Pierluigi Billone's Harvard Lecture

To me, being a composer means being at the centre of a constellation of questions.
My work is an individual answer to these questions.
It deals with very direct, open, clearly formulated questions.
The real problem is: the possible answers.

The more general questions:
What sense does my work have, individually and in the social and cultural context in which I live?
What is the real space of freedom in which I can operate?
As a human being, as a worker, as a musician?
What is my active and passive role in the musical world in which I am active?
What influence does the culture in which I grew up exert on my creative freedom?
How direct, deep, and truly interested is my knowledge of the past, of tradition, of modernity, and of what is contemporary? Is it a real dialogue?
What role does this knowledge play in my work?
For me as composer, what do classical music, contemporary music, jazz, electronic music, improvisation or pop music (in all possible forms) mean, or indeed music of any kind, even the traditional music of my country and of other countries?
What relationship do all these kinds of music have with my work?
How open and sensitive, or closed and inflexible, is the human and artistic context with which I am in contact?
What is the real geographical-cultural dimension today of the musical knowledge of any individual?

The more specific questions:
What does sound mean today? And where is it?
What do sound and the experience of sound mean to me?
What real culture speaks inside me, through me, as an unknown, unconscious voice?
What knowledge do I really possess, theoretical and/or practical, of the role that the tools of my work play in my activities?
What are the real relationships for me today between sound practice, sound thought and technologically transformed reality?
At what degree and level of awareness do I operate in my work?

If one takes these questions seriously and listens to them, word by word, the answers to them are not so obvious or immediate. They could even be unforeseeable.
Every time someone decides to dedicate his energies to music, he comes in contact with a sound conception and a sound culture that are already defined and functioning.
To be a composer is naturally a job and a profession.
But this experience could also become an opportunity and a path to knowledge.
In this case, it is not always possible to know which way the path leads.

If I ask: what is sound?
Something appears in the dimension of sound.
It begins to be recognized as *Sound.
Not every vibration can be *Sound.
Sound is not an acoustic definition.
Sound always stands for a revelatory relationship.
Sound is a special kind of name:
it reveals what a human being is in contact with, and on what he depends for his equilibrium.
It is a rhythmical revelation, in an extremely broad sense.

*Sound is defined by an open constellation of meanings:
presence, contact, revelation, recognizing and belonging, a centre of balance, necessity and communion (that has always been the case).
This constellation of meanings, whose hidden centre is Sound, is continuously renewing its sense.
It dislocates its centre.
It is a slow but constant change and movement.
Consequently, what is recognized and practised as sound and as music, changes.
Or, in other terms, what demands our attention to be recognized as sound is always changing. There is no exception to this phenomenon.

Acoustics as a science has provided ultimate definitions and categories that explain the reality of sound. In this sense, it is a form of revelation.
Acoustics proposes a mechanical model of sound with its components and its laws of existence. On the one hand it has made possible a different approach to sound, often with results that are of artistic interest. On the other hand, this point of view has modified, influenced and monopolized musical terminology so wholly that any different kind of thought now has a particular difficulty in articulating its own categories.

For instance, there is a kind of traditional thought that is not conceptual, nor based on differences whose sense is organic, morphological, rhythmical, or spatial, that is to say a kind of thought which obviously possesses and knows a mechanical dimension, but which cannot be explained using these categories.

In the moment when sound is understood and explained according to the quantity of energy, wave form, periodicity and so on, and its qualities and differences are conceived and explained according to mechanical categories, then big families of elemental differences such as Sound/Foreign Sound, Forbidden Sound/Sacred Sound, New/Old Sound are articulated, or qualities such as Open/Closed Sound, or more specifically differences such as consonance/dissonance, and so on. All these deep layers of the experience of sound find no more direct access to strength, but are like roots without a tree.

The existential, ethnic and cultural roots of these differences can either no longer find a direct path to language, or lie in a subordinate corner of ethnic or psychological curiosity. And slowly, this also changes our ability to think about them, and thereby ultimately let them operate. If we consider that a kind of communal musical thought is spreading across all the modern world right now (by means of planes and the Internet, to be clear), with a common technical language, a complete lack of roots, and that this is all that remains of completely different cultural traditions, then this question is more serious than it appears
at first glance. This phenomenon shows that the lack of cultural roots is not perceived as a problem.
Evidently, the human being who does not take care of his roots anymore finds himself stranded for good in the rhythmical nowhere of today’s technological world.

Let’s consider, for instance, the distinction between sound and noise, which is not a specifically musical distinction. Its roots are basically cultural. If we compare it with an acoustical definition, it is clear that we are completely prevented from recognizing in it a trace of a deep, existential act of inclusion/exclusion.
One of the consequences of this lack of recognition is proven by a two-sided phenomenon: on one side, the endless production of an academic, non-poetical, meaningless, pseudo-traditional music is actually one of the loudest noises we have to deal with today; on the other, it seems that being interested in noise, or in non-traditional sounds, or at least in sounds that cannot be reduced to anything traditional, could in itself already be a poetical act.
A new form of academic noise-conformism is emerging.
Such a distinction or separation of Sound/Noise primarily recalls, is connected with, nominates and articulates a deeper principle of inclusion/exclusion in a broad sense.

