lamberto coccioli

on music and beauty

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Promozione della musica contemporanea

Il testo che segue è stato scritto nel 2000 su invito di Rossana Rummo, allora alla Direzione Generale dello Spettacolo al Ministero dei Beni Culturali.

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Note sulla promozione della musica contemporanea in Italia


1. Considerazioni generali

Parto da una considerazione banale: una persona intellettualmente curiosa ma senza una preparazione specifica acquista volentieri un libro o un disco appena usciti, segue teatro e cinema, va ai concerti, visita le mostre ed è generalmente abbastanza informata sull’attività culturale della propria città, ma molto difficilmente ascolta musica contemporanea. Perché?

La risposta in fondo è molto semplice: ogni espressione artistica ha la sua storia, e così la musica. Se non conosciamo il cammino svolto dalla musica nel corso della sua storia non possiamo capire, giudicare e amare quella di oggi. E purtroppo l’educazione musicale non specialistica in Italia è nota per la sua tragica inadeguatezza.

Tuttavia non si tratta solo di un problema di mancanza di offerta educativa o di impreparazione del pubblico: infatti è ormai chiaro che nella seconda metà del Novecento le scelte eccessivamente astratte ed elitarie di gran parte delle avanguardie musicali hanno allontanato dalla musica contemporanea la maggioranza del pubblico e reso indifferente un’altra grande parte, rompendo di fatto il circuito della comunicazione tra compositori e ascoltatori, e privando la creazione musicale di uno strumento importantissimo di confronto, controllo e orientamento. In una parola, si è indebolita enormemente la funzione sociale del compositore, la sua necessità all’interno di una vita musicale attiva, mentre questo ruolo è stato gradualmente ricoperto dalle varie forme di musica “popolare”.

La musica che si scrive oggi ha senz’altro superato l’eccessiva confusione dei linguaggi e lo sperimentalismo fine a se stesso del secondo Novecento, ma la frattura con il pubblico è stata talmente forte che un suo riavvicinamento potrà avvenire solo se esso sarà guidato e aiutato con grande energia.

In questo quadro è comprensibile come qualsiasi aiuto ministeriale rivolto alla promozione della musica contemporanea sarà mal diretto se non si rivolgerà prima di tutto a formare il pubblico e a rivoluzionare il sistema delle sovvenzioni come si è protratto fino ad oggi. L’obiettivo è quello di creare le condizioni per una vita musicale dinamica e, dopo alcuni anni, capace di regolarsi autonomamente. E’ indubbio, però, che per un certo periodo sarà necessario guidarla e dirigerla: a differenza del passato, sarà opportuno schierarsi introducendo criteri di valutazione soggettiva, naturalmente ispirati alla qualità delle offerte proposte. Ciò porterà ad una provvidenziale riduzione del numero degli enti che beneficiano dei contributi ministeriali, e, di conseguenza, ad una maggiore entità delle singole sovvenzioni. Al tempo stesso sarà necessaria un’azione concertata con il Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione e, dopo la riforma dei Conservatori, con quello dell’Università, per fare del miglioramento dell’educazione musicale di base fin dai primi anni dell’infanzia, a scuola e fuori, la priorità assoluta.

Orientamenti simili sono fortunatamente emersi nei lavori della VII Commissione al Senato di cui è relatrice l’On. Manieri. Naturalmente anche lo studio di esperienze simili in altri paesi può dare delle idee preziose, e l’esempio europeo da cui trarre oggi maggiori insegnamenti mi sembra quello inglese.

Come è noto contribuiscono ad una vita musicale attiva diverse componenti: la formazione (sia di base che professionale), la creazione (i compositori), la produzione (teatri, istituzioni concertistiche, case editrici e discografiche) e naturalmente il pubblico. L’aspetto che mi sembra più preoccupante nella vita musicale italiana è la mancanza di integrazione tra queste diverse componenti: ciascuna di esse segue il suo cammino autonomo, interagendo con le altre solo occasionalmente e spesso casualmente. E’ ovvio che in una situazione del genere sia necessario prendere posizione, anche in modo forte, per integrare le diverse componenti.

Un esempio fra tanti: le sovvenzioni, anche importanti, che vengono rivolte solo all’ultimo anello della catena, le prime esecuzioni di nuova musica, non sono efficaci e ottengono spesso un effetto contrario a quello desiderato. Incentivare solo le prime esecuzioni è un po’ come finanziare un film e distribuirlo solo per una sera. E’ necessario invece favorire lo sviluppo di un repertorio contemporaneo, richiedendo che le opere nuove vengano rieseguite almeno un certo numero di volte entro i 12 mesi successivi alla prima esecuzione, naturalmente in luoghi diversi. Creando dei pool, delle reti di teatri in varie parti d’Italia le opere avrebbero una maggiore visibilità, e – come è auspicabile nel caso dei lavori più validi – potrebbero ambire successivamente a vita autonoma entrando a far parte del repertorio.

2. Giovani compositori
Tenendo conto delle considerazioni esposte più sopra, e quindi della necessità di una stretta collaborazione tra Ministero dei Beni Culturali e Ministero dell’Università, uno degli obiettivi più importanti da perseguire è la creazione di un legame forte tra scuola, conservatori e istituzioni musicali presenti nella stessa città.

1. commissioni
Nuove opere potrebbero essere commissionate ai migliori studenti iscritti all’ultimo anno dei corsi di composizione nei vari Conservatori, da far eseguire all’orchestra o a gruppi di strumentisti appartenenti allo stesso Conservatorio; i migliori diplomati in composizione, invece, potrebbero ricevere delle commissioni retribuite e con garanzia dell’esecuzione da parte di gruppi od orchestre professionali della città nell’ambito della loro consueta programmazione concertistica.

