The gestural space of the player and its states of energy

In The large, the little and Pablo in the middle (2017) for a Pierrot quintet formation, I expanded the principle of layering of sound sources into an attentive use of the gestural space of each musician of the ensemble. The gestural space is the physical space that the player occupies which, in the perception of the viewer, changes in connection with the amount of energy that the performers apply to the movement that produces the sound (an account of the perception of gestural, ensemble and arena spaces can be found in Denis Smalley’s essay Space-form and Acousmatic Image, Organised Sound 12, no.1, 2007: 41-43). A cellist, here treated as the soloist, has a clearly visible gestural space. As a contour to the soloist’s dimension, the other musicians (with the exception of the piano) move in circle around the cello at times aligning themselves with it and copying the same gestural space.

The legendary cellist Pablo Casals, to whom this piece is dedicated, had a very distinctive gestural attitude that comes from sincere musical needs. Fascinated by his approach, I have studied the peculiar instrumental techniques used by the great cellist, such as the unusual bowings (fast, slow, sul tasto, sul ponticello, etc.), the scratched attacks, the fingertaps, or pizzicati at the attack of a bowing, and so on (for a written account of his idiosyncrasies, I recommend the book by David Blum, Casals and the art of interpretation, London: Heinemann, 1977). I have carefully used these techniques to characterise the cello part, which plays a soloist role inside the ensemble. Casals often used these peculiar techniques with the intent of clarifying articulation and giving a better grain and directionality to his phrasing. In them, I saw the source of additional musical material. The main source for the analysis of Casals’ technique was the video of Johann Sebastian Bach’s First Cello Suite recorded in 1954. The visual documentation helped me study his personal style, confirming and sometimes guiding the perception of the ear. In the video, Casals performs in the middle of the apse of the abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, in the south of France. The absence of an audience and his disregard of the cameras add a sense of great intimacy to this performance. It seems as if we were spying on Casals while he is playing in the privacy of his studio. My piece is noticeably based on the feelings expressed in this famous performance.

Another important source of inspiration for this piece was quantum physics. Quantum theorists have discovered that the equations describing the behaviour of matter in the infinitesimally small predict the presence of an infinite number of parallel universes that pop out of the indeterminacy state of particles. As explained by the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, a particle exists in multiple places and states at the same time. From the observer’s unique point of view, time and space are perceived only as a single state of existence. In reality, infinite copies of ourselves coexist at the same time in an overlap of possibilities, all real from the points of view of each copy (an accessible account of the implication of parallel universes in quantum theory can be found in Max Tegmark, Our mathematical universe, London: Penguin, 2014). This overwhelming fact inspired me to reflect on the possibility of perceiving the multiple states of existence in sound. The idea borrows the concept of “sound transparency” from Wyschnegradsky’s theory: through sound we can hear the omni-sound, as if we were looking through a window and facing a bigger reality. Can sound contain different states of existence? Are these states perceivable in a spatial way, as if we truly had a sonorous window through which we can sense parallel dimensions? As listeners, and first of all human beings, we are tied to our physical point of view. Furthermore, evolution did not design our brains to compute the infinite numbers derived from such an understanding of reality. Thus, the sound we perceive is physically linked to its single state in our single reality. If a sound cannot contain different perceivable states of itself, perhaps harmony (here intended as the vertical disposition of frequencies) could help us to conceive an illusion of the coexistence of these states.

In connection with the quantum multiverse, I imagined that the noises Casals produces while performing could be an element that symbolises, in my music, the presence of other Casalses playing in parallel universes. In a poetic way, the cellist performs both alone and together with his many selves in different parallel realities. I imagined them playing with the same intimacy evident in the video. This intricate concept is the core idea of this piece and its humorous realisation is my attempt to convey, to my best ability, the fascinating artistic possibilities that come from such a scientific fact. How could I deliver such an abstract idea in our four-dimensional world on a harmonic level? According to musicologist and cognitive researcher Candace Brower in the article Paradoxes of Pitch Space (in Music Analysis 27, no.1 (2008), the perception of a pitch space created by a chromatic tempered harmony presents a paradox of octavisation. In most of the listeners, a succession of pitches evokes a connection with space: high, low, near, far. However, two notes of an octave are at the opposite ends of the space of a tempered scale, yet our ear perceives them as the “same” – this is known as the principle of octave equivalence. My intuition was that I could break the pitch space created by Bach-like melodic lines by suddenly switching to a different tuning or even to a different temperament of the scale. The result is a metaphorical “crazy Casals” playing microtonal scales on a detuned instrument (the tuning of the cello is B+33cents – G+16cents – D – G+50cents).

The melody, inspired by the Allemande from the First Cello Suite, is characterised by sudden changes to a tuning a quarter-tone apart. These actions are combined at the beginning of the piece with symbolic ticks in the violin and cello up-bows: the bow contacts the string right up to the metal part of its heal, which produces a dry high-pitched noise once in contact with the metallic coat of the string. It results in a sudden interruption (with no evident diminuendo) of the sound, which “pops” into the different dimension of the new tuning. For example, see the opening bars in the figure: the crossed grace notes at the end of the fast up-bows represent the noise of the heel beating against the string.

