Appearing on Geoff Alexander's 'New Directions for Farfisa Organ' CD:
THE COMPOSITION AND PERFORMANCE OF
for Farfisa VIP 500 Organ and
Yamaha SPX 90 Effects Processor
"Terre Inconnue" is a composition I wrote earlier this year for Farfisa organ and Yamaha effects processor. It surprised me, in going back over the composition, how many of the early composers have influenced me: perhaps two of the most evident were Karlheinz Stockhausen ("Zyklus for One Percussionist") and Iannis Xenakis ("Bohor I"), both of whom I listened to extensively before I was twenty years old. I admired Stockhausen's idea of form, and Xenakis' love of the musicality of electronic sound. I do not write for percussion, prefer "pure" electronic sound to 'musique concrète', and therefore I cannot claim to be a disciple of them or anyone else. My goal is not to make everyone like the work: some people just can't stand electronic music, and "Terre Inconnue" certainly isn't the piece to change that, and in fact will only push them further away. I would be delighted, however, if the reader came away from it all with the feeling that there was a certain degree of substance to the form.
San Jose, November 1987
The Farfisa VIP 500 organ is a two-manual electronic organ built probably in the late 1960's or early 1970's. I cannot give any kind of history for this instrument, because to my knowledge, none exists, Farfisa, an Italian company, was one of the first companies to market such a product in the U.S., and was distributing them through Lear-Siegler Corporation when serial number 6494/450 rolled off the assembly line. The Farfisa
gained a certain notoriety in rock music circles as one of THE instruments essential to the 1960's style garage band, and was used neither in jazz nor electronic music. Standard characteristics of the organ include:
It is these last two, the "repeat speed" and the "syntheslalom", that make the VIP 500 the unique instrument it is. When activated, the syntheslalom causes each upper manual key to make an accelerating sound similar to that of a siren, and changing the rheostat (which, by the way, has a small logo of a smiling skier over it) enables the player to change the duration of the siren. Movement Three of "Terre Inconnue" is devoted almost wholly to this feature, and later, I will cover more aspects of the Syntheslalom when I discuss the individual movements.
The repeat speed function causes any individual note or chord on the upper manual to be repeated any number of times ad infinitum. I have used repeat speed as the opening statement in Movement Four ("Notre Dame de la Peine").
All of these characteristics combine to give the Farfisa VIP 500 a truly unique sound, underscoring the fact that it is one of the last electronic keyboards to have a strongly individual personality. Modern keyboards like the Yamaha DX-7, or those in the Casio line, all have essentially the same sound, whether programmable or not, and in fact are of such high quality that one may never have to work around the peculiarities and drawbacks of the instrument. This leads all to often to a "plain vanilla" approach, which, in attempting to emulate the norm, pro forma forces the musician into a situation in which vitality and innovation are sacrificed in favor of polish.
Not only does my Farfisa lack many essential modern features, but she has lost, through time, many of those she had at birth. At one point, she had bass pedals, attached via a connector on her underside. These I have never seen. She also has a port for a volume control pedal which I don't have, and, to be frank, I could really use. What I have to do now is lower the volume by pushing back one of the slides, and when both of my hands are on the keyboard, I'm forced to use my chin to cut the volume. I also use the chin to increase repeat speed on the rheostat during a prolonged chord (Movement Four), but realize the engineers at Farfisa figured that no rock musician would change the setting during a song...
Perhaps time itself has been the unkindest of all, in the matter of the Farfisa losing her notes. The first to be taken away were the 'C'... at first, some white noise begins to creep in, then the note becomes white noise only, followed by the same thing one octave higher. This progressive problem is now in the 'Db's and 'Eb's as well, and apparently cannot be corrected. Nobody seems to know much about the wiring of the Farfisa, except to tell me that I'll spend $300 to fix it, only to find in a short while that ANOTHER key is out, or maybe the same key is out AGAIN. In short, I'm playing what amounts to a glorious ruin of a bygone era, and treat her accordingly.
