Je ne suis qu’un artiste sonore

I’m finally resigned to the fact

Eliane Radigue: Opus 17 – 1970 Keny Arkana – 2017

Each morning, as I do my exercises, I often listen to Café del Mar; I always start with three sets of deep squats. I just feel that once I’ve done those, I can’t really stop and slide out of finishing. Ah, finishing! What should take about half an hour, for someone with ADHD and trying to keep up with my feminist group’s messaging on four or five different platforms means that the natural breaks between sets become a  bit longer as I try to understand the latest initiative: we Witches are nothing if not dedicated and why wouldn’t we be: the patriarchy still needs to be dismantled; to be clear, this is not ‘man bashing’; it is the institution, centuries-old, based on biological distinctions of the differences between men and women, which although self-evident, are no justification for the unequal distribution of power wealth and property between the sexes. Anyway, this wasn’t the theme of this month’s blog.

Why was I exercising? It is a sad fact that as the years go by, it becomes more important to keep in good shape to get the best out of life. So, second question:  why is a woman of my age, classically trained in music, listening to Café de Mar; and wait, there is more to come…? As I flipped through Apple Music, I came across  Keny Arkana, a French rapper and Hip Hop artist from Marseille. I so would love to be her (it would at least take 45 years off my age): Apart from her musical abilities, she’s angry with the system and expresses it with her words and music. In one of her songs, she plays on the idea of Marseille as the city of culture/rupture… In case you were wondering what Keny can do for a woman as she exercises… Beats, baby!!

Before I leave Keny and link myself back to the theme of this month’s blog, I’d like to float an idea of a collaboration with Keny, even if she doesn’t know it yet. In my  March blog, “I always cry on a Sunday” I included a poem, in English translation but originally in French, ‘Translation of a Polish Song’ by Renée Vivien (1903). It’s an extremely violent and angry poem about Renée’s lover Natalie Barney, who had betrayed her. This is one of the songs I have chosen for my song cycle, which is next on my ‘to-do list. For the other songs in the cycle, I envisage using a soprano voice,  whereas for Translation of a Polish Song… one of my ideas was to have a French woman rapper for part, or all of it. So, with a bit of googling, I found Keny. I haven’t asked her yet since I haven’t written anything to date, and I would clearly need a lot of her input to improvise an extension to the poem since a rapper could finish it in 15  seconds… but she would be so perfect.

Anyway, I’m getting to the point of the blog. While exercising to both le crui et le  cuit kinds of music. I started fantasizing that maybe I might produce a couple of  Café del Mar type numbers and make a bit of money; it didn’t seem that hard,  almost formulaic. And then, that’s when it dawned on me…. I can’t do that, I’m not that kind of musician. I’m a sound artist, composer of acousmatic music, and, to boot, very much in the French Tradition. So, the theme is Acousmatic music and how a half-English, half Italian-woman finds herself intellectually between the Alps and the English Channel. I might add, that here in Turin, we are about an hour’s drive from the French border via the Frejus tunnel. Also, the King of Italy’s palaces were in Turin, and, as well as being King of Italy, he was also the Duke of Savoy, a  mountainous region just across the border. Moreover, before the Unification of Italy on 17 March 1861, the nobility of Turin spoke French while others spoke the local dialect, which is francophone in nature. My mother was from Casale Monferrato, 50  miles downriver from Turin; so, the francophone dialect was literally my mother tongue from birth. Maybe those are part of my French credentials…

While at the University of East Anglia in the late seventies my main musical interests turned out to be Early Music and Contemporary Music. In the earlier periods of music history, much of what we know, and that has been handed down to us as tradition, was geographically centered in Europe, and here begins the French  Connection.

Much as I loved English Early music and that of the Italian schools, it was the Notre  Dame school of the 12th and 13th centuries that were my first loves: Léonin and Pérotin,  the latter being a student of the former, were the architects of this transition from Ars  Antiqua to Ars Nova, when the first examples of polyphonic music were sung in the great Parisian Cathedral.

