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Autopista Sur - electronic composition
video art by Leonardo Pacheco

Sounds, disciplines and theories

interview with Stephanie Boland

May 2014. Don't Do It, Issue 4

So, firstly and perhaps most obviously – can you tell us a little about what you’re working on at the moment?

Currently, I’m working on a piece for pre-recorded electronics and any number of instruments which normally require speakers in order to sound (electric guitar, for example). Involved musicians must create (re-compose) their own unique version of the piece, starting from an instructive that describes different musical situations occurring over time.

These sorts of pieces seem to be increasingly popular where Don’t Do It is based in London. Do you think the rise of these unique performances, occasions almost, is a reaction to something specific (the ease of reproduction in the digital age, perhaps)? Or are they speaking to broader, older aspects of musical practice?

Yes to all, but it is not something new: in the late 1950s they were a reaction to the ease of reproduction but in the ‘analog age’ — among other things. It was also a sign of compromise with the ideas developed by experimental theater, as well as other disciplines, such as philosophy and politics. On the other hand, it is related to an attempt to geo-historically position written music in conscious contact with the rest of musical culture, including an older western pre-notation musical practice, different oral traditions from the world, improvisation, some folkloric forms, and so on.

Recently, a few of my colleagues have arrogantly declared that the discussion about open composition is somewhat ‘outdated’. That is a provocation to me! You can see this kind of attitude in people that consume new aesthetic ideas in the same way they consume new phone apps or computer models. When we interpret the sensible world that surrounds us, the development of a critical approach against the trivialization, vulgarization and simplification of communicative capabilities (trivialization, vulgarization and simplification are perhaps sad consequences of a new cultural binary logic) is more important than ever. To emphasize the ‘uniqueness’ is to assume contradictory oppositions that coexist together in the human experience, accepting the futility of any sort of fixation (human tragedy with respect to time). Open music forms aren’t necessarily related to special notations in the score by the use of graphics or any other unconventional signs. The idea of ‘opening’ in several musical pieces relies on its poetic intention, existing as an ambiguous proposal to be completed in a different sense every single time. This can be said about some old conventional scores more than many contemporary works that include large tedious graphical instructive systems, proposing freedom to choose within a very controlled system of possibilities (a fake freedom).

What about electronic music specifically interests you?

Composition students complimenting their academic training with electroacoustic studies is becoming an international standard of many music programs. In my case, I started studying both instrumental and electroacoustic composition at the same time, and I have never understood them as separate things. In electronic music, composers have the chance to focus their work on sound parameters which are not often considered by instrumental traditions, such as timbre evolutions or sound movements in space. Because of the infinite possibilities offered by an electronic composition technique, it’s really easy to ‘get lost’ in minimal details.

I used a method that worked well for me, which was similar to what I used for instrumental composition. Conversely, when I composed for pure instrumental formats, I found the inclusion of musical procedures only achievable by electronic means very interesting. Sometimes I even tried to instrumentally emulate timbres, textures or more complex sound gestures, starting from short audio clips produced in my computer (my laboratory/studio) and using all the expressive capabilities of single instruments, or using different combinations of them. In general, I would say that any experience with electronic music will always be a very good chance to acquire new perspectives on the characteristics of musical material, on sound construction (orchestration), compositional processes (development of the material), to mention only a few things.

Can you tell us a little about how some of your recent works which use the sort of instruments people are used to seeing classical music, such as your flute piece Didascalia, seek to do something new?

Personally, I always look forward to composing pieces for any format that comes along. Sometimes I compose for musicians I already know no matter the instrument or the virtuosity of their playing. Otherwise, I’m constantly receiving new commissions or proposals for pieces with pre-arranged formats; they can be vocal, instrumental or include electroacoustic devices. In general, I’m always open to include any kind of instrument/voice, or anything that sounds (or moves!), in my pieces.
When people look to the instruments on the stage, they tend to relate specific kinds of music to certain instruments, such as classical music with violins, rock music with electric guitars or jazz music with saxophones. Although I find this psychological effect interesting to explore as an aesthetic element, in most of my pieces I have tried to focus the music on hermetical and autonomous aesthetic ideas, first in their very abstract level, then developed into more cognitive forms. Due to this ‘starting from zero’ situation I’ve forced on myself from the beginning, possible relations with stereotypical genres are somehow lost regardless of the instruments involved. I agree with the idea that New Music has the only tradition of not creating any tradition to follow.

