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Wilfulness vs. Creative Intuition

Interview with acousmatic composer Elizabeth Anderson

The following interview took place in a restaurant in Leuven (Belgium) on 18 September 2014, on the eve of the “Listening to Electroacoustic Music Through Analysis” session of euroMAC2014, where Elizabeth Anderson participated in a round table about “listening behaviours” (see Marty 2016 [in press] for a summary of this round table). The transcript was then augmented with mail exchanges and structured in 2014–15. Some parts that were specifically about the work Chat noir (one of the topics of the author’s doctoral thesis in musicology) were left out because they would have lacked context here.

Elizabeth Anderson is an American composer based in Brussels, Belgium. Her compositional activity spans a period of more than twenty years during which her electroacoustic works have won prizes in a number of international competitions and have been programmed in major festivals worldwide. She recently released a monographic album L’envol [IMED 14127, 2014] on the empreintes DIGITALes label. A second monographic album, Trilogie Janus, will be released digitally by empreintes DIGITALes in 2016. While pursuing degrees in electroacoustic and electronic music in Belgium (with Joris de Laet and Annette Vande Gorne) and the UK (PhD in electroacoustic composition with Denis Smalley), Anderson developed a complete curriculum of electroacoustic music composition at the Académie de Soignies from 1994–2002 and in 2003 joined the department of electroacoustic music at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Mons, where she is currently senior lecturer. 

Underlying Elizabeth Anderson’s creative and pedagogical approach is her research on the perception of electroacoustic music from a poietic and esthesic perspective, to which end she conceived models to explore the meaning of electroacoustic music as constructed by the composer and the listener. It is the fascination with space — from the scale of the macrocosm such as the universe to the microcosm such as cellular life — and the expression of these realms through sound that are among her primary motivations for composing with electroacoustic techniques. From her experience, this medium is a rich and powerful tool to convey to the listener these realities and their strong mutual complementarities. Through electroacoustic composition, she shares with the audience her imaginary world as inspired by sounding and non-sounding phenomena that could occur in such spaces, whether derived from themes of a tangible nature such as oceanography and physics, or from themes of a less tangible nature such as literature, poetry and dreams. This is what she aims to express and transmit through her music.

[Nicolas Marty] Why did you begin to compose?

[Elizabeth Anderson] I began to compose because I wanted to express my imagination through music. When I was an adolescent, this was an unconscious tendency. But, as time passed, I began to realize that I was more interested in creating, rather than what I saw was re-creating (as a performer).

During my childhood, my family lived in Kailua, Hawaii and on the Costa Brava in Spain in the 1960s, which nurtured my imagination. Our back yard in Kailua was a large fenced in area with riot of tropical plants, flowers and trees that we could play in. Outside the family home, the ocean, volcanic rock and plant life in Hawaii were especially exciting to see when we would head by car to higher ground during tidal wave alerts.

The rugged Mediterranean coast and magical gardens of Spain were also wonderful playgrounds for a child’s imagination. While in Spain, my brother and I were tutored by an Englishwoman — she was a former anti-aircraft gunner for London during World War II — who taught us the Calvert School correspondence course from Baltimore, Maryland in an apartment above our father’s office. There, academics were interspersed with ballet, art and cooking lessons and walks along the beach. So, the beginning of my formal education was non-standard, which left a lot of room for dreaming.

Several other childhood experiences piqued my interest in sound, which I now realize helped lead me to acousmatic composition, one of which was listening to the radio. As there was no way to receive televised English-speaking news or newspapers in a fishing village on the Costa Brava at that time, my family listened to the BBC on the shortwave. We also listened to other programmes on the BBC such as The Goon Show and its groundbreaking use of sound effects.

Additionally, my family was close friends with the manager of the Radio Liberty station in Pals, Spain, who lived in the town next to us. Radio Liberty was a CIA operation and it broadcast shortwave radio programmes into the USSR and into other countries behind the iron curtain. As a family, we were invited to the base, on the Pals beach, every Saturday night to screen the latest films that were flown in to entertain the staff. Although security was present, the manager gave us guided tours where we were led by the various broadcast posts and could listen to the broadcasts on air. After the films, we would have dinner at the base restaurant, and after dinner when the adults would linger over coffee, the children would go out to the adjoining garden and pond and reenact scenes from the films with the frogs and lily pads as witnesses. It was a paradise for a child!

