Never the Same

Composer John Supko creates carefully calibrated, utterly unpredictable music that requires listeners to confront ambiguity.
February 13, 2013

When the Swiss-based group ensemBle baBel began planning its headline presentation for the 20 Heures de Musiques-Romont music festival this past fall, it first considered performing a work by avant-garde French composer Erik Satie, whose abstract, minimalist works have inspired artists ranging from John Cage and Philip Glass to Coldplay and Lana del Ray. The piece, a short but challenging piano composition titled Vexations, was ostensibly meant to be played 840 times in succession, although some scholars question whether Satie, who collaborated with the Dadaists and Surrealists, was joking.

Rather than take on the vexing Vexations, the ensemble reached out to John Supko, the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of music at Duke. Trained as a classical composer, Supko had branched out into other forms of music, including multilayered, computer-assisted compositions that rely on what he calls “tuned randomness.” His works have garnered international attention, including the BMI Student Composer Award, two ASCAP/Morton Gould Young Composers awards, and the Grand Prize of the National Young Composers Competition. He’s also a student of Satie, having written his doctoral dissertation on Satie’s work.

“Satie and his contemporaries embraced the idea that a composition or piece of writing could be challenging or unpredictable, instead of creating art to fulfill the expectations of an audience,” he says. “Such works often require people to confront ambiguity and to derive their own meaning from it.”

Take note: Supko with sheet music from his original composition "Inland Ocean" for string quartet (Credit: Les Todd)

Supko’s computer-generated compositions are created meticulously. He claims he is not a technology expert, but he writes computer code and uses the Max/MSP software program to set parameters for tempo, rhythm, and harmony. The process sometimes relies on Markov chains, a statistical model of randomness that is used in everything from chemistry and physics to baseball and game theory. Supko adds excerpts from existing works from the classical canon, spoken word clips, poetry, odd noises, and other ephemera to the mix, depending on the atmosphere he’s hoping to create.

This past September, in the cold, predawn stillness of a Swiss morning, the sixperson ensemBle baBel began playing Supko’s Usine (“factory” in French). The work consisted of two musical cycles (one in b-flat minor and one in g minor) that ran on ninety-second loops. On top of that tonal foundation, a carefully calibrated, but randomly chosen, assortment of computer- generated sounds emerged. There were fragments of works by Ravel and Mozart, snippets of interviews with Surrealists André Breton and Philippe Soupault, odd bleep-blaps of noise. The resulting loops emerged from the nearly 24 million different combinations of sounds possible.

Against this ever-changing aural landscape, the musicians responded with their own interpretations of the score and instructions from Supko they had in front of them, as well as constantly adjusting to what they were hearing the computer do. Supko designed Usine to be performed with at least two musicians at any given time, so as the electric guitarist or bass clarinet player took a break, for example, the composition morphed yet again.

Curious listeners dropped in for twenty minutes or so; others stayed for five- or ten-hour stretches. Supko was there, taking note of how his creation took flight, changed direction, dodged and weaved toward unforeseen destinations. He’ll be there again this April, when ensemBle baBel performs Usine in Amsterdam, and in July when it’s performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He has (almost) no idea what to expect.