by Vincenzo Santarcangelo, Mar 2007 (Italy)
Can you explain us how did you switch over to experiment with the guitar and become involved in the Space Program?
The guitar is not a main issue in this change. The big change is in the methods, the thinking and the cultural background. I wanted to change into something radically different, so that i could have new fields to explore. So the first thing i changed was the drone (most of my past work is drone music), and replaced it with silence. The second main change was in the composition focus. Formerly i took sound as composition matter and i changed focus to performance. There is no process now, all sounds are manually, physically played over silence. The third main change was in culture, and this was (still is) a difficult one. I wanted to make electronic sounds in performance according to instant decisions, but i needed a discipline, a matrix of decision-making possibilities. And i also decided that i would play instruments with no known technique, no conventional interface, and freely using the frequency spectrum, no chords or scales. So my concern in performance became how to find tools for structuring discourse. Everything i needed to know had already been developed, but not in the history of electronic music – so i had to almost completely detach myself from the history of the field i was working on, and embrace teachings from another cultural field with a history with little relevance to electronic music, which is jazz.
The live performance of [“Space Studies”] on your website inspired me these considerations. Recent theoretical discussions about the design of new electronic musical instruments usually focus on the theme of gesture and the technology to capture and retain some aspect of the expressive properties gestures convey. From these discussions arises the notion of an ‘instrumental Gesture’ and that, associated, of ‘gestural control’, which are related fundamentally through the actions by which the music is brought into being in performance. Gestural control addresses the question of how to map the capabilities of the human sensorimotor system to the parameter space of the instrument being played, in order to provide the performer with maximum control of music’s four fundamental elements – time, pitch, timbre and amplitude. //
I would propose a more advanced description of music’s parameters: Music is like a coin with two sides – sound and silence, and it rolls on the time axis. As Cage pointed out, time is the only parameter common to sound and silence. And silence is the air of music, there can be no valid concept of music without considering it. Now the parameters of sound — you have to forgive me, but those notions are very old, from a time when “musical sounds” had pitch, and unpitched sounds were called “noises”. Pitch is frequency. Not every sound has a pitch, and timbre is a dynamic proportion of frequencies. So, the true parameters of sound are time, frequency and amplitude. The parameters of music are sound and silence.
For the performer, manipulation of these dimensions is embodied in physical actions. By taking as a starting point a physical system that produces sound in response to action and finding other physical systems with closely related behaviours, it is possible [for instrument builders] to define strategies for mapping actions to whole classes of sounds that have common physical roots. The classes of sounds defined in this way will most likely already share certain affordances or opportunities for manipulation, a property which will help to determine the kinds of instrumental gestures it will support, reintroducing for computer-based musical instruments the notion of a dependence of both the actions on the instrument and the sounds produced by the instrument on shared physical laws. //
Hmm, i don’t think i can agree. While research on computer controllers is a fascinating field, enabling possibilities only limited by imagination, the physical gestures of a performer and the sound parameters they control are completely arbitrary, there is no connection. You can decide which gestures you want to perform music with, and then map those gestures to any sound control, you can wave your hand and make a bell sound or a pitch modulation, or a filter change. Just anything you want, since the controller is only providing instructions and commands, information streams. The physical link between gesture and sound is broken, physical laws don’t apply here.
Do you think the Space Program could be a contribution to these discussions insofar it can be considered as a meditation about the notions of gestural control and instrumental control – a “knowing by doing” (in the sense of Jerome Bruner) reflection about perception of space and sound?
It could indeed be a contribution to any reflection on the importance of the interface to electronic instruments. But for me this is an inevitable move, it’s just the natural way. I can see no interesting development to computer music from the standpoint of the laptop as a controller, it’s just inconceivably poor, probably the most inadequate musical controller ever used. So as a peformer of electronic music there is not much to discuss or think about, it is natural for me to understand musical performance as some activity that involves the performer’s body and gesture in space. On the other hand, the main focus of the Space Program is an issue that is hardly ever discussed. There are brilliant uses of technology, amazingly creative controllers, let alone the vast possibilities of software. There are discussions on controllers and technology. But in an unfortunate majority of cases, the actual music made as a result of research on new controllers is either very inconsistent or uninteresting. The Space Program is working beyond technological considerations about gestural controllers. The main line of research is: Now that i have this instrument, what am i going to use it for? How can i structure musical discourse, what informs my decision to proceed from one sound to the next? How often should i shut up, and for how long? If the purpose of building gestural controllers is allowing for a human approach to electronic music, isn’t it of critical importance to address ways to make human decisions about the music itself? Without thinking abouth this, we can:
a) enter the endless sea of possibilities in “improvisation”, risking lack of consistency.
