Tristan Murail: What I will do is to try to tell you simply how I came to write the music
I write - as much as I know myself. I won’t go all the way back to the beginning,
but start from my early “professional” experiments in composition. In fact,
you are going to hear three pieces performed here at Ostrava Days, which
all belong to this first period of my experiments with composition. The
piece performed here will be Gondwana, which I wrote in 1980 - quite a long
time ago! Another piece will be Ethers, which I think will be performed at
the end of the festival. But perhaps I would like to start with another piece
I wrote at more or less the same time.
You may know that I was a student of Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatory
in Paris (not that there is anything special about this - everybody wanted
study with him, and so did I). At that time, the musical atmosphere in Paris
was very much dominated by serial music, and by Boulez’ influence, even if
he was not physically present in France at that time. So serial techniques
were hugely predominant. The most famous ensemble for new music was the “Domaine
Musical,” which had been founded by Boulez and, consequently, mostly played
pieces belonging to those aesthetics. Messiaen himself thought that serial
music was very ”advanced,” as he said; something all young composers should
try to use as a compositional technique. So, many colleagues of mine composed
“serial” music, and I tried it too. I wrote a few pieces that were sort of
”twelve-tone,” without being strictly serial, but I soon realized that it
didn’t fit me. I had musical ideas, sound images that I wanted to express,
and I could
not do that with the serial or twelve-tone technique.
Very soon, I had the feeling that it was very important to find some other
way for my compositional development. Of course, you cannot start from scratch;
you need to have examples or models, or cues, in order to start a trip like
this. A good thing about Messiaen’s classes was that he invited many composers
to speak and present their own music. I remember seeing and speaking with
[Iannis] Xenakis in Messiaen’s class. Xenakis had brought some of his big
pieces — Metastasis, Pithoprakta — and he explained them. I was quite impressed
by his approach, which was very different from what you were taught at the
conservatories. You were taught melody, harmony, counterpoint,etc.; while
Xenakis thought of sound masses, in which individual lines — i.e., the notes
by the performers — were not necessarily that important. What was important
was the structure of the mass of sounds.
I discovered a very similar approach in [the work of Gyorgy] Ligeti when
Messiaen played some of his music for us: orchestral pieces like Lontano
These two pieces had just been released and he brought the recording with
the scores. It was kind of a shock for most of us, because we saw that there
possibilities other than serialism. You didn’t have to think about music
in terms of accompanied melody or counterpoint. Ligeti and Xenakis had in
these other ways of thinking about music, masses of sound, processes, etc....
And the importance given to timbre, as a way of structuring the form. The
concept of “process” - where a musical situation changes from one to the
next – was
also very different from the old notion of musical development.
But all that was not enough. The big problem remained the same - and is the
same even today: Which notes should I write in my score? Dodecaphony had
tried to address that issue. But if you don’t want to use this technique,
the same time don’t want to go back to tonality or modality, what, then,
do you do? Ligeti, in a way, had an answer to this question. In a piece like
he reintroduced very clear harmonic compounds. Lots of octaves throughout
the piece, and also a very striking feature: a series of tritones repeated
octave to octave. Then there are clusters, which oppose these clear harmonic
structures. You will also find pentatonic chords. Ligeti uses clear harmonies,
which, in a way, are related to tonality; but the music is clearly not tonal.
Ligeti’s example showed us that it was possible to reintroduce very clear
harmonies, but also to use harmony as a function, which had not been the
case for many
decades. In serial music, and even in the music of Messiaen, harmony is not
functional. It’s more like a coloration. Messiaen likes to “color” time as
it passes, but his beautiful harmony doesn’t have a real formal function,
like it has in tonal music. However, I do think that harmony is a very powerful
way of structuring form in music.
Having left Messiaen’s class, I started to explore electronics. The electronics
of that time, of course, were quite different from what we have now. They
were based on analog principles. Having received the Prix de Rome, I spent
at the French Academy in Rome, where there was a small studio that I could
use for experimenting, although the electronic equipment was rather basic.
A few of the things I did there were close to Alvin Lucier’s experiments
— for example, toying with a feedback loop. Recording sounds on one tape
the loop carried the sound to the second tape recorder; the second tape recorder
fed the sound back into the first recorder. What happens in this process
is that, as the sounds are copied and copied again, they get transformed;
in some way. This way, you get a process, which works by itself, and I was
very interested in this.
Perhaps we can start listening to some music now. One of the first pieces
I wrote after my studio experiments was Mémoire/Erosion, for ten instruments.
There [were] no electronics in the piece, but the instrumental scoring took
electronics as a model — a formal and timbral model. In a feedback loop,
need to have someone playing or singing into a microphone. In this case,
the horn plays into a “virtual” microphone, and the nine other instruments
strings and four woodwinds – play the role of the two tape recorders. Everything
the horn plays is repeated, after a delay – well, not really repeated, because
it is also transformed - by one of the other instruments, until the music
drifts into something else. So you have a process going on, but also a certain
of entropy - entropy meaning going back to “chaos,” to noise, in a way. This
resulted in a metaphor for the entire piece, the opposition of “pure” sound
versus “noise” - noise in a musical sense (we’ll have to come back to the
issue of “noise”). So, when the horn plays a sound or a small phrase, it
and transformed by the other instruments until it becomes something totally
different. You wind up with a new element, which the horn then takes over
and uses as a new idea, a seed, so to speak, which is fed into the system
This is the main idea of the piece. Now you can see how the electronics served
as a model. This was the beginning of a long search for models, which I’ll
try to describe to you. But let’s hear a few excerpts from the piece. The
title – Mémoire/Erosion – refers to the two aspects on which the piece is
memory and erosion.