2. concorsi di composizione
In Italia oggi si contano più di 50 concorsi di composizione all’anno, di cui molti riservati ai giovani. Non so quanti di essi beneficino direttamente di sovvenzioni ministeriali, ma il loro numero è sicuramente eccessivo. Sarebbe di gran lunga più utile e preferibile avere meno concorsi, con premi più consistenti, maggiori garanzie di qualità nell’organizzazione e una maggiore visibilità dei lavori premiati.

3. residenze presso orchestre o teatri
Si tratta di una formula estremamente interessante, molto comune in altri paesi (composer in residence), e applicata solo saltuariamente in Italia. In pratica si dà l’opportunità a un giovane compositore di risiedere per un periodo di tre-sei mesi presso un’orchestra o un teatro, con il duplice scopo di scrivere un’opera per quell’organico e di prendere parte in modo privilegiato alla vita dell’istituzione musicale, ricoprendo vari ruoli durante la preparazione e le prove delle manifestazioni musicali.

4. attività didattica
Come ho già accennato la promozione della musica contemporanea e quindi l’aiuto ai giovani compositori non possono essere disgiunti dall’intervento sulla scuola. Soprattutto oggi, con l’ausilio delle nuove tecnologie elettroniche, è possibile immaginare un rapporto stretto e fecondo tra giovani creatori di musica e pedagogia musicale, come anche la recente istituzione dei “Laboratori musicali” nelle scuole lascia prevedere.

© 2000 Lamberto Coccioli

Fanfare interview

George Caird, Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, interviewed me for the Fanfare magazine in 2001.

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Composer and Music Technologist, Lamberto Coccioli came to the Conservatoire in September 2000 to take up the newly created post of Head of Music Technology. George Caird spoke to him about Music Technology and his particular interest in new technologies applied to music performance.

GC With our diaries the way they are, interviewing for an article in Fanfare will be a very good way of catching up with you on all that is going on in the Music Technology Department. I suppose the first and most obvious question is: why did you decide to come and work in England?

LC The main reason was that the new Head of Music Technology post here offered the chance to do something “from scratch”. My experience is that it is much harder to undo habits and established ways of going about things and it seemed possible at the Conservatoire to move forward very quickly. I was also interested in the artistic possibilities for Music Technology which you seemed so open toward.

GC And we were very interested in this approach too. You are a composer who also has become expert in music technology. For you, what is music technology?

LC The expression “music technology” covers a vast range of interrelated disciplines. My specific approach to technology is to look at it from a performer’s point of view. We need to consider technology just like another instrument – albeit a very multi-faceted and complex one – and learn how to play it. It is a powerful tool for composers and performers alike. Technology can amplify and project musical ideas and gestures. Technology can help expand and unmask what is latent in the music. But musical ideas should always remain the starting point of any technological process applied to them.

GC For many of us, Music Technology can be a confusing term. The explanation you have just given does not include recording technology for example.

LC That’s right. As I said, Music Technology is a byword for many things and covers recording and production, live sound, music for traditional and new media, and many other areas of application. We are covering all of these areas within the department , with a specific emphasis on technology in performance.

GC When you came to the Conservatoire, our facilities were not very advanced. Since then, we have invested quite a lot in new facilities for your department.

LC I’m very pleased with the consistent and generous support for the department. We now have an iMac lab with 8 fully equipped music workstations running the latest software, 2 editing suites, one for audio-visual projects, and three recording studios: we have completely renovated the recording studio for the Adrian Boult Hall and we are now building a new digital studio for DVD authoring and surround sound in addition to the existing recording studio in the Ground Floor Extension. Both these studios will feature state-of-the-art ProTools HD3 systems and the new Yamaha DM2000 and 02R/96 digital mixing desks.

GC What about staffing?

LC We have also been lucky to appoint Simon Hall as Assistant Head of Music Technology. Simon is Course Director for the new BSc joint course in Music Technology which we are running with UCE’s Engineering Faculty at the Technology Innovation Centre. He is a composer and contributes to our work on performance with technology. Matthew O’Malley, our studio manager, is himself an accomplished musician and ensures the smooth running of our facilities.

GC Tell me something about the creative work which the department is doing.

LC We are working with the Conservatoire’s composition students using live electronics. Some of our students, notably James Hoult, David Denholm, Liz Johnson, Chris McClelland, have taken to this medium with great imagination and new works have been performed on a number of occasions over the past two years.
In addition, some instrumentalists and singers have shown interest in this kind of work. Pianists Laure Pinsmail and Katharine Lam have performed with live electronics in the past year and soprano Sarah Busfield’s performance of Jonathan Harvey’s From Silence with the composer in attendance was a memorable highlight this year.

GC What are your artistic aims for this area of performance?

LC To perform important works by leading composers like Harvey, Boulez, Nono, Reich, Francesconi, etc., in order to establish a continuity between existing repertoire and new works. I want to promote the use of technology in performance to convince artistic directors and conservatoires that this is an important, growing area of creativity. My dream is to establish here a Centre for Performance and Technology, a place where students and professionals can work together.

GC Of course, you are primarily a composer and you worked for many years with Luciano Berio. Are you finding time for composition and what are you working on?

LC I am writing but I certainly need more time! After my experience with Magma I’m planning to write another operatic work with new technologies. Magma involved amplified actors, singers, and orchestra, live electronics and real-time video manipulation. It explored musical gesture and ritual structures, using technology as a means of revealing hidden archetypes. I am interested in how technology can add layers of meaning to the music, “extracting” meaning from a kernel.

GC What other works have you written recently?

