T h e   F a r   a n d   B r i l l i a n t   N i g h t

by Michael McNabb

(1990/92/99) 10 minutes, 2 Buchla Lightnings, live computer electronics, processed voice, performed multi-image projection. Photography by Egon Dubois.

The Far and Brilliant Night explores the psychological power of combined aural and visual symbolism. Perhaps there are certain classes of sounds and images which are imprinted on our genetic memories, or which exist in our collective unconscious. They may stir within us memories from ancient times, from before our birth, or even from before the origin of our species. But far from creating a universal experience, the primitive and deep associations that these sounds and images invoke may clash with or intensify each individual's current emotions, thoughts, and anxieties, creating a unique and unpredictable experience for each person.

Designed by synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla, the Lightning is a specialized controller that senses the movement of hands in space and transforms this information into MIDI signals for control of electronic musical instrumentation. The device senses a wide range of movements including conducting, percussion, and dance. Its primary function in this work is to perform changes in the parameters of real-time computer algorithms. The algorithms in turn control signal processing routines that transform triggered digital recordings and live vocal sounds into expressive music.

The Far and Brilliant Night in its current version premiered at a concert held in conjunction with the 1992 International Computer Music Conference in San Jose, California. Other performances include the International Symposium on Electronic Art in Montreal, the Quandt Foundation Transatlantic Conference, and the Northwest Electroacoustic Music Festival.

In these performances the Lightning was performed by percussionist Mark Goldstein (pictured).




Silicon Graphics O2 workstation, Windows NT laptop, 2 Buchla Lightnings, Lexicon PCM-70, Lexicon MPX-1, Lexicon Reflex, Yamaha TG77, Frontier Design Zulu, JL Cooper FaderMaster, Custom MIDI slide projector controller, 16-channel portable mixer, 3 Kodak Ektagraphic III slide projectors, projector stands, 9' x 12' (minimum) projection screen.

Technical Overview

The Far and Brilliant Night consists of three primary parts: synthesis and sound processing controlled by 2 Buchla Lightning performers, triggered pre-recorded accompaniment sound files, and performed multi-image slides.

The music performance software used is called Fantasia, which runs simultaneously on an SGI O2 workstation and Windows laptop. Each Fantasia document represents a particular configuration of MIDI and audio processing routines, compositional algorithms, and sound samples. MIDI and audio output from Fantasia is used to control a Yamaha TG77 synthesizer and several Lexicon digital signal processors.

The Far and Brilliant Night can be thought of as having six musical sections. There is one Lightning preset and one set of Fantasia documents for each section. The Lightnings are used to sequentially step through each part, sending Program Change commands to Fantasia, which accordingly adjusts its own configuration and those of all the external MIDI and signal processing devices.

Five of the six sections are similar, in that the Lightning is used primarily to adjust the parameters of fractal melody algorithms. These algorithms generate MIDI control data which adjust resonant comb filter programs on the PCM70. The filter programs process sampled and live sounds which are predominantly noisy, such as wind and whispering, giving them a pitched quality.

In the fifth section, by contrast, the Lightning acts more like a traditional percussion instrument. Zone entries performed by the right hand trigger a custom velocity-sensitive instrument which sounds like a bowed cymbal with a long decay. The left hand affects the pitch and panning of the decay portion of the notes. Downward strikes by both hands across all zones horizontally trigger a sharp metallic sound referred to as the "Giant Glock", also velocity-sensitive.

Three Ektagraphic slide projectors are used to project slides onto a common large screen. A MIDI fader box (such as the JL Cooper FaderMaster) is used to control the cross-fading of the projectors, via Fantasia and a special MIDI-controlled slide projector controller (provided by the composer). The slides are sequenced in advance, and each projector automatically advances each time its lamp is faded to black. While Fantasia controls the general projector advancing and cross-fading, synchronized to the music, the performer improvises the moment-to-moment visual mix of the 3 images.

For further information, please see Michael McNabb's web site: www.mcnabb.com