In the late 70s, an interdisciplinary team led by the composer Iannis Xenakis developed the compositional tool UPIC out of an effort to transform drawings into synthesized sound.
Together with the Centre Iannis Xenakis, the ZKM is now addressing for the first time the genesis of this unique computational instrument and traces its technical, social, institutional, and educational significance up to the current practice of contemporary composers who work with the idea of UPIC in current computer programs.
The volume with 27 richly illustrated contributions is published by Hatje Cantz. It is available both there and through the ZKM Bookshop as a print publication. In addition, it is published in its entirety as an open access version and available free of charge. On this page, the digital version is available for download as PDF, as well as audio samples and additional archive material not included in the print publication are accessible.
Jeff Snyder and Sam Pluta have been working together since 2006 as the duo exclusiveOR. With Snyder performing on analog synthesizer and Pluta on live electronics. Their work explores the intersection of composition and improvisation with live electronics. For “modules” the duo is joined by some of today’s leading creative musicians: Architeuthis Walks on Land (AWOL) which is Amy Cimini – viola and Katherine Young – bassoon, and members of ICE – Peter Evans, Nate Wooley – trumpets, Ryan Muncy – saxophones, Weston Olencki – trombone and Ross Karre – percussion.
“modules” was commissioned in 2014 by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) as part of their ICELab Series. It is a concert length work that utilizes both improvisation and strictly notated material. The piece covers a lot of ground as it flows through its fifteen modules in which seemingly opposing materials (pitch, sound and noise) and methodologies (composition, improvisation and live electronics) seamlessly interact with one another to create a unified whole.
The fifteen “modules” are comprised of five composed by Pluta, five by Snyder and five improvisations from various small groupings of the ensemble. Each of these tracks or modules has its own distinct character, color and instrumentation. Pluta’s modules tend to be more aggressive and noisier, while Snyder’s are often more harmonically focused. The improvised sections are all sonically oriented and very original. Despite the contrasts within each module they really seem connected and many segments flow into one another in a conversational like manner.
Here is an earlier performance with brass quartet, analog synthesizer, live electronics, and percussion. It’s interesting to hear both of these versions because it makes clear the significant contributions that improvisers can bring to pieces like “modules”.
For those that need some kind of categorization I would put “modules” under the banner of “creative music”; in that the sound worlds that the composers and improvisers create, freely explore many different contemporary and historical musical ideas without any allegiance or deference to any of the “school’s” associated with these ideas. This is a trend that has been growing for quite some time and I think the composers and improvisers on “modules” are among the best of a new generation of musicians continuing this exploration.
Chris De Chiara
“Magnetic Voices From The Unseen” is the first album from Renaud Bajeux. It is available as an LP or as a digital download. The digital edition contains an additional live track. Renaud Bajeux is a sound engineer and cinema sound designer based in Paris. Bajeux has been regularly collaborating with the INA-GRM for the last ten years and has a GRM commission receiving its world premiere at the GRM’s Akousma Festival in Paris this week.
For “Magnetic Voices From The Unseen” Bajeux primarily works with sound material he discovered in the magnetic fields of various electronic devices. Armed with magnetic coils he explores the sounds of things found on most people’s desks like hard drives, computers, cell phones and monitor screens. While the sound sources may be novel, it is Bajeux’s imaginative way of transforming these sounds into a series of noise-laden soundscapes that makes this debut album so interesting.
The four pieces on this album have a cinematic feel, filled with subtle to surprising developments as they progress. Bajeux’s compositions straddle elements like noise, harmonicity, glitch, experimental, electronics, minimalism, and ambient sound without ever really succumbing to any of those elements in terms of overall style. “Magnetic Voices From The Unseen” is a wonderful debut album!
