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.

[ be continued in the next post...]

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