An exorcism of musical spirits by Jeffrey Erbacher, John Rodgers and Errki Veltheim at QPAC’s Merivale Street Studio, Saturday 22 Sept.
The atmosphere is dark, repressive, religious: votary candles; the scroll and fretwork of the heads of a collection of violins and cellos throwing shadowy crosses on the wall and scrim; voices intoning; the smell of frying bacon; random cracks of sound punctuating the otherwise sombre mood of the deliberately protracted prologue.
This is the haunting - a register of poltergeist activities which occurred in real life (including the phantom smell of cooking bacon) to a friend of the performers, Elliot Dalgleish. The classical concert innstruments downstage become a brooding grouping from Lorca’s The House of Bernada Alba, evoking an aura of early Polanski rather than The Exorcist, Peter Straub rather than Stephen King. These instruments listen. The voluptuous gleaming of polished wood begins to exude paranoid delusions of gandeur, pride, and persecution.
Behind the scrim, there is the dimly seen presence of two concert performers (John Rodgers and Erkki Valtheim) who take turns to tend the sizzling bacon (souls burning in hell?), and read aloud from manuals of instruction for violinists. This litany of intsructions imperceptibly builds up a picture (along the lines of Beckett or Peter Handke) of classical concert performers as victims of the bourgeois cultural regime that lionises them; and concert-going itself as an absurd ritual of bourgeois power.
The message is reinforced by slide projections of an ‘arisiocratic’ virtuoso, Jascha Heifitz, juxtaposed with the self-consciously ‘populist’ image of Vanessa May playing her violin in a white bathing suit. Despite the latter attempt to popularise classical music, the indefatigabiy powerful iconic stature of the classical string instrument renders it utterly risible. How can these instruments be cleansed for contemporary expression - present a clean slate - except by a complete historical exorcism?
This is the second act of the piece: an act of class war, according to Erkki Valtheim. A ritual enactment of class war perhaps, because it is also diabolically funny. Funny as hell, in fact. The two po-faced exorcists perform energetically in frenetic silent film comedy style as they ‘liberate’ a lewd cacophony of sounds from their ‘possessed’ instruments, until ﬁnally the wailing of lost souls dies away into silence, and the instruments are literally ‘laid to rest’.
As the lights come up in the auditorium, the performers declare that the instruments are now ‘safe’ to be handled and (innocently) played by the untutorcd members of the audience. The audience’s relationship to the classical concert has been deconstructed, all barriers are down, and in a carnivalesque turnaround, what once was sacred has become profane, or democratised. (‘But is it music?’ I hear the philistines cry again.)
For all its riotous playing with such Barthian notions of intertextuality, does, can, this project succeed in and of itself? Of course not. But such destruction and silencing - a recourse into violence and terror, as Martin Buzacott has pointed out elsewhere - is perhaps the last resort in a world bereft of actual political change, a world where we are exhorted by Beckett to “fail again; fail again better.”
A funny and bitter parable of our times that deserves to be festivalised.
by David Barmby
A take-no-prisoners ghost-train ride into horrors within.
‘A cadaver wrapped in black plastic twitches in the corner like a snake with its head cut off. Ticking erratically, this animated corpse offers a counterpoint to the digital clocks at opposite ends of the space. Facing each other, these clocks mark time passed and time to come.’
Stretching the boundaries of what might be considered opera (there is little singing, theatre or text) Another Other (part experimental opera, expanded cinema, sound art and installation) is a multi-media tour de force rhetorically based on the black and white film, Persona (1966) directed by Ingmar Bergman.
In Bergman’s essay The Snakeskin he describes Art as equivalent to a snakeskin full of ants ‘the snake itself is long since dead, eaten out from within, deprived of its poison: but the skin moves, filled with busy life’. On our way into the theatre we pass the cadaver wrapped in garbage bags and discarded into a corner, with the ‘pluck-plock’ sound of erratically ticking clocks engulfing us. Was this the discarded remains of Western Art we were passing? It foreshadows what is to come in this exceptional creative achievement by Chamber Made Opera, a take-no-prisoners ghost-train ride into horrors within.
The 79-minute Another Other (though it was 90 minutes on opening night) questions the relevance of art forms, ‘authenticity’, our identities and genders. In the vast Meat Market space, the work uses fours screens and 12 microphones with centrally located performers facing each other behind computers and other technology, screened by two ceiling-to-floor gauze screens onto which images are projected. Beyond the centre, the audience sits in two banks of raked seating facing one other. Further screens are to the side and behind each half of the audience.
The program note dscribes the work as “deeply collaborative” with “everything discussed in depth, each scene and our understanding of it”. There is no composer, librettist nor director; rather four voices around a table interacting with one another in a controlled chaos.
So how did it go? Firstly, the lay-out of the project worked very well. To sit looking through two transparent screens of projected image to a further screen and the audience beyond, and to hear multifarious sonic contributions from the artists before us provided a wonderfully rich tapestry of abstraction to behold. Anderson’s improvisations using digitally processed garklein recorders, Veltheim violin contributions (including an excerpt of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No 2 in startling counterpoint with screened soap opera) and Masselli’s 16mm film contributions were all highly engaging, but it was Pateras’s exquisitely refined and precise sound world of texture and sonority, using a synthesiser and reel-to-reel tape recorder manipulating his own sounds, pre-recorded sounds and those of others, which proved to be the most rewarding aspect of the work. Overall, sitting through 90 minutes of episodic abstract soundscape and film without apparent structure or narrative was not a simple task; I felt that the work might be tightened and it was my instinctive need to have a clearer understanding of form, that I know the work was avoiding, which proved frustrating. In sum: a first-rate undertaking and a highly successful model for future collaboration.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Presented by Chamber Made Opera
Thursday, 18 February to Sunday, 21 February at 8pm Meat Market, North Melbourne
Created and performed by:
Natasha Anderson, composer and installation artist
Sabina Maselli, film maker and visual artist
Anthony Pateras, pianist and electro-acoustic musician
Erkki Veltheim, violinist and interdisciplinary artist
Byron Scullin, Production Management/Audio
Jenny Hector, Lighting Design
Marco Cher-Gibard, Technical Supervision
Another Other was commissioned by Chamber Made Opera with support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria, Sue Kirkham and Charles Davidson.
First published on Friday 19 February, 2016
What the stars mean? - Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see - Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing - Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind - Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant - Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed - Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate - Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful - One star: Awful, to be avoided - Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level
Review: Another Other (Chamber Made Opera)
by Maxim Boon
February 19, 2016
★★½☆☆ This ode to Bergman’s masterwork, Persona, is technically virtuosic but ultimately impenetrable.
Meat Market, Melbourne
February 19, 2016
There is an inherent conflict in art responding to art; it begs the question, how does the homage react to its source material in a way that is both respectful and yet communicative of a distinct creative voice? Where is the personal authenticity of the artist if they are reimagining someone else’s vision? Devising something that can exist in isolation and yet also contributes to the legend of its inspiration is a complex equation to solve, and while Chamber Made Opera’s Another Other makes a valiant attempt at decoding Ingmar Bergman’s densely layered 1966 masterpiece, Persona, the result is ultimately impenetrable.
Flanking a central hub of mixing desks and laptops, two banks of seats, set opposite each other, are separated by a series of sheer fabric panels. With the four instigators of the piece - Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim - sat between the two hemispheres of this performance space, we are offered a complex geometry of spatially controlled soundscapes and projected images. There are two digital clocks either side of the performers, one counting down, the other marking the passing of time, and on the outer edges of the room, a series of spotlights occasionally dazzle the audience with bursts of blinding light. It’s a dizzyingly complex arrangement, easily capable of sensory overload, and largely, that’s exactly what it delivers.
Distilled to its most experiential components, everything but the vaguest semblance of Bergman’s narrative is discarded. In its place, we are offered a more disjointed pallet of inscrutable references that combine to create a series of episodes mixing film, real-time manipulation of live performance and electronic soundscapes. There is a faint, skeletal presence of Persona’s structure, but only as a subliminal afterthought.
Gesturally, there are clearly discernible artefacts from Bergman’s tense modernist drama. The lack of spoken dialogue mirrors Bergman’s mute protagonist, Elisabet. Then there’s the use of found sounds like the whirring clatter of a film projector or the pointillism of dripping water, the use of provocative iconographies, such as Malcolm Browne’s famous image of a self-immolating Tibetan monk, and the pointed exposure of the mechanics of the production akin to Bergman’s jarring film reel. At one point, a short excerpt of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No 2 makes an explicit nod to the use of Bach’s E Major Violin Concerto in Persona. It’s a rich array of ingredients, but somehow they fail to form a cohesive whole.
Another Other achieves from a technical perspective is incredibly impressive. All of its constituent components are coordinated seamlessly, and there is a level of sophistication at work in the realisation of the projections and sound design which is particularly virtuosic. With so much in its arsenal, there could have been a little more restraint in the execution. Almost every part of the elaborate production design is revealed in the first 15 minutes of the show, leaving very little room to increase the intensity or surprise later in the piece.
There is a creative élan at play that speaks to the obviously rewarding collaboration between the four artists who have created this show, as well as the palpable reverence they share for Bergman’s film. However, what this production mistranslates is the finesse and narrative subtlety of Persona. Many of the statements this show makes are gratuitously confronting without having any perceptible logic or dramatic momentum to support it, and there is a noticeable dearth of more nuanced moments to offer some counterpoint.
There is also an intellectual elitism present that is perhaps too exclusive. In its attempts to out-compete the cerebral intensity of Persona, Another Other muscles out any of the theatrical potential that would have allowed a more rewarding connection for the audience. I’m not suggesting that eschewing a figurative, traditionally crafted narrative arc is a critical issue, but there is an unignorable implication that a thorough and academic appreciation of the subtexts in Bergman’s film is needed to understand what this production is trying to say. I applaud how creatively boisterous this ambitious show is, but in its myopic excitement, Another Other has closed its borders to all but the most informed audience.
Chamber Made Opera present Another Other at the Meat Market, North Melbourne, until February 21.
Klare Lanson, Chamber Made Opera, Another Other
Klare Lanson is a Castlemaine-based writer, poet, performance maker and sound artist. Her project #wanderingcloud (RT118, p41) is to premiere at the upcoming Castlemaine State Festival (
Another Other, Chamber Made Opera, photo Christie Stott and Josh Burns
Chamber Made Opera’s Another Other, produced in collaboration with Punctum and New Music Network, is a new work created and performed by Erkki Veltheim, Sabina Maselli, Natasha Anderson and Anthony Pateras, a stunning audiovisual renewal of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s legacy.
In “The Snakeskin,” an essay written in 1965, Bergman sees art as hunger, pessimistically describing it as a dead snakeskin full of ants, eaten from the inside but still moving with systematic, uneasy activity. A year later Bergman released his seminal film Persona, in which he explored the validity of art, authenticity and the transformative aspects of self.
Another Other probes these themes with expertise and loyalty, a contemporary exploration of our digital age, which enables various online selves, our gaming skins and the smiling veneer of busy loneliness that they project.
Entering the ICU performance space—aptly a dark hospital basement—we see an indistinct black plastic sculptural object, inside which is something sonic and kinetic, rhythmic in its disconnection and obscurity. We are seated on opposing banks, projection screens a mask between audience and performers. The performers’ stillness emphasises their geometric positioning. Vocal sighs initiate the score, evoking Persona character Elisabet’s feelings of shock as she spirals into silence. Two clocks loom above the performers, activated simultaneously. One counts down, alluding to anticipation, while the other counts upwards, indicating time yet to come. There is continual, circular referencing of the film, repurposed and displaced.
A phone rings. Echoing footsteps walk slowly to one side of the audience. The lights shift; we are spotlit. Alongside the performers we become Bergman’s ants in the flaking remnant of snakeskin that here is theatre.