Chris De Chiara
This year’s Holland Festival presented what may have been its most ambitious undertaking ever – a marathon performance of selections from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s magnum opus “Licht”. “Licht” is a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week, that Stockhausen wrote over a twenty-five-year period. While individual operas and scenes from this cycle have been and continue to be performed, a staging of the entire cycle which runs over twenty-nine hours in a single place is generally considered to be impossible. The Holland Festival presented the first ever staging of more than half of “Licht” in a single place. Fifteen hours of music was selected from the cycle and performed over three days at the Gashouder in Amsterdam. Several additional hours of electronic music from “Licht” was also presented for “dedicated” listeners before and after each day’s performances. This three-day cycle was presented three times from May 31 to June 10. I never thought I would ever be able to hear so much of Stockhausen’s work performed in one single event and I was lucky enough to attend the June 4-6 performances. It was an absolutely spectacular concert event.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the major innovators of the twentieth century. In many ways his vision of a dramatic musical work greatly differs from opera. “Licht” does not adhere to a linear plot, it is modular, with no definite beginning or end. Each piece of music, in each of the individual operas within the cycle is autonomous and therefore can be performed by itself. Stockhausen wrote his own libretto and while it is based on familiar mythology the main characters are archetypes that represent universal forces – Michael as love, Lucifer as light and Eve as life itself. Stockhausen portrays these universal forces with both singers and instrumentalists. The work asks the instrumentalists to not only play what is often very difficult music, but to be in costume, move, sing and perform various gestures as they play his virtuosic score.
The entire work is based on a structure of three musical layers with each layer representing one of the major characters. This structure or “super formula” as Stockhausen calls it, serves as the sonic foundation for all of the pieces in the entire cycle. The scores also specify a great deal of detail for each dimension of the performance and specifically defines many of the production parameters – costumes, scenery, lighting, imagery, colors, symbols, sound projection, gestures, movement, dances, and so much more.
The experience Stockhausen creates is a kind of ritual theater that has been influenced by much of our planetary culture. But this work is not a completely somber affair. It explores all of the facets of life from love to war to humor. Among the humorous characters in this work is “Synthi-Fou”, an Elton John like figure whose synthesizer solo feature is a bit like Sun Ra channeling the phantom of the opera and then there is the “swallow pair”, a clarinet duo that are decked out in tails with antics not unlike the classic Marx brothers.
While the “Licht” cycle frames eternal questions, Stockhausen does not attempt to answer these questions for us, instead he illustrates them in his own unique way and invites us to experience his reflections on the eternal. All of this is to create his personal vision of a musical theater filled with magic and ritual that can appeal and be understood by everyone on this planet. The result is a timeless masterpiece.
In my opinion the Holland Festival’s production of “aus Licht” succeeded in bringing to life much of Stockhausen’s vision. It was an incredible music theater experience. I found the elegance and subtlety of the staging, video, lighting and costumes highlighted the ritual aspects of the performance while creating a beautiful open atmosphere. While live performance always reveals aspects of a work that are just not captured by recordings, hearing many of these pieces live was a revelation.
Each day began with optional electronic music for dedicated listeners. The electronic music was beautifully diffused around the circular room in the Gashouder through a twenty-four channel system with one hundred loudspeakers carefully surrounding the room. Hearing Stockhausen’s electronic music in this space diffused by a specially trained team revealed dimensions that just aren’t audible on the recordings. It was a wonderful way to begin the day. This was followed by films of grade school children explaining the story and drawing pictures of the characters. Despite my not speaking Dutch it was clear that the children understood the story and it was a nice light hearted way to set the stage for each performance.
Most of the performers were conservatory students and many were children. Each of the main characters, Michael, Eve and Lucifer were portrayed by several different performers and there were so many musicians (about 300) that were part of these performances rather than singling out any of them I would rather just say that all of the musicians played and or sang beautifully and performed with real passion, power, presence and conviction. They were all incredible. There was nothing about this production that was “student” or “amateur”. From end to end “aus Licht” was a world class professional performance and production.
While “aus Licht” was promoted as a marathon it never felt long to me. When each day ended I was excited and eager to hear more. When it was all over I found myself wishing that I had gotten tickets for all nine nights and experienced the three-day cycle three times.
This week Arte posted several clips from the Holland Festival production of “aus Licht”. The five clips are short but are very well filmed and have high quality stereo sound. The first clip is of the “Girl’s Procession”. While this clip is just a few minutes from a thirty minute piece it should be enough to demonstrate the tremendous talents of the girls choir and the beauty of the overall production.
