Christopher Burns, composer • Christopher Froh, percussion
1. The Language of Pilots (2004) percussion solo 6:21
2. Hinge: Spiral (2008) stereo audio 7:13
3. Trifold (2008) vibraphone solo 22:08
4. Hinge: Process (2008) multichannel audio [stereo mix] 9:04
5. Second Language (2005) percussion solo 5:39
The seed for Triptych was planted in 2005, when Deborah Miller invited me to compose a piece for her fiancé Christopher Froh as a wedding gift. I had already written The Language of Pilots for Chris, and as the new piece Second Language took shape, I began to conceive of a third percussion work that would link the first two.
Triptych, completed in 2008, grew and evolved considerably from what I first imagined in 2005. The work became an evening-length multimedia performance, including two pieces of electro-acoustic music, created in collaboration with painter Leslie Vansen and choreographer Luc Vanier. Nevertheless, Chris’ percussion performances remained at the heart of the project, and the final musical conception created an even more intricate set of connections and relationships between the five pieces.
More information about the Triptych performances (including sketches and working documents, interactive animations, and photos) is available at
The Language of Pilots (2004)
The Language of Pilots explores a variety of different textures available from a minimal percussion setup (snare drum and hi-hat). One such texture is defined by rapidly switching the snares on and off. Another is signalled by glissandi, produced by pressing and dragging a stick against the drumhead. A third emphasizes continual timbral variations with the hi-hat. Each texture (there are ten in all) was composed independently of the others – derived from its own set of rhythmic principles, and evolving according to its own strategy.
In the finished work, these different textures are overlaid, and often appear simultaneously. In some instances the various rhythms and timbres interlock into a polyphony; in more dense situations, the different layers interfere with and deform one another. The music oscillates between simplicity and complexity as layers switch in and out, moving back and forth between a single texture and a multiplicity of different types. Structural markers help to orient the listener to the passage of time – a very slow polyrhythm is played on the bells of the two hi-hat cymbals, and a fixed sequence of timbres (with frequent rhythmic unisons between cymbals and drum) is repeated and expanded over the course of the work.
Hinge: Spiral (2008) stereo audio
The electroacoustic Hinge: Spiral unfolds a transition from the unpitched percussion of The Language of Pilots to the pitched vibraphone sonorities of Trifold. At the same time, it moves towards fragmentation and abstraction. Relatively long phrases and gestures are gradually replaced by shorter and shorter materials, culminating in sounds which are less than a tenth of a second in duration. Hinge: Spiral is comprised entirely of recordings made by percussionist Christopher Froh.
Trifold (2008) vibraphone solo
Trifold forms the large “center panel” of Triptych, flanked by The Language of Pilots and Second Language. It is also a triptych in its own right, formed of three large sections. The first looks backward to The Language of Pilots - the percussionist plays with snare sticks and a cymbal, recalling the percussion setup of the earlier work, and the music emphasizes clattering and noisy drumming on the vibraphone. The second section is played with mallets, establishing chords and harmonies which are then modified through damping, deadstrokes, and manipulation of the vibraphone fans. The last section looks forward to Second Language, using the wire brushes from that piece as the principal implements. Materials from throughout Trifold are revisited and varied as the work’s ongoing concern for scraping and sustaining gestures is brought to a culmination.
Trifold was very much inspired by the work of my Triptych collaborators, choreographer Luc Vanier and visual artist Leslie Vansen. The complex arrangement of Luc’s gestures on the dancers’ bodies, the constraining geometry of the human form, the dense layering of curves on Leslie’s canvases, and the patterns of interference and erasure she creates; all these elements have found their way into the restlessly expanding, contracting, and shifting patterns of the music. The work, like all of Triptych, is also deeply indebted to percussionist Christopher Froh, who suggested a number of the sounds and playing techniques, and whose virtuosity encouraged me to explore this new terrain.
Hinge: Process (2008)
multichannel audio [stereo mix]
Hinge: Process revisits and reworks the time structures of Hinge: Spiral, fitting totally different sonic content into the rhythmic framework of its sibling. Where Spiral is comprised exclusively of percussion sounds, this work is dominated by recordings of speech. All the texts in one way or another describe artists and their creative process, or derive from the working notes and texts involved in making Triptych itself. Hinge: Process is dedicated to the memory of Toyoji Tomita.
