Encounter with Daniel Teruggi and the GRM in Paris
Originally published in 20th Century Music (USA, September 1998) and in the Sonic Arts Journal (March 1999). Republished in eContact! 10.2 — Entrevues / Interviews with the kind permission of the author.
The following interview took place in the studios of the INA-GRM during a visit to the Parisian centre in November 1997.
L’Argentine est le pays dans lequel Daniel Teruggi a fait ses études musicales ainsi que des études en Physique. Réside en France depuis 1977, où il a fait ses études d’électroacoustique, son doctorat et développé sa carrière musicale. Sa vie professionnelle c’est le GRM à l’Ina, depuis 1981, et plus récemment la Direction de la Recherche, toujours à l’Ina, où d’autres horizons sont explorés : la sauvegarde audiovisuelle, la pérennité des œuvres, la perception, la sémiologie. Sa musique est toujours électroacoustique, souvent acousmatique, souvent avec des instruments. 80 œuvres pour le concert, le théâtre, le cinéma et la danse jalonnent son parcours ; près de 200 conférences sur des sujets liés à la pensée musicale en relation avec la technologie, la perception de la musique, la sauvegarde audiovisuelle ou sur sa propre musique.
[John Palmer] Daniel, can you tell me about your musical formation, how you began to compose and at what stage in your life?
[Daniel Teruggi] My musical life began quite late. I mean the decision of being a musician was a late one, I was about 18 years old. Before that age I had made very informal piano studies and at 18, when I finished high school, I came toEurope on a trip following the end of my studies and it was a kind of shock for me to discover another continent and other countries. My interests before I came to Europe were oriented towards science: I come from a family of scientists, so it seemed quite normal that I would become a scientist. During this first trip, I became interested in acoustics, I mean the physical aspects of sound and, of course, really interested in music. So I went back to my native country, Argentina, and began to study physics as well as piano and all the traditional musical studies: harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and composition. I continued this traditional training until the age of 25. At this age I came back to France mainly for musical reasons. Also, Argentina was going through a very difficult period so I wasn’t interested in being there. But before leaving the country I spent eight months in a music centre in Buenos Aires where electroacoustic music was taught, so I began to listen to some electroacoustic music, organising activities and understand things without really practising. I was very keen on sound. This had always been a central interest of mineand as soon as I went back to Argentina at 18, I began experimenting with sound. Although I wasn’t trying to do music, I was working with tape recorders, microphones doing re-recordings and orchestrating things… I was working in a kind of studio manner with very primitive sounds, mainly with piano sounds played traditionally and also inside the instrument.
For this reason, when I came to France at the age of 25, I had a certain experience in working with sounds. I then got in touch with the GRM which at that moment was running a joint composition programme with the Paris Conservatoire. I attended the two year course in electroacoustic composition. Pierre Schaeffer was still a teacher when I was there; he wasn’t a particularly good teacher, I mean he wasn’t somebody that you would call a teacher. He was somebody who was there occasionally making some comments and not really very engaged in teaching. At the end of my studies there was a vacancy as an assistant for two years at the Paris Conservatoire and I was offered the job which was paid by the GRM. I think it was a very important moment in my life because the day before I got this offer I had informed my family in Argentina that I was going back, because there was nothing special for me to do in France. My life at the GRM began in January 1981. At that time, half of the work was carried out at the conservatory and the other half at the GRM, mainly assisting composers in their work. That was a very important experience, indeed: I was working with composers such as Xenakis, for example, helping him to work in the studio.
A change occurred in 1984 when the developmentof the Syter system was just finished and there was a need to have composers working on it. I invested an enormous amount of time getting to know the system. It was very difficult to work with it because there was no documentation available: the only information on the system was delivered verbally by people who were always very busy and thought you knew everything before asking, so they gave you hints that you had to work out for hours before you understood what they meant. Finally, I became very good in working with the system. From that time onwards my position within the GRM was a continuous development until July 1997, when I became responsible of the Group. That’s my story.
Argentina and France, South America and Europe: how did you experience, both musically and culturally, the change of country and how did this affect your musical thinking?