Following on from them, were composers such as Guillaume de Machaut, who wrote the Messe de Nostre Dame around 1365, and following on from him: Guillaume  Dufay and Gilles Binchois, both born around 1400 from the Burgundian School  (Franco-Flemish), took the Ars Nova to new levels of sophistication. One notable  English Composer of this period is John Dunstable who was revered for the  Contenance Angloise style of polyphony, mainly making use of thirds and sixths.  What is interesting about Dunstable was that most of his manuscripts were lost during the dissolution of the monasteries, and yet copies were found in continental  Europe. After these composers, the Renaissance gave us Josquin De Prez, born in  France around 1450 who left us much liturgical music as well as chansons.

So that was a short tour of my French credentials from the Ars Antiqua to the  Renaissance. Of course, I love the Italians as well, Monteverdi, and the infamous  Gesualdo di Venosa who as well as being a noted madrigalist also achieved notoriety for murdering his wife and her lover upon discovering them together.

However, we are SoundGirls! So, let’s laud two women composers of Early Music, not from France, but hey, they are that good. Hildegarde of Bingen, was a German  Benedictine abbess, born around 1098 thus a contemporary of Léonin and Pérotin.  She was a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, and scientific and medical writer. Her sacred music, unlike that of the Notre Dame school was monophonic. But she was a Sound girl and earns her place here…

The other woman composer I want to cite, again not French, is Barbara Strozzi, a  composer of madrigals, who was born in Venice in 1619, towards the end of the  Baroque period. Another Sound Girl who deserves a shout…

Eliane Radigue is my other Sound Girl and inspired a section of my Sylvia Plath composition in which I used feedback, created in the same way she did back in the late 1960s by just holding the microphone in front of the speaker and experimenting.

Turning now to the other great interest of my days at University, I want to briefly talk about my experiences with contemporary music and, in particular, musique concrète. The University had just moved to a new campus and the music department housed a  fully equipped recording studio, conveniently annexed to the concert hall.

As well as Studer tape recorders, 4 monitor speakers each with its own amplification, and a 24 (I think) channel mixing desk, we also had a large reverb plate and two modular Synthesizers, an EMS synthi 100 and a smaller VCS 3. Dolby A units were used to reduce tape hiss, especially since an original recording might be re-recorded many times and signal-to-noise ratio could become a problem. One last feature was the variable speed control for the Studers so that one could manipulate sound through speed changes without it always being half or double speed, creating octave shifts.

All of this would have been nothing were it not for our professor, Denis Smalley.  From New Zealand originally but he had spent time at the Paris Conservatoire studying with Olivier Messiaen and at the GRM studios, also in Paris, where he practiced his art. It was shortly before taking up his post at the University of East  Anglia that he composed one of his most enduring works, and probably the one that got me involved in musique concrète: Pentes composed in 1974 at the Groupe de recherches musicales – Institut national de l’audiovisuel (Ina-GRM), Paris (France)  There is a Spotify link at the end of the blog.

So, my credentials for being a composer of musique concrète, electro-acoustic music, or acousmatic music in the French tradition are simply the fact that everything I learned in the late seventies from Denis Smalley, and most of the examples of music we listened to was from the French School in Paris. Of course, there are other traditions in Germany and America, for example, Stockhausen, and Cage are just two important composers in their tradition. Next month I’ll extend this theme to feature women composers, some also within the LGBTQIA+ community, which covers countries on both sides of the Atlantic, with a couple of examples from Latin America too.

OK, so the story of my being in the French tradition is true for me; that is where my artistic and cultural center of gravity resides. Just today, I followed a link to Lesbiche, Bologna (amusingly abbreviated to Les Bò) for a talk on the French lesbian philosopher and feminist Monique Wittig; the term lesbian is important in this context since it is fundamental to her views on feminism and the heteronormative patriarchy which, she claims, enslaves women. I somehow find French philosophers baffling but, like a moth to a flame, I am inexorably drawn to find out more (earlier I  referred to the styles of music I exercise to as le crui et le cuit – “The Raw and the  Cooked” which is the title of a work by the French Anthropologist, Claude Levi Strauss). So, more French stuff… By the way, if anyone is interested in Wittig’s rather unique views, One is not born a Woman (1981) is the essay to read (If you want to cut to the chase, try the last paragraph pp10/11).

