- Benjamin O'Brien: For In-Between Timesby Benjamin O'Brien
For In-Between Timesis a set of thirteen tracks composed by Benjamin O'Brien. His method of construction results in either fixed or performed media. O'Brien's approach to composition seems to be influenced by his setup, which is based on either the computer alone, the electric guitar, or a mixture of both.
O'Brien, when he performs on electric guitar in combination with various digital tools, significantly extends the instrument's performance capabilities. For example, he uses Diemo Schwart's CataRT object in Max, Nick Collins's SCMIR library in SuperCollider, and Paul Koonce's PVC software suite. All greatly augment the guitar's musical and expressive possibilities. In tracks where O'Brien does not use the guitar, relying solely on the laptop for synthesis, he also demonstrates the ability to expand the sonic potential of selected source materials. Even within this type of fixed sound design strategy, O'Brien's role is that of a composer-performer, generating contexts or a collection of moments. Throughout all of the tracks on this recording, those moments can be heard as either instrumental and environmental samples, or moments in which they are combined with real-time processing. Sometimes, we also hear a combination of samples and live sound, which effectively further extends O'Brien's role as a composer-performer.
Upon listening to track 1, MASS, we experience a heightened sense of physicality. That impression, largely due to an "excitation of strings," confronts the listener, playing with his or her perception. We hear small sound-block figurations that move against one another at a frenetic pace. This effect is not only audible but also felt viscerally. Architecturally, this approach can be viewed as a snapshot of a larger, more intimate sound world.
In track 2, Embed (prelude), O'Brien triggers sampled piano sounds with his guitar. In this short movement each burst of sound demonstrates a unique mixture of instrumental color and density. This track is very brief and contains a clearly demarcated binary form: The first section highlights short bursts of timbral color, and the second section organizes these timbres into developed melodies. Although the form is clear, the resulting character of this composition is capricious.
The third track, Embed (live), reveals a contrasting approach, especially compared with Embed (prelude). O'Brien freely performs with his setup, shaping instrumental phrases with various timbral embellishments. From the beginning he builds an improvisation using unprocessed electric guitar sounds. During the subsequent performance, O'Brien continues to reference these initial, unprocessed guitar sounds.
It is worth noting that O'Brien is a self-taught guitarist and this certainly has an effect on his music. One important influence on his playing occurred after an encounter with the composer-improviser Fred Frith. This encounter opened new compositional approaches for O'Brien, especially with respect to his use of digital transformations with his laptop. Before auditioning at Mills College, O'Brien's playing was steeped in rock music practice. At the audition, Frith discussed his stance on the instrument. He suggested to O'Brien that players needed to approach the guitar as a whole, via a combination of elements: the guitar, possible preparations, [End Page 88]pedals and controllers, and performative approaches or playing styles.
For contrast, Cila.rand, track 4, uses no electric guitar, and was generated using SuperCollider, and O'Brien's sound design relies on feedback systems. In this short track, the computer listens to itself, improvising sequencer-like figures in response.
WTO.randwas written using Max. This movement explores a range of noises. Sometimes the noises are extreme, conveying a significant sense of materiality. Other times, we hear streams of noises, distributed in a high register, demonstrating a contrasting textural character. O'Brien's approach in this track mimics an electric guitar's performance, causing a stratification of randomly generated sound streams.
Track 6, BabyBirdBeat, offers the listener a very distinctive approach to the use of electronics. In this piece O'Brien...