Mosquito Buzz and Roaring Souls: Program notes
In a highly imaginative article that first appeared fifty years ago and which has taken on added poignancy due to the current pandemic, the indefatigable wanderer Bruce Chatwin reflects on being a nomad: «Diversion. Distraction. Fantasy. Change of fashion, food, love and landscape. We need them as the air we breathe. Without change our brains and bodies rot. The man who sits quietly in a shattered room is likely to be mad, tortured by hallucinations and introspection.»
These days, as travelling is hardly an option (at least not in a cosmopolitan sense), we are left only with imagination. Even if Bruce Chatwin considered that real travel was more effective than pretend vagrancy, he will not have objected to imaginary journeys. Picking up a thought from Montaigne, Chatwin complained in the same article that habits and a rigid mindset dulled the senses and obscured the true nature of the things around us. Humans, he said, are curious by nature.
Well-known repertoire works are available for streaming these days and are served to us like cold coffee. The CNZ concert, however, is a journey into new sound worlds. We had a lot of fun during the preparation and probably you will agree with Chatwin's words about human nature as you listen to the varied program which we have conceived for you.
IRCAM Paris, June 2019: In the hallway of this music research center made of bare concrete, steel and glass, Franck Bedrossian stands in front of the camera, giving three advices to young students. The first one: Develop as much as you can a curious and generous listening attitude! Presumably the French composer, who today is one of the most important musical minds in his country, is also thinking of his own beginnings while saying this. As a performing musician, he had a classical education (piano), whereas as a listener and composer, he went through a multitude of apparently contradictory sound worlds: classical repertoire, traditional music, jazz, pop, electroacoustic music, contemporary music – first of all Spectralism – and oral traditions. Every sound phenomenon trains the ear. It is absolutely irrelevant into which category it is sorted by order-loving musicologists. The crucial thing in Bedrossian's case, however, is not so much diversity as the desire for a sense of unity. It was probably the idea of an integrating force that made the thirty-year-old composer write Transmission, his official Opus 1 in the year 2002, while finishing a course on computer music at IRCAM. This stunning work for bassoon (a rather inconspicuous orchestral instrument) and electronics will surprise you given its sheer density. This music is a creative act on the precipice of extremes, a huge gesture with which a new style has been established («saturation»), a manifesto piece, an electric shock. Distortions and distress signals follow one another in breathtaking complexity and roughness. Goodbye to bourgeois politeness à la française!
In the next piece we dive into a completely different sound world, and the word «dive» is to be understood here quite literally. As the Roman numeral in the work's title, Mouthpiece XXIV suggests, it belongs to a large-scale series, in which the American vocal artist and composer Erin Gee explores the sound possibilities of the human mouth with differentiated approaches and techniques. Just get involved with how the sounds change when the percussion instruments are immersed in the aquarium, and what a beautifully subtle interaction develops between the tenor saxophone, the whistling of the percussionist and the glissandi of the diving pipes! At the beginning of the Mouthpiece series was a piece for solo voice in 2000, which Gee performed first as a graduate student. To date, the series has grown to over 30 works for orchestra, opera, vocal ensemble, instrumental ensemble and string quartet, which have been performed by renowned interpreters from all over the world. Illuminating a basic (musical) idea from ever new angles can be very appealing. We will come back to this below.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to talk on Skype with Panayiotis Kokoras. This is not at all a matter of course: The Greek composer lives in the currently freezing cold north of Texas, where he teaches as a professor at the university in Denton (about as many inhabitants as Berne). If he didn't pick up the phone, he said to me earlier, it was because the power grid had collapsed again. Kokoras seems to have gotten used to it. For the performance of Mutation, however, a power outage would be a disaster. The electronics expand the sound of the clarinet, multiplying and distorting it – quite different, however, from Bedrossian.
