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« ANA-MARIA AVRAM - an adventure in experimental music »

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An interview with Costin Cazaban, Banannafish,  San Francisco, #15/2001

    *"  Ana-Maria Avram, composer,  pianist, and conductor, was  born in Romania in 1961. After  graduating from the National  Conservatory of Music in  Bucharest, she obtained a  degree from the Paris Sorbonne  in 1992. In 1994, she was  awarded the Grand Prize in  Composition from the  Romanian Academy. Since  1988, Avram has maintained a  close collaboration with Iancu  Dumitrescu, but she has also continued to forge her own direction in music. She is considered to be one of the most important Romanian composers of her generation. Her music incorporates the outward semblance of sonic abstraction, reaching it's full  development in the synthesis of electroacoustic and instrumental sources. Her primary works are:“Threnia I-II” and“Orbit of Eternal Grace”for orchestra and soloists;“Ekagrata,”“Swarms,”and “Second Axe”for chamber orchestra;“De sacrae Lamentationem” and “In Nomine Lucis” for large orchestra; among her electronic and instrumental works are“Zodiaque I-IV,” “Signum Gemini,”“Ikarus I-IV,”“Traces, Sillons, Sillages,”“New Arcana,”and Ascent,”as well as the instrumental and chamber ensemble pieces “Archae,” “Metaboles,”“Quatre études d'ombre,”“Ikarus-Kronos Quartet,” and “Assonant I-III.” Her music is published by Edition Modern and Electrecord (Bucharest), ArtGallery and Radio France (Paris), ReR Megacorp (London), and Musicworks (Toronto), and has been  performed in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Stanford, Vienna (at the Wien Modern Festival  in 1992 and 1994), Paris (at Radio France and the Theatre de la Ville), London (at the Royal  Festival Hall), Nancy, Allicante, Lisbon, Baden-Baden, Darmstadt, Belgrade, Cluj-Napoca,  and Bucharest. Avram's works have been commissioned by prestigious ensembles such as  the Kronos Quartet; Vienna's 20 Jahrhundert,; soloists from l'Orchestre National de France;  the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra; the Romanian National Orchestra; the Romanian  Radio Chamber Orchestra; L'Orchestre de Chambre de Roumanie; and others.

Costin Cazaban is an important composer and musicologist living in Paris. He received his  Ph.D. in 1993, with a thesis analyzing musical space and time as logical functions based on  the philosophical system of Stephane Lupasco, now published by L'Harmattan (Paris). His music is played in all important European festivals and is published by Editions Salabert  (Paris). Cazaban teaches musical aesthetics at the Paris Sorbonne (University of Paris I) and  is also a contributor to the French newspaper Le Monde and the magazine Le Monde de la  Musique.

Costin  CAZABAN: I discovered your music in 1989 on the occasion of a Hyperion concert at Radio France in Paris. As a composer and instrumentalist, you were shaping the direction of your music with a great deal of assurance. Since then, I have followed your musical adventure at concerts in Paris and Bucharest, but especially by listening to the CDs that I reviewed in « Le Monde de Ia Musique ». I noticed that you were moving in an increasingly radical manner toward a more personal music, strongly characterized by tension, expressivity, and the control of form. Is your current musical life   paradise for you?

ANA-MARA AVRAM: Not at all! I am skeptical, even very critical of the musical profession, and of artistic professions in general. I find that score editors, for example, are rather comically ineffectual. It has become impossible to find one new interesting score anywhere in the world. The search for somebody who might welcome new directions in music is often fruitless and humiliating for a composer. The situation is similarly disappointing if you look to radio or TV Nobody likes our values. People over there are exasperated by our very existence. At the least, it is a very unpleasant climate. A small island of interest holds out at small CD labels, which provide a little fresh air in our artistic life. They are impassioned by innovation, but there are only a few of them with enough strength to count. A few beautiful fools still program our music on the rare FM station, late at night; magazines such as Musicworks and Resonance are led by enthusiasts who are impassioned by rare and invaluable music.