To begin with, "Terre Inconnue" is not necessarily written for the organ, or the Farfisa organ, but rather for my Farfisa in particular. I avoid the "white noise" notes, find alternative means of controlling the volume, don't use the piano stops (they don't work either), and use the lower keyboard only for coloring. Most musicians decry the logic of using an instrument in such a condition, but what am I going to do, throw it away? My Farfisa got that way by some musician playing the hell out of it, so my feeling was this: compose and perform a piece written specifically for its beauty and allow for its drawbacks due to age. I therefore made up my mind to push it as far as it would go... to use up all of its stops and features, even use some of its white noise keys.
"Terre Inconnue", which means "world unknown", describes a land of alienation, for myself, for the listener, and for the instrument too. I have stood it on its ancient legs one more time to step tentatively, run, soar, then scream boldly into a musical world it was never intended to enter. It fought and won, limping, its armour bent and mail pierced, and it came back. It's the only instrument alive that I can depend on to perform this piece of music, for it is unique, not only among the instruments of today, but, due to its bruises and scars, among its own kind as well.
The Yamaha SPX 90 Digital Effects Processor, on the other hand, is one of the more currently available sound-altering devices. Its sophistication lies in the fact that it can dramatically alter sound waves in so many different ways, such as reverb, echo,
delay, gate, phase and pan, in effect giving the musician many of the features inherent in early synthesizers. There are some thirty-odd effects in the SPX 90, and the parameters can be changed, so that, for example, the reverb time can be changed, high and low pass filters added and altered, and fine-tuning of especially high frequencies may be allowed. One may well wonder why, after all the praising of the individuality of the Farfisa, I have
elected to add a readily-available processor to the mix. The answer lies in the wonderfully musical way they interact, the organ stops, after all, being a simpler way of amplifying and distorting basic wave forms. The SPX 90, in fact, was "played"
like a conventional instrument in two of the movements, its parameters being constantly changed, its effects continually shifted. Although I originally acquired the SPX 90 as a piece of background studio equipment, I soon found that when played with the Farfisa, they combined to form a formidable individual musical instrument. "Terre Inconnue" cannot be performed on any other combination of instruments and still retain its essential identity.
Written for two Farfisa organs and SPX 90 Effects Processor, "Terre
Inconnue" might be considered a theme to a world hot, barren, dry,
soulless, devoid of anything human. There is oxygen, yes, and the sky a stark,
profound blue, but there the friendliness stops: the landscape is simply a
series of shifting vertical and horizontal planes in different spectra of red
and brown; even the river flows with a terrible searing flow of molten glass.
"Terre Inconnue" truly is a Land Unknown, and this is its Anthem.
Movement One: Départ Chromatíque
I have titled this piece in French, in appreciation for the inventiveness of the early 'musique concrète' composers, who truly broke new ground, and in tribute to the French philosophy of always giving an honest ear to the new composer. Without their consistent advocacy, the word "avant-garde" wouldn't exist as a meaningful musical term.
Départ Chromatíque means "chromatic launch", or "departure", and is scored for two Farfisas and SPX 90. The theory behind this piece is serialization of the simplest form: to go up the scale chromatically, note by note, neither backtracking nor leaping
ahead an octave. This was a challenge, but I was determined to strip the Farfisa to its barest form to begin "Terre Inconnue", in order to establish a point from which to jump. Each of the two Farfisas begins with the lowest 'E' on the upper manual, and finishes with the high ‘C’ almost four octaves later. The reason for starting on the odd key is that the lowest ‘C’, ‘Db’, and ‘D’ are now only white noise, and are avoided, as are all the other broken notes on the keyboard. Those who are demented enough to solfège this piece will therefore recognize certain non-chromatic intervals, as ordained by the instrument...
The two organs are meant to play independently of each other, which means that pitch-wise, one is always ahead of the other, except when, by chance, they linger on the same note. In a Movement which has neither chord changes nor traditional resolution, this push-pull effect increases the value of the dynamics as one organ seemingly overtakes the other in a mad chorus of sound. Few resolutions have been as welcome, I think, as the final double 'C' is in Départ Chromatíque.
