6 years ago

Volume 10 Issue 4 - December 2004

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COMPOSER TO Composer Ajier a 1111111ber of years away, composer James Harlev has retumed 10 Canada 10 teach at the University of G11elph. He brings with him a wealth of experience and in1eres1, including m(lny engaging pieces, and a .1ew book 011 the music of lannis Xe11akis (Row/edge - His piece Ponrai1. for solo jlwe. can be heard 011 December Jrd at the River Run Centre, Guelph, and his music is also featured on a February Jrd Noon Concert Series James Harley evem aJ the School of Fine Art a11d Mmic, Guelp/1. At the latter concert. listeners will hear Voyage, Chaotika, and the 8-chaimel audio a11d video version of his recem piece Wild Fmits. STEENHUlSEN: Your book Xenakis: His Life in Music was published in J1111e 2004. W1ry did you feel it was necessary to add w the body ofwoi* 011 this imporuuu composer? HARLEY: I didn'1think 1here was a grea1 deal of work about him. There are cenainly some wriuen publications by him, but he barely talks about his music in specific terms. and he pretcy much gave up 1alking abou1 ii a1 all af1er 1969. There also wasn't anything out there that gave you a chronological overview of what he'd dont: from start to end - a guided tour through his music and some reforence to the ideas and techniques. It came ou1 of waming to understand more of his music be1- 1er. panicularly as a 101 of his work 1s never performed in Nonh America. STEENH l'ffRRVlEWED BY PAUL STEEMIUlSEN ISEN: W11y do you think it's rarelv played here? HARLEY: Tha1's a good question, because anybody who's heard his orchestral music live knows that il's incredible music, and somt: of 11 is not ou1 of the realm of being pt;rformable in the usual amount of available rehearsal umc. Xt:nak1s' music isn'1 really on 1hc radar in Nonh America in the \amt: way 1ha1 other European compoSt:r arc, like Magnus Lindberl!. or Harrison Binwis1le. The nun;bcr of Nonh Amt:rican orchestral performances of Xenakis' music in the past fifty years could probably be coumed on your digits. It's a shame, because we have good orchestras over here. STEENHU1SEN: Did you cons11/J directly with him for your book? HARLEY: At times, yes, bu1 he's never been really imerested in talking abou1 his music, although there was the Conversations with lannis Xenakis with Andras Balim Varga (Faber, 1996). In the period that I knew him, he was really more interested in wha1 he was doing righ1 then, and less imeres1ed in dredging up details from decades earlier. He was most helpful gathering the materials though. It is no small task tracking down all those recordings and scores. He also let me make copies of sketch ma1erials. But to go in and say "Whal did you do in bar six in tha1 piece from 1962?" was not something you could do with him at all. When I was working on the book, he was preuy much at the end of his abili1y to be communicative. The las1 lime I remember having a long conversaiion with him was with his wite, Francoise, in 1996. II was easier for him 10 remember things when she was there to help him. STEENHUlSEN: Why wasn't lie imerested in discussing //is older pieces? HARLEY: Well. he wanted 10 look forward. He wasn'1 interested in dealing with things he'd already done. I remember going down 10 Pi1LSburgh in 1996 10 hear one of his rare orches1ral performances. Somebody was imerviewing him onstage beforehand, and he literally wanted 10 talk abou1 the piece he had jus1 written thac hadn't yet been performed. Something new he was enthusiastic abou1. Bui 1he imerviewer kepi trying 10 take him back to srudying with Milhaud in 1949, e1c. It was such a shame. because he so rarely talked publicly abou1 what he was doing. STEENHUTSEN: You heard a performance of Dammerschein there? HARLEY: Yes. It was grea1 to hear live. The music really doesn't come across the same way in the recording a1 all. It was incredibly imense, with iLS 40-note clus1ers and so fonh. There's nothing really shocking about any of i1, bu1 when you hear i1 acous1ically, the volume of sound and rhe way it 1ravels around the orches1ra is much more spatial and threedimensional. STEENH UISEN: I wish someone in this cowury would perfonn it. HARLEY: Exactly. Orchestras in Canada tend to do their obligatory amoum of Canadian music, bu1 rarely anything else. When an orches1ral score you or I write is performed, it's always in a contex1 of dead European music. STEENHUTSEN: Tell me abow Xenakis' UPIC system, and what it's like lO work with. HARLEY: II was a computer for creating sound, where the interface was a large electromagnetic drawing board and an electromagnetic pen. You designed your notes and your 1imbral waveforms. There was a little 1echnique to i1, but no programming. In the mid-eighties, tha1 was a unique way of working. It wasn't a good system for doing traditional music. A 1radi1ional no1e was represented by a horizontal graphic line, but you could also draw lines chat weren't horizontal, and the computer would 1ransla1e your design onto wha1ever frequency map you se1 up. For Xenakis, who was into glissandi, he could just draw them and they would be realized by the compu1er. I did 1wo pieces there - Voyage (tape), and Per Forame11 Acus Transire (Oute and tape). II was a real luxury, because I had open access to 1he machine. The UPIC is really easy to use, bu1 ii takes a long 1ime 10 do some1hmg tha1 doesn't sound like everybody