How long have you been composing? Did you start with different ideals?

I don't take much pleasure in revisiting the story of my beginnings yet again. My first musical impulses, probably, were driven very early on toward « invention ». I learned the notes when I was  about five and right away I "scrawled out  » my wild   imaginings. Afterwards, followed a more conformist musical formation. Everything of the most traditional type, without any  connection to new  music until very late, but I would sometimes happen upon improvisations -. which were infinitely more compelling than my repertoire studies. when I jotted down the results on paper, I discovered an incomparable sense of pleasure. This must have been when I was twelve or thirteen.

A little later, I took composition courses at the Academy of Music in Bucharest, which I completed with first-place prizes in writing, harmony, counterpoint, and so on, but without really having discovered my artistic personality. At the same time, though, I determined that performing on an instrument is a necessary complement to composing. If anything remains meaningful from that time, it is the idea of always keeping in touch with the living forces of an unprescribed musical act.

I can't explain to myself how it could have been that experimental music appeared in the conservative and closed-off Romania of the '80? How was it possible?

As you can imagine, experimental tendencies in music developed in a rather random way. Let us say that in the Bucharest of the 1980s, ideological constraints continued to be applied insistently, renewed in force after a very short respite, and totalitarian automatism of thought was well in place. It was a tragic period intellectually; hollow imitation was the rule everywhere. Musical style was completely directed toward a straitjacket, a complete integrism.

Only the "solidity" of  "knowledge" was valued - which was rather stupid and useless. For everyone, the encouraged and accepted behavior for a composer was to be completely malleable. One was pushed toward conformity and not toward innovation or personal expression. If one ever expressed such debauched tendencies, one would be excluded and completely ignored.

Your question is absolutely relevant. I also wonder how was it was possible. The path of musical experimentation was, in principle, completely compromised. One can only conclude that this unique experimental movement was a reaction against the conditions of   blocked thought.

I had to find in myself truly significant resources to deliver me from this pressure. In fact, I felt the true excitement of innovation with the occasion of some concerts given by the Hyperion Ensemble. I remember in 1986, for example, a strange concert with Fernando Grillo, Barry Webb, Melvin Poore  and some members of Hyperion Ensemble who, with the large orchestra from the Radio House, were playing a completely upsetting work, completely overturning - "Harryphonies" by Iancu Dumitrescu, a piece nobody that evening could understand. I had never had such an experience before, where nothing resembled the forms I knew, where I lacked all the criteria for judgment, but nonetheless where, in a secret, irrational way, I realized that it was something really important. If I think carefully, those were the really decisive moments for my aesthetic convictions, which shook up the traces of conformity still in my thought.

In fact, as a reaction against this dead-end situation of the musical life back then, I chose the path less beaten, not marked, that of the first steps on the moon, as a sui generis principle of my development. It was a conscious decision, with a taste for risk as well. Then, having met Iancu Dumitrescu, I also got the opportunity to work deeply with the Hyperion Ensemble, and I was able to direct myself toward  acoustic as well as musical innovations. I thus saw my secret and anarchistic dream coming true; it was that - and then the beginning of electroacoustic work, approaching this field where one works directly on material - where the dangers to be avoided are different from those lurking when composing music on paper.

You remained committed to the idea of being involved as a performer as well? More precisely: what is the role of being a performer when you compose? Is it an absolutely necessary role for you?