The dynamics are caused by 1) the incremental adding of organ stops, and 2), the incremental adding of effects while constantly changing parameters. Organ stops are added by both keyboards independently along the way, but once added, cannot be removed. This forces the player to hold back on maximum intensity until the final few moments, thus shortening the chronological distance between climax and resolution. Syntheslalom and Repeat Speed are both 'verboten' in this Movement, and Vibrato may only be added on the last octave. The SPX 90, however, is given a relatively free rein over a formal matrix of serialization. The left channel uses Effects 1-14, which include most reverb and delay. Beginning with Effect 1, the player may change parameters (high pass filter, etc.) and add or subtract numerically within the parameter (+MHz to -MHz, for example), but may not return to the parameter when it has been left. The same goes for the effect itself: once Effect 1 has been exhausted, and left, the performer may not return to it. These guidelines prevent the performer from returning to "favorite" effects, which would destroy the spirit of creativity and improvisation designed into this Movement.
Although the organ players are not exactly aware of each other, they must keep their eyes on a numerical timer, which tells them within one second of when the piece is supposed to end. I determined that Départ Chromatíque should end when my tape counter reached the number 100, so in playing the second part, I really had to
be aware of how much time I had left to get up the keyboard. When played in public, I would prefer that the performers not look at each other for a cue to end the piece, and this technique provides for that purpose. I might add that the second organist utilizes Effects 15-30 in exactly the same manner as the first does with Effects 1-14.
The question will arise as to the reason that Départ Chromatíque has two organs while the remaining three movements have only one. There is an extremely noticeable delay that is particular to the SPX 90 in switching from one effect to another, and during this delay the sound entirely drops out. If performed by one organ, this would be disastrous, and the Movement would lose all continuity as the sound drops would prove to be scandalously disconcerting to the listener. The second organ solves this problem by evening out the sound, so that the chances of a two-channel drop-out are rather slim. I feel, incidentally, that each organ part is so technically demanding that this absolutely could not be performed by one organist using two Farfisas and two SPX 90s. It is essential that the performer LISTEN to the organ as it passes through the effects, realizing the proper dynamic moment to release a stop in a given parameter of the Effects Processor. Due to the improvisational nature of certain aspects of this Movement, I think
it important that the player have a good perspective on when to properly build to a climactic point, andj when to level off. Too much electronic music today has no dynamic sense, and I'm frankly more than a little perturbed when I have to sit through an endlessly repeating "minimalist" work. Granted, I've had listeners walk out on some of my pieces because of their "bombastic" quality, but I don't think I've ever put anybody to sleep.
Some will undoubtedly fault me for the perceivably uneven practice of having two organs only in the first movement, with one only finishing out the last three. I saw frankly no point in having a "lame duck" organist taking up space in the last movements. These stand up on their own as solo pieces very well, and the musical value of "Terre Inconnue" as a whole, I think, speaks well for this arrangement. Most of what stands for convention, I'm not too keen on anyway, and If I was, I certainly don't think I'd be composing and performing electronic music for the Farfisa Organ.
Movement Two: Rivière Du Verre
Like the previous "Départ", "Rivière" seems simple in its concept. It contains only one note, the highest 'C' on the upper manual, doubled for the final few seconds on the corresponding note of the lower manual. This is an investigation of one note, although some may call it an inquisition, others an exhaltation. The single note is faded in, carried by the 4-2 2/3-2 flute stop, which shortly expands by the addition of stops 8 and 16. These additive properties serve to expand the volume as well as the texture, and are framed by the "ChorusA" effect of the SPX 90, which effectively splits the note into three others, each slightly delayed. When the initial stops are fully activated, the modulation parameter is changed, and finally maximum vibrato is established through the Farfisa itself. This is by far the most aurally intense movement of "Terre Inconnue", and therefore the most demanding of the listener. It is the decline and restoration of the single note: it comes meandering from a dying horizon into a molten torrent of sound, and finishes in a single fine, hot thread. It is not intended to be a thing of beauty and is meant to be heard at full volume for maximum depth.