Didascalia was conceived as a pedagogical piece for advanced flute students, in which the physical action of fingers during the performance is totally independent from the actions made by the flutist’s mouth. Two different scores were created: a ‘choreographic’ score for fingers (no sound at all — except for little key clicks — just movement) and the other score for the mouth (only pitchless air fluxes and vocal articulations through the mouthpiece). Each score was subdivided into fourteen segments (moments) each of different duration. The flutist must first arrange the moments in any order he wants and then play the two scores simultaneously. The sounding result will be finally defined by the ‘intersection’ between what his/her fingers and mouth do at the same time every moment, producing a different version of the piece every time it is performed.

You’re currently studying for an MA at the University of Chile, and a lot of your work is with others inside the university. How do you find the academy as a creative space?

In a world of cultural bipolarity (Industry – Academy), some universities have taken the responsibility of creating the appropriate spaces to develop certain artistic expressions (especially those positioned far from any kind of profit). Even though I am not entirely identified with the academy as an institution for cultural administration, it is there that I have found many people who share many of my ideas and interests, people with whom I’ve been able to develop a variety of projects and this is something for which I will always be grateful.

You’re a co-founder and member of Taller Ciclo, a collective who cite Stockhausen and Cage as influences and focus on experimental, boundary-pushing music. Can you tell us a little about your work with them?

Taller Ciclo has become a sort of second school for me and I’m sure the same is true for the other members. Our goal is to keep developing new creative projects, not only to perform them live, like a musical ensemble (we do this as well), but also to ensure an instance of conversation and discussion between musicians, artists and academics on topics that emerge from those projects, such as the role of composition in the post-medial society, or the idea of collectiveness in experimental creation. At the end of each project, the live performance (the product) is a consequence of findings which occurred after several months of work and debate, rather than as an objective in itself. Usually, we have the opportunity to share these experiences with the audience through lectures for didactical purposes and, of course, new instances for open discussion.

Works, such as Mikrophonie I and Solo by Stockhausen, together with several works by Cage, have proved to fit very well with our working style, mainly because they are more concerned in generating the kind of reflection we are pursuing throughout rehearsal, instead of only serving as mere instructions for musicians (as many conventional scores do).

Taller Ciclo describes their practise as ‘trandisciplinary’, and your own works pick up on strands left by other thinkers – such as Adorno – who straddle the boundaries of music and philosophy. Why is crossing disciplinary boundaries important to your work? Are there challenges in translating ideas across different mediums, or do you find confluences?

In the history of music we have always found intersections with other disciplines. For instance, Boethius and the quadrivium, Monteverdi and his Seconda pratica, or Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk illustrate these intersections. Since arts play a political role in society, the artist is no longer a craftsman (now we would say a technician) who masters some practical knowledge. Instead, artists should now assume their place on the sidelines, taking advantage of their privileged autonomous view towards society, trying to ensure coherence between the visible (or invisible) social content and their own aesthetic merit. This is where a transdisciplinary attitude becomes something else. Transdisciplinary attitude is no longer defined as a question of ideas that need to be translated (theoretical assumption), but rather a question of ideologies that must be represented somehow in the sensible world (translation requires symbolic interpretation between different mediums, each one with their own exclusive formal issues. This act generally tends to practical simplification).

Following Adorno, the whole society is present in its entirety through the art artifact. Thus, the internal structure of a piece — in its own formal language– must be able to represent the exigencies of the social situation. That is how we may construct a particular approach to some political ideologies behind music: for example, Debussy and colonialism through the adequacy of foreign (exotic) musical elements up to his ‘superior culture’; Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique as a critical posture against hierarchical systems reflected in the ‘legacy’ of tonal system, and so on. I think this is the real aim when we include other mediums different than sound: to identify the combination of senses that provide an additional dimension to the overall discourse (a dimension which is not necessarily subjected to the others), through a representation able to bind the different issues found in each medium’s formal language.

You speak about being able to share your techniques with the audience through lectures; do you find the role of the audience is different when you perform these sort of generative, summative performances as opposed to more ‘conventional’ pieces? Who do you have an mind as your audience when working with Taller Ciclo?

Normally the relationship between the audience and the musical piece has been understood as a fully finished product presented in a performance, in which the audience is not familiar with the details of the production process. I think that it is necessary to develop broader instances beyond the concert space, in order to open the possibilities of interaction within the triangle of composer-performer-audience. These alternative instances should include lectures, debates, open rehearsals, etc.

Following the 19th century’s concert tradition, musicians are taken as sort of illusionists that hide in a ‘black box’ all the work behind their public appearance. Every musician must be able to explain his/her methods, ideas and interests, what is the real work behind any composition or performance. This is how we can prevent the use of words like ‘talent’ or ‘inspiration’ that only serve to mystify a human practice, which is not so different to any other, and enlarges the distance between audience and musicians.

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