Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lawrence Ball: There's no Madness in this Method Music

Lawrence Ball: Method Music
Imaginary Sitters/Imaginary Galaxies
Navona Records

I’m generally suspicious of mathematically-generated music. A lot of what I’ve heard sounds academic, mechanical, and lifeless. Not so with Lawrence Ball’s compositions Imaginary Sitters, and Imaginary Galaxies.

The liner note attempt to explain in part the algorithms (harmonic math) behind the music, but it really doesn’t matter. What counts is that Method Music works.

Ball worked with Pete Townsend (of the Who), who produced this two-disc set. Disc one is a set of short, five-minute Imaginary Portraits, created by feeding data about the subject into a computer, which then used the Method Music algorithms to convert them into sound.

The first track, Meher Baba Piece is a morphing variation on the opening to the Who's hit Baba O’Riley. Almost as soon as the listener recognizes it,though,  the theme starts to stretch and change.

The remaining portraits (ten out of a much larger set), are similar in structure. All are electronic works, and have a basically tonal structure. Superficially, they sound like the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich, with repeated motives gradually moving out of phase with each other. But there’s more to it than that.

Although I couldn’t say exactly what Method Music was, I could decidedly hear it at work. These pieces have an underlying logic to them that’s different than minimalism. And that logic is apparent throughout the pieces. This is highly organized music that’s moving towards a goal – although it’s getting there through an unfamiliar path. People who enjoy contemporary classical music as well as progressive and experimental rock should find common aesthetic ground in Imaginary Sitters.

Imaginary Galaxies, which makes up the second disc of the set, might appeal more to the classical rather than the rock listener. Although the compositional organization is the same, these are much larger and complex works. Each of the three pieces runs about twenty minutes. The pacing is slower, and the changes are more subtle. Timbre becomes more important, and if Imaginary Sitters were painted with primary colors, Imaginary Galaxies would be a wider spectrum of pastel and blended colors.

Ball writes, “I hope the listener feels as if held in a sonic cradle, watching an intricate musical mobile.” It’s an apt description, and I certainly did.

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