Permutations: A Translational Odyssey from Visual to Musical Systems
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A little over two years ago, I started working on possibilities for visual art using simple permutation operations: ways of reordering sets of information. These possibilities multiplied until a black, hardbound, gridded notebook was about half full and bursting with ideas and sketches. One day I took the notebook out to lunch with me and left it — astoundingly — on a park bench! Despite frantic efforts, I never recovered it. The same day I bought a new notebook and began where I left off, but never quite regained the momentum I had established with the original notebook.
But all was not lost with the (admittedly, somewhat deflating) loss of the notebook. I began to focus more on translating these same ideas into sound. This past summer, I decided to attempt to compose a suite of compositions for solo guitar, which happens to be my instrument. I had recently been alerted to the Fibonacci sequence, which is somewhat famous as the mathematical basis for spiral mapping, but I used it in a simpler way, merely as a sequencing method. Starting with certain scales, I constructed generative sequences of notes using the Fibonacci structure. These constituted the originating material, or sets, for the permutations. Next, I used something called a “latin square”* permutation technique to generate re-orderings of the original sequences. This is how the final sequences of pitches were made. I also created sets of rhythms which were reordered in every possible way.
The results of all the above work formed the melody, or as I think of it, the top line of the five solo guitar pieces. Immediately, I realized the pieces could accommodate — and in fact needed — a counterpoint, or “bottom line,” which I created in a traditional, intuitive artistic method involving choices that reflect my taste and sensibilities. Each piece ends with a different chordal flourish that displays the notes of the scale. The top line represents the main substance of the concept: to construct a system which in turn generates music outside my imagination. The bottom line is a concession to taste and volition.
Originally I had wanted to compose very simple solo guitar music for myself to play, as I am not a virtuoso guitarist. As it happens, the music that emerged is extremely difficult, at least for me. The suite consists of five “movements,” called cycles. On the audio/visual presentation above, my rendition of the First Cycle is heard, followed by the Third Cycle played by the computer, and finally the Second Cycle played again by me. The visuals show some of the pages from the second notebook, some finished art pieces, and the scores for the solo guitar suite, titled “Permutation No. 1,” so that this work may more precisely be called “A Translational Odyssey from Numerically-based Visual Art to Musical Systems.”
—James Ty Cumbie
Recording by Atom Fellows
James Ty Cumbie has performed with Lukas Ligeti, Daniel Carter, Ned Rothenberg, Samir Chatterjee, Butch Morris, Walter Thopson, and many others. His compositions have been performed at New Languages Festival ‘09, The Vision Festival Series, Detour Jazz, and other NYC venues. He even once performed samba percussion for Lula, President of Brazil! From 2003-08 he produced and presented the Freezone Music Series, which showcased many of the most important avant-jazz artists from NYC, other parts of the US, and Europe. He has written jazz criticism for All About Jazz and worked as a graphic designer for nearly 30 years. He currently resides in Washington Heights where he is focussing on visual art and music composition. Both his art and music are strongly informed by minimalism, conceptualism, mathematics and serial/modular systems.