Spheres and Splinters – new work by Tod Machover

Spheres and Splinters (2010) by Tod Machover
Commissioned by Faster Than Sound for Aldeburgh Music

Premiered 2010 November 12 (Britten Studio, Snape, U.K.); November 13 (Kings Place, London, U.K.)

Peter Gregson, Hypercello
UnitedVisualArtists, interactive visuals
Ben Bloomberg, ambisonic and audio technology
Peter Torpey (MIT Media Lab), interactive music software

Images © Bruce Atherton/Jana Chiellino 2010

Spheres and Splinters is a new work by Tod Machover, created in collaboration with cellist Peter Gregson, MIT audio expert Ben Bloomberg, and UnitedVisualArtists. Commissioned by Faster Than Sound, the piece developed over the past two months at the MIT Media Lab and at UVA’s London studio and was completed over the past 10 days in residence at Aldeburgh Music. The piece seeks to develop a complex sonic journey derived completely from the acoustic sound of the cello and the physical gestures of cello playing, analyzed and interpreted live-in-concert using software developed especially for this project and a new “hyperbow” being used here for the first time. A 3D ambisonic sound system allows each cello phrase to be spun out into the performance space, twisting and twinkling under the performer’s control. This volumetric sound sculpting is mirrored by UVA’s visual installation, which uses a series of thin LED light towers arranged in concentric circles around the cellist, a kind of visual “forest” that gives extra context and resonance to the music being played.  Spheres and Splinters is made up of five sections performed without a break. The piece starts with low resonating open strings from which hidden harmonics are released, turning the cello’s resonance “inside out” and engulfing listeners in “spheres” of sound, as if one were to enter the body of the cello itself. Such delicate sonorities develop further in Section 2, where each subtle change of cello timbre and articulation conjures a morphing harmonic “aura” from the electronics. Parity between acoustics and electronics is reached in Section 3, as a sinuous, song-without-words draws listeners into the emotional core of the work. Stillness is reached at the end of this melody, from which point the process is reversed. In Section 4, short, isolated cello phrases each “splinter” into fragments, as surprising potential emerges from the smallest elements. These micro-explosions gradually layer and connect in Section 5, forming a tapestry above which a final melody rises, gathering and unifying in its wake all the diverse elements of the work as the music rises to an ecstatic conclusion. In a brief coda, the intricate sonorities previously unleashed are carefully gathered back within simple cello resonances; the piece ends almost as it started. Throughout this sonic development, the interactive lighting highlights the continuity of the drama, while intensifying the perception and enjoyment of each compositional detail. The visuals strike a balance between reflecting the cello performance and establishing autonomy, creating a rich counterpoint between sound and image and a dynamic interplay between “spheres” and “splinters.”

Photographs courtesy of Jana Chiellino

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Also see Ben Bloomberg’s post about Spheres and Splinters

3 Replies to “Spheres and Splinters – new work by Tod Machover”

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