Ein MusiCoSlisches Opfer *

Nov 8 2013 


Ein MusiCoSlisches Opfer

How shall we place the audience?

This was not a rhetoric question and, strange as it might sound, it has not been a minor aspect when organizing this concert. The, perhaps, unusual setting for the first part, and the needed re-adjustment of the seats during the pause being the better compromise we have managed, and may well serve as an index of the complexity we were facing.

The pieces that you will listen to here tonight are part of the musical production of an artistic research project, The Choreography of Sound (CoS). Our lab has been this hall, the Ligeti Hall at Mumuth, and much energy during the time of research has been concentrated almost exclusively on the hall, its possibilities and circumstances. The Ligeti Hall, with its different types of speaker structures, and its computer controlled telescopic system of speakers, offers many possibilities and to know it and to master it has been a pleasure and an effort.

The musical pieces during our work in the project were not thought with an audience in mind, everything in their conception was only focused on the need to bring forth the idea, within the possibilities and the limitations that the hall was posing. In a certain sense you are not coming into a concert hall but into the kitchen of our research, which does not bring any other problem than this very pragmatic at the level of production. Let us be clear, you are not attending an experiment but a concert of musical productions based on experiments and research. Artistic Research will communicate its results and its findings, its experiments and conclusions through text, software or technology, but there is an important part of the achieved knowledge which can only be shared through the artwork, through our senses, in our case, by listening to the music.

What I have just exposed, no doubt, accounts in a way for the difficulty to present together a number of these pieces, but the most important reason beyond that, is the fact that every piece in the concert focuses on a different configuration of the loudspeakers at the hall, and each one of these configurations suggests a different placement as ideal location for the audience. From one in which every person might stand at ease anywhere in the hall –Skying–, to another which demands a rather rigid disposition at clear cut zones within it –Topoi.

The important noteworthy aspect to underline is that the loudspeakers setup, sometimes invisible, sometimes extremely present, has become a part of the composition of each piece, not only through the design and careful adjustment of its external configuration, but also through the multiple varied ways from which it is approached at by the composition.

Traditionally, in electroacoustic concert music, other than for certain effects looking for reflections or a diffuse sound quality, loudspeakers have always been placed looking at the audience, like in the old baroque theatre, were the characters would always address the audience as a sign of respect and/or for intelligibility. As we know, our perceptual mechanisms are able to decode whether a group of people are talking to each other somewhere, or looking in our direction addressing us directly, and understand the situation and understand them in each case. Electraoacoustic music may profit from these nuances to help create groupings, entities made of many and even combine them with others. The loudspeakers setup becomes, seen from this light, a network of potential relationships. Not only one set of relationships but as many as we can create/discover. I have spent much time looking at one or other setup, seeing relations, sometimes slightly modifying it.

The Choreography of Sound has been a project about the spatial dimension of musical sound. We wanted to approach space in electracoustic music from a compositonal rather than a technological perspective. Within the project the most important motor of research in my work is what we, in our internal jargon, have named as The Plastic Sound Object. The first idea was to conceive musical sound as a compositional entity with inherent spatial properties tightly knitted with all other aspects of its constitution. Musical sound would therefore have spatial extension, would occupy space : as a segment, a surface, or as a body. In order to achieve such a spatial extension it needs to lean on one, two or three-dimensional structures where speakers would occupy their nodes. If that was possible, if the intimate link between qualitative aspects and spatial ones was well built, we would perhaps be able to achieve the illusion of the perception of materiality, sound with the corporality of a plastic object. 

Sound, however, is more like a fluid than like a solid, it unfolds in time, its temporal dimension being an essential part of its perception. Hence in our work with the spatial dimension an enormous care has had to go into all temporal evolutions. Designing behaviours and micro-behaviours, patterns of gesture events at many temporal levels, even if subliminal, have resulted in an essential aspect to bring forth the idea of plastic sound. We have to convey to perception that these elements are together and those apart, that these are defining through their movements an internal space, and we have to provide enough clues so that perception might understand it so.