else's UPIC music. I learned a lot 1here. Some of the ideas in my acous1ic music tied into it as well. I was trying 10 graphically control 1ex1urt:s tha1 were generated using serial procedures. h overlapped wi1h the idea of designing textures graphically. STEENHUISEN: Wha1 role does chaos and chaos 1heory play i11 your music? HARLEY: II came ou1 of those years in Paris immersing myself in Xenakis' whole approach to music. I was working through prototypically algorithmic compositional procedures, but I wasn't programming any computers. I was involved wi1h serial procedures and sieve 1echniques, and then read an anicle abou1 "srrange aurac1ors - non-linear chaotic functions. II wasn'1 in reference 10 music. but I wondered abou1 how it might apply. I managed to get my li1tle programmable calcula1or to run ont: of 1hcse reiterative chao1ic func1ions. It just produced numbers, but when I looked a1 it, I realized that the kind of repeti1ion and varia1ion of numerical pauerns seemed similar 10 musical patterns ofrcpe1ition and variation. You'd get a series of numbers, a pauem coming back, but one of the numbers was different, or one was added on, 1hen it would be like the original again, and so fonh. I thought abou1 how it could be applied to music, and I quickly realizt:d that ii could be useful 10 ge1 it off 1he calculator and omo a computer, where you could have a printou1. Al that time I was living in Warsaw, and I worked on the procedure with a composer friend of mine. We generated some values tha1 I yould work with and apply 10 a composilional procedure. I then moved co Momreal and worked on it more imensively al McGill, developing composi1ional algorithms using a chaotic genera- 1or as 1he basis, and then figuring ou1 ways to map those values in ways 1hat would be useful to me as a composer. STEENHUISEN: What is an example of a piece in which you employed a process like 1hat? HARLEY: Piano (1989) is one of my first pieces to be written using a chao1ic algorithm. For each section of the piece. a fixed set of pi1ches is determined in advance; lhe algori1hm draws upon that se1 10 create an ordering, and another procedure de1ermines the 1emporal organization of this succession of pi1chcs. On another level, the algori1hm was also used to determine 1he 1empo of the section and 1he resolution of the 1emporal grid (for example, eighth notes ). There's more to it, but in this case. the unfolding of a quite re­ 30 WWW. THEWHOlENOl f .COM ----tfEMllEK 1 2004 -FEBRUARY 7 2005

stricted set of notes, in essentially a monophonic texture, makes it easy to hear how the chaotic process unfolds, with repetitions of notes and phrases, variations, temporary closed-loops where a threenote phrase is repeated a number of times before moving on, etc. STEENHUISEN: One conception of algorithmic music is that it is amusical - that it doesn't breathe, and isn't organic. How would }'Oll respofld to that criticism? order to put one note after another. h's never utterly incuitive. Therefore, there are rules, which means MOST OF TIIE l\f\JSIC I'VE WRITTF.. is pan of it. to help me think' I THINK TllAT ' S A GOOD TillNC. But in order to get to that point, you need a certain level of techni- cal facility in order to translate the HARLEY: I'm willing to argue ideas into computer instructions. that all music is algorithmic. STEENHUISEN: Meaning? STEENHlJISEN: I've heard it said that you reinvem yourself with HARLEY: Well, what do we every piece. Do you agree? Is mean by algorithmic'? Everybody that a goal. or a consequence of composes following rules of some how you write? kind. Some people work in a HARLEY: I guess I would agree more subconscious way, but they with that, 10 an extent. It's not nonetheless follow some rule in something I consciously try to do, but I do think of music as asking scribes the rules. The question. then, is 'How algorithmic is it?' rithm to run. Xenakis did that back in 1962 with the ST algo- rilhm and series of pieces. Thai's that just rolls out. but I love sound and I love the adventure of workone ex1reme. I've written music that is more along those lines, but I'm not scientilic in that sense. And that's no1 what I consider a definition of algorithmic music to be. necessarily. Being able 10 use algorithms to produce material that you then may work with. in a more interac- there can be an algorithm that de- questions. Wondering about something in music... kCan it be done? What woul9 it be like to do this'?" If it's something I've already done, then it's less interest­ There are, of course. examples of music that are completely algorithmic. where you program some- thing and you push the button and ing to me. There are composers who try 10 cultivate a consistent the music comes oul, and the ex- style, and that's nOl a concern to me. It comes out of wanting to explore with a piece, rather than do something 1hat I already know tent of your involvement is sening up the parameters tor the algohow to do. 1 don't feel like I have any innate Mozartian musical gift ing with it. STEENHUlSEN: In his article on you, Marc Couroux tried to a/- tribute the non-linearity of your work and W011dering creative per- sonaliry to a Canadian idemity. I'd like to know your thoughts about Canadian idemiry in music. tive or intuitive way, is probably HARLEY: I haven't perhaps where I'm at now. I don't have thought abou1 it as much as he has, any difficulty calling that algorith- bu1 when