Alejandro Viñao

Interviewed by Ken Ueno

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Ken Ueno is the director of the Harvard Group for New Music
The interview took place in Cambridge, Mass., USA in May 2001.

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Ken Ueno: At what point did you get exposure to electronic music and how did you get access into a studio and start working? Was it once you got to the Royal College of Music?

Alejandro Viñao: The Royal College of Music had a studio which had been operational since the 60s. It was an unlikely place where you would have expected to find an electronic music studio in the mid '70s - the Royal College of Music was rather academic in those days. If you were a post-graduate student which is what I was, you could choose subjects, and one of the subjects I chose, involved working in the studio. So I started practically immediately. I was taking instrumental composition classes as well as working in the electronic studio. That was in '76..

K: Did you have somebody teaching you some techniques?

V: Lawrence Casserley was running the studio at that time. He was actually a very good teacher not only because he introduced us to the elctroacoustic repertoire, discuss it and analyse it, but also he did some very simple things which were very new and interesting to me, such as saying, okay, now go into the street and listen to every sound you can hear, and record whatever interests you. We started with an exercise in music concrete, recording a sound and manipulating it. After that you started hearing everything including orchestral sounds in a different way. You start hearing the spectrum, you start hearing the evolution and that was very exciting and very new.

K: Were you initially working with tape and tape effects?

V: There were some analogue synthesisers. The synthesiser available in those days in England was the VCS 3, which you might see in museums now.

K: In what way were you trying to emulate orchestral sounds? Was it pre-recorded or were you trying to model synthesised sounds, to mimic?

V: Modelling would have been too grand a word. We couldn't model under those conditions. So it was primarily pre-recorded sounds that were treated and transformed using the VCS 3 which allowed you to treat analogue sounds. You started the process by amassing sounds for months, and then you proceeded to structure them. However, this piece I had been working on, I wrote from beginning to end as if it were an acoustic score. I soon discovered that one thing was to write a piece and another thing was to realise it according to what you've written. You realise that the studio starts imposing or making some decisions, or gearing you in a certain direction, and you have to learn to go with it and be creative in those terms.

K: You have said that your electronic music is influenced by your acoustic music. In what ways has this experience with electronic sounds influenced your acoustic music as well?

V: In the area of rhythm, in the idea that there are such a things as rhythmic sound objects, as well as in the area of timbre. Timbre has interested me a great deal in the last 20 years, particularly since computers have been able to do the things that I was able to imagine before they were available. When I started working at IRCAM in the early 80s, it was possible to conceive of interpolation as a process which would create form in itself, but it was very difficult to bring back that notion into the instrumental world because the instrumental world cannot do that. You cannot interpolate and expect a process to create form in an instrumental work. That's something intrinsically computer-made and doesn't travel very well back into the acoustic world. However, there are timbral ideas from the electroacoustuic world that do apply in the instrumental domain. I did draw on the idea of sound as a combination of layers formed by an attack, a sustain and a decay, and apply this to instrumental orchestration. So today I may think, this is my attack and it should be very short, it should be like two hundred milliseconds. Before, I would have thought, this is a quaver, and now I think, "how can I make it so that it really is as short as an attack that has been triggered by a computer, and then I have this other sound decaying, and something else coming out of it." In the area of rhythm, I was able to try things that I could imagine theoretically, but I could not hear in my head, and having heard them, then select those processes that did work, I mean processes that you can actually differentiate as a listener, not just theoretically, but you can tell - this is accelerating, this is slowing down, etc. Certain rates work; other rates do not work. How can I do this in the acoustic domain without a computer?. Can I find a way of transferring this into the acoustic domain so that -say- irrational rhythms may be notated and performed?

K: You make a delineation between the acoustic and the electric, but a lot of your pieces incorporate both.

V: Yes. When I first came to writing mixed pieces it was a result of a commission. After I had done "Imaginary Orchestra", I received a commission to do another tape piece "Go." That got me work in France and in the continent, commissions and stuff, and people started getting interested in my music. Then I did Hendrix Haze, which was moving into a completely different direction and upset a considerable number of people, because it wasn't serious, modernist stuff. (In those days people didn't talk about post-modernity, yet).
At that time I thought, I'm never going to write for instruments again, I love this; but I was offered a commission for interments and electronics, and that was Triple Concerto, which was my first mixed piece. I've been hooked by that synergy ever since. The idea that I can get everything I always loved about instruments and what I really love about technology together. There were many difficulties, but once I tried it, I was fascinated by it, but I arrived to it by chance or at least unexpectedly.