When my family later settled in Pennsylvania, a Juilliard-trained concert pianist and teacher lived nearby. I started to study with her student teacher at the age of eight and then with her at the age of nine. She was very strict, but it was exhilarating to have such a musical training — and extraordinary to have it in a small city. I spent a lot of time inventing and improvising on the piano at home after practicing my technical exercises and pieces. After school, other children in our neighbourhood would play together or go to each other’s homes, but I would sit at the piano for hours. It was wonderful.

Elizabeth Anderson in Belgium. Image © Virginie Viel. [Click image to enlarge]

There also was a very good music programme in my elementary school. So, in addition to piano lessons, I studied the French horn at school from the age of nine and joined the elementary school wind ensemble (orchestre d’harmonie) at the age of ten. I immediately noticed the two instruments were not only completely different, but where the piano was a solo instrument — at least I saw it as such — the French horn section was located in the middle of the wind ensemble. For years I listened to how the French horn parts would fit in and, also, how all the instrumental parts would fit together around me. This early experience with sound in space turned out to be very helpful for multi-channel acousmatic composition years later.

After we returned to the States from Spain, my family often visited my grandfather in Manhasset, New York. He was a retired electrical engineer who built radios as a hobby; there was a radio in every room in his house. We often listened to WQXR from Manhattan, which had an exciting series of programmes and commentary. The frequent exposure to sound that was visually detached from its source piqued my imagination. When my parents gave me a small tape recorder in the late 1960s, I recorded everything I could, including every wind ensemble concert, and I listened to the cassettes repeatedly, passionately.

As an adolescent, my imagination was fuelled by extensive reading and family travels. I didn’t think, consciously, about how to express myself, but it often came out through music, writing (fiction, poetry and many, many letters) and modern dance classes. By then my piano skills had improved, and with that my improvisation skills. I never wrote down the improvisations because they changed daily. I also continued to play the French horn in the wind ensemble in my high school, as well as in the city youth orchestra. And I went to summer music programmes. An extensive network of summer music programmes for youth exists in the States. They are marvellous experiences because students can really concentrate on their technique and repertoire surrounded by peers and are often held amidst nature. I attended several such programmes in Pennsylvania, and one in Connecticut while a teen.

During two summers between years at college, I attended the Chautauqua Institution summer music programme in Chautauqua, New York near Lake Erie, specializing in piano performance and chamber music. New York is well known for its cultural centres upstate and the Chautauqua Institution is one of them. At Chautauqua, I was able to practice and improvise all day in log cabins. Chamber music classes also took place almost daily with pianist Clara Siegel, from Chicago. There, students would cram into a small cabin under the afternoon sun and take turns playing chamber music and listen to Clara’s coaching for hours in utter silence. After that, I would play a set of tennis or swim in Chautauqua Lake and then go to an evening concert. There were excellent classical concerts every night as well as opera productions — many people from New York City spent their summers at Chautauqua and they expected the level of culture to be similar to that found in the city.

My exposure to music was fairly extensive by the time I was 22. At that point, I had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in music with a specialization in piano performance from Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. It was the classic American liberal arts education. This meant that instead of immediately concentrating on music, I first took courses in the sciences, literature, philosophy and economics in order to try out these fields. I was so excited when I finally chose my major that I used to run to my music classes, much to the exasperation of my peers! The liberal arts education turned out to be a wonderful source of inspiration for my compositions — one that has been essential for my development as a composer. But, at that point, I had yet no formal experience in composition. My first formal composition lesson was at the age of 23! Very late! That was a very tenuous time because I lacked the requisite background in composition to create a composition portfolio that was necessary to apply to a graduate programme in composition. Thus, I took private composition and musicianship lessons at the Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore for two years before doing a master’s degree in composition at the Peabody Conservatory.

What kind of music did you compose there?

In two years, I had to learn and compose in diverse styles such as Gregorian chant, serialism and open-form, and for different forces, from solo instrument to orchestra and choir. I also continued piano lessons. It was quite a challenge. My composition professor, Pam Quist, taught formal composition through musicianship, which, at the Peabody Preparatory, is the creative use of music theory. I first composed exercises and short pieces using modes. This was followed by the study of Gregorian chant and the composition of vocal pieces in that style. The musicianship work included melodic, harmonic and rhythmic dictation, sight-reading, improvisation and score-reading, which meant singing one line of a string quartet or a four-part motet in solfège while playing the other three lines on the piano and then repeating the exercise, singing each voice.

My exposure to music was fairly extensive by the time I was 22. At the age of 23, I finally realized, consciously, that I was inextricably drawn to the avant-garde.