You heard that the piece started with a C. Well, you heard it if you have
perfect pitch.... [Laughs] So, the music at the beginning is very simple,
on this C4. At the end of the first section you hear a Bb, and the music
now revolves around the Bb sound; there is, in fact, a continuous transformation
from the C to the Bb. This is something I found during my experiments with
loops. Quite often you fed some sound into the system and, after a number
repetitions, you got another frequency, different from the one you had played
into the system, which in fact depended, I suppose, on the resonant frequencies
of the room where you worked. One of the ideas of the piece was to exploit
these ”flaws,” in a sense.
You may have noticed that the piece starts with instrumental ”noise.” The
instruments are required to play noise sounds, which today is quite standard,
but was less
so at the time. To produce this noise, all the strings have to bow directly
on the bridge, and make a hissing sound without a pitch. But it became a
challenge when we recorded the piece for a disk. At that time we still had
and this hissing sound wound up sounding like background noise, instead of
musical noise. So we had to reinforce the noise in the recording, to make
it clear that it was something desired, and not just a fault in the recording!
[missing part of lecture]
Let’s go further into the piece. The idea of the feedback loop was used by
many composers at that time. It was often used in real time, in concerts.
Usually, there were a lot of technical problems with it, caused by the tension
tape. Another problem was the length — the duration of the loop — which didn’t
change, so you had always the same interval of time between repetitions.
Somebody — I think it was in Freiburg, Germany — tried to build a very complex
which could change the length of the loop, but it never really worked because
of difficulties adjusting the tension.
But when you write this idea on paper, imitating the tape loop with instruments,
changing speeds is not a problem. In this piece the speed of the “loop” changes
very often. In our next example, you will hear a very clear harmony, which
drifts away. Actually, the harmony does not drift, but the timbre of the
When you use feedback loops,a number of problems can happen; for instance,
saturation. The volume of the sound gradually increases and there is nothing
you can do about it; at the end of the process, you get a kind of crashing
sound. The only thing you can do is to stop the process. This is exactly
what happens in the middle of the piece, the saturation being here “transcribed”
for the instrumental ensemble. Or, when you work with a real tape loop, you
have to use a sticker to create the loop. After a while, the tension of the
loop can pull the sides of the sticker apart, and you end up hearing a ”click.”
In this piece, the repeated dampened [pizzicato] of the viola is a kind of
an imitation of something that really happens with a physical tape loop.
“click” sound is also used as a seed for the next situation, as the horn
plays very short sounds together with the “sticker sound,” and a new section
The notion of repetition is, of course, present throughout the piece, because
of the virtual tape loop. But it isn’t textual repetition; nothing is ever
exactly repeated. There is always a small transformation, depending on the
process I am using. That’s different from what you find in minimalist music,
for instance, where repetitions are exact and where changes proceed by clear
steps. Though there is some connection between the two styles of music, in
essence they are different.
Later, I kept two or three ideas from this period: the concept of process,
especially timbre process; [and] the notion of regular repetition or, rather,
the notion of ”periodicity.” I also came back to using technological models
in various contexts. Because technology has evolved so dramatically in the
last two or three decades, it has been a great source of new ideas for me.
Alvin Lucier: Did you use some kind of process to determine the pitches,
or did you do it by ear?
TM: At that time, the pitches were chosen very intuitively.
Lucier: You mean you created the distortion intuitively?
TM: Yes, it was the product of an additive process – in this case, adding
more and more inharmonic partials to a simple inverted seventh chord, which
can equate to a portion of a harmonic series. My colleague Gérard Grisey
started to write pieces which were consciously using harmonic series, or
spectra as models. But at that time, I was mostly toying with ideas based
on technology. The harmony here is very simple. In fact, in this piece, the
is more important than the harmony.
Lucier: How about the rhythm? I understand part of it comes from the loops;
but beyond that, where did you get the microstructures?
TM: Partly from the loops. But I also tried to bring in microstructures that
contradicted the loops in some way, to get a more interesting rhythm.
Lucier: Was this contradicting intuitive also?
TM: Yes, very much so. But once the process had been decided, it was very
mechanical. I just notated all the consequences of the process: Sometimes,
I suppose, I
made changes, but I knew that I was going from A to B in some way, and I
tried to deduct everything from this idea.
Student: Did you know in the very beginning what [the ending point] was going
to be or did you just figure out a way of getting there while writing it?
Or did you know how the process is going to evolve?
TM: It worked both ways. Sometimes I didn’t know where it would go, and sometimes
I did, I suppose - to be honest with you, I don’t remember exactly. But both
possibilities exist: You can have a process where you know the starting point
and the ending point, and then you have to decide how to get from one point
to the other. