‘From culture to nature and back: a personal journey through the soundscapes of Colombia’ is an online essay where I reflect on my experience of the natural sounds, music and rituals of remote places and communities in Colombia. The article, with its accompanying recordings, has been published in Journal of Sonic Studies 19, an issue entirely devoted to the sounds of Latin America.
In the essay I celebrate the astonishing richness and diversity of Colombia’s natural and human soundscapes, and reconstruct the process through which they have influenced my own creative work as a composer. Reflecting on a long personal and intellectual journey of discovery that plays out on many levels – musical, anthropological, aesthetic – helps bring to the fore important questions on music composition as the locus of cultural appropriation and reinterpretation.
How far can the belief system of a distant culture travel before it loses its meaning? From a postcolonial perspective, can a European composer justify the use and repurposing of ideas, sounds and songs from marginalised indigenous communities? In trying to give an answer to these questions I keep unravelling layer upon layer of complexity, in a fascinating game of mirrors where my own identity as a “Western” composer starts crumbling away.
Last week I spent three days in Milan to give masterclasses on live electronics and the Integra Live software to the students of the Conservatorio G. Verdi. It was a very special occasion, as this was the place where I completed my composition studies with Azio Corghi and where I gave all my final exams – at a time when it meant being locked in a room for 36 hours with just a piano, a desk and a bunk bed…
Philip Cashian, Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, kindly invited me to give a seminar to the students of his department. The title I chose for the talk today was “A new approach to composing music with live electronics”. I gave an overview of live electronics in practice, and the challenges and frustration that often accompany performances involving technology. Referring to my experience with Luciano Berio’s musical actions with live electronics (Outis, Cronaca del Luogo), I remarked on the sad absence of these seminal works from the repertoire today and outlined the challenged posed by technology in performing works created only 15-20 years ago. I went on presenting the philosophy of the Integra project and its role in developing the Integra Live software, with the intention to address the caducity and unfriendliness of live electronic systems developed using programming languages like Max.
Showing Integra Live in action I was able to demonstrate how the software and its different views tried to mimic the creative process and the workflow of a composer. From an initial exploratory, imaginative phase (Module View), to a more structured stage where events start being organised in time (Arrange View), to a rehearsal and finally performance phase (Live View), where things are fixed and the most important thing is reliability and control of every relevant aspect of the performance.
I hope I conveyed to the students my salient point: always ask yourself why you should use technology, and if you do, make sure it is borne out of your musical ideas, and is an integral part of your musical thinking. I enjoyed very much the interaction with them, they were curious and lively, and asked interesting questions, among others, about the future of Integra Live in a hypothetical post-coding world, and – this one more technical – about using MIDI notes to control partials in the various spectral modules of the software, highlighting the need for a built-in MIDI note to frequency converter in all spectral modules. At the end of the seminar Philip took a straw poll among the students and the overwhelming majority voted in favour of trying Integra Live in their own music. Not bad!
The move to a new building on Birmingham City University’s City Centre Campus represents the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Birmingham Conservatoire to establish its role as one of the major players in higher music education. By complementing its current provision with new world-class facilities the Conservatoire will become a formidable competitor among its peers in the UK and internationally.
In the increasingly globalised landscape of higher music education Birmingham Conservatoire, unique among the nine British conservatoires, will be able to strengthen and enhance its already excellent educational offer with a vast range of additional resources from the adjacent University campus, and in particular from the other disciplines in its parent faculty: English, acting, media and the visual arts.
The new building will accommodate the same number of students as the present one – around 650 overall. However, it is expected that the number of applicants for the Conservatoire’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses will grow, especially from overseas. An increasingly selective intake, attracting the most talented students and the very best tutors, will contribute to the repositioning of the Conservatoire on the international market.
The Conservatoire is both a provider of higher music education and a public arts organisation, presenting more than three hundred events every year and fulfilling a central role in the cultural fabric of Birmingham. The two dimensions are completely intertwined, and cannot exist in isolation. In its new City Centre Campus location the Conservatoire will become the public face of the University, welcoming Birmingham’s audiences to its concert seasons and a variety of other public events, from community and outreach programmes to commercial hiring of its facilities.
The new location at the heart of the Eastside ‘learning quarter’ (BCU City Centre campus, Aston University, Birmingham Ormiston Academy, Birmingham Metropolitan College) will stimulate the development of a new and younger audience base. However, the move away from our current neighbours (Town Hall, Symphony Hall, CBSO Centre, The Hippodrome, The Rep) will require considerable effort to maintain established audiences. The design of the new building will take this into account. It will be striking and unique, making the new Conservatoire a destination of choice among the city’s various performance venues. It will emphasise the public dimension of the Conservatoire and its role as the interface between the city and the rest of the University’s campus.
