Lecture "Violin and metal bodies"

Lecture held at the Institute for Electronic Music and Acoustics (IEM), University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz.


Good afternoon, thank you for inviting me, I am glad to have this opportunity to talk with you.
During the concert tomorrow, you will listen to an electroacoustic piece of mine, La rosa incarnata del suono.
In this piece I examine two different kinds of sound. The first is the sound created by the friction between a metal body in contact with a rigid body - in this case it's the bridge of a ferry-boat.
The second is the sound of a string instrument, the violin in particular, and more specifically of the G string of this instrument, played with varying pressure close to points where its natural harmonics occur.
Moreover, in La rosa incarnata del suono, many concrete sounds, sound images, appear.

My speech of today will focus just on these three topics, that are the topics of my work.
I will talk about:
my research on metal bodies;
my research on the violin;
and my work on concrete sounds as sound metaphors.

Let's start from the first topic: metal bodies.
In the concert notes of the piece I mention the "purplish and sinuous resounding nebula, dreamlike and fragile".
This sound is obtained by the scratching of the metal bridge of a ferry-boat. As you can imagine, each boat produces a different sound. For example, after long sessions of recordings I have noticed that the sound you'll listen to in the piece could be produced only by one specific boat combined with specific conditions of the wind and water, and only if the bridge scratches a metal platform. I have processed these sounds with simple Spectral Processing techniques. The software I used was Csound and Audiosculpt.
In previous research and compositions I have already studied the sounds originating from metal bodies. For example, ten years ago, while recording the environmental sounds of a harbour, I also happened to record the sounds of some steel springs in tension that were close to the microphones - the kind of springs that are used to dampen the pushing and pulling of the boats moored to the pier. Later, working on the material I recorded, I discovered that with each stress the springs produced a fascinating sound, probably due to the fracture of the steel molecules, as an engineer friend explained me.

What I found fascinating in the sound were its spectral characteristics, that is, an alternation of consonant "chords" and different degrees of perturbation of this consonance due to the massive presence of microtonal components arranged in small miniclusters around the base notes of the consonant spectrum.
When the torsion of the springs increases, the consonant spectrum continues and at the same time starts shifting, enriching itself in the high frequencies bands. I find this growing of the spectrum in time very expressive. I also find touching that a mechanical movement, which is (due) responsible only to the stream of the sea and the molecules of the steel, once examined under the microscope could contain such a pathos.
Then, while working on the transposition (one or more octaves lower) of many partials present around 4000, 6000 and 8000 Hz, more of these frequencies became audible, and that made the spectrum even more interesting to me.
Also exciting was the work, through spectral rescaling, on zones of the spectrum that were hidden and not audible.
In my opinion the sounds produced by some metal bodies are fresher and more spontaneous than those generated using classical sound synthesis techniques.
In addition to the technical aspects of these sounds, which are exciting to explore and examine, I also find these sounds oneiric and poetic.
Now I'd like to play for you an excerpt from a piece I composed 10 years ago, Untitled#1, which is a preparatory study for a longer piece titled Under the Skin, which I composed in 2010. Untitled#1 was taken from the sound of a steel spring in torsion, single sound sample of 5 seconds, which we are going to listen to.
And now I am going to play a part of Untitled#1.
Now I'd like to play for you a few parts of the same piece combined with short excerpts from two videos. Indeed, this piece was also used by a couple of Independent filmmakers.
The first video is by Samantha Clark, a filmmaker from Scotland. It is based on patterns of ligth reflected on the surface of a river.
The second video is by Reynold Reynolds, an American filmmaker I worked with in Berlin. It documents the demolition of the "Palast der Republik", the former parliament of East Berlin until the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a symbol of the DDR after reunification, the building was suddenly and quickly demolished. Many intellectuals criticized this act as an irresponsible attempt to get rid too soon of a still meaningful symbol of the past.
The Berlin poet Gerhard Falkner is author of the poem in the video. The voice you hear is his own.
Here I have merged the sounds coming from the metal springs with violin samples and synthesized sounds.

Now I'd like to move on to the second topic, a topic I am very interested in: string instruments, and in particular the instrument I studied and was trained on: the violin, a wonderful instrument, with a repertoire that includes some of the most beautiful and important pieces in the classical canon. I feel fortunate,lucky, to have studied and still play works by Bach, Corelli, Schumann, Schubert, and Paganini, and I really couldn't do without this music and devote myself only to composition. For me, I'd feel incomplete as a musician if I dealt only with my own music.
That said, there is something I find terribly restrictive about playing classical (or contemporary) music without wondering what we conventionally mean by the word "Sound", and pretending that sound is just a C or an F note, whether it is vibrato, legato, staccato, mezzopiano or mezzoforte, and this is something many of you know better than me, because it's the subject of your studies in this institute.
The phenomenon of sound is something much wider and far more complex and interesting.
For many years now I have conducted research on the violin, an instrument that is privileged in the experimentation as well: the bow and the string are two extremely ductile and flexible tools.
I discovered so-called "new" sounds just by chance, studying the traditional repertoire. In a way, they may be called the classical mistakes, the sounds one should avoid by means of rigorous study. But since I found them at least as beautiful as “correct ” sounds, I started to explore them in a systematic way, resorting to non-traditional performing techniques.
I have a couple of observations to share with you about some aspects of conducting research on the sound of an instrument or on any sound-producing source. Of course, these are just personal observations.
When I talk about “new” sound or “other” sound I don't mean something futuristic, innovative and pioneer, I am thinking about the kind of sound is born when a musician or composer decides not to concentrate on only such aspects of the sound as its pitch or the pureness of the tone colour, but starts considering also phenomena we can generically define as distortion and noise.