Movement Three: Archaeopteryx
Archaeopteryx actually lived at one point, half bird and half-reptile, and one would think that it was the only thing capable of living on Terre Inconnue, aside from its prey. Its siren calls scan the vast terrain and find nothing except the vague, echoed returns of those same calls in the terrible desolation. "Archaeopteryx" was written for the Syntheslalom stop on the Farfisa, a characteristic so unique to the Farfisa that it cannot be ignored by anyone truly engaged in writing a piece for the VIP-500. The musician is required to be able to count to twenty-five, add stops along the way, and change SPX parameters within the "Hall Reverb" setting. The performer begins the movement by hitting one note at random, pausing after the siren flattens, then hitting two notes, and so on until twenty-five consecutive keystrokes have been consecutively attacked. This movement allows for the "white noise" notes to be struck as well as the percussion stops on the organ, which give a chaotic, cacophonous character to it. This can also be seen as a tour-de-force for the organist, who actually gets to "play" the keyboard for the only time in the entire nineteen minute piece. He is bridled only by the numeric sequences, and can realize the joy of finding that the "avoid" notes in this movement actually sustain rather nicely within each of the twenty-five segments, providing a percussive backdrop to the following fusillade of tones.
Movement Four: Notre Dame De La Peine
Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Pain. The first three movements had already been written and performed, but "Terre Inconnue" would have been incomplete and unperformed as a finished work without the final movement to act as a keystone to stop it all from crumbling. "Notre Dame De La Peine" came to me days after the other three, providing the final statement, while taking elements from the three to provide a cohesive unity.
It begins with the "Repeat Speed" function set at minimum speed, sounded by a solitary note, which cycles nine times in sets of four. The note is joined by one, then two others, then a chord, then two chords, as the cycle increases to ten repeats. Finally, when all stops are added and the maximum numbers of notes are played, the "Repeat" counter begins to slowly increase in tempo, gradually picking up speed and intensity. I should add that, due to the expanse of the chord, I had to use my chin to turn the rheostat since I had no fingers free at the moment. (Although "Terre Inconnue" doesn't present any real problems in terms of volume control, in other pieces I've had to use the chin to decrease volume through the manual slide for lack of volume pedals.)
When maximum repeat speed is realized, the vibrato is added, which creates .a wave which counters the wave created by the repeat, and in the midst of these two contrapuntal waves, mast of the keys are pushed down by means of the forearm, pushing this movement to its final climax. At this point, three long and three short bursts signal the end of "Terre Inconnue", which is brought to the finale by three sets of three short chords.
Performing 'Terre Inconnue'
For several reasons, this piece probably will never be performed in public. For one reason, it's highly unlikely that two musicians with Farfisa Organs and Yamaha SPX 90 Effects Processors will ever be in the same geographical area, let alone the same stage, and, as has been already stated, two organs are needed for the first movement. I also have yet to notate the score, as conventional staff paper is a sorry way to indicate the manner of playing this piece. In fact, I have not yet discovered or invented a true way of guiding the performer to this performance, but then again, I'm not sure whether I can refer to myself as a composer, arranger, or performer, and therein lies the problem.
I remember seeing a piece of John Cage's performed by a college ensemble, in which the musicians were asked to play instruments they ordinarily would not have played. One performer took this to mean that he could play the violin while holding it like a guitar, all the while making clown faces to the audience. I'm sure this is not what Cage meant in asking for free improvisation (or did he?), and it scared the hell out of me, thinking that one of my pieces could eventually wind up with a "performance" such as this. I think that perhaps, in music experimental in nature, that one may be better off in having some control over the performance in order to guarantee the integrity of the piece, and I'm convinced that the success of "Terre Inconnue" in performance lies in the composer being one of the performers. Therefore, I have no real drive to write down the score. I can reconstruct the performance from my notes until I find a meaningful way to notate this piece.
Free tonality, improvisation over a pre-defined matrix, and serialization have now become almost traditional in their common usage, and break no new real ground. Due to the influence of alternative radio and the perseverance of small record labels, we are all hearing more kinds of music and more performers than at any time in history. Like it or not, we are influenced to the point of having little real choice in the matter of being truly original, as increasingly we are faced by the fact that "it" has been done before.
What I have tried to do in "Terre Inconnue" is to rescue an old and battered instrument from the trash heap, play it according to the limitations of its present state, and attempt to produce a piece of music unique to that particular instrument. This forces one to relate to the instrument almost as a unique performer itself, and that, I believe, is a rather non-traditional approach.
For more about 'New Visions for Farfisa Organ' , email Geoff Alexander