Brussels Philharmonic | programme notes

Scelsi Sound Magic

programme notes


Giacinto Scelsi I Presagi (1958)
Tristan Murail
Contes cruels (2007) pour 2 guitares électriques et petit orchestre
Giacinto Scelsi
Natura Renovatur (1967)
Oren Ambarchi & Ilan Volkov
Sous Vide (2022)

[all programme notes]


25.05.2024 FLAGEY

How do you reconcile the world of a symphony orchestra, a 19th-century machine, with that of experimental and radical music? This question has occupied conductor Ilan Volkov throughout his career. This question prompted him to launch the Tectonics Festival in 2012, which today is one of the most influential and diverse celebration of new music, with editions from Athens to Adelaide. At these events, he brings these two musical worlds together like two tectonic plates that collide with each other.

The experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi (°1969) also likes to interweave seemingly opposite poles. The Australian with Jewish-Iraqi roots has since the 1980s been making music of the most widely divergent genres, from free jazz to doom metal. In recent years, he has been focusing mainly on long ensemble works, in which the sound textures are given the time needed to unfold. A process that has been developing since his first collaboration with Volkov in 2012.

Since then, Volkov and Ambarchi have been exploring, like partners in crime, the boundaries of the symphonic orchestra. This evening, they are creating the improvisational work Sous Vide, a composition that comes into existence on the spot. They supplement the programme with works by Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) and Tristan Murail (°1947), composers who, like Ambarchi, are known for their experimental and innovative approach to music. Ready for an entirely new listening experience?

Sound as sculpture

‘Music cannot exist without sound, but sound can exist without music. It would seem, therefore, that sound is more important. Let us begin with that.’

– Giacinto Scelsi

The music of the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi was performed live for the first time, and thereby discovered, only at the end of the 1980s, shortly before his death. Convinced that since every listener is in a different place and at a different distance from an instrument, he or she experiences the same note differently, Scelsi thought that performances were unnecessary. In addition, he did not consider himself as a composer and had no interest in becoming famous.

A turning point in his oeuvre is I Presagi, written in 1958, a work for wind instruments and percussion that presaged his characteristic style. Scelsi saw sound as a three-dimensional world, which in addition to pitch and length had depth as a third dimension. The number of pitches used in this work is therefore deliberately limited: it is only in this way that he can unpack a note at microtonal level. Via minimal changes in timbre and dynamics, and a whole series of alternative ways of playing a note, such as with vibrato, trills or the use of mutes, he delves into the deepest core of each sound. Another example of this intuitive, sometimes almost mystical approach is Natura Renovatur, written in 1967. Here, Scelsi uses the strings as a basic core, a short musical figure, that he then further develops over twelve minutes.

The French composer Tristan Murail also seeks out the extremes of what sound can produce. As a student of Olivier Messiaen and a great admirer of Scelsi, he is fascinated by the deeper layers of a sound. Like Scelsi, he works with a limited number of sounds, which he places in a layered structure. In his Contes cruels, he added electric guitars to the orchestral setting, thereby creating an unexpected sound. The second guitar is tuned a quarter tone higher than the first, and the two solo instruments are connected to ring modulators in order to give the sounds a broader harmonic reach. From time to time, they play as true soloists, while at other times they introduce sonic models that are then imitated or commented on by the orchestra.

Stretched time

Oren Ambarchi also shows that he is a great fan of Scelsi. He shares the same admiration for the depth of a sound and the way in which Scelsi manages to create detailed and layered compositions with a limited arsenal of sounds. He also sees similarities between their ways of composing: both start out from improvisation on an electronic instrument, and then go on to manipulate that sound via a vast number of knobs and pedals. That is the process that impelled Ambarchi, who began his musical career as a drummer, to trade in his drum set for a guitar. Ambarchi is known for his experimental approach to the guitar, which he uses more as a sound generator than a conventional string instrument.

Sous vide, a nod to the slow cooking technique that better allows flavours and textures to come to the fore, reflects Ambarchi’s approach to music. It is a process that takes time, and in which sounds are gradually transformed and evolve. Sous vide is improvised live on stage, as it were, without an actual finished score:

‘Based on my sound palette and guitar tuning, Ilan and I have worked out a sort of musical language and a few cues for the orchestra. It is an interaction between myself, Ilan and the orchestra. Sometimes I take the lead, and then Ilan allows the orchestra to respond to what I am doing. In some cases, the orchestra will simply provide support. And depending on what is happening at that point, I will further respond to that, and so on.’

A work like that of Ambarchi definitely breaks with the traditional role of a symphony orchestra and offers a challenge both to the musicians and to the audience. And that is what Ambarchi is all about:

‘It is difficult to predict how people will react, since every orchestra and every audience is different. I have worked with orchestras that had a rather narrow vision and were not open to it. But there were also musicians who found it refreshing to do something like this. I push them slightly beyond their comfort zone, but some of them are ready to leap at the challenge and even appreciate it. The improvisational element means that the performance is a bit riskier than a traditional concert. That is why it feels more alive, a bit “on the edge”. I think the audience picks up on that element of tension. It’s very different from listening to a recital; you have to prick up your ears and be open to that extra dimension.’