While talking to him on Skype, my eyes immediately fall on string instruments leaning against the wall in the corner of the bare furnished room. I asked him if he is planning to remodel the instruments. He would indeed own and play many instruments, Kokoras revealed. If you don't have tactile access to them, he explained, it's very difficult to create a novel way of writing. In the case of Mutation, the innovation is a paper-thin synthetic reed that he himself has devised using a 3D printer and special cutting techniques. That way he creates a richer sound palette to really express what he imagines. (As an aside, it should be mentioned that Ernesto Molinari uses a squeaky yellow clarinet that cost 100 euros.)
Kokoras' music is not simply innovative, but also deeply rooted in our environment. The sound awakens memories, creates images in the mind's eye, forms soundscapes, and contains subtle humor. The protagonist of his work: a mosquito. Kokoras has analyzed the buzzing, and then synthesized it with the instrument. It is no longer a real mosquito buzzing, but an extended, surreal, fantastic one. Seen in this light, the technical innovations are not an end in themselves, but subordinate to a musical imagination. «Vivaldi also had descriptions of animals in his pieces, but he did not have the appropriate instruments at his disposal. If I want to hear a mosquito in my music, I can do it much better. After all, it's not about recreating nature, it's about art and poetry.» Mutation is a commissioned work for Expo Milano 2015. It’s motto: Feeding the planet, energy for life.
Often it is the path that is the decisive factor in a creative process, even more than the result. This is absolutely not to say that the result is not interesting! The process of composing is often like solving problems, facing challenges. At a certain stage, Austrian composer Bernhard Lang came to the conclusion that in art it is absurd to try to solve a problem at the first attempt.
In his Game series, which includes the work premiered today, Lang is investigating the following questions: How can the musicians organize their interaction themselves without having a conductor in front of them? Which decisions do I leave to them, which freedom may I grant? To what extent are improvisations practical while maintaining the initially intended background structure? For his Game pieces – Lang began them in 2016 and is currently working on the ninth piece – he has formulated instructions that resemble game rules. A lot of calculative work hides behind this ingenious work that is based on mathematical predictions, on a kind of forecasting system. Lang has developed his own system of simulations, for which he uses the computer. The result: counterpoints whose internal structure obeys certain probabilities. Such a semi-improvisatory work has a famous precursor in Roman Haubenstock-Ramati's Mobile series.
And the numbers of the title? As trivial as it is self-ironic: Game 7-4-3 is the seventh piece in the series for (4!) 3 instruments. Air Loops is an equally plausible subtitle: Breathing movements are audibly and visibly synchronized, thus forming an important element in the structure of the piece. Despite all compositional rigour, there are certain associations with jazz, and not by chance: the composer, originally a pianist, was also a performing musician in the field of jazz, improvisation and rock music for quite a long time.
At the end of our concert, we take a trip into club culture with German composer Alexander Schubert. Born in 1979, he has, as his music proves, an irrepressible desire to push boundaries. He succeeds in bringing together what is incompatible for the guardians of the respective genres, practices and mentalities. The sonic result of Serious Smile needs no explanation whatsoever, it immediately casts its spell on us. And yet it is astonishing how sophisticated this music is on closer inspection. The composer himself explains: «Four musicians are equipped with sensors that capture their movement and let them shape the electronics and processing in real time. After several solo pieces involving motion detection this works tries to examine the interplay between augmented musicians. Musically it departs from the sort of hardcore / free jazz aesthetic per sued in several previous pieces – but moves the material and interaction in a slightly different direction. While the focus in the approaches was an acoustical extension and merging of the acoustic instrument, Serious Smile draws the attention to the artificial and inhuman qualities of electronics and technical interaction. It also plays with mechanical and digital forms of representations. Both performance codes and used musical material can be considered as highly digital.»
The journey is not over yet, it will continue very soon, hopefully in the spirit of Chatwin. Recently, one of our ensemble members jokingly said: «We are the Crazy Nomads Zurich». Well, it's true! So far, the CNZ has not performed more than once at the same venue in the 2020/21 season. Musical journeys can be adventurous.
February 19, 2021