composer, pianist, music theorist

DMA Dissertation Proposal

Part I - Proposal of an Acousmatic Composition

Title: KA acousmatic radio-opera in nine scenes;
based on the homonymous 1916 short story by Vielimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922).

The term “opera” is used here only to designate a piece of music that is dramatic in nature and where the spoken voice is substituted by a musical voice (not necessarily a singing one). Strictly speaking, the content and form of the piece do not relate to the tradition of Western world Opera. Also, the work is a piece of acousmatic music, i.e. a piece with no live performers, to be projected through loudspeakers, either in a concert hall or through a radio broadcast. There were two tasks before I could even sketch a strategy for the pre-compositional work necessary for the project. The first was to prepare a script-libretto for the piece. The original nine chapter short story was carefully studied through three different translations and then re-created into a dramatic piece in nine scenes. The second task was to make an analysis of the problem, measuring my desire to use the electroacoustic medium against the oneirical character of Khlebnikov's story, the web of connections of its material and its references to eastern art and culture. I proceeded to consider what could be sung, what could be spoken, what “sung” or “spoken” actually coud mean in an acousmatic work, what types of sounds could be used among concrete, instrumental, vocal and synthetic sounds, and how they could all probably fit together. Decisions were then made regarding the type of musical material to be used in the piece. It was decided that the eastern flavor of Khlebnikov's story was going to be recreated through a fictitious orientalism generated in laboratory. The technique used would be a sort of deformed version of Style-Modeling where one tries to evoke non-existent musical civilizations. The electroacoustic medium would be uniquely used to generate a world of deceiving realistic appearance but actually impossible to be materialized in real life by humans. The sounds used would be mostly real sounds, recorded in real life, real voices, real people singing, concrete sounds of all sorts and a huge assortment of musical instruments. This is perhaps the beauty of the electroacoustic medium : one can bring the whole world into play.
The following is a sketch of the manufacturing work necessary :

Description of three phases for the project

  1. Preparatory work
  2. Composition
  3. Mastering

1. Preparatory work

a) Formulation of several tuning systems and modes based on these tunings. The tuning systems are to be based on mathematical proportions calculated by dividing a given frequency range (disconnected from the notion of octave) into a certain number of equal steps. A mode is generated by choosing a scale (a fixed subset of those possible steps) and applying a method of note hierarchy to it. The modes will be organized to refer to specific ideas and characters of the libretto.

b) Since human beings can not perform in real life the musical material to be used, a strategy has to be devised to allow the recording of small atoms of material and to allow the subsequent incorporation of these atoms into a custom designed computer software that will assemble those real-life sounding particles into something hopefully unheard of.

That accomplished, one can proceed :

c) Accumulation of the immense quantity of sound necessary for the enterprise :

  • Casting and rehearsing speakers for the character voices ;
  • Casting and rehearsing singers ;
  • Recording all the voices and sounds ;

Curiously enough, the real-life singers will never sing anything bigger than a single pitch with a syllable at a time. The actors also will record single words or phrases most of the time. None of them will have any idea of how those fragments fit together.

d) Processing the recorded material into something programmable :

  • selection of the best samples among several recording takes ;
  • cleaning, fixing defects and tuning ;
  • bunching all the samples into a bigger file (called a map file) ;
  • indexing all relevant info for each sample in the map file: start and end times, pitch, amplitude, etc… ;

e) Programming C++ classes that will manage the map file and act as a convenient interface to each collection of sounds. Thus, it becomes possible to request sounds from within another C++ program. It should also allow you to request sounds that do not exactly exist in the collection. The program will figure out the closest match in its database and use its algorithms to alter the library sound till it conforms to the request.

2. Composition

Work required for each scene :

a) Architecture of an strategy for the scene :

  • Creation of codes of musical conduct (a simulation of a musical language) ;
  • Design of the “instruments” to be used and playing methods for them, according to the conduct codes ;

b) Design of C++ software and algorithms that implement the conduct codes and generate the specific musical ideas for each scene ;

c) Running the software and assembling a collection of “sound bricks” ;

d) Putting the scene together using multitrack recording studio software.

e) Performing a preliminary revision and masterization of the completed scene.

