Communauté électroacoustique canadienne
Canadian Electroacoustic Community
GM-500 — 1455, boulevard De Maisonneuve Ouest, Montréal, QC, H3G 1M8, Canada
http://cec.sonus.ca - cec@sonus.ca

Sam McGee (1970-73) is a large piece in 4 sections, originally conceived of for four-channel tape, and later there was added a live-electronic improvisation component. It was all done in the classical studio with ordinary studio equipment -- electronic music studio, not recording studio. The first movement is preceded by about 1 1/2 minutes of “humm” -- the Introduction. The body of the movement is built “on” a highly processed recording of the Canadian poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee. The text has no relationship to what the movement is “about”. It is a combined ’sonata form’, collage, set of variations. I can hear them, some people can figure out where they are. It is a large “opening arch”. Most of this general structure was in place before I started to record and process the voices. The sections follow the verse form of the original poem. Most of the materials were chosen / created on personal concerns and interests. Some sections were very carefully planned and executed -- taking hours and hours of hours of work, other sections came together quite easily, and I “accepted” the results of the work I had done. It is about 19 minutes long and took about 1 1/2 years of rather continuous work, about 40 — 50 hours of work per minute of finished tape. The second movement, about 8 minutes, has the role of the “slow movement” of a symphony. It has the long / sober tones and the little flurries of notes that bounce around from time to time. One night I had an idea about setting up the two small studios with tape delays and cross-channel reverberation and creating a drone sound on the MOOG synthesizer and seeing what, if anything could come out of it. After about an hour of putting all the cables into the equipment and checking levels etc, I pressed the record buttons and started to make some interesting sounds on the synthesizer. After about 8 minutes I had come to a logical place to stop. I rewound the tapes, got a cup of tea and listened. The movement was “finished” (although a year later I did add a small coda of about 45 seconds to allow me to get to the third movement). Eight minutes in 2 hours. Real-time composition. The Third Movement is a Mad Scherzo, and functions the way a scherzo does in a symphony. This is a ’hand worked’ algorithmic composition, based on several concepts drawn from ’information theory’ [Google]. It has four mono channels and was done twice. About 20 — 30 minutes of “synthesized” (and other) sounds were cut into sections of about .5 to 4 seconds, and evaluated as to their “complexity”. These were then sorted by duration and ’complexity’. A graph of complexity and ’type’ was drawn, and each channel was to follow the general curve of the graph. These bits of tape (about 30 — 40 per minute) were splice together for each channel, that is, with 4 channels, about 150 bits of tape per minute, and the movement is about 10 minutes long. These tapes were copied to a 4-channel tape and played in the studio. The realization of the idea was ok, but it lacked … er … ’engaging complexity’, for want of a better term. In effect, after two listenings (or so), I was able to trace / follow / track almost all of the materials. it was … too ’simple’. I went back to the spliced tapes and undid most of the edits, putting leader tape between the them. This is a kind of “tiled mural” -- a larger image created from small bits. I then recorded a second channel onto each of the thousand or so individual bits of tape with sounds drawn from other parts of Sam McGee, from my own pieces, and on occasion from pieces which I had been touched by. There were now eight layers of sounds to be put into the four channels. Because of a limitation in the studio equipment (there was no mixer), each channel had to be recorded and adjusted independently, following the “graph”, so a complete “montage” took about an hour. I then listened to the 10 minute results. I worked late nights for over a month with Martin Gotfrit to get an “acceptable” mix. We did it maybe a dozen times -- quite frustrating, but formative. By the time I started to work on the last movement, about 18 minutes, many things had changed in my life. I had a deadline for completion as this had become my Masters thesis; for two years I had been playing live-electronics with the group MetaMusic, and I was teaching in two schools. All of these experiences, and the time constraints in the studio as more people started to use the studios (!), led me towards a more ’process oriented’ approach, and it was becoming clear to me that the piece would be presented in a setting of a four channel tape and live electronics, so the group could “let it out” in the last section, having been severely restricted for the first 40 minutes or so. The sounds of this section are more aggressive than the first parts for many reasons. among them being the significant change in my hearing / listening that had taken place over the years of its composition. I had also got a number of things “out of my system” in both the first and third movements, and I was no longer “paying my dues” -- I answered to my own needs almost exclusively. For a couple of decades I was not too interested in hearing this piece. In the 80s, with the newly developed technologies, it’s sound was “naive” and “edgy”, it wasn’t ’new’. In the 90s, this was even more so. It has many technical problems the result of my poor technical skill and the condition of the available equipment. Some sounds have 8 to 20 (or more) layers in them. I couldn’t work with the best tape, and couldn’t keep versions and mix and choose, and couldn’t work at the highest quality levels. I had to buy the tapes myself, at $40 to $70 for 30 minutes, and at one point I had around $600 worth of tape sitting in boxes (multiply by about 8 to get the costs in 2009 dollars), and this was working at a ’medium quality’. And being a student … By the late 2000s, this era was now “pioneering” and a few people began to dig into the past to try to hear what was being done 35 to 40 years ago, so technical matters are less of a constraint. For the first and third sections, I had somewhat detailed technical notes, prepared before I went into the studio, for the second and fourth sections, they were much more “what is at hand”, and working quickly in the studio environment. This was my last tape composition for around 10 years or so -- I left the studio to do live electronics for in the world of live ea, a two minute idea took 2 minutes to produce, and not 30 to 40 hours.

  • Studio: McGill University Electronic Music Studio (Montréal, Québec), 1970-3. Kevin Austin and Martin Gotfrit, voices.

Radio CAP: Piece for Four-Track Tape Recorder Canada Unlimited Number Two — subtitled Sam McGee

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