a menacing plume

Composed for: Talea Ensemble

March 24, 2011, Merkin Hall, New York City

16 minutes

Date: 2011

Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, oboe, 2 percussion (including just-tuned vibraphones), piano, violin, viola, cello
with realtime digital signal processing (just-tuned harmonizing, flocking delays, spatialization, etc.)

PDF Score

Audio/Video of a performance by Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort


Program Note: From the moment I read about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform (April 20, 2010), I was filled with a sense of dread. I thought immediately of the strange, unworldly creatures that thrive in the ocean's depths, as well as those that swim near the surface or fly above it. My feeling of horror grew as we read day after day of the massive, uninhibited flow of oil from the sea floor, and the unregulated use of chemical dispersants (which we now know will linger longer than the oil itself, with as yet unknown consequences.) After a few weeks, news reports described huge plumes of oil gathering in the gulf and drifting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It was impossible to know how large these were or how deadly they would be, but that image of a menacing plume, obliterating life in its wake, stayed with me. Although in many of my earlier works I have reflected on the natural world, I have never before attempted so directly, almost literally, to narrate something like this event in musical terms.

My piece begins with an image of the vast undisturbed surface of the sea as the blinding, bright morning light first arises, followed by a flock of seabirds that soar above. Then layers of material emerge though all the instruments, inspired by the diversity and complexity of undersea life. Finally, an ominous darkness enters and ultimately squeezes out all life. In addition to the conventional instruments on stage, you will hear two vibraphones with specially tuned bars that enable just intonation. We will also be deploying digital signal processing to transform the sound of the instruments in a variety of ways (just-tuned harmonizing, delays, filters, etc.)

I would like to thank Talea, and Miller Puckette for their inspiring collaboration. I dedicate this performance to the memory of my friend, the composer Arthur Jarvinen, who recently passed away at the untimely age of 54.


Electronics: A laptop computer running Miller Puckette’s Pd software is used for digital signal processing of the sound of the instruments in a variety of ways throughout the piece. Hypercardioid microphones (preferably ones attached to the instruments to avoid bleeding in of other sounds) are to be used on the winds and string instruments, connected to the computer audio interface (no mics are needed for piano or percussion). Two channels of processed sound are then returned to the house system. Great care is to be taken when setting the level of the signal processing amplification. The sound from the speakers should not be louder than the original acoustical sound of the instruments. Ideally, the listener will hear the natural sound of the ensemble, along with a “halo” of transformed sound, blending together equally. Monitor speakers are not necessary for the performers. The ensemble should follow the indicated dynamics and balance and tune in the usual manner. The electronic processing follows the performance, and therefore the conductor has complete interpretive freedom.

More details about the electronics will be available in a separate document. A few general notes are provided here. Throughout the piece the strings are slightly amplified, and a halo of resonance is generated using resonant filters in a variety of ways. The winds from 25 - 95 are treated with an echo process (delay with feedback) and stereo panning. A similar process is applied to the alto flute starting at 157. All the winds from 54-62 and 100-142, and the Cor Anglais only from 142-240, are harmonized with 1-3 just-tuned intervals (producing a chord with the same timbre). Starting at measure 221 the computer begins to introduce sustained pitches in the same range as the ensemble and then gradually widening and growing denser and louder and arriving at a thick mass of sound at 242. After the strings reenter at 243, this starts to fade away gradually (low frequencies first) and when it is completely inaudible, the conductor begins again at measure 245.