*Noise means: what disturbs the equilibrium of identity. Something that isn’t embodied in itself and does not demonstrate the recognizable sign of sound.
Something that remains outside the rhythmical world of sound.
Something that is excluded from the relationships that define and identify sound.
We could say: noise means what cannot be accepted at the core of revelation.
Or also: noise means something that can endanger the law of equilibrium of a revelation.
For instance, noise will be excluded from the ranks of the sacred (whatever one recognizes as sacred).
One simple example: in Europe, during the Early and High Middle Ages, Christian musical traditions no longer recognized the vibrations of the trumpet, drum and cymbals as sound, and so these were excluded from its rituals. At the same time, similar vibrations of trumpet, drum and cymbals were recognized as sacred forces in Tibetan musical tradition, and so were included in its rituals.

In this case, the acoustic distinction of sound/noise with its own perspective is completely irrelevant. It explains nothing, it decides nothing.
It articulates only a mechanical difference that belongs to a mechanical representation of sound, which is a perspective inside an already open conception of sound – the Western, traditional conception, whose basic principles (by the way) have nothing to do with acoustics.
What is recognized as *Sound, whatever it is, becomes the centre, assumes the role and power of a centre, and settles hierarchies.
Now, all the rest is *Noise.
But these two poles, Sound/Noise, remain essentially complementary. What is in force as the centre will be not established by a theory or an individual; it grows and builds through the internal tensions of a culture. We could compare, for instance, Ascension 1965 by John Coltrane and De Koonig 1963 by Morton Feldman.

Let’s try to lead these few observations about sound to their possible consequences. Even if this might seem a provocation, I hope it will be an intelligent and a welcome one.

First: Many theoretical and practical definitions in our musical tradition make sense only within the conception of sound that created them und made them possible.
Consonance, Chord, Harmony, Pitch, Timbre, Duration, Density, Texture, Process, Structure, Order and so on, as well as certain cultural, professionally restricted roles such as Voice, Performer, Violin Player and so on.
Outside this conception they have a different sense, or they have no influence, are irrelevant, or do not exist at all.
They all presuppose a conception of sound.
They are quite exclusively internal articulations of a specific, given conception of sound.
For instance, a didgeridoo performance is an event impossible to understand and decipher in terms of the Harmony Treatise of Arnold Schoenberg or the theoretical considerations of Pierre Boulez in his Penser la musique aujourd’hui.

Secondly: Sound can appear and open up a sound world everywhere, even in a car’s suspension.
Sound always risks not appearing, even on a violin or in a voice.
A computer can produce vibrations, analyse and manipulate them, but it cannot think a *Sound.

Thirdly: More generally, if sound basically is not an object but a relationship that harbours within it a revelation, then we should start to recognize that not only Morton Feldman and Karl Heinz Stockhausen, but also Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Pink Floyd and U2 provide us with a revelation of sound that is unique and therefore precious.
But there is more to it than this.
Even the music for popcorn adverts or for breaking news is a revelation, and this revelation concerns me.

Even the background music in a supermarket or in a hotel lift demonstrates a relationship between human beings and sound, and is a revelation.
Here, the sound is considered necessary for the presence of a certain kind of human being.
In spaces like a supermarket or a lift, a human being feels integrated and in a kind of balance if he is accompanied and welcomed by a sounding presence. His attention can also be attracted by a sound.
Without it, a human being is probably directly in touch with an inhuman, silent, “desertified” space created by himself, on the outside and inside.
But normally this silent contact with things, especially with the sound of the mechanical world – which could easily turn into an existential dialogue – is something to avoid.
The necessity of this sound, the necessity of always being accompanied, surrounded and welcomed by sound, reveals a particular tension and distance that nowadays involves human beings and sound.
This distance also consists of sound, and in any case, this sound reveals and shows itself.
iPods, TVs, computers – everybody can understand it. Everybody is it. It needs no explanation.

To recognize that every sound is always also a revelation doesn’t mean giving up distinctions and differences.
On the contrary, it is necessary to think that something precious lies in everything, that it touches me and concerns me – something that in every case establishes a revelatory relationship between us.
At this point, if I have any intellectual curiosity, I should ask myself:
what relationship exists between my music and the background music in a hotel lift or a supermarket?
I could answer: “There is no relationship; that is ambient and entertainment music.
Mine is serious”.
But this answer is too easy, and offers only a partial truth.
Even if our cultural value system justifies it and supports it, this answer will remain inadequate.
If I had even a little intellectual courage, my answer would be different.
Baroque music sounding in the lift of a modern building in 2010 cannot defend itself anymore, but its revelatory force continues to apply.
My music and the music in the lift have something essential in common: a destiny.

