“The question of concrete mimesis is taboo in music”

Paco Yáñez
jueves, 16 de octubre de 2014

In October 2013, the Canadian composer Charles-Antoine Fréchette (Montreal, 1981) gave the World première of his quintet for cello, saxophone, piano, percussion, sound mixer and 12 microphones Toposition(s)#3 (2013) in Santiago de Compostela, in the concert’s series Música y arte. Correspondencias sonoras, played by the Galician contemporary music group Vertixe Sonora Ensemble [to read the review]. It was first Fréchette’s piece played in Spain, having a great success for its deep musicality, artistic transcendence and radical exploration of the space and its relations to nature. The routes from the early Fréchette’s works to his last compositions should be analysed in detail as one of the most interesting young composers in the North America’s scene. We talk about it in this interview, discovering his deep and intelligent ideas on his music.

Paco Yáñez. Mr. Fréchette, it’s really amazing to listen your last pieces, such as Archéotopologie#1 (2011-12) or Toposition(s)#3, together with those from just a few years ago, compositions like the orchestral piece Parcours (2007). Which steps and influences are those you have received for giving such a step into a really new way of producing and understanding sound?

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. I went to a summer stage in Europe in 2005 for the first time; it was an Acanthes Academy in Metz. At an evening, after three older composers had listen to some of my pieces, one of them, my friend Wolf Edwards, told me: «It looks like there is more than one composer composing your music!!!». He meant my music was hard to understand from piece to piece, or for a moment in a piece to another, unequal in quality, style, and expression, which could in fact be very smoothened, or classified if you want, but sometimes radical in its means.

It is at the crease of «wannabe Lachenmann, Sciarrino, Vivier and Grisey» that my first pieces (between 2001 and 2005) were composed in surface. Those pieces had post-modern architectures borrowing either to the rondo, the lied, the sonata, the madrigal, the fantasy or the cantus firmus mass. Inside those revisited forms, I was exploring the multiple dialectics you can draw between noise, and pure sound or melody. It was also question to integrate heterogeneity of styles and materials with few harmonic fragments. The electroacoustic composer Yves Daoust told me at that time: «you are romantic!»... and he was right. Under the «anything goes», new academic and eclectic tendencies were already growing, and I would fall in ...

At that time, the words of Edwards kept resonating in my mind. I thought they were precisely describing the inner stylistic fracture I was overwhelmed with. In terms of material, it seems the distance between what I was seeking for and my technical abilities to write it clearly was to wide. I had to purge the tissue from scoriae, condense less material in more time. This cleaning process was harsh and long and led me to an end where no music would grow any more. It is in those desert moments of silence that concrete sounds from the environment started to fill the cracks of my imagination. I was fascinated by the harmonic complexity of the sounds of a refrigerator, coffee machine, birds, clusters, etc.

All the pieces written from Transitoire (2005-06) to Archéotopologie #1 (2012) seem to be different steps of this long process of shifting from an «haptical» -in reference to Lachenmann requoting of Duchamp- to a structural perspective. Although I don’t believe to be a scientific mind, it seems I was always fascinated with theoretical aspects of music. I believe the tradition of structures, or structural methods, represents a strong «objective» defence against closed individualistic subjectivity or the «buzz» of the musical industry. Therefore, I was much interested in the «spectralism» of Murail and Grisey, more precisely by their notions of transformation process and sound analysis, rather than by their surface. As in the more recent music of Murail, I was more curious to investigate complex sounds of nature than sounds of voices and instruments. In order to get away from classified chords and taking in consideration the frequential domain, complex sounds from the environment could become models to investigate frequential harmony and renew melodic contours. Nocturne (2009), for trumpet, live process, «moving» sound samples of trumpet in an octophonic diffusion, was the first piece I composed only by mimicking concrete sounds -wind, motor boats, tawny and barn owls-. Although the piece refers directly to the lied form, it is much conceived as a tape montage. Nature Vive #1 (2010), for string quartet and live process, explores some archetypes of the sonata form, the trio, the ritournelle and the lied by exploring a dialectic between thrushes and refrigerator sound behaviours. At that time, it was already much question of deconstructing the sources being imitated on the instruments; and also, on defining a specific space or special disposition of the instruments at each one of those project. Torpeurs d’été (2009-10) is for spatialized flute octet, live process, spatialized sound samples of processed flutes in fourteen little speakers disseminated arbitrary under some seats of the audience. This piece was unfortunately not created, and was mostly based on the sounds of African mole crickets and osprey. In fall 2011, I started to study with Philippe Leroux. Mr. Leroux comments and questions really helped me to expand the material and clarify my notation.