It is not so simple. The problem is that when you choose to experiment, to innovate, you're obliged to implicate yourself differently than just composing scores. It is necessary to offer the players a model to follow: to give them the score, but also to show how the results should sound, in order to communicate your vision clearly. That's why it is very important to make recordings. Considering the kind of music I do, I cannot leave things to the will of the musician. Ideally I would like to let the score speak for itself, and I am always in a search of dedicated players, impassioned by research and revival. Except that it is not completely possible to leave things like that unguided, not with the kind music I do. My music has occasionally been played in my absence, and it can be a catastrophe! It is necessary that I conduct, or that I play the piano. Besides, I often need to express myself directly, to model the music live, after having fixed it on paper. I've come to realize gradually the extent to which paper is only a limited support, insufficient - essential, certainly, but insufficient - because music does not live on paper; rather it is sound in motion, in evolution, alive. And life cannot be reduced to paper. Music is an experience to be lived. Music is the becoming and the transcendence of sound. The score, to a certain extent, is a parallel reality As a simple scaffolding, no matter how complex, it needs a breath of life in order to become music and not to lose what is immeasurable. Too often recently, the score has become a goal, a trap, and an obstacle in accessing the music. Especially when it is not understood that its relationship with the musical sound in reality is something quite different from simply causing or guiding it.

I performed this experiment myself. I perform it every time that the music is born in the presence, in the ritual relationship between musicians, conductor, and public, starting from the base which is the score. But other factors intervene as well: acoustics, air pressure, the state of the listeners, an unquantifiable flux which links all these components. Celibidache showed me this reality, this different manner of relating to the music, after I attended some of his concerts and listened to many of his recordings, read his interviews and the lectures he gave on music and on phenomenology applied to the musical field. In addition, Dumitrescu, while being the disciple of Celibidache, took a major step forward, extending phenomenology to composition itself. One can describe his work as 'phenomenological composition."

So I venture to make music in the here and now.  I realize that the same score finds  different configurations each time it is played, discovers its own truth in the concrete situation, in the immediate. It was thus, in my own experience, that I finally overcame this contradiction which was irreducible for me at the beginning, between the role of performer and that of composer - by moving away from this "nominalist" attitude which limits so many composers today who grant an absolute and immutable value to the written sign. I am against those for whom sound and note are the same reality. That is an error! One can put everything down on paper, make countless speculations and modelings, without, for all that, creating a drop of music. I want to be clear: L do not at all refuse complexity! On the contrary! The new trend in "simplicity" horrifies me! But complexity must simply be  in the service of a musical goal.

How do you compose ? When you compose,  you start by imagining a sound which interests you ?  Do you compose directly with the instruments, trying to tease out, to verify, before committing your thought  to the score? How does your vision apply  to the act of living  the music directly,  even in the process of composition ?

It is certainly the case sometimes... Since my wok involves  transgressing familiar sonorities and creating a new music through new sonorities, it imposes the use  of new instrumental techniques which must be verified and optimized. I dream of an alchemy of timbres  which would approximate the idea  of musical metaphor. Therefore, new instrumental techniques, either invented or applied from different musical contexts, must certainly be worked out with the instrumentalists.

But after having designed a general project, a score, and after living and working with the ensemble, the last stage, the final contours, come by integrating the new acquisitions from our concrete labor into the score. The more forward-looking and complex the music is, the more one finds a certain disjuncture between the working hypotheses and the accomplished fact -which has nothing to do with any incapacity to imagine sounds. Rather, it is only by stretching the imagination to the limits of the known that one is able to forge a vocabulary at a truly advanced level. That is what defines the artist's style and what keeps things progressing, what pushes music ahead. Because if one remains stuck in the familiar, what will one ever become? One of our friends, the director of an FM radio station, had hung on his studio door a sign saying something like this: 'If there had been no experimental music in the 20th century, there would be no music at all in the 21st." It is banal, but it is brilliant! And all this starts with the vocabulary, which, if new, has to be verified, experimented with.

The form of your music is, if one can say, very "built": it is often the most striking thing in your music. Do you start from a specific idea which you hold to, or do you have a general idea of the global form to come? Is it a need for you, this recourse to structure?

Yes, at the beginning there is a kind of flash, where I see the incipient piece in its totality - atemporal, simultaneous, and total. Some lines of development come out of that. Sometimes it is related to intuition for the material, or to a generating idea, or something else. After that there is a period of dreaming, meditating on the work to come, and becoming more concrete as I arrive at a more total perspective on the piece as a whole, rather synthetic, therefore, and sometimes very graphic. Work then continues on the computer, where I develop the score, or work directly on the sound, if it is electroacoustic, or on magnetic tape. The piece is concretized in increasingly detailed sketches.

