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The grammar of the interstice

Interview with Cecilia Arditto

by Makis Solomon - Moulin d'Andé, july 2004

The Logbook - 3rd International Forum for Young Composers 2004

Coedition : Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine (CDMC) -

Ensemble Aleph 

Photocollage: Allison Reed

Would you be so kind as to start this interview by reading the introduction you gave to your talk in the Moulin d’Andé?

Willingly. “First, there is the material condition of music, which is represented by the physical laws of sound. Sound constitutes for me a material like stone, grass, water, a material that is extensive in space, with its own weight, colour, speed. Also, there is the temporal condition of music, which constitutes the necessary condition of its existence. All music is made within time, but there are some kinds of music, such as my own, that emphasize the dialectical relationship between time and material - which includes silence. I have always been struck by the sensuality of sound, I have always loved it. The infinite possibilities of instruments constitute a source of inspiration and research. However, the exploration of sound would just be an empty category, a cosmetic idea, if it were not tied to the idea of musical grammar. Here, then, is an introduction to my research: intense exploration of the world of tone-colour - principally of acoustic instruments and the human voice - subordinated to a profound preoccupation with the idea of form. For me form is conferred only by a few elements, by small points. They could be few in number and minimalist; complexity is not a matter of quantity.”

So you dissociate material and form. Let’s begin with the former, as it’s your starting point, even though you insist on the fact that we need more than that. You say you have a special relationship with sound, with material, and no doubt, more generally, with materiality: “I have always been struck by the sensuality of sound, I have always loved it”. In your talk, you went on to say that you were interested in the idea of a certain fragility of sound. Is it from this that stems your interest in microtonality? Música invisible (2003) uses the 1/32nd of a tone.

Microtonality is not an end in itself, it is the means for defining the sounds that I have within me. In the piece for flute you mention, I used this extreme division of the tone because I wanted to create a much reduced space for music, a space that is barely audible at first, but which then begins to make itself heard progressively through attentive listening, and for this time is required.

In listening to your music for the first time, I thought of Scelsi. Yet there is a fundamental difference: he started from a highly reduced space in order to dig deeper, to immerse himself in it, whereas you, you lengthen it. Is this notion linked to the idea of fragility?

I am interested in sounds that are not entirely complete, that lie in the middle of a process, that delimit sound situations that are not totally there…

… virtual situations?

They are sound situations that the listener must complete with his imagination, with his perception or his emotion; or he must be able to keep away from them… They are linked to the idea of fragility by virtue of the fact that not everything is completely clear.

Which composers present such sound situations?

As examples I would mention some of Luigi Nono’s pieces, notably his quartet Fragmente - Stille, an Diotima, in which the condition of fragility of the strings is extreme. In this work you also have all the references to silence. In listening to it, you do not know exactly where the limits are, where sound starts and stops. It is a bit like a terra incognita, you do not know exactly what is going on, and you are continually giving new meaning to the music as you listen back and forth.

You like mysterious sound situations.


When I spoke earlier about ‘virtual’ situations I was thinking of Nono who, in a very fine interview with Massimo Cacciari, explained his interest in the notion of space.

With Nono ‘virtual’ situations are related to the idea of active listening, something I like very much. In music there is the composer but there is also the performer, who must take many decisions as he tries to understand the philosophy of the piece he is playing; and then there is the listener, who is actively involved. So we have several aspects with Nono, that create an open land…

You speak of ‘open land’ or terra incognita, ideas that seem to support the metaphor of extension in space that you mentioned earlier. Could you provide a concrete image of such a land?

During a journey to Bolivia I spent four days crossing the salt desert of Salar de Uyuni in a car . The ground was entirely white. You could not distinguish it from the sky. In such a space there are no roads, no references, no connotations: you feel you are with yourself. It is a thrilling experience.

To return to the idea of the fragility of sound, when I listen to your music I also feel gentleness, an impression that comes perhaps from the fact that you like pianissimi. Has anyone already made this remark to you?

I do not think so, but there is perhaps gentleness in my music… However, I often work with extremes.

Have you written pieces that use a lot of fortissimi?