The new building will be open and accessible to people of all ages and sections of the community. A number of local music organisations will regard it as their home. Among them the Aston Performing Arts Academy, which draws from one of the most socially and economically deprived areas of the county. The new building will also provide a friendly environment to families and children as the home of the Junior Conservatoire, a key provider of high-quality pre-tertiary music tuition to over 250 talented students drawn from all over the region and from a diverse range of backgrounds.
The way in which music is taught in conservatoires has seen great changes over the last fifty years. From a narrow curriculum focused on training for the orchestra it has evolved into a well-rounded education enriched with research, pedagogy, community work, entrepreneurship, music technology, non-Western music practices and performance health. The new building will reflect the changing nature of music education by providing staff and students with flexible, multi-purpose spaces that can be easily adapted to different needs. One-to-one and small group teaching will take place in teaching studios of different sizes, equipped with grand pianos and audio-video recording and streaming facilities. To provide the best possible student experience all teaching studios will adhere to stringent acoustic insulation and sound absorption standards. The larger rooms will have higher ceilings for better sound diffusion.
Instrumental and vocal practice, the staple of conservatoire education, will take place in dedicated rooms: fifty individual small practice rooms, twelve medium-sized practice rooms for one to three people, twelve ensemble rooms for chamber music and high sound pressure level instruments, and nineteen specialist practice rooms for piano, organ, percussion, harp and jazz. All rooms will be acoustically treated and optimised for the different sonic characteristics of the instruments.
Public music performance will be at the heart of the new Conservatoire. The new building will contain three main performance venues, all exhibiting the highest standards in acoustic design to compete with other existing facilities in Birmingham. A 500-seat concert hall to replace the Adrian Boult Hall, a 200-seat hall to replace the Recital Hall, and a 100/150-seat flexible venue for jazz and other music genres to replace the Arena Foyer. A small organ studio (to be used also for piano masterclasses, chamber choir and early music) and a small ‘black box’ space for experimental composition, electronic music projects and non-Western music practice (including our historical collection of Balinese gamelans) will complete the provision of performance spaces. A large, multi-level foyer area with café/bar facilities will provide access to all the performance venues and a spatially interesting meeting place for students and audiences alike.
Birmingham Conservatoire prides itself in being a caring and nurturing environment. It is an international artistic community where talented students are challenged to achieve their best but can also experiment freely to broaden their creative horizons in a safe environment. Continuous and meaningful interactions among peers and between students and staff are essential for creativity and innovation to thrive. In the new building social interactions will be encouraged by providing several open spaces full of natural light on all levels. These areas carved out of circulation space will allow students to meet and relax, providing a welcome change from hours of solitary practice.
Building on its strengths in music technology and research the new Conservatoire will feature a pervasive digital infrastructure to support innovative pedagogy models, including state-of-the-art digital audio and video recording, and specialised rooms for low-latency distance learning and live broadcasting and streaming of concerts, workshops and masterclasses. Direct digital connectivity from Conservatoire venues to the adjacent Media Centre in the Parkside building will ensure access to the University’s outstanding media facilities.
A modern and well-stocked music learning hub will provide students with all the resources needed for their studies: instrumental and orchestral scores and parts, catalogues, reference books, CDs, DVDs. The hub will include dedicated media booths, computers and a silent study area. It is expected that large lectures for full-year groups (100+ students) will be delivered in a lecture theatre on the University’s campus, while movement and acting classes for singers will be delivered in the School of Acting’s facilities in the Millennium Point building.
Learning from the experience of the University’s Parkside and Curzon buildings the new Conservatoire will be another example of environmental sustainability for the HE sector. The specialist nature of the building will make it more challenging to achieve ambitious environmental targets, opening the way to innovative solutions that can potentially be replicated elsewhere.
It is a glorious afternoon in Rome. The sun bathes the old buildings in a suffused light. Together with my brother I’m climbing a long, narrow marble staircase in an ancient palace. When we arrive at the top, an open door leads us into an elegant apartment overlooking the roofs of the city. There is a black upright piano by the French doors. Swallows dart across the blue sky. Igor Stravinsky is at the piano, waiting for us. We sit next to him and listen, while he tells us about the music he’s writing. Then he plays softly an unusual sequence of chords, thirds in both hands. I am overwhelmed by these sounds. He talks some more, his hands waving in the air. After a while we leave, and the beautiful, pungent harmony is forever etched in my mind.
Two days in Graz, the second town in Austria, to meet Gerhard Eckel, who works as a research professor at IEM, the Institut für Elektronische Musik und Akustik at the Kunst Universität, and discuss their participation to the Integra project. We seemed to understand each other very well, and our conversations progressed with – I should hope – mutual pleasure. Gerhard is the perfect host: apart from introducing me to IEM’s facilities and illustrating all the activities taking place there, on the night of my arrival he invited me to Iohan, a trendy restaurant in the centre of the city with a very original, minimal decor and fantastic Austrian/International cuisine.