The Choreography of Sound (CoS), funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF (PEEK AR41), was co-authored by Gerhard Eckel and myself and has counted with the collaboration in the research team of David Pirro and Martin Rumori. CoS has been running from September 2010 to September 2013. In a way this is its deferred last presentation. CoS has had different presentations along its time, all of them mostly for  “inner” circles : institutional partners, researchers, composers. Being extremely grateful for these extraordinary three years, I felt I wanted to end my stay by giving back something, and nothing better could I offer than the music I have been producing along this time. KUG/IEM/Signale have, in their turn, offered me the opportunity to make this concert a reality. 

L’islander (2013)

The concert opens with a piece which is an offspring of another piece of mine – L’isla des Neumas (2007) – a sound installation piece commissioned by the Koldo Mitxelena Museum in San Sebastian which has been an important reference on my path towards the CoS project. It is for this reason that I wanted to have it present one way or other in this concert. The good excuse came when thinking on having a shorter, lighter piece to open the concert, a piece that would invite the audience into a mode of listening, which develops further along the concert.

L’isla des Neumas is an auto-generative piece producing an infinite flow of sound, exploring possible combinations of “sound surfaces” rendered on the virtual truncated pyramid delimited by seven speakers – four high up on the vertices of a rectangle, and three down below, on the vertices of a small triangle. It is both for its algorithmic nature as for its exploration of sound-surfaces that the piece was important for me as a reference on the conception of the project. Somehow, the openness of the algorithmic is akin to the required openness of the performable, an idea I wanted and still want to explore in the future.

Making mine a Cage-ian reasoning, I think the clue to build a structure of algorithms ruling the development of a musical flow, is not to know the answers but to formulate the right questions. Once done, to listen to its output is in a way something like improvising on the piano letting the imagination flow : musing while savouring sound qualities and combinations of them, analyzing details, capturing ideas.

I had previously used L’isla des Neumas as the basis for the composition of a piece. In that case, Toiles en l’Air (2008), commissioned by the Essl Museum, the basis was more like an excuse, and the compositional activity, introducing fresh elements and sections, was much more developed and refined.  With L’islander, on the contrary, I wanted somehow to preserve, so to speak, the freshness of the algorithmic output.  Of course, I have modified, polished and retouched some aspects of the output – L’isla des Neumas breadth is of another dimension than that which L’islander pretends – but I have verily kept aside as much as possible.

Skying (2012)

The Sky has been the project’s nickname for the constellation of speakers included in the Ligeti Hall as a Virtual Room Acoustics System. It consists of 36 small speakers plus 8 small sub-woofers on the ceiling, looking downwards, and 28 similar speakers high up on the walls placed horizontally. It was a most interesting challenge to master this very special set of 72 speakers, which in itself is a rather unique feature of this hall. Assigning a very special weight to the vertical spatial dimension – crucial, in my belief, for the suggestion of plasticity – to know the “sky” was of utmost importance.

Our first trials left us with a certain feeling of frustration. Apparently, for all listeners not located right below the speakers playing, the feeling of localized space was extremely vague, and for those below, too precise and very physical. Not very promising in the first instance. Obviously, a gestural broad movement of a point source through the "sky" would clearly be perceivable, but that was not of our interest. We had to search how to approach the sky through those peculiarities, and the idea of the unstable, of the ever changing popped up in our way.

The image of a fresco ceiling artist, combined with the idea of physicality and an heterogeneous perception by different persons located at different places in the hall is probably what moved me to inspire myself on Miguel Barceló's painting of the dome on Hall XX of the UN Palace at Geneva. I have not seen it other than diagonally, some photos somewhere, but the concept and the effect were clear to me (at least as an inspiring scene) : a cave ceiling with a texture of stalactites of different sizes and a structure of strong colours and their mixtures in vaguely delimited sections of different breadth across the relief texture. Dynamicity, as mentioned before, even if not perceivable as such, would have to play an important role, and the combination of vertical and horizontal speakers would be an important mechanism to bring forth the idea of depth.

