A Space for Tension

Research output: Non-textual formComposition


'A Space for Tension' is related to my previous drone-based instrumental and installation works in that it seeks to explore the perceptual and affective properties of various drone configurations. Creative precursors which have informed this research direction include Young (1994) and Niblock (1993), products of an American variation on spectralism whose characteristics are outlined in Wannamaker (2008, p.123). The piece is structured around tape-based drones (created through spectral and granular processing of materials largely derived from physical modelling synthesis) which delineate medium-scale time regions for certain categories of activity to happen. These drones highlight intervals such as 7/4 (harmonic sevenths) and 5/4 (just major thirds) as 'secondary tonics' for the construction of a variety of drone-based materials which provide textural dissonances which are 'constants' throughout the different 'drone-spaces'/’spaces of tension’ which the piece develops through. The drones are, in effect, environments with acoustic (and formal) properties into which the live instruments are agents which respond/interact by using pitch materials which have formal/acoustical correspondences with the constituents of the relevant ‘drone-space’. These materials do not serve a role which is primarily based on functional/syntactical harmony, but are much more concerned with the creation of distinct textural-perceptual configurations and, from the affective perspective, the delineation of distinct emotional-affective ‘spaces’ of varying degrees of tension. In common with much of my other microtonal output, they contribute to the perception of materials along an axis from grouped/blended to segregated, through the exploitation of relative extremes of conditions/configurations of materials so that the normal heuristics involved in auditory perception (c.f. Bregman, 1990) are exploited to either perceptually blend or decompose complex auditory scenes (in this case, the drone-based backgrounds). The combination of pure tunings and senza vibrato articulations contribute to perceptual blending of materials with the background drones; more vibrato-heavy articulations, louder dynamics and sul ponticello articulations variously contribute to greater perceptual segregation of elements. The use of pitch materials which closely match those within the drone-based also contributes to a type of perceptual decomposition, where the similarity of foreground (instrument-derived) materials to frequency content in the drone parts temporarily highlights individual harmonic partials within these drones (this is most easily discernible in the cases of the muted instrumental articulations at the mid-point of the piece). In addition, there are many cases throughout where the instrumental lines perform a more standard role in ‘tracing’ and highlighting the harmonic materials of the drone part. REFERENCES: Bregman, A.S. 1990. Auditory Scene Analysis. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT. Niblock, P. 1993. Five More String Quartets (string quartet and tape) on Music by Phil Niblock. (CD) New York: Experimental Intermedia. Wannamaker, R. 2008. The Spectral Music of James Tenney. Contempoary Music Review 27(1). Young, L. 1994 The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry… (sound installation). MELA Foundation, 275 Church Street, New York.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherContemporary Music Centre
Publication statusPublished - 18 Mar 2012


  • drone
  • microtonality
  • tunings
  • auditory perception


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