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Interview to JTM by Makis Solomos
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Technique, aura and reality

Interview with Javier Torres Maldonado, by Makis Solomos.

English translation by Jeremy Drake.


Cliquez ici pour lire le texte original en FRANÇAIS.

Photocollage: © 2004 Allison Reed (

De Ignoto Cantu

bass clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, percussion and electronics

In this work for bass clarinet, trumpet in C, percussion, violin, cello and electronic sounds, the composer focuses on the generation of inharmonic spectra through the superposing of different harmonic spectra. De Ignoto Cantu presents a number of melodic lines that despite their complexity actually stem from a single matrix consisting of a few simple elements. In fact the degree of consonance of each melodic line is considerable, but the superposing of all these lines creates complex relationships as far as dissonance is concerned. Since the fundamental pitch of the harmonic fields gradually slides upwards or downwards within the narrow limit of a major second, there are also, although rarely, moments of absolute coincidence between these fundamentals, and therefore situations of perfect harmonic consonance. As to directionality, the movement of each line, generally speaking, tends to accelerate, leading to a formal bloc at the centre of the piece, where the melodic lines are modified by wide leaps and the rhythm is individual way, with constant changes of metre and rhythmic modulations. All this is brought to an end by a powerful chord on the vibraphone, its natural resonance giving rise to a new formal bloc marked by a general descending movement down to the deepest register of each instrument and by the successive disintegration of the elements constituting the melodic lines except for one, that which concludes the work. The function of the electronic part (which is not indispensable for a performance of the piece) consists on the one hand of the creation of an artificial resonance that surrounds the instruments, and on the other, the development of the basic elements in the melodic lines, exposed in harmonic fields which are totally different from the ones occupied by the instruments.

Gabriele Bonomo

As an introduction to this interview I should like to ask you a personal question. Yesterday evening, you told me that in Mexico, shortly before you settled in Italy, you nearly stopped composing. Why was this?

I nearly stopped not only composing but nearly stopped music altogether. I was going through a difficult period. I had decided I was writing music that was too impersonal, it resembled the music of other composers, and it was at this moment that I met Donatoni, who had come to Mexico to give some classes. I told him about my doubts. After looking at my scores he told me I showed sound training, and he didn’t understand why I wanted to abandon music.

It was owing to the development of your technique, which became more personal, that you were convinced you had something to say?

Yes. I only kept one of my earlier pieces, the Quinteto (1994). When in 1996 I settled in Italy, I worked with Donatoni in order to develop my technique and make it more personal. It was, however, difficult, because in Donatoni’s class I encountered another problem: there were many composers who imitated him. As he had greatly influenced me also, I asked myself how I could avoid imitating this model, how I could get round the problem.

In your talk at the Moulin d’Andé, you said that it was in the cycle Figuralmusik (1996-98) that you found your own technique.

The cycle of pieces entitled Figuralmusik is my first truly personal work. In it technique manages to reach the æsthetic aspects. The technique I develop in it flows from my fascination for techniques based on the transformation of archetypal figures with a framework of mechanisms that have been determined a priori, that is to say, mechanisms enabling me to determine in advance the behaviour of the musical elements. It is possible to reduce the musical objects to more ‘essential’ elements, and in a limited number: I realised that, throughout the history of music, scores have been developed from just such elements. It is these elements that I call ‘archetypal figures’…

…Are these geometric figures?

In a sense, yes. Think of the figure used by Grisey in Vortex Temporum…

…which stems from an arpeggio of Ravel.

In my case the idea came from the fugues of Bach: in analysing them, you realise that the themes are based on only two or three very simple elements. In Figuralmusik, I defined the figures that were still recognisable by their external aspect, for example a chord of only two notes, a rest, a repeated note, etc. These figures can be enlarged or transformed. The point is to experiment with various transformations in order to see how far our faculty of recognition is able to function.

In your talk you also said that De Ignoto Cantu, the piece composed for the Ensemble Aleph, uses more complex figures. Does this mean it is your use of figures that has become more complex?

Yes. In this piece I use melodies consisting of very simple elements, but there are five of them: the elements are the same but their combination as melodies gives something different each time. The elaboration of the figures is thus more complex: right from the start of the piece you hear all the melodies together, whereas in Figuralmusik you start with just the figures.