LC I’m working on an orchestral piece based on recordings I made of Indian songs and natural sounds from the Orinoco basin in Colombia. Here I analysed the harmonic spectrum of the sounds and then used them to create with the orchestra a sort of “blurred photograph” of the original soundscape, filtering sounds into a complex score. Last year I have also finished river teach me, a work for soprano and string quartet on a text by the late Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, performed recently by the Thallein Ensemble in the Conservatoire.

GC What would you like the Conservatoire to do in response to your ideas on new music?

LC To be more aware of what is going on creatively. To move towards more varied creative ensembles and away from the conventions involving larger orchestras. I would like to see us involved in more cross-faculty and cross-arts work with new media and interdisciplinary creativity, especially with BIAD. We will be showing some possibilities at next year’s Music Xtra Festival in March.

GC I agree that we must look at the potential in all these ideas. It is very exciting to see the Conservatoire responding to the possibilities created by you and your department. Lastly, you are a fine musician and an expert in Music Technology. You also speak four languages fluently and you and Gloria just had a third child…how do you manage so much?

LC Of course I have been lucky to grow up in the center of Europe where speaking more than one language is common. But I am interested in the power of possibilities, in lateral thinking and in taking opportunities as they arise. All these things bring new cultures and enrichment to us all.

Carnegie Hall lecture

Notes for a talk I gave on works by Berio and Maderna.

Pre-concert Lecture, The Luciano Berio – Tempo Reale Workshop
Carnegie Hall, New York, October 1997

The three compositions that are going to be played tonight are of a very different nature. A new work for two soloists and orchestra, Alternatim, a short piece for small instrumental ensemble, Serenata per un satellite; and Ofanim, a long composition for two children’s choirs, a female voice, two instrumental groups and live electronics. Those of you who are used to come to this hall will notice the differences: we don’t want to show off the technology, but you will nonetheless see a certain number of loudspeakers all around the place, plus a – quite well hidden, I must say – mixing desk in the parquet. I will explain to you in a short while what is the purpose of those devices.

Tonight we will take part, in fact, in three different musical experiences: one – listening to Serenata per un satellite by Bruno Maderna – where the musical gestures are fixed, and repeated at leisure by the performers. Another – Alternatim by Luciano Berio – where two solo instruments – a clarinet and a viola, generate the orchestral landscape from their melodies and figurations, amplifying and giving more resonance and greater scope to their solo discourse. And a third – Ofanim, again by Berio – where technology is employed to amplify and clarify the complex texture of sounds, and to place the bold musical gestures of the score in a completely new acoustical scenario.

Why am I talking of gestures, of musical gestures? This is a very important point, and one that I’d like to stress, because it’s very close to the heart of Luciano Berio’s musical thought. When an instrument plays, or a voice sings, it makes gestures. The physical act that translates the written page in sounds is heavy with meaning for us, and a deep knowledge of the meaning of a musical gesture is necessary if we want to control it, to master the rhetoric of the instrumental tradition without being mastered by it. Luciano Berio has always been well aware of the powerful meaning of our musical tradition, be it western classical, folk, ethnic, and knows how to cope with it, and how to use it for his artistic purposes. This is why so often his music reaches the audience with great, immediate force, without compromising a rich and complex musical language. It really works on two layers, one of strong communication through the subtle control of every possible musical gesture, the other of a composite musical fabric where both instrumental and formal experiments are carried out in depth. In other words, an abstract approach and a concrete one meet in a multi-layered musical experience.

This in part is true of the work of Bruno Maderna too, whose Serenata per un satellite, in the version realised by Paul Roberts, will be played tonight.
Serenade – it’s a rather uncommon term for a composition of contemporary music, especially in the Fifties, when the titles were more like Structures, Mutations, Kontrapunkte, very hard titles in a way, for a music who didn’t want to compromise with the emotions, and, for that matter, with the past. In fact, Berio too wrote a Serenade, during the Fifties, and Maderna too, before writing the one we’ll listen to tonight. Maderna wrote many Serenatas during his life, four, and the last one, called Juilliard Serenade was composed for the famous New York music school in 1971.

It is interesting to quote what Berio himself said on the subject of Serenade: “In the Fifties the composers were deeply involved with the search for structural references and a new serial order; the face of music was always grouchy. Bruno Maderna’s Serenata and mine were the first to come out after the war. They seem to me the first examples in which serial music becomes more relaxed and shows a less severe aspect.”

It was a sign that something had changed in the music of those years, something that gave way to a happier, less abstract approach to composition. These words portray both men, really, and allow us to understand one of the strong elements always present in Berio’s music: its lack of ideological “partis pris”, of prejudices of every sort. Music according to Berio and Maderna too (he was an enfant prodige, conducting his first concert at 8 and playing the violin at La Scala when he was 7 years old) can only be approached taking into proper account the fact that it has to be performed, and listened to. Too abstract an approach, too scientific, simply will not work. In music, more so than in any other art form, the abstract and the practical meet together.

In music the concrete is the idea, and vice versa. In the musical experience there’s always a drama hidden beneath the surface. The players, through their musical gestures, convey to the audience the ideas of the composer, adding a theatrical dimension to the music – that is to say, the performance. Not to be aware of this, as a composer, can impoverish, deplete the music of a fundamental dimension, that will always be there, even if the composer ignores it.

Going back to our serenades, it is clear then that such an old-fashioned title was a kind of provocation against the clichés of new music. Maderna was well aware of this. He was a witty man, as Serenata per un satellite shows. The idea of the piece is to have a set of different musical phrases or figures, that are to be played in any order, together, or divided by small groups, or one instrument at a time. There is complete freedom in the construction of the piece then, but the notes cannot be changed. This is typical of Maderna’s approach to what is called aleatoric technique in music, a technique that John Cage used intensively during his whole life. Maderna always wrote down the notes and the freedom he left the performers was always confined to the order of the events, their duration, or their superimposition.