Five video projections come into play throughout in front of the audience and on the walls behind. A 16mm projector stands alone, an antiquated sculptural object; it could be a ready-made. Sabina Maselli handles live visual mixing with ease, driving imagery at different speeds, generating abstraction and re-imagining old film footage. Saturated and hallucinogenic, a mixture of processed and real, it’s all a blur.
The acoustic score is both measured and random. Natasha Anderson shifts air through the wooden flaps of an elongated Bavarian recorder, often using the mouthpiece for extended voice work. She plays it as a multipurpose object, hitting, spitting and blowing, her action fractured and magnificent.
Another Other, Chamber Made Opera, photo Christie Stott and Josh Burns
Loops of sound rise and suddenly there are simultaneous projections. A discordant violin twists and turns as a facial close-up is revealed. Colour saturated images shift to black and white and slowly the film disintegrates before our very eyes as it did in Persona (1966). It peels away from the edges, revealing soft white insides. I’m aware of the other half of the audience peering through.
Erkki Veltheim plays remarkable violin, oscillating between exquisitely slow tonal bowing and high-pitched dissonance. He also plays out the most overt reference to the film—the retelling of the sunbaking scene as a spoken word piece. While it doesn’t sit well within the entirety of the work, there is an interesting gender switch as he tells the female story of voyeurism, of sexual experimentation of youth and the violent impact that the experience has on the woman’s identity. The female vocals become a choral undertone and combine with the imagery to intensify the sense of psychosis.
Anthony Pateras is an astonishing improviser. For Another Other he plays electronics and reel-to-reel tape, altering time and voice. Pre-recorded sound and intense processing generates severity in the score. Pateras is masterful and foreboding as always, an embodiment of storm. The resonating bass takes over, travelling through the body with a harshness that relates to the slapping sounds of the recorder.
The lighting of the audience shifts, creating a new perspective. The clocks now tell the same time, becoming a place of sonic and visual rest. There is silence and then a minimalist sound work begins. It has an oceanic quality, perhaps recalling the beach scenes in Persona.
Images of droplets form and Sabina Maselli stands to operate the projector, turning the cogs by hand, forwards and back, place-making in time.
Another Other is a riveting and fragmented series of micro movements, collectively composed to merge filmic and musical elements just as characters’ identities merge in Bergman’s film. This hyper-expanded cinematic experience shows our mental life to be a complicated mesh of meaning, open to interpretation.
Like the ego, Another Other is impossible to unpack methodically; there’s no narrative thread. This courageous and bold artwork feasts on the art of Persona before the clocks stop and finally there is silence inside the self.
Chamber Made Opera with Punctum and New Music Network, Another Other, creators, performers Erkki Veltheim, Sabina Maselli, Natasha Anderson, Anthony Pateras; Punctum’s ICU, Castlemaine, 5, 7 Dec, 2014
RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 41
A collaboration between RealTime Arts and Matthew Lorenzon.
February 21, 2016
Erkki Veltheim, Sabina Maselli, Natasha Anderson and Anthony Pateras in Another Other. Photo by Jeff Busby
Waiting in line at the North Melbourne Meat Market, I spot the corpse. A humanoid shape lies wrapped in black plastic bags. The sound of clocks (or are they shovels?) emanate from it. A program essay by Ben Byrne tells us it is the body of art. He quotes Ingmar Bergman (The Snakeskin, 1965) who claims that art is basically unimportant, deprived of its traditional social value. Like a snakeskin full of ants, art is convulsed with the efforts of millions of individual artists. Each artist, including Bergman himself, is elbowing the others “in selfish fellowship,” in pursuit of their own insatiable curiosity. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bergman’s film Persona, Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras, and Erkki Veltheim have crawled inside the film’s 79-minute skin.
The four artists sit facing each other beneath red digital clocks counting down the opera’s duration. Pateras works his Revox B77: a machine with a loop of tape and multiple heads that can be manipulated live to produce a stunning array of sounds. Veltheim nurses his violin, which he processes through a laptop running MaxMSP. Natasha Anderson festoons her Paetzold contrabass recorder with an array of sensors and microphones. Sabina Maselli commands an arsenal of projectors and spotlights, including reels of custom-shot 16mm film.
Once inside the film’s skin, the collaborators throw out its organs of character and plot. The artists instead motivate its mise-en-scène. Maselli’s deeply-textured footage of hands, faces, and landscapes mirror Bergman’s own sumptuous images. The close-miked sounds of violin, recorder, and water echo the conspicuous detail of 1960s foley. Spoken text references monologues in the film, notably Alma’s story of a foursome on a beach. And so the ideas cycle: hands—faces—landscapes—text, interspersed with solo episodes for each performer, until the time runs out.
Comparing hands. Don’t they know it’s bad luck? Photo by Jeff Busby
After the third extended shot of intertwined hands, I wondered whether the artists were labouring under a category mistake. Texture and materiality were the bread and butter of contemporary arts throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but the structures of plot and character are surely now considered as much part of the artistic “surface” than image and sound. Thanks to the fashion of basing new music on old films, there are counterexamples. For instance, Alex Garsden’s Messages to Erice I & II, which uses the familial relationships of the characters in Víctor Erice’s 1973 film El Spíritu del Colmena to structure the algorithmic relationships of four amplified tam-tams.
By throwing out plot and character, the creators of Another Other struggle to address the original film’s themes of identity, motherhood, art, and being. The film’s iconic shot of Elisabet and Alma’s juxtaposed faces is critical of traditional gender roles precisely because the characters struggle with those roles. The repeated superimposition of the artists’ faces in Another Other is less critical than narcissistic.
While stating that art’s traditional social function is dead, Bergman’s essay affirms the personal significance of art, a belief that is reflected in Elisabet’s first scene in Persona. Elisabet is an actress who stops speaking because she harbours a burning will to live authentically and shake off the role of motherhood. She laughs at a radio soap but seems affected by a piece of music. In Another Other no such distinction is made between inauthentic and personally authentic art. Veltheim plays the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s violin Partita no. 2 while the artists’ faces are shown through a day-time soap vaseline lens. I will accept that universally authentic art is impossible, but I struggled to find even an affirmation of personally authentic art in Another Other. Unsure of the artists’ belief in their own work, I failed to commit as an audience member.
After fifty minutes I even started believing that art was dead. Thanks to the clocks high above the stage I could regret every minute left. The saddest thing was that I respect the work of each artist in their own right. But four good artists in a box does not an opera make. At the end of Another Other the artists imagine a different ending to the film. The doctor says that Elisabet’s silence was just another role that she sloughed off in the end, not a real existential crisis. She was perhaps also depressed and infantile. The doctor concludes “But perhaps you have to be infantile to be an artist in an age such as this.” I laughed. It made me particularly glad I trusted them with an hour and a half of my life.
Chamber Made Opera
18 February 2016
Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras, Erkki Veltheim.
Published: February 19, 2016 - 8:13PM
Chamber Made Opera, Meat Market
Until February 21
It has been 50 years since the release of Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s movie about a famous actress who decides to stop speaking and the nurse who cares for her, about the breakdown and melding of identity, the conflict between inner and outer self and how personality is always a performance.
In recent years we have seen Fraught Outfit’s lauded staging of the screenplay and now comes Chamber Made Opera’s multimedia performance piece, which excises almost all the words, narrative and characters, leaving behind an absorbing, thoughtful, and crisply performed fantasia on the film’s aural and visual textures. Even if the piece’s aesthetic is one of interruption and repetition and disjunction, the structure of the film is still discernible, but the sensuousness of the experience is what is most valuable.
The performers – Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim – sit between two banks of seats, separated from the audience by semi-transparent screens: there are also screens behind the seats and to one side. On the screens, superimposed and reversed, pass images of rocky landscapes, intertwined hands, close-ups of lips: the iconic double portraits of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are recreated, the film’s invocation of atrocity – the self-immolating monk – reproduced directly and also updated with the famous falling man of 9/11.
Bergman exposed the apparatus, showing us the camera, the film itself catching on fire, the arc lights in the projector; and conspicuous on stage is a projector-like something from a 1970s school. The noise it makes forms part of a soundscape that elsewhere riffs off the film’s jagged music and island setting: glassy percussive sounds, a slashing violin, dripping and bubbling water, bells and a fog horn.
Language barely enters into it: nurse Alma’s graphic sex monologue, about a beach orgy with a couple of teenage boys, becomes an even more explicit, Tsiolkas-like episode from contemporary suburban life; and in conclusion a performer reads the speech made by the psychiatrist at the end of the movie: “One must be infantile to be an artist in our age.” If true, Another Other disguises it very well.
In an age of multiple identities, a new work draws on Ingmar Bergman to question ideas about who we are, writes Andrew Stephens.
by Andrew Stephens
In an essay he wrote almost 50 years ago, Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman compared art to a discarded snakeskin full of marauding ants – the empty shell of a dead and once-dangerous creature animated by busy scavengers. This was the man who made Persona (1966), the entrancing and intense classic beloved by art-cinema enthusiasts – a film that questioned the very idea of us having fixed personalities or egos.
In a basement performance space in an old country hospital, a quartet of Chamber Made Opera performers have been immersing themselves in both the film and the essay, The Snakeskin, making their own creative, challenging response to them. In effect, what they are sewing together is like another sort of snakeskin layered over the top of Bergman’s work.
Classic: Erkki Veltheim, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras and Natasha Anderson work on Another Other. Photo: Jim Aldersey
Called Another Other, it is neither homage nor pastiche, but an entirely new work that grapples with Bergman’s ideas, relating them to 21st century life. With our own identities fragmented and reconstituted multiple times each day through online identities, avatars and the various “selves” we create, the question arises: Who are we?
Erkki Veltheim is a Finnish-born musician and composer whose Scandinavian heritage has made him especially enthusiastic about Bergman’s life and work. Veltheim, along with visual artist Sabina Maselli, and Berlin-based musicians Natasha Anderson and Anthony Pateras, have been developing Another Other in the old hospital basement in Castlemaine at an arts space called Punctum. The way audiences will inhabit the unusual space means they might feel as if they are the ants in the snakeskin.
Bibi Andersson (left) and Liv Ullman explore questions of identity in Persona.
Audience members will face each other amid two banks of seating, with four video screens and a 16mm projection of footage in front of and behind them. There will be a kinetic-sonic sculpture nearby, and the musicians will play live and pre-recorded music that moves, in unusual ways, in the same rhythms and pacing as Persona.
“Most people who see it would be hard pressed to see the correlation to Persona,” Veltheim says. “It is not an adaptation, interpretation or version, you cannot recognise it in relation to the film. We see it as a new work that we say cannibalises the linear structure of the original. We take the skin off the film, extract the content and fill it with our own content.”
The four artists have been through every scene in the film and discussed it, finding it all enmeshed with the Snakeskin essay and its potent imagery. “All of us are fascinated by that film and by Bergman’s work generally. For me he has always been a strong presence in Scandinavian culture, with his approach to a specific Lutheran existentialism and the bleakness and hardship of Scandinavian countries in nature.”
Veltheim says Persona sits uncomfortably between modernism and post-modernism, using formal methods and structure but at the same time being a deconstructed work. The group were intrigued by why, 50 years after being made, Persona still feels like a rich source material that remains of great interest to viewers and theorists, many of whom consider it a 20th century masterpiece.
“There have been countless books and essays written about it,” Veltheim says. “It speaks a lot about the 20th century … about art dealing with neuroses. To us, one of the [central] aspects of the film is that your ego and character, your innermost being, may not be an authentic thing, that maybe you can’t explain the human individual as defined by an intrinsic personality or a soul.”
The film includes a lot of mirroring, mask-wearing and strange merging of the two principal women characters (played by Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson). “There is this resonance of the idea that perhaps your personality is not fixed and even you do not know who you are.”
Veltheim relates this to contemporary culture and the way we project ourselves in multiple ways through various platforms and media – where we feel compelled to construct a self or series of selves with distinct attributes. “Perhaps we have got to the point where we do not define ourselves as a central, solid ego or personality. It feels like a prescient thing for Bergman to have dealt with this in such a great way in Persona.”
Bergman made the film during a period of great crisis and he is often quoted as saying that it saved his life. Before making it, he was director of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre and his physical and mental health suddenly deteriorated: he suffered from double pneumonia and was hospitalised for nine weeks in 1965, during which time he wrote the screenplay.
We see it as a new work that we say cannibalises the linear structure of the original. We take the skin off the film, and extract the content and fill it with our own content.
Erkki Veltheim , musician and composer
“It was therapeutic for him,” Veltheim says. “For us [Chamber Made] a lot of these things are important in our creativity – that art is never a simple thing, to make a beautiful thing with a readymade role in society. This film is important to us because it talks about those problems and accepts that art is a contingent thing, just as personality is a contingent thing and that neither of them has a readymade role. In both you need to tease out the significance or role they can play in life.”
The Snakeskin essay, he says, is very revealing about Bergman’s mindset at the time and has a sense of crisis about it. Bergman could not help but make art, but the essay was his bleak assessment of what art had become in modern society.
As Veltheim sees it, art-making – in all its forms, but especially in music and the visual arts – once had specific roles and were very significant in cultures before the separation of church and state. The price of art’s freedom was that it became insignificant and was seen as an indulgence.
“Essentially what he is saying is the snake that art might have been, dangerous and with poison and possibly fatal, is being carved up from the inside and made safe and neutral by society. The potential danger and socially transformative quality of art has been lost in this age.”
Veltheim says many artists who try to do something transformative might “still wear a cloak of danger or iconoclasm” but often there is nothing inside. “That is the mask. Persona is all about masks and about an actress who wears these different masks. But none are effective as socially transformative gestures.”
For people who visit the basement of that old country hospital to experience Another Other, the imagined snakeskin of the performance arena might rattle – but it might also be full of life, wonderful and possibly transformative.
Another Other is at Punctum, Castlemaine, December 5 and 7.
Tract is a work for 15 instruments that is intended to be performed alongside the manikay Djupalwarra (song cycle Wild Blackfella) by the Young Wägilak Group from Ngukurr, Arnhem Land, led by Benjamin Wilfred, with the optional addition of an improviser. The idea for a work that combines traditional Aboriginal songs and contemporary Western instrumental music came from Paul Grabowsky. My solution to the obvious challenges in such a combination was to compose a self-contained work that doesn’t attempt to co-ordinate its material directly with the given manikay. Rather, I have adopted some of the more perceptible musical processes employed in this song cycle, such as repeated descending lines embellished with improvised melismata, as the point of connection between the two musics. In my realisation, the higher voices of the ensemble reiterate these descending lines, while the lower voices invert this pattern. The three sections of the ensemble (strings, woodwind, percussion/piano) traverse the same basic material, but at different internal tempi and with different pitch divisions. This reflects the inexact repetition employed by the Young Wägilak Group in their singing, as well as the overriding conceptual metaphor for this work; ‘tract’ understood both as a stretch of land/time as well as a religious text, explored in ever finer detail to gain deeper knowledge of the material and spiritual fabric of our surroundings. My inclusion as an improviser in this performance is intended to provide a link between the ensemble and the Young Wägilak Group, with whom I have worked for several years as a member of the Australian Art Orchestra’s Crossing Roper Bar project.
chris reid: london sinfonietta concerts, adelaide festival
Tract, London Sinfonietta and the Young Wägilak Group
photo Matt Nettheim
TWO SUPERB CONCERTS BY THE LONDON SINFONIETTA AT THE 2010 ADELAIDE FESTIVAL ILLUMINATED SOME SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENTS IN MUSIC IN THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES AND ESPECIALLY SHOWED HOW COMPOSERS CAN BLEND MULTIPLE MUSICAL AND CULTURAL FORMS INTO EXCITING NEW WORKS.
The first concert, titled Pacific Currents, opened with US composer Yvar Mikhashoff’s arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Study No 7, a musical revelation that set the tone for the evening. In the mid–20th century, US-born Mexican composer Nancarrow created numerous compositions by hand-cutting piano rolls for the player piano, producing works so complex they could not be performed by a single pianist, and characterised by competing rhythmic structures and layered canon forms. Mikhashoff’s realisation involves expanded instrumentation—strings, winds, brass, harpsichord, piano, celeste and percussion—and it brilliantly captures Nancarrow’s breathtaking pace and complexity while adding some extraordinary textures, drawing out the layering to produce a rapturous work.
Silvestre Revueltas’ Ocho Por Radio (1933) followed, a work for octet that evokes the music of radio in his native Mexico, especially the mariachi bands, and which combines multiple genres into a single, increasingly chaotic work. Unsuk Chin’s electrifying Double Concerto (2002) for piano and percussion blended virtuosic solo instrumentals by Lisa Moore and Owen Gunnell into a complex series of cascading musical structures that build and rebuild, drawing prepared and natural piano passages into balanced intensity with the percussion and creating a dialogue exploring all kinds of percussive sonorities. John Cage’s Credo in the US (1942), for piano, percussion and either a radio or a phonograph, was originally written as a dance piece and prefigured Stockhausen’s use of radio in performance. In this realisation, a laptop was used to supply the recorded material, including fragments of Chopin, ragtime and other popular music that dramatically contrasted with the live elements and echoed Revueltas’ concern with the cultural impact of reproduced music.
The first concert concluded with John Adams’ highly rhythmic Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), which has also been choreographed to and includes fragments of his opera Nixon in China. Though less cerebral and more accessible than preceding works, it is complex and absorbing. The program for Pacific Currents was both musically enchanting and intellectually demanding, emphasising the impact of rhythm and showing how multiple forms and alternative musical sources could be integrated. All the works use repeated patterns in various ways, showcasing mid-to late–20th-century approaches to composition and the reactions to dominant and avant-garde cultural forms and aesthetics.
The second concert, Wind and Glass, comprised works by two British and three Australian composers. British composer Tansy Davies’ Neon (2004) is based on urgent offbeat rhythms that recall electronic process music, but with more élan and the richer sonorities of miked acoustic instruments. Gavin Bryars’ elegiac The Sinking of the Titanic (1968) is for an ensemble of strings, winds and percussion with a taped voice recalling the event, and the strings performing the hymn, Autumn, that the Titanic’s band was playing as the ship sank. Opening and closing with the sound of tolling bells, the hymn is played by the strings while the rest of the ensemble produces sounds that evoke the ship itself, creating considerable emotional impact. The work has a theatrical feel, with a dialogue between the strings, portraying the final moments of the ship’s orchestra, and the rest of the ensemble.
The concert included the premiere of Brisbane composer John Rodgers’ Glass, a work for chamber ensemble and improvised trumpet developed from the transcription of the sounds created when using a large sheet of glass as a percussion instrument. These sounds were woven into an elaborate composition for the ensemble, and trumpeter Scott Tinkler, for whom Glass was written, improvised in response to the ensemble, creating a scintillating musical interaction. He produced a wondrous range of sounds, from clarion calls to growling and blaring, adding to the profusion of textures and timbres created by the ensemble. A highlight was Brett Dean’s Dream Sequence (2008), a magical work for the full ensemble, wonderfully orchestrated, expressionistic and densely woven, that expands our musical awareness by taking us on a surreal internal journey.
All this prepared us well for the centrepiece of the two concerts, Errki Veltheim’s compelling new work Tract (2009). Commissioned for performance in the festival by the London Sinfonietta and the Young Wägilak Group, Tract is really two pieces of music that coincide—the orchestra performs Veltheim’s score, with Veltheim as violin soloist, while the four-member Young Wägilak Group perform Manikay, traditional songs of their country in North-Eastern Arnhem Land, powerfully sung with clapsticks and didgeridoo accompaniment. The two strands of music progress sometimes together, sometimes separately, with Veltheim linking them with his own playing. In a forum following the concert, Veltheim said that the Manikay operate as a religious text and that he had written a high modernist score that would match the Manikay performance in structure and intensity but would not imitate it. The Young Wägilak Group has previously worked with the Australian Art Orchestra, and, while such collaboration could appear contrived, the result here is a unique and inspiring musical and cultural form. Tract is not a hybrid but rather a cross-cultural dialogue, with Veltheim’s violin as the catalyst, each strand of music acknowledging the functions, traditions and aesthetics of the other. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive.
Some thoughtful programming went into these London Sinfonietta concerts, the second building on the investigative platform established in the first with more radical examples of the simultaneous use of multiple musical forms. The two concerts showcase many ideas: the layering of music through competing rhythms, structures and instrumentation; the reworking of aesthetics that arise from sampling and electronic manipulation; the impact of mechanical and recorded sources of sound, such as phonograph, tape, radio, vibrating glass and piano rolls; and the juxtaposition of disparate musical cultures and traditions. Brett Dean and Unsuk Chin have explored the expressive possibilities of intricate musical structures. The works of Cage and Revueltas show how popular media can generate a musical melange. Bryars has woven his own composition around an existing composition to convey the sentimental impact of an historical moment. Mikhashoff has dazzlingly transformed Nancarrow’s work. And Velthiem has brought two cultures into a thrilling collaboration. The works of Velthiem, Cage, Rodgers and Bryars are challenging and significant experiments that are engaging conceptually and musically, and mark important developments in musical history. The two concerts greatly illuminate the nature of musical development in a globalising world, showing where experimentation can lead and teaching us how to listen more carefully.
2010 Adelaide Festival, The London Sinfonietta, conductor Brad Lubman, with Lisa Moore, Owen Gunnell, Scott Tinkler, Errki Veltheim and the Young Wägilak Group of Ngukurr, Adelaide Town Hall, Feb 27, 28
A review of theatre and dance works in the 2010 Adelaide Festival will appear in RealTime 97 June/July.
RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 6
Composer: Erkki Veltheim
Commissioned: Soundstream Collective
Premiere: May 2012
Glossolalia is a string quartet that is conceived of as a sort of critique of modernism from within; using elements of 20th Century modernist culture, it gradually erodes them through various playing techniques and radical detuning of the strings. It is a kind of quixotic homage to the private language games that so preoccupied the modernists of 20th Century; games that, like a candle to a moth, have always both fascinated and repelled me.
This work’s rhythmic material is derived from the main propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico‐Philosophicus via translation into morse code, an early and now officially obsolete mode of digital communication. In his arch‐modernist treatise, Wittgenstein rages against the vagueness of language by trying to limit its scope to the binary values of truth and falsehood, but in the end falls on mystical silence to escape his logical labyrinth and find expression for the less coherent aspects of human experience.
My harmonic elements are gleaned from Elliott Carter’s fixation with highly isomorphic all‐interval chords, an equally obsessive quest to maintain a sort of precarious balance and symmetry in the materials of communication. These rigid structures are corroded from the outset through the use of playing techniques that continuously destabilise and obscure them, as well as a gradual detuning of the top and bottom string of each instrument until they are completely slack.
As the players begin to battle with the increasingly volatile and failing instruments, the musical language moves closer to a kind of involuntary onomatopoeia, resembling the sounds of concrete nature more than abstract culture. In the end it is a happy requiem, a hope that the exquisite corpse of modernism feeds maggots of a different breed; ones that embrace and celebrate the arbitrariness and uncertainty of existence rather than bracketing and analysing it.
Astra’s 60th season in 2011 celebrates different facets of our work over the decades. Pieces by 20 Australian composers are heard across the six concerts, but also performances from some of the leading contemporary players whose contributions have always widened the perspective of our choir-based programs. Erkki Veltheim in this concert joins previous performances in 2011 by Genevieve Lacey (recorder), Michael Kieran Harvey (piano), and the group Speak Percussion (Eugene Ughetti, artistic director). A larger ensemble follows, in combination with the Astra Choir, for the final concerts on December 3 and 4 at Northcote Town Hall.
At the same time, this concert represents something new – Erkki Veltheim’s first solo recital on the violin. As a performer, composer, improviser and arranger he is active across an extraordinary range of styles and genres, but is best known in the classical music world as a viola player, appearing internationally with leading groups from Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt) to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and in this country from the ensemble Elision to the Australian Chamber Orchestra. For Astra he previously played Elisabeth Lutyens’ solo viola Echo of the Wind at her centenary concert, and in the string quartets of Johanna Beyer for our New World Records CDs. Erkki Veltheim’s increasing work as a violinist has placed him in an onstage role in Brett Dean’s opera Bliss, and as virtuoso improviser in his own composition Tract, commissioned for the Adelaide Festival and overlaying a sound-sculpture for the London Sinfonietta and a traditional song-cycle from Arnhem Land. A regular performer at Australian improvisation events, he is active in an array of rock, gypsy and world music bands, with the indigenous collective Black Arm Band, and as band musician and song-writer for his own group Roadkill Rodeo.
Many musical strands and skills thus flow into today’s concert! – mediating between improvisation, Bach’s classic monument for the instrument, and two solo works by Brisbane-based composer John Rodgers. Himself a violinist of legendary ability, John Rodgers also ranges widely beyond the boundaries of classical music, and has a close association with the Australian Art Orchestra, of which he is a founding member. His noted CD A rose is a rose… combines him with a row of improvising soloists. Today’s performances of his challenging violin works are the first by another violinist. The concert also takes the opportunity to re-voice the Astra Improvising Choir, first directed by Joan Pollock in the 1980s. A vocal presence perhaps underlines the hidden chorale singing which recent research has established within Bach’s Chaconne, understood by some as a tribute to his first wife on her death. — JMcC
A couple of months ago I was looking for a venue to put on a concert that would combine a few notated pieces interspersed with improvisations on violin. I wanted to finally play John Rodgers’ two solo pieces from his A rose is a rose… record, which are telling of his obsessions at the time; the harmonic language of Elliot Carter, the rhythmic vitality of Indian Carnatic music, and playing violin ridiculously well. Similar obsessions can be heard in John’s improvisations, and those of a small community of musicians such as the drummer Ken Edie, John’s longtime collaborator, trumpet player Scott Tinkler, and the pianist Marc Hannaford, who have created an improvisatory language with an internal grammar that allows for real musical interplay and communication, yet to me doesn’t sound derivative. I thought it would be interesting to combine John’s pieces with Bach’s Chaconne, a set of variations by another improvising musician, also an obsessive synthesizer of different styles. I was having trouble finding a suitable venue for this concert, so rang John McCaughey to ask him about the Eleventh Hour Theatre, which I heard had a great acoustic for string instruments. A bit of serendipity meant that John was looking to fill a program around the same time, and asked me if I would present this recital under Astra’s auspices. This led to the idea of including a piece with the improvising members of the Astra Choir. I thought it would be a fun experiment to try an improvised piece based on the song of the lyrebird, known as the most accomplished mimic of the bird world. This gives the choir free reign to explore a whole range of rainforest sounds from bird-calls to insects, and also comments on the nature of my own creative mimesis; two of my good violinist/composer friends, John Rodgers and the fiddle champion Hollis Taylor, are well known for their own pieces based on birdsong, and it seems like an appropriate homage to some of the integral influences on my musicianship to include one in this concert. — EV
simon charles: erkki veltheim, astra
PRESENTED UNDER THE AUSPICES OF THE ASTRA CHAMBER CHOIR, ERKKI VELTHEIM’S SOLO VIOLIN RECITAL CONTINUED ASTRA’S TRADITION OF EXPLORING THE DRAMATURGY OF MUSICAL PERFORMANCE. THE VIOLINIST APPEARED TO DISREGARD THE CONVENTIONS AND RITUALS USUALLY ASSOCIATED WITH CONCERT PERFORMANCE.
This was obvious from the outset when, in a T-shirt, Veltheim entered the 11th Hour Theatre moments before performance time, unpacked his instrument on stage and immediately began to tune. As the audience continued to chatter, Veltheim’s notes evolved into wider intervals, seemingly testing instrument and acoustic. As this process became more elaborate, Veltheim drew attention away from the conversations in the room, which inevitably petered out, to the improvisation that ensued.
Veltheim’s improvising—far from mere noodling—provoked intense interest. It not only allowed a different route into the performance, but one that bypassed arcane rituals of entrance and applause. The improvisation allowed Veltheim to establish a rapport with the audience and to carve out a space that the first piece of the program, Chaconne from Partita in D minor by JS Bach, could inhabit.
In a more typical setting, Bach’s Chaconne would be used as a means for a player and audience to become more attuned to a space and its acoustic. However, here this end had already been achieved. Continuing in the spirit of improvisation, the performance of the Bach conveyed a sense of spontaneity and exploration, executed with extreme finesse.
Chaconne was followed with more improvisations, which developed uniquely and idiosyncratically. Without restraints, moments of intensity and climax could be measured and gradually worked towards with an ever present and intense energy which delivered a succession of musical statements of remarkable strength and clarity.
Veltheim’s improvisational language is very much reflected in the two works on the program by John Rodgers, also a violinist and improviser of immense ability and a former mentor of Veltheim. Solo for Violin and 1/1/94 both demand what seems to be an unprecedented level of virtuosity and were handled in this performance (the premiere of these works by a violinist other than Rodgers) with breathtaking clarity and focus.
The deliberate avoidance of a traditional concert setting put all focus squarely on the performer, without a shred of pretence to hide behind. There was a brutal honesty in the performance presenting the music in its most essential form.
The stark reality of this performance took a more surreal turn when Veltheim was joined by members of the Astra improvising choir, situated behind the audience and around the perimeter of the room. This ensemble of six singers contributed short gestures of guttural sounds and extended vocal techniques. Having spent the first and greater part of the program listening only to the sound of a solo violin, hearing sounds travel from various locations throughout the space had a refreshing effect.
It is hard to think of any musical organisation in Australia presenting work in the way Astra does. Now in their 60th season, there is a characteristic rigour and integrity in every program, managing to integrate new and innovative work with older repertoire, rather than pandering to a particular taste.
Both Solo for Violin and 1/1/94 are on John Rodger’s excellent recording A Rose is a Rose (XLTD–007 CD 2000;
Violin Erkki Veltheim, Astra improvising choir, Joan Pollock (artistic coordinator), Louisa Billeter, Laila Engle, Susannah Provan, Katie Richardson and Sarah Whitteron, musical director John McCaughey, 11th Hour Theatre, Melbourne, Nov 6, 2011 RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 40
Fusion of Tongues installation, Maison Folie, Mons, Belgium.
N: Erkki Veltheim
T: +61 407 328 105
Erkki Veltheim (b. 1976 Finland) is an Australian composer, improviser, performer and interdisciplinary artist.
Erkki has been commissioned by the Adelaide Festival, Vivid Festival, Australian Art Orchestra and Soundstream Collective, and his pieces have been performed by groups such as the London Sinfonietta, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Recent projects include Gawanjalkmi (Song for the fallen) for voices and large ensemble (2015), in collaboration with Gurrumul and Jonno Yunupingu, commissioned by Skinnyfish and Gone West, Belgium; audiovisual performance work Another Other (2014/2016), with co-creators Anthony Pateras, Natasha Anderson and Sabina Maselli, commissioned by Chamber Made Opera; and audiovisual installation Fusion of Tongues (2015), commissioned by Punctum and La Maison Folie, Belgium, for ‘Mons 2015 - European Capital of Culture’ program.
Erkki has performed with the Australian Art Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Elision and Ensemble Modern, and has featured as a soloist with the London Sinfonietta, Australian Opera and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has long-standing collaborations with indigenous musician Gurrumul, improvising trumpet virtuoso Scott Tinkler, and composer-pianist Anthony Pateras.
Erkki is a recipient of a 2013 Myer Creative Fellowship, and in 2014 was appointed Artistic Associate of Chamber Made Opera. He holds a Master of Arts, for which he researched connections between music and ritual.
Sunday 17 August, 7:00 am
Church of All Nations, 180 Palmerston Street (corner Drummond Street), Carlton
new work in improvisation, composition and electronics
Erkki Veltheim – violin, composition with Scott Tinkler trumpet and Anthony Burr bass clarinet
Sometimes, always, in musical history, the best players are also the ones doing the newest things! In this group of three concerts of the Astra season across August and September, a gallery of noted Australian performers in the domains of string, and wind instruments offer distinctive versions and visions of contemporary playing.
Erkki Veltheim is a performer of legendary skills on both violin and viola, and stands at the forefront of new work crossing boundaries between improvisation and composition, electronics and vernacular idioms. He is a current holder of a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship and is active as a performer and composer in many countries.
In this concert for Astra, he is joined for half of the program by two other illustrious Australian and international musicians, Anthony Burr (bass clarinet) and Scott Tinkler (trumpet), forming a rare opportunity to hear the three together as an improvising trio.
The solo part of the program is a significant event for Melbourne audiences, with the presentation of Veltheim’s newest work in violin and electroacoustics, Turing Test – developed during his Australia Council residency at the Cité International des Arts in Paris in 2012. Veltheim combines improvised acoustic violin input with a fully automated processing patch composed in Max. A Turing test compares a machine’s responses to those of a human, and has been integral to the thinking around ‘artifical’ or ‘machine’ intelligence. Veltheim describes the work as a conversation between the live violinist and the processing patch, each being influenced by the other’s responses.
Improvising trio Scott Tinkler, Anthony Burr and Erkki Veltheim synthesize influences from a myriad of sources including Elliott Carter and South Indian Carnatic music. Driven by the belief that rules must be learnt in order to be broken, this trio proposes real-time composition as a disciplined and joyful method of music-making somewhere between reason and intuition.
In this concert I am presenting works by two Australians with whom I have had long collaborative relationships, John Rodgers (b. 1963) and Anthony Pateras (b. 1979), both who are known equally as composers and improvisers working across a plethora of musical contexts. These works are nestled amongst short solo pieces by composers who have in some ways influenced them, as well as an improvisation with Dr Anthony Burr and a recent work of my own for an improviser and electronics.
John Rodgers’ Duet for violin and bass clarinet is informed by the harmonic and rhythmic language of Elliott Carter, as well as his study of the rhythmic structures of South Indian Carnatic music. The two instrumental parts, which can also be performed as separate solo pieces, are written in different tempi; the violin’s speed relates to that of the bass clarinet in the ratio of 5:7, creating two independent pulse streams that only meet when the violin plays septuplets to the bass clarinet’s quintuplets. Dr Anthony Burr and John Rodgers were close colleagues whilst they were both living in Brisbane, Australia, and this work was originally written for and performed by the two of them. Dr Burr and I have both also worked extensively with Rodgers as improvisers, adapting many of the same musical principles to spontaneously composed music, and it thus seems fitting for us to follow this work with an improvised segment.
I also share a varied and enduring musical dialogue with the Melbourne-born composer and pianist Anthony Pateras, through performances in each other’s and other colleagues’ projects and most recently in an improvising duo. Pateras has, like Rodgers, been influenced by a diverse group of musicians, artists and thinkers, with Feldman and Xenakis foremost among them. Rules of Extraction, ** his new work for violin and electronics, creates a web of psychoacoustic phenomena through slowly evolving layers of oscillators, also recalling Alvin Lucier’s works for solo instruments with sine waves.
Turing Test was inspired by Lydia Goehr’s book ‘Imaginary Museum of Musical Works’, which questions the concept and locus of a ‘musical work’; is it contained in ideal form in a notated score, or does it exist only through a concrete performance, or is it the sum total of its performances? And how does a work of music maintain its identity across different performances? Whilst Goehr mainly dicusses examples from the notated classical canon, the basic questions can be naturally extended to improvisation, especially as it is typical in this practice for iterations of the same ‘work’ to sound extremely different, to the point where recognition of any common, sustained identity across these iterations becomes almost impossible. In response to this book, I became interested in constructing a piece that combines a freely improvised part with a completely automated and structurally predetermined electronic part that processes (and thus requires) this live input, creating an interdependent dialogue between an abstract structure and spontaneous live performance.
UC SAN DIEGO
DEPARTMENT OF MUSIC
Tuesday, April 14,2015 11:00am.
Conrad Prebys Concert Hall
Elliott Carter: Statement – Remembering Aaron (1999) for solo violin (from Four Lauds)
John Rodgers: Duet (1995) for violin and bass clarinet
Anthony Burr and Erkki Veltheim: Improvisation
Morton Feldman: For Aaron Copland (1981) for solo violin
Anthony Pateras: Rules of Extraction (2015) for violin and electronics (World premiere)
Iannis Xenakis: Mikka (1971) and Mikka ‘S’ (1976) for solo violin
Erkki Veltheim: Turing Test (2014) for improviser and electronics
Erkki Veltheim is a musician and interdisciplinary artist. He has performed as a violinist/violist with ensembles such as the Australian Art Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Elision, Ensemble Modern and Ensemble musikFabrik, and has also featured as a soloist with the London Sinfonietta, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Opera Australia. As an improviser he has worked with Australia’s leading practitioners, including Anthony Pateras, John Rodgers, Jon Rose, Scott Tinkler and Tony Buck, and has also performed with the Dutch drummer Han Bennink and American trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Erkki has been commissioned by the Adelaide Festival, Vivid Festival (Sydney) and the New Music Network, and his compositions have been performed by ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Soundstream Collective and Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He has also performed with and composed arrangements for artists across various genres, including many prominent indigenous Australian traditional musicians and singer-songwriters. Erkki’s interdisciplinary performance and installation works explore the role of sound and music in language, communication, social exchange and ritual, and vice versa, and he frequently collaborates with the artist Sabina Maselli on audiovisual performance and expanded cinema projects. Erkki is an Artistic Associate of Chamber Made Opera, a Melbourne-based contemporary opera company.
UC San Diego
Division of Arts & Humanities
SHIFTING SOUNDS: Music as a ritual of transformation
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
School of Communication and the Arts
Faculty of Arts, Education and Human Development
R: What were you saying about musical judgement?
E: Musical judgement is your worst enemy.
E: I suppose itʼs that thing of what to me seem like really amazing musicians improvising, or composing or playing to me seems like the most boring way to make music. And again I think itʼs a conservative tendency to the idea that you need to develop material at a certain pace isn’t it?
R: Improv tempo.
A: Well itʼs very much the temporality that has caused the crisis in improvisation I think we’re going through.
R: With no formal rigor either. Improvisation presents more clichéd beginnings and ends than a first year composition student. You been to Berlin recently?
A: People don’t address form and structure on that temporal level as much as it should be thought about. At lot of the discipline has gone into timbral research… .
R: When I was in my 20s, there was this kind of deification of the timbre – other musical elements were deemed nowhere near as important. As far as I could tell you could get away with a lot by just making various gradations of white noise on your instrument, and then saying you were influenced by electronic music.
A: Yeah… all of the other aspects of real-time decision making have gone by the wayside. In 99% percent of cases.
E: So then the two alternatives are stasis or this kind of autistic…
A: Yeah this kind of autistic skronkiness, or even the third alternative is the directed improvisation, where you have these kinds of block forms, crashing in over each other, which in themselves are either static or autistic. So you have this very simplistic relationship between stasis and autism.
E: I guess that’s always a tough crisis to have if you feel like you’ve run through the alternatives, and none of them feel like valid musical practice.
R: Yeah and with all of its promise of presenting an alternative, underground music culture has an equally crippling hierarchy as the concert hall. It has the same problems of gender inequality, dodgy ideologies, assumed greatness and lack of technical commitment…
A: But it was what Erkki was saying about Tony Burr yesterday - the lexicon is so broad, and that’s ultimately the goal: is to have a broad lexicon within one’s own technical ability. A rhythmic lexicon, a timbral lexicon, a pitch-related lexicon and a dynamic lexicon. Those are the four things we should all attempt to master, more or less..
E: Or research and develop…
R: Or attempt to invent for ourselves…
A: Because then, then, it is relevant: the argument is on an equal level to composing, I would say.
E: Sure, of course.
A: If you can find players who can deal with those four elements on that level. Otherwise its just a fucking defensive, silly argument.
E: Yeah sure but itʼs the same with composition: itʼs pretty rare to find people who have those qualities under their control in composition as well.
R: Most composers are letting Sibelius or Finale make the call. I think weʼre currently seeing the interface drive musical decision making more than ever. To be any good, the first thing to learn is how to resist technology – like backstage cask wine at a French improv festival. A; Absolutely! Its already rare that composers are even considering musical elements on any kind of detached, objective level, as much as it is possible to be objective in that sense, of just simply saying: you can do this, or you can do that. I don’t think that most people are even there. Most people are thinking: if I do this, this person will like me. If I do this, I’m going to get this prize…
E: Yeah its a goal-oriented practice… .
R: Well most new music premieres are like a messy one night stand that both parties want to forget anyway, maybe because new music pamphlets frequently share their visual aesthetics with singles websites…
A: … If do this, this person will play it. If I do this, I’m going to get on this label. If I do this I’m going to get into the festival.
E: Yeah, and that’s about mastery of the commodity.
A: Yeah ultimately the work just exists to make money or indulge someone’s narcissism, rather than actually figuring something out on a sonic level and/or dealing with the acoustic reality of the materials available to you.
R: It has become so much more about the network rather than the work. Artists trade career monologues, not ideas.
E: Itʼs been interesting that Herzog on Herzog book, because he talks about how… I mean, he’s completely contradictory of course, or self-contradictory, and its obviously a deliberate provocation.
A: Very important, in a way.
E: Well if you’re a thinking person its impossible not to be self-contradictory.
R: Well, habit is a great deadener — you have to learn how to enjoy your contradictions and neuroses, otherwise youʼll never make it.
A: That’s why we’re all so fucking depressed.
E: His opinion is that art is over. Obviously one of the questions is that: do you consider yourself an auteur in the tradition of Godard or Eisenstein. In this book at least he says he thinks of himself as a skilled craftsman, like a medieval skilled craftsman, who is working out techniques to create a whole that is satisfactory in some kind of conceptual way.
A: Or the experience of the object offers… .
E: His goal is that ecstatic truth thing. So obviously… .
A: “That ecstatic truth thing”… (laughs)
E: Well which is why he doesn’t really divide his films into fiction and non-fiction, or documentary and narrative, because he’s always searching for the same thing, which is the idea of some kind of ecstatic, sublime state of being, that comes from reality.
A: So finding out some kind of core truth, and in the experience of discovering that, you have your own kind of revelation.
E: Exactly… that the ecstacy comes from your view of reality being shaken, so that you have to step outside your usual frame of reference, or your usual viewpoint. That’s why he’s attracted to certain kinds of documentaries and certain kinds of films, but the ultimate goal is always the same, which to me, and I could be misinterpreting, but the ideal of extraordinary experience of reality. So in a way itʼs bringing back magic into reality.
A: And he doesn’t think that art can achieve that.
R: An extraordinary experience of reality to me is when I donʼt yawn at a gig.
E: It was kind of a throwaway comment, and I think what he means is that the narrative of art has come to an end. What the average person considers to be art, is over. And I think that’s his point, is that sure there are artists, and there is the artworld, and there is art as commodity, and there’s art in galleries, and people calling themselves artists… .
A: Way too many obviously.
R: Yeah, and if everyone is able to have their own voice, why are distinctive cultures disappearing? Itʼs as if more the options and outlets there are, the less ability people have to focus the courage and discipline it takes to make something good.
E: Sure, and for Herzog, itʼs not useful to consider himself as part of that world. Which I guess is to do with how you’re trying to communicate, and whom you’re trying to communicate with.
A: That’s probably why his work keeps getting more and more interesting, because he doesn’t… its it’s as in improvisation, that the most interesting improvisation is that kind of combination of technical know-how and structural awareness, and some level of innovation.
R: Or a healthy sense of stylistic suspicion…
E: Yeah - ultimately itʼs about how you construct acoustical phenomena in time.
A: Yeah, so what Herzog is doing is constructing visual phenomena in time.
E: Yeah and that’s why he’s so particular about the way things are edited, for instance. He always talks about having a slightly longer shot that you would expect. Itʼs the same thing as Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers… the first sequence, where itʼs all tits and arse. For the first 20 seconds, you there just looking at tits and arse… and then, because it goes on longer than…
A: than a standard edit…
E: … yeah then you start looking at yourself…
A: … looking at the tits and arse.
E: Yeah so you actually completely recontextualize your experience of it.
A: Just through the treatment of time.
E: Exactly, and I think that’s one thing that musicians, funnily enough, don’t think about nearly enough.
R: Well that would eat into their self-googling time…
A: Because time is simply just a way to get to the end of the bar? That’s the whole thing, is that music is always thought about in units of time. And to actually think of think of it on the level you’re discussing…
E: It’s really about showing the audience how you want them to listen to it. And you do that by subverting the expectation. Xenakis does that just by brutal cutting of form. When I first started listening to him, I loved the fact that I couldn’t predict anything.
A: It completely defies analysis.
E: Yeah exactly, and of course after listening to it a lot, you get some kind of gist of the rhythmic approach or the large scale structural approach.
A: Which has a lot to do with orchestration in most cases.
R: He takes the orchestra out of the orchestra, which is the hardest thing to do and often sounds the best.
E: And that’s not the case with Stockhausen, or Boulez or people like that. It seems so much more conventional. Varèse is interesting like that too…
A: Well to me he’s the beginning of that thinking, the separation of the orchestra into more microscopic and contained elements… .the really amazing thing about those Xenakis orchestral pieces is for example when he just has the winds by themselves for 3 minutes…
R: He knew that great music in this idiom is often achieved when the composer doesnʼt exactly know exactly how itʼs supposed to sound – he goes out on a limb with himself and thus the music.
E: And it seems like itʼs purposeful, but you can’t pick the purpose. Which is funnily enough the Kantian idea of beauty: purposefulness without purpose. The other thing that Herzog says is athleticism over aestheticism, or athletics over aesthetics, and he really sees filmmaking as a physical form, rather than as a theoretical aesthetic form. I think that music is similar in that as well… .and the attempt to get away from the expected progress of musical material, which usually is bound to an expected aesthetic.
R: Protests against existing trends become trends in themselves and thus emptied of urgency. As Erkki said once, yesterdayʼs rebellion is todayʼs hot property.
A: A certain stylistic expectation, which even now in so-called radical improvisation… itʼs just completely suffocated by style. It doesn’t even transcend its own identity.
E: I reckon that’s the crux of what people think is good musicianship, ultimately. Is that a good musician is someone who’s wearing an aesthetic straitjacket, or is someone who is wearing a straitjacket called aesthetics, which is the best way not to discover any new acoustic phenomena, or new ways to experience sound.
A: And that’s the key thing, music is sound in time. You and I probably agree on that, but most people do not.
E: Most people think its an inner expression.
R: Most people have their musical taste predicted by an application and start to believe it. If you like this, you may like this… For most, music is just something to wear, to match with your Ikea couch, but for delusional composers…
A: ..itʼs an inner expression of some humanistic emotion, and that composers have the right to stand on this pedestal of subjectivity and express themselves in whatever way, however ultimately those are the two things which need to be constantly questioned and radicalised, the sound and the time, and the way the sound is organised within the time.
E: Or how time is organised within sound.
A: (long pause) So…
E: Gin and tonic?
R: Fuck yeah.
A: Everyone not knowing where it’s all gonna end up.
A: Eventually it just goes so fast that people don’t know what’s going on.
E: Yeah, the speed itself becomes intoxicating. 
E: That’s the idea of never-ending progress, that you just pretend you’re coming up with more and more exciting and better things. 
A: Which is the perpetuation of the industry… or the industrialization of the arts.
E: Yeah, but the industrialization already happened a while ago. 
A: Yeah, I guess for me I was talking more talking about genuine game-changes… genuine ruptures that occurred with a lot of people who died around then, Cage, Feldman, Nancarrow, Messiaen, then 10 years later with Xenakis, Berio, Ligeti… that whole midcentury eruption of very genuine…
E: They were kind of the last dinosaurs in a way, I suppose.
A: Yeah in one sense, but in another sense some people would argue they were like Strauss and Mahler. 
E: Boulez is still around, but that generation of the 20s and 30s, they certainly still believed in masterpieces… and in the idea of true masterpieces… progressive, future oriented masterpieces. I wonder if any composer these days truly believes it. Or rather it feels like: if you believe it, you’re already living in the past. It would be hard to have a conversation and genuinely believe something is a masterpiece… I would feel pretty odd having that conversation, but in the 60s they still had that conversation… but that’s about stamping the new generation’s identity onto the cultural map. It’s much more subtle… now the grand narratives are crumbling down.
A: Now it’s so stupid… I mean this whole indie-classical thing… pretending Brooklyn is turn-of-the-century Vienna… 
E: Now its just a matter of positioning and contextualisation. History is not a continuum anymore, its just a bunch of hashtags. That’s how it feels. It’s a database. So the tradition of classical music is just a database now. People say now when they hear a piece of new music and they like it, they always say it’s cinematic… that’s the kind of catchphrase for something that touches people. 
A: Something correlates with their vision.
E: Yeah, and of course soundtracks are usually made in a database way where a director…
A: Yes, well soundtracks are just a ripoff of the most seductive techniques of concert hall composers…
E: Yeah, exactly.
A: … To assist narrative.
E: Mm… yeah, kind of reifies abstract musical ideas and pretends they have a fixed emotional content.
A: Yeah… and that relationship is solidfied through its constant hammering or stapling to certain images. 
E: Yeah, and let’s face it, films for 99% of the population are the only place they’re going to hear classical music… 
A: And orchestra!
E: Yeah, and orchestra… but I’m even thinking simply the classics of the modern canon. So for those people… those certain works will always etched in their mind as being related to a certain pictorial image.
A: So what you were saying before about future-based masterpieces…
E: Yeah, well, the idea that you’re creating for the future… which is the idea that you’re seeing yourself as a historical being.
E: You’re seeing the obituaries…
A: Photographs of your own funeral…
E: Yeah, and indexes in future books with your name on it.
A: Yeah, but people do that already now in Wikipedia.
E: Yeah, sure.
A: The Ben Frost Wikipedia is quite amusing.
E: Yeah, sure… but even Xenakis may have understood history in that way. In their own presence, in their own continuum it would’ve made sense, but it doesn’t anymore ’cause the whole idea of being cited these days is Wikipedia, and anyone can be cited on Wikipedia. The old authority has broken down in that sense…the arbiters of who is of historical significance… that’s all disappeared.
A: Has it disappeared or is it that no one really cares? I don’t think you can say it has completely disappeared in that you can still sell a bunch of concert tickets for Mahler 3 conducted by Dudamel, and it’s sold out 3 nights in a row.
E: Yeah I mean, people will still proudly be conservative.
A: Oh yes. 
E: It’s that funny thing where a lot of people who see themselves as progressive in terms of like left-leaning, socially conscious, with this idea that art is a civilising… or that art is a necessary internal critique of society and a civilizing factor, and produce artworks, or consume artworks which are seen as kind of a critique of the current consumer society. They’re actually the new conservatives, they’re the people who want to see an ossified status quo from post-World War 2. 
A: Because it’s such an neat positioning, and it’s so easy to navigate, to position oneself and ignore all contradictions.
E: Well, it seems like common sense to see society as healthy when it’s balanced by social welfare and education, and culture that acts as both a stamp of identity and a healthy critique of your own position. But of course the Sydney Biennale showed that thing for what it is… you know, the internal critique system doesn’t work. The internal critique idea of contemporary culture is only valued when the critique is done in a way that abstracts it enough so that no one understands it, so you can aestheticize your critique of society. But if it becomes a real critique you get kicked out of the establishment.
A: If you actually upset things.
E: Yeah, because let’s face it, the establishment itself will ostracize any element it actually fears or thinks might create a rupture, but it will tolerate things up till that point. Like the Lachemann opera we saw is a perfect example.
E: It’s easy to be a socialist in your ivory tower, or in academia. It’s that thing that you make a work which is aesthetically seen as progressive, but…
A: Ultimately it’s framed.
A: Into the same forum, and the same hierachy…
E: Yeah, exactly. The ideology behind is…
A: Yes the ideology is fucked, but what about the sound?
E: Well, that’s the thing…
A: I mean, is it impossible to listen to it, while that ideology is going on? Is that your problem?
E: I guess so. You can never listen to anything in a pure way obviously. There’s always some kind of ideology lurking behind the notes. You can’t help it. There’s always a context and the context is always ideology.
E: It’s even… you know, like a lot of protest movements are seen to be radical, or artworks which are seen to be radical, are essentially very conservative. They often want to go back to a time before the need for that protest. At least more often it seems like it’s that way, at least these days. 
A: I think it’s even weirder when the protest becomes commodified. Like Ai Wei Wei for example, or even some elements of the Occupy stuff provides a very flattering context for certain celebrities to appear socially conscious or involved. 
E: These days it happens as soon as something becomes idealized as a possible meme, or going viral…It becomes commodified by its very virtue of becoming a voice in the discussion. Which means that, at the very moment you see the hand pop up from the fucking ocean of shit, it gets dragged down straight away. That whole thing of the Arab Spring being the first revolution spread through social media…
A: It’s complete myth making, manufactured in San Francisco. People wanted to sell this networking tool as a kind of politically potent force. The thing is, you see these revolutions happen again and again, and no matter how they start, they always fucking fail. Its like you talking about the hand rising from the sea of shit getting dragged back down…that’s always happened.
E: Essentially because once something becomes genuinely threatening, it’ll get pulled back into the fold by…
A: The actual power.
E: Yeah, exactly… so the dissent gets humoured for a while, until it starts to actually upset the balance. I guess that’s the pessimist version of the possibility of social upheaval and social critique, but ultimately we just go back home and see whether we have any new Facebook friends.
A: And hope that we can find our iPhone charger.
E: That’s right.
1 Editor’s note: This manuscript was found in several tattered fragments in a crow’s nest some distance away from Dr Johannes Rosenberg’s body. Soiled and stained, it appeared to have been used to wrap some food items, and even after careful reconstruction has missing parts, as evidenced by the multiple unfinished sentences, half-baked thoughts and generally bad grammar. The original manuscript seems to have been some kind of transcription of a conversation between two people, only referred to as ‘A’ and ‘E’, who, judging by the nature and content of the conversation, are possibly amateur musicians, a recurring source of inquiry and fascination for Dr Rosenberg. There were copious comments and footnotes accompanying the transcript, curiously enough in a different handwriting to that of Dr Rosenberg. It has been speculated that the author of these footnotes is in fact his distant cousin, Mr Erich von Rosenberg (the von is most certainly a fraudulently adopted nobiliary particle in this case, probably purely to impress high society), a dilettantish socialite and middling violinist (and a one-time associate of infamous literary hoaxer Lord Auch) with whom Johannes was in sporadic contact. The manuscript itself is forensically linked to Dr Rosenberg’s through stains that have been proven by chemical analysis to have come from a brand of violin-shaped chocolate pralines that Dr Rosenberg was fond of, the wrappers of which were found in his pockets upon the discovery of his body.
2 NOTE (EvR?): The vertigo of the centripetal force that draws culture into an addictive headspin spiralling towards the centre at ever-increasing rotations without ever being able to reach its goal of self-destruction. With each cycle our memory becomes shorter, our grasp becomes weaker, and our senses duller. The culture producer and consumer become fused by an immediacy of economic exchange. There is no more object to be interrogated, only an impression of solicitation, an infantility of identification with an instantly satisfied desire. We, the culture, are like a child who spins around faster and faster until he vomits out of pure ecstasy. (Editor’s note: As shown by the incoherence of this note, at least some of the comments scribbled all over this manuscript seem to have been written in some kind of state of altered consciousness, either caused by substance abuse or episodes of clinical psychosis. These notes have been left here in unedited state in order to demonstrate the general confusion reigning over the entire document.)
3 NOTE (EvR?): The fetish is not an object anymore, it is a concept of newness. If Duchamp had been a musician, he would have made a fart symphony, not 4’33". Cage’s conceptual revolution in music was as disingenous as a used car salesman’s paint job on an old banger.
4 NOTE (EvR?): The problem with orchestras has always been that the musicians assumed they were members of the middle classes, and had to appear as such, in manners, dress, salary, etc. When orchestras became professionalized and industrialized in the late 19th Century, they should have adopted the same models and divisions of labour as the increasingly successful factories, in order to maintain their relevance in the contemporary world. The main masses of musicians should be dressed in overalls of durable materials that can be easily cleaned, there should be a small number of foremen who maintain order and productivity during rehearsals and concerts and are recognised by their more dignified dress and loud voices, and the entire operation should be overseen by the floor manager, who wears a suit and is naturally remunerated accordingly, etc etc. And just as most industries have now been transferred to countries with cheap labour costs, orchestras must do the same, in order to remain competitive in today’s world. We cannot afford to have orchestral music played by first-world musicians, who demand ever-increasing salaries and better working conditions, especially when they essentially manufacture products that have become more or less obsolete, and haven’t been modernised for a Century or so. No other industry can afford such an anachronistic modus operandi or product range; why should the creative industries be an exception?
5 NOTE (EvR?): The upheavals and revolutions of modernism were, in hindsight, like changing the brand of one’s car, not a new form of transport. Those who yearn for the lost potency of modernist revolutions and their purity of vision are like the car owner who will continue to sit in his vehicle each morning even after the last drops of petrol have long been sucked up from the ground and evaporated into the atmosphere.
6 NOTE (EvR?): Music has a lot to learn from Jeff Koons’ marriage to Cicciolina. Music has to become more pornographic to survive. It needs to marry the obscenity of the image.
7 NOTE (EvR?): Because music itself could never have the same effect on people as visual images, it can never have the magnetic power of the visual fetish.
8 NOTE (EvR?): Which means that they do start to have fixed emotional content, just as words gain meaning through a stable relationship between a signifier and signified. Music lost the battle, it became servant to the image, repeating it (badly) like a pirate’s parrot.
9 NOTE (EvR?): Once movies took off in the early 20th Century, music might as well have just put its hands up in the air and surrendered, like a good old baddie from a Western when confronted by the inevitability of the moral superiority of the hero. It was immediately obvious that something as abstract as pure sound could never compete with the tantalising magic of moving image. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk transformed into a visually driven industry of the fetish (spreading its contagion outwards from the screen into the ‘real lives’ of its stars), where sound played an ever-decreasing role until it became merely the emotional wallpaper furnishing the main event. Satie has his champions in movie producers, not in 60s avant-garde music.
10 NOTE (EvR?): We must remember that orchestras themselves are essentially made up of professional amateurs, who by and large have very conservative taste in music and culture in general. Any new music is at the mercy of their execution, invariably poor, as these skilled charlatans cannot comprehend why they should torture themselves with living in the present rather functioning as the secretaries of the great masters of history, copying their notes night after night like a poor neurotic suffering from some kind of disorder.
11 NOTE (EvR?): Think of El Sistema (which even in name sounds suspiciously fascist), which appeals just to that kind of liberal humanist thinking, but really just espouses a very specific, Eurocentric idea of discipline and hierarchy (cloaked in the disguise of good taste and beauty) and overlays it on communities who are already victims of numerous waves of colonialism. It is curious that only Western classical music seems to have this power of lifting people from their misery and poverty. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the cultural missionaries to encourage people to find their own music in their own roots, in their own communities, in stories that deal with their own reality, rather than setting up an aspirational game and an advertisement for the supposed civilising effect of one type of music, the music of the aristocrats of the Western World. El Sistema is an experiment that finds exactly what it sets out to find in a particular, and then uses these findings to justify a universal.
12 NOTE (EvR?): Radicalism is of course now commodified, it’s one accepted category of consumerism. Avant-gardism is a form of nostalgia for a time when the new was somehow newer and truer. The obsession with originality belongs in the same category of vain attempts at finding a new position in a dimensionless space.
13 NOTE (EvR?): We have learnt to outsource protest by experiencing it vicariously through sanitised and accepted forms of sacrifice, that of other, less valuable humans, who suffer in order for us to prove our humanity. We participate in revolutions by following a twitter feed. We engage in radical social action by liking a Facebook page. We collaborate with artists by contributing to crowdfunding ventures. We critique culture by living without irony.
by Erkki Veltheim
(This text relates only to the tradition of notation in Western music, and makes no claims about the universality of these observations.)
The notation of music presents itself as something of a paradox; an attempt to represent a fleeting series of sounds by means of a fixed spatial diagram.
Certain musical parameters, such as pitch and rhythm, at first seem to lend themselves to a more consistent translation into stable notation than others, such as timbre and dynamics, but only in a contingent way; that is, by presupposing a standardised and stable relationship between a particular written sign and its sonic rendering.
Natural languages similarly rely on a collectively agreed method of translation between the written and the spoken sign; but while these signs encode conventionally established meaning that can be recombined productively to refer to things in the world, musical signs are intrinsically meaningless and refer only to themselves, as sounds.
(A musical phrase is pure phenomenon; it does not point to anything else in the world. It may encode implicit information, such as cultural context, social status or level of competence, but does not have a clearly defined referent that would constitute meaning in the same sense as that encoded by signs in a natural language.)
The fact that sounds can be represented in written notation, which allows for their free recombination and permutation within a given logical scheme, seems to deceptively bestow on music an ontological status similar to that of natural languages; as musical phrases can be constructed from smaller units much the same way as words and sentences, it seems plausible that different combinations of pitches and rhythms would create different meanings.
(This results in a category mistake that is compounded by conflating musical and linguistic signs’ contrasting modes of reference in music that uses text; in other words, interpreting the music and text to refer to the same thing together, as if the words could by some contiguous magic permeate a melodic phrase with their meaning.)
The word music is derived from the Greek mousikē tekhnē, ‘the art of the Muses’. The Muses were the daughters of Mnemosyme, the Ancient Greek personification of memory, suggesting that the origins of music are rooted in oral culture; musical works being committed to memory and passed down the generations in an immediate way, from teacher to student.
The earliest known example of music notation is a Hurrian song from around 1400 BC; a set of instructions for a singer and a harpist carved in cuneiform on clay tablets found in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit. Whilst any transcription of such instructions into modern notation is necessarily speculative, these tablets attest to a very obvious yet radical role of music notation; that of a vehicle for the recording, studying and reproduction of music that frees it from a dependance on one-to-one contact between musicians. This opens up the prospect of individual authorship of a mediated form of music that can be disseminated at a distance, both physical and temporal; the birth of a ‘composer’.
(The development of writing in Ancient Greece has been seen to accompany a transition from the collective consciousness of oral culture to the self-consciousness of literate culture; the written word becoming a concrete record of an individual’s thoughts, without the need for an interlocutor. Compare for instance Plato’s writings, devised as imaginary debates between agonistic philosophers, to those of Aristotle, who writes in his ‘own voice’.)
Notation codifies musical ideas and henceforth becomes an effective normative and evaluative standard for performance; individual and collective memory can only regulate musical works contemporaneously, while a score does so as an enduring and immutable law; it creates a new concept and mythology of the musical work.
Whilst various traditions of music notation arguably originated as mnemonic and communicative tools for the reproduction of musical works, some of these traditions have developed into sufficiently general systems of symbolic representation to enable them to be used beyond their original context. These uses fall into two mutually exclusive categories: reactive or transcriptive notation (for instance the transcription of environmental sounds, such as birdsong) and generative or prescriptive notation (for instance the composition of musical works).
The mutually exclusive character of these categories is obscured by the standardised form of notation; for instance, the reactive transcription of a pre-existing musical work as a mnemonic device can be retrospectively mistaken for an example of a generative, prescriptive act of composition, as there is nothing in the appearance of such notation that necessarily distinguishes one from the other. Notation as a generalised system ignores the inherent tension in the switching polarity between these two categories and their relation to performance, neutralising their antithetical entanglement with a veneer of mute impartiality.
(Transcription, which presumes the performance to be the primary creative act, in fact already hints at the potential for a reversible function; that is, the prescriptive use of notation in the creation of a musical work, prior to any performance. This reversibility also leaves open the theoretical possibility that notation in fact originated from the latter category, as a generative, creative tool, and was only subsequently reconfigured for use as a reactive, mnemonic tool.)
Each notational tradition has its own limitations given by its internal logic and the parameters of sound that it is able to represent more or less accurately, and therefore any transcription in some way contorts sonic phenomena to fit within these parameters; much like the way Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries map the same terrain to fit into their own, contrasting forms. Similarly, any notational system a priori limits the musical ideas it can support, and hence always already determines the kinds of aesthetic result that can be achieved in employing that system.
(No sound can be fully represented by any given notation, nor by any other recording device; this incomplete translatability between a sound and its visual representation has contributed to the confusion in the ontological relation between the two.)
The internal logic of a given notational system, abstracted from the temporality of music performance, can also propagate new approaches to the manipulation of different musical parameters.
The geometrical properties of music notation invite experimentation with various kinds of symmetries and processes that would not be available to a musician purely thinking and unfolding musical ideas in real time.
(This results in another category mistake, where temporal processes are assumed to be analogous with spatial proportions.)
Different types of music notation can be seen to fit Peirce’s typology of signs, categorised as:
-symbolic, exhibiting an arbitrary link with the referent (established by convention); for instance, phonetic notation, using letters of the alphabet, and diastematic notation, representing sonic relationships geometrically.
-iconic, exhibiting some form of similarity with the referent; for instance, pictographic or ideographic instructions for actions or construction of a sonic object.
-indexical, exhibiting a causal or physical link with the referent; for instance, tablature notation, where diagrammatic instructions applied to a specific instrument or object cause a certain sonic result.
Radical historical changes in music notation have coincided with large-scale political, technological economic and cultural shifts, each such epoch reinventing the social role of music and its manner of reproduction and distribution.
-The Carolingian Renaissance: Up till Charlemagne’s reign in the 8th Century, sacred vocal music, the precursor to what we now think of as classical music, was by and large an oral tradition, studied and performed in the context of a stable monastic milieu. Charlemagne’s push for cultural reformation and standardisation across his empire resulted in the institution of cathedral schools with transient ecclesiastical populations, necessitating the development of mnemonic devices for the learning and transmission of officially sanctioned versions of plainchant.
-The Renaissance: The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century led to another wave of standardisation, accompanied by the commercialisation, of music. The advent of music printing gave composers access to the general public as a viable market, leading to the rise of instrumental music; a popular pastime for the aristocratic classes as an index of their social status. This began the elevation of the composer into an almost mythical figure; a divinely-inspired creator passing down a perfected piece of music to the interpreter in the mediated form of a score. This leads to a concept of the musical work as somehow being embodied by the score as the primary and eternal document, relegating any given performance to a mere shadow of its ideal form.
-The Golden Age of Capitalism: In the decades after World War II, Western music notation experienced perhaps its most radical period of transformation, fuelled by the collective individualism of modernism (composers being compelled to create idiosyncratic compositional systems ex nihilo) and a reaction against the inherited norms of a culture that came close to self-annihilation twice within the space of 30 years. The 1950s and 1960s became a age of experimentation with various forms of graphic notation that reimagined how musical ideas could be represented visually. This period coincided with the commercialisation of the magnetic tape, which democratised the recording and distribution of music and implicitly questioned the need for notation to retain its function as a way to faithfully inscribe musical ideas in a durable medium.
-The Digital Revolution: The technological advances of the late 20th Century brought with it another wave of democratisation in the creation and reproduction of music. The proliferation of computer-aided compositional tools has returned music-making to a more immediate form of cultural practice (something that was never lost in various folk music traditions), where the triadic relation of composer-score-interpreter is no longer the norm. If the creation and recreation of musical works once more becomes an integrated activity through the rise of self-sufficient composerperformers (acting individually or collectively), music notation may ultimately lose its use value and become obsolete; a situation that is already a given for practitioners of improvised music.
Ancient Greek music notation followed a process of development from ideographic signs to a phonetic system that worked combinatorially to produce larger units, much like the alphabet. This phonetic scheme represented each pitch with a unique symbol, and included a different set of symbols for vocal and instrumental music. In other words, the ‘same’ pitches in different octaves were represented by different symbols, and vocal and instrumental parts represented the ‘same’ pitch with a different symbol. Greek notation ceased to be used around the 4th Century, and was replaced gradually by neumatic notation (from the Greek πνεῦµα, ‘breath’ or νεῦµα, ‘sign’), which was derived from Ancient Greek pitch accent diacritics.
The earliest records of music notation using neumes come from the 9th Century, during the reign of Charlemagne, which also saw the birth of simple polyphony. This notation was used as a mnemonic device for the study of plainchant, and for a long time was not completely standardised; each monastery having its own variations on the generally adopted system. The neumes were designed to show the relative shapes of musical phrases, and relied on a choir master to give the initial pitch and gesture the size of the intervals.
The neumatic system followed a trajectory of gradual increase in its specificity, complexity and standardisation, through the invention of heightened neumes to show intervals, the addition of (initially 4) horizontal guidelines to show relative pitch movement more clearly, and the inclusion of an opening clef to show the main pitch of the chant. This process of greater precision in the pitch domain (imagined as the vertical axis) was accompanied by parallel developments in the rhythmic domain (imagined as the horizontal axis). Rhythms were implied by natural speech patterns until around the 10th Century, when ‘longa’ (long) and ‘breve’ (short) rhythmic notation were incorporated into scores, followed by modal rhythmic patterns based on Ancient Greek lyric metres (Iambic, ‘short-long’, and Trochaic, ‘long-short’) in the 11th Century, which employed ternary rhythmic units thought to symbolise the holy trinity. From the 13th Century, plainchant became ever-more melismatic, requiring new notational strategies, including ever-smaller rhythmic divisions and a five-line stave to fit the wider range of melodies.
The ars nova and ars subtilior musical styles of the 14th Century revised some features of the neumatic system, facilitating the development of a florid type of polyphony where each vocal line demonstrates a high degree of independence. Some of the notational inventions of the period were time signatures and barlines, visual groupings to simplify reading, the use of colour notation for certain rhythmic features, and progressive further division of rhythmic values. There was a general push from contextual and relative notation to absolute notation in both pitch and rhythm, which allowed for more abstract compositional techniques to be employed. Here the symbiotic nature of the evolution of musical ideas and their notation becomes quite transparent, as the new notational features lent themselves to the use of mathematical procedures such as augmentation, diminution, inversion and mirroring of both pitch and rhythm. Musical materials could now be viewed as a graphical puzzle, out of time, to be combined and permutated in various ways whilst maintaining a certain level of logic and symmetry; a logic that could possibly be heard and recognised by the expert, if not the novice, creating an aura of learnedness for those who could hear and understood these procedures in a performance of the musical work. Through such compositional strategies, the musical work became conceptualised as if it were a static physical object, with quantifiable spatial dimensions that could be rearranged and viewed from different angles; a notion that was analogous with the contemporaneous experimentation with perspective in painting.
There was also an interest in the general design and specific typography of musical scores, which at times resulted in graphically elaborate examples that compromised their role as a tool for the communication of musical ideas. Some such scores bear a striking resemblance to music from the second half of the 20th Century, which experienced a resurgence of interest in the visual design of music notation. These two eras share many similarities in the general tenor of their musical practice, both overseeing an increasingly multilayered complexity based on a reappraisal of the notational system through the prism of mathematical logic. Whereas in the 21st Century, this complexity has diffused into a plethora of idiosyncratic compositional techniques, the 15th Century experienced a trend back towards simplicity, as the new notational system ossified into an accepted standard across Europe.
During the Renaissance, instrumental music took hold in the European courts and amongst the rising bourgeoisie. Aided by the ease of reproduction and distribution of scores afforded by the printing press, composers began creating large repertoires of music for newly invented instruments, such as viols, that were used to accompany social dancing. These modern instruments utilised the 5-stave vocal staff, with absolute pitch notation, while older instruments such as the lute still used tablature notation, with the resultant pitch being relative to specific tunings.
While the historical trend throughout the Renaissance was for notation to gradually morph into a fixed, absolute system, certain discrepancies between written music and its sonic rendering remained. For instance, the prevailing performance practice dictated the chromatic alteration of identically notated pitches in specific contexts, in order to achieve more aesthetically appealing horizontal (voice-leading) or vertical (harmonic) results. These inflections were known as musica ficta, ‘false’ or ‘fictitious music’, falling outside the ‘true’ notes of a given mode; the notational invariance of these musical structures belying their malleability as sonic material.
In the process of the old church modes coagulating into the tonal system of major and minor scales towards the end of the Renaissance, the practice of such pitch alterations came to be systematically codified into written notation. This resulted in situations where the ‘same’ pitch occurred simultaneously or nearsimultaneously in two ‘contradictory’ versions (for instance ‘C’ and ‘C#’) in different voices or contrapuntal lines; one example of a phenomenon known as false relation. This conceptual clash (a non-identical identity), made explicit by the demands of standardised notation, demonstrates a fundamental problem with the evolution of a relative notational scheme into an absolute one.
The entire logic of the former is predicated on a specific performance practice (sacred vocal music), which necessitates the adoption of various ad hoc measures in its recasting as a generalised notational scheme; a permanently makeshift construct that can never completely hide the inherent contradictions at its core.
During the Baroque, a shorthand script for chord structures, called figured bass, was introduced into the notational scheme.
This system of numbers, which was written below the bass part of a piece of music, provided a harmonic skeleton that was fleshed out by the keyboard player with various idiomatic ornamentations, reflecting the role of limited improvisation that was central to the performance practice of the time. Similar chord-number notations are still in use in types of music that maintain a level of specialised extemporisation as part of their language, for instance jazz and country music.
The Baroque period also introduced explicit dynamics into music notation, concurrently with the invention of the pianoforte, the first keyboard instrument able to play with dynamic variation.
Such markings became more widespread and explicit during the Classical and Romantic Eras, including ‘impossible’ (or psychological) instructions such as a crescendo on a sustained piano note, which were designed to convey to the performer a more detailed sense of the composer’s intentions; developments that went hand in hand with the waning of improvisation as an essential part of the performance of composed music. This was concomitant with a creeping sense that the score, however precisely notated, could never fully express the true essence of the composer’s musical ideas. The positivism of the score as an eternal mirror of the composer’s vision was thus slowly being eroded by the very process of its becoming an increasingly sophisticated and nuanced expressive tool; as if the ability of notation to generate and reflect more complex musical ideas was in fact directly linked to self-destructive doubt about the solidity of its foundations.
In the Romantic Era, many instructions such as speed and expression markings began to be written in the composer’s own language, instead of Italian as had been the custom, coinciding with the burgeoning nationalistic sentiment across Europe towards the end of the 19th Century. This portended the impending fracturing of the universal notational scheme and paved the way for the birth of modernism in music around the turn of the 20th Century, inspiring ever more individual attempts at systematising the dense and complex chromatic tonality that had been passed down by the Romantics.
One such system, serialism, renewed the ars nova fascination with symmetry, abstracting pitch and rhythm into matrices of numbers (such as magic squares) that could be manipulated without reference to temporality and then used as raw materials for composition. These permutational schemes recall anagrams and other wordplays, such as the ‘Sator Square’ of classical antiquity, which intriguingly combines strict (mirrored) graphemic symmetry with a meaningful (if trivial) sequence of words. Such puzzles can only be constructed in a written form, demonstrating an uncanny independence of the script from its sonic counterpart, whether as speech or music; as if the written sign were inhabited by a ghostly secondary logic that mere sounds could only ever brush up against but never fully embody.
There were also attempts at creating new notational systems that weren’t based on tonality, instead setting out to show features such as chromatic movement without the use of accidentals and attendant contradictions like the false relation. It was becoming clear that the logic of the inherited notational scheme was unable to support some of the new ideas in music, its internal logic (a relic of medieval modal music) becoming outgrown by experiments in areas such as microtonality, aleatorism and the use of new technologies, including the magnetic tape and electronic sound generators and processors.
After World War II, many composers began developing increasingly idiosyncratic notational systems, which compromised the universality of notation as a simple and effective means of communicating musical ideas. This proliferation of notational strategies reflected the plethora of new aesthetic and conceptual approaches to music, including many that stood in polemical opposition to one another. As a consequence, the universal standard of the five-line staff gave way to ad hoc solutions that required specific instructions and detailed study for the interpretation of each sign, which were in many cases not applied consistently by different composers, or even by the same composer across different works.
Some of the new notational strategies involved: the addition of staves for information that could not fit on the standard stave; various text scores that described actions and processes; diagrammatic scores for building a sonic situation or object; tablature notation for instruction of physical actions on instruments; using visual artefacts such as painting, film or sculpture as a ‘score’ that demanded a significant level of interpretation from the performer on how to translate these visual stimuli into musical material; algorithms and punch cards as scores for mechanically or electronically produced or reproduced music; and computer-generated notation that could transcribe elements of live performance into digital data, which could then be decoded for use with other media.
The Fall of Notation The tradition of Western music notation, which had forged a sufficiently close relationship between the written mark and a corresponding sound to be considered a functioning notational symbol scheme (in philosopher Nelson Goodman’s terminology), lost its unquestioning representative fidelity in the face of the postWorld War II avant-garde’s challenge of the foundations of its historical continuum. This crisis heralded an age of deconstructive experimentation with notation (and the very concept of the musical work), leading to the widespread employment of different types of graphic scores, which could incorporate a broad range of visual signs from traditional notation to text, pictographs and abstract geometric shapes. The vital question of notation became less about how to create strict correspondence between a visual and sonic sign, and more about how different notational strategies could instigate new modes of music-making.
These developments resulted in notation functioning not just as instructions for performance, but also as an independent aesthetic object in its own right, with serious repercussions for the ontological status of the musical work; if the score is an object of aesthetic contemplation itself, in the visual domain, it severs its strict contract with its sonic counterpart, with which it traditionally had merely a regulatory relationship. In other words, the aesthetic effect of a musical work previously relied ultimately on its performance (whether imaginary or real), whereas a graphic score marks it as oscillating vertiginously between the visual and the sonic realms.
Graphic notation has a much more tenuous relationship with its sonic instantiation than conventional notation, as it may be difficult to perceive a correlation between a score and its performance. There is no longer a one-to-one representative scheme at work, and the score can no longer act out its normative function, as a prescriptive and evaluative document (a law); it can not be used to judge a performance, as there are no clear criteria that determine success or failure. It becomes more of a ludic contract between the composer and the performer, allowing the latter a much greater role in the interpretation, and indeed the composition, of the work.
(As a thought experiment, one can imagine two performances of the same score yielding versions where no single element could be perceived to be replicated, and performances of two different scores that sound identical.)
Many graphic scores in reality feature elements that retain some general characteristics of conventional notation, as well as instructions that refer to very specific actions, even if they may be open to varying sonic outcomes. (Notation of actions rather than sounds results in a choreography of gestures that confuses the concept of the musical work as a sonic phenomenon, recontextualising it as a much more open performative form that begins to converge with other disciplines, such as theatre and dance.) For instance, a common way to conceptualise the twodimensional space of the score is still to see it mapped onto an invisible Cartesian axis, with pitch as the vertical and time as the horizontal domain. These scores still appeal to an intuitive visual logic in the arrangement of the musical ideas on the page and remain faithful to the original metaphor of conventional notation that translates musical phenonema into spatial relations.
The relationship between a graphic score and its performance could be seen to be akin to that of a genotype to a phenotype, the score acting as a kind of genetic code that can be expressed in different instantiations with different traits that cannot be fully predicted beforehand. The score thus specifies a potential for a unique situation that involves an element of chance beyond the composer’s control. This creates a new paradox for the roles of the composer and performer, and the ontological status of the musical work. On the one hand, the composer retreats from the dictatorial role of controlling all the musical parameters, allowing (forcing) the performer to express a greater level of agency and spontaneity in the study and performance of a work. On the other hand, the composer still maintains authorship of the musical object, and becomes in some ways an even more mythical figure in the process, circumscribing the performer’s liberty with his invisible wand. (The composer frees the performer from the bonds of notation, but binds the performer’s freedom to the composer’s name.)
Notation performs a double sleight of hand that detaches music from its essence as a concrete sonic (and social) phenomenon; firstly by abstracting sound from its spatio-temporal reality (through transcription), and secondly by reifying musical ideas in a physical object, the score (through composition).
The development of notation as a mnemonic device begins as a way to record a musical work through transcription; this necessarily involves a process of filtering only the elements deemed to be essential to the work’s reproduction (ignoring all others), and the invention of a spatial metaphor for their representation.
As these essential musical elements are mapped onto a twodimensional axis with pitch as the vertical and time as horizontal, a further abstraction takes place; a concept of music as an idealised set of geometric proportions that are represented by this method of notation.
Notation becomes not only a way to transcribe sounds, but a generative and normative principle for new musical ideas and new ideas about music; it bends the composer’s imagination into its own form.
Notation not only facilitates thinking about music in abstract terms; it demands it.
(This produces the fallacy of imagining a direct connection between a set of spatial proportions and the experience of a sonic phenomenon.)
Composition becomes the construction of idealised spatial symmetries using the elements of the given notational scheme; these are reified in the musical score, which acts like a fetish, magically embodying the composer’s creative act in its geometric designs.
The score-fetish, existing outside the temporality of musicmaking, reveals itself as the new mythical locus of the musical work; a self-contained, complete and perfect object traceable to a single point of origin, its author.
(The score-fetish appeals to our desire for certainty; it clarifies our social roles as a composer, performer, audience member or musicologist and vouches for the quality of the musical work.)
The score-fetish simultaneously conceals its own contingency on a specific concept of music and set of social relations that uphold its status as an immutable, magical object; it feigns ignorance of the possibility of a different way of music-making and its own role in upholding and perpetuating notation as a normative ideological construct.
(The score-fetish replaces the fleeting concreteness of sound as phenomenon with its own solid, comforting concreteness as a physical object; it reassures us that the musical work really exists.)
362 pages, 18 x 11 cm, paperback
Perimeter Editions 022
Edition of 500
Publication date: February 2017
Published by Perimeter Editions
Editor: Hannah Matthews
Design: Žiga Testen & Stuart Geddes
Authors: Dr Michael Trudgeon, Erkki Veltheim, Dr Sally Gardner & Dr Alex Selenitsch
Participants: Deanne Butterworth, Lane Cormick, Georgina Criddle, Richie Cyngler, Matthew Day, Eliza Dyball, Benjamin Forster, Dr Sally Gardner, Nathan Gray, Helen Grogan, Aurelia Guo, Melanie Irwin, Rebecca Jensen, Shelley Lasica, Michelle Mantsio, Phip Murray, Geoff Robinson, Jan van Schaik, Brooke Stamp, Lilian Steiner, Studio Apparatus, Studio Osk, Colby Vexler, Phoebe Whitman, Benjamin Woods
$29 AU STORE