b) control musical process, either changing parameters of ongoing sounds or manipulating repetitive sequences.
c) compose and perform notated works with a fixed sequence of events.
d) Enter a purely experimental practice, navigating among discoveries by trial-and-error. None of these practices allow for a fully consequential use of an instrument built for human expression, for structuring musical discourse in a coherent, consistent and personal conception of music. None of them provides tools to help making decisions that make sense as steps forward in treading a personal path. I believe that controller development goes together with some new musical discipline.
How much of the sound engineer’s instance permeate the Space Program’s compositions and how much of the musician’s? There are a musician and a sound engineer, or the sound engineer is only the other side of the coin?
A guitarist knows how to tune a guitar and change strings, a drummer tunes drums, so on… It’s natural for an electronic musician to have some engineering skills, using a soldering iron or making a synthesizer patch… Anyway, the matter of music is sound (besides silence) and in general i find it more useful to know how sound works with the laws of physics than learning those abstract concepts, like “notes” and so on. Well, in the end it’s all bout knowing your tools, knowing the materials you work with. That’s a basic condition for any artist.
This is a good time to mention that any art form that focuses on the technology it uses risks being doomed to be an agent of demonstration for that technology. It’s the distinction between using technology and being used by it. The Space Program is all about music and not at all about technology or engineering.
I notice some similarities between the Space Program idea and the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza concept of actions. Franco Evangelisti of that group once wrote: “I find it strange that, while the world is becoming increasingly technological and we are afraid of being taken over by the machines, there is a tendency to primitivism. I think that both the idea of indeterminacy implied in the concept of open work, and the attempt to express the “here and now” in improvisation, are the symptoms of a desire to connect our music to the origins of all music. It is true that we use perfect musical instruments, tested by tradition, and that our electronic instruments are of the most advanced type: at the same time it is also true that we are trying to simplify the act of making music […]. The Gruppo is also trying to escape the old system trough the use of unexpected musical materials and with the help of the real-time electronic instruments. In this field too we are witnessing a sort of concrete and electronic improvisation. This is why it has been easy for the Gruppo to incorporate that technique and also thanks to the portable equipment, it has been among the first to make use of it. In conclusion, we could say that our improvised compositions, which sound just like the written ones, took as much to compose as to play, which means a few minutes”. Do you think these words still remain actual? What do you think, in general, about the idea of a spontaneous composition related to the “here and now” improvisation? Do you really think it’s all about the need, expressed by Evangelisti, to simplify the act of making music?
There are several topics here. At the time this was written (late 1960’s or early 1970’s, i guess), there were pathways to explore escaping “the old system”, and there were systems to escape from (both in contemporary music and jazz). We are in 2007 now, there is no system to escape from. We are used to widespread experimental practices far beyond any systems. If anything, we just need to escape the belief that music can be made by machines. I think our challenge now is to find out how to build something solid out of all the ocean of debris we’re fluctuating (or drowning, sometimes) in. I’m not trying to escape a system, but building a new one, a very open way to deal with sound, something with a view to achieving truly “free” music.
Although i don’t call improvisation to what i do, the ability to make real-time decisions with a sense of compositional thinking is important to me. That’s what the Space Program is about, structural phrasing. A way of playing that carries within it the shape and structure of the music. This is at the core of Sei Miguel’s system, from which my practice is derived. But we should examine those concepts a bit closer. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “improvised composition” or “spontaneous composition in improvisation”. Improvising is solving problems in an unpredictable way, or making decisions based on what’s happening at each moment. Those are not structuring patterns of thought, therefore it’s not possible to “improvise” with a compositional mindset. In other words, what informs decisions in realtime composition or in improvisation are utterly different ways of thinking (let alone listening). The word “improvisation” is an endless source of conflict and misunderstanding because it’s used to describe very different things by different people. Anyway, Sei Miguel once described his music as “not composed, not improvised and not a compromise between the two”, and i share this vision to describe mine.
