Solo Voice: Duets

Duets evolved from a series of experiments undertaken in the Keele Electronic Music Studio, partly in response to my encounter with Tim Souster, much of whose work involved both improvisation and live electronics. A prime source for the composition was the work with extended vocal techniques that I had done at UCSD, but the interpenetration of this with technology resulted directly from the invaluable tutelage I received from Tim and from Cliff Bradbury, the studio technician. 

I probably began working with the equipment in November or December 1977, once I was settled at Keele. By February 1978 I had begun to sketch out alternative configurations, and these formed themselves into the set of ideas that became Duets sometime in March. As the concert date (March 16) approached, I finalized the concepts and the various settings; I recall some very long hours in Moberly Hall, after the equipment had been moved from the studio, during which I had to recalibrate much of the work to function in the new environment. For similar reasons—and lack of time—the London performance that followed a week later was, I recall, much less successful. The actual notation of the score—that is, the written descriptions—probably followed the March performances. The score has been issued by Frog Peak, and a recording (four tracks) of the first performance is available on SoundCloud

I expected the two 1978 performances to be the only ones, given the transience of technology; but in 1988, when Chris Brown invited me for a residency at Mills College and asked what pieces of mine might be performed, I suggested Duets, along with Medley. I suggested the latter because Chris is such an amazing pianist; and I suggested the former because of the venerable Mills studios, which I thought might have the antiquated equipment needed. The latter turned out to be only partly correct; the other equipment, nearly identical with the first performance, was assembled by Chris in a series of marathon travels up and down California. I had originally expected to perform the piece myself, but it became evident that rehearsal time would be insufficient for that. As a result, I suggested that Ed Harkins be invited, so that I could manipulate the technology offstage. Ed did a wonderful job, in part by favoring the movements that relied most intensely on his own vocal techniques and avoiding those that relied on careful calibration of the technology. 

I doubt the piece could be performed with today’s equipment, which is not only too reliable but also too precise. But I might be surprised; certainly, in theory, one could design a digital interface that would successfully mimic the eccentricities of 1970s pitch followers and synthesizers. Whether that’s worth doing is very much an open question. 

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