But if your remark concerning he success of form in my music is apt, it is due to the fact that I never regard the musical form as something added on top of the sound material. The material contains the reasons for its own evolution, for its own form, and it generates its own space and time in my vision, which I could describe as «  organic ». The composer, through eliminating prejudices and refusing already formed conventions, and hence even one's own previous experiences, must rediscover a genuine, pure state where one can find the direction claimed by the material itself, its own resistance, up to the smallest details. And I decide on the suitable techniques of work for each level.

On the one hand there is empiricism, intuition, waiting for the material to speak and deliver up its secrets. On the other hand, there is the conscious exploitation of an idea, intellectual preoccupation, and a global justification of the musical strategy. Between the two, there is certainly an opposition, a contradiction. But there is also a necessary complementarity. Because music is not limited to a display of ideas, or of interesting materials. The work of a plethora of composers is like that, with a few bits of interest. But they remain purely decorative. It is one of the most dramatic weaknesses today: a great number of experimental composers who cannot develop their ideas and who leave off in a primitive state, not professional... As a result, experimental work becomes synonymous with unfinished work. It is necessary that everything interconnects into a coherent and complex whole, and it is necessary to have vision, means, and techniques.

How do you see the role of improvisation today? How can it coexist with composition?

Nothing is more fabulous than to be free while imagining musical discourse. Music is an endeavor toward freedom. I consider improvisation to be an extremely complex art, one which has existed continuously, without respite, throughout history. It is also, yes, an essential form of music. As for its coexistence with composition, my conclusion is that in all music there are certain parameters which are fixed and others which are mobile and which take on different values every time the music is played. Ultimately, in all music there exists a relation between freedom and precision, and there are differences in the implied parameters of this relation.

It should not be forgotten that it is only in the European tradition of the last centuries that you find this ambition to note everything on the score. The greatest significance, the essence, is found rather in live, oral traditions. Moreover, in cultures like India, Japan, and China, even though there was well-developed notation, there always remained a side to the music which could only be learned in long exercises of "lived experience."

With Hyperion, we also practice directed improvisation, but one which is different from what experimental improvisation groups generally do today. Things are directed from several points: the sound materials are defined from the outset, either in being specified, or being delimited. Then there is direction in the process of conducting, moving the music toward climaxes, tensions, and moments of stagnation. Toward structure, in fact. The result is a particular form where coherence and freedom coexist. As such, one has defined improvisation as a sort of rapid composition, as opposed to slow composition on paper. But RAPID does not mean unstructured, banal ideas, or without any ideas at all, without development or process.

It is also a spiritual exercise for all of us, as we practice together how not to confuse the sound and the note, the music and the score, and how to constantly refine a live thought and to engage ourselves step by step, to refine our reactions within the musical community and the way in which each one of us responds to what the others propose in the ensemble.

One might also say that there is a freer dimension connected to improvisation in some of my scores. In fact, that aspect of the notation differs according to the recipient of these compositions. If I'm working for an orchestra, for example, things will be specified in great detail, without leaving much ambiguity. For others, however, I sometimes work into the composition a certain degree of controlled and directed improvisation. The truth is that the overall result is controlled by completely circumscribing within it the relative freedom granted to the interpreters. Therefore, even if there are some unspecified dimensions in a score, one cannot really consider it improvisation, because the result is always theoretically foreseen.

I understand that the most important experiment with your ensemble was a true reeducation of the traditional musician.