I have very often thought on what did my native country give me musically, except, of course, a very strong practice on popular music in my early years, namely the tango and the folk music which is a very vibrant activity in Argentina, not folkloristic at all, but a kind of recreation of what is supposed to be the national origin of the country and the national culture. Since my education was shaped by mainly European teachers or their descendants, there shouldn’t be anything that would differentiate myself from other European composers. However, I still think that there is something. Something that I am not capable of defining precisely. It’s a certain concept of sound, a certain way of listening to and evaluating sound. A quest for a distinct richness of sound, a certain power inside it. I like to listen to sounds and I always look for music where I can hear that the way the sounds are put together suggests a particular way of listening. I experience the same impression listening to music made by Japanese composers. When you listen to this music you feel that this man is listening in a different way than you do; he has another conception of sound. I really can’t say what the conception is or how it might be described. That’s the first aspect, that is the sound impression. With regards to my written music, I mean the music which uses acoustic instruments, there is an influence of Argentinian music that I don’t try to bring out explicitly, but which I am extremely conscious of and I don’t try to hide. I have composed a work that uses the bandoneón, a favourite instrument for tango, and that is a kind of homage to, not the music, but the sound of the instrument. Argentina is a very contradictory country! It’s a very complicated cultural mixture and its music reflects a lot of its internal conflicts.
Are you still in touch with the country?
Very little. A part of my family is still there and with the exception of people I know who work there, with whom now and then I have some contacts, I have practically never done anything there. I have mainly developed my musical life here in France and despite all the tough sides and difficulties implied in leaving a country and coming to a completely different world, there are two things I really appreciate in my French experience. Firstly, that nobody ever made me feel I was a foreigner. The second point is that I always felt, and experience tends to prove what I am saying, that this is a country that is always ready to recognise your talents. So if you have good conditions and work well, you have a lot of possibilities to succeed in your activity and… here is the proof! (pointing at himself and laughing). The proof for two reasons: that being a foreigner I managed to get a very high-profile job and that, as a foreigner, I am perfectly integrated in the French musical world and when journalists and people talk about me they don’t even remember that I am not French. They don’t say that I am French, but they don’t say I am not. They don’t say I am Argentinian. I don’t consider myself as an Argentinian composer, in the sense that I would represent the work that is being done in that country. One of the first things I learnt when I came here was that Argentina is much farther from Europe than it is from Argentina. I mean, when you are in Argentina, you look at Europe and you think it is close because there are cultural similarities and ways of thinking, but when you are here it’s really a great distance. The people that are doing electroacoustic music still interest me, that’s why I feel much closer to somebody like Alejandro Viñao or other composers that are living here than what’s happening over there and I feel myself completely integrated in the French musical life and an active part of it.
In 1981 you joined the INA-GRM in Paris: what kind of impact did this have on your artistic development in general and your composing in particular?
[Hesitating] My first answer would be that it had no influence, but this cannot be true. [Laughter]
No, I wouldn’t believe it. [Laughter]
Nobody would believe it! I’ve always been very independent in all my thinking. I would never like to be attached to an æsthetic attitude or been pigeonholed in a specific musical stream. I feel completely independent. Getting into the GRM was indeed a very important fact from a musical point of view because I got in contact with a musical community. A community with common tools, a community with a certain type of thinking. In my particular case, being an assistant of other composers meant that I had to go into someone else’s mind and tried to work through another one’s mind with my own solutions which were not necessarily what the other composer was really expecting to achieve through me. This was a very strong experience. At the beginning in the GRM my feeling was that I didn’t understand very well what was happening here and I didn’t completely agree with certain æsthetic attitudes or approaches concerning music. But I gradually got into the system and I think that my first really important work was in 1984, with Eterea, the first movement of Sphæra. This was the first important piece in which I got rid of my past and I had the feeling that I was doing what I wanted to do, whilst before that, I had intentions, but between the intention and the realisation there was a kind of gap. Also the people around me were satisfied with that work and that was the first moment I really felt I was getting in the system and into the appropriate thinking. This composition was also the result of all the work I put into the Syter system. Probably it was more through the Syter that I got into the GRM than through the musical ideas.
At a general level, what is the impulse, the drive that urges you to conceive and write music?