I suppose the figures have meaning only in respect to their elaboration in time.

Yes. In one figure, time lies in the background, constituting a kind of grid in which I place the objects. The latter may be derived from a single figure, but their position on the grid is always different. By reducing the objects to figures I was properly able to start constructing forms that could develop in time. There are of course limits to this technique, the risk being, when the figures are transformed, that their identity will be lost. This technique also has a connection with the elaboration of the highly specific harmonic colours that are also transformed in time.

One feels very clearly in listening to De Ignoto Cantu that the notion of form is very important for you. It comes from the transformation of the figures but at the same time another important factor intervenes: time itself (I am thinking for example of the frequent changes of tempo in the score) or even rhythm in its traditional sense.

In this piece I worked from ‘metric modulations’, developing highly elaborate directional lines which unfold like an ‘aura’ that transforms linearly within time. Each line possesses accents at particular temporal moments, accents that define events and that, as it were, ‘come out of’ the aura. In this way one obtains, despite the regularity of the accents, an unstable result. In the first part of the piece, the accents are placed at a certain distance, an interval of two bars separating them. They gradually come together and eventually appear in the same bar. This process is linked to the notion of ‘time dissonance’, an idea put forward by Nancarrow and subsequently developed by Ligeti. I like to think of this notion as one of the final frontiers of music. In De Ignoto Cantu the centre of the piece functions as an axis: the accents become closer and closer, the winds become ‘consonant’ as regards time. The same is true of the strings. However, the winds and the strings do not coincide, so there is some still temporal dissonance.

At this point in the piece the development becomes rhythmic, time becoming as it were condensed. One has the impression that you manage to go beyond the traditional opposition between measured and non-measured time, that you succeed in creating a continuous evolution that runs from the one to the other.

Yes, the piece evolves gradually from one conception to another.

To continue on technical matters, what is the role played by micro-intervals in your music?

This is where I should talk about the concept of aura. Until 1998 I did not use microtones. It was the study of spectral music that enabled me to free myself from traditional intervallic techniques, though I did not consider myself a spectral composer. In my current technique the interval derives from the spectrum, but my pieces do not derive from a spectrum. I’m very interested in what happens within sound; nevertheless, I only use fragments of spectra. Moreover, I always start off with several spectra, two or three at least. The idea is to obtain a harmonic verticality from fragments of spectra.

We have so far spoken at length about technique. With most of the other composers of this Forum, I have, generally speaking, asked very few technical questions, as I quickly saw that for them technique was essentially a matter of compositional ‘cuisine’, the ‘idea’ being more important. With you, however, the ‘idea’ is the technique itself: it is the development of technique that has enabled you to rediscover, to find your technique.

Indeed, technique is very important for me. It is true that I also begin with an ‘idea’, but this must be translated into all aspects of the music: æsthetics, poetics, etc., and, in particular, into the technical aspect. Only technique enables the starting point to be developed, for it constitutes a way of formalising thought.

The Donatoni model is important for you.

Donatoni was my first important teacher, but there was also Azio Corghi and Ivan Fedele, who both helped me to distance myself from a model that I tended to consider as a goal. It is true that the relationship in Donatoni between ‘technique’ and ‘art’ has left its mark on me. I was fascinated by his ‘arrangement’ of Bach’s Art of Fugue, which was the first score of his I studied. Having worked at length on contrapuntal technique, I was astonished to discover to what extent Donatoni had developed it. The score in question was supposed to consist of several ‘books’ based on the fugues in the Art of Fugue. He only had time to compose one book, based on seven fugues. In one of them Bach’s fugue is played by the strings. Above and below it Donatoni superimposed very many real parts composed in his own style. The astonishing thing is that there are few dynamic indications, and yet, in listening to it, you never lose track of Bach’s fugue.

Where does the fascination lie in this work?

In the ability to mix the ideal model that is a fugue of Bach with his own world. Here technique becomes truly Art, as it is totally mastered.

So what interests you in the concept of technique is not the idea of a mechanism that is able to generate all the music you want, but the fact that it can, when you master it, give birth to the concept of Art.