Serenata per un satellite is also really a conductor’s game, a piece that Pierre Boulez would have liked. There are a number of musical figures that can be played freely by any instrument – ad libitum, as it were – and the conductor is a bit like the co-ordinator of this musical traffic, starting and stopping the players. The phrases to be played are all presented in a beautiful manuscript page written by Maderna himself, where they all interweave and bend in every direction. The interplay of these lines makes up the piece, a witty and intelligent musical joke, that in the hands of good and inspired performers like tonight’s can become a small masterwork full of humour.

Alternatim refers in its title to a technique of medieval music, commonly found in European tradition until the XVth century. Guillaume Dufay, among many others, employed it in its motet written for the opening of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The technique consisted in alternating polyphony and monody, soloists and organ. Here we have two solo players, a viola and a clarinet, and an orchestra with strings, brass and winds, but no percussion. Two questions jump to the mind immediately: the first – how this work relates with the tradition of the concerto, or double concerto to be precise, and what is the relationship between the two soloists and the orchestra?

The answer to the first question lies in the very nature of the classical concerto – seen as a display of instrumental virtuosity and intelligence, and always very homogeneous in its nature. As Berio himself says, there is no longer a way to establish homogeneity of meaning between one or more soloists and a mass of musicians of different density or nature – such as existed in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic concertos, when the “individual” and the “mass” could practically say the same thing despite their completely different densities and acoustic characters. Today the relationship between soloist and orchestra is a problem that must ever be solved anew, and the word concerto can be taken only as a metaphor.

These are bold statements, and not everybody will agree with them. Well, it is indeed possible to write a concerto today, but the composer has to take into account that the reassuring unity of the classical concerto is lost forever. The answer given to this dilemma by Berio is to make the soloist or the soloists – as it is the case in Alternatim – the starting point of the work, from where originates the whole musical journey. In other words, the musical lines played by the soloists engender, create in a way the musical functions of the whole orchestra.

The choice of the clarinet and the viola is a telling one: they are the real chameleons of the orchestra, and better than other instruments can act as a link between different instrumental families. Like many contemporary composers Berio has never been interested in instrumental families like the ones we find on the orchestration textbooks, but has always explored what we can call the sound families, the families that underline analogies between instruments that are normally very far one from the other. The clarinet and the viola are probably the most useful instruments for an exploration of sound families, given their different registers and their not too specific or confined sound. Think of a violin, or a piano, or even an oboe, and you’ll see how difficult it is to find similarities in other instruments of other families. It is possible, yes, but the viola and clarinet have many more choices for interacting with other members of the orchestra.

As I said before, the lines played by the soloists are the starting point of the piece. We could define those lines as melodies, but the term “line” is less charged with meaning, and probably explains better their role in generating different musical events for the orchestra. We could think of the line as a kind of complex melody – and a melody is rich and interesting when it implies many different musical functions.

Let’s consider Bach’s music for solo cello, solo violin or solo flute, as an example. In those works, a melody implies always a strong polyphonic texture, as the instrument jumps from one register to the other, carrying on different independent lines and at the same time merging them into a single one. On the other hand, think of the importance of the theme during the Classical and Romantic era. A musical theme shaped and ordered all the material of a sonata or a symphony movement. Melody in classical music has always hidden many powerful functions affecting all the elements of composition. That is why a melody written today needs to have the same range of different musical functions.

In Alternatim one of the basic areas of investigation is the relationship between the soloists and the orchestra, that is to say how a monodic line transforms itself into a polyphonic texture, into a complex musical fabric. If we take a quick look at the other works written by Berio for solo instruments and orchestra we always find out different solutions to this challenging problem. I’ll point out two examples: the series of the Chemins, where the original Sequenza for solo instrument is transcribed, projected, in the orchestral field, and the radical solution of Coro, where there are forty voices and forty instruments, and every single instrument is coupled with a different singer. In Alternatim we have this beautiful melodic line, that starts with a series of leaps of a fourth, both perfect fourth and augmented fourth, an interval that comes back all the time in the course of the work. Why this insistence?

The historical importance of the interval of fourth cannot be understated: it is like a bridge that links the oldest European music, the music of the Middle Ages, with the music of the beginning of our century, primarily Debussy and Schoenberg, but also Stravinsky, and Scrjabin. In between we have the supremacy of the classical tonal language, based on the interval of a third, like in a major or minor chord of the scale. The relationship with musical history in Berio is never an innocent one: if he chooses to work with certain elements it is because he wants to bring to the surface their hidden power, and make them react with other – rather different musical objects. In a way this is an approach very dear to another great composer of our century, Igor Stravinsky, but Berio extends the scope of this musical investigation further and reaches new territories.

This initial melodic line is an ever-present element of Alternatim, and comes back always different, but always recognisable. This gives me the opportunity to spend a few words over the fertile idea of redundancy in music, an idea that I’m sure Berio has spent some time investigating. The repetition, the coming back of the same element is a very strong feature of music of all times, and a fundamental way for communicating musical ideas. It has all to do with perception, and the way we listen to music. Contemporary composers shunned for a long time the very idea of repeating whatever. Without repetition, though, there can be no comprehension. This is especially true of a music that is not written using the tonal language, that powerful – still powerful – tool for giving the ear guidance. Redundancy, repetition of the same musical element, be it a line, a series of chords, a rhythmic pattern, becomes a way for helping the listener grasp the musical thought of a composer.