I progressed to composing twelve-tone pieces for instruments, which initially included a suite for oboe and English horn followed by Drei Stücke für Sopran und Streichquintette, in which I set two Rückert poems and a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn to music. At that time, I was very enamoured with works by Mahler and Strauss, particularly Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and the Four Last Songs by Strauss. Drei Stücke was intended as a twelve-tone work, since serialism was the basis for much of the melody and harmony. Much to my glee (and much to Pam’s dismay) I initially composed the first piece for the Drei Stücke with a twelve-tone row but did not apply serial technique to rhythm, using a samba rhythm instead. The effect was outrageous, but after this brief brush with the notion that anything is possible I settled down and composed a good piece that did incorporate serial elements while not being strictly serial. To this day, I do not think it would have been as good had I not attempted the “outrageous” as I was then able to lock onto and channel that wild creative energy.

The wild urge to create modern forms appeared in other ways, too. During my first semester of studies at the Peabody Preparatory, I lived with my family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and made the weekly drive to Baltimore for my lessons. At that place and time, jobs were scarce for young musicians, so I composed during the day and worked as a cocktail waitress during cabaret shows at a local hotel. Since the compositional work took a lot of time, I often found myself at the piano on the theatre stage after hours until dawn with a pot of coffee re-writing passages. On lesson days, I would drive home after these all-night sessions, shower and drive to Baltimore for the day, and then return to the cabaret in the evenings. It was exhausting, but it was absolutely exhilarating to learn how to compose.

Perhaps one reason why contemporary composition seemed natural was due to years of modern dance classes during my adolescence, which often demanded very angular footwork and body movements. At the age of 23, I finally realized, consciously, that I was inextricably drawn to the avant-garde.

The work at the Peabody Preparatory gained me entrance into the two-year master’s programme in composition at the Peabody Conservatory in 1985. During the first year, Jacqueline Fontyn, an excellent professor of composition at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles, came to Peabody to give a master class.

Having wanted to study composition in Europe for a year after my master’s degree, I asked her if I could study with her in 1987 after the master’s degree, to which she agreed under the condition that I would be accepted by the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles. This worked out, and I travelled to Europe in 1987 with the intention of studying with her one year. However, I soon realized that my grand plan to lock myself away in my garret apartment in Brussels to compose five works and at the same time learn French, support myself and see Europe in a year was idealistic. Additionally, in order for my studies to have any academic validity, it would be necessary to stay for three years in order to earn a diploma in composition, which is what I decided to do.

Jacqueline Fontyn was an excellent professor of compositional form and structure and, while atonal language was not imposed, European contemporary musical æsthetics tended toward a more acerbic melodic and harmonic style, which was encouraged. It was actually quite refreshing. But, despite this, during my second year in Brussels, while composing a work for clarinet and harp, I discovered that I could not obtain the timbres that I wanted. The harpist was uneasy because the extended techniques I wrote into the score were difficult to master and, yet, even then the desired timbres did not materialize. So, I realized that I needed to create these timbres. But how? In 1989, electronic music studios did not abound since they were either attached to radio stations or conservatories, and the only course for electronic music composition that I knew about was in Antwerp, at the Koninklijke Conservatorium Antwerpen with Joris de Laet. Thus, in 1989, I worked toward finishing my degree at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles while starting electronic music studies at the Koninklijke Conservatorium Antwerpen.

Paradoxically, I had studied electronic music at the Peabody Conservatory, where the computer music course was a requirement for the master’s programme. And I hated it! I had a boyfriend at the time who excelled in the studio, creating subtle nineteen-tone electronic works. Yet, it was a struggle for me. The studio æsthetics at that point seemed to me to be more oriented to software than music. I composed one stereo etude, Travels, in 1987, and it was acceptable I suppose, but I resented the course.

However, in retrospect, this first interaction with electronic music proved to be extremely useful. It laid a foundation, but it took another two years for me to consciously accept it.

Why don't you compose instrumental music anymore?

I composed mixed pieces between 1991 and 1993 and, afterwards, turned exclusively to composing for supporting medium. It is not excluded that I’ll return to composing instrumental and/or mixed works. Nevertheless, I currently specialize in multi-channel acousmatic composition. Having finished a multi-channel acousmatic piece, … and Beyond (2014), just last week, I am close to what I so enjoy about this genre — the control of all spectromorphological and spatial parameters of the sounding flow with enormous detail, which is wonderful.

Why this choice of teachers (Joris de Laet, Annette Vande Gorne, Denis Smalley)?

