Wednesday, July 7, 2010

De Natura Sonorum 2 and 3

The second and third movements of De Natura Sonorum share hidden origins in direct response to the orchestral tradition in western art music. Accidents/Harmoniques (Accidents/Harmonics) was originally envisioned as a parody of Instrumental Music ("with a capital I", says Parmegiani), and Géologie Sonore (Geology of Sound) took a specifical inspiration from Arnold Schoenberg's Klangfarbenmelodie, opus 16, no. 3, the famous orchestral work that emancipated tone color as a common set of pitches rotate around the orchestra. Both movements originated with orchestral samples, largely obliterated in the published work, although oblique traces remain.

Accidents/Harmoniques, spelled throughout this book without the intervening slash, is based around the note A, the standard reference note for tuning, heard at the beginning of orchestral concerts. "I wanted to call this movement: music (or maybe a certain music, I don't remember any more). In any case, it's around the notion of 'music' that my ideas crystallized." Parmegiani tried all kinds of samples from orchestral and jazz records, constructing blocks, chords and groups into aggregates and agglomerations. Virtually all of this work was discarded, leaving only the idea of the 'A' backbone, around which he grafted a few remaining sampled chords and isolated sounds from classical and exotic instruments. One of the other candidate titles for this piece was "Patchwork," but he found he was starting down a path where satire nearly became the principal theme, not where he wanted to go for De Natura Sonorum. The authors see an ironic revenge of the marginalized electroacoustician, isolated from the classical music establishment, creating a promethean and utopian metamusic "capable of humbling and supplanting instrumental music," an opinion shared by another theorist, Michel Chion, in his untranslated 1976 book Les Musiques Électro-acoustique.

The final product, constructed fairly quickly once the initial researches were discarded, was similar to Incidences/Resonances, a continuum interrupted by various events. "I played two tracks in parallel, and sometimes I decided that such and such an event was going to interfere with the timbre in the continuum, and other times it wouldn't. It all happened very quickly." He knew in advance that he wanted to proceed toward a complete anarchy and chaos, and he even introduced an aleatoric sequence near the end. Most of the sound sources were from various records and tapes, with very few original recordings. Instrumental sounds came from violin, double bass, flute, trombone, piano, horn, vibraphone, baritone sax, bandoneon, crumhorn, and various percussion instruments. The chaotic sections near the very end were based on an orchestral recording playing an aleatoric sequence pizzicato, superimposed several times to obtain a very dense texture. These sections are bounded by recordings of wood blocks, slowed down to conserve the sudden, clean attacks but creating a thicker and more imposing event. The wispy materials in the treble around 3:40 are a recording of a Beethoven string quartet run through a ring modulator. He used a synthesizer to create the continuum sounds, often accumulating different partials to get different timbres and splicing them together to get the variations. There's an especially audible example of this at 1:30.

Géologie Sonore has two separate inspirations. One is an image of the earth seen from an airplane, where one can see the ground without details of the exact forms, simply the passage of global forms, dark or light colors, etc. The other is the twin musical inspirations of Arnold Schoenberg's orchestral piece opus 16, no. 3 (the famous chord-color piece) and John Chowning's seminal FM piece Turenas, one of whose aims was the exploration of continuous timbral modification. As with Accidents Harmoniques, Parmegiani started with an hommage to orchestral music, using samples from Schoenberg, Debussy and Verdi, but these were obliterated in the final piece. Instead, there was a long period of sound gathering to create a catalog of wefts (trames), a technical term from Pierre Schaeffer's groundbreaking theoretical work Traité des objets musicaux. Schaeffer's work is still not available in English, but Michel Chion's commentary, translated by John Dack and Christine North, defines a weft as "a type of excentric sound of prolonged duration, created by superimposing prolonged sounds … which are heard as groups, macro-objects, slowly developing, scarcely differentiated structures."

Parmegiani provides the following descriptive inventory of the wefts that he used (which I have slightly abridged):
  • Meta-instrument: an orchestral continuum in which the instruments follow one another through successive dissolves, a sort of continuous metamorphosis. The sequence was recorded live from the radio, then flattened and rendered unrecognizable through montage. Master weft, present almost throughout the entire movement
  • Keyboard + organ: the keyboard of the electric organ, a continuous sound obtained by pressing all the keys on the keyboard, sped up
  • organ + ring modulator: the preceding sequence treated with a ring modulator = a slow ascending movement of the mass
  • harmonic trumpet: a continuous trumpet sound captured for an earlier piece, Jazzex
  • orchestral foundation: an enormous non-tonic agglomerate. A recording of a symphony orchestra making a continuous rumbling or murmuring, elongated through successive dissolves of the recording with itself.
  • Meta-instrument: the initial sequence slowed down and played backwards
  • Martenot + ring modulator: Ondes Martenot treated with a ring modulator to enlarge the sound spectrum
  • Transparent Screen: an electronic continuum from the video evoking millions of grains emanating out from a dense center
  • violin + notch filter: a violin treated with a notch filter for a slow variation in the timbre

For each weft, Parmegiani created a graph, marking the various colors, dynamics, and tessituras on a temporal axis. Armed with all of his wefts, he started the painstaking creation of a series of pre-mixes. He avoided putting timbres from similar families in the same groups, but in general he tried to make the transitions between the wefts as interesting and sensitive as possible. He ended up with over a dozen different reels of tape, which he had to mix down to three in preparation for the final mix. Unlike other movements, where he was able to create short sequences and splice them together, the final mix for Géologie Sonore had to be done in a single pass. In hindsight, he would have liked more diversity between the different colors, more flagrant transitions, but he was unable to put enough bite in any of the transpositions; the technology of the time was too limiting.

The image is an excerpt from the mixing score for Géologie Sonore. I am unable to match this image with anything specific in the music.

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.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your kind offering. Parmegiani's work is stunning. Its truly wonderful to have the opportunity to learn more about his De Natura Sonorum masterpiece. rsz

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this wonderful offering!