Ether 2011 sees a focus on one of the 20th century’s most important composers, Iannis Xenakis with performances and interactive workshops . Here composer Aleks Kolkowski tells us about his experiences with the Ether project ‘Young Xenarchitects’ at Southbank Centre.
Iannis Xenakis‘ dual career as architect and composer is beautifully illustrated by his 1953 masterpiece Metasastis, whose graphic blueprint for the final conventionally notated musical score became the basis for the design of the Philips Pavilion in Brussels, 1958. A desire to draw sounds in the draftsman-like manner of an architect led Xenakis in 1977 to devise UPIC(Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu), a system where sounds were created, drawn and arranged on a computer screen using an electromagnetic pencil. One of the first pieces that Xenakis composed through it is Mycenae Alpha (1978).
UPIC proved to be so popular internationally as a unique music-composing and educational tool for non-musicians, artists, programmers and children alike, that a second machine had to be built at great expense so that Xenakis could continue to work with it.
Today’s modern audio painting software using graphic tablets and touch screens all descend from UPIC, but the origins of sound painting goes back much further than Xenakis, to the early methods of visualising sound through the chladni plates, phonautograms and harmonographs of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the early twentieth century, the development of sound-on-film with soundtracks recorded directly onto celluloid led to many artists, includingOskar Fischinger in Germany and Evgeny Sholpo in Russia to experiment with optical sound by drawing patterns onto film, played back via photo-electric cells. In the 1950s, some twenty years before Xenakis and UPIC, the pioneering British electronic music composer Daphne Oram created theOramics Machine, a highly sophisticated analogue device enabling her to draw the parameters of sounds and paint her own waveforms.
Informed and inspired by this fascinating historical background to the art of sound painting, the Young Xenarchitects have taken up the challenge of composing graphically through HighC – software developed by Thomas Baudel that is closely modeled on the original UPIC system. Using HighC, they can paint sounds with the cursor, create waveforms and patterns, modify dynamics, determine pitch scales and rhythms and even import their own recordings to be manipulated or painted within the program.
Some have chosen to use HighC as a sketch-board to make blueprints for conventional scores for instrumental ensemble; others will create electro-acoustic works combined with sound recordings and together with live instruments.
The possibilities are endless and sound painting is a lot of fun, but creating a coherent musical work in such an unorthodox manner, with relatively little time to get used to some peculiar techniques, is no easy task. Nevertheless, the speed in which the Young Xenarchitects have got to grips with the program and their enthusiasm for composing music is staggering. I can’t wait to hear the final pieces.
Aleks Kolkowski, March 2011
A free version of HighC is available to download here.
See Young Xenarchitects at Southbank Centre as part of Ether 2011 for FREE on 1 April 2011. More info here.
Explore more of Iannis Xenakis’ work at London Sinfonietta’s concert Xenakis – Architect of Sound at Southbank Centre as part of Ether 2011 on 2 April 2011. Get tickets here.
Filed under: Contemporary Classical, London Sinfonietta, Resident Orchestras, Royal Festival Hall | Tagged: contemporary classical, Ether, Ether 2011, Ether festival, HighC, Iannis Xenakis, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, UPIC | Leave a Comment »