Frank McCarty—Compositions


Alphabetical Listing

Compositions by Medium

SCRATCH - for Fifteen Violins and Penumbrae (1974) [31:57]
mixed styles style

Solo Violin, tape and lights

Soundlib Press


A "history" and collection of music and myths about the violin.

Program Note:
SCRATCH for fifteen Violins and Penumbrae (1974) (for solo violin, tape and lights) is a theatrical solo-ensemble composition written for and with the violinist, Patricia Shafer Strange. It received its formal world premiere in New York City at a Composers' Forum concert in December of 1974 and was subsequently heard throughout the USA as well as in Europe. It is not, however, simply a musical composition and it is much more than a concert piece. Its live performance features theatrical lighting (thus the penumbrae) and blocking; the solo performer both plays and acts. The piece itself is about the violin: its acoustical sound, its history, its many styles of performance, and its appearance (often in different physical forms) in various world cultures. It contains certain aspects of symbolism and probes the ascribed metaphors, surrounding lore, and wide-ranging traditions of the instrument. Some of its images depict the violin both as the instrument of the angels and as the instrument of the devil, "old Scratch" himself. Unlike the French concrète style and its abstract use of noises, SCRATCH is an assemblage of musical sounds. Its compositional intention is actually "biographical."

This work is neither committed nor opposed to any given musical style or technique. In point of fact, the piece is hardly "original" in any sense. Rather, it employs a wide variety of existing string music for its basic materials. I composed with these styles, often in collage. SCRATCH is broadly and spontaneously referential, using techniques not unlike those of Joycean "stream of consciousness". Likewise, the performer moves between many different performance styles drawn from historical, ethnic, popular and classical contexts; the instrument is both a violin and a fiddle. Patricia had to master such (for her) new techniques as (1) medieval vielle-style, (2) historical Baroque playing, (3) folk and Bluegrass fiddling, (4) the Gypsy mode, and (5) a bit of blues and rock. From within her own sphere of experiences, Pat had also to differentiate between such styles as (1) pristine classical, (2) syrupy romantic, (3) conventional and extended modernism, and (4) junk-yard grunge. For any violinist, the ability to convincingly produce and quickly shift between such an array of differences demands an awesome level of virtuosity.

My collaboration with Pat Shafer actually began in the mid-'60s when she was a student in my sophomore music theory class and her husband to-be, Allen Strange, was my graduate assistant. Now, from a 35 year retrospective, I know that Pat has one of two or three best ears of any student I ever taught. By the end of the decade, Pat, Allen and I were fellow students in the avant-garde Music Department at UC San Diego. Later, together with my former wife, Marilyn, we formed the live-electronic music and theatre ensemble, BIOME, which performed throughout the USA and in Europe as well. Pat's masters thesis, at UCSD, was a study of contemporary extended violin techniques while SCRATCH began its life there as my doctoral dissertation.

As I recall, t took around a year to compose SCRATCH. The score, over 70 pages in length, was hand-copied, ink on vellum. But this recording has taken, all in all, over a quarter-century to complete! The piece, around thirty minutes in length with no possible or logical breaks, could not have fit on one side of a long-playing record. Also, I was always dissatisfied by the overall character of the accompanimental tape, even though it had been made three different times. As the project became more frustrating and expensive, it was relegated to the furthest back-burner. After all, I always had new commissions to fulfill, but that burner has been re-visited many times over the years.

In 1974, I first produced two separate and complex channels of click-tracks, (one passage required 130 against 131 beats!) for the fourteen tracks to be recorded. These cue-tracks contained three levels of click-sounds to represent beats, bars, and major sections. Verbal cues were also used to control entrances and exits in improvised textures. For the recording Pat wore headphones in order to monitor both a given set of clicks and other, selected previously recorded parts. It is important to understand that Pat played all fourteen accompanimental tracks for a total of over seven running hours of music. And, we recorded all of the parts on two different occasions.

We made the first accompanimental tape in 1974 in the 8-channel studio of our friend, David Porter. At the time, that was the largest number of tape tracks available to us. Single tracks had to be pre-mixed and bounced to accommodate the limitation of track numbers. The result was less than perfect, but the price was right. In 1979, we produced a new version of the parts. By then, Dave owned a new studio with a 24-channel machine and a much more professional environment. I was able to employ more special recording and sound-processing techniques for the wide variety of effects and "other instruments" previously slighted or ignored. The mix was then produced over a two week period. This work entailed myself and three other individuals who manually controlled fourteen separate faders as well as other knobs and switches on the recording console. With many rehearsals and re-takes we completed a stereo master of the accompanimental tape. Unfortunately, it still seemed imperfect; there were just too many variables for manual control.

Ten years later, a North Carolina Artist Fellowship allowed me the opportunity to return to the project. My first order of business was to transfer the 24-channel analog tape to digital format. I was amazed by the sound-quality of the ten-year old master. The mix used a computer-controlled "flying faders" board. We set equalization, mutes and gains about the first half of the piece, and produced a digital stereo recording before the money ran out. But it still wasn't "perfect" - back-burner time, again!

Then, in 1992, I procured a digital sound editor/mixer for my home studio. Since the piece was already in digital format, I had it transferred, channel by channel to DAT tapes. These, in turn, could be loaded into my computer, resynchronized, and mixed in my own available time. The next step was a new concert performance. Pat, having returned to the piece after more than ten years, brought added insight and maturity to the solo part. We made a few minor adjustments and, following the performance, produced a digital recording of the solo. Since then, various other projects and problems kept the piece from being finished for a yet a few more years. During that time, however, I often returned to it, making adjustments in the accompanimental parts to the newly recorded solo. And now, finally, SCRATCH is complete.