Identified as a significant artistic trend in the late 1960s, systems aesthetics—the quintessential programmatic statement was Jack Burnham’s 1968 essay by that name—has continued to represent a viable and important direction in contemporary art and music. Current systems music—simply put, music that is the product of a defined operation or set of operations performed on a defined input—often takes the guise of generative composition, frequently done by computer or other means of electronic music production, and sometimes done by hand. While the fit between a systems aesthetic and electronic music is a logical one, systems music for acoustic instruments, whether alone or with electronic augmentation, can be just as natural and the results aesthetically satisfying.
The title track of Because Patterns, an album of four works by composer Isaac Schankler, is one such work. Because Patterns—the title is a witty rejoinder to Morton Feldman’s 1978 Why Patterns for flute, glockenspiel and piano—is a generative composition for four-handed prepared piano. Commissioned by the duo of Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray, who perform it here, the work uses a set of rules to generate outputs from melodic and rhythmic patterns whereby the content of a measure is the product of a rule applied to the content of the preceding measure. The process may sound mechanical but the music isn’t; the piece has an engaging melodic logic and compelling rhythmic propulsion. The score calls for preparing the piano’s upper registers to shorten the notes’ sustain, producing a bright bell-like or pizzicato sound. For this album the composer chose to mix Kallay and Ray’s performance of Because Patterns with a performance of The Deep State (2017) for double bass and electronics. In contrast to the swift-moving Because Patterns, The Deep State—performed by double bassist Scott Worthington, to whom it is dedicated–is structured by long, slow, deep tones. The hybrid obtained by combining the two pieces makes for an interesting study in contrasts, but having each piece presented separately would have been welcome as well.
Because Patterns also contains Mobile I (2009) for solo violin and electronics and Future Feelings (2018) for piano. Mobile I is a beautiful piece with a generative electronics component and a translucent violin part, brilliantly played by Sakura Tsai. Future Feelings, performed by Nadia Shpachenko, opens with tautly cascading repeated phrases that serve as rhythmic cells or kernels shaping the first section of the piece; the second section features interactive electronics that take the piano part as input and outputs it as a ghostly afterimage. Like Mobile I, it unfolds in a dramatic arc of increasing complexity and emotional urgency.