Layering and filtering the sound sources

Trying to convey the perception of a three-dimensional structure in a piece of music, I speculated that I could achieve a sense of spatial foreground and background in the perception – intended as mental projection – of the location of sound sources applying a process of filtering to the sounds produced by an ensemble. Borrowing the terminology from electroacoustic music, this concept is based on the natural characteristic that sounds do not always arrive directly and intact at the listener. For example, the sound coming from instruments playing in the middle/back of an ensemble might be filtered by other instruments placed in front of them playing louder on identical frequencies.

The piece La porte de l’enfer (2016) was the first outcome of such experimentation. Using the principles of filtering and layering, I imagined a scenario for the piece where I would organise the performance space using a precise spatial setup. Six voices and eight instruments are positioned in three horizontal layers at different distances from the audience: the string trio in the front, the voice sextet in the middle, and the piano and percussive instruments at the back. The additional group of tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and bass flute are positioned according to principles of filtering and sound projection: the bass flute behind the voices, between piano and percussion, and bass clarinet and tenor saxophone sitting next to each other behind the string trio.

The piece was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s masterpiece La porte de l’enfer. The sculpture represents the gate of hell as an enormous door where the damned souls try to escape their torment by almost detaching themselves from the panels of this door, but being ultimately trapped in it as insects in resin. In my composition, I attempted to reproduce the same terrible image of singing souls trying to escape their position behind the gate. Furthermore, I imagined eventually letting the audience “pass through” the gate and listening to the same souls in their hell in the second part of the piece. In my vision (which is not informed by the existence of an actual place of eternal damnation), passing the gate means realising that hell is perhaps not dissimilar from a modern individualistic society, which I tried to represent as a vibrant, cold, and reverberating metallic environment.

In the first half of the piece, the bass flute is meant to provide an ideal connection between the back of the door and the voices, often transitioning the percussive impulses of the shaking gate to the timbre of the voices. The saxophone remains veiled, and the bass clarinet is fully integrated with the scratchy sound of the strings. Recreating in my mind the image suggested by Rodin, I imagined sounds coming from different layers. The voices remain compact from behind the wooden door, represented by the string trio, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. The gesture is repetitive, and also the harmony is recurrent, in a waved texture that covers all the possible range of the six voices. The souls from behind the gate are beating against the door, which eventually cracks and lets some of the concealed sounds come out – a glimpse of the metallic world hidden behind the gate, represented by bass flute, piano, and percussions. These escaped voices draw ascending melodic lines which are promptly intercepted by the strings (at the same frequencies) and pulled back into the door with scratchy sounds that represent the petrification of the damned inside the wooden surface. This movement of sound coming from the back to the front of the ensemble is repeated at different pitches, creating continuous kinetic waves in the spatial location of the sound sources that confirm the perception of a sounding structure in the space.

In the second part of the piece, where the environment becomes more metallic, the singers are positioned further away from each other, opening gaps in this second level filter, and the three woodwinds play in a more synergetic way. The projection of the saxophone is far greater than that of the bass clarinet as a result of which the saxophone is perceived as closer to the listener, as its sound passes unaffected through the first level filter (the string trio), while the sound of the bass clarinet remains trapped in the latter. The bass flute remains a third, more distant part of this trio, perceived as placed far behind the first level filter.

A more obvious example of filtering in the piece is the use of the hand in the singers’ parts. In the first half, all the voices use the hand to cover the mouth firmly, so that the palm presses the lips closed. This is not used as an aid to the dynamic, but on the contrary as a barrier through which the sounds are perceived as sung loudly but stopped (as a singer practising loudly behind a thick door). For instance, the extract below shows a use of the hand that is counterintuitive if compared to the dynamic: soprano and mezzo-soprano start their line as a loud whisper and should shout at the beginning of the next bar. The hand, filtering the voice in its dynamic peak, creates a dramatic effect of voices suddenly restrained – as though pulled back into the fatal door.

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In Homo Sapiens, all-too-sapiens (2019) I continued the exploration of this concept in chamber settings, combining it with the experience gathered while working on the horn piece The Mind is the Cave. I imagined to merge different sound sources into a unified sound sculpture, or as seen from a different perspective, to split a single sounding body into differently oriented sound sources that project sound in multiple directions. I wanted to describe a living creature and to suggest the presence of this being. Condition for the life of complex beings (as Homo Sapiens) is being able to breathe oxygen and distribute it to every cell of the organism. Before being able to talk (or sing), this being needs to breathe. Breathing implies opening the body and allowing air to enter it: this body must have an inside and an outside.

I decided to use three instruments from different families: viola, bass flute and flugelhorn, because of their common warm timbre yet diverse sound projection. I placed them in an unusual way: the violist is sitting in the front, facing the audience; the bass flutist is standing sideways, behind the violist (the low opening of the flute should be in proximity of the back of the violist’s head); the flugelhorn player is standing at the back of the ensemble, facing away from the audience. All the players are asked to sing inside (and outside, in the case of the viola) the instrument. The viola is the face of the sculpture and has a both musical and theatrical function. The strings have been heavily detuned: the first string detuned a minor third down; the second string has been tuned a quarter tone lower than the third (doing so, the middle strings work in pair, as two dimensions of the same string with different timbre, tension and projection); while the fourth has been lowered by a microtonal fourth. All the strings play around a pitch of G (or semi- and quarter-tones apart) in different octaves. Because of the different degrees of tension in the strings, the sound of the viola can constantly morph timbre and power of projection, varying from a weak and easily localised sound source to a powerful vibration in space. Gradual passages from tensed to un-tensed detuned strings, and then to the player’s voice, create the illusion of a dynamic sound sound source that can change depth and location.

The bass flute acts as a connector between the front and the back of the sculpture. When singing inside the flute with all the holes closed, the flutist’s voice is actually coming out from the opening at the back of the violist’s head (this happens always when the violist is instructed to mimic singing keeping the mouth open). Gradually opening the wholes to a fully open position moves the source of the voice along the instrument, back to the flutist’s mouth. The flute can easily transition between voice, air and timbre. Playing singing inside the mouthpiece produces a weak, localised sound source while playing regularly allows the instrument to project the sound in space. As for the viola, this connecting instrument has different projection properties that can create the illusion of a displacement of the sound source.

Ultimately, the flugelhorn can also play with open or close bell, as well as being sung into. Differently from the trumpet, the flugelhorn has a conical mouthpiece that resembles the horn and can create very soft attacks. Again, the experience gained with The Mind is the Cave has helped me using the flugelhorn as an ambiguous sound source capable of starting undetectable pitches that travel along the walls and, at the same time, create highly projected, focused sounds (in this case, shot towards the back of the stage).

Because of the position of the players and the projection properties of different instrumental techniques, I could work with a chain of connected sound sources that presented a front, a middle (even an inside) and a back. Going back to the original idea of establishing the presence of a living organism, I could create sequences of musical gestures that imply the opening of a mouth, the filling of a body with air (entering the mouth of the violist, moving along the flute and “filling the lungs” in the flugelhorn. While opening the organism in the act of breathing, a heartbeat is allowed to come through: here played by pizzicato tongue slaps bouncing between bass flute and flugelhorn. The dynamic in breath and heartbeat shown from within the sound sculpture constituted the premise of my composition. From that point onward, I could compose melodies that stem from the voice of the creature, constantly moving the sound from back to front, from the outside to the inside of a three-dimensional and unified sound source.

Copyright © Gerardo Gozzi 2020