The dying fall of harmony

How do you finish a piece of music? What does it take to make a piece of music unable to continue? Traditionally, the harmonic cadence was used to signal the conclusion of a section, a phrase, and the work itself. During the 1970s Philip Glass was happy to take a couple of typical cadences and run them on a loop, creating a state of both stasis and tension, out of perpetual resolution.

I met Tony Buck with a flashing red bike light stuck in my mouth outside the old Brisbane Museum is a similar exercise in non-functional harmony. In November 2003 I wrote some simple scripts in a MIDI editor to generate a sequence of the most common cadences in Western harmony, each one continuing from where the last left off. Eventually, the sequence went through the entire circle of fifths, with every note in the octave being used as the tonic for every cadence. Rather than have this cycle repeat itself as infinitum, I made a retrograde inversion of the entire sequence, sending the whole thing back to where it started (despite it having gotten there already), only upside down.

Smashing the system, but gently

Having set a neat little process like the one above in operation, I repeatedly find myself in the dilemma of whether or not to then break it in some way. It's not a question of worrying about being 'composerly' enough, and I still find that there's a lot to be said for letting the process do its work without further human intervention. In fact, it's this disinclination to interfere that makes me wonder if I ought to do something to disrupt it. The question becomes one of how sounds can be heard when they become alienated from the system that produced them.

I remembered back to my studies, when I was uninspired by a set exercise in harmony. I wrote it, then performed it on some grossly detuned recorder samples, so that it sounded like it was being played by small group of talentless schoolchildren whose intonation was so poor it rendered the carefully constructed harmonies all but indecipherable. Thus, I met Tony Buck with a flashing red bike light stuck in my mouth outside the old Brisbane Museum is performed on an organ which is very slowly going out of tune, with the higher notes gradually sliding down a semitone during the course of the piece, while the lower notes gradually slide up a semitone. To complement the sense of entropy, I patched in the cheap, nasty soundcard built into my computer and amplified the line noise.

New improved degradation

The piece's title is taken from a friend's reminiscence about the time she first met the namedropped Australian drummer. A small number of CDs were made and circulated privately in late 2003. In February 2010 I dusted the piece of and re-recorded it, with a less imposing organ sound, a better noise source, and a mix that more effectively combines the two, so helping to further the obscure the systematic logic of the piece's structure.

Ben.Harper, 2010.

I met Tony Buck with a flashing red bike light stuck in my mouth outside the old Brisbane Museum © Ben.Harper 2003/10. A Cooky La Moo production, edition number 16.