I think if there is really a shift, it must have appeared while composing Toposition(s) #1, and it is has to do with a new compositional method. Instead of just analysing the harmonic behaviours of the environmental sources, I started to extract as well rhythmic proportions to diversify formal aspects and liberate each instrumental voice one of another. I also pushed the deconstruction of those sources farther then before, by classifying musical ideas between different categories -or typologies-.

At that time, I knew Lachenmann’s writings on Reigen seliger Geister (1988-99), his second string quartet, and on Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (1979-80), but for me the typologies really started to make sense when I went through the process of defining my own typologies; I realized that depending on the sources, the instruments of the composition or the musical project, they had to be redraw each time. Toposition(s)#1 was therefore a big step in my compositional endeavour, because it was synthesizing both the post-serial notions of typologies and spectral analysis and processes I was working with. It was composed for the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble Young Composer’s Academy during the summer 2012. Listening to the lectures of Mark Andre at that event was also an enlightenment on the notion of typologies and an accelerator to understand what I had done and what I was doing.

Paco Yáñez. In that tension between finding your voice and the influence of the structures and forms from the past, after that stage of «wannabe Lachenmann, Sciarrino, Vivier and Grisey», what do you think your music is now; did you achieve a personal and individual voice?

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. It would be rather consensual to admit I can’t have my own opinion on such things like «achievement» and «individual voice» talking on my own music. Let’s say I’m enthusiastic about my recent pieces!... because they have trigger unusual unexpected configurations beyond the edges of my own imagination. As Cage or Stockhausen have showed, it is more a question of having an original sight, concept, or sonic territory with its own relations that enables you to go out of yourself each time, rather than once and for all. «What is music?»... still worms like an impenetrable enigma.

The question of concrete mimesis is taboo in music. Musical ecomimicry is a theoretical method of composition that explores the metaphorical threshold between abstract and concrete structures. Emerging from natural environmental sound sources analysis, musical in-formations are classified in different typologies to deploy a structural outlook upon the heterogeneity of morphologies. This objective or archivist perspective works with material from the outside, a bit like composers form the Renaissance would do by architecturing a mass with a cantus firmus. However in this case, the source material cannot be categorized as a musical text, as it is not being bound to an unequivocal musical system -modal, tonal, etc.- from which it is deduced, and finally most of all, it is not a circular structure close on itself. The sonic in-formations collected and organized in different typologies become mere musical potentials and flows, in which the erratic subjective actions of the composer investigate possible structural paths of sonic relations. By doing so, those endless or pointless investigations will activate and delineate a singular virtual resonating territory emerging from specific environmental sounds. To conclude and answer your question with a smile...: I would say I’m trying to «achieve» a «depolypolarized unique polyphony» in each piece!

Paco Yáñez. In his essays, Morton Feldman wrote that timbre, texture and instrumental colour are the most important characteristics in a composer’s voice and personality. If we think that your instrumentation depends so much on the natural soundscape you want to reflect, are they any timbres which are ‘typical Fréchette’?