So, I want to continue and finish with: what is acousmatic music on fixed media? And what, if anything, makes it traditionally French?

Acousmatic art is defined by its modes of composition:

Electroacoustic composition, involves microphones, tape recorders, and synthesizers to collect, produce and elaborate sounds that are recorded to tape or hard drives, like a stereo or multichannel recording…

Experience proves that the perception of sound is often linked to and even dominated by the visual aspect of a musical representation, the band on stage, for example. The term Acousmatics reminds us of the way Pythagoras  described his teaching method, behind a curtain, and in the dark, so that his  students could fully concentrate on his words

In acousmatic concerts, music is spatialized by a performer through a multi-speaker device inside the concert hall or outdoors. On stage, the performer uses a mixing board, distributing the component sounds of the piece through an “orchestra” composed of about forty speakers. The apparatus varies according to the venue. Each concert is therefore a unique event that is far more enriching than a simple listening session on a CD.

The spatial interpretation of acousmatic music requires a console for projection/diffusion (fader, multitouch surface, interactive gestures, etc.) which is, in effect, a musical instrument; and its “operator” is a performing musician.  This requires some virtuosity, conditioned by the speaker system chosen, and the ergonomics of the sound projection instrument as well. Also required is a  stylistic knowledge of the repertoire, a simplified graphic representation of the work and how it is to be spatialized, as well as a good musical memory of the piece.

These then, are the main features of acousmatic music, which are not inherently  French. However, in my experience with this art form, I have been mainly within the  French tradition and style. I should also point out that I have also been very influenced by the American minimalists: Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and La  Monte Young. And as I will show next month, there is a new wave of women electroacoustic composers, who have brought the music into the 21st century, not afraid to make use of melody and rhythm when it suits them.

For this last, more technical section, I’ll be drawing on the Treatise on Writing  Acousmatic Music on Fixed Media by Annette Vande Gorne, in which the technical examples are almost wholly of French origin.

What is the source material of electroacoustic composition? My first piece in 2019,  after a 40-year break, was based on a 40-second recording on the Turin Metro; no synthesized sounds were used everything was taken out of the original recording, cut and spliced and processed, looped and stretched, mixed and remixed until, I have a  track, which forms part of the composition. This particular piece, Nine to Five to  Paradise lasts 14 minutes and is available on SoundCloud. I guess we can call it my student piece, in which (almost) everything I needed to do with Adobe Audition and my MacBook Pro to process the sounds and assemble the piece could have been done in my University studio in 1978. Of course, it would have taken me much longer and would not have been so rich in content. On the technical front, digital working makes it possible to copy and recopy ad infinitum without losing fidelity and of course to work in “real-time”; though some processes introduce sonic artefacts, that’s not particularly a digital-only problem.

So, to begin with, one of the sound categories: Accumulation of Corpuscles is similar to the idea of granular synthesis. But in this case, the density of the grains is in growth and can be discerned as such. This example from Denis Smalley’s Wind  Chimes begins with a Percussion and resonance energy and then the accumulation  of grains at around 35”

The term Montage is used to describe cutting and splicing techniques, for example,  removing or changing the attack of a sound, or Delta sounds which involves reversing the clip so that the sound goes from nothing to a crescendo and stops. I  have often joined a forward and reversed clip, and then copied and transposed them, to then mix on separate tracks, out of sync, to create a chordal, fluctuating drone sound. This clip by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, Orphée 51 is reputed to be the first instance of tape being reversed.

