John de Simone (1974)
Deus Ex Machina, for String Quartet and Octachord, 2004*
- Commissioned by the Fonds van de Scheppende Toonkunst = The Dutch Fund of the Creation of Dutch music-.

When offered the chance to write a piece for string quartet and octachord, the title Deus ex Machina sprang to mind instantly. It refers to my profound geekiness rather than any classical education I might have had. This is because the phrase has been adopted by the internet sci-fi community, who regularly use it to criticise a bad episode of, for example, Star Trek Voyager. A common usage would be something along the lines of ‘…that episode sucked big time. The time travel reset at the end of the ep was so Deus Ex…’

The more I thought about the octachord, the more it felt like the right time in my life to write the ‘science fiction piece’ that the comic book guy inside of me had wanted to write for some time. Also the idea of a futuristic machine, made out of mechanics more than electronics, called to mind the science fiction b-movies of the 1950s. So I offer this piece as homage to both the golden age of sci-fi and to my own misspent idle youth.

The main challenge in writing for the octachord is the very static nature of the instrument. It likes to produce trance inducing, lush harmonic waves which don’t combine easily with the more dynamic force of the string quartet (associated as it is with Beethoven, Bartok and genius in general).

The unpredictability of the instrument can also be problematic. It is naturally suited to an improvisational performance technique as there are no marked pitches, rendering notation useless. This is in stark contrast to the controlled precision of a string quartet, with its four players who have spent years perfecting their cohesion as an ensemble. Moreover, I am at my happiest when writing notes and being in control of all parameters.

To the problem of how to create common ground between both parties my solution was to write a dramatic, programmatic piece where both sides have distinct roles. The strings play their note music, the octachord gets to produce its harmonic waves, and I try to keep control of everything.

The piece takes the form of a series of tableaus:

1. Panic on Planet Earth
2. Aliens Arrive
3. The Death Ray
4. Earth Vs Aliens
5. Doomsday Bomb (Deus Ex)

Featuring: Mondriaan Quartet as the Earthlings and The Octachord as the Alien Menace

Text: John de Simone

John de Simone - biography
John de Simone was born in Aylesbury in 1974. In 1993 he began to compose whilst studying the tuba at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. He continued his education at Cardiff University, progressing to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and finally to the Royal Academy of The Hague, under Anthony Powers, Robert Saxon, Bilius van Bergeijk and Martijn Padding. In 2000 he founded the ensemble m.use. and in addition to his compositions for this group, has taken commissions from Ensemble de Ereprijs, Slagwerkgroep Den Haag and the Aurelia Saxophone Quartet.

Robert Pravda and the Octachord
Robert Pravda was born on 26 December 1967 in Novi Sad, in the former Yugoslavia. Since 1997 he has been living in the Netherlands, working in the Interfaculty- Image and Sound Department at the Royal Academy of The Hague.
His early experiments with sound installation and instrument construction lead to the monochord, a three metre long string, played by electro-magnets. It was exhibited in the New Metropolis museum in Amsterdam as part of the Monteverdi Festival in 1998.
Pravda designed the octachord in 2001, with help from Jo Scherpenisse and Lex v.d. Broek, both electronic engineers from the Sonology Department at the Royal Academy of The Hague. This ground-breaking acoustic instrument features eight long strings, each housed in a tube and vibrated at both ends by an electric motor. In the centre of each string is a bridge that can be moved via midi control, allowing the octachord to create constantly changing harmonic soundscapes, rhythmic pulses and glissandi. The sounds produced are amplified by a large resonating box at the base of the instrument.
The octachord was first presented at Haagse Hoogeschool in 2001 as part of ENHANCE, a music theatre piece created in collaboration by students of composition, sonology and singing. This Contemporary Music Network tour represents the first UK outing for the instrument.
Pravda’s other recent projects include an outdoor sound installation for Gala de la Haye, a piece called XorC for four Commodor 64 personal computers (performed at the Sonic Acts Festival at the Paradiso in Amsterdam) and Out of Data, a live electronica project.