At the beginning of this discussion I mentioned the machines in the hall. I will now explain to you why we have filled Carnegie Hall with these big, black loudspeakers, and what is their purpose. But let me first say a word on the relation between technology and music. Music made with electro-acoustic machines and devices has been around now for more than forty years, and Berio himself, as he said to those of you that were taking part in the workshop this afternoon, started writing electronic music during the Fifties. Yet – I think that a fundamental difference exists between that period and today. In those years the composers were the ones that started experimenting and they created the demand for new machines to realise their musical experiments. In a way, musical thought guided the birth of new machines and their characteristics, so that there was a situation comparable to the introduction of new instruments during the preceding centuries. Nowadays, on the contrary, and for quite a long time now, probably from the end of the Seventies, electronic machines started to be an incredibly useful tool for commercial music and ceased to be under the direct influence of musical thought. In fact, it was musical thought that started to run after new technologies, trying to cope with the startling amount of new machines coming out every moment.

Structure of the piece, alternating great density and calmer moments, static, harmonically static.

Electronics in the piece: harmonizers, delay, spatialization.

Functions: amplifying, clarifying the harmonic structure, emphasising the structure, and amplifying the expressive range, through amplitude and density.

Ofanim is a piece that can be played in many different spaces, and every time we perform it in a different space, the music changes, according to many different factors. And every time we learn more on the relationship of sounds with space. It is really a work in progress, but one whose many faces, corresponding to its subsequent performances – we hope – convey always the same musical meaning. Because, I say it once again, live electronics technology should always be part of a wider musical vision, and it should really act as an amplifier – in every direction – of a musical meaning, that – even sketched – has to be already there, in the score.

© 1997 Lamberto Coccioli

Colombian wind band music

Yesterday night I went to a concert in the main church of Salamina, amidst the mountains in the coffee-growing region of Caldas in central Colombia. It was a banda sinfónica juvenil, bringing together the best players from all the local wind bands (there are 44 of them from every village in the region). The quality of the playing was amazing. 80 kids aged 14 to 18 played a mixed repertoire of classical music arrangements and Colombian folk music, with unerring precision, great intonation and an infectious sense of rhythm.

The most interesting pieces in the programme were by Victoriano Valencia, considered the best Colombian composer of music for banda sinfónica. Victoriano’s arrangements thread a fine line between traditional roots and innovation – especially formal and harmonic – without falling in the easy trap of emulating the jazz-derived idiom and sounds of North American big bands. I found his music highly original and very well scored.

Leverhulme application

We have just submitted to the Leverhulme Trust a funding application for a 5-year research plan at UCE Birmingham Conservatoire. Together with Jamie Bullock we have identified usability and sustainability as the key areas of development in the field of live electroacoustic music research in the foreseeable future.

Integra, a novel approach to music with live electronics

Anders Beyer invited me to write an article on the Integra project for Nordic Sounds. Here it is. Read on or download the magazine issue.

Integra, a novel approach to music with live electronics

A desire to empower composers and performers to work with live electronics technology in a musical and user-friendly way is at the heart of the Integra project, an international collaboration of research centres and new music ensembles supported by the European Commission. Thanks to a programme of interrelated activities along the three main axes of research, creation and dissemination, Integra seeks to initiate a widespread change of perception towards technology among all the professional actors involved in contemporary music creation and diffusion in Europe.

Integra started taking shape during many long and inspired telephone conversations that I had with Luca Francesconi, the renowned Italian composer and professor of composition at the Malmö Academy of Music, in September 2004. Luca must also be credited for the project name – Integra – a simple and powerful way to remind us of our real focus: the integration of artistic and scientific elements in the creation and performance of music with technology. After agreeing on the project structure and strategy, Richard Shrewsbury (formerly project administrator of Connect, another large European music project) and myself started to establish a network of partner institutions and we completed the final application in October 2004.

While drafting the project, we set out to find concrete answers to pragmatic issues. Inevitably, we ended up making strong assumptions on the philosophical and aesthetic implications of technology in music. The fundamental issue with technology lies in its unlimited potential and its self-replicating nature: technology is inherently meaningless. If we are going to use it in music we will have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why do we need it? How can it be musical? How can it be controlled?

In order to be harnessed, technology should be brought back to a human dimension, and considered just like another musical instrument – a polymorphous one, to be sure, but still an instrument – that we can learn and play. To achieve this, Integra aims to simplify live electronics technology, and to establish a standard vocabulary to describe it. The word “standard” is often disliked, but we should not forget that the musical instruments employed in our concerts are themselves “standard”, in fact quite limited ones: nevertheless, they allow the transmission of an extremely complex and diversified musical message.

Integra is not alone in this effort towards more user-friendly technology, although it is only recently that usability, good interface design and a preoccupation for how humans interact with machines have started to appear in technology products. Sadly, as far as the history of music technology is concerned, we are still living in the colonisation phase. I like to compare our current experience with the Wild West: new territories are conquered every day, there are no common laws, survival depends from individual initiative. And we are all still digging in search of that elusive gold mine. This explains the proliferation of do-it-yourself systems over the past three decades, when each work, even by the same composer, required a different technological setup (hardware, software, or both). The often-poor documentation of the electronic parts and the rapid obsolescence of the original hardware and software have prevented the adoption of a core repertoire of works using live electronics in mainstream concert programmes.

True to its name, Integra brings together research centres (the scientific group) and new music ensembles (the artistic group): two often-different worlds, with different agendas and priorities, will share their experience and work together. This is possibly the single most important aspect of Integra: all the activities of the project are designed to allow the findings of the scientific group to feed back into the events organised by the artistic group, and vice-versa.

Research

The research activities will cover two main areas: the modernisation of works that use obsolete technology, and the development of a new software-based environment for the composition and performance of music with live electronics.