The next technique I’d like to highlight is Micro-montage which refers to using extremely short splices in a kaleidoscopic manner to create a splice of about 15 – 20”  which can further be copied, remixed, and so on. The recommendation in a tape studio is a minimum splice of 1 -1.5 cm which is equivalent to 26 – 40 ms sound. This is extremely tricky and slow with tape and would need a good number of splices to create a loop long enough to be recorded so that one could start mixing down to more complex and dense structures. It is much easier to do digitally, but still a painstaking job. The clip below is CCCP by Jon Appleton, recorded in 1974

It’s not possible in this blog to cover all techniques, so we’ll move on to considering combining sounds and sequences. Of the three main categories: Fusion, which is what I often do successively to create drones is mixing two so that they sound like one but richer, perhaps. Superposition by complementarity where each layer is recognizable, as a kind of duet. Rejection, of which I shall be making a great deal of use in my present work is where one layer masks another, and by gradually unmasking, the underlying, previously submerged sound is revealed, giving the impression that one is growing out of the other. In my present work, I am

constructing a drone of about 12 to 16 voices, and over a time period, by using this technique of unmasking, the internal color of the drone will change but imperceptibly. Veil by Paul Dolden illustrates this point clearly, you must, however,  listen to the end of the clip to get the magic of this simple technique. I think it’s fairly obvious that, in this case, both sounds need to share qualities for it to make musical sense; though this does not preclude making use of other ‘surprise’  elements.

In another section, where different forms of combining sequences of sounds are discussed, mixing three or more chains moves on to feature polyphonies where a  distinction is drawn between using similar soundtracks to weave a texture which is likened to a Jackson Pollock and in the examples I want to look at, the juxtaposition of sound colors which is likened to a stained glass window or mosaic.

The first example is from the 13th century: Celui sur qui from the Montpelier Codex as an example of how each change of note of the cantus fermus, drawn from  Gregorian chant seems to occupy its own world. And at the change of each long note with its melismas floating above, we seem to be in a different musical place.  On a personal note, I went into raptures at the end of the clip hearing that gentle discord (01:16) resolve so gracefully; it took me completely by surprise.

François Bayle’s Grande Polyphonie certainly deserves its stained-glass mosaic  epithet for the colors it evokes

The mix, so far of my acousmatic piece, EDGE ILYSP. Tracks 23, 25, and 26 show splices put at the front of each drone to provide an attack out of which grows the drone.

The last section deals with transformation techniques within the five domains of frequency, spectre, amplitude, time, and space. We shall barely touch on space since it deserves a lengthy section to itself, and we have already discussed briefly the performative aspect of using space by sending the sound around the auditorium.

With regard to playing with time, repetition is a foundational element of musique concrète. However, how to reconcile repetition and variation is contingent on the synergy that flows from sounds that work with, or sometimes against each other.  Playing two loops with similar sounds but of uneven length so that the out of sync  creates novel sounds as sound waves beat against each other in seemingly never-ending variation

Repetition, but slowly evolving to create timelessness is a technique used by minimalists, as in this example by Steve Reich: Desert Music. Despite the semblance of stasis, even in this short clip; comparing the beginning of the repetitive phrases with those at the end of the clip clearly evinces the evolution of the repeated calls.

I am finishing off with the briefest of brief hints at sound diffusion and spatialization for two reasons. First, I have been experimenting with ambisonics and possibly preparing my piece for 16-channel diffusion. Second, I have a nostalgic link with this piece by Pierre Henry which we listened to, as a class, during our studies with Denis  Smalley. Variations pour une porte et un soupir, (Variations on a squeaky door and a  sigh) is a classic of Electroacoustic music. In 25 short movements: this section is a  biphonic dialogue, crafted from mono sources.

Link to Pentes composed in 1974 by Denis Smalley

A side note to Pentes. It was recently performed on Friday 6th of May in Brussels,  Belgium, alongside other Classiques de l’acousmatique.

Link to Nine to Five to Paradise composed by Francesca Caston aka Frà paradise?utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

Next month, I want to celebrate experimental composers and music makers who are women or from the LGBTQIA+ community.

But for now: Buondì da Torino 




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