Audion #22

July 1992 A4 44 pages

CARAVAN OF DREAMS - Live in Whitstable 28/2/91
- Live in Leicester 29/4/92
HAWKWIND - Live in Leicester 18/5/92
DJAM KARET & ATAVISM OF TWILIGHT - Line in Claremont 9/11/91
RICHARD PINHAS (interview)
CURRENT 93 - Keeping Up With The Current...
Baschet's, Partch, Bertoncini, Sonde
plus: Harmonium (Canadian folk-prog), Voiceprint, Alquimia,
Electronical Dreams, UK Synthasia '91, Morton Feldman, etc.


original (last 30 copies)



UK £5.80




Europe £9.25




World £10.50


Example article


During the 1940's and 1950's many progressive composers, dissatisfied with conventional instruments, sought to create entirely new sounds by electronic means. But there were other experimenters who felt that electronic sounds were lifeless and sterile, lacking the subtle nuances of instrumental and vocal sounds. For despite all the facilities at his disposal the electronic composer does not have the sensitive nervous control which the violinist has over his bow, subtly varying the sound by slight variations of pressure and speed. At the same time these experimenters were dissatisfied with the tonal and colouristic range of existing instruments. Their solution was to create entirely new acoustic instruments, sounding quite unlike conventional instruments, which would nevertheless give them a more direct, physical control over sounds than is possible in the recording studio. The French Baschet brothers began constructing their extraordinary musical sculptures in 1952, at the same time as Stockhausen was conducting he first experiments in sine-tone synthesis. Their aim was to challenge both electronic music and musique-concrete, creating new spectra of ethereal sounds by purely acoustic means. A typical Baschet sculpture incorporates ranks of metal rods, which are played percussively, or rows of slender glass tubes which can be stroked with wetted fingers to produce sustained resonating tones. Unlike more conventional instruments they are as inviting and congenial to the amateur as well as the professional musician and are highly responsive to touch - the slightest variations in percussive force or frictional pressure produce dramatic and unexpected variations in tone, resonance and timbre. On recordings the Baschet's instruments sound electronic, as though artificial reverberation has been added, but in fact the sounds are amplified through large plastic cones which act as natural resonance chambers.

The Baschet's instruments are extremely versatile and are adaptable to a variety of musical styles and idioms. In their earliest commercial recordings they used their sculptures to create airy and transparent renditions of Bach and Vivaldi. More recently the "structures sonores" have featured in orchestrations by Takemitsu (The Seasons, 1970), as raw material for tape manipulation in electronic music by Andres Lewin-Richter (Baschetiada, 1980) and in a more improvisatory framework in music by various ensembles, most notably the German group Ex Improviso, who use the Baschet's instruments in combination with other sound sculptural constructions. (For further information about the Baschet brothers see Audion #9 page 13 - ED.)

An earlier pioneer of new instrumental building was the Californian Harry Partch. Largely self taught, Partch pursued independent researches into ancient and oriental systems of harmony and tuning; these led him to reject all Western scales and harmonic systems, necessitating the invention of his own tuning system and the construction of entirely new instruments. Partch began his work in the 1940's when he lengthened the fingerboards of conventional instruments (producing the 'adapted viola' or 'adapted guitar') and tuned a reed organ to a 43 note scale in just intonation (the 'chromelodeon'). During the next 40 years he developed many other instruments, mostly chordophones or idiophones, which combined microtonal flexibility with a range of glittering sonorities reminiscent of the Balinese Gamelan orchestra. Partch also evolved a variety of instruments with indefinite pitch, including cone gongs, cloud chamber bowls and gourd trees. Partch's music creates a strikingly theatrical impression, dramatising physical gesture in a manner reminiscent of Far Eastern ritual music, including Japanese Noh Theatre and Gagaku music.