K: Rhythm is at the forefront of your structural ideas. Almost every one of your program notes, you mention this concept of a "pulsed rhythmic structure." Can you talk about that and maybe the process of composition that you mean by that? It's more through rhythmic development - that your pieces are structured, rather than the harmonic.

V: The first time I really got excited about trying to do something that I felt was new, or could be new, was when I did my first tape piece. I was travelling in Brazil in a boat with my father and these guys came in and they didn't have any of their drums, but they all started playing Brazilian percussive music. They did it on a big box that covered the engine of this old boat. Everyone had to play a different rhythmic layer, tapping different patterns on the same piece of wood. Each one was tapping the pulse that corresponded to his layer, so I realised how ingrained the idea of polyphonic layers is in this composite rhythm that Brazilians call batucada. I thought, if I could realise something like this in the electroacoustic domain, then I could have control of the process in that I could start shifting a pattern to the right or the left of the bar to create something that would continue to be pulsed, but all the layers would become irrational with respect to each other. I expected the result to produce different and complex cross rhythms on a vertical level. I did that and I was fascinated by some of the results. But of course I was doing that with tape, and the level of control was primitive. It had to be written down before you could realise it. You couldn't just do it empirically.

K: Were you mathematically calculating these rhythms?

V: No, not at all. I was thinking of each line independently. I was thinking of some kind of bar structure with repeating rhythmic patterns, and calculating where in the bar they repeat as they shifted to the right or left of their initial position. The point was to control the position of the patterns in the bar as the process of shifting and repetition advanced in time, so that the relationship of one layer or pattern to all the other layers would be permanently changing in a musically interesting way.

K: What do you mean by pulse and how is that different from beat?

V: A pulse is something that repeats with some periodicity. However, when we say ‘the beat’ we mean the beat in a bar. A bar can have more than one pulse, it doesn't have to have just one pulse, it just happened that during most of the history of Western music, the pulse and the beat had been the same thing. If you have multiple pulses, then the beat of the bar becomes a theoretical thing. The beat of the bar is the measure line.

K: Is pulse what those individual layers might be feeling in terms of a beat within itself, or is it also where the attack points are?

V: Could be either. Mostly it is where the attacks are. Pulse is a thing you perceive, it's what You perceive, if you don't perceive it as a pulse, it's not a pulse. So it has to be perceived as such, it can't just be simply a mere idea. But if I throw on top of it I don't know how many other things, which as a result, sounds just like a texture, then there's no pulse, even if the texture consists of a number of pulses. Pulse is the periodic repetition of an attack provided that the other periodic repetitions of the other attacks don't obscure it enough to dissolve it.

K: In this structural method of the pulse-rhythmic structure, do you work the dialog of these different rhythmic pulsations over the whole piece; or is it more of a localised structure?

V: Well, take the case of Tumblers. The first time you hear the main riff, it goes with the beat. It's written in the way you think it would be written. However, the second time you hear it, it' has already started to displace. Because it's on its own, the second time you could just hear it as a syncopation or you could hear it as perhaps a slight change in speed, it doesn't matter. You will probably hear it as syncopation because it has a kind of jazzy feel. You start hearing this pulse repeated permanently throughout the entire piece, and it's rarely on the downbeat, and when it is on the downbeat, some other version of the same pulse immediately appears travelling across it, which suggests that the pulse is elsewhere. The idea of the piece is that every time you feel comfortable with where the pulse is, you realise that actually it is somewhere else. The pulse is carried by the melodic cell that opens the piece. The transformation of this melodic cell is not really harmonic, although there are harmonies and melodies. The important transformation is the trip through the pulse or pulses, the many multiplications of layers of pulses, in which you will find and recognise this melodic cell as travelling in time.

K: In your idea of a musical structure and this journey of different pulses, what you call the development of melodic material, there is a kind of sensibility of hierarchy related to a sense of a tonic, development and return, or cadence. A sense of a paradigm of where the pulse is supposed to be, where it feels more right, and then contrasted areas of more tension.

V: Tension and relaxation. Absolutely. All the decisions at the end of the day, in all my pieces, are dramatic decisions. Everything else becomes subservient to the dramatic decision. And the dramatic decision is a decision in term of cadence. This is more tense and that is less tense, that's a cadence. I will work out a structure to the last detail but when I execute it, I will always change it, if necessary betray it in order to achieve a dramatic effect.

K: One of your electronic pieces is an homage to Jimi Hendrix. Did you listen to a lot of his music when you were young?

V: Of course, a lot. The sound world of Jimi Hendrix was like everybody's dream then. I remember once I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and actually it was after school and I was lying on a sofa and falling asleep, my mother walks in and says "why are you playing this, to torture me?" And I thought, this sounds wonderful, why?