Yes. Technique is then entirely at the service of music. It becomes so natural that you no longer think about it, just as when, in waking up in the morning, you don’t ‘reflect’ at all, you are simply what you are. One of Donatoni’s contributions is to have made the link between life and music. He developed, for example, musical situations from the number of cars passing a crossroads.

To return to De Ignoto Cantu, you say that in the score the electronics part is not indispensable. What do you mean by that, and, more generally, what is the role of the electronics in this piece?

De Ignoto Cantu can be played with or without electronics: they are two versions of the same piece. Each instrument is assigned a harmonic field and the combination forms a new harmonic space. You might also say that there is only one harmonic space that, in its own way, runs through each instrument. Metaphorically this gives an aura defined by five auras, the five instruments. The electronics constitutes a supplementary aura.

I was interested by the fact that, while ‘emitting’ an aura, the electronics developed in De Ignoto Cantu, differs from the electronic auras of other composers. For example, at IRCAM we have heard many pieces in which the electronics prolongs the instrumental by surrounding it with a ‘halo’, whereas you say that it’s just a supplementary aura, which would mean several auras exist.

Yes, there can be several auras. I started to think in this way in Exabrupto (1998). In the second movement of this piece I superimpose several spectral harmonic fields. As I composed the piece I realised that this idea did not correspond simply to the idea of a harmonic field, that there was something else that I had been trying to attain for a long time: ‘light’, and, more precisely, the idea of an intensity of light that continually changes. I took the concept of ‘aura’ from Maderna. In his piece, Aura, you have one note that is surrounded, enveloped by chromatic notes. It’s an idea that amazed me because previously I had always thought in terms of verticality. I transformed this idea: in Exabrupto as in De Ignoto Cantu, all the notes have the same importance, they are spectra. However, the basis for the idea remains identical: light changes according to ‘melodies’ that traverse the intervals composed by a spectrum.

In the end there is only one aura, even if it may consist of several?

Yes. Yet it is the change of light within the aura that interests me, because with this change,time becomes more and more compressed and tends towards a highly defined object. This is what happens in De Ignoto Cantu, in the middle of the piece.

You speak a lot of ‘aura’. What does this idea signify for you?

I am not a Christian, but there are moments when music enables you to discover some sort of ‘beyond’ in music, moments that give rise to almost mystical experiences. I am always seeking to relive or recreate this experience, when music refers you to something other than itself, even though it does so only with sounds. It is a bit like trying to see lights that you cannot see.

In music it is only recently that we have been using the term ‘aura’, and indeed it’s astonishing how quickly it has spread. Traditionally, however, there is a related notion that was developed in connection with Wagner: the ‘oceanic feeling’ mentioned first by Baudelaire and later ‘theorised’ by Romain Rolland. In your music, however, I sense nothing Wagnerian.

With the aura I am not looking for a continuity to infinity. There are sometimes evolutions that depart from this light that is the aura. For example, continuity can be brutally interrupted, as in Exabrupto. For me the aura exists, but there also exist situations that are totally different: very powerful ruptures within continuity…

…real violence. Wagner believed in a pacified world. Adorno has clearly demonstrated that all this is just a lie, for in reality, there is the violence of everyday life, of history that we cannot ignore…

Yes, absolutely. In Exabrupto I make a very clear reference to the reality of violence. This piece is dedicated to the memory of fifty native Mexicans assassinated in the Chiapas in 1998. This reference greatly conditions the piece’s gestuality, and so something that lies ‘outside’ the life of a composer is able to slip into his music, thus determining, at a particular moment, his way of thinking.

These texts, photos and images were published in "The Logbook", a lavish 150-page presentation
(in French and English) with composer interviews, photocollages and a CD of all the music, distributed
free of charge to the audiences of the concerts of the Third International Froum for Young Composers
of the Ensemble Aleph.

Coédition Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine (Cdmc) - Ensemble Aleph.
Direction de la publication: Makis Solomos
Coordination, secrétariat de rédaction
et PAO: Katherine Vayne
Traductions: Jeremy Drake
Conception graphique: Jérôme Laffay
Photocollages: Allison Reed
16 place de la Fontaine-aux-Lions
75019 Paris
Ensemble Aleph
Agent Double
21 rue Fructidor
71100 Chalon-sur-Saône
Paris. Septembre 2004.
Tous droits réservés pour tous pays.
ISBN 2-9516440-6-X