These two activities are closely related: during the first year of the project the research centres will transfer the technology of around thirty works, chosen together with the artistic ensembles for their musical and historical relevance. The transferred music will include works by Gérard Grisey, Jonathan Harvey, Tristan Murail and Arne Nordheim among the others. This migration process will mainly consist in adopting standard software-based solutions in order to emulate faithfully the original set up and overcome the inherent problems of accessing and maintaining old equipment. Most of the migrated works will quickly find a place in the repertoire of the artistic members of the project, and, it is hoped, of many other contemporary music ensembles around the world.

The knowledge and experience acquired in this vast migration exercise will be used as one of the two starting points for the development of the Integra environment, the other being the feedback from the ten composers that will receive the Integra commissions. By combining the lesson of the tradition with the requirements of contemporary creation, we ensure that the Integra environment will be flexible and robust, spanning an ideal bridge between past and present technology.

Usability and sustainability are the key words here. The Integra environment will be easy to use, and first and foremost a musical tool for composing and performing with electronics; it will also define a new vocabulary to represent electronic events in a standard, software and platform-independent way to ensure their long-term maintenance and survival. More in detail, the environment will be composed of four distinct elements:
1. Database – The back-end of the environment, a standard online database to store modules, performance data and documentation, initially for each transferred and commissioned work.
2. Namespace – An OSC-compliant (Open Sound Control) Integra XML namespace to represent and share all live electronics data among the various elements of the Integra environment.
3. Interface – The front-end of the environment, an intelligent graphic user interface designed around the needs of musicians and for maximum ease of use.
4. Engine – the actual DSP engine of the environment, an extended collection of analysis, synthesis, processing and control software tools.

The concept underlying our modular approach is the representation of the audio network, the control network and their behaviour over time independently from a specific implementation. In other words, we propose a higher level description of live electronics that can stay the same while technology changes.

Creation

Ten European composers will receive Integra commissions, with each new music ensemble commissioning two composers from other European countries. The recipients of the first five commissions are Malin Bång (Sweden), Natasha Barrett (UK/Norway), Andrea Cera (Italy), Tansy Davies (UK) and Juste Janulyte (Lithuania). These five composers will be writing for small chamber ensemble (from three to five players) and live electronics. The works will be premiered between January and September 2007.

The second set of commissions, for large ensemble and live electronics, will be announced at the end of November 2006. The creations of these works will happen between January and July 2008. Mixed-media interaction will be encouraged, as well as site-specific performance events.

Integra will retain exclusive rights on the performance of the commissioned works for three years after the creation, thus enabling every ensemble to perform all the works commissioned by the other ensembles.
Each composer and the performers involved in the piece will be working with a research centre in producing the electronics. This collaboration, extended over a period of two visits (four for the larger works), will allow the composer to work with the tools being developed for the Integra environment. The feedback from the composers will be used to help design tools that are intuitive, powerful, and above all musical.

Dissemination

The success of the Integra environment will be measured by its public support and widespread adoption by composers and performers in Europe and around the world. We aim to build a community of musicians and researchers to look after Integra once it arrives the end of its official life in September 2008. To achieve this ambitious goal we are devoting a considerable effort to create a network of institutions and individual contacts. We are also keen to establish links with ongoing projects in related areas (digital content preservation and storage, Human-Computer Interaction, etc.), promoting standards and ensuring interoperability between Integra and other related applications.

In rough numbers, during the life of the project we will be delivering: thirty individual training sessions on live electronics technology for the commissioned composers (each lasting three days), and forty individual training sessions for the performers of the new music ensembles (some of these sessions will overlap, to allow composers and performers to work together on the commissioned works); a minimum of fifteen concerts and performance events, featuring the commissioned works and many transferred works from the existing repertoire.

We will run open workshops before the concerts for local musicians and composers and produce an innovative DVD on the project documenting the Integra activities and presenting the Integra environment through practical demos. The DVD will be distributed to all new music actors in Europe. We hope that the Integra environment will become a de facto standard for the preservation, composition and performance of music with live electronics. If the project will be successful, the repertoire of European contemporary music ensembles will grow accordingly and performances of music with live electronics will become more frequent, while forgotten works using obsolete technology will become again active agents in our musical life. Integra will also contribute to the creation of a new breed of highly mobile professional musicians: empowered by light, accessible and reliable technology, they will be able to travel and perform around Europe with their expanded repertoire, helping to bring down the barriers that still today prevent many musicians from using technology in the first place.


Fact Box

Integra – A European Composition and Performance Environment for Sharing Live Music Technologies is a €1,035,048, 3-year cooperation agreement part financed by the European Commission through the 2005 call of the Culture 2000 programme [ref 2005-849]. Started in September 2005, Integra is led by UCE Birmingham Conservatoire in the United Kingdom. The project partners are:

New Music Ensembles

Ensemble Ars Nova, Malmö
Athelas Sinfonietta, Copenhagen (co-organiser)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Birmingham
BIT20 Ensemble, Bergen (co-organiser)
Court-circuit, Paris (co-organiser)

Research Centres
CIRMMT, McGill University, Montreal
Krakow Academy of Music, Krakow
La Kitchen, Paris
Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, Vilnius
Malmö Academy of Music, Malmö (co-organiser)
NOTAM, Oslo
SARC, Queen’s University, Belfast

Association of European Conservatoires

The composers commissioned so far are:
Malin Bång, Sweden (Athelas Sinfonietta)
Natasha Barrett, Norway (Ensemble Ars Nova)
Andrea Cera, Italy (Court-circuit)
Tansy Davies, United Kingdom (BIT20 Ensemble)
Juste Janulyte, Lithuania (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group)

Integra project

Lamberto Coccioli, an Italian composer currently working as Head of Music Technology at Birmingham Conservatoire, is Integra’s Project Manager.

