Tuesday, April 19, 2016

serra da estrela diaries #02: ideas and materials for a new work

Here I continue a series of texts about my artistic residency that took place in February and March 2016 in the Festival Dias de Música Electroacústica , with the support of Programa Ibermúsicas. The main result of this resindency was the composition and première of the work diáspora, for quartet and electronic sounds. Se also the prior posts here: #00, #01.

Concept of diaspora and the behaviour of sound materials
The Greek word diaspora, which may be understood as dispersion, was chosen more than 2000 years ago in Alexandria to refer to the dispersion of Jewish people in the ancient world, when Jewish sacred texts originally written in aramaic and hebrew were translated into Greek, the official language of those days. Until the 19th Century, that aception of this word seems to have been dominant. However, since last century it is more and more widespread a more generalized use of this word, referring to the dispersion of any people beyond the limits of their original territory. Nowadays one refers to diasporas of people from Africa, Asia, Europe, America, etc.
February, 2016. When I arrived in Portugal, the "refugee crisis in Europe" was all over the omnipresent television sets in restaurants and cafés: a great amount of people fleeing from a complicated situation in the Middle East. Even though may don't understand (ou don't want to) the issue on a broader context, leading to incidents of prejudice, xenophoby and intolerance, a more retrospective and broad glance reveals this phenomenom of big populational migrational is not new. 
In a not so distant example, the first half of the 20th century saw many European migrate to the Americas due to difficult times faced in their homelands. In the specific case of Portugal, it is a country that nowadays has a very high emmigration rate compared to other countries in Europe. Historically, the Portuguese diaspora is observer since at the time of the "age of discovery"  in 15th and 16th centuries. Personally, even the family of my father is part or a big migration wave in the 1960s. 

A diaspora produces distance, but also produces new encounters. It is noticeable in American countries, whose ethnic complexity results from encouters of individuals of very different origins, in many cases unlikely to occur in their home countries (though it is necessary not to romanticize such encounters, many of them taking places in multiple contexts of oppression and explicit or implicit violence). This idea sounded attractive to me.

Behavior of sound materials
To tell the truth, I don't have much interest in imposing a "literary" narrative or forcing symbolic associations that in general sound to me as completely alien to the music itself. An imagetic, metaphorical, poetical etc. background though is fruitful as a way to think the possible constitution of sound materials and their interrelationships. This requires a transmutation of the more metaphorical discourse into actual musical elements. But once the materials are established in their sonic concreteness, metaphores or narratives are put aside and a more abstract musical play is put in motion. Poetical hints remain just as some diffuse suggestion to the public in the appreciation of the work.

Two typologies of sound material were developed: a first one extremely concentrated, both in register as in energy and a second one more rarefied and disperse, criating several intermediate situations, exploring contrasts and ambiguities. The first material appears right at the beginning of the piece, as we see depicted below. Rapid figures, mostly with reduced ambitus and quasi chromatic, mostly placed in the cello part. Those figures undergo modifications during the piece, as well in harmonic as temporal density.

  diáspora's score. Measures 1-3.
On the other hand, the second material seeks textural rarefaction, both in temporal aspect as in the dispersion of pitches along a broad register, seeking wider resonances. If the first material highlights the cello part, the second develops around the piano, favoring the listening of resonance. The picture below depicts a soloist moment by the piano, in which the pitches are widely spread (note the octave-above sign in the firt line's clef and an octave-below sign in the third line), as well as a relatively rarefied distribution of attacks.

diáspora's score. Measures 93-95.
Along the piece, those materials end up transforming and mutually influencing each other, seeking to renovate the intest of the listener, through deviations and imprevisibilities.

Conceiving the electronic part

Relationship between electronic sound and instrumental parts also benefits from the logic of concentration and dispersion. There is some ambivalence: at the same time electronic sounds are disperse in an eight-channel space, but also ends up densifying the sound texture, concentrating more sound events inside the same time span.

Five electraocoustic textures are triggered along the piece, all consisting of pre-recorded instrumental sounds. All programming was done inside de SuperCollider environment, employing mainly three objects (SynthDef, Routine and Pattern), as is described here in a simplified way:

Each SynthDef (or synthesizer definition”) plays specific samples from a specific file folder, corresponding to samples of each instrument (violin, violoncelo, piano, bass clarinet), and plays them back with some possible manipulations.

Each of the five electroacoustic texture corresponds then to a Routine, triggered by a MIDI controller in exact moments indicated in the instrumental score. In turn, each  Routine is subdivided into a sequence of Patterns, that establish how the SynthDefs are to be played (which pitches or chords, durations, distribution in audio channels, etc.), mixing determined sequences with random variations inside groups of values.

