Moonlight

by Pulse Depravity

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This is an electronic reinterpretation of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. It may seem like an unusual choice for "Pulse Depravity", but the spirit of the original piece - feelings of helplessness in the face of unimaginable loss - are entirely appropriate. Beethoven perfectly captured the sound of grief, and I have used the electronic medium to bring that grief into a modern context.

I used the first movement in a short film called "Needs of the Many". I had reinterpreted the entire Sonata in Logic Pro, an experiment which predated the concept for "Needs of the Many" by several months.

At first I planned to use a lot of additional plug-in synthesizers, such as Absynth and Moog Modular, but I ended up using Logic's built in synthesizers exclusively. At first I thought that would be "part of the challenge", but once I figured out how to create and modify sounds in Sculpture - a physics modeling synth - things came together quickly and I ended up with more sounds than I needed.

I began working on the music with the 3rd movement, which has always been one of my favorites. My goal was to have an analog-ish sound with lots of grungy sawtooth and buzzing. Basically take the already powerful (and almost techno) baseline and really punch it up. I had done a previous arrangement with techno style drums, and I did my first few tests with updated drums. I realized that they were no longer necessary with the power that Logic enables (compared to my previous tools anyway) and I backed away from the techno concept. I started pulling pieces off of the main grungy sawtooth and square based synths and rendered them in physics modeled hammered and plucked strings. As I developed the piece further I decided to try a technique Wendy Carlos used frequently in her "Switched-On" recordings: Toward the end of the piece there are several series' of descending arpeggios, followed by faster ascending ones. I used over a dozen different sounds, panned to different placements in the stereo spread, and placed a few notes in each. Of course this is much simpler to do in Logic than it must have been for Carlos using splices of analog tape.

I nearly left it at that. I was in classes at San Jose State at the time, one of which was Physics of Music. I was working on the final mix of the 3rd movement, and we had our last lecture. Instead of meeting in the science building, we went to the Beethoven Center at the King Library. One of the administrators did a guest lecture about the instruments in Beethoven's era. During the lecture he played sections from the 1st movement of the "Moonlight" sonata. What I heard blew my mind.

In Beethoven's era, the pianos were quite different. They were smaller, and had fewer keys. They did not have the reinforcement of today's pianos, and were quieter and had less ability to sustain sound for long periods of time. They had a different range of sounds - instead of trying to have an even timbre across the octaves, they were designed to have a distinctive bass, middle, and treble sound. Most importantly, they were not tuned to equal temperament. The piano in the Beethoven Center, for example, is tuned to a well-temperament which, if memory serves, is one of the Printz tunings.

I'd never heard anything like this before. The performer followed Beethoven's instructions to lift the sustain bar (with his knee - no pedals) for the entire piece (on a modern piano that style of playing would quickly lead to sonic mud). The result was eerie and haunting, as chords would hold over just long enough to feel uncomfortable before fading into the next. The bass was a distinctive sound, separate from the slow arpeggios that create the backdrop for the bell-like melody. The difference in tuning, however slight, made the differences between harmonies sharper. It was the aural equivalent of finding a sharp focus on a macro lens: suddenly the sharp seems truly sharp, and the rest seems truly unfocused. In this case, painful off-tune sounding minor chords gave way to perfect fifths that sent chills down my spine.

So I went home and started working on the 1st movement. Logic makes it easy to set alternate tunings, so I auditioned a few and chose one I thought sounded like the one I'd heard. I settled on a Thomas Young well-temperament. (Further research revealed that the Young I chose is slightly more recent than the Printz.) Then I set to work modifying a preset in Sculpture to use for the melody voice. I ran the voice through the new amp modeler - two different amps to highlight different notes. I used a combination of three physics modeled bass sounds, sometimes allowing them to clash against one another, to allow Beethoven's bassline to have a painful undertone that resembled the one I'd heard in the Beethoven Center. I experimented with different space designs (reverb) until I found one that matched the sustain of the piano as closely as I could remember.

The 2nd movement came together rapidly. Performance tweaks became the most important factor because of the lack of flexibility in the synths. Rapid shifts in timbre, I discovered, break the reverie that the section naturally creates. Fewer changes in timbre means easier mixing (in general) so the first mix was precisely what I wanted.

credits

released August 5, 2010

Ludwig van Beethoven: Composer
David Sprinkle: Reinterpretation, mixing, graphic design

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Pulse Depravity Vancouver, Washington

The sights and sounds of self-imprisonment.

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