To think that it is necessary to let music sound in a lift means that the human being in question is completely deaf, at least deaf to sound, and only needs minimal vibrations to keep his sense of the rhythmic space active.
It works if it can be perceived as homogeneous vibrations, recognizable as music, with no degree of expression or pathos, with a clearly recognizable social status, with a minimal degree of complexity that requires no particular effort of attention, but which could stimulate a minimal part of it. That is enough.
Nothing more than an elegant small light. It seems …
that it is a dual-faced phenomenon: This human being is not interested in actively listening to music, but he lives constantly surrounded by sound, in sound.
It is impossible to eliminate our need for a referential sound because the existential balance of a human being depends on it.
A human being does not want to wait for any kind of revelation by music or by sound any more; music and sound have become nothing more than a particular but indifferent quality of presence, such as a light, a picture or a decoration.
Sound in this case – whatever acoustics could say – means background, ethnic colour.
Like a traditional carpet.
It is a new ethnicism: the post-modern, rootless, technological human being.

This event of music sounding in the lift also poses a big question to my work.
As composer, through my work, am I able to create the conditions
that will again allow a really different relationship with sound to emerge?
*Sound in the sense of the open constellation of meanings that I mentioned above:
presence, contact, revelation, recognizing and belonging, a centre of equilibrium, necessity, and communion.
Perhaps: yes; but I only have our traditional conception of sound, the same that nowadays indifferently accepts having Vivaldi or Bach or a bossa nova sounding in the lift, or even finds it necessary.
Therefore the answer is: NO. I am not able to do that. And there are many reasons for this.
Unless I accept the risk of renouncing our traditional conception of sound and open up a space where a new dimension of sound might appear, which in any case I cannot know in advance.
I only know that is possible to start a search for it, with the hope of succeeding in making small steps to create a path along which other people might proceed.

Let’s make just a few general, introductory remarks.
It is necessary at the beginning to keep a distance from the sound conception we already know.
Then I simply renounce knowing what a sound is, and consequently what a noise is, a pitch, a voice, a song or a bassoon. I keep waiting for a different starting point.

It is necessary to create the space for a certain quality of silence.
This doesn’t mean that there will be a lack of sound activity, but rather a suspension of its more familiar forms. It is necessary to create an emptiness where a different sense of sound could emerge, if it exists.
Even if this means changing the sense of the music we know to a great extent.

Probably, though in a mysterious and enigmatic way, it is necessary at this point in the evolution of technology and our system of life to take a knife and proceed to cut.
Nowadays, the limits of our body are confused and have collapsed into a thousand forms of technological dispersion.

*Sound should once again try to open up a new space inside the human being, a free space, unplugged from any possible “electric cables”.

Perhaps only this renewed, inner independence would enable us to observe the “dispossession” of our body (our rhythmical and temporal dispossession).

Only if the body “engraves” and “writes” the sound, starting with itself as a source, will sound probably give back a revelation of the same kind.
If the body circulates within its usual cultural limits, it will only reproduce them.
From a different perspective, the usual cultural limits of a body making sound could have no further reason to exist. They could and should be overcome.

If I look at the face of my mother in a photograph, I can still distinguish this image from my real mother.
We should stop believing uncritically that sound actually happens on a CD.
In a certain sense, we know this perfectly well, but we prefer not to think about it.
This form of existence that is made possible by technology cannot replace the direct experience of sound, which is contact and communion, and involves participating and being part of it.
It is possible to imagine and guarantee a kind of full existence of Sound, where it disappears in cases of mechanical reduction and reproduction.

A body that takes this whole responsibility on itself, letting sound have a possible place, becomes a kind of “watcher” of this possibility, it becomes an instrument itself.
In this case, a new sense of relationships, of contact with the material, and of the possibility of creating forms and gestures, must be open beyond the limits that we have learned from tradition.
This is the secret task that tradition itself entrusts to us.
If the fruits of this work are not completely recognized as music,
then this will be a sign that one is at least not on the wrong path …

Pierluigi Billone, Harvard 2010
Übertragung ins Englische vom Autor
(Lektorat: Chris Walton)

Covid-19 Info

We try everything within our possibilities to realize our concerts as planned. Due to the recently decided reinforcement of the Covid-19 measures, the concert of 10 December 2020 will be offered exclusively online as a live stream. Unfortunately, the concert of 11 December 2020 in the crypt of the Grossmünster in Zurich cannot take place and will be rescheduled for a later date. In the second half of the 2020/2021 season there will be corona-related adjustments. They will be communicated on this website and via newsletter in due course. We wish you much strength and confidence and hope that you will enjoy our streaming offers!
With all best wishes, Collegium Novum Zurich