The musicSpace project

Richard Polfreman and mc schraefel from the University of Southampton have invited us to take part in musicSpace, a large project application submitted to AHRC/EPSRC. The aim of musicSpace is to develop a web-based semantic browser for music-related data. One of the areas of the project is electroacoustic music. If funded, musicSpace could provide a very powerful tool for researchers and the public at large, providing in one single location a fine-tuned search engine for music data and meta-data. We are eagerly waiting for confirmation of the funding!

Music as Memory conference

Geir Johnson, Artistic Director of Ultima, the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, invited me to give a talk on “Music and Technology: past, present and future” at the _Music as Memory_ conference, on Friday 6 October 2006. The conference was part of this year’s Ultima Festival. I enjoyed listening to Geir’s profound, personal talk introducing the conference, and to Stein Henrichsen (BIT20 Ensemble and Opera Vest), Luca Francesconi, Lasse Thoresen and Asbjörn Schaathun, also giving very interesting talks. Asbjörn gave an entertaining definition of a “perfect” creative person, obtained by combining together the different talents and characters of the four Beatles. The notes for my talk follow below.

Music and Technology – past, present and future

Music as memory
The relationship with tradition, the interaction of current artistic trends with the past is a central aspect of music making. Thanks to technology, composers, performers, indeed all music actors like you – artistic directors etc, have direct access to a wealth of resources that extend both on the geographical, horizontal plane, and on a very long vertical axis towards the past. This three-dimensional, always available on-demand mapping of human creativity in the arts is an unprecedented feat that demands a complete rethinking of our relationship with the past, with musical tradition.

The same technology that allows us to explore and appropriate the musical universe in space and time, has altered our perception of the world in many ways. Digital technology allows anything. When everything is equally available, what is the aesthetic, artistic value of a choice? How do we establish a dialogue with tradition in the current situation?
We live in the age of technology, after science, history, philosophy, religion.
Technology is overwhelming. Also, technology is *never* neutral. How can we make sense of it? By reconducing it to a human dimension. How?

The Humanist Challenge:
# junghian, ethnomusicological alternative – the consolation of archetypes
# ethical alternative – music with a message
# gestural alternative – music with the body

I’ll try to give an answer to these questions later on in my talk, from the point of view of music technology.

The past
Music as memory – from the perspective of music with technology the challenge is to allow music to become memory in the first place. Preservation of interactive, real-time, live electronics works is a daunting task that has to be tackled in a novel way.
[If we look at electroacoustic music, the situation is comparatively quite good. Once the original analogue supports have been converted to digital, preservation is ensured. True, the passage from analog to digital is difficult, and many works from the 50s and 60s where conceived with the idiosyncrasies of early recording, mixing and diffusion equipment in mind [another example of non-neutral technology!]. Those peculiarities became an essential part of the work, as it has been shown time and again in the works of Berio, Stockhausen, Schaeffer, etc.]
To get back to live electroacoustic music, as we should call live electronics, the obvious problem is the longevity of technologies, hardware and software, their rapid change, the commercial, hence temporary, nature of many of the devices used and the overall lack of documentation from the composers and interpreters. To maintain a piece using obsolete technology is very difficult, sometimes downright impossible. If a piece is not performed anymore, then it ceases to be an active agent in cultural and music life. This is too bad.

The role of the research centres
IRCAM – it has certainly helped to shape the contemporary music scene, and its contribution cannot be played down. Boulez managed to create something that lasted and thrived for many years, expanding in more directions as time went by. If we compare this with the UK experience or the Italian experience, for example, IRCAM has been an outright success. In the UK, the efforts to create a National Centre for Electronic Music were never taken seriously by the government, and in Italy, a place like the Centro Tempo Reale in Florence, founded by the late Luciano Berio, never took off properly, and was widely regarded to be just Berio’s own technology plaything – of course this says more about the difference in character between the two composers (Boulez and Berio) than about local obstacles to achieve a similar goal.

IRCAM, nevertheless, as a growing big institution has suffered from many organisational and structural problems, that have become often artistic problems, like the establishment of an IRCAM style that can be quickly recognised – again, technology, the means of producing music with technology, are never neutral, but they affect every aspect of the creative compositional process.

Computers are not neutral tools. Software and hardware impose their own architecture. As any composer that works with technology will tell you, when you are working on a new piece and sit down at the computer to do any of a number of things (analyse, design, edit and mix sounds, prepare your own compositional material by using algorithms, note generators, etc., put together your performance environment and so on), your frame of mind changes, and you have to adapt and limit your thought processes to those that the machine, the software you’re using will allow. It is all very well to say that if you need to alter the software you are interacting with, or if you are unhappy with it you can modify or write your own – in practice you can’t transform yourself in a programmer – apart from the vast amount of time that would be needed, if you do it you will need to distance yourself even more from your musical mind, the one that initially triggered the need.

So again, technology is not neutral. And if a composer works on the technology with a musical assistant, this creates another layer between the musical mind and the machine, another constraint. (Critique of IRCAM) At IRCAM and elsewhere, the main policy has been for many years to support composers through musical assistants, acting as a filter between the composer and the machine. It is no wonder that the software developed at IRCAM has never reached the simplicity of use, the fluidity that one would expect from an institution with such great minds and resources behind it. The maintenance and documentation of the software has also been always very patchy. Obviously a pachydermic institution like IRCAM has a built-in inertia that makes change difficult, but creating simple tools for musicians has never been one of the IRCAM’s priorities.

Maintenance and preservation are also thorny issues. We are trying to find a possible solution to these issues with the Integra project.