Joris de Laet was a very good electronic music professor at the Koninklijke Conservatorium Antwerpen. In 1991, I began a parallel degree in electroacoustic composition with Annette Vande Gorne, who was a very good professor of electroacoustic music at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles, and later at the Conservatoire Royal de Mons. The two vastly different æsthetics they taught provided an excellent foundation for electroacoustic composition. Flanders is closer to northern European culture, particularly the Germanic and Dutch culture. Even though Brussels is officially bilingual and actually is located in Flanders, French is more widely spoken, and the city culture and spirit leans more toward the French culture than northern cultures. And Wallonia is French-speaking, and thus it adheres more strongly to French culture as well. One could say that the tectonic plates of northern and southern European culture meet in Belgium. Although it is an uneasy meeting point politically, the cultural diversity is fascinating.

What did they bring to your music during your time with them?

Joris De Laet introduced me the Cologne school of electronic music composition, and specifically taught parametric composition using computer programming. I learned how to programme in Basic and in MIDI System Exclusive on an Acorn Archimedes computer, the first RISC-based home computer, and also learned analogue synthesis, recording and editing techniques, as well as basic video techniques. It was a difficult learning curve, but I mastered it. Joris had founded the Studio voor Experimentele Muziek in 1973, which consisted of several Flemish composers of electronic music that worked together, and he frequently programmed my pieces in SEM concerts in Flanders and in the Netherlands, particularly at the Audio Visual Experimental festival in Arnhem. So, shortly after my introduction to electronic music, I had performances and radio broadcasts in Belgium, the Netherlands and in Poland.

The degree at the Koninklijke Conservatorium Antwerpen took several years to complete because I worked full-time teaching private music lessons at the International School of Brussels to support myself. I didn’t have a car the first years, so every weekday morning I would take the train to work in the Conservatory studio in Antwerp in the mornings and then would return to Brussels to teach the afternoons and evenings. On more than one occasion, when I returned home, I fell asleep with my shoes on, such was the exhaustion. And yet I would always get up the next morning to do it again, so much was the joy to work in this medium!

Through Joris De Laet, I became aware of the electroacoustic composition class headed by Annette Vande Gorne at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles. In the summer of 1991, I attended a master class in electroacoustic composition given by Annette at Musiques & Recherches, the Belgian association dedicated to electroacoustic music that she founded and directs. Fascinated by the French electroacoustic æsthetic, I enrolled in the electroacoustic composition course at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles and, between 1991 and 1993, did both degree programmes in parallel, finishing up in Antwerp in 1993 and at the Conservatoire Royal de Mons (to where the electroacoustic class was transferred in 1993) in 1994. It was quite a challenge to manage both programmes and teach, but within one country, I was able to access the Cologne electronic æsthetic and the Parisian electroacoustic æsthetic. What more could you ask for?

There is nothing that replaces the learning experience that you can have with analogue techniques.

Annette studied with Pierre Schaeffer and Guy Reibel, and she has a tremendous knowledge of the French electroacoustic æsthetic. Also, in addition to teaching the French techniques d’écriture and electroacoustic studio techniques, acousmatic composition, and electroacoustic history and culture, she constantly brought people in to give master classes in much the same way that Pierre Schaeffer did for his students at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris. It was a tremendous opportunity for young composers to get close to established composers such as François Bayle, Francis Dhomont, Michel Chion, Denis Smalley, Philippe Mion, Christian Zanési, Jonty Harrison and Trevor Wishart. Many of these composers also adjudicated our composition exams, and they would give us valuable feedback, and that was precious!

One important skill I learned from Annette was to listen. Another important feature of the course was her focus on the invention of sound material that was really meant for acousmatic composition. This had been missing in Schaeffer’s research. So, Guy Reibel had developed the séquence/jeu (sequence/play), which is made by performing with a corps sonore (sounding body) in order to create a sequence of sound objects, or a texture. Annette built on the notion of the séquence/jeu and added the modèles énergetiques (energy models), which are based on natural models such as friction, rotation and fluidity. During the first term, I had to make séquences/jeux with specific modèles énergetiques. This required a very good acousmatic ear and fine gestural control over the corps sonores, neither of which I had at the time! It took years to train my ear for acousmatic composition.

