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The Bells

Champs d'étoiles

VI: Compositional strategies I:

Intertextuality, intermusicality and resonances

Stefan Östersjö observes in his text about The Bells and my compositional works further perspectives on the idea of combining many different texts into a new libretto: ”In the final version, Poe’s poem is instead woven into a multitextual web of voices, at first a whispered text in Latin in Choir I, and a soprano soloist singing (Sprechgesang) Baudelaire’s La Cloche fêlée into a tube. The whispered voices expand to the second choir and the second vocal group as well leading up to a first line from Poe’s poem. What may lie behind this radical change of approach?” Östersjö writes that a musical work that also contains literary sources must have several interpretative layers. (Östersjö (2008) p.211) He refers to Adorno that said, “a composer’s practice takes place within a specific discourse, a context of musical tradition and practices”. (Ibid.) Östersjö means that my composition The Bells can be seen as a kind of interpretation of a tradition of musical works that weave together many different types of texts “into a kind of semantic counterpoint.” (Ibid.) Examples of such works are the early experiments with multi-textual compositions as Luciano Berio’s Passagio from 1962 and Labyrinthus from 1963-65 that were created in collaboration with the poet Edoardo Sanguineti. In the view of this perspective Östersjö also states that “The Bells takes shape as an interpretation of and further development within the series of vocal works in the composer’s output, spanning from Lamentationes (1987-92), via Membra Jesu Nostri (1988-89/99) and Stabat mater (1999) up to The Bells.” (Östersjö (2008) p.212) But neither of these previous works utilizes the kind intertextuality found as a key method and compositional tool in The Bells . The choice of biblical and sacral texts in Latin provided a detachment as well as placed them in a large tradition of church music, which all made it easier to approach the words as foremost musical material. The Bells presented a rather different type of poetry, which was followed by another compositional problems.


So what was it that essentially guided me to the final version of The Bells?


From The Bells, part I, start

Stabat mater – an exploded chant


One year before I composed the first version of The Bells in 2000 I had composed a work for four voices and pre-recorded sound based on the well-known sacral text Stabat mater. It was based on the original Gregorian chant from the 13th century, but not on the notated melody but on a recording of it.  With the help of modern computer software the sounding hymn was analysed and its spectral content became the founding material for my composition. Even though the modern compositional techniques, partly inspired by the French so-called spectral school, were prominent, the resonance of the medieval and sacral was also salient.  Not only the nostalgia of the old music or the sound of the voices so strongly associated with the chanting, but a pervasive spirituality that in dialogue with the contemporary created a timeless expression.

The setting of music to the 13th-century hymn Stabat mater has been made numerous composers throughout the centuries. Basing compositions on existing melodies has always been a common way of creating new music; both through improvisations over a given melody, or in writing notated music, which not least the use of Gregorian chants are well-known examples of. The modern compositional techniques I was using for my Stabat mater can thus be set in a long tradition of compositions.

The way I treated the text in Stabat mater was somehow particular. The Latin words was broken down to smaller sounding units and divided between singers as well as between the singers and the pre-recorded electronics sounds. The poem was exploded in a similar way that the recording of the hymn was where the spectral components became discrete musical material. These particular techniques thus involved a kind of “zooming in” on both sounds and words. The separate components were enlarged, changed and illuminated and combined into a new composition.


From Stabat mater, part VI.


Resonances and Music History as Sonic Bridges

In an article in 2014 I wrote about resonances as compositional concept. It addressed the acoustic resonances of instruments and how I have used these as compositional material. The resonances have been prolonged, extended and processed through electronic treatments, thereby creating new material. Also, the very act of resounding as responses to the instrumentally performed material was discussed.

Resonance is in the Webster New World Collage Dictionary defined as “reinforcement and prolongation of a sound or musical tone by reflection or by sympathetic vibration of other bodies”.   Resonant, when talking specifically about sound, is defined in Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged as “resounding or re-echoing”  which clearly points back to the French and Latin origins of the word, ”the verb resonare, from re- (expressing intensive force) + sonare 'to sound'.”

But the words, resonance, resounding, originating undoubtedly with connection to sound, have more meanings. Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary also states resonant as “ made intensely significant, profound, or allusive”  while Oxford dictionary gives examples as “(Of a place) filled or resounding with (a sound)”  and ”Having the ability to evoke enduring images, memories, or emotions”. Putting the sentences above together in a slightly modified way would we get “A place filled and resounding with sounds that have the ability to evoke enduring images, memories and emotions, intensely significant, profound and allusive”. The new sentences now indicate musical imagination, compositional intuition, multiple intertwined meanings rather than a singular quality. The sound can evoke images and memories; the sound is profound and allusive.

Webster Dictionary continues: “Resonance ... an underlying or pervasive quality of a particular type, esp. in a work of art or literature” while the American Heritage Dictionary reads: “Richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion.”

Swedish philosopher Tore Nordenstam writes in his book The Power of Example that all art resonates with other works within the space of a specific art form. Moving outside that space the resonance is lost. Using poem as example he states that a “poem is what it is by virtue of all the echoes created in the poetic space.” (Nordenstam (2010) p.17)

In the end of the 90’s I had became largely interested and influenced by the French so-called spectral music. The compositional techniques in spectralism, as it is sometimes called, are fundamentally based on using acoustic properties of sound as material for a musical work. Typically, the frequencies of the partial tones in sounds are translated into standard notation and used in material for a composition. Composers as Tristan Murail and Gérhard Grisey developed the ideas of the composition method in the 70’s, which were later refined at IRCAM, the Paris based institute devoted to contemporary music, scientific research of acoustics and development of new technologies. Among softwares developed there during the 90’s were Audiosculpt, a programme dedicated for analysing and processing sounds, and Open Music, a visual programming environment for computer aided compositions. The two softwares can be used together in order to perform automatic transcription of spectral analysis into standard notation. While many compositions of spectral music are based on single sounds were the partials become fundamental material I started transcribing section of other music as in my piece Stabat Mater where a recording of the Gregorian chant was used. This transcription technique was not possible before the modern computers, and certainly not available as a working tool to everyone before the 90’s and the introduction of powerful personal computers.

While the technology in itself was very fascinating to me the aesthetic possibilities for my composition even more so. The material from the transcriptions was rich and complex and it provided for me mesmerizing sonic connections to historic styles or certain works and composers that I could use in my compositions. This composition technique was a very interesting way of working with musical quotations, a kind of intertextuality in music. Or rather, intermusicality as Marcel Cobussen discusses with reference to the Serbian philosopher Miško Šuvaković who ” introduced the term …, alluding of course to the (poststructuralist) idea of intertextuality.” Fundamentally, as with the term intertextuality, intermusicality means that a “musical text always exists only through its relationship with other musical texts” whereas in the case with intermusicality as compositional method, it implies specific conscious connections to other musical works as an artistic mean. Cobussen sketches three different meanings of intermusicality and it is his outline of “the exchanges, referentialities, (dis)placements, inscriptions, or mutual coverings of two (or more) musical texts” that are the closest to the concept used in my compositional context.

I utilized this composition techniques in quite many compositions during almost a decade and some of the historical music used as “resonances” in my compositions were works by Corelli, Jolivet and Bartok.


Le miroir caché – still life with Pierrot, Schoenberg and Giraud


The years after the first version of The Bells, 2001-03, I worked with Le miroir caché, a commission from a festival in Dublin called Up North, the theme was new Nordic music. It was a work that I still remember as very hard to write. One of the difficulties was finding a text. The commission was for en ensemble that the same as in Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg, thus a soprano and small chamber ensemble. I don’t know exactly what led me to find another approach to the work with texts. Probably because it was difficult to find poems that I felt were meaningful to set music to, that would yield something artistically interesting together with my music. Instead of just picking a few poems I started combining texts, both prose and poetry, that both commented each other and the music. I created a kind of libretto for the work. Maybe it was unconsciously the problems with the text in the work with The Bells that guided me towards this solution.

The composition technique of using spectral analysis as base like I did in Stabat Mater also become the fundamental technique in this work. Now it was a recording of Pierrot Lunaire that was the base. The movement of this Schoenberg classic, a movement with a duration of one and a half minute, was “time-stretched” to a sound file of 20 minutes. A spectral analysis of this stretched variant was then translated to pitches that became the harmonic fundament for the composition. But also parts of the “time-stretched” recording which included voice became material for the soprano part, the sounding result were interpreted to musical notation. Thus a kind of variation of Pierrot is heard occasionally, some German words are almost audible.

By weaving in music philosophical texts by Schoenberg himself those could form comments on the composition. For example, in one section Schoenberg argues that J. S. Bach was the first composer that composed twelve-tone music and points out the last fugue of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier whose theme contains all the twelve tones. The start of the fugue appears in my composition, but reworked in such way that Anton Webern, the famous student of Schoenberg, would have done. It takes place with the “stretched” music of Pierrot as backdrop.

The third layer of texts is by the Belgian symbolist poet Albert Giraud that was the one that originally wrote the suite of poems on Pierrot Lunaire. The original was in French but it was a German translation by Otto Hartleben that Schoenberg used for his setting. But I didn’t use anything from the original Pierrot in my composition, instead it was other poems by Giraud were he writes about art, on the things it hides but that be revealed if we truly look. Like a disguised mirror, une miroir cache.

Le miroir chaché thus have three layers of texts: the “time-steched” first part of Pierrot Lunaire including the recorded soprano voice, music philosophical texts by Schoenberg himself and poems by Albert Giraud, the original author of Pierrot. The first layer in German, the second in English and the third in French. So how was the soprano part in my composition formed with these very different kind of texts, with different meanings, languages and sounds? Where did the idea of weaving several separate layers into one voice came from?

Musically it may stem from the series of solo works that I had been working on for more than a decade, called Treccia. All the works in the series is structured on three independent lines with each with its own material and development processes. The lines were “weaved” into one single complex musical trajectory. It was a compositional method I had developed to make multi-layered music for one instrument, a method that could provide a clear dramaturgy in the compositions but which was through the complexity of the three lines yet unpredictable. I see a strong parallel to the vocal part of Le miroir caché here. The soprano part is virtuously thrown between different vocal techniques (Sprechgesang is one of them, used for the sections with the philosophical thoughts by Schoenberg), different texts and different languages. The changes create tension and energy but is also scattered. But the different lines in the soprano part are also moulded into one that becomes a part of the musical dramaturgy together with the ensemble.


Le miroir caché, start of part IV.


Origin of the idea of multiple texts in The Bells

I believe that the composition process of Le miroir caché was of bigger importance that I realised at the time. In fact, I don’t remember thinking of it at all when I composed the final version of The Bells. I wasn’t very content with first performance of Le miroir caché in 2002; the piece wasn’t fully finished and scored for a bit smaller ensemble than the final work, both issues due to limitations of the commission. It was first in 2007 it was completed and had a successful performance.

The method of working with a libretto of multiple texts differs from setting music to a single poem in many ways. But in one specific respect it largely influences the composition process: even if the libretto is built up of existing texts it is still a new text that can be created and modified together with process of the musical composition. The work on the text and the music can take place simultaneously.


Marcel Cobussen, Music is a text. retrieved 7 August 2015

Screenshot from AudioSculpt

Screenshot from Open Music