I’m looking forward to Gerhard’s contribution to Integra, as I am sure that he will bring a very sharp and personal angle to the project. We will probably meet again at the end of May, in occasion of the Integra scientific group meeting in Belfast.
On the last day of February I was in Toronto, to take part in the performance of Julian Anderson’s Book of Hours with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Together with Andrew Staniland, currently composer in residence with the orchestra, we looked after the electronics of the piece. Everything went really well, and the work was enthusiastically received.
The conductor was Oliver Knussen, and the programme also included works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Gary Kulesha and Simon Bainbridge, all present at the concert, and at the dinner afterwards, in a fancy Italian restaurant by the telling nome of Grano (wheat). Grano is much more than just a restaurant, it is a stage for the Toronto artistic and cultural scene, under the amiable supervision of the owner Roberto.
The concert programme was quite peculiar: apart from Gary Kulesha, who is Canadian, the conductor and the other three composers were British. They also had in common the same composition teacher, John Lambert. When Olly described the qualities of his teacher I was immediately reminded of my own composition teacher, Azio Corghi. Both Corghi and Lambert’s students have vastly different musical styles, and they have all been able to develop their own original voice. Far from promoting a school or a house style, Lambert and Corghi seem to have been more keen on perfecting their own type of musical maieutics. They help (or helped, in the case of Lambert, who died in 1995) the students to find their own voice, without trying to impose any aesthetic or artistic rule. It is not an easy way of teaching, because, in true Socratic spirit, it forces the teacher to look at things from the pupil’s perspective.
Gifted artists like them have devoted a great part of their life to teach the younger, limiting their own creative output in order to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. From them we learn a profound moral lesson, not just an artistic one.
So-called contemporary music has often been accused of being out of touch with the audience, and in general of playing a marginal role in current cultural trends. This is the result of many causes, as I have tried to explain in other posts, but an obvious reason is the umbilical attachment that still binds contemporary music to the classical music establishment, its audiences and its modes of promotion and delivery of live and recorded music.
The majority of contemporary composers have chosen not to sever the cord with the past, believing in a sense of continuity with, and belonging to the great tradition of Western classical music. But doing so, they blindly adopted the whole apparatus of classical music concerts, from the stiff ritual to the ageing and dwindling audiences. The higher cultural status granted to their music turned out to be the kiss of death for their creations.
Many words have been spent in the past (and sadly sometimes are still spent, as I realised yesterday at a pre-concert talk given by a young Canadian composer in Toronto) to justify this state of affairs: the need for composers to explore new territories, the reluctance of musical institutions to embark on more adventurous programming, the need for the audiences to be “educated” or the schools’ failings in teaching music, and so on.
The reality is very different: we have to accept that each different music has its audience, and ‘contemporary music’ is no exception. Expecting classical music audiences to love and understand new music is like pretending that jazz fans should also automatically become hip-hop fans.
So, let’s recognise the situation, and stop trying to spoon-feed contemporary music to classical music lovers. Let’s rebadge orchestras as museums of classical music, and limit their repertoire to the great tradition. And let’s free up the energies of those musicians that want to perform new music so that they can really concentrate on their passion, but outside the current classical music circles. Interested audiences will follow, and new ones will be created. They won’t be huge, but they will be committed.
We write music because we feel compelled to do it, not because of some external reason or demand. Or do we? The role of inspiration, and what can be defined as inspiration in composing music, has been debated extensively. The truth is, we cannot separate external influence from inner compulsion.
Throughout the history of music, the most successful composers have been the ones that have managed to tune their creative impulse to the needs of the outside world. As far as creative output is concerned the outside world is a strange mixture of elements, where the expectations of patrons, commissioning bodies, influential friends and colleagues coexist with an imagined audience and the public projection of a composer’s self-created artistic image. All these elements come to play in the mind of composers as potential influencing factors, and affect their work more than they would like to admit.
We should then rephrase the first sentence like this: we write music because we want to communicate with the world. What is the chosen channel for this communication? If you are a smart composer, alert to the changing world around you, you will know already that the zeitgeist doesn’t inhabit concert venues programming ‘contemporary music’ works. It is to be found instead in some sort of team endeavour – a movie, a theatre production, a multimedia installation, a site-specific event, where your music becomes part of a wider artistic venture, a complex cultural product of our time, reflecting the interconnecting nature and the infinite resonances of our mostly mediated experience of reality.
You have then become a content provider, a sharp operator in a increasingly undecipherable world, carving small slices of meaning by interacting with other media, other forms, and with the unavoidable, ubiquitous technology we try so hard, often so helplessly, to keep under control.