The great interest in working with electroacoustic media is that you have to choose all the time. Therefore, you may begin to understand how you work yourself. It took me a certain time to understand that there would be a kind of ideal situation for music in my case. I could even describe it. It would be a very rich sound, with a lot of harmonics, continuously on the same note; a kind of tonal axis, very long, infinite. I could spend hours listening to it. I was conscious that I couldn’t do music like that, I wouldn’t dare propose that kind of musical experience. From the moment that this was clear in my mind, I began fighting to achieve this goal and at the same time fighting against it. I mean, I wanted to introduce that perception of things in my music, but I didn’t want to introduce it regularly. Then making music became a kind of exploration of different strategies to develop this idea. In all my works I introduce different ways to approach the problem, and this was also a very strong attitude in my early works.
Three years ago I decided that I had to completely evacuate the problem and so I composed a work called Variations Morphologiques (Morphological Variations) that in fact is not a set of variations in the traditional sense, but plays with the idea of a morphological variation around one sound, always the same sound. That was my first real strong musical impulse that organised my thinking about music. The second one came much later and in relation with using instruments associated with either real time electronics or tapes. This was related to the æsthetics of the GRM reflected by the word acousmatics. This word describes any situation in which you listen to sounds without knowing how the sounds are done, without having the cause in front of your eyes. This may be similar to a radio where you listen to a piano and you imagine the actions that produced the sound. Perception becomes very complicated when you don’t have any way of understanding how the sounds were made and you are trying to guess about their origin. Your listening is different from that of a traditional instrumental situation because you try to explain almost unconsciously how things are done and at the same time you try to find the sense of what is being said. It’s a very complex way of listening that we experience through electroacoustics.
The acousmatic attitude in a certain way excluded the instrumental situation and I was more and more concerned with the idea of working with mirages, sound mirages, that is explaining a sound that doesn’t correspond at all with its origin. For example in the percussion work Syrcus, there is a whole movement in which the percussion plays a kind of clay instrument called the Udu drum. This is a very simple instrument that produces quite high pitch sounds and some glissando-like sounds similar to the Indian tabla. What I suggested was that the instrument had water inside, and that some microphone was catching the movement of the water. I became extremely interested in creating this kind of false perceptions, even if there is no sound transformation. This is because there will be such a relation between the real sound and the non-real sound that you are very often trying to guess where is reality, where things begin and end, and what is real and what is not real, what is acousmatic and what is performed in front of your eyes. That’s the main concern when I am working with instruments. I want to provoke in the listeners the idea that what they are listening to is a different reality than what they seem to think and see.
Do you exclusively work within the electroacoustic domain?
Yes. I did a work for sixteen instruments and tape last spring and that was a kind of side experience, but it was interesting to test a small orchestra as a material producer. What I enjoy in writing for instruments is the special relation that you can create with the performer. Even if the work will be later performed by other musicians, for the first performance I need to work very closely with the performers, experience the music with them and feel that there is a communication between us. When you are dealing with an orchestra, you just meet them three times before the concert and they play and they are gone… the interaction is less evident.
How would you describe your compositional techniques?
I have certain regular attitudes that permit me to organise my work. I compose rather quickly from a practical point of view. I mean, the time I spend on the work is quite short. The time I spend preparing the project, however, is very long: more than one year. Since I orient my work from some kind of sound-producing device, be it an instrument or something else, I need to accumulate material in order to feel a kind of mattress on which I can lay down and then develop a particular kind of technique. In my first work for piano and tape I first produced the tape part since I had a vague idea of what I was going to do with the piano. So it’s a work for tape and piano, and not for piano and tape. Now I develop both at the same time, I build the two towers one beside the other and I try to imagine how things will work.
Did you ever write first the acoustic part and then the tape?
I did that for the orchestral work because there was no other way of working. I did a lot of thinking about the situation. It’s very difficult to write a work for piano and tape where each part is independent, I mean when you are writing the piano part it is difficult not to write a piano piece that would eventually work as a stand-alone piano piece. If I am thinking of an active relation I need to work with both. The first situation was not a bad one (doing the tape first and the piano later) but it is then almost inevitable that the tape tends to be very strong.
Is there a particular extra-musical source that inspires your musical creativity?
No, I don’t think so. I never refer to other arts. My music reflects my own living experience. This statement involves other things: I have a personal point of view which is that, for whatever you want to achieve, you have to be prepared to suffer. Suffering is a very good way of advancing in life… [Laughter] It doesn’t necessarily mean physical suffering, but all sort of life circumstances…
You are talking from your personal experience…
Of course: in relation to my native country or things that have happened here. I would say that’s the way it happens with any kind of activity, how you relate to things, how you perceive things. But there is no extra-musical influence in my music.
