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How to play linked sequences of music in live performance?


Tom Baldwin

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I've been asked to operate lighting & sound for a performance of The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau.

LX is no problem, that's my normal area, but the sound is a little more challenging (last time I did sound it was one cassette deck, a Tandy mixer and a domestic hi-fi amp!).

 

I have a number of problems to solve, and any pointers, hints, suggestions, thoughts etc would be gratefully received.

 

The director's concept is to underlay the entire performance with Barber's Adagio for Strings. Since the running time is estimated at 35-40 minutes but the adagio is (depending on version) between six and ten minutes long, we're going to need to loop it. I could just create a full length version in Audacity, burn it to CD and consider the problem solved, but I suspect that the performance will vary in length from night to night, which will leave the music out of sync with the varying emotions in the piece, and could mean the music has to fade out inappropriately at the end. I wondered if it would be possible (and better?) to split the original track up into smaller segments, which could then be linked into a playlist which runs to roughly the right length - but which could be altered, live, during the performance if it's running ahead of, or behind, the performers? I'm envisaging something where the list of clips is predefined, but where I could issue commands along the lines of "at the end of the current clip, jump to clip 43", or "play the current clip again, then continue with the cue list as planned". Looking around the Blue Room, Ableton seems to meet this requirement, but with a reputation for complexity. A friend has offered use of his PC, which has a lite edition installed. Am I looking in the right direction? What other tools could people recommend?

 

I'm concerned that even as a low-level backing 40 minutes of one track could become repetitive. I've been trying to find different recordings of the piece (the director is clear that choral versions are unacceptable, and William Orbit's version would be very incongruous, so I'm a bit limited), in order to provide some subtle variation. So far I've only really found two useful versions... What techniques would other people consider for this problem?

 

Another challenge to solve is the ending. The plan is to have a very low-key ending, with some intention of leaving the audience disorientated. The intention is to fade the houselights over sixty seconds, during which time the intro to Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will play. The opening to this track is very fast up/down strums on a high string on an electric guitar fretted up quite high, which has something of the quality of a fire bell about it. Again, I could simply loop this & burn to CD, but we'd like to delay letting the track get started properly until the audience start to leave. The track continues with drums over the top of the guitar - so again, I'm envisaging a solution where a clip of the intro is looped indefinitely until being manually advanced. I guess this could be solved by the same tool as the main backing music problem.

 

What do people think about this? About trying to "create" a soundtrack live? About running for such a long time with the same piece of music?

 

Many thanks for your advice!

 

Cheers,

 

Tom

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I wondered if it would be possible (and better?) to split the original track up into smaller segments, which could then be linked into a playlist which runs to roughly the right length - but which could be altered, live, during the performance if it's running ahead of, or behind, the performers? I'm envisaging something where the list of clips is predefined, but where I could issue commands along the lines of "at the end of the current clip, jump to clip 43",

 

Very simplistic answer:

You could probably do that with most of the common sound replay packages - say SCS, or even free ones like multiplay. Chop the music into slightly-too-large bitesized chunks, set them up as a playlist with a crossfade between them, and if things are moving along at a gallop, hit the "go" button to fade into the next chunk...

 

You could probably even do it in winamp (etc) with the crossfading options set...

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One approach would be to get a MIDI file of the piece and then play it live from a sequencer, hopefully using decent tone sources, and then you can adjust the instrumentation on the fly, to create tonal variation. Things like filter settings, attack and decay etc can be changed, allowing for example the individual notes to overlay to a mush, giving an audio 'carpet' effect. A musically competent person could also rearrange some of the piece in the sequencer to add new repeats, key changes etc, all providing more variation. Many sequencers also have bookmarky type things, and jumps to codas etc, allowing you to jump about to stay with the action. Also with multiple tone sources you can use more than standard mono or stereo; six, eight, or even more speaker placements adding a spatial dimension to the piece. The sky (or more usually, the budget) is the limit with this type of thing.

 

I say 'using decent tone sources' as I'm currently playing a downloaded MIDI of the piece through the lappie, and it sounds *terrible*, but thats an artifact of a horrible tone sources in the lappie. However, composing this reply (along with reading about the piece on Wikipedia) has lasted almost the entire length of the piece; I can see why it was voted the saddest bit of music...

 

Edited to say: I'm not sure a playback is going to cut it here; I've used most of the products sugegsted plus a few others, and none of them are musical in nature, and thus will just abruptly cut from playback to playback.

 

I agree with the other contributors; changing the requirements will be the best solution from the audience perspective.

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I think I might break the entire piece into score 'chunks', based around cadence points and then instead of hard sequencing them, I'd play them off a sampler - either a software one or a real, old fashioned one. One thing you could do would be to play with tempo - say have one as per normal, and then have another version of the file, with some extensions - the barber piece can easily have the sustained legato phrases nobbled in this way. If you do it like this, you could even kind of mis-arrange it, altering the order - as many sections are similar, you'd get away with this, With a the outgoing samples fading rather than cutting, you could arrane hit points to match the action. Sounds (after thinking about it) quite interesting.
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I'd play them off a sampler - either a software one or a real, old fashioned one.

 

to solve one problem for you:

http://www.soundplant.org/

 

Simple Sampler that will play back using a bog standard computer keyboard. The freeware version uses .wav files, and if I remember correctly, you buy the program, and it'll play back MP3's. Playback of wav shouldn't be too much of a problem in this day and age with 500gb external hard drives available!

 

In response to the 'improvising' sound live, I don't see why not, DJ's do, VJ's can do it with visuals (check out arkaos if you much the same as above, but with visuals thrown in!), in fact it seems to be a trend at the moment, gives a more organic and spontaneous performance!

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I'm concerned that even as a low-level backing 40 minutes of one track could become repetitive. I've been trying to find different recordings of the piece (the director is clear that choral versions are unacceptable, and William Orbit's version would be very incongruous, so I'm a bit limited), in order to provide some subtle variation. So far I've only really found two useful versions... What techniques would other people consider for this problem?
I second your concerns. 40 minutes of that Adagio is going to be repetitive. I'd speak to the director about possibly using the music underscore at specific moments instead of as what will become a drone.

 

If you do end up with lots of bits to drop in on cue, take a look at QLab. It is much like Stage Research's SFX, but for $49US. There are additional modules that add to the price, but if you don't need midi triggering, or video playback, the $49 version should be ine. John Leonard of Aura is a fan.

 

Mac

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  • 2 months later...

Thank you to everyone who responded with ideas.

 

We finished the run last week, and the director and I were very pleased with the audio.

 

During the rehearsals I experimented with playing different parts of the Adagio under the performance. It became apparent that it was more than sufficient to use fragments of the Adagio at specific points. This meant I could simply burn a cue list to CD, and not worry about learning new software, or the stability of a borrowed PC - indeed I didn't need to worry about my (musical) timing in triggering multiple fragments, either!

 

We used 3 different versions in the end, including the especially haunting version by The Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Somtow Sucharitkul (his interpretation reads the expression marks as tempo markings too, giving the piece something of the sound of a panic attack). Most of the edits were simply taking fragments from the piece, although in one place I played three successive phrases in reversed order, and in another I used a reverse of the original recording.

During rehearsals, we discovered that about 45 seconds of the intro for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' track was about right, so I simply burned an edited version of that as my 13th cue.

 

Overall, it was an interesting experience, and a very powerful piece - which we may be taking to a festival next year.

 

Cheers,

 

Tom

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