Jeremy Zuckerman - Everything Is Wandering

A mass of text generated with a random walk process

A mass of text generated with a random walk process

We're excited to share some insight into the thought processes of our composers and visual artists with our new blog. We'll continue to share ideas, sounds, and images from our most recent show, performed August 31st at the Theatre at The Ace Hotel. Next up, we have Jeremy Zuckerman.

Photo by Kristy Campbell

Photo by Kristy Campbell

I’m in love with natural systems whose individual constituents organize and transform to reveal something greater than their internal elements. I find it fascinating how these systems shift and change yet remain within the confines of some overarching form. Wind rippling through a field of grass, a murmuration of starlings, language, the workings of the human brain, clouds, a sky of stars, the universe…

Since the first Echo Society concert, I’ve been experimenting with composing musical systems inspired by natural systems. I've been motivated to create pieces which are not only interesting from an analytical perspective, but also exciting and moving, foreign yet familiar--something to help us access our humanness. It’s been a complete change of perspective to switch from the traditional microscopic note-by-note way of composing to creating from a macroscopic view where each event (e.g. note) serves the whole but isn’t particularly musical on its own. 

For our most recent show V (check out Nathan Johnson's beautiful post for an explanation of the overarching theme for the show)I decided to write a piece for a cappella mixed choir dispersed in surround. The text source for my piece (titled Polymer) is Yeats' The Song of Wandering Aengus. For those unfamiliar with the poem, it's a story of a man who experiences a brief, magical event in his youth, an event in which he spends the rest of his life wandering in search of. There is a beautiful sense of longing in the poem, as well as a duality which represents the dream/fantasy world ("the silver apples of the moon") versus the physical world ("the golden apples of the sun").

From the idea of endless wandering came my initial idea to compose a musical system in which its pitches and text are derived from random walk processes. Quickly, a random walk is a mathematical process. Not being a mathematician, I’ll do my best here… It's a formula which creates a path derived from a series of random steps. It progresses but sometimes moves backward, sometimes jumps ahead a certain number of steps, sometimes repeats its current step. The characteristics of the random walk can be controlled and changed over time. For instance, the chance of it going backward two steps may go from 50% to zero over 30 seconds. (This is called a biased random walk.)

A sort-of-thorough yet totally-incomplete explanation of the compositional process:
I started with composing eight diatonic lines of pitches (one line per two voices) which begin with a narrow range and gradually widen (sopranos move up, basses move down). Using the audio programming language SuperCollider, I used these lines as source material to compose 16 independent random walks for each voice of the choir. The overall note duration shape is similar; the individual durations begin long and slowly shorten, then elongate again. 

Here’s a map to give a rough idea of the shape of the entire piece:

The x-axis is the timeline and the y-axis is general pitch range.

The x-axis is the timeline and the y-axis is general pitch range.

The text begins with meaningless syllables. After a bit, a system of text derived from a line from the poem is introduced. The lyric streams divide into four, then eight and finally 16 as the pitch ranges reach their widest and the durations reach their shortest. (Each new text stream uses a different line from the poem.) Gradually, the streams converge (eight, four, two) and finally return back to the syllables. As the text converges, the pitch range narrows and the durations elongate. 

To spice up the texture and to add another layer of transformation and because the human voice sounds so freaking beautiful the way it articulates phonemes, I introduced into the system several different rhythmic figures whose occurrences were determined by weighted randomness (i.e. the chance or likelihood of something happening). Because I wanted Polymer to begin very placidly, gradually increase in complexity and then return to placidity, there was no chance of a rhythmic figure at the beginning. As the piece progresses, the chance of the rhythmic figures occurring increases. At Polymer’s peak, the number of rhythmic figure occurrences are highest. Gradually, the chance of occurrences decreases till it reaches a chance of zero (no rhythmic figures).

some of  Polymer's  rhythmic figures

some of Polymer's rhythmic figures

Like the pitches, the text was generated via a random walk process. Here’s an early example that never found its way into the piece but I find really beautiful:

re was in my head,
moth- like my head, moth-
like moth- like in my
head, was a a fi-
re was fi- re in
in in was in fi-
re in my head, moth-
like stars were moth- like
in my head, moth- like
my head, moth- like stars
were flick- er- ing out,
some- one flick- er- ing
out, were were flick- er-
ing out, some- one were
moth- like in in fi-
re in my head, moth-
like stars my head, in
my head, moth- like in
my head
A polymer is a molecule made up of repeating components. ‘Polymer’ means many parts. Polymers are represented with random walk models. Polystyrene is a polymer. So is DNA.
...Everything is wandering.


I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
— The Song of Wandering Aengus - W.B. Yeats

Special thanks to the incredible vocalists who realized this piece with such finesse and musicality:

Edie Lehmann Boddicker (director) | Josh Bedlion | India Carney | Kenton Chen | Allie Feder
Jessica Freedman | Dylan Gentile | Will Goldman | Abdiel Gonzalez
James Hayden | Katharine Hoye | Baraka May | Jocelyn Scofield
Fletcher Sheridan | Suzanne Waters | Greg Whipple