What kind of soft or hardware do you enjoy to work with most, if any, and why?
[Long pause] My feeling is that each musical project has to be a different one…
Is that important for you?
Yes! very important.
Why do you think so?
I use my sounds only once and never again. I need to feel that the things I am doing with these new sounds are also new. Different sounds call for different configurations. When I managed to master the Syter system I was extremely happy because each work gave me the opportunity to create different configurations and after a certain time I new how to get into the system very easily. I could create special objects for specific sounds and then I would go on creating new ones. I work like that also with GRM Tools or combining the GRM Tools and Syter, but I have become very critical towards the sounds produced by Syter because its sound definition is not so good. Our ears are now used to another sound quality… so I tend not to use it very much because high frequencies are not so good and the sounds would not be rich enough.
Usually, I don’t try to explain how I do things. I have got my own personal recipe for each different situation and I’ve never worked with only one kind of software. What I can say, from a more general point of view, is that there were several different and difficult moments concerning technology in the last years. Studios with only analogue devices were very comfortable because you had massive objects which you could see, control, touch and modify. Working with such instruments was very tiring because you were running around starting and stopping machines, connecting cables… and you had to do all this standing all the time. Now you tend to sit more and more. The first MIDI period completely disarticulated working in the studio because nobody knew what to do. You felt you were actually doing some kind of instrumental music mixed with some electroacoustics. The Syter system was very important at that moment, but that was only a complement to the studio. Only three years ago the situation changed completely, once again, with the arrival of Pro Tools, even if its initial intention wasn’t electroacoustic. If there was a tool on earth that was thought for the work we do, it was that one! And the most interesting fact is that music has changed since: it has become more precise and shorter. The fact of being able to control absolutely each instant of the music has condensed information and duration. I think we are now ready for more sound definition…
How important is it for you to work with real-time software?
There are two kinds of real-times: there is a “real” real-time, that is a real-time that concerns the performer. I did some work with performers and myself transforming the sound and that was a very difficult work, indeed. Because of this, I don’t use it any more: I have suffered too much for that situation. I really enjoyed it in my first works in which I thought there was an open realm with a huge variety of possibilities. It’s a fascinating thought and I really think it is possible, but the amount of tension and suffering during the concert is very high because you never know if it’s going to fail. The other real-time aspect is composing, reacting to sound and modifying them whilst you are listening to them. This is the basic aspect of electroacoustics. The main difference between instrumental and electroacoustic composition is that you are working within the sound, with all the risks which that means. The main danger is that you get trapped by sounds in that you fall in love with them and lose your objective view towards them while you are in the studio. That’s the charm, but also the danger of it. The really new situation is when you have finished to work and give your work to the audience. You have listened to the sounds thousands of times. You have an intimate knowledge of each sound, but when you listen to the piece in the concert situation, you discover the work, you listen to if for the first time, because for the first time you have changed your ears. You put yourself in the audience’s ear and try to imagine how other people listen to it. You begin to fear that you made mistakes in your perception, that you have given importance to events that are actually not that important. Then it takes a certain time before you begin to like your work and get accustomed to it, knowing that you won’t have the possibility of acting on it again. You listen to your work and either you feel all your intentions all along the work, and you feel there are no real accidents, or you feel that you have made mistakes: a wrong level, or the over-evaluation of a sound which wasn’t that important, after all. But even there you might be mistaken. My feeling is that once you have finished your work it doesn’t belong to you in a certain way. Once you have decided to give it to people it’s they who will decide what they will listen to.
What are your present projects? How do you see your future as a composer and what would you like to achieve in your future works?
My new piano piece will be performed in a couple of weeks and I have two or three projects in my drawers, somewhere. When asking myself about the future, I think of two attitudes: one is to feel young, and feeling young means that you have a lot of things to say and do in music, and want to explore more; the other one reflects my experience in seeing what has happened to other composers, how they get aged, how the ideas change, how the ideas are repeated, how they, the composers, get old. Sometimes I ask myself, shouldn’t I stop? (I wouldn’t do that now!) I even ask the same question about my work here: shouldn’t I change job, do something else? Unfortunately, society makes it very difficult for us to be able to do those kinds of acts. In fact the question is, would I miss something if I wouldn’t do it? If I say to you now, yes I will stop, it is a very cold and objective statement which is the result of a certain rational thinking of the moment…
… which is not necessarily your subjective reality and all the emotional package that comes with it…
Exactly. It is very different from the subjective reality that I can feel when, for example, I create and work with sounds, and certainly very different from the power I experience when I organise sounds in that kind of domain.