Partch's instruments, and those of the Baschet's, relate to conventional instrument design in terms of their pitch flexibility and capacity for precise rhythmical articulation. The constructions of Mario Bertoncini are more radical and unorthodox in conception. Bertoncini decided from the very outset of his experiments, to avoid any association with tonal or rhythmically based music. He applied a kind of negative principle: avoid tonal pitch association and periodic rhythm. His aim was to turn the ear away from remembered patterns of sound - Western or exotic - towards the exploration of new areas of timbre and texture. Bertoncini's earliest sound constructions comprise networks of tensioned wires which can be blown, bowed, scraped or struck. These structures are amplified with contact microphones or hand-held guitar pickups and respond dramatically to the most sensitive tactile explorations.

Bertoncini strongly influenced the French-Canadian improvising ensemble (based in Montreal) called Sonde, a word meaning probe. He showed them that music can be made from sound sources which the musician designs and builds himself. This is not the same as instrument building. An instrument, in the conventional sense, can play music in a variety of styles. A violin can play Bach, Gershwin or Webern. Bertoncini's 'musical designs', as he prefers to call them, can play only one composition, whose form and structure will be spontaneously varied at each performance. These musical designs utilise a range of materials to define areas of sound possibilities. Thus in Bertoncini's work, and that of Sonde, building the instrument itself becomes a compositional process.

Sonde's own musical designs, dating from 1976, tend to concentrate on particular types of materials. Their earliest sculptures, called 'plaques', consist of various sized sheets of cold rolled mild steel held together by tensioned wires. The sheets can be played percussively while the wires can be bowed to produced sustained resonating tones of fluctuating pitch. More recently, they have constructed instruments from different types of wood. Wood, they point out, can do infinitely more than produce tuned percussion tones. Through amplification there is a world of tiny, beautiful sounds that can be made available by tapping, bowing or stroking in a range of woods from redwood to rosewood.

Sonde claim that their constructions, by their physical nature, impose a particular form on how they are played. Phrasing, structure and mood are all initially suggested by the character of the materials. One construction may suggest a fast moving piece in which isolated sounds are emphasised and contrasted. Another may suggest a slowly moving piece in which layers of sound change very gradually. Sonde most often use contact microphones for the amplification of their sound sources. Electronic processes such as ring modulation and frequency shifting are also used to modify the amplified sound. The aim is to avoid the "classic electronic music sound" based upon the perfect sine tone. One of Sonde's members, Charles de Mestral, writes: 'The initial sounds are physical, including all the irregularities of materials, and the human imperfections of performance which contribute to the beauty of the music played on traditional instruments'. In some recent constructions Sonde have used the sounds of water gurgling in pipes and air bubbling through water. These sounds are then analysed into a variety of colourations through electronic filtering.

One of the earliest pioneers of new instrument building was the Italian futurist painter and musician Luigi Russolo. Russolo was innovative in at least two important respects. To begin with, he was one of the first composers to abandon conventional instruments entirely and seek a new musical technology capable of producing new, previously unheard timbres. Secondly, he was the first composer to dispense with exact pitch specification and rhythmic notation. His Noise Music: Awakening of a City, scored for howlers, boomers, cracklers, gurglers and buzzers, organises sound only in terms of dynamics, durations and points of entry. For Russolo all musical sounds had lost their power to startle or surprise. 'We can get infinitely more pleasure', he wrote, 'imagining combinations of the sounds of trolleys, autos and other vehicles, and loud crowds, than listening once more to the heroic or pastoral symphonies'. Russolo had been influenced by the experimental poetry of Marinetti, who had written a war poem in which the sounds of weapons were depicted by syllables, vowels and consonants. Russolo called for a methodical investigation of the different categories of noise (ranging from bangs, thunderclaps, and explosions to buzzing, crackling and friction sounds) and devised bizarre mechanical instruments to replicate these sounds. Some of these instruments, such as the Intonarumori, were modelled on the hurdy-gurdy. incorporating strings "bowed" by a rotating wheel, yet the sounds they produced were more reminiscent of aeroplane propellers. Russolo was the first composer to explore sounds of extremely long duration, containing much internal change and variety. Industrial and machine noises interested him because they involved irregular patterns of vibration (unlike conventional instruments which produce more or less fixed frequencies), producing a varying or indefinite pitch content and impure timbres.


Written by Roger Sutherland

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