K: A survey of your whole catalogue is interesting in that you seem to draw a lot of your inspiration and references from world music and pop music. For example the "Hendrix" piece is American pop, and this opera you have, Rashomon, has to do with Japanese culture and the literature of Japan and the cinema tradition. One of your more recent pieces, the solo marimba project, is a set of variations on a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan work. Do you have a view about the globalisation of culture?

V: I suppose, like everybody else, I'm aware of the process of globalisation of culture. However, when I started thinking about these issues, it was not so apparent. The world has been a global village for a long time, but back in 1980, in France where I did a lot of my work and even in the UK and Europe, there was a very big division between what was popular art and what was serious art. Modernism was all the rage, certainly at IRCAM. What I was doing was going in a way contrary or outside the fundamental view that popular art, however interesting it might have been, was a different kettle of fish altogether. I was and still am concerned about the danger of using anything that comes from another culture in a way that merely takes the surface, takes the anecdotal, takes the colour, and imports it into a structure where it does not belong. Whatever you import into a structure brings with itself its own structure. You can very easily find yourself in a piece where you have two elements that don't belong together and refuse to talk to each other, however much the composer places them in the same moment in time and space, these things refuse to talk to each other. That's Umberto Eco's definition of kitsch - two structures that refuse to talk to each other. I think with world music, you have a tremendous danger of doing this. My interest in other cultures and in popular culture has usually been connected to particular questions I’ve been asking myself at a given time. For example, in Chant d'Ailleurs for voice and computer, my primary concern was with melody. What I did was I looked at Eastern singing, particularly Eastern Arabic singing. What actually is the inner syntax or structure that allows melody to unfold in these cultures? Because they don't have harmony. It is not harmony like in the West: melody is not a horizontal expression of harmony. If melody is not a horizontal expression of harmony, then what is it? What is controlling it? Eastern melody has a tremendous energy moving forward and a tremendous coherence in time. Can I learn something about its coherence, its syntax so that I may develop melody in a different way? I was also simultaneously asking myself, why is it that there is so little melody in new music since the war? There is great harmony, great timbre, great structures, but we never discuss melody. Nobody says, the wonderful melodies of Boulez, melody has been almost a taboo. Nobody talks of wonderful melodies by Xenakis or Stockhausen. You may talk of wonderful structures, but not melody. What I did was I made a model of a Mongolian song, using as my premise that rhythm and melisma held the structure together. I asked myself what would happens if I made an exact model of the piece with MIDI and then proceeded to change the pitches, more or less randomly, respecting the scale and leaving the rhythms unchanged? Does it hold together? Does it still sound like the original? And it did. That proved to me that what holds melody and structure together in this kind of music is the melismatic rhythm. Now, what happens if I start tampering with the rhythms in the melisma that give form to this kind of melodic process? When I tampered with the melisma I destroyed the piece. So, I thought, can I create pieces where the rhythm of the melisma will generate the horizontal unfolding of melody and in doing so the structure of the music? Such a piece will have a surface that will resemble to some extent Eastern melodic singing, but I am not just simply quoting it, I am taking the processes to develop something else which is different from what post-modernity has often fallen into. Which is often just quoting for the mere sake of effect, mere contiguity or juxtaposing. The mere sequencing of two things doesn't create an interesting structure. They have to talk to each other somehow. I'm not saying all post-modernism is like that; however, there is the weak or poor or simply badly put-together post-modernity, which is a mere co-existence of two or more unrelated things. Just mixing Middle Age arches -in architecture- with whatever other structure, then calling it Post-Modernity, and that's happened in music too, and in that, I'm totally uninterested.

K: I would like to turn the discussion to your opera, Rashomon. First, can you talk about the genesis of the idea of the piece? How did you decide on Rashomon as a topic for this opera? How did you come about that idea? To what extent is it Kurosawa's influence and/or Akutagawa?

V: I saw the film first. It always struck me as being quintessentially the theme of the 20th century. It's an epistemological question. We ask questions and the very asking now is being questioned. If you look at the history of art, and even science, in the 20th century, we have developed the notion that we cannot arrive any longer at a final, complete, total answer of any question. In quantum mechanics we learn that the more you try to determine the position of a particle, the less you can determine its velocity. We have to accept that there is a limit to how far we can go and not further than that. That interests me very much, the fact that there is uncertainty about a process. What shocked me when I saw the film more than anything else, more than the rape and violence and all that, was that in the end, I realised I was watching the film as if I were watching a thriller. I wanted definite answers. And when it finished, I thought, what a vacuum this film has created for me, I cannot have final answers. When I was offered to do an opera for the opening of a new building, I thought I'm not very interested in opera but let me think about it. I thought about it, and the first thing that came to my mind was Rashomon. I felt that if there was a theme of the 20th century it has to be the theme of Rashomon.