Let’s now talk about your composition Syrcus. Can you tell me about the genesis of this work? Was there a specific artistic goal you wanted to achieve?
Syrcus was a complex project because there were a lot of things intervening. The first one was that I was approached by three different percussionists, more or less at the same time, who asked me to write a work for percussion. The second was that I hate percussion works. [Laughter] It’s not that I hate the music, but I hate percussion concerts: I hate the percussionist’s activity during the concert. I feel like he/she is in a kitchen breaking eggs, beating them, putting something in the fridge, getting some bananas out of it, seeing if the chicken in the oven is cooking, chopping food of all sorts… In other words, I see a percussion concert as a succession of actions made by somebody who is cooking in a kitchen. [Laughter] So I was very annoyed about this circumstance because I said to myself, I won’t contribute to this feeling, I don’t want to make a work where I feel I am doing exactly what I don’t like to see in a percussion concert. This was a dilemma for me. First of all, I had to decide which percussionist I would work with, and secondly which instruments I would use. All three percussionists were good and very keen in the project, and I knew they would have worked very seriously. I am now writing another work for the second one… but within another instrumental situation.
Another kitchen work…
No, no. It won’t be like that; I can assure you. So, I chose the percussionist according to the way of working that he proposed to me. It was clear that there shouldn’t be many instruments — to reduce the kitchen’s size! — and I would use not well known instruments. So I sampled various percussions and I chose the more interesting sounds to transform. I was also interested in creating some kind of mirage effect since the instruments were not very well known so you could use this situation as a source of ambiguity (something that you can’t do with a piano, for example, where the sound reference is so strong). The third aspect was that I was getting tired of Syter, not as a system, but in terms of the image I was giving myself through this instrument. I wanted to break this kind of image “oh, here is Daniel, the Syter man.” Once a young composer doing a course here asked, “What does Syter mean?” and I replied, “Syter means real-time system.” Then he said, “Oh, I thought it meant System Teruggi!” [Laughter]
How did you react to that?
I thought, “this is the right time for stopping.”
That was an indicator…
Indicator! Exactly. I thought that it was time to get rid of this label that was on my head. So I thought, OK, I shall do one more work with the Syter in which I will try to use all the resources of the instrument. It was really a very complicated concert situation in which I used the Syter to do all the transformations, as a hard disk device for sending sounds, and as a sampler on which I sampled some short sounds, looped them and could send or stop them with my fingers, playing on a keyboard. All that plus real-time spatial control of sound during the concert. For me it was a very intense activity, and a long preparation was necessary in order to perform the piece. At times I really felt that the machine was suffering… it was a kind of gamble with the machine. Then the great surprise was the percussionist who really worked marvelously on the project, and with a strong belief and concentration. He learned the whole work by heart. I didn’t want people to notice that there was a score behind, so he used horizontal music stands which would not hide the instruments. He would stand on the same place therefore avoiding “kitchen” movements all around. The CD recording took an enormous amount of time, because we didn’t have any Pro Tools at that time.
How did you do it?
I digitally recorded the percussion alone. During the recording the percussionist would listen to all the transformations I had previously done. I then edited the recordings and sorted out all the good sections in order to get a continuous version of the percussion’s part. Then I recorded all the transformations on an analogue multi-tracks tape recorder and chained the two machines, making one slave of the other one, and sent the sounds from the analogue device through a noise suppressor with two different reverberators, and made the final mix on another Dat machine. Half of the resources were in one studio, and the other half in another studio, so it took me about two weeks organising the network and then of course I had to be satisfied with the results, not forgetting the percussionist’s needs and all the logistics that come with it. Another important aspect was to create an equilibrium between the percussion’s part and the sound transformations. For me it was a really long and intense work, but I am very satisfied. I have also done other versions of the work on GRM-Tools.
Syrcus is one of the few percussion works with a very convincing dialectic; one which is essentially based on rhythm, and yet the use of rhythm in this work is never a mere unfolding of beats or pulses for the sake of it (your ‘kitchen’ definition), but transcends them by shaping a meta-discourse of impressive lyricism. And this is rarely found in works written for this medium.
