A NEW PHENOMENON IN MUSIC
by Richard Howard
There is a new phenomenon that has been evolving in music over the past ten years, a highly original sonic experience that is not easy to categorise, which is just as well. It’s called Digitiphony and is the creation of composer, Michael Lisle Dunn, who has just completed what is, perhaps, his most ambitious work so far, Digitiphony 7.
Michael is an accomplished musician as well as composer and out of his experience playing violin, trumpet, keyboards, guitar and percussion, his vision of this new musical form has emerged. Each digitiphony, like a symphony, has a number of contrasting movements, taking the listener on a journey. The combination of conventional orchestral sounds interwoven with another dimension of computer-generated sounds, expands the composer’s range and palette considerably. Rather than being a bridge between two different musical cultures ~ typically ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ ~ Digitiphony ignores all boundaries and breaks new ground by fusing whatever cultural styles best serve the composer’s intention.
As another pioneering composer, John Cage, would agree, music is all around us all the time. Whether we can hear it as music depends on how open we are to the musical qualities of everyday sounds. In birdsong, a trickling stream, waves crashing on the seashore, a dripping tap, thunder, or the rhythm of a train at speed, we can always detect particular patterns and variations of pitch that give such sounds a musical dimension. So when, for example ~ in Digitiphony 3 ~ we hear the muted sounds of station announcements and the muffled distant murmur of commuter footsteps and voices under the flow of instrumental music as it evolves on its journey, the composer creates a dynamic that simultaneously connects us to another world of reference for which each listener will have their own personal associations.
However, this is not to be confused with conventional ‘musique concrète’ of the 1940s, but is something far deeper and simultaneously more extravagant and beguiling. While there is a distinct kaleidoscopic quality to digitiphony, and a certain unpredictability, each one is crammed with intriguing ideas, juxtaposed with each other in a way that captures the attention and draws the listener into its world. Some moments are dreamlike or surreal, or we find ourselves as if on some fantastic train journey with constantly surprising changes of scenery and tantalising glimpses of other worlds, unfailingly colourful and rich in invention. At other times, the torrent of ideas can seem like a mosaic from which we need to take a longer view to see how the pieces fit together.
In the composer’s own words, Digitiphony is “a musical form comprising several movements or parts that incorporates elements of both digital (computers and virtual instruments) and symphonic (orchestral) instrumentation.” To this can also be added the occasional use of vocal and choral textures.
Digitiphony 1, a truly haunting piece, is the shortest of the seven [22 minutes] with a feeling of intimacy that expresses a very personal statement. Thereafter, the composer’s canvas broadens into something more extrovert and in Digitiphony 2 [39 minutes] the four movements seem to represent a quest of some kind, moving from an underlying Spanish flavour which is later juxtaposed with a more ‘jazzy’ theme that breaks out of the previously formal structure. Digitiphony 3, the longest [60 minutes], sparingly uses subtle sound effects under the music, as mentioned above, which certainly bring another dimension to the piece.
Digitiphony 4 [35 minutes] is entitled ‘Dichotomies’ and each of its four movements has its own title. ‘Life’ is followed by ‘Soul’, which is hauntingly beautiful, then followed by ‘Commerce’, which, amongst other things, to this listener suggests the relentlessness of the printing press, finally followed by ‘Art’, which, quite spontaneously, conjured to mind images by Paul Klee. How does a composer do that?
Digitiphony 5 [44 minutes] is entitled ‘The Five Temperaments’, which is a theory in psychology that expands upon The Four Temperaments proposed in ancient medicine.
Digitiphony 6 [34 minutes] is entitled ‘Folly’ and Digitiphony 7 [40 minutes] is called ‘Afterlives’, and I think it’s true to say that these last two ~ to date ~ have reached a new level of cohesion, maturity and sophistication which implies even more exciting things to come.
There is no doubt that the composer’s vision and expertise in creating a completely original art form is one of the most significant developments in music. Michael Lisle Dunn is a ‘one off’ and will, I’m sure, be a point of reference and a touchstone for other composers in the future.
16 April 2017.
About Richard Howard
Richard Howard's life has brought him into contact with music and art from the very beginning. At the age of 11 he first discovered symphonic music and throughout his teenage years was regularly listening to the symphonies of Shostakovich, Mahler, Vaughan Williams and many others. During this time he also developed a strong interest in fine art. Aged 18, he started working at Pinewood Film Studios, which led to dubbing and working on the soundtracks of some of the classic British movies of the sixties before moving to Twickenham Film Studios. When he first heard the music of Alan Hovhaness, he was struck by its great originality and what he perceived as its potential healing qualities. This led him to catalogue the composer’s vast output, later visiting Hovhaness in Seattle and recording a significant interview with him at his home. [This interview can be read on the official Hovhaness website at www.hovhaness.com] Richard then worked for Hyperion Records where, among other things, he was able to combine his interests in music and fine art and was responsible for choosing appropriate cover pictures for many of their releases. It was while working at Hyperion that he first met Michael Lisle Dunn and became aware of the early Digitiphonies that Michael was then producing. Throughout his life, Richard has explored hundreds of lesser-known composers and spent many thousands of hours listening to a wide range of symphonic music. More recently he has been invited to give presentations to recorded music societies under the auspices of the National Federation of Recorded Music Societies. As a result of a lifetime of rich and varied musical exploration, he has a uniquely informed perspective on the symphonic repertoire. Richard has also published two books of short stories and has a website at www.richard-howard.com
A composer's thoughts
"Since I was at school in the 1970s I have felt schizophrenic in my musical life. My early musical education included learning the violin from the age of 9 and singing in church and cathedral choirs - this latter had a profound musical and spiritual effect on me. However, whilst studying O and A level music in my teens I discovered 'Rock and Roll' and joined a band - my 'classical' music mentors frowned and said it would be 'bad for my ear' (they obviously had not noticed I had two). This was like a red rag to a bull - by that age I was reactionary and rebellious. I redoubled my efforts in the Rock arena and neglected my studies in the Classical arena. By then I was learning the trumpet instead of the violin - one day, in a fit of angst - angry I could not play it like I wanted to - I threw it against a wall (it wasn't even mine), and as a result had my music bursary withdrawn; I failed my Music A level and headed single-mindedly into bands and all that went with them.
The musical schism this created in me has haunted me for the bulk of my career. I hope that writing my first Digitiphony ("Digitiphony" by U. Kay Hytz) has set me on the path towards healing this rift within myself. Musical genres, styles and forms are, after all, a fallible human attempt to know and categorize the unknowable; all illusion. Music is just music - infinite, spiritually essential and uplifting, but always resistant to attempts to exploit, understand or explain it."
m l dunn 2008, before writing Digitiphony 1