The present
Technology is the beast. From a philosophical standpoint, music technology offers a very exciting challenge: artists working with computers, altering the code, hacking it, to realise things that were not planned by the software designers, fulfill the historical role of art: disrupting received knowledge, reordering, reassembling the symbols and objects of our society in an original, critical way. But can we apply to technology the same concepts that worked for art in the past? I doubt it.

Technology is so embedded in our lives, but we still feel the distance from it. It’s here but it’s not here. We think we have the philosophical tools to dominate it, to explain and describe technology, but in reality we don’t. Technology is a self-feeding monster, what can be realised will be realised. There is no goal in technology, no purpose, everything is outside our human horizon of meaning. We are now learning to find a new vocabulary to deal with this monster, but it is early days.

Technology has no memory, Technology has no meaning. Why technology in music? We have to humanise it, and adopt standards. The fundamental issue with technology lies in its unlimited potential and its self-replicating nature: technology is inherently meaningless. If we are going to use it in music we will have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why do we need it? How can it be musical? How can it be controlled? In order to be harnessed, technology should be brought back to a human dimension, and considered just like another musical instrument – a polymorphous one, to be sure, but still an instrument – that we can learn and play. To achieve this, we should simplify music technology, and to establish a standard vocabulary to describe it.

The word “standard” is often disliked, but we should not forget that the musical instruments employed in our concerts are themselves “standard”, in fact quite limited ones: nevertheless, they allow the transmission of an extremely complex and diversified musical message.

Integra is not alone in this effort towards more user-friendly technology, although it is only recently that usability, good interface design and a preoccupation for how humans operate have started to appear in technology products. Sadly, as far as the history of music technology is concerned, we are still living in the colonisation phase. I like to compare our current experience with the Wild West: new territories are conquered every day, there are no common laws, survival depends from individual initiative. And we are all still digging in search of that elusive gold mine.

This explains the proliferation of do-it-yourself systems over the past three decades, when each work, even by the same composer, required a different technological setup (hardware, software, or both). The often-poor documentation of the electronic parts and the rapid obsolescence of the original hardware and software have prevented the adoption of a core repertoire of works using live electronics in mainstream concert programmes.

Design – usability = make it simple! We need to trade the technological DIY approach (temporary, non-standard, often undocumented) with a user-centred approach, to ensure more performance opportunities and long-term preservation. Standards and limitations in technology can be an incentive for creativity.

The future
Integra project

Integra environment outline

Integra namespace – class hierarchy describing all the modules, parameters and functionalities, including time. Built-in inheritance. Everything is an object. The namespace is OSC-compliant for interaction with other software, network performance, etc., but not internally. OSC is one of the possible implementation of the Integra namespace model.

Database [postgres sql]
contains
• Integra modules [the building blocks of the system]
• Composition metadata [documentation on the work, the composer, the technical setup, etc.]
• Composition performance data [control and audio network and signal flow, behaviour in perfomance]

All data is encoded in XML format. All the XML files that constitute a work can be downloaded and will automatically generate modules and connections in the GUI.

GUI [any graphic library, prototype realised with Max/MSP using custom graphic library]
• interface for the musician, fine-tuned for the three main modes of utilisation: composition, rehearsal, live performance
• modular and powerful: everything is an object, every object can interact withj everything else
• extremely user-friendly
• uses new paradigms to represent concurrent timelines [Iannix]
• generates xml files
• talks to the engine in real-time
• visualizes processes in real-time

Engine [any DSP application supporting the Integra namespace]
• runs Integra modules

La sfida della complessità

Presentazione di una conferenza che ho tenuto su invito di Carmelo Piccolo e dell’organizzazione Eximia Forma nell’agosto del 1994.

* * *

La sfida della complessità: quale ruolo oggi per la musica colta?

In che modo la musica colta può interpretare la realtà, ed essere una voce autentica della nostra condizione?
Attraverso la comunicazione; la comunicazione è valida ed efficace quando esiste un rapporto vitale tra opera e pubblico.
Per non perdere questo rapporto è necessario attingere all’immenso bazar della storia, identificando le invarianti della trasmissione di un’idea musicale: non più un problema di linguaggio dunque, ma di dialettica tra attesa e sorpresa, e di creazione di una corrente emotiva.
Per risvegliare gli archetipi che sono in ciascuno di noi, e garantire il fluire del messaggio, dalla musica all’ascoltatore.

La sfida della complessità è la sfida del gusto, che nel repertorio gigantesco della storia e delle altre culture riesce ad isolare i segnali portatori di Senso e a dar loro nuova vita: creando delle costellazioni di significati non dall’interno, attraverso la costruzione di sistemi linguistici raffinatissimi, e in fondo solipsistici, ma dall’esterno, lasciando decantare frammenti, detriti delle culture-storie in organismi elastici, aperti al mondo e alla contaminazione, e controllati dal gusto.

Henze, Canti di Viaggio

La vita di un artista romantico, con la stessa intensità e passione, ma anche con le inevitabili cadute di stile e prolissità che caratterizzano la musica di Henze. Rimane un nostalgico, commovente ritratto dell’Italia dagli anni Cinquanta in poi, soprattutto del Sud – quel Sud che comincia dai Colli Albani… – visto con gli occhi di un artista nordico alla ricerca della sua Grecia, dell’ideale classico, della bellezza.

Appaiono nell’autobiografia tantissimi personaggi della cultura artistica del ‘900, da Luchino Visconti a Michael Vyner, da Wystan Auden a Ingeborg Bachmann…mi hanno sorpreso la descrizione della lunga e difficile amicizia con Luigi Nono, che getta una luce nuova sul personaggio, e la totale assenza di ogni riferimento a Berio (a parte uno piccolissimo).

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