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PORTAL on PBS - looking back on the most extraordinary Sound Barrier yet.

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Luke Jaaniste performs PORTAL on PBSLuke Jaaniste performs PORTAL on PBS
Last week's edition of The Sound Barrier was, even against the backdrop of a show that always seeks out the extraordinary in music, extraordinary.

For the first time ever, the show comprised only one work – a single piece of music performed live and uninterrupted in the PBS studio. On a four-hour show, that in itself is remarkable and, indeed, as far as I have been able to find out, record-setting.

But it was not just the colossal length that made this piece, and therefore this edition of The Sound Barrier, so hugely impressive. It was what happened in those four hours, as composer and sonic artist Luke Jaaniste slowly, almost imperceptibly, crafted continuously regenerating sounds out of his phalanx of nine Yamaha Portasound keyboards.

In the pre-show blog I told you a little bit about the whole concept behind Luke's ongoing PORTAL project, where he invites you to explore with him the sounds of multiple keyboards, where repetition and change embrace one another, where arpeggiators and drones provide the building blocks of musical edifices, where micro shifts in rhythm and pitch, from one instrument to the next, create an ever-changing, ever-regenerating journey into sound.

In this, Luke's longest yet performance version of PORTAL, nine keyboards – arranged in three sets of three identical keyboards – were each set to play rapidly repeating diatonic arpeggios throughout the entire four hours. And then, once in almost every thirty seconds – that is, over four hundred times throughout the piece – Luke would introduce a new sound here or there on one of those keyboards. Perhaps a chord would change. Perhaps a keyboard would drop out or be added in. Perhaps the EQ settings would be shifted a little.

But always the essential elements were the same – simple white note arpeggios of simple major or minor diatonic triads, built out of simple early 1980s electronic keyboard sounds.

And yet the complexity of rhythms, harmonies, pitches and colours that emerged in this constantly changing soundscape were nothing short of staggering. If you listen back to it on the show's audio archive, you will get a sense of what I mean.

It became one of the most immersive musical experiences I have had and, as those sounds swept me up and carried me along on their chugging, breathless ride, I noticed things that I didn't expect to notice. Like the way the rhythms are always shifting from sparkling, effervescing bubbles to almost motorik, dance-like beats, as the different keyboards come in and out of synch with one another. Or the way the sound density thickened or thinned, sometimes without warning, as the instruments momentarily aligned. Or the ways the tones change so that at times you could swear it was an orchestra you are listening to. You can hear a flute here, a cello there, clarinets and brass somewhere else, electric guitars and banjos yet somewhere else. And then keyboards again.

It is, as Luke himself explains when we talk about the music for a couple of minutes at the end, sort of like a live synthesis – simple sonic elements being shaped into new and complex sounds just by the way Luke brings them together, on top of one another, bending each other's spectral resonance, just as a synthesiser does to its sine waves.

It's a piece of music that you can hear in lots of ways, and Luke encourages you to do this. You can sit down and totally absorb yourself in it, and focus on nothing else but it, for its entire duration (that's my preference!); or you can have it on in the background while you do other things; or let yourself drift off to sleep with it playing softly around you; or you could wander in and out of it, leaving it to do its thing while you dash out to walk the dog or get the paper and come back to hear where it's up to.

The last of these yields its own surprises. You can get a sense of that quite simply by moving the slider along on the audio file from one position to another in the piece, and you will notice how drastically the sounds change throughout – something that is extremely subtle, almost imperceptible much of the time, when you listen to the work in one single concentrated go.

It took four hours to set up for this performance. Luke and I arrived at the studio at 10.00 PM and from then, right up until the very final couple of seconds before the show went to air at 2.00 AM, when Luke was frantically grabbing the studio's wall clock and placing it somewhere where he could more easily see its second hand to mark those thirty-second intervals at which he would change something on the keyboards, we were getting things ready: testing levels and configurations; experimenting with settings on the huge mixing console, kindly lent to us by the wonderful D.a.Calf, the man behind The Book of Ships; dragging in tables from wherever we could find them; working out how to get all the cables to reach where they had to go, and how to place every one of those nine keyboards and that huge mixer, so that Luke could change whatever note, whatever chord, whatever setting he needed to without sending the whole thing smashing to the floor.

It was hard work, but it worked and the results somehow stretched far beyond those four hours of its performance. There is a sense of being engulfed by a strange eternity in this piece: an eternity that is mesmerising, even meditative, but at the same time invigorating, bursting with unbridled energy. It's music that seems to go on forever and yet, when it finishes, you wonder where all the time went.

PresentingThe Sound Barrier is an enormous privilege for me but, even so, nothing I have done yet has matched the huge thrill of being able to be part of bringing this historic performance and broadcast to you, and to be part of the experience of its creation. It was something that Luke first suggested to me about a year ago. We've been planning it off and on ever since. It was unbelievably exciting to be there in the PBS studio, at last turning up the fader as that first, arresting arpeggio hit the airwaves.

I urge you to listen and then to listen again.

Well done, Luke Jaaniste!

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