A Treatise on the Æsthetic of Efforte

TreatiseScreenshotThis composition was invited for a compilation CD on the theme of steampunk, an art movement celebrating the ingenuity, effort, and danger of technology of the industrial revolution. In “A Treatise on the Æsthetic of Efforte,” I perform what is called live coding, creating music by programming computer code live during performance. The software controls a computer-controllable acoustic piano (like the Yamaha Disklavier). I built a special software environment for this piece that makes the piano “breath-powered” in a way: I blow into a microphone making one of seven types of wind noise (e.g., “tss,” “shh,” “hww,” etc.), filling one of seven virtual bellows that correspond to the loudness of notes played by the piano in one of seven pitch ranges. In other words, I need to blow with a “tss” sound to make the piano play in its top octave, and the notes played in that range will grow softer as the bellows empties, until I fill it again with my sound. The software also makes clicking and ratcheting sounds as I move and click the mouse and type. These sounds and the sounds of my blowing into the microphone are played through a speaker under the piano so that all sounds involved in making the music are heard as one with the musical result.

In this way, the work re-imagines the present as one that preserved an appreciation for performer effort that was embedded in operating nineteenth century machinery. Even though these inventions gave mankind new abilities, they required great risk for physical harm and were complex to operate, given so many cranks, levers, etc. to accomplish one task. This lies in contrast to our modern experience of accomplishing amazing feats by tapping screens on pocket-sized, wireless “black boxes” that reveal none of their workings.

The composition consists completely of computer software. In the first image of the software that follows, the basic framework for performance is in the upper left corner, featuring a visual display of the seven virtual bellows. Red object boxes in the rest of the window are pre-made inputs to the piano-controlling software, telling it what notes to play and how loud (to be mediated by the virtual bellows). All other code was created live during a performance to structure the notes that to be played.

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