Second Language (2005)
A recomposition of materials from The Language of Pilots, Second Language shares an instrumentation (hi-hat cymbal and snare drum), gestures and phrases, and a density of activity and sound with its sibling. There are also sharp contrasts between the works. Where The Language of Pilots develops materials over long spans of time, Second Language emphasizes the accumulation, repetition, and variation of short rhythmic patterns. And while Pilots is loud and extroverted, Second Language is hushed, emphasizing the subtle flickering and scraping of wire brushes across the instruments. Second Language is itself “remixed” in Hinge: Spiral, continuing and intensifying the evolution of these rhythms and sounds.
Christopher Burns is a laptop improviser and a composer of instrumental chamber music. His works explore simultaneity and multiplicity: textures and materials are layered one on top of another, creating a dense and energetic polyphony. Both electronic and acoustic music are influenced by Christopher’s work as a computer music researcher. The gritty, rough-hewn sonic materials of his laptop instruments are produced through custom software designs, and the idiosyncratic pitch and rhythmic structures of his chamber music are typically created and transformed through algorithmic procedures. His most recent projects emphasize multimedia and motion capture, integrating performance, sound, and animation into a unified experience.
In 2002, Christopher’s piece The Location of Six Geometric Figures was awarded the First Prize and Audience Prize in the International Composition Competition for Chamber Music at the Hitzacker Sommerliche Musiktage in Germany. His work has been performed by groups including ensemble recherche, NOISE, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Gageego!, the Contemporary Keyboard Society, and ensemble courage, and soloists including Mark Menzies, Griffin Campbell, Chris Froh, and Matthew Burtner.
Christopher is an avid archaeologist of electroacoustic music, creating and performing new digital realizations of classic music by composers including John Cage, György Ligeti, Alvin Lucier, Conlon Nancarrow, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. His other research interests include the application and control of feedback in sound synthesis, the design of complex signal-processing networks for emergent sonic behavior, and the study and preservation of sketch materials produced by electroacoustic composers.
A committed educator, Christopher teaches music composition and technology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Previously, he served as the Technical Director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University, after completing a doctorate in composition there in 2003. He has studied composition with Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, Jonathan Berger, Michael Tenzer, and Jan Radzynski.
Christopher is also active as a concert producer. He co-founded and produced the strictly Ballroom contemporary music series at Stanford University from 2000 to 2004. He currently directs the Unruly Music concerts in Milwaukee, and is a co-producer of sfSoundGroup, a contemporary music ensemble in residence at ODC Theater in San Francisco.
Christopher Froh is a percussionist principally committed to influencing and expanding the repertoire through commissions and premieres. He began his training as a fellow with the National Symphony Orchestra, continued at the Eastman School of Music with percussionist John Beck, then moved to Japan to study and perform with marimba pioneer and composer, Keiko Abe. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Michigan with percussionist Michael Udow and marimbist Julie Spencer. He is currently on the faculty at the University of California, Davis.
Froh is a former founding director of the Ann Arbor-based new music group and series, Brave New Works. Currently, he is a core member of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Empyrean Ensemble, sfSoundGroup, and principal percussionist with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. As a guest artist, he has performed with a broad array of ensembles including Alarm Will Sound, the Honolulu Symphony and Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Solo festival appearances include performances at the Festival Nuovi Spazi Musicali, Music@Menlo, Festival of New American Music, Pacific Rim Festival, and Other Minds Festival.
Froh continues his close ties to Japan, touring with marimbist Mayumi Hama and as a soloist with Keiko Abe and the Galaxy Percussion Group. He has performed regularly at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention and appeared as the solo percussionist for the Berkeley Repertory Theater’s production of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia. He is recorded as a soloist on the Albany, Equilibrium, and innova labels.
The Language of Pilots
recorded 06.23-26.2008 at Kenilworth Square East, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
engineered by Kevin Schlei and
All titles BMI
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering
Original artwork: Leslie Vansen
cover and CD: Postscript (1999)
acrylic on paperboard; 11” X 25.5”
additional images: Preface (2008)
acrylic on paperboard; 11” X 25.5”
Composer photo: Christy Scherrer
Special thanks to Mary Francis, Deborah Miller, Leslie Vansen, Luc Vanier, Iain Court, Kevin Schlei, Jon Welstead, and Carl Storniolo.
innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.
Philip Blackburn: director, design
Chris Campbell: operations manager