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. To continue from what I was just saying, choosing specific sounds will generate possible specific sounding relations. This paradigm pushes the composer out of is known own territory and normative cultural mimetic behaviours. The question of the ecomimesis is subversive in that perspective, as it consciously displace and orientate the mimicry towards the everyday banal. It is also a non-materialistic way of working the surfaces of the work, as different environmental sources will call for singularized custom-made instrumentation and instrumental techniques for each project. This nomadic critical position towards any material partly neutralize the natural narcissistic tendency of an artist to «fall in love whit is material», and to restrict music to an incestuous relation of comfort. On the other hand, it would be impossible to deny the existence of a common pneuma along my pieces. Working with such notions as metamorphosis, process and sound mimesis emerging structures are current issues in my work... yet it might not be the case in few years.

However, the question of the «natural soundscape» needs to be shaded. I often work with more or less improbable sound sources combination, as they might never occur all together simultaneously in the real world. It’s true though I sometimes take in consideration the spatial distribution of different species to link the sources by a common territorial factor. But in the end, the composition in itself will be elaborated abstractly according to the structural sonic potentialities of the sources. Therefore if there are any landscapes, they must be virtual, metaphoric and unreal, mere deconstructions of the environment. For instance, the spatialization of the instrumentation is not meant to be descriptive, as it is more than just a purpose of instruments (dis)location(s) and spatial organization. The space gap between the transmitters can create acoustic distortions both in terms of microdelays and dynamical forces. By doing so, it deploys a meta «timbral territory», a «soundspace-image» with its own specificities and relations in which the composer will trace different superimposed itineraries, fusions, and ephemeral polarizations.

Paco Yáñez. In Toposition(s)#3 the space sounds itself reverberating because of the way you distribute acoustic and electronic sources. How much important for you is this idea of sound multi-projection?

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. Like I said earlier, it’s very important. Although a priori silent, space is the only musical parameter that has an influence on all the others at once. Therefore, each piece asks for a specific topography. The spacing of the instruments and the relations of material between them can create numerous different acoustical conditions to scout and explore. In that sense, space relations and projections are fundamental in defining the horizontal aura of a specific composition. But you’re right, when you play with different types of microphones combined with acoustical sources, there is also a vertical projection in a virtual space where the same sounds not-the-same. The spatial device of mixing acoustical or/and amplified sources has mostly timbral and detached types of listening -psychoacoustic- implications. The actual sounds of the work are then oblique lines crossing those both plans of projections and generate the metaphorical space of the composition.

But my recent work is not meant to use any amplification (although it may be the case in some halls). Toposition(s) #4 is construed like a meta-broken-hurdy-gurdy, which fragmented pieces are the musicians disseminated on stage. It is thought like a solo for four musicians, and each one of them is asked to play on their instruments with prepared motors. It is deliberate low-fi music.

Paco Yáñez. You spoke about notation. Which system do you use today? Did you need to change it drastically in the last years according to your new musical ideas? How much complex is to share it with musicians Worldwide?

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. I believe notation today cannot be systematic. You need to adapt it to each project. From a more anthropological perspective, the instruments and the mechanical actions of the performers can be conceived as mere potential of sounds.

Such conceptions are embodied in musique concrète instrumentale, which consequently has integrated graphical tablatures to precise the choreographies of the gestures to be performed by the musicians. I started to employ this type of notation in 2003 for strings, although it took me some type to expand it to all the other instrument families. This came by making more and more my own explorations directly on the instruments rather than find the answers in orchestration books, or other composer’s scores…

In the process of working with performers, I don’t think I have any issues in terms of «clarity of notation». Questions raise more when it is the time to describe a specific timbre, to clarify a gesture... or when I flirt with physical limits...

Criptana Angulo y Charles-Antoine Fréchette ensayando

Paco Yáñez. So, we could say it’s a kind of ‘learning by doing’; for sure, complex and demanding for the composer, who should be in a very close contact with the players, receiving their feedbacks...

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. Yes, for sure! But complex for the performers too!!! Contemporary music dedicated performers always help me to verify the scores. They are also often generous of their time to make technical proposals and upgrade the text while respecting the musical ideas. So yes, the «final version» of the score might be fixed while rehearsing a première, or afterwards.

Paco Yáñez. Toposition(s)#3 is a perfect example of how nature turns his sounds and noises into your music. Could you describe how did you exactly conceived and wrote this piece to show us how do you go from nature to music?

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. Once the instrumentation is given or chosen, although it for sure could go the way around, I always «hear» rapidly a «timbral aura» of the composition to be. This intuition leads me to speculate some hypothesis of materials to be used, spatial distribution of the instruments, and guide me in the process of finding environmental sound sources.

For Toposition(s) #3, I have selected and analysed sounds of different types of waves, clicks, yells and songs of belugas and humpback whales, and an acoustical space of a sea cargo struck into a tempest. From those analyses, I extract musical in-formations, which are deconstructed through sound typologies -frequential, durational and dynamical behaviors-. By mimicry, the sound behaviour of a specific source leads me to explore the instruments in order to find acceptable imitations (to mimic a sound source, one or many instruments can be required). I therefore proceed and record methodical explorations of techniques and objects. From this collected material will grow a tentative of organization, where some material will be discarded, but some will be integrated even if they are far from the sound sources. Taken into account the sound typologies, those material will as well be considered under a concrete typology -gestures, positions and techniques on the instruments-, a metaphorical typology -concrete sound, chimera, bad imitation, mimicry-, and a spatial typology -types of momentary solos and instrument groupings-.

After the material has been deconstructed and positioned in different typologies, I start to investigate the possible relations between the member of a typology, and also the crossovers between them. The purpose is to make smart music, where there is a demultiplication of possible structural links and connections. I therefore trace typological axes which functions are to relate and differentiate the sounds in the course of the composition of the work; their functions collapsed together and give form to specific musical processes of each voice of the polyphony. The way a musical process evolves can also be seen under a metamorphic typology that ranges from the stasis to the absolute contrast. Then the variables are the speed of the flow and the quantity of information being transformed. Through the composition process and hiking along emerging typological axes, those superimposed and free processes give form to the overall architecture of the work.

Paco Yáñez. Is there an environmental intention, even political, in your music?

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. No and yes... Yes and no... But certainly I wouldn’t want to be associated with any instrumentalization of the environment. Although it seems we’re on the verge of a prolonged environmental crisis upon the outlook of everyday news and weather fluctuations, I investigate sounds firstly because they permit me to understand the nature of complex sounds (or what we call noises), not because it seems trendy to do it. It might sound anti-heroic but do understand I don’t want to prescribe any interpretation of my works. I believe works of art should be critical and raise questions more than solve problems. Of course, if you make a piece with sounds of cows, butcher’s knife and slaughter house, it might directly raise political, social and environmental questions, all the more so if this music is not reducible to the patterns of the musical industry. But in the end, I seek for a music that would be irreducible to any political, intentional, fictive or whatsoever agenda. The domination we exert on nature is as horrible as the cultural normalized domestication have a hold on ourselves.

Paco Yáñez. I have recently interviewed the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, and he said he has the intention of becoming one with nature (a very Zen approach), as many Japanese artists. In your way of coming closer to the natural sound, is there this kind of intention? 

Charles-Antoine Fréchette. Maybe... I love Zen and Zen art... but I’m not Zen!... Seriously (like Cage has previously said), I love silence and when music makes silence audible rather than be superimposed on it. Music and silence are the two sides of the same token... although music is a particular way to magnify silence. Some composers fill the pages with materials, and then start to withdraw and choose what they want for their composition. In my case, as the empty space could be for a sculptor, my principal matter is silence, out of which sounds are nomadic luminous epiphanies. In Western music, since Webern, silence has become a gravitational force: it has a mass, a density. But this is not an intention, it’s an inner-before-composing-conviction, where a part of the composer is crystallized holding the white flag of rendition in an always-different-sisyphean gesture.

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