At that time, classes for the techniques d’écriture for electroacoustic music were given in the analogue studio at Musiques & Recherches; I composed in that studio between 1992 and 1997. I would not have had developed the same techniques with digital technology. In my opinion, there is nothing that replaces the learning experience that you can have with analogue techniques. All editing is done manually with splice blocks: incrustation, substitution d’attaque, interpolation, micromontage, etc. Transformation was made with graphic filters, variable speed control on the tape recorders and other devices, and tapes needed to be synchronized from multiple stereo tape recorders to make precise mixes on a multi-track recorder. You had to prepare every manœuver very carefully, which meant you had to think hard about what you were going to do before you did it. We would work in eight-hour shifts, sometimes overnight, in order to do the job! Working in the analogue studio developed my listening because such work favoured the ear, and the pace of the work matched the pace of the learning curve for acousmatic listening, so it was a very organic process. Now, when I work with sound with a computer, I go over and over it to make sure that it’s the way I would have treated it in an analogue studio.

I met Denis Smalley in 1994 and knew, immediately, that I wanted to do my doctorate with him at City University London after finishing my Diplôme Supérieur with Annette. I was eager to do a final composition and research degree in English and the Bologna Accords did not yet exist, which meant that my Belgian Conservatory degrees might not be recognized internationally.

Denis brought precision and rigour to my work. I initially composed Chat noir for my Diplôme Supérieur exam. But, because I wanted to keep working on it, I took it to London, and Denis gave me advice on it, and then I reworked it. He was extremely demanding in terms of the spectromorphological approach, the mixing tactics, the stereo image, the structural development and coherency, and the weighting between the sound materials, etc. I had to work really hard because the first version of Chat noir had a lot of very high frequencies and it was quite short. Denis was excellent, unyielding and the UK experience was very complementary to everything I had had before.

Audio 1 (2:06). Excerpt from Elizabeth Anderson’s Chat noir (1998), second part of the composer’s Trilogie Janus (1996–2001).

Was it mandatory to do multi-channel composition with Denis Smalley?

No, I composed a second version of Chat noir (Audio 1) and then Neon, which is also in stereo. Then I received a commission from Annette in 2001 for an octophonic acousmatic work (Ether). I had never composed in eight channels before, and I was terrified. But those were the conditions, and that’s how I got into octophonic composition. So it was not initiated at City University, but it was one of the pieces in my portfolio because I composed it in three different studios, including City University, and Denis did advise me on it.

So you liked it and stayed with multi-channel composition?

Since then, I haven’t composed stereo pieces, with the exception of a few miniatures that were for the garlands for the 80th birthdays of Francis Dhomont and François Bayle, and for the 65th birthday of Annette. However, I composed an octophonic miniature, Solar Wind, in 2007 for the garland for Bernard Parmegiani’s 80th birthday, God rest his soul. I had always wanted to compose a piece about the cosmos, and that miniature was the beginning of my work on Solar Winds.

Otherwise, multi-channel acousmatic composition has become my specialty. I feel at home with it.

Do you see a continuity in your musical production?

That’s a hard question. I would say there have been patterns of growth and change, but that’s probably not going to be very helpful! I was always interested in the idea of contrasts, of opposites, of different types of formal structures, and in creating unusual spectra. Yet where the preoccupation with these ideas has remained the same — insofar as they have always transcended the medium — the methods to deal with them have changed.

For example, when composing for traditional instruments, I was very preoccupied with spectra as manifested in instrumental timbres, pitches and harmonies. Pitch and harmony are still present in my music. But now they are based on acousmatic pitch, which is much more fluid and subtle — since it can be seen to exist on a continuum that addresses spectra from the perspective of harmonicity or noise — and thus pitch can “appear” or “disappear”. And I have grown to love noise! Additionally, current digital tools allow one to shape all aspects of microstructure in a sound, which is a marvellous universe in itself.

One thing has changed, though: space has become a leading compositional and musical parameter since I began to compose in the multi-channel medium. And I have come to realize, more and more, that I do not work with sound, I work with energy and space.

Do you have a particular taste for specific compositional materials or approaches? High frequencies maybe? Formal structures?

High frequencies? You must be thinking of Chat noir! I like high frequencies and often use them, especially a lot of them in my earlier pieces. I think Chat noir had more high frequencies than any other piece. In 2013, Cyrille Carillon mastered my acousmatic works in Marseille for the publication of L’envol on empreintes DIGITALes. There were so many types of high frequencies in Chat noir that he was astonished. So, he actually had to tame quite a few of them slightly so that they would not be overwhelming. I had to smile because the multi-channel pieces were relatively easy to master to a stereo format although they were much denser. But Chat noir took about a whole day to master because of the filtration work on the high frequencies.