Yes, but it is true there are not many! In speaking of extremes, I would like to say that, when I use soft dynamics, I always incline towards pianissimi and that, for strong dynamics, I incline towards fortissimi. I am currently writing a chamber opera in which certain singers play with these contrasts. This predilection for extremes no doubt comes from the fact that I do not like the idea of development, the idea of an evolution that progresses from one point to another. I work with juxtaposed blocs in order to create a linear continuity, but not a narrative. If you take a trumpet, the middle register sounds traditional, the sound connotation is ‘trumpet’, whereas, in the extremes, sound becomes mysterious; if you blend it with other instruments the listener is not able to recognise it. Consequently I find that instruments have more – or they have less! – personality in the extremes.

It is perhaps because you are looking for unusual sounds – in which the classic personality of the instrument is blurred, possibly generating a new personality – that you frequently collaborate with instrumentalists?

I love working with musicians’ imaginations. The concept of sound that a composer has within him tends to be abstract. For musicians, it is rooted in the body. That is why collaborating with them is always interesting. For me the instrument is in a sense a pretext for sound. I am thinking here of Lachenmann’s conception of the aura of instrumental sound: it is enough to play a single note on the piano for a whole world of connotations to arise, it is not just a neutral sound. I make a point of placing myself beyond the traditional repertory of an instrument. Coming from Latin America, and especially from Buenos Aires, where we have a strong European tradition, though it has been somewhat transformed, I can more easily keep my distance when I am in Europe. It is a very interesting situation: to be able to keep one’s distance from tradition is to have more freedom. Sometimes you have this liberty but you don’t have any roots: it’s the other side of the coin.

To discuss now the second aspect of your work, that is to say form and all that lies beyond sound, I should like, if I may, to start from the last part of your talk. Would you kindly read it, please?

“Everything I have said here is more than a description of my music; it is in fact the presentation of a utopia, music that tends towards total abstraction, music that transcends the physical aspect of its privileged medium, sound, going beyond matter and temporality. The musical discourse springs up from the interstices of space, of time or of sound. Musical works transcend the various performances and their historicity, they transcend the composer’s intentions. Music resonates at a historical moment, but also in the most intimate categories of a human being: it resonates in places you cannot grasp, that can only be suggested, that can only be guessed at through a delicate network of relationships. Music is neither notes nor instruments, nor is it time. It constitutes an object that is impossible to define, that gives rise to a multiplicity of simultaneous perspectives. The essence of a musical work is given by the listener. This essence propulses the music into a more abstract condition.”

Thank you. Could you explain the idea of ‘multiplicity of simultaneous perspectives’?

First I should like to clarify the concepts of form and grammar in relation to the question of time.

At present I feel the necessity to write long pieces. Casi cerca, which is played by the Ensemble Aleph, is very short, it develops the concept of time in an embryonic manner. Música invisible, my flute piece, is more representative of the idea of extension in time. In it I work with the idea of expansion. The work is situated in time through a sequence of sections that become longer and longer in a mathematical progression. Another aspect of my work consists of classifying sounds by criteria such as weight or colour. I established this classification in order to find a relationship between the expansion of the temporal line and the materiality of the sound: the temporal line is like an extension, a dilation of the material in time. In this way you obtain a relationship between form and material. For example, I cannot place at the start of the piece the material in the state it is in at the end. Yet there are also the grammatical qualities of the music. For instance, in one piece, certain notes are repeated, structuring time…

… like punctuation…

Yes. There are also recurring elements that modulate musical time…

…as articulation…


And what about the idea of multiplicity?

It is a utopia rather than an idea that I have already managed to realise. Take the Nono quartet which we spoke of earlier. You can analyse one line, the evolution of the pitches, for example: you obtain a way of listening to the piece. Then, you can follow the line of the pauses and the structure, which gives a second idea of the work. You can also analyse the various techniques of the Renaissance that Nono uses (inversion, recurrence, etc.): you listen to the piece in yet another way. All these perspectives are superimposed, they are presented simultaneously and punctuated by long pauses. This work consists of the superimposition of different view points. The result gives a sound matter that, in its temporal evolution, is fluid, never completely realised. That is what I find in Nono: the resultant sound is never completely given, you can recompose it endlessly, you listen to it in different ways.

I think I’m beginning to understand what interest you. You want to compose music that is sufficiently fluid for the listener to be able to interpret it continuously. At the same time, if you emphasize the notion of grammar, it is because this fluidity must not flow from amorphous matter - with such material the listener’s dreams would slide into fantasms.

I think music has to do with several things at the same time: feelings, thoughts, perceptions that are always changing. I cannot say, “That’s how it is!”. So I cannot answer your question. It is when I write music that I find what I am looking for.

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