3. Masterization

Will be the production of four versions (different mixes) of the piece :

  • An acousmatic concert version ;
  • A radio broadcast version ;
  • A CD home-listening version ;
  • An internet live-streaming version ;

Part II - Proposal for an Essay

Writing a theoretical essay is a very delicate issue for me. This is due to my belief that musical theory is a sort of natural by-product of practical musical work, the result of the tentatives to answer questions posed by the sound matter at that very precise moment when one had to decide what to do with it. For me, it is an incongruity to think that one can formulate a musical theory and then, according to that theory, proceed to practical work. It is like if one tried to answer a question before it was posed or even worse, it is like if one could answer all the subsequent questions in the same way. Indeed, a conscious musician has to construct theories, all the time, about practically everything on the nature of the musical material : the way it manifests itself, the way we perceive and understand it, the way we can possibly shape it. But after having addressed a particular problem, I believe the conscious musician has to be prepared to abandon his theories on it. Each question must have its own unique answer. And it is not even about giving a “right” or “wrong” answer but the important is to “address” the question. After all, artistic thought and scientific thought don't have the same nature. Tarkovsky had already pointed that out. In Art, two completely opposed and contradictory trends of thought are true and correct when each one is observed inside its own sphere. In this spirit, the result of theoretical work should be not exactly a tool to be used when handling music, but instead, it should be an increase in the perception, agility and clarity of view of the musican's mind. In other words, it is the great art of “problem-solving”.
What I propose for my essay is therefore not a standard theoretical work but instead, a picture of a composer at work, a journal-log of his thoughts when he has to deal with the sound matter, to conjure it, to sculpt something with it. Actually, it will portray my own thoughts as I try to explain and undergo the task of materializing the very radio-opera described in the previous section of this proposal. There will be a broad range of ideas in this text, from the nature of Art itself to specific ways of implementing a tuning system. I will also make use of the analysis of works by other composers (and by myself) to ilustrate specific ideas. But mostly, there will be ideas regarding the nature of the musical material itself, ideas that were not only the product of my musical inquiries but also the product of my observation of other arts dealing with their own elements. For example, I often find Film theory to be extremely revealing of the properties of music. This is not surprising, for all arts have at their very roots a similar impulse, an intention that is common to them all. It is not by chance that we have all those different activities labeled as “the Arts”.
This journal-log of mine will have a structure of its own, not necessarily governed by classical scientific dissertation laws. The logic of its presentation will be the logic of the sucession of events in a laboratory experiment. Some ideas will be deliberately worked out just to be discarded later, either because they were deemed to be incorret or because the issue that the idea addressed became irrelevant to the big picture. The purpose of my text is not to present an unified theory with proposition, development, conclusion (even if it does so !!) but, as I said before, the intention is to paint a snapshot of a composer at work. At the end of my essay a specific subject shall slowly emerge from the multiplicity of ideas : the question “how can one approach the musical sound matter ?”. But I shall “address” the question, not “answer” it. To me, this seems to be the way a composition teacher should proceed.

Part III - Bibliographical References

  • Maiakovski, Vladimir. How Verses are to be Made; in Selected works in three volumes. Raduga, c1985-1987, Moscow
  • Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting Time. Bodley Head, London, 1986 ;
  • Schaeffer, Pierre. Traité des Objets Musicaux. Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1966 ;
  • Costère, Edmond. Lois et Styles des Harmonies Musicales. Presses Universitaires de France, 1954, Paris ;
  • Eisenstein, Sergei. The Film Sense. Meridian Books, 1957, New York ;
  • Eisenstein, Sergei. The Film Form. Meridian Books, 1957, New York ;
  • Khlebnikov, Vielimir. Collected works of Velimir Khlebnikov. Harvard University Press, 1987, Cambridge, Mass. ;
  • Khlebnikov, Velimir. Selections. The King of Time . Harvard University Press, 1985, Cambridge, Mass. ;
  • Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Harvard University Press, 1994, Cambridge, Mass. ;
  • Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Indiana University Press, 1976, Bloomington ;
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