Yes. You will find the same thing in the new piano piece, where I have worked with the same attitude, although from a different point of view. You shouldn’t forget the title: Syrcus, also meaning Circus. It’s a typically anti-minimalist work since I really engage the percussionist to be active all the time. I wanted to give him a roll that lasted ten minutes, when I said this to him he jumped back! Of course, it wouldn’t be a roll on the same instrument. It’s really a very physical work for the percussionist who has to be continuously playing very fast and at the same time constructing the music. I wanted this to be the situation on which to construct the work: a continuous playing. The percussionist has to go through a very stressing situation, the same as in the circus where one is supposed to do a certain number of actions, not constructed actions as in music, of course, but very similar in their articulation. The circus artists are very highly skilled and have to be very well organised in order to prevent themselves from falling. I feel that this situation gives a great tension to the work. So many things are happening, and they are continuously happening…
I also think that rhythm is never banal! It seems that there is a very natural continuity throughout the work…
You will find that in other works with exception of Instants d’hiver. That is the only work in which I use short moments that are chained together. My ideal way of working is overlapping things which develop into something else: a chaining situation with long articulations. I also don’t want the listener to particularly notice where the beginning and ends of ideas are. I much prefer to make you feel that you find yourself in a new situation where you have lost the ancient context…
It’s interesting that you are saying this, because by listening to this work I had the impression as if I was suspended on a magical thread in a sense of ‘timeless timeliness’, as it were, where the percussion’s narrative seems to unfold by stretching and compressing itself…
When I make music I don’t think of the listeners, but I feel that I have a responsibility towards them! This responsibility concerns the fact of taking charge of their listening and making them travel through different experiences. I don’t want to let them out of that. I want them to be in charge of this experience, almost by forcing them to follow things…
You sound very aware of this…
Yes! Absolutely. And I use different techniques to achieve that. One of my favourite techniques would be to make you think that you are listening to one thing, but at the same time there is something else that is already there; something you may not be aware of. When the first thing you are listening to begins to fade out, you just catch another rail and continue following the discourse on that rail, forgetting the previous one. After that, you may move onto a third, fourth rail as they are coming in and so on.
I think this does come through very clearly, indeed, and also works very well…
I work a lot with it. The other work on the CD, called Sphæra, a composition on the four elements air, water, fire and earth, was a much longer work, almost twice as long, so I had to reduce it in order to include it on the CD. That was a very interesting experience, I mean how to reduce music. When I began to cut the work, all the relations began to fall down, because they wouldn’t exist anymore. The direct jump from a situation to another was very annoying from a listening point of view. Therefore, sometimes I completely cut out some sections, and in the water movement, for example, I took ten seconds out of every minute, picking out small instances…
This kind of compression must have reinforced the intensity of the work…
Yes. It consolidated its drama.
Why did you write Sphæra and why Socrates?
Sphæra was a very long project in time. It took about four or five years to complete it, and then I had to wait other three or four years before I could publish it. Originally, it was a multi-track work. I began with Eterea, the ether, but the whole project, that is the idea of writing on all the four elements, came later on. The idea of Socrates was a concept that corresponded to the work: a very good Greek friend of mine talked to me a lot about the philosopher, describing much of his thoughts. The duration of the CD recording is 42’24”. I worked on each movement independently. It is important to say that I wasn’t trying to explain what the elements were, I was only explaining the elements through the way I imagined them. The only element that sonically corresponds to what it is in reality is water. In fact, I did use real water recordings. In the other three movements there are no natural sounds of the elements I am dealing with.
But you get very closed to the wind and the whirling effects for example…
Yes. That was the use of white noise which suggests that kind of situation.
I was struck by the fact that unlike so many composers working in this field, within the classic acousmatic domain based on timbral syntax, pitch seems to occupy a very important role in this work. Not a secondary parameter, but a very essential part of your musical discourse…
You are absolutely right. Think of what I said earlier concerning this kind of ideal music conception of a single tone being prolonged in time. In Sphæra I decided to apply a different pitch strategy in each movement. In Eterea all is directed to the final moment in which we get to the decisive sound, in Aquatica the strong element is a kind of percussive sound with a very definite pitch that comes in regularly scanning time, vertically rather than horizontally. Focolaria is a short movement, its duration being three minutes and nine seconds. In the first version which was six minutes long, I had a very beautiful low pitch sound evolving very slowly, which was reduced to one and half minute in the final version. In the last movement, Terra, a pitch oriented sound appears on three occasions and I, again, concentrate on its unfolding towards the final goal.
