50 photocopies of a rain machine: an explanation

Each of the 50 discs of the pre-release demo of Rain Machine contains a unique bonus track, titled photocopy of a rain machine no. x. For those who are curious, or perhaps have already acquired the disc and wonder what on earth they’ve got their hands on, this is a gesture in the direction of explication.

The tracks are variations on a theme. Each one consists of a collage of four elements: a processed piano note, two improvised bass parts and a spoken-word vocal. There are four versions of each of these, and each recording is split into four parts. The finished composition is created by selecting one of the four options for each element in each of the four sections of the piece.

This means that there are 4^4 different orderings for each element taken on its own: that is, 256 possibilities. In combination this produces 4^16 different possible versions for the complete piece – something over 4.2 billion. (Which is to say that if I were to follow this to its logical conclusion and produce all the different versions of the piece, there still wouldn’t be enough for everyone on the planet to have their own unique track – some of you would have to share.)

The technique is the same as that used to produce Raymond Queneau’s hundred thousand billion poems.

Piano parts were created by running a single looped note through a delay, with pitch variations come from stretching the loop to different lengths. The essential tonality is G minor; some arbitrary movement away from even temperament is built in.

Each bass part was recorded against one of the piano parts, without reference to other extant bass parts or to the vocal. The collage process means that parts may move in and out of even temper and tonality at different times; improbable cadences and a nice mixture of dissonance and consonance emerge as a result. Section boundaries are deliberately blurred – the movement from one section to the next happens at different times with different takes.

Vocal parts are fragments I’ve unearthed from notebooks and unfinished pieces – spurious aphorisms, for the most part. I like spurious aphorisms. (For example, “It is better to orphan your socks than to wear wicker trousers.”) As a means of imposing the illusion of structure, all the pieces finish with the same, additional vocal line.

With more time I might have produced a simpler, sparser piece; one in which the bones of structure are clearer. I also added bass introductions, sixteen different ones – on reflection I feel I should have stuck rigorously to the method and done four intros, or some kind of 4 x 4 matrix; or gone the whole way and done fifty separate intros for the released versions.

But overall I like the concept, which tiptoes along the line between form and chaos; and unusually for such conceptual pieces, I like the results too. They’re more or less what I meant.

A limited number of copies of the pre-release demo are available here.

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