Skying is a dynamic "ceiling-fresco" of sound colours and textures, searching for the perception of depth and relief.

Topoi (2012)

This piece has been the backbone of the research on the Plastic Sound Object. The first sketches and experiments were built on the first session of the project at the Ligeti Hall, and the piece was finally finished little before its premiere, two years afterwards at the major presentation of the project. Much reflection, experiments and software development have accompanied its creative process.

As I defined it at the time of starting to work on the piece, what I was searching for was a "poly-spatial polyphony of matters". That is, the combination of several musical objects with inherent spatial properties, occupying space, in different places of the hall. Would one perceive their individual spatial halos, or would they merge and destroy the spell? Topoi has explored this idea into different regions and situations, emerging into a full-developed piece which surveys the concept of the plastic sound object across different musical contexts.

Naturally, as a fundamental prerequisite, there had to be an important work on the design – later becoming a process of variation and minute detailed polishing – of the loudspeakers setup. The composition of the piece and the composition of the setup have advanced hand in hand for a large part of the process of its creation. The structure of speakers is now conceived as a network of potential places were sound could dwell, and across which, sound, this “thick” internally dynamic sound object, could move.

The idea of a choreography of sound, as that of designed movement of (sound-) bodies in space, gets with this piece, a special meaning, including at a certain a moment of the piece a double spatial canon which four of these sound entities perform across the structure of speakers.  

Day & Night (2012)

Day and Night features a very special device, the icosahedral loudspeaker system, Iko for short. This device designed and built at IEM is, as it name indicates, an icosahedron with one speaker per face, all twenty being controllable independently. I had found similar devices in other places, but none had such a good sound quality and so many faces.

Given its morphology, the Iko tends to excite all surfaces around to the extent that it might seem that it produces actually no sound itself and that all sound is produced by the surrounding bodies. The first reflections becoming much more important than the direct sound. This feature was both a paradox and a challenge to me. A paradox because with other speakers one spends a good amount of time trying to avoid its presence as source radiator, and with the Iko it was almost the contrary. A challenge because I wanted to work with the depth of the sound aura around the device, with its virtual form, as it were.

It has meant some time to learn to use the device, but this was one of the wonderful things of the project at Mumuth and the IEM, there was time, there was space and the device, there was the generosity of many to let one dive into his study at ease.

I decided finally to profit also from this “natural tendency” of the device to share its output with the surroundings, by setting it in dialogue with another multichannel device. The dome of 29 speakers, designed by IEM, present at the hall, was also a very attractive setup to use especially in combination with this other device. One surrounding the other, both looking at each other; a micro and a macrocosmos. The idea being to create an evolving sound space that would range from the individuation of single speakers to a totality covering the whole system.

Fantasy on matter and colour (2013)

The end of the project was approaching; I thought I could give one more twist into the research and come out with one musical study incorporating some slight new advance. I didn’t want to end the project just looking back, and warmed up with the intense effort of the last periods, the head flourishing with new possibilities and ideas, anything seemed to be at the tip of the fingers. But indeed, that ideal plan would have meant new software development, tests, experiments… For different reasons this combined effort at different levels was beyond my possibilities during this last phase and when I realized it was in practice too much, I decided to drop the idea of a new step forward and save the idea of producing a new piece which would be, so to speak, out of the research.

The interesting thing is that by being out of the research it is just as well a part of it. Research like art tends to profit from all circumstances and opportunities to make everything with which it has to deal an integral part of it. The idea of making a piece with no particular element to consider, free to use or deviate from the ideas developed during the project, was an interesting subject in itself. Not in vain we had pondered since the beginning of the project on the effect on musical composition that this new poetics could bring with it. Of course I am still too close, I know the context in which it is done, I know I am looking at me, so probably as a laboratory sample it would be too contaminated, but still, maybe.

I had managed already to work out a new setup, a new network of relationships and places, rather abstract and defying but interesting and full of possibilities. It was a question of inviting myself to free up the imagination. A Fantasy, what better?

This piece is dedicated to Robert Höldrich.