Something interesting about this programming is that even though several aspects are predetermined (triggering moments, total duration and temporal subdivisions and pitches), several internal details are not. In other words, values are calculated for global effects that are always similar (certain "clouds" of sound, with identifiable gerenal contours), but there is some impredictability in the textures, programmed inside the Patterns

[...to be continued in the next post...]

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

serra da estrela diaries #01: writing a new piece for quartet and electronic sounds

After a first week in Portugal more centered on public appearances (see prior post), a more introspective stage took place: the composition of a new piece for instrumental ensemble and electronic sound (main purpose of my artistic residency in the Festival Dias de Música Electroacústica with the kind support of Programa Ibermúsicas). Since the moment of writing the initial project for this residency
, there was no intent to determine an exact instrumentation prior to my arrival in Seia. Though it is hard to evaluate to what extent this choice was productive for the compositional process, I wanted to establish an initial relationship with the Conservatoire's professors. So it would be possible to talk to each one and check out who would be both available and willing to embark in this challenge of rehearsing and performing a brand new piece that was still to be written.

Pre-compositional planning: harmonic material

Before deciding the instrumental set-up of the piece, I started sketching some more abstract pre-compositional materials. This way, some paths to be trodden by the music could be outlined, before starting to write the actual score. Harmonic material and formal proportions were the first elements to be developed. An approach similar to the one I've been exploring in some pieces since the trio resto do incêndio (2013) was chosen. 

Thus an intervallic matrix that intercalates fixed and moving intervals was built, generating 12 sequences of 50 notes each. The first of these sequences is depicted in the example below:

It's worth observing the two last notes in the sequence repeat the two first ones, indicating that the process is starting a new identical loop from now on. To avoid this, the fixed interval grows by one semitone while the moving intervals are kept the same. This way the second sequence will have the major second as a fixed interval; the third one, a minor third; the fourth one a major third and so on (procedures like these I call “harmonic LFO”, as a reference to the Low Frequency Oscillators present in many electronic synthesizers to produce fluctuations in sound with speeds below 20hz). Something that is musically interesting is that the interval chosen as the first of the moving intervals becomes a characteristic sonority that helps articulate the piece. In resto do incêndio (2013), the minor third was the first interval; in memorial do granito (2015) for piano and electronic sounds, it was the minor third; in rasgada [pocket poems] (2015), for voice and violin, the major second. For this new piece the minor second was the sonority to be explored (characterizing quick almost-chromatic gestures, which are particularly present in the cello part).


Another aspect: formal proportions


Temporal distribution of harmonic content is another important feature in the planning of my pieces. Generally, time proportions of my compositions are organized via the manipulation of prime numbers. Making a long story extremely short, prime number interest me mainly for being rational elements (numbers, abstract quantities) which in some sense resist their complete aprehension by reason. From a mathematical point of view, they are present in so far unsolves problems such as the Riemann hipothesis (which we won't detail here). In a musical context, prime number are capable of generating very interesting irrgularities, that despite being calculated generate some imprevisibilty in perception. For example,  listening to two following musical phrases,  being one 13 beats long and the other 11 beats long, our listening tries to find simmetry, which eventually escapes, as if there was a slight distortion in our expectations. The strategy of organizing divisions and subdivisions in several scales of the musical form using prime numbers has been very productive and rich in possibilities in my music in the last years. The first piece to experiment extensively on prime numbers was liederschaflich (2008), scored for violin and piano, being since them a recurring element in most of my works. From 2013 on, the possibility of creating "formal accidents" caught my attention, producing deviations in prime number sequences caused by random scrambling (though these are relatively simple procedures, often they are done electronically, for quickness and ease of repeating). Nevertheless, chance operations are never given too much authority. I don't refrain from repeating the procedure if the obtained results seem inappropriate or making arbitrary modifications in results, accordingly to more intuitive musical criteria (it is interesting that after some years working with number sequences, one develops an "ear" for them). Thus there is no magical belief that chance procedures may bring better or worse results. They are just external stimuli introduced in my compositional process that many times suggest me paths outside of inertial habits one acquires as experience in some activity is accumulated. 

Assembling the musicians

Parallel to those more abstact speculations, talking to the Ensemble DME musicians led me to this lineup: Carlos Silva (bass clarinet), Hugo Passeira (piano), José Pedro Sousa (cello) and Ludovic Afonso (violin). Still there were two functions to be carried out: conduct the ensemble and trigger the electronic sounds that were to be programmed.

[...to be continued in the next post...]