Friday, May 7, 2010

De Natura Sonorum 1 and 4

De Natura Sonorum thematizes contrasting binary pairs, one of which is stated at the outset with the first piece, Incidences/Resonances. Excerpts from the interview:

I wanted to check out the different ways that concrete elements could combine with electronic elements, always seeking a certain homogeneity. It was about making composite objects, where the attack was concrete and the "resonance" electronic. In spite of the artificial operation of the montage, I stayed within the natural logic of the percussive objects (percussion-resonance).

In this piece, concrete sounds only appear as points, and everything that is prolonged is electronic. Anyway, the sounding objects that I used don't have long resonance, or very interesting either. They obey the law of rapid decay, well known and rather banal. When all is said and done, striking a crystal glass (one of the sources in the piece) and removing its attack is nothing more or less than a very poor resonance, almost pure, which one could create electronically. So it's the sharpness, the attack, that's interesting. This is why I sought in this piece to play with a variety of different attacks.

Another investigation, another starting point for this piece: the sudden interruption of an incident into a resonance (or a continuum). These incidents are "foreign bodies" that interfere with the development of the sound; taken from a material different from the continuum (for example a crystal strike in a long metallic resonance), the foreign body perturbs the continuum in different ways; in general by modifying the harmonic web, thickening, doubling, … sometimes completely changing the continuum.

An incident may or may not have any consequences on the musical passage, like the "false note" in the traditional system (that doesn't lead to a modulation). There are, in Incidences/Resonances, two or three sounds that are sufficient unto themselves. They are 'incidental.'

The technical specs provide the concrete sources (crystal glasses, a triangle, metal bowls, a bronze bell, and a sine wave generator), struck with all manner of percussions (wood, metal, glass, plastic, rubber, fingers, fingernails, &hellip). The electronic sounds form the drones, fabricated after the concrete attacks and superimposed to create microtonal beats. Through microscopic editing of the original sound material and judicious use of reverb, Parmegiani created a wealth of composite percussion strokes. One of his resonance constructions would tighten the gap between the beginning and the end, removing the instrument's natural resonance in the middle of its decay time. One other interesting sidebar is that the opening sequence (from 0:04 through 0:45) was remixed and reused later, from 1:30 through 2:30.

Parmegiani explicitly contrasts Incidences/Resonances with the fourth piece in the series, Étude Élastique, a comparison the authors explore further in a brief interview annotation. (A second annotation touches on the foreign bodies and hot philosophical issues around hetero- and homogeneity.) Incidences/Resonances was composed systematically, like an étude, whereas the latter ( the étude in the title is deceptive) was composed more intuitively. The Étude Élastique came to Parmegiani "so quickly that I didn't even notice myself working" and claims to remember little about its genesis. So the authors instead jump right into the technical notes, "the precise description of all of the operations for realization, from the capture of the sounds to the final mix." There were five sound sources:

  • balloons (baudruches), inflated and deflated, which are rubbed, twisted, struck with fingers (dry and wet), nails, the palm, etc. It's worth noting in passing that the translation of "baudruche" in the original CD notes was "goldbeater's skin", referring to a membrane from a cow or sheep used to separate layers of gold leaf. But in common French usage, the word indicate rubber balloons, and the translation is corrected in the notes accompanying the box (although "baloon" is misspelled).
  • a zarb (the Persian percussion instrument also known as a Tonbak or Doumbek.
  • this same zarb played into a grand piano with the sustain pedal up to capture all the resonance. Some of these strokes can be heard without much manipulation around 2:15.
  • an electric organ with all the keys held down and manipulated with a wha-wha pedal. One of his actions was a sforzendi created by opening the pedal quickly, followed by a gradual closing; these actions can be heard without much manipulation starting around 4:20.
  • a synthesizer to generate white noise and sine waves.

The authors extensively catalog the manipulations, transformations, and major structural points, with all of the lists cross referenced. For example, the first section, up to a zarb stroke merged with a white noise resonance at 1:35, features a sound he calls "white sparks" (flammèches blanches). In one of his sequences on the electric organ with the wha-wha pedal, the pedal was played irregularly in order to get agitated and complex sequences. These were further transposed up, "contracted in time for their global forms to emerge, which at normal speed were too distended to be perceptible" and mixed independently onto two tracks, superimposed as the left and right channels.

The authors identify transposition as one of Parmegiani's primary manipulations in Étude Élastique. Some of his balloon sounds were slowed down to make the inner rhythms distinguishable. These became some of the percussive sounds in the first 95 seconds, where they gradually merge with the less manipulated percussive sounds from the zarb. Electroacoustic composers frequently strive to eliminate audible transitions between different types of material, at an extreme becoming the slow music of Éliane Radigue where transitions are eliminated almost altogether. The theme of inaudible transitions is a big part of De Natura Sonorum, audible in almost every piece and undoubtedly assisted by Parmegiani's research into Pierre Schaeffer's morphologies. Balloons transposed up are part of the textures in the second half of the piece, where the sounds are blended with the organ sforzendi, and which I hear as a marked contrast with the white sparks from the beginning. Both the balloon and organ transformations are examples of how Parmegiani uses speed to unveil the internal workings of a sound, and they give another dimension to the elasticity of the piece's title.

In the annotated interview, the authors probe Parmegiani's conflicting information about the piece's genesis and reveals some aspects of his creative process. He remembers clearly the idea of independent tracking, and that he had tried unsuccessfully to create white spark sounds from a white noise generator. Meanwhile, he also had some recordings of percussionist Jean-Pierre Drouet playing the zarb, and made an intuitional connection between Drouet's zarb playing and his own balloon manipulations that he describes as a certain "touch". If the analogies and memory conflicts seem a bit confusing or irrational, nevertheless these are the mental operations that galvanize the creative endeavor.

The image is the first two minutes of Parmegiani's listening score for Étude Élastique; click it to see a larger version.

This post is the most recent in a very occasional series about L'Envers d'une oeuvre, by Philippe Mion, Jean-Jacques Nattiez and Jean-Christophe Thomas, published in 1982 by Éditions Buchet/Chastel and INA/GRM. The first post in the series has an overview of the book. Click here to get them all.

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