Chad Powers’s work “A Blade Within” has simple program notes:
“A Blade Within is constructed with raw, as well as manipulated sound sources. Before the work was composed electronically I notated it on paper. In a meta fashion, I used the recorded pencil and paper sound files to act as a catalyst to drive the work forward. So, in a sense, one can hear the work being composed as it is being performed. I tried my best to achieve an emotional and personal work that focuses on form and motive.”
This work stems from an idea that one can unify process and result. Building on minimalist conceptualizations, this work brings them to another level of scope. Instead of the processes of the music being heard in the music, the process of writing the music is heard in the music. This piece therefore “loops” about itself.
The soundscape is relatively consistent; sharp, dry sounds navigate and squirm their way from speaker to speaker, through high and low boundaries, with not much reverb or spacious effects. The piece does explore the sounds in different and fascinating ways, which is heartening that a work with such deep concept is sonically fascinating.
I am still curious about the composition fusing with the sound created. If the art of composing is heard in the result of the composing, what statement does Powers make? Does the composer wish to note that no matter how hard we try as composers, the result will always bear the marks, beauty, and scars of our compositional process? Does Powers make the point that a listener can always “hear” the process of creation of a work, in the final result (i.e. can the audience hear the blood, sweat, tears, shouts, anger, delight, joy, of the composer as they work on the piece, in the final product)? Or, does the composer wish to state that, since in this piece Powers must explicitly record the process in order for us to hear it, the audience can never really hear the process of composing unless it is explicitly told to them?
On the SoundCloud page for this piece, Powers writes:
“Although it is a generic concept, I find sometimes myself sometimes frustrated within the compositional process. Whether the work is an acoustic, electronic, or a combination of both, I often find the struggle is the same. I try to express these subjective operandi by means of raw, as well as, manipulated sound sources. The final gesture of the work accentuates the nucleus of the main idea.”
Perhaps it is this frustration with the compositional process that the composer wishes to convey, with the gestures, wisps, flights, descents, and bird-like flutterings and scratchings dancing across the speakers. Or, perhaps the composer wants us to literally hear just how frustrated the composer is.
There is a very large caveat to all I have said, though: it is always possible that the composer did not think at all about the issues I have raised here, and that is the composer’s perogative. It is great to explore concept, and pursue theory and the grandeur of thought, but in reality, this is a work that is practical and effective because of its pragmatism. It is literally a work composed about itself, by recording itself so it can create itself. This mobius strip of a piece is good enough by itself, both sonically and conceptually. Yes, I have analyzed it from a more conceptual vantage point, but that does not make my points the composer’s points.
I could also go into deep analysis of the motives that appear, the drama of the melody (i.e. pencil scratches), and the orchestration of the placement of each sound in sonic space. This piece is great at face value, and that is something I need to impress, especially when the composer’s deepest concepts may be wildly different from what I am saying here.
So, what can we learn from this?
- Simple concepts, and simple actions, can have giant ramifications. Powers’s simple act of recording his composing, and using that for the audio, is a simple but brilliant action. It opens up floodgates of theory, concept, and process, that can go on for chapter after chapter of discussion.
- Reverb is not necessary. This piece uses mostly dry sounds, and it is precise, but not overly aggressive nor too sharp. One’s sound palette can be very dry. Reverb is not a cure-all. (Reverb, Panning, and EQ can be like salt, pepper, and olive oil to food–they always work, but you really need to practice cooking without them too).
- The theorist and the composer may not even coincide on their thoughts about art. I have not asked Powers about his concept as it applies to this analysis, and I am interested to see what he, and you, think about this. If he and I match up, that is a successful train of thought. If he and I do not match up, then we are entitled to our views, and it is okay that they do not align. Either way, we should not inherently expect one to match up with the other.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!