I can clearly hear timbre and pitch constantly interlocked and complementing one another in a very imaginative and, indeed, effective way….. I am thinking of that major chord in the piece as a striking example…
I would never use a pitch without a timbre behind it. It is pitch because it corresponds to a timbre.
I think that it comes across very clearly.
Yes. But it also causes me a lot of problems because I often build very interesting sounds that are completely destroyed when I try to transpose them. For me pitch holds an harmonic, rather than frequency, value. It contains an enormous load of elements which may appear in that major chord you have just mentioned or sometimes in a less clearly defined situation. It’s always associated to a sound that will conduct the pitch…
It is a part of the whole spectrum you are dealing with…
Yes, precisely. One of my desires is to work with a system that would allow me to work more freely with pitch: for example, once I have an interesting sound, being able to move it around, creating glissandi and things like that.
Looking at the whole work as a strongly conceptual composition I think you have been very successful where so many other composers have often failed: and that is the mimesis itself. I could hear each of the four elements without actually having to read the titles. You’ve made it very clear!
I agree with your impression. The other works I have heard which use the same theme seem to be much more contemplative in their approach. They try to make you feel the richness of the water, or the air and so on. My concern was not that at all. I wanted an element to be perceived dramatically and in a way that would construct a form. I also wanted to use the element in an evolutionary way, that’s why I tried to take a certain distance with the element itself.
I have seen a small sketch of the score of Aquatica. How did you notate the music?
All these are analogue works with some kind of digital processing here and there including Syter, of course. The score is a very primitive one. It looks like a mixing score of the kind you find in Pro-tools, except that the graphics I used tend to describe the sounds more in relation to what I hear than a physical description of sound. It is very important the way you describe the sounds if you want to go through hundreds of different sounds and remember them all. Description may be a result of the small drawings you are doing whilst you are trying to notate them. Associations and names are important in order to define your sounds because they recall images that are inside you.
What would you describe as the most unique characteristics of INA-GRM?
There are two answers to your questions: one is what the GRM is now, the other refers to what I would like it to be. The most important feature with regard to the first answer is that the place where you and I are sitting at this very moment began fifty years ago. And that, in our extremely changing world, is a real achievement! Fifty years later we have been able not to build a cult around the personality of Pierre Schaeffer, but we have continued working to make more and more new music. The fact that we are continuing the original attitude towards sound and music despite all the changes in technology and people is a proof that we are going straight on in the same direction. My second concern relates to the future of the GRM. This year we are celebrating our fiftieth anniversary, but that’s not my issue. I want to look forward to the next fifty years and to the year 2048. What concerns me is what is going to happen next: what we are going to do next year and the year after. From that point of view, I enormously believe in the internal resources which we can develop here, and the idea of really having groups of people working together on different problems.
A way to achieve the future is to create discussions between the three different aspects of the GRM’s musical research, namely, i) the creative side which involves composition, ii) the development of tools, for instance new software development, iii) the theoretical research, for instance the thinking behind why and how things are done, what are the composers’ actions and reactions during the creative process and in their thinking. The fact that these three activities were so far developing sideways is a sign that there was no communication between them and consequently they didn’t interact with one another, creating new working dynamics. Of course, there are principal concerns such as our concerts season with Radio France. However, the objective for future developments is to bring these three areas of activity closer together.
What are the artistic policies of the GRM and how do you set collaborations with composers?
There are a lot of discussions about this at the moment, because either you have a policy or you don’t, that is you let things grow naturally. The tendency so far has been to let things happen. The other option is, like Ircam for instance, that you create a reading panel that meets once a year and choose out of, say, three hundred applications those who will be working for the following year. It’s a very neutral way of addressing yourself to the composers. It’s an impersonal way of selection, but also a very effective one. We have often thought of how we would deal with this. Up to now what interests us in composers is not what they say, but what they do. So the way to communicate with composers is to listen to their music and see what they have to propose as a musical attitude, as a mastering of the studio facilities and as a sound conception. If they come and show their music, and we find it interesting, and they propose a project, they may have a lot of chances to succeed. This method is perfect when things are perfect: when you accept everybody. But it becomes more complicated when you don’t feel like accepting somebody’s music. We get to know composers, we are interested in them, we try to find out how they think, we try to find out a genuine interest or idea on what they would like to do here. Up to now it was my predecessor François Bayle or myself, even when I wasn’t the director, who decided which composers to invite here. From now on, I would like to enlarge the process of taking decisions.
