nanomachines dream of you

ensemble two violins, cello, and soprano
duration ~4:22
listen on bandcamp
score PDF, 220KB
alternate arrangements two violins, cello, and clarinet (2014)
performance history 06/30/2010 by ASM at Union Pool (ASM Dips Skinny! Union Pool Party!)
date completed 06/17/2010
series unblocking
era ASM


Equal parts Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream, King Crimson (anything with Belew), and Tristan Perch’s “1-Bit Symphony”, this was not so much a continuation of a war against writer’s block as much as it was a complete resignation that I write rock rhythms and so I shouldn’t shy away from them in chamber music. 4/4 (well, mostly), constant eighth notes (well, mostly), a chord change per measure... this is me giving in to every default and simple impulse I have when trying to write something new.

Ever notice how I try to write big, flashy pieces? Well, not this time. No sir, this time it’s all about a tiny, motor-like, and introspective sound. This, of course, led me to thinking about robots. And then time. And then clocks. Then back to time and robots (because clocks aren’t as cool as robots). And then death. And then robot death. Then time again. What did these have in common? Two things: 1) Skynet, and 2) Sarah Connor. But those make lousy titles. Andrea suggested “Robots, time, and death,” but I wanted something that had more gravitas to it. Terminator was out – too big and flashy. And so: nanomachines. Attempting to explain the yearning of microscopic robots led to the rest. And the rest led here. Skynet is inevitable.)

- ASM program notes, 06/30/2010

As with every attempt of its kind, I managed to dig in a little bit and find a pearl here and there. For this piece, it’s the bridge, where the (wordless) soprano comes in. Prior to that moment, the harmony is established, and the music rattles off quickly and quietly but mechanically, with minor incidental dissonances as the individual string voices present their non-ostinato lines – as if the machines do what they do, but lack the understanding that they are part of a whole, functioning together. The bridge is an oasis in this desert, the soul in the robot. And as suddenly as that soul appears, it goes away, as the bridge doesn’t quite resolve when the motor-like motives return.

There is one strange notational convention in this, and the proper framing (and discussion) is in the original performance notes:

The intention is that this piece is – on the whole – pretty quiet and tense. Apologies in advance for the bowing and the seeming monotony (look, they’re nanomachines; cut them some slack).

It should be mostly legato, but detached enough to hear individual pulses, as if played on a piano or drum.

The fast marking (170) is probably a bit too fast, but definitely up past 140.

The slow part should feel slow – not *exactly* dirge-like, but not too far off.

So, about the squiggle:

This is supposed to be a guideline shape for an improv line.

Use the squiggle as written for timing (in terms of where it starts in the measure and how it relates to the other parts), but it’s not gospel for pitch. The idea is that the improv line is one, smooth line, most likely all in one bow (or at least all legato), in an overall general arc shape that’s faster on the way up in pitch and descends more gradually as it dies in volume. Note that it’s not a loud improv: it always gets quieter.

The effect should be similar to strumming fast barred harmonics up and then down the neck of an electric guitar, or (as I like to think about it) as if the note you just played came detached from the score and split off from the page and tumbled into the distance, only to be seen in the rearview mirror as the rest of the piece chugs along. Like the way a broken string peels away from the fingerboard (but, you know, slower than that because that happens in about a millisecond). Hu – I was thinking you’d be vln 2 once the squiggle came into the picture.

I know it’s weird and blocky. As am I.

I don’t know if the so-called “squiggle” (Figure 1) is actually described well enough to be played correctly. A better analogy would be strumming muted electric guitar strings as you move the muting hand quickly and erratically on the neck of the guitar (the beginnings of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” or Fugazi’s “Margin Walker” are good examples).

a poor man’s attempt at aleatoric notation
Figure 1. “the squiggle”

This was arranged for a soprano-less performance in 2014 (swapping in clarinet), but that performance did not happen. So the only performance of this piece was in 2010 by Hubert Chen, Daniel Baer, Pat Muchmore, and Kamala Sankaram. It was not played to the tempo marking, but I think I like the way they played it better than my intended tempo.