Frozen Reflection, Sleeping Buffalo: Piano and mechanical resonators

19 mins | 2017 | Piano Solo

Megumi Masaki

About the work

Frozen Reflection, Sleeping Buffalo uses EBows - electromechanical resonating devices, not as drones in their own right, but to provoke delicate and unusual timbres from sustained piano chords. The EBows continually vibrate a string as if it had infinite sustain (and are often used by guitarists for this purpose). The piano pedal in this work forms a kind of ‘envelope’ control, opening up and closing down this resonance. The sounds made by the EBows modulate the chords played by the pianist, creating a shimmering haze of harmonics. The drone itself blends into the background, creating a kind of horizon in the sound landscape around which everything else circulates.

ebow positioning on piano strings

Arctic cold

It’s late December. Air from the Arctic drifts slowly over Alberta, and temperatures reach a chilling minus 30 degrees Celsius. Frozen Reflection Sleeping Buffalo is inspired by the First Nations Legend of Sleeping Buffalo. The piece stems from a period working as an artist at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Innovation, Canada, in Dec 2016. My project at the time was to work on a large-scale orchestral commission. However, whilst doing so I discovered a design method which could combine fixed external resonances with my own choice of colours.

Ebow sounds

The Ebows produce a kind of etherial constant drone sound, but interestingly, also modulate the decay of the other sounds. You can hear a shimmering quality to the sustains as a result of this aural effect. After realising this, I decided to compose these effects into the piece by finding harmonies and textures which would provoke them.

Using EBows on the piano can be a challenge, as other composers have found. The strings to be a low-tension enough to be able to vibrate by the effects of a magnetic field, yet not so thick that they are too heavy to move. This limits the range over which you can place them on the piano. The results are slightly different for different pianos too.

Musical structure

I’ve been working with on idea of designing a musical surface, rather than accepting a ‘surface’ (here taken to mean the totality of the sounding result) as a consequence of other design processes. Composing this way is a bit like sculpting a large block of granite in order to uncovering the form. It’s subtractive. In this music, different parts of the surface fade in and out of focus over time. Harmonic centres of importance are spread over the piece so that they become exposed and then gradually subside throughout the piece. Here’s a visualisation:


Frozen Reflection Sleeping Buffalo has two sections. In the first, small, isolated moments are set against a continuity of delicate drones provided by the Ebows. Tiny changes in the resonance of the decay occur as the ebow drones interfere with the other pitches to produce modulation artefacts. In order to design these more carefully than in my initial experiments, I needed to model these acoustic effects in Open Music (see below).

The second section is a reversal, or reflection of the first in almost every way. Instead of building harmony on top of drone-like resonances as previously, I wanted to gradually fill out the negative-space around the drone-sounds is inverted with dense, angular chromatic writing.

The piano chords appear to take on a transparent, shimmering quality during these silences-in-sound.

Watch the video

Listen quietly, with headphones

Tunnel Mountain

In the First Nations legend, Tunnel mountain is a sacred place. It is a place where people come to share knowledge and discover new bonds to their surroundings and culture. Then they leave.

Score download

The score can be downloaded from here

My scores are now hosted as open-source publications on GitHub: this enables the current version published to reflect the current edition of the work. You can also suggest changes (contact me for advice on how to do this) and have your changes merged back into the main document for others to download should you so wish. Information merged back into the project can include performance notes, annotations or suggestions.

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