K: The movie is almost like a set of variations without a one original thing, theme, or variation that we can point to as the paradigm.

V: Yes. Absolutely, The original short story even more so. I think the Akutagawa story is much more laconic than the film. It's even more Japanese than Kurosawa's. However, Kurasawa’s film does introduce an element (the version of the woodcutter) which I think is one further turn of the screw, and that's what I think is interesting about Rasohmon. Everybody's very much involved, so no one can give an untainted version of the events. And that's what I hoped we could do in the opera, which is give it one further turn of the screw so that there are even more layers of involvement. The version that exists now is not the final version, it is a small chamber version, and in that version we follow pretty much the film. We go a little bit further, but not as far as I would like to go with the final version.

K: Many of your pieces use a kind of theme and variation form. What interests you about this form in relation to some of these objects that you allude to?

V: From the point of view of creating a dramatic structure, the point of view of developing an idea, a rhythmic idea, an idea of pulses or multiplicity of pulses, an idea of melody created by melisma; variation seems to be the most obvious form because that's what you are doing, you are varying something. Every musical form that is dramatic and somehow developmental is a variation. Even when you have music of layers, like in the Rite of Spring, for example, the Cortege du Sage, when you simply have layers that are repeated, the fact that the rate of repetition between the layers is different guarantees that as the process progresses in time you're always hearing something else. In terms of what you're structuring vertically with every set of repetition, there is also a variation. It's not a variation in the sense of a baroque variation, but it is still a variation.

K: Going back to Rashomon, I noticed in reading the libretto, it's completely in English. Were there aspects to the design of the sound quality that somehow reflects Japanese traditional music, or the language?

V: Even if it's in English, you might have noticed that the syntax -written by the English poet Craig Raine- does not copy a Japanese style but sets out to give it a kind of a Japanese feeling. It doesn't follow any of the stresses, meter and shapes that a native English poet would normally follow. It has much more a phrasing, a laconism, a lengths and meter that are closer to Japanese. I also asked Craig specifically to introduce a considerable amount of alliteration in the text, because alliteration is very good to create rhythm. And I knew I wanted to have a text that would help me with my rhythmic processes.

K: How did you approach the electronic component?

V: In Rashomon there is a shakuhachi sound at the heart of the piece. I chose it for a number of reasons including a practical one. I had many shakuhachi sounds recorded throughout the years, and so I had that material at my disposal. More important than that, everybody in the story wants to acquire and possess the truth as an absolute value. Everybody presents himself or herself as the bearer of that truth. So I thought of the sound of the Shakuhachi as a metaphor for this elusive truth. An instrument that is present throughout the piece but doesn't really belong with or to the singers although it joins forces with them in the narrative process. I thought of having a shakuhachi that played very simply and very purely one or two notes, or three notes, in a kind of shakuhachi-empty-space-style, and then when the singers come in, interpolates, tries to join in, creates duets, trios, or whatever with the singers, and at some point they seem to fuse so that you have the illusion, for a moment, that a particular version is The Version, that that character has acquired, managed to blend itself with the shakuhachi, therefore becoming The Truth. But at the end of the aria or the scene, the shakuhachi comes out and goes it's own way, and at the end of the opera, the shakuhachi is left there, untampered and unassailable. That would be a metaphor of the idea of the piece. Of course, I don't expect people to watch the opera thinking, "Ah, the Shakuhachi means this or that."

K: You have been in England for quite some time now, to the extent that you've become an English citizen. In what respects to you still feel attachment to Argentina and Argentinean culture and in what ways does it influence your music still?

V: I think perhaps my contact with Argentina is still this feeling, this ease with other cultures, without having to be faithful to one, without having to be, to belong exclusively one. I could quote from another Argentinean, Jorge Luis Borges, who said, "Luckily we don't owe ourselves to one culture, we can aspire to all of them." We may not belong in all of them, but we can aspire to all of them, and that is something I think Buenos Aries has given me.

K: I think that Borges quote is relevant to the topics we have covered: your diverse influences, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hendrix, and Rashomon, all of these things being things as something to aspire to.

V: If you think about the baroque period, it wasn’t so different. Bach wrote English suites; had influences from Vivaldi, Italian influences, dances from every single corner of Europe. Remember that Bach, a man who I think never travelled beyond 100 or 200 miles from where he was born, for him, Italy or England or France or Spain would have been fairly remote places. However, that's all there in his music. I think that there's only a very short period in European history where high art is seen as this kind of separated block or entity that has nothing to do with popular music, because music has been very much influenced by dance, and dance is popular.