Reeducation, yes. My musicians have, almost without exception, a classical training. They can read a score very well, and can solve in a given time the instrumental problems which arise. Absolutely normal musicians, even if they sometimes have extraordinary talent. But at Hyperion they find themselves in an experience different from their daily work in orchestra or elsewhere. Since its creation in 1976 by Dumitrescu, Hyperion defined its artistic goals through principles like spectral music, the "acousmatic," and phenomenology. The music that we do avoids the combinative principle in music, emphasizing instead continual transformation and a perpetual evolution of sound. As for the instrumental "acousmatic," it comes from a diagonal technique of the instrumentalist, who produces unheard-of sounds, new and combined in a true sonic alchemy. A transformational alchemy. The musician is thus constantly put in limit situations. The acousmatic is the spiritualization of music, the negation of sonic materiality. To arrive there, special training is necessary, building a different sort of concentration, a spiritual technique, if you want. The musicians do not focus on emitting physical sound, but rather on transcending those sounds and eliminating duality and prejudice, through which they are led into a specific state of mind.

Hence, reeducation...

I aim for a synthesis drawn from a variety of means, including those arising from personal introspection. Time moves quickly! Perhaps my music could be described as "Post-Spectral." If combinative musical thought is a hierarchy of the parameters of the sound organized in a completely pre-established order, by height, rhythm, intensity, timbre, I think not only that this hierarchy is null and void, but that all the parameters of sound are part of a continuum, of a indestructible whole. I see the essence in the details, and thus build from other imperatives. In my vision, formative gestures are not limited to a succession of pitches or rhythms. That would be part of a vision - let us call it "figurative" - of music. I have horror of figuration. I refuse melodies. To build the whole from almost nothing, from fewer and fewer things, that is the challenge. But that is not to say that I claim for myself any form of minimalism. Instead, I apply the principle of continuous transformation to non-figurative material which is drawn from the acoustic bases of sound, of the spectrum.

And one method I use with predilections, I believe, heterophony. It allows the discourse to be organized according to more intimate laws, according to the inner life of the sound. It allows it, but does not demand it. Because with heterophony, one can just as easily compose structuralist or serial music, music with textures, or spectral music.

In fact, heterophony represents a point of conciliation and at the same time of specific difference between all other methods of musical organization. It approaches homophony in the fact that the voices which precisely had just been dissipated, suddenly re-encounter one another in unisons. It approaches polyphony in the multiplicity of networks which can start from a single sound and proliferate. It can be applied not only to the dominating parameters of classical music - pitches and duration - but (which seems to me at the same time more attractive and more refined) to timbre and dynamics. All at the same time.

As for spectral music, or more generally music which respects the sound and its spectrum, I believe that heterophony represents an ideal method of organization. Because it is free! It allows "jamming" at tiny distances between the voices - a sheer delight - which is inconceivable with the polyphonic method. It allows the subsequent recall and repose on the fundamentals - it is the generator of harmonics, the matrix and fountain of sounds.

You mentioned computer-assisted music, meaning you compose with the computer?

I use the computer as a sophisticated tool. I do not at all grant it the ability to generate music, to start from a corpus of pre-established rules and then to sort the results. If I use algorithms, modelings, it is not in a fixed manner. Let us say that I adapt my methods, that I choose them according to my vision of the forthcoming work. And I always change them, granting myself complete freedom in this domain. COMPUTER-ASSISTED MUSIC means the transformation of the sources of sound, of material, and of obtaining new and different material through various sound-processing programs. It always comes back to the idea that I explore, that of sound alchemy, of perpetual transformation and continuous variation in the sound. Sounds which are no longer either natural or electronic, but between the two. In essence, a new, different domain of sound.

I also anticipate a lot from the transformation of sound in real time. But, in my experience, the technology is not sufficiently developed now to offer really artistic, subtle solutions. As soon as more complex transformations are tried, one falls into an effect reminiscent of the sounds of the most banal and vulgar synthesizers. But I am convinced that in a few years, if people of the creative force of a Stockhausen, to give only one example, devote themselves to it, we'll have the progress that I anticipate with renewed interest.

With the computer, one can reach refinements unimaginable in traditional electroacoustics. It is a wide field, unheard of, fascinating! Much vaster than is suspected by those who make only this kind of music, and who have, recently, entered a phase of terrible sterility.
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