Formal structure… yes, my music frequently is goal-oriented, teleological. When I compose, I think not only about what I wish to communicate, but I also try to put myself in the place of my audience, since their attention is a precious commodity, especially this day and age. Thus, motion and growth processes are the building blocks of my pieces since these processes occur in nature and in culture. I also keep very, very close tabs on the proportions in a work. I don’t waste a second in the sounding flow if it is not essential. That’s just me.

I was actually criticized at my Antwerp exam for being too structurally oriented. A French composer on the jury came down on me hard saying “C’est trop volontariste!” I respect his opinion. But I do think it’s the composer’s responsibility to lead the discourse of the piece.

From my perspective, composing is a confluence between trying to put into place a spatio-temporal structure born from the inspiration for the piece and a structure that arises from the sound material. It’s a sort of a discovery along the way. But that crossroads is very difficult to manage. One always has to ask if the sounds lead in creating structure or if it is a preordained idea of how the piece should unfold that leads the creation of structure. If so, does the treatment of space lead or the treatment of time, or something else within the frame of space and time such as spectra? If one relies on wilfulness (volontarisme), then the beauty of the sounds, of the space of the sounds, can seem over-controlled. On the other hand, if one derives form from free association of the sound material for long periods, the piece can seem adrift. Getting that confluence to feel just right takes a very, very long time.

Discovery is a hallmark of acousmatic composition, and it’s often serendipitous! For example, a slowly evolving, spiky electronic sound from 1:10 to 1:33, that repeats but does not evolve between 2:03 and 2:32, is the result of experimentation as I was composing Chat noir. The series of glassy percussion resonances at 6:00 also were a discovery with GRM Tools, one day when I wanted to see how far I could go with cascade transformations before the software would freeze, because often sounds do not unveil their secrets before three or four generations of transformation.

However, hardware and software was more limited in 1998, and I could only make three types of transformation in cascade before running up against the limits of the CPU. I actually got great results from that version of GRM Tools. I would often push it too hard, it would freeze, and I’d have to re-launch it. But that was part of the compositional territory. Software was often standalone then, so you really got a chance to explore it on its own and push it to its limits.

Sound transformation is trial and error, since it is difficult to predict exactly how a sound will behave when transformed. And, it is difficult to know which transformational tool will release a sound’s secrets or during which generation of transformation. But discovery by chance also extended to mixing and, at times, to the conception of the structure because some of the best combinations of sounds and structural ideas were not pre-ordained. For example, the granular cutaway at 7:16 in Chat noir was found by chance. When composing that moment in the piece, I thought, “Let’s do it!” — because I knew that it would be a lot of fun to defuse.

It is very important to allow for chance discoveries. For example, I just finished composing … and Beyond, a companion piece to Solar Winds, and I had made spatializations of square waves among the hundreds of sounds and spatializations for the piece. I thought they were unattractive and unwieldy, but did try them out at one point with a beautiful sound of plasma — of course my concept of plasma, if it could sound — and it turned into a ballet, a pas de deux between the square waves and the plasma with other incidental sounds as ornaments. And it worked! But I would never have put it together consciously. It was by chance.

This is the paradox. I am wilful but, as I said, one has to allow for chance. This is why composition is a marriage between taking chances, wilfulness, respecting the nature of the sounds and respecting the nature of the space in the sounds. These aspects need to fit together in a very “natural” way. This is what takes time.

When I compose, I classify sounds depending on their spectromorphological qualities. However — and I wrote this in my thesis in 2011 — sometimes the contextual need supersedes the sound’s original classification. Thus, the sound can be used within the frame of the piece in a way that is far removed from its original classification. This happens all the time. And some of the sounds that initially appear useless end up being the most useful. Philippe Mion advised me never to throw away any sound until the piece is finished, because one never knows what’s going to be useful. And he is right. I classify sounds when composing each piece, but the contextualization often trumps the classification. And that’s the way it is. Composing is a messy business! Creating art is!

Composing also brings several different psychological levels to the fore: there’s an “internal level”, where one knows what to do, sometimes subconsciously. However, one does not necessarily know how to do it on an “external level”. That’s really where the fight is. When the piece is finished, I am where I wanted to be. But getting there is a lot of work.

Thank you for your interest in Chat noir and in my compositional approach!

You are very welcome!


Anderson, Elizabeth. “Materials, Meaning and Metaphor — Unveiling spatio-temporal pertinences in acousmatic music.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, London City University, 2011. Available online at [Last accessed 29 March 2016]

Marty, Nicolas (Ed.). Musiques électroacoustiques / Analyses ↔ Écoutes. Paris: Delatour, 2016.

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