I lived in Europe, I cermic music either. The criticism is tainly was aware that I was not that something generated by a European. There were people process can be inflexible, I guess. who told me my music sounded but you could say that about John North American, and I wasn't ever Cage. too. I would argue that his sure about that. But I did write a music may be 1he most algorith- few pieces, such as Memories of a mic. He setS up rules and follows landscape, in order to become them, and the music is lhe out- more aware of where my aesthetic come. There are many ways of sensibility came from. Of course thinking about it. Can you build that's a big question. which comes flexibility into it, and "breathing", not just from the country you grew or phrasing, give-and-take, or up in, or the place you lived. what you may call "musical" val- When I was away from Canada ues? I think you can. Most of the and was thinking about it, I realrnusic I've written over the last 15 ized that ii wasn't so much Canayears is algorithmic, but in many of da, as my specific environment in my pieces, you would never guess it. I think that's a good thing. It's really interesting to work in growing up overlooking a lake, looking down the valley to the gla- ciers. I'm sure that is much more that realm. It involves thinking DECEMBER 1 2004 ·FEBRUARY 7 2005 about what music is. When you important than some abstract sense en, even in the new music world. have to create rules, processes and of country. But at the same time, There's not very much support procedures, and figure out a way those elements do factor in. The from arts councils, and there are to program them so that you can fact that I am from Canada means all fewer situations where ensembles work with them, you have to think kinds of things. including the whole program pieces because they find very deeply geography that them interesting musically. Rather, they program a piece because about what OVER 1liE LAST 15 YEARS IS ALCOyou're doing. The great nonh, the person who wrote it is politically important. or has an institu­ RITHMIC, BUT IN MA1"Y OF MY PIECES, These are tools and having YOU WOULO NEVER CUF.SS IT. grown up in the tional connection. That was my and explore. -----' west, where civ- sense of things when I lived as a the interior of British Columbia, ilization was new, but there were people living there before - native traditions and cultures that are part of what I grew up with. And the French/Quebec element, which I grew up studying. It was part of who I was, especially since I lived in Paris for twO years, then Montreal for eight years. It's a complex network of things, and it's not the same tor everybody. I've also spent a lot of time living in the U.S. and I'm surely not American. Without being blatantly political, I'm thankful for that. I didn't have any problem living there, but it wasn't part of my idencity. STEENHUISEN: As a composer, what's it like to be back in Canada? HARLEY: I'm quite happy about it. In terms of looking for opportunities, there are more for me in Canada. As a composer, I have a lot more connections in Canada. My work as a composer is all about relationships with musicians and organizations. My last two larger ensemble pieces were written for the Montreal group Kappa. Bien serre is one of those - 20 minutes of dense, complicated music for big band. They re hearsed every week for five months before they did it. That's about a relationship between me, the group, and the music. I'm much more WWW.THEWHOlENOlE.COI interested in that than the glory of having an orchestra play a piece that they've barely rehearsed. I love the orchestra, and I wish that we could all hear this music live, so we could believe in it more. Like we were talking about with Xenakis -when you hear new orchestral music live, acoustically, it's really amazing. I'd never want to give that up, but in terms of what I find most fulfilling as a composer these days. it's the interaction with the other people who are pan of the process. Being able to be there. to provide feedback, and make adjustments, is something I find quite rewarding. I had a longer time to establish those musical relationships in Canada. As a general comment, my impression of the United States is that it's much more product-driv- freelancer in Los Angeles - if you don't have anything co offer except your music you don't have a chance in hell of people playing it. The music is not programmed because it's good, it's programmed because it's useful. I know there are exceptions to that, but the scenario I describe is alien to wha1 I'm interested in as a composer. I'm quite willing to earn my living teaching, which I love in any case, rather 1han "do wha1 it takes" to be successful commercially. Maybe tha1's partly what makes me ... um mm ... Canadian? • earshot! concerts earshot#/5 Michael Hynes' Believe E veryJhir•a You lear Quebec-based composer Michael Hynes presents his stunning new concert-length set of struaured improvisations, performed by Hynes, the Earshot Ensemble, members of New Brunswick's Motion Ensemble, and more. Friday, December 3 @ 8:00 Music Gallery, 197 John St 1 (sr, artsworkcrs, members) (students) Sunday, December S @ 7:00 Montreal Bistro, 65 Sherbourne (please note early start) 1$10 (sr, artswork.ers, members) (students) earshot! concerts For tickets, info & sounds co/1416-538-2006 or v1s1t

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