Monday, May 24, 2010

Galactic Kayn

Roland Kayn is one of the few remaining old school electronic music composers, with a resumé that includes working at the NWDR studio with Herbert Eimert in the early 1950s and live electronic improvisation in the 1960s with Gruppo di ImprovvisazioneNuova Consonanza and a side-long electronic composition, Cybernetics III, in the legendary DGG Avant-Garde series. Backed with Luigi Nono's amazing Contrappunto Dialettico Alla Mente, one of my first exposures to Nono's work and still one of my favorites.

To say that Kayn is still active at age 76 is an understatement — his output for 2009 alone consists of 30 electronics works for a total of over 36 hours of music, and his catalog currently numbers 284, many of which are multi-part suites. The longest individual work in 2009 was opus 256, a 22-part suite entitled A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, almost fourteen hours in total. It's being broadcast, in its entirety, on Conzertzender, a Netherlands net radio, two sessions of seven hours each starting Saturday at midnight Amsterdam time. The first half was on May 22, and the second will come on May 29.

I admire Kayn's music tremendously, and what I managed to hear in the last broadcast had strong family resemblances to his work on both CD and bootleg downloads LP. Anyone who's interested in hearing some of his most recent work should check it out this coming Saturday. Midnight Amsterdam is 3:00 pm on the USA West Coast, and a seven hour time span provided ample opportunity to check it out.

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.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Post-rock night in Tucson

Last night we went to see a post-rock twin bill, Balmorhea (from Austin, Texas) opening for Mono (from Tokyo) at the local club Plush. In general I feel fortunate to find local concerts from groups I admire, and unfortunately last night there was a serious conflict. The Solar Culture Gallery had the drone rock group Growing, which I'm sure would have been great. But we picked the post-rockers, for which we have no regrets whatsoever.

Actually, it's almost a misnomer to call Balmorhea "post-rock," brought about in this case by their concert association with emblematic Japanese tour partners. Balmorhea's instrumentation, especially on their studio recordings, is nearly all acoustic, and their music would fit more comfortably with post-classic musicians like Max Richter or Nils Frahm (recent European tourmate). The two head men, Rob Lowe and Mike Muller, played acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, banjo, percussion, with a three-piece string section (violin, cello, bass) and a drummer. I'm not familiar with enough of their music to say what they played, but the set was quite varied, from quiet acoustic fingerpicking to energetic, minimalist music with a strong rock beat. The strings provided a great set of drones, with the violinist arpeggiating the high overtones. There were still seats at the back of the bar when we arrived. But as the floor filled up our view was occasionally and variably blocked, so I'm not entirely sure what everyone was doing at any particular moment. We had a beer with Muller for a bit during the break between sets and talked about a wide range of topics, and of course I picked up their latest CD.

Mono, pictured above, took the stage with little fanfare or announcement, progressing from tentative melodies to a full onslaught of sound, immersiv, ecstatic, loud. We abandoned our seats back by the bar and came forward to the stage. The two guitarists sat on stools, so the only one moving was Tamaki, the slender bass player who eyed the audience deadpan, swaying gently with the music and in complete contrast to her increasingly frenzied partners. There were no vocal microphones on stage at all. The two guitarists had banks of foot pedals, set on a board in rows. The pieces seemed long, slowly building up tension and volume, layering melodies on top of shifting harmonic drones. When I thought that they had reached a maximum, they kept going deeper and louder, making them nearly cathartic. One of the pieces climaxed with one guitar in squalls of feedback, finally setting the guitar on the stage and manipulating the foot pedals manually. I have several Mono albums, but it's exhilarating to hear them at the proper volume.

Since this was our first visit to Plush, let me mention a quick endorsement for the club. Sometimes rock shows can be found in real dives, but Plush was classy, with a well-stocked bar, a couple of patios, and good parking. Mono was touring with Pelican the night we arrived in Tucson, nearly four years ago. I missed them that night, so I also get a certain symbolic grounding from last night's tremendous show. Now if only my ears would stop ringing….

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bernard in a book

Through an accident of education I majored in French at university back in the 1970s. For several years I maintained it by continuing to read trendy French fiction and philosophy, but gave it up a decade ago and celebrated by reading Proust in the revised Moncrieff translation. Anything I might want to read would eventually get translated, I thought. Well, wrong again. In 1982 Jean-Jacques Nattiez collaborated with composer Philippe Mion and Jean-Christophe Thomas in a full-length book about Bernard Parmegiani's De Natura Sonorum entitled L'Envers d'une oeuvre. "Une oeuvre" means "a work", and l'envers generally means the flip or reverse side of something like paper, or inside out when speaking about clothes, but it's also a preposition corresponding to 'towards.' One of my last piano teachers always talked about moving towards something in music, and wrote 'towards' all over my scores, so I read this connotation in the title as well.

Bernard Parmegiani is one of the best known of the French electroacousticians who emerged from Pierre Schaeffer's pioneering studio, the Groupe de Recherche Musicale (GRM). He premiered De Natura Sonorum in 1975, crediting the work with exorcising his music of repetitive forms which had been so much a part of Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d'Orphée and Et après. "Finally it was thanks to De Natura Sonorum that I managed to emerge from my chrysalis, like an insect before its moult.… I was leaving a certain larval state, and I needed something with the rigorous character of an etude, and that was De Natura Sonorum." The work was pivotal for the GRM composers as well, one of the first that moved beyond the pure pleasure of the virtually unlimited wealth of new-found sounds available through technology. Parmegiani demonstrated a real mastery of the theoretical principles detailed in Schaeffer's massive Traité des objets musicaux and catalogued all of his sounds for De Natura Sonorum using Schaeffer's typology. Continual technological improvements permitted him precise control over the sound material to realize his visions.

The three authors interviewed Parmegiani at some length about the work, apparently split into two extended sessions over a year apart, giving them an opportunity to use the later interviews for clarification and additional detail. For each of the ten pieces on the original LP release (Dynamique De La Résonance and Incidences/Battements were added later for the CD reissue), they present relevant selections from the interviews, along with annotations, little essays on one or another aspect, a listening score, and a technical outline of the original sources, manipulations, transformations and montages. Their goal is to present Parmegiani's music on three levels:
  1. the level of fabrication ("recipes", creative thought processes, from the poetic-philosophical conception up to the point of scissors cutting tape)
  2. the musical level, of the complete work (such that Parmegiani and we can agree to describe intersubjectively)
  3. a "superior", or rather infra-level, the meaning, the "obsessive" (or recurring) themes of the composer, and, inevitably, of the man Parmegiani (his phantasms, his problems, psychological, philosophical, particularly regarding composition).

My own reading of L'Envers d'une oeuvre has been sporadic, but I feel compelled to write about it, even well before I've finished it, sort of a live-blogging event stretched over months. I'm very happy reading one chapter in between other more sustained reading, accompanied by a close listening of the piece under the current microscope. Blog posts in this series should be ongoing, may appear unordered compared to the original work (and the book). One can only hope that some enterprising, bilingual, Parmegiani-obsessed graduate student undertakes a real translation of the entire book for her thesis.

The photo of Parmegiani in his studio is by Guy Vivien and comes from the booklet inside the INA-GRM release Violostries. The insect quotation is from an interview with Évelyne Gayou, published in Parmegiani's Portraits Polychromes book, page 33. Excerpts from this interview appear in the program notes for the Parmegiani box. L'Envers d'une oeuvre was published by Éditions Buchet/Chastel in Paris in 1982, and the bulleted goal list is from the Preamble, written by Thomas, on page 32. Translations are my own.