be directed at more specific points of the string to seek out partials and multiphonics. However, because the resonator is handheld rather than placed on the string, it is more difficult to focus energy on a specific point on the string for extended periods. The resonator is also somewhat unwieldy, adding further indeterminacy.


As in The endless mobility of listening, the point here is to allow the pianist to explore the indeterminate materiality of the instrument. The pianist supports the agency of the piano, allowing isolated partials of the strings to emerge — according to Pickering's dialectic of resistance and accommodation (1995: 51) — between the player’s actions and the materiality of the piano. The piano strings can be explored in several ways. EBows are generally left in one position to allow the string vibration to settle into a stable pattern, then they can be moved to different positions of the string to allow other partials to emerge. The score directs the player to seek out metastable multiphonics, but allowing other sounds to emerge along the way. Multiphonics can be found by searching different positions on the strings and moving to a point in between different partials; this sometimes also results in the slow transition from one partial to another, or may even reveal a new partial. 


Exploring the strings is a continuous process during the piece. The player balances several explorations across simultaneous soundings of two or three EBows and the resonator. The exploration is structured around changes of environment (i.e. altered harmonic spectra) by moving the piano preparations (a long screw or bolt) to alter harmonic spectra and available partials. This is comparable to the process in The endless mobility of listening, where strings are retuned in each cycle, altering their material behaviour and agency. Movements are carried out both discretely and continuously. Discrete actions are carried out on a muted string by silently moving a preparation to an arbitrary new position, usually while other EBows are droning. Continuous actions can be carried out‚ if conditions are favourable, by carefully grasping the preparation between fingertips and gently pulling it along the string while still sounding. Since the preparation is coupled to the sounding string, this could result in immediately silencing the whole string; however, if the vibrational node of the preparation is grasped then the screw will continue to vibrate while being moved. Moving a sounding preparation is used sometimes as a fast gesture with structural/phrasing implications, while a very slow glissando can be used to search for resonant points of the string, which, once the preparation is in the new position, can be further explored by moving the Ebow or resonator.


In contrast to The endless mobility of listening, there is no fixed anchor pitch to structure this piece around. Instead, the piece uses relative pitch-matching to create moments of coherence at structural points. The player can choose to move sounding preparations to a target position that makes an octave or unison harmony with another drone. The player can also choose to interrupt the glissando at a point where there is strong resonance, regardless of the sounding pitch at that position. In this way, the structural points of the piece can be moved around to suit the material responses of the instrument. Conversely, the agency of the piano can interrupt the human by offering an irresistible resonance.


The piece exists as an epistemic object, a set of relationships and practices that elicit Pickering's dance of agency, but in various relatively fixed (notated) versions. The initial trace of the object was a text-based score, with clear instructions based on the processes we had refined in the workshops. Each main process was divided into modules. Originally, a multi-branched structure was devised, so that the modules could be played and repeated in different ways for performances of different lengths. 


An excerpt of this score is shown below: 

While the open text-based score still has merit, and may yet return in future performances (especially durational/installation performances), for the premiere and subsequent performances we used a quasi-graphic score (Fig. 8). The video performance at the top of this section uses this score, with the precise details of performance changing in subsequent different performances.

This score shows the piece’s four sections. An introduction, playing the prepared notes and keys that approximate the resonances of the prepared string. Then a central section, using the two EBows and the preparation to performatively explore the strings. Thirdly, a transition section (a note repeated 19 times to build up resonance) and the final section with the resonator, which is governed by searching for partials on two bass strings that match the dominant EBow pitch. The structure concretises a sequence of set pieces to suit a 10-12 minute concert performance, but within these set pieces the performance is highly indeterminate and contingent on the dance of agency. There are plans for future performative installations, in which these agencies are left free to roam and develop across several hours.


To summarise, In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence uses an open process to apply the embodied techniques of listening and working with different magnetic resonators to an instrumental environment, where the material agency is continually explored and reset by the player. 


→ Introduction

→ Technique I: The endless mobility of listening

→ Techniques II: In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence

→ Entangled Technique

→ Conclusion

→ Bibliography

Fig. 8: Quasi-graphic score for In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence.

Fig. 7: Testing electromagnetic resonator interaction with prepared piano strings (video).

Fig. 6: Ebow supercharged with two batteries, and in a plastic case to fit piano strings.

Full text score for first performance of in the unknown...