I had the first glimpse of what was then called simply Max in 1994, when my good friend Diego Dall’Osto introduced me to the software, but I only started using it in 1996, when working at Tempo Reale in Florence. At first, like so many other composers, I was completely taken by the power and beauty of a programming language that allowed me to work in a graphical environment and test the results on the fly, without having to compile the code. Moreover, I had two wonderful mentors, Nicola Bernardini and Alvise Vidolin. They gave me generous advice and help, so that I was soon able to develop my own patches without having prior programming skills.
Soon, though, a number of issues with Max started to emerge, and in various ways, they are still unresolved ten years later. To be fair, many of the issues depend on the way Max, now MaxMSP, is used, but I still find it surprising that David Zicarelli and his company have not acted more energetically to adapt the software to the needs of the growing Max community. I will look at MaxMSP from the two angles that interest me most, usability and sustainability, but first I will try to answer the question of whom this software is written for.
I think that the main problem with MaxMSP is the fact that it sits in a sort of no man’s land between programming languages and software applications. It is too cumbersome and prescriptive as a programming language, but it lacks the user interface and a consistent set of tools that we usually associate with commercial software packages. It may be retorted that this perceived weakness is in fact the main strength of MaxMSP: to give total freedom to artists and musicians so that they can develop their own interactive set-ups without the rigid constraints of commercial software but also without the need to become programmers. My opinion is that in the long term, and looking at the way MaxMSP is now the de facto standard in performing music with live electronics, the problem has become more acute.
Composers that go past MaxMSP’s rather steep learning curve greedily embrace the programme, and start developing their patches, either from scratch, or using existing objects or libraries by members of the community. In the first case they often end up with very inefficient and buggy patches, in the second they create many dependencies, limiting portability and sustainability of their work. Max is great at two things – experimenting with your ideas and prototyping virtual set-ups – but as soon as you enter production mode, it becomes quite unfriendly. There is a historical reason for this; Max was first developed at IRCAM, an institution characterised by a rather rigid separation between composers and music technology assistants. The idea was that composers dealt with the creative part, while the assistants provided a human interface to the technology tools. This meant that the code was looked after by the technologists, and composers didn’t need to engage directly with it. Also, a big institution like IRCAM ensured the long-term preservation of the works, by employing assistants to maintain and upgrade the patches as needed.
This initial dichotomy is part of MaxMSP’s genetic code: the software is used mainly by composers and artists, but is written for programmers. This is why I find difficult to identify the target audience of the software: it is too complex and difficult to learn to be mastered fully by artists, but its true potential is wasted in the hands of programmers, who will also complain that as a development platform MaxMSP lacks many important features. In fact, I haven’t found yet a good application built with MaxMSP. So it looks like the MaxMSP target user is either a highly talented composer-technologist, equally versed in computer programming and music composition, or a creative team supplying the required skills. Not surprisingly, MaxMSP is frequently found in higher education.
Let’s look now at MaxMSP from the usability perspective. MaxMSP provides out-of-the-box quite a number of graphic objects, and has recently added powerful new functions, like Java support, the ability to encapsulate/de-encapsulate patches and create/save prototypes [template patches that can be used everywhere]. Nevertheless, the actual user interface is entirely the responsibility of the user – there are no standard Graphic User Interface models or templates. The result is that a given patch – say a sound spatializer – can be realised in many different ways, each one providing a very different user experience. Testing and comparing of patches is thus made very difficult, as the same spatializer engine can be visualised omitting certain parameters altogether or hiding them in remote subpatches. Sharing of patches, or having your live electronics performed by someone else, is also compromised, since every user builds their patches according to their personal needs and taste. If you add the fact that MaxMSP has no easy way for commenting or documenting patches, you see how hard it can be sometimes to reconstruct signal and control flow in a complex patch, even for the person that wrote it!
Probably it is from the sustainability point of view that MaxMSP fares worse. The software gives artists and musicians the impression to be in control, but in fact locks them into a closed system, difficult to scale, adapt or maintain over time. I’m talking here mainly from the perspective of live electronics concert performance, the kind of mission-critical application where everything has to work as planned. My experience over the years is that in order to work properly a MaxMSP patch has to be tweaked or rewritten every year or so, especially if external dependencies are included in the patch. In some cases, objects and libraries are not upgraded when the software is, and an alternative must be found or developed from scratch. Conflicts between objects with the same name can also prevent patches from functioning properly.
As I said, MaxMSP is an invaluable tool for trying out ideas, experimenting and prototyping, but falls short of usability and sustainability requirements, the two areas that matter most for a creative, musical use of the software and for the long-term preservation and maintenance of patches and the artistic works that depend on them. MaxMSP remains the first choice for musicians working with live electronics, but I think I have identified a gap that needs to be filled if we really want to empower musicians and offer them more accessible tools for interacting with technology.