- Curtis Roads: POINT LINE CLOUD, Electronic Music 1999-2003
In the 5th century bce, a group of Greek philosophers, called the Atomists, put forward the proposition that all things are composed of tiny indivisible particles. It was posited that these innumerable primary bodies stream eternally through the infinite void, only to whirl together, collide, and unite, in order to generate objects in the complex world. The scientific realm imagined by these Greek prophets meets today's philosophical realm attained by quantum physics on a plane of deep mystery. Though a few musical visionaries such as Iannis Xenakis have theorized on this plane from afar, only one explorer has trekked through it in a 31 year relentless pursuit of discovery. That man is Curtis Roads. With this new collection of microsonic compositions, he has placed his pioneer's flag squarely into the infinite dunes of sonic particles.
The title of this release, POINT LINE CLOUD [End Page 102] , speaks to the multiple time scales of music that preoccupy the composer—the micro (individual points or sound particles extending to the threshold of auditory perception), the sound object (lines or tones, morphological events), and the meso (sound object groupings, phrase structures, clouds). The macro (how points, lines, and clouds are structured into compositional form) seems of more subdued importance to this collection of works, though it clearly has its place.
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The microsonic level, unknown to note-based musical traditions, introduces immense complexity and even new paradigms into the already vast world of musical organization. But it is clearly the level that Mr. Roads most relishes. He passes handfuls of sonic particles through his fingers much the way a child plays at the beach, in wonderment over the falling grains of an overflowing bucket of sand. Mr. Roads literally inhabits the micro time scale, editing particle by particle, caring for the acoustic space each will inhabit, its amplitude, its frequential components—selecting each grain as it may contribute to a mass, to a spiral, a burst, an upheaval, a wisp, a breath. Operating at this level, it is no surprise that, of the 13 pieces presented here, the average duration is around three minutes—a succinct unit of expression, which, according to the composer, is one of the most important form durations related to the human time scale, as evidenced by its prevalence in popular music. But, unlike the pop song, these are intricate, dense miniatures, so chiseled that one could easily echo Arnold Schoenberg's observation on the brevity of Anton Webern's works as reducing "a novel to a sigh."
And sigh Mr. Roads does. These works have an overall dusty palette, infused with noises of a white, gray, and sandy persuasion. There is almost the feeling of watching grainy (no pun intended) black and white footage of a previously uncharted universe. And in this sphere of quantum sonics, rolling marbles and beads of sound operate according to an inner logic seemingly dictated by the very medium of particles, added to sheer invention.
One structuring element explored by Mr. Roads is a timbral continuum between dry/metallic and wet/submerged soundscapes. The nigh obsolete organizing principles of pitch and meter appear only as secondary phenomena, produced by particle replication. As such, when they do appear they are absolutely stunning events, made all the more beautiful by their ephemeral apparition. And here the old phrase really applies: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone [!]"
In Eleventh Vortex (2001), pitch zones appear on the horizon much as a colorful school of fish passes by an underwater film camera—a glorious moment that may never come your way again. Perhaps more than any other works, Tenth Vortex (2000) and Eleventh Vortex sound like musical necessities, far transcending...