Alejandro Viñao

Interviewed by Philip Tagney

list of articles & interviews


Philip Tagney is a music producer at the BBC, Radio 3 in London.
The interview took place in 1992 in London.

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- How do you relate to the European post-war avant-garde exemplified by the Darmstadt School?

- The more I heard and analyzed, the more I started to question that aesthetic. The attempt to replace the old common practice with a new system from scratch, but using superficial parameters like the number 12 to control pitch, durations and so on. If we try to make a listening model based on these parameters, who says there are these parameters? Shouldn't we first consider perception? In fact, there was a taboo - a belief that perception was something of the past, perception limits your creative abilities. One of the arguments used to defend 12 tone music was yes, OK, you can't hear that, but you can still perceive it subliminally. In fact, I perceived a lot of that stuff merely as texture and as often as not, a not particularly interesting texture, when it was meant to be perceived as a polyphony.
When the Fairlight became available (the first comprehensive synthesizer that had a compositional language as well as some synthesis capabilities) I realized that I was able to try things out very quickly with that machine. In fact, I was able to try out the history of Modernism in two afternoons, pretty much, and decide what worked and what didn't. And I thought, if composers had had this tool, they would have saved themselves so much aggravation.
I think computers will change the way people write enormously, but first they have to accept that their ears are the ultimate tool with which you judge whether something works or not.
This is an area where I'm already implementing my approach, which is, I give a demo tape of my pieces made with a computer to the player before the first performance, which is 100% accurate in pitch and rhythm - it may be lifeless but it's accurate.
People panic at first, then they say "My God, every note is meant as if I were playing Mozart, it's not an approximation, it has to be played, even if it's very complex, it has a perceptual clarity. The rhythms maybe bizarre because they're displaced, hut if I hear them without the notation, the rhythms are very simple. It's slotting them in, which maybe very complex and makes it look very contemporary, but you can still break it down to something simple.

- Are the rhythms of Argentinean folk music always a part of your music?

- Probably, yes, not just Argentinean folk music. I've always been interested in, and attracted to, rhythmical music - not "time duration", hut rhythm. That's to say a pulse, something that repeats in such a way that we can apprehend it; you think you know where the downbeat is.

- Isn't pulse too crude?

- No, on the contrary, it's too subtle. The first time I heard Indian music I thought it was all the same - it wasn't, it was just that I couldn't hear the differences.

- You chose rhythm as a point of interest for your music, what else?

- I started looking at melody as well. Melody in other cultures, particularly those that don't have harmony. It's not conditioned or trapped by the vertical case of harmony. On the contrary, the melody unfolds, itself propelling the structure of that music - that's what that music is about.
For instance, if I remove the ornaments, the melismas, from a classical Arab ottoman song, I'm left with nothing. That melisma is generating a certain momentum that forces things to continue, that's structure; something continuing from an original idea. So what is this ornamentation, this melisma? It's rhythm. If you keep the rhythm and replace quite a hit of the pitch, you're still left with the original piece.
What interests me is that if I can understand what propels this horizontal development in time, then I can find a new type of structure which happens, as I discovered, to he based on rhythm. This is an area very close to me, and that's why I'm interested in the melodic unfolding of so-called ethnic cultures.
In Chant d'Ailleurs there are two things being explored at the same time which I hope become one, at least at certain moments. One is melody and rhythm which unfold in a monodic sense; horizontally. Another thing is the transformation of timbre within a continuum. Let's take a voice for example, or maybe even an electronic sound with a very definite identity, and now this identity starts changing from within into something else -this is a device that's intrinsically monodic. You could have two or three such processes going on, but in practice it gets increasingly messy.
Then comes the question of style. For example, I was doing a transformation from a voice into an Indian oboe, and I realized if I had a steady-state note and went from one to the other, it was not particularly interesting. However, if I had a voice performing in a style that was melismatic, a continuum but with a lot of small changes (like the melisma that gravitates around a note) then this enhanced the perception of the transformation of timbre and made it much more credible and exciting. So there was a very strong relationship between style and timbre which I hadn't thought so significant before.
The soprano Frances Lynch was the sound source I used for all the computer transformations in Chant D’Ailleurs. I got her to mimic some Mongolian music on tape, and sing in unison with it, and then improvise to it. I recorded that and then I went to the GRM studio at Radio France in Paris - they have a real-time computer called the SYTER which has a lot of interpolation possibilities. You can graphically define various sound transformations as circles on a computer screen. Then with a pen you can go from one circle to the other, from one set of transformations to the other in a continuum.
After that I said, OK, I have the original voice, I have some transformations, and now I want to maybe go from this sound to that one, or to interpolate it with the sound of a Mongolian wind instrument or so on.

- Could another singer perform this piece?

- It has been performed by another singer; there's something quite magical that happens when you hear Frances' version, that when she fades into herself, you can't tell which is which, so the transformation of timbre as a continuum is absolutely perfect. When it's performed by a different singer, this isn't quite so perfect; but then in some instances this is even richer, because then the voice is changing color, and if the pitch is still the same and the vibrato and articulation are the same, then you add a new dimension.

- Do you see this as a departure from your earlier pieces like "Toccata del Mago"?

- I wouldn't say a departure; it's an exploration of similar concerns through a different avenue. I've written two types of pieces, Dionysian and Apollonian - the type of pieces that tend to be quite free and the ones that tend to be very strict.

- So the "Toccata" is Apollonian?

-Yes, it's concerned with a very strict form, and the unfolding of that in a polyphonic way, and it sounds initially quite abstract. However, if you took it apart you would realize it's not. You can start focusing on the different pulses, the little rhythmic modules that make the jigsaw puzzle of the piece - very simple rhythms; that are askew with each other and yet vertically working together. This is howl hear it - as true polyphony, you hear the pulses going askew and yet landing in the appropriate place and that creates a certain drama, the landing there, but they have to be played very precisely so they do land together.

- And they're strong, dance-like rhythms?

- Dance like, yes, but too many are juxtaposed to go with one another for more than a certain period - and amplitudes and densities are controlled so that you can't hold on to any of them for too long; but it would be boring if you did.

- How do you see music of today going forward?

- The problem is the music isn't appealing enough, it's mostly failed to communicate. In order to get out of this situation we must go back to the listening model, and compare it to our compositional models - we have to develop some sort of common practice again. We can't go back to tonality as we know it, but new avenues must be explored from the point of view of perception.
There are many new avenues available now with the aid of technology, for instance, in the rhythmic universe; all sorts of possibilities require technology to be explored. There are rhythms which we can perceive but cannot play. These do exist and are interesting to the listener. For instance, two rhythms perfectly pulsed, but irrational with regard to one another. They can't be played but can be perceived, so to develop this sort of thing, you need a machine. So the advent of technology made it possible for us to re-explore what we thought were finished chapters, such as pulse. It seems to be taking off, people are talking a lot about ethnic music and technology now.

London 1992