You mean to create a more organised system…
Yes. An organised system in which we would look at the works and somebody may defend a project because perhaps it is coming from a young composer, not accomplished yet. We receive between one hundred and one hundred and fifty works per year, coming from all over the world. Composers tend to approach us as concert organisers rather than as a studio production unit and this is very embarrassing because our concerts tend to be the results of our studio work. So we have very little room for works coming from other places. We more or less perform thirty works every year; four or five may be old works and four or five come from other studios. The rest, about twenty, have been made here, at the GRM.
And that is important…
That is important because we feel we are showing the results of our activities through the concerts. Now and then, we may offer this possibility to other people who have done their work elsewhere. We may do that on a radio series as a showcase of what is happening around the world. All in all, however, the policy is to get to know composers, their music and then to verify if what they are looking for can be found here. For example, if what you are looking for is a work for seven instruments and real-time transformations I would say that this is not the place to do that, you should go somewhere else. It is very difficult for composers to know what is the right project to submit to the right place, but by listening to the works of the composers one feels where their interests lie. There must be a mutual interest: we are interested in composers, but they must be interested in coming and working here. That’s not only for financial reasons, let alone æsthetic reasons, because we don’t ask for a particular kind of æsthetic attitude. Once composers have been accepted it is up to them to decide how they intend to realise their work.
The GRM began with the first experiments conducted by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948. Looking back through the last fifty years, which ones do you think have been the most important steps that have most contributed to the development of the Group?
The Pierre Schaeffer experience in 1948 wasn’t conceived as a revolution at that time. He wasn’t planning to change music. He only wanted to continue music in the direction he thought it was going. However, this direction completely changed all the musical activities in our musical world.
Would you agree that it initiated a radical change in the way music is perceived today?
It completely modified the perception of everything: sound, musical thinking, composing. Even instrumental music has been recovering and struggling with the influences caused by this enormous change of musical conception. Music has always oscillated between two positions: one that focuses on sound qualities, the other focusing on sound values. These have been the two opposite worlds within the musical realm: either you concentrate on sound, or you concentrate on the relation between sounds. Popular music concentrates on sounds, serial music concentrates on the relation of sounds, but you can go back to this: Bach will make a value-music or a sound-music according to whom he was addressing himself. The electroacoustic adventure began with two directions: one which favoured sound, Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrète, the other that focused on value, the electronic music in Cologne. One cannot really say that there was an open conflict between these two directions, especially because a lot has been said that both streams later on mixed up and things became wonderful to the point that ten years later there was another new concept, called digital music, which meant everything in electroacoustic music, but done with computers. The point is that this profound division, attitude towards sound still exists and, even as I said earlier electroacoustic music has influenced all the musical activities of the second half of the century, I feel that the serial aspect of music has been so far stronger than the sound aspect of music, that the results of serialism have influenced all the other musical activities very strongly. The establishment is serial, and not electroacoustic! If you want to do “real” music you use notes, you don’t use sounds. And I feel we are coming to a change, we are coming to a new moment in which, and that’s my project as a composer and as an institution, to give more weight to the other side of the balance: to help sound perception develop itself more and more and therefore counterbalance the influence of the relation between sounds. I don’t think I have to do any kind of particular fight or struggle in order to achieve that. I believe all these things come naturally, for example because people change their attitudes to music and the way they are listening, because after half a century of extraordinary explorations in the musical realm we are focusing on more concentrated forms, more concentrated intentions of music. Intentions are indeed very important, and we needed very strong Cage-like intentions to break with certain habits. In recent years we have seen a very remarkable orientation towards the listener and several innovative approaches to sound. There is no doubt that something is happening in this direction. Nowadays, music can be something that pops out of a system, a machine or a pencil. From this point of view the future is really an extraordinary adventure and we are looking forward to facing it with a lot of pleasure and expectation.
Daniel, thank you very much indeed.
Thank you for your interest.