I’m very interested in the origins of music. I like the idea of performing essential sounds, sounds that are produced for a reason, with necessity. And that takes me back to pre-historical, even pre-human times when early hominids communicated with each other with a mix of gestures and vocalizations that carried a lot of emotional content and often had a musical nature. This communication was a matter of survival, and it ended up evolving into more complex forms that would be the origin of both music and language. So i’m interested in this feeling of necessity, and the fact that i’m searching for ways to structure musical discourse connects me to the very basics of sound, there’s indeed a primal, stone-age quality in my music (that’s why sometimes it sounds a bit naif, but in fact i’m detached from styles, it’s a sort of stylistic innocence from making music with no historical background).
Making music is very complex, but i believe that making it happen should be simple. At least, from a human performing perspective, simplicity is interesting.
(sorry – long question, long answer… : )
Jazz music and its use of improvisation played an important role in the birth of the Gruppo d’Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, and in the birth of your Space Program, too, as you often remark. Can you explain us in which manner? //
We should note that the GINC is a group of composers. And we can listen very clearly to compositional thinking in their playing. More specifically, the music is informed by academic contemporary (that is, postwar) composition culture. Although i don’t hear much information from jazz, their leap out of the writing – conducting – performing circle is a remarkable achievement. And the music is great…
Jazz is a music based on individual decisions which refer to a disciplined matrix of decision-making criteria. And the idea of “conception”, one’s own approach to sound and music, is central in jazz, and phrasing (a meaningful unit of music) is also at its core. I am interested in all of this, all these are main factors in the Space Program. I don’t see my music as composition performance or as an experimental journey. When i play, i always think in terms of phrasing and swing, and in compositions such as “Space” i often use functional analogies to a jazz band.
How did the jazz purists react to these declarations, if they did?
I don’t know, maybe this is too weird for jazz purists – i don’t think i’ve ever got any feedback from there, but anyway jazz is about evolution and change. I can’t relate to the idea of a “jazz purist”.
One sense, more than others, of the word “Space” emerges after all listening the Space Solo 1. It’s the space of the Sci-fi movies of the 50-60’s, the sound of an unexplored planet and that of its unidentified civilization. I wrote in the review that often it’s kinda like listening Oliver Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux recorded in the outer space. Have you been influenced in some manner by the 50’-60’s sci-fi fictions imaginary?
“Space” is meant to be both a comment and a practice about the scarcity of space in our lives, all kinds of space: mental, physical, acoustic, visual, even musical. Everything is becoming saturated, space is becoming a luxury. Space is expensive, silence is hard to achieve. The notion that “Space” and the Space Program are about “space exploration”, sci-fi and so on, is very superficial, that’s not the issue here. That said, i admit there is some common ground between sounds i find interesting and retro-futurist sci-fi sounds. It’s really nothing i tried to approach, it’s not influence, it’s coincidence. Your image is poetically very interesting, though. Sometimes i hear myself playing sounds that remind animals, beasts, birds or other sounds that could happen in Nature. I never try to make them, ever. My music is non-referential and non-descriptive. But when i hear those sounds i let them in, i welcome them. I enjoy the idea that electronic sounds can evoke organic entities — but i leave that to sounds and their listeners. Otherwise, since i find myself in this crossroad of histories, it’s very hard to look back in either direction: i can use nothing from electronic music history because the creative thinking is different, and i can use nothing from jazz history because my instruments are totally inadequate to play jazz. However, most of what i know is derived from Sei Miguel’s own musical system, he has indeed been a true master for me. I am endlessly indebted to him, and he’s a genius with long deserved worldwide recognition.
what is the next step for the Space Program – a new issue? When/where?
The next step (in recording) is “Space Elements Vol. I”, the first volume of this series (6 volumes), still without label and release date somewhere early 2008. But through this year i will develop new directions in the Program, sooner than i expected. Two kinds of live formations, the Space Trio, a sort of “classic” post-free jazz trio with the modified MT-10 amplifier (aka “Bender”, track 3 on the Solo 1 release), bass and drums. And the Space Collectives, variable groups using mainly electronic instruments under my direction.
I also have recorded material for “Space Solo 2” (for later, still after “Space Elements Vol. II”) and i will premiere the live solo piece “Space Study 4” (on analog modular synthesizer) sometime this year.