For me this sound is always a kind of “scandal”.

It's a “scandal” for the following reasons:

 - it's a sound not yet identifiable or codifiable, so it is difficult to recognize;
 - it's primitive and raw. For this reason it's closer to nature than it is to civilization;
 - it seems to exist autonomously, like a mineral nested inside a rock, with an already clearly shaped profile. Sometimes it takes the composer enormous effort to discover this kind of sound - but once found - all he can do is to put himself aside. A melody, a chord are born from a succession or a superimposition of notes that the composer invents or elaborates; but the raw sound, in the very moment it is born, is already anorganized and articulate organism. The composer can only give it a certain musical character and organize it through time.
 - Since it is in part random, aleatory - in the case of the violin, the string does not always react in the same way – this kind of sound is often elusive. When it occurs it's never precise or punctual. We can't expect it to always behave in the same way.
 - Since it is a matter with infinite identities, variations and personalities, such sound demands that the composer who manipulates it kill(s) himself every time, renouncing his own precise identity, because the only way to succeed in this type of research is to feel astonishment in front of something that previously, a moment ago, didn’t exist.
 - As soon as the composer gives up experimentation, sound withers. In order to live, sound needs a continuous tension of the composer while exploring a matter that is and must be unknown and misterious. This tension creates a spark, fundamental for any musical creation.
 - Furthermore, this kind of sound raises various problems of definition, and it forces the composer to address some rather practical questions: first of all, is it actually sound or is it a mistake, a “freak”? And in either case, what kind of sound, what kind of mistake? Second, how can we use this sound? What kind of performer does it require? How much time will a musician need in order to learn a piece composed with in a notation, asking him to play the instrument in an absolutely unorthodox way? And what kind of audience will it have?
For obvious reasons the survival of a sound with these characteristics is uncertain, this sound won't have an easy life.
Moreover it lives in such unique conditions: in my case the string must be trained in a very patient, persistent way, until it reacts spontaneously. By stimulating it in one or more points with the bow and the left hand, using several degrees of pressure, the new sound takes its shape. And the apprenticeship process of the string, of the matter in general, can require a long – if not endless – time. During this process many sounds may come alive, all different from each other, because each period of transformation of the matter corresponds with a unique sound. This means that it might be even possible to compose an entire piece, obtaining the most heterogeneous sounds, from one single point on the string.

With this in mind, I've been working on a series of pieces for violin, each one originating from a sound character and each examining this character in depth.
I would now like to play for you excerpts from two of these pieces for violin. The text you'll read on the slide is from an essay by Carl Gustav Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype”. It's an essay I've had in mind with this work because of some surprising correspondences I've found between the sound I'm exploring and Jung's ideas.
This is a work in progress.
For me, the "child" mentioned in the title is the sound. I was not sure about showing you the text, as we don't have enough time to discuss it, but actually you don't have to interpret the text literally, the ideas do not have to correspond systematically with some aspects of the sound; the text is just a source of suggestion, in order to inspire a different interpretation of what we call sound.

Now I am going to move on to the third topic: sound metaphors.
In La rosa incarnata del suono, which will be played tomorrow evening in the Minoritensaal, different kinds of concrete sound appear. These sound images "do not have any purpose of telling a story. Rather, the pleasure induced by their mutual contact is an end in itself".
Indeed, recently I have been more and more overcome by this way of thinking about sound. What I want to do in my music is to reinvent an idea, an object, a feeling, through one or more sound images that are not connected to each other or even to what they try to describe, and that in their occurrence create a tension.
To give you a visual impression of what I am talking about I'd like to show you a couple of frames from the movie The Colour of Pomegranates. Many of you may know it. It's a masterpiece by the Georgian filmmaker Sergei Paradzanov.
As you can see, all of the images Paradzanov uses are not connected in any obviuos way, but they still generate, through their disconnected juxtapositions, impressions and feelings that are very powerful. This is what I would like to do with music.
In this regard, I would like to say a few words about a recent project of mine.
This project focuses on the Stations of the Cross, what you call Kreuzweg.
This is a work in progress as well.
Why Stations of the Cross? Because, irrespective of one's religious beliefs, for someone who grew up in Southern Italy the life of Jesus represents a familiar fairy tale, and like every fairy tale it is extremely rich in symbols, impressions, interpretations and reinterpretations, distortions, memories, all of which can be emptied of religious meaning.
In the case of fairy tales, meaning can be suspended. This is why the images we find in them are perfect for re-creation and redefinition through  heterogeneous contact with new images. In my case, I'm speaking of musical images - concrete sounds, violin sounds, synthesized sounds.
I'll play for you two excerpts from this project, the Stations of the Cross. These are based on parts of the Gospel. On the screen you can follow the text.
The first piece is about the event in which Jesus, after the Last Supper, praying in the garden of Gethsemane before being arrested, feels sorrow and troubles.
The second one is based on the event in which, after the capture of Jesus, all of the disciples ran away, except for a young man, a man wrapped in a linen cloth.

To sum up, I've spoken about:
my research on metal bodies;
my research on the violin;
my work on sound metaphors.

With that, I will stop here. I'd be happy to try and answer any question you might have.
Thank you for your attention.