Saturday, 21 June 2014

Compositional Materials in Fata Morgana

Some Assumptions

As Fata Morgana is my own piece and I know it reasonably well (!) I have many preconceptions about recording it. Most of which are probably fairly close to the mark but are worth exploring further. These include:

  • Expecting classical micing techniques to produce the best results.
  • Recording the tape part in the concert hall, after the quartet have played, will allow me to blend the ‘dry’ fixed electroacoustic part and the fixed part in the space more effectively with the live clarinets.
  • Using close mics may add extra detail and intimacy, highlighting any breathiness present.

Whilst these thoughts may be perfectly valid it is worth thinking about the piece in more depth before making any decisions.

The General Images in the Piece:

The piece, whilst being in 4-channels, is essentially in stereo. The four-channel tape is a means to distribute sounds across a stereo sound stage. The clarinets themselves are distributed symmetrically. The tape part in live performance should not be distributed around the audience and so stereo recording techniques become the obvious choice.

Spatial Planes:

In this piece spatial width is important, but it is not discreetly composed with. There are no large left-to-right or right-to-left gestures that articulate dramatic change or sounds being panned extreme left or right in counterpoint or opposition.

Depth however, is discreetly explored, especially the relative depth between the clarinets and the fixed electroacoustic part. Fata Morgana are especially vivid mirages and the title became a frame for shaping the illusions I was creating between the live clarinets and the fixed part. The programme note sums this up:

“The image you see and hear is always changing. The clarinets, both real and recorded, come in and out of focus in a fluid and illusory way. As the image dissolves, like a mirage, the real clarinets may appear closer or more distant than they actually are. As they melt and mix together the materials they carry are re-imagined creating new perspectives that whilst different, retain the same character and essence throughout. You can never be quite sure that what appears to be on the horizon is really even there. 

'Fata Morgana' are unusually vivid, and complex mirages named after the Arthurian Sorceress Morgan La Fey. In my Fata Morgana the illusions are subtle; they are not grand tricks like a Houdini escape.”

So, because of this, one of the most important considerations is not to flatten the stereo sound stage. This tends to imply that not using too many mics at any one time will be important as often flat stereo sound stages are a result of over use of spot microphones. Whilst I will record a relatively large number of mics it will take discipline to be discerning about which ones I use in final mixes.

Localisation of Sounds

It is very easy for me as a recording engineer to assume that discreet localisation of the sounds in this piece then is less important that in other pieces. However, as the composer of the piece this is harder to assume. If depth is the most important consideration this might imply the use of omnidirectional microphones to best capture this aspect. However, whilst width is not a discreet parameter in this composition the sounds were still carefully placed to create a balanced stereo image. In order to capture the location of the sounds an XY* system will create the most accurate lateral image. However, the lack of depth in XY stereo pretty much immediately discounts it for this purpose. This leads on to a variety of stereo systems that will discussed in more detail, with relation to localization and depth, in a future blog post.

The Clarinet’s Materials

When considering what a certain kind of material is it is also worth considering what it is not. I have found it useful to define the clarinet parts with regard to temrinilogy developed in Smalley’s Space form and the Acousmatic Image where he describes performance space as
“…gesturally rooted. A human agent, using the sense of touch, or an implement, applies energy to a sounding body, producing spectromorphologies. Alternatively, internal physical energy generated from inside the human body can be applied to an external sounding body, like a wind instrument.”
Whilst this is of course true of the way the players interact with the instrumental material this piece does not foreground these actions. This is not a piece highlighting key clicks or other tiny sounds. The clarinet’s might appear “zoomed in” but it is more zooming in on the natural sound and timbre, rather than the mechanics of the insturments.
Moving away from performance space Smalley goes on to describe ensemble space as:
Ensemble space, within which individual gestural spaces are nested, is the personal and social space among performers: a group of performers produces a collective performed space. This is revealed both visually (seeing proprioception at work, and knowing how it works) and in the music (hearing proprioception at work). In duos or small ensembles the space is more personal…”
This then is the principal “space” that the clarinets occupy in Fata Morgana. Generally they work as a unit in order to create fully formed textures of their own in order to texturally interact with the fixed part. For much of Fata Morgana the clarinets are all engaged in playing the same kinds of materials at any one time although occasionally they break off into pairs.
Smalley continues
“Sound can bind spatial zones when like behaviour creates a sonic contiguity where we cannot separately identify individuals, as with a violin section, for example. In ensemble space we witness the fabric of the music in the process of articulation – the synchronisation of a collective gesture, collaboration or competition within texture, and exchanges of materials.”
So it is this kind of space that I hope to capture. This would tend to imply that main arrays will be more effective; after all they are designed to capture a well balanced performance made by well rehearsed musicians. However, many very good recordings have also been made using individual spot mics and it is perfectly possible to create a blended sound that does not pick up unwanted key clicks or other sounds. It will be important to carefully analyse just what the different arrays capture in order to best select which microphone positions to use.
The final principal space that Smalley defines is arena space:
“Arena space is the whole public space inhabited by both performers and listeners.  An audience may be conscious of the personal and social spaces within its own zone, and certain kinds of audiences (rock concerts, clubs), through their behaviour, may seek to enhance personal and social contexts.
For our acousmatic purposes the most important aspect is that we perceive arena space as an acoustic setting, as a bounded and enclosed space produced by the nesting of gestural and ensemble spaces within it.”
Arena space is important to my research. My aim is to bring both electroacoustic and live parts into a perceivable space that they both inhabit, rather than trying to bring the instrumental part into the acousmatic fixed part. Identifying these kinds of spaces also affords me the opportunity to try to creatively move between them. For example, a more distal section could be mixed to use a more ambient recording sound and a more intimate section could be mixed to use just spot mics and the dry fixed part.
* XY stereo uses two cardioid microphones with the capsules on top of each other angled at 90 degrees.

SMALLEY, Dennis (2007), Space-Form and the acousmatic image, Organised Sound, Volume 12, pp 35-38, DOI 10.1017/S1355771807001665,

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