As stated before, the gestural space is, in other words, the visible dimension that the performers are creating around themselves while moving to produce the sound. The physical movements transform into energy that puts the sounding body into vibration. The eye of the perceiver confirms and emphasises what the ear receives. In the case of stringed instruments, this phenomenon is perhaps present to a larger degree than in the piano and woodwinds. From this we can infer that what conveys intimacy in the video of Casals playing the First Cello Suite is the strong presence of such an attitude in his movements (or even lack of movement). The slow bowings and their sudden accelerations give to his musical phrasing the idea of both small musical intimacy and grand release of energy. I wanted to preserve that original gestural space in my piece, too, balancing it in the most efficient way with the ensemble space. The latter is the space created by a group of musicians. A small number of sound sources can be experienced physically as isolated points, as long as they are not placed too close so that they merge in a spatial zone where the sonic continuity does not permit the distinguishing of individuals. I decided to place the cello in the middle of the stage, with flute, clarinet and violin moving around it like symbolic arms of a clock and the piano placed in the background. The instruments surrounding the soloist act almost entirely as extensions of his or her musical gestures. The space around the soloist needs to be large enough to keep the gestural space of each player isolated and visible. The image shows the clockwise movement of the instruments around the cello; the arrival at the final position is indicated by the dotted arrows. For every point of view in the audience, there is a constantly changing alignment of the soloist with one of the three rotating instruments which creates a perspective and a layering in the sound sources – either with perfect synchronisation in time and pitch, or with some discrepancies. My idea with these discrepancies is to convey the sense of splitting the gestural space of the soloist between the individual members of the ensemble. The distance between the players aims to maintain a sense of the ensemble space as divided into distinct sources. The fact that these surrounding sources are inexactly doubling the soloist, together with the continuously changing “gestural space” of the cello, should create an unexpected distribution of energy. The varying amplitude of the cellist’s gestures corresponds to bigger or smaller doublings in the ensemble, or none. In this way, I wanted the listener, who would expect a correspondence between movement and sound energy in the cellist’s gestural space, to find a surprising coexistence of that same energy in other points of the rarefied “ensemble space” (see Smalley). This may or may not be understood by the audience as the presence of parallel dimensions, but it remains my main source of inspiration. The essential idea that I intended for the audience to grasp is the unusual displacement of the energy that is expectedly coming from an isolated gestural space. Even the moving sources projected by the instruments of the ensemble, taken individually, can suggest multiple states of existence through harmony and timbre. This is the case with the woodwinds. The chosen multiphonics in the flute part create inner microtonal counterpoints integrated with the idea of different harmonic planes. The fast execution of the multiphonics does not allow a stabilisation of all the pitches. In the score, I suggest focusing mainly on the pitches indicated by larger note heads, leaving the other partials vaguely suggested in the sound (as shown in the example). This creates an interesting phenomenon in the timbre of any multiphonic: the main partials are perceived more vividly while others seem almost detached from the source. In the clarinet part, I have mainly chosen unstable dyads. The common clarinet multiphonics, like those that I have used in Neutrinos visiting, present violent beatings and confused harmonies, and need a long time to appear. Dyads, on the contrary, present an equal presence of the two partials and are easily performed. At the same time, they are highly unstable, which means that a passage like in the example below is perceived as constantly bouncing between two melodic lines that are played at the same time. The gestural space of the clarinet, which we traditionally expect to be monodic, conveys a special ambiguity in relation to the nature of these distinct melodic lines. In my imagination, they are two separate clarinettists performing at the same time in the same place, but appearing to the listener alternately.

Towards the end of the piece, the violin is combined with the cello to create a similar effect of ambiguous displacement of the gesture. As shown in the extract below, the violin is played positioned as a cello between the legs of the performer. There is no precise indication of the pitch, as both cello and violin try to copy each other’s movements in relation to the length of the string. The violin plays on the G string and the cello plays mainly on the first string tuned just a quarter-tone above. The different quality of the strings, although tuned similarly, creates the effect of a paler and distant cello in the violin, corroborated by the lack of a proper arm weight on the instrument. (Violinists are trained to apply the necessary arm weight when the instrument is supported by the shoulder. Keeping the violin in a vertical position while lacking a tailspike to support the instrument prevents the possibility to apply the right amount of weight to the bow. This results in a poorer spectromorphology that can mimic the detimbred sound of the feeble partials in a multiphonic.) The graphic indication suggests a rough position on the fingerboard, as a result of which the two instruments play with noticeable discrepancies in the pitch. This, together with the distant position (the violin is far behind the cello) and the different spectromorphologies of the resulting sounds, creates a degree of doubling in the sound of the cello, similar to that exposed by the woodwinds earlier.


Copyright © Gerardo Gozzi 2018