Clip two is a short excerpt from “Lucifer’s Dance”. It features one of the larger ensembles on the second stage with the brilliant soloists engaged in a powerful dramatic performance. The staging made use of multiple stages plus various configurations of the room.
Clip three is a short excerpt from the very last piece “Angel Procession”. Notice that the configuration of the room in each clip is different and was often changed for each scene. This clip demonstrates the effectiveness of the lighting, staging and costume design when combined with the spectacular adult choirs. It was a somewhat solemn but powerful way to end the three days.
Clip four is a short excerpt from the infamous helicopter string quartet. Yes, it’s a string quartet where each of the strings are in their own helicopter and the performance is beamed back to earth. The sounds of the strings are mixed with the sounds of the helicopters and diffused around the room. Many reviewers portray this piece as nothing more than unnecessary excess but in doing so I think it misrepresents the piece. It is a serious work that is also a fun spectacle. You can hear Stockhausen’s own words on the piece in this video from the Holland Festival’s archives from when they first presented it in 1995.
The final clip is a short excerpt from “Michael’s Journey Around the World”. It features a very large ensemble with the trumpet soloist Michael and the clarinet duo “swallow pair”. That fades and then we hear a very short excerpt from “Thursday’s Greeting (Michael’s Greeting)”.
If you viewed all of the clips you get a sense of the variety and magnitude of both the musical and production forces required to perform “aus Licht”. You should also notice that the soloists and the choirs are not reading any music. Everything has been memorized and internalized. This kind of performance requires an enormous commitment from the musicians. As you can imagine presenting a work of this size and scope would have many challenges. So how did the Holland Festival pull this off? Well according to the program notes it started in the spring of 2015 when the head of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Henk van der Meulen and colleague Renee Jonker pitched the idea to the Holland Festival as a way of having students from the conservatory perform selected pieces from the cycle. Holland Festival Artistic Director Ruth Mackenzie and music programmer Jochem Valkenburg were interested and they proposed that the students perform all twenty-nine hours of the entire cycle! This was then handed off to the festival head of production Sigi Giesler.
As they explored what it would take to produce the entire cycle they realized they would need help and they enlisted Pierre Audi of the Dutch National Opera to be the projects director. This delegation then met with Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens of the Stockhausen Foundation for Music to discuss the project. After many meetings, by September of 2016 they realized that their best shot was to produce selected pieces from the cycle. So, they worked to select pieces from the cycle from which they could construct a dramaturgically coherent collection of scenes. As that was happening the Royal Conservatory established an “aus Licht” Master’s program to train students with a solid Stockhausen foundation. Then Pierre Audi and the Dutch National Opera took responsibility for this massive project with the Holland Festival co-producing. Kathinka Pasveer then signed on as the music director.
With less than three years to go they kicked off fundraising and the project moved forward. The project plan had more than four hundred and fifty rehearsals, with more than two hundred and fifty students and thirty-seven soloists, plus all of the various creative and production teams. Nearly four years later in May 2019 the work of more than six hundred people had come to maturation and rehearsals for the final production began at the Gashouder and a slice of the impossible became very real!
“aus Licht” was an incredibly memorable experience. I am very grateful to all that contributed to bringing it to life. The Holland Festival showed its courage and commitment to contemporary music by investing the time and resources necessary in presenting this great work and by building partnerships with The Dutch National Opera, The Royal Conservatory, the Stockhausen Foundation for Music, and many others to ensure that the production of “aus Licht” would be a major success. And it absolutely was! My hope is that “aus Licht” was not a one-off. I hope that this partnership will come together again soon and perform “aus Licht” again. Maybe even add another day or present another collection of different selections from “Licht”. Perhaps this production will inspire someone to try and present an even bigger slice of the impossible!
Chris De Chiara
Forms by themselves are inert things: accumulated conventions and materials that, for all their inertia, are nevertheless available to be appropriated and made newly meaningful through the projects and programs that somehow have need of them. The Cloudwatchers, a quartet of musicians working in Spain, and the Norwegian keyboardist/composer Ståle Storløkken each take an awareness of the conventions and materials of classic electronic avant-garde and cosmic music and creatively reimagine them as something authentically their own.
The Cloudwatchers’ membership comprises Andrés Alonso (electric guitar and bass, digital synthesizers and audio processors); Iván Cebrián (analogue synthesizers and audio processors); Coco Moya (voice, analogue synthesizers and audio processors); and Jaime Munáriz (analogue synthesizers, electric guitar and audio processors). The group’s overlapping instrumentation—three of the four play analogue synthesizers, and all four engage in audio processing—doesn’t prevent them from creating rich soundscapes of varying colors. The three long, untitled pieces are constructed around more or less fixed harmonies; as a foundation this may seem simple, but with this kind of music what matters isn’t complex harmonic change but instead changes in texture, timbre and voice. Sometimes, as in the first piece, the voice is human, oscillating in microtones around washes of synthesizer and echo-drenched guitar. The dominant voice on the second piece, by contrast, consists in a modal keyboard melody floating lightly over the gravitas of a slow beat and densely-layered background texture. The closing piece features luminous sounds and culminates in an ostinato for sequencer—a clever recontextualization of an old convention from space music.
Like the Cloudwatchers, Storløkken’s natural point of reference is the classic electronic music of the 1960s and 1970s, but also like the Cloudwatchers, he doesn’t try to recreate those sounds through direct imitation but rather by indirect hint and allusion. With The Haze of Sleeplessness he sets out to make a soundtrack for a non-existent film, the better to let the listener dream his or her own characters, plot and setting. Each of the seven pieces is a tone poem in itself, but taken together, all add up to a collectively coherent suite which—in a coincidental parallel to the Cloudwatchers’ final track–ends in a sequencer-driven flourish.
Shelter Press with the support of INA GRM has published the new book “Spectres Composer l’écoute / Composing listening”. This book is the first in an annual series. The first edition features writings in English and French by François Bayle, Jim O’Rourke, Daniel Terruggi, Stephen O’Malley, Elaine Radigue, Chris Watson, Brunhild Ferrari, Beatriz Ferreyra, Espen Sommer Eide, Drew Daniel, François J. Bonnet, Régis Renouard Larivière, and Félicia Atkinson.
Each issue of “SPECTRES” will have a different subtitle / focus. “This book has been conceived as both a prism and a manual. Following the “traditional” arc of electroacoustic composition (listen—record—compose—deploy—feel), each of the contributions collected together here focuses in on a personal aspect, a fragment of that thrilling territory that is sonic and musical experimentation.
Although the term “experimental music” may now have be understood as referring to a genre, or even a particular style, we ought to hold on to the original use of this term, which was based more on an approach than on any particular aesthetic line to be followed. The experimental is first and foremost a spirit, the spirit of the exploration of unknown territories, a spirit of invention which sees musical composition more as a voyage into uncertain territories than as a self-assured approach working safe within the bosom of fully mapped out and recognized lands.”
More info at Shelter Press
All that dust is a new independent label based in the UK that is dedicated to producing high quality releases of contemporary music. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign they have recently released five recordings. In this initial batch of recordings two of the five are high quality binaural recordings. Binaural recording is a recording technique that aims to create a 3-D stereo sound field that represents the listening experience of actually being in the room during the performance. It is best experienced with headphones or ear buds. Binaural recording is a very effective way of capturing the experience of a performance where there is a live performer(s) with multichannel tape/electronic accompaniment.
ATD4 is “Philomel” a serial composition from 1964 by Milton Babbitt that utilizes recorded synthesizer with both live and recorded soprano voice. The piece is one of the earliest works to use the synthesizer and is considered to be Babbitt’s best-known work. Its text is taken from a poem by John Hollander and its three sections are based on Ovid’s myth of Philomela. A tale of a women who is the sister in-law of a king whom rapes her. The king has her tongue cut out so that she cannot talk and then imprisons her. Her sister discovers the truth and helps Philomel escape. As they are pursued by the king the gods intervene and transform her sister Procne into a swallow, the king into a hoopoe and Philomel into a nightingale. The piece is a dramatic representation of Philomel’s transformation.
Babbitt used synthesizer and voices in a four-channel tape accompaniment to try and make the listener feel trapped in the music, as a way of conveying Philomela’s inability to escape her fate. The four channels act as a moving sound ensemble. The music is both very rhythmic and colorful with a great range of synthesized timbres and with a very demanding virtuoso part for soprano voice. The pieces mood is tentative and shattered but despite the stories horror the music is never sentimental in its anger or sorrow. As the piece progresses the mood shifts more to bewilderment at the transformation that is taking place.
On this recording “Philomel” is beautifully performed by soprano Juliet Fraser. Her voice is very expressive, with great tone and incredible control. She is not simply singing to a recording but is actively interacting with a four-channel ensemble. Fraser is able to make this performance feel as if she is driving this ensemble while bringing this piece to life. Juliet Fraser is an accomplished performer of early music and new music. She has performed with many ensembles and has recorded for Hat Hut, Neos, Kairos and many other labels. Fraser is also one of the principles of All that dust.
ATD5 is “La Fabbrica Illuminata” it is a powerful work for voice(mezzo-soprano) and four-channel tape from 1964 by Luigi Nono. This binaural recording captures a fantastic performance by mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg. Lixenberg is an accomplished voice in contemporary and experimental music giving more than a thousand performances around the globe. Her voice has a beautiful tone that is rich with both power and subtlety. Lixenberg has performed with many of the world’s leading ensembles including the Ensemble InterContemporain, BBC Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and the Tokyo Philharmonic.
“La Fabbrica Illuminata” came out of Nono’s work on a large-scale musical theater project depicting the conditions of factory workers. It utilizes texts by Guilaino Scabia and a fragment of Cesare Pavese’s poem “Due poesie a T.” The mezzo-soprano voice sings a commentary on situations that are represented by the tape as it illuminates the conditions of factory work. The tape’s sound scenes are meant to represent the injustice and unfairness of capitalism to the working classes. While this description may make it sound like this piece is just some 60’s agitprop, it is not. It is much more than that. “La Fabbrica Illuminata” is a highly original piece that surrounds the listener with sonic scenes that can be dramatic, poignant and hopeful. Even if you do not understand the language of the voices or appreciate the sentiment of the texts, the drama and intensity of the piece is clear.
“La Fabbrica Illuminata” is structured in three sections. The first section slowly builds from fragments and chants with the soloist appearing and disappearing while singing fragments of the texts. The section slowly builds up to an industrial crescendo. The second section is more reflective, often mysterious or dream like. The live voice sings while surrounded primarily by electronically processed voices occasionally punctuated by echoes of the illuminated factory. In the final section the tape is silent and the solo voice sings and intones verses taken from Pavese’s poem. Leaving us with a little bit of hope for the future as she sings “ … it will not be so always you will find something “.
In “La Fabbrica Illuminata” the listener is surrounded by sonic scenes that move into and out of one another. At times it can be dramatic or mysterious or even surreal. The four-channel tape makes use of electronic sounds, concrete sounds of factory noises as well as voices that go through multiple transformations. Sounds move around the space to create distance and depth. As sound masses move into and out of one another it is as if we hearing sonic thoughts enter, unfold, transform and dissipate as another group appears. Nono wanted the listener to feel as if they were inside the sounds and to confuse them so that they are unsure of where the sounds are coming from. The experience of listening to this binaural recording on headphones achieves that. There is a wide dynamic range on this recording so don’t crank the volume up to much the first time you listen to it.
Binaural recordings are a unique way to present multi-channel works. In this time where so much music is listened to in the personal space of ear buds, binaural recordings provide the listener with a unique 3-D listening experience. For those of you that are afraid of Babbitt’s reputation as a serial composer of extreme mathematically based music, or Nono’s much maligned reputation as a composer of leftist agitprop, check your assumptions at the door and put on your ear buds and enjoy two of the twentieth century’s most spectacular sonic dramas.
Chris De Chiara