Michael McNabb - Musical and Electronic Media Compositions

I. Works for Unaccompanied Electronics


(1978) 10 minutes. Two-channel computer-generated work including recorded soprano

Available on Wergo CD 2020-2.

Dreamsong is a careful blend of synthesized sounds and recorded natural sounds that have been digitally processed or resynthesized. The result, termed a classic of the genre by New Yorker critic Andrew Porter, is an expressive sonic continuum ranging from unaltered natural sounds to entirely new sounds - or, more poetically -- from the real world to the realm of the imagination. This widely influential work was one of the earliest to achieve, through the precision of digital processing, a smoother integration of these two elements than was previously possible in either studio-produced electronic music or live performance.

In Dreamsong, the listener is repeatedly drawn in by references to familiar musical, vocal, and environmental material, only to be transported into a vivid alien landscape by an unexpected and surprising sonic manipulation. Constant transformations of timbre and texture, fluid shifting between familiar sounds and imaginary musical images, and illusory spatial movement all combine to powerful musical effect. An extended melodic line adds a strong thread of continuity.

CD or DAT player.

Music for Mars in 3-D

(1979) 14 minutes. Two-channel computer-generated work, original music for NASA film

Available on Wergo CD 2020-2.

Mars Suite is a concert suite of the soundtrack music composed for Mars in 3-D, a U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration film of stereographic images relayed to Earth from Mars by the Viking lander and orbiter spacecraft.

The first and third movements were written to accompany the images taken from orbit around Mars: panoramas of rugged cliffs, vast craters, and the towering Olympus Mons volcano flanked by ethereal white clouds. The second movement is music of the ancient and desolate landscape, frozen and sandswept, that was revealed by the Viking lander craft. The spoken and processed text includes some of the geographical place-names surrounding the two landing sites. In the third movement, the harmonic structures of the pure vocal sounds used in the first movement are altered to become inharmonic, while preserving other vocal qualities.

The fundamental harmonic structure of Mars Suite is derived from the well-known opening bars of the last movement of Gustav Holst's The Planets, which features two minor triads a major third apart. The use of a specially-designed just tuning system results in uniquely beautiful and expressive harmonic textures and melodies.

CD or DAT player. May also be presented with a dual-slide-projector program of Viking Mars Lander and Orbiter imagery similar to that in the film.

Love in the Asylum

(1981) 14 minutes. Four-channel computer-synthesis.

Two-channel version available on Wergo CD 2020-2.

Love in the Asylum is a love song to the calculated insanity and spontaneous magic that one must sometimes call upon in order to live in this strange universe of ours. It features an orchestra of familiar instrumental and vocal sounds, new sounds drawn from the imagination, and -- perhaps most expressively -- sounds that fluidly shift between the two. The work, which critic Paul Lehrman called one of the most devastatingly beautiful pieces of electronic music I have ever heard, is built of two psychological layers. Foremost is a layer of cheerful confidence and exuberance, which is colored and occasionally overpowered by a dark emotional undercurrent of anxiety and psychological imbalance.

All sounds in Love in the Asylum were synthesized except for the laughter and player calliope music. It includes a number of musical quotations, including quotations from other works of electroacoustic music. The spatial sound paths at the beginning of the first movement are from Turenas (1972) by John Chowning, who was a primary mentor, and who influenced McNabb's decision to specialize in electroacoustic music and performance.

ADAT or other digital tape player with at least 4 tracks, 4-channel computer playback system with Jaz drive (requires 320 MB of disk space), or dbx-encoded four-channel 1/4" or 1/2" analog tape player.

II. Works for Instruments and Electronics

Invisible Cities

(1985) 43 minutes. Ballet music for piano, saxophone, synthesized accompaniment, and live electronics. Based on the novel by Italo Calvino.

Available on Wergo CD 2015-50.

The ballet Invisible Cities was realized as a collaboration between myself, choreographer Brenda Way and the ODC/San Francisco Dance Company, and designer/engineer Gayle Curtis. Although most of the music is pre-recorded computer synthesis, there are also two live instrumental/electronic performers. Calvino's novel is an allegorical account of a meeting between the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the Tatarian Emperor Kublai Khan, and it inspired us with its beauty, original and concise structure, and dream-like imagery. The music contains both subtle and explicit stylistic elements of various popular and classical world musics, sections of pure musical fantasy, and various musical and digitally-processed environmental sounds. In this way it conveys feelings and moods similar to those created by Calvino's weaving of hyper-realistic description and veiled, dream-like fantasy. The original production featured an industrial robot programmed by the choreographers and playing the role of Khan.

Soprano sax, IVL Pitchrider pitch-to-MIDI converter, Yamaha TG77 synthesizer, Lexicon PCM70, DAT player, digital reverb, 2-channel graphic equalizer, wireless mic transmitter and receiver, and standard foot pedals and switches.

Movements from this work may be performed individually or in smaler combinations:

1. City of No Resistance 8 min., piano, saxophone, synthesis, tape

2. City of Wind 9 min., piano, digital delay, tape

3. City of Congruence 5 min., tape

4. City of Desire 9 min. saxophone, synthesis, tape

5. Hidden City 3 min. robotics, audio sensors, signal processing

6. City of Reflection 8 min. piano, saxophone, synthesis, tape

I usually suggest performance of a suite of 2 or 3 movements selected from movements 1, 2, 4, and 6.

The Lark Full Cloud

(1989) 15 minutes, electronic work including saxophone, percussion, digital synthesis and processed natural sounds. Version including live violin with digital delay also available.

The Lark Full Cloud was commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles in 1989, and was realized the same year in the composer's private digital music studio. The eight short tape pieces, together with 16 other short works by two other composers, are played one piece on the half-hour, 24 hours a day, from a permanently-installed sound system in the new Grand Hope Park in downtown Los Angeles. The title piece may also be performed live with violin, tape, and digital delay. Each of the very accessible pieces represents a particular time of day or or night.

DAT player. Version with violin (the 3' title movement) also requires a violinist, microphone, and multi-tap digital delay unit.


III. Works for Performers and Live Computer Interaction

Sudden Changes

(1991) 20 to 40 minutes, solo soprano saxophone with live computer interaction and electronics

Sudden Changes was commission by the Liss Fain Dance Company for their work of the same name, and performed live with the company many times throughout 1991 and 1992.

Sudden Changes creates a musical and physical environment where the experience of loss and diminishment is explored. The movement idiom originates in the choreographer's observations of animal behavior and the effects of land development on the species. McNabb's live soprano saxophone performance and live computer synthesis and processing cause shifts in the dancers' manipulations of space and time, affecting their interactions with each other and forcing them to adjust to altered boundaries.

The music for Sudden Changes is entirely generated from the performer's partially improvised performance. The computer music system as a whole acts as a "performance amplifier", allowing the performer to create a far broader range of both sounds and musical material than his solo instrument would otherwise allow. No "sequencing" is done, and no specific harmonic or melodic structures exist in the system except during the performance and as a function of it (a few chordal voicings are preset). The polyphonic accompaniment generated is all based to varying degrees on the harmonic, dynamic, and rhythmic structure of the performed material.

Soprano sax, SIlicon Graphics O2 computer, IVL Pitchrider pitch-to-MIDI converter, Yamaha TG77, Lexicon MXP-1, 2-channel graphic equalizer, modified JL Cooper MIDI FaderMaster, wireless mic transmitter and receiver, and standard foot pedals and switches.

The Far and Brilliant Night

(1990/92) 11 minutes, 2 Buchla Lightnings, live computer electronics, tape, multi-image projection, mezzo-soprano, processed speech

The Far and Brilliant Night explores the evocative power of aural and visual symbolism. Perhaps there are certain classes of sounds and images which are imprinted on our genetic memories, or which exist in the collective unconscious of our species. 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 causing a universal experience in the audience, the primitive and basic associations that these sounds and images invoke may clash with or amplify each individual's current emotions and concerns, creating a unique 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. It is primarily used in this work to trigger recordings, and then perform changes in the parameters of real-time algorithms which control signal processing routines, which in turn process the recordings. Another performer performs adjustments to another layer of processing, using additional performance controllers.

Mezzo-soprano, Silicon Graphics O2 computer, 2 Buchla Lightnings, Yamaha TG77, Lexicon PCM70 and MXP-1, graphic equalizer, DAT machine, custom multi-projector slide performance controller (provided), and large rear-projection screen.


IV. Multimedia Installations

The Forever Field

(1993) interactive digital synthesis, sound processing, and video installation

The Forever Field is a continuously-running walk-in multimedia installation, which premiered at the 1993 International Computer Music Conference in Tokyo, Japan. It consists of an 8-channel audio environment in the form of two quadraphonic sound fields, plus two or more video monitors, video projection, and other supporting sculptural elements. Recorded and processed sounds are performed and realistically moved in space in real time by a NeXT computer and MIDI-controlled signal processors, using synthesized azimuth, distance, and doppler processing. Sensors and a live microphone react to the presence of visitors by changing the content and real-time processing of sounds on the computer, warping the spatial sound fields, and modifying the video projection.

Artistically, The Forever Field is a meditation on the ways that our life and sense of identity are inescapably defined and transformed by time. Sounds which evoke the memories of childhood, thoughts of relationships, and impressions of old age swirl together in space in constantly-rearranging and never-repeating patterns of association, representing non-linear psychological time, or memory. Simultaneously, the video monitors display computer-processed images of distance, erosion, travel, and natural forces, representing historic or geological time, and entropy. The projection screen displays processed images of carousels in motion, punctuated by fleeting clouds, representing our subjective feelings of the immediate present. These projected images are in vertical format within a classical picture frame and are projected only when a person is near the screen, emphasizing the human nature of our concept of time. Any sounds made by visitors near this screen are picked up, processed, and redistributed along with the pre-recorded sounds, adding a "memory" of the visitor to the work itself.

A darkened room approximately 50 square meters in area, 8 discrete channels of audio amplification, 8 small speakers on stands or otherwise mounted at ear level, two large screen (e.g. 32") video monitors, a video projector capable of projecting when turned on its side, two auto-repeat SVHS or 3/4" U-MATIC video players, a NeXT computer, and audio and video cabling. The artist will supply a custom video projection screen, sensors and other audio and video signal processing equipment. Estimated setup time is one day. Estimated strike time is 4 hours. One part-time assistant would be needed for audio and video cable construction and routing.

A diagram of a typical installation


Secrets of the Magdalen Laundries

(2000) Collaboration with Photographer/Digital Artist Diane Fenster
Gallery Henoch, New York City

The unique environmental sound composition for Diane Fenster's Secrets of the Magdalen Laundries brings a psychological fourth dimension to the work. Twelve independent channels of audio are invisibly integrated with the materials of the piece (large-scale photographs printed onto hanging bedsheets) and surround the viewer with the voices of Irish women speaking their original Gaelic language. Four women from an Irish language study program were recorded in San Francisco earlier this year and form the basis of the sound experience.

Almost all of the sounds are derived from these female voices, either presented directly or manipulated and processed using computer software, including the composer's own custom software algorithms. Despite the strongly musical nature of some of the sounds, no synthesizers or conventional instruments were used, only the processed and filtered voices. Also, in one case, the sound of ocean waves are gradually transformed into music.

There are two concentric layers of 4-channel surround sound, the inner one coming from the sheets hanging in the space, and the outer one from the walls. The inner layer presents fragments of conversational voices in a more direct manner. The outer layer, more distant and processed, represents the deeper emotional desires of the women of the laundries, transformed by memory and imagination. Additionally, four more channels of highly manipulated voices emanate from the washtubs. These sounds, triggered by the presence of the viewer, may be heard as a watery resonance of the washtubs - a secret communication across time from the objects which were such a focus of the women's work.

Experience this installation by walking slowly within and around the sheets, allowing the sounds to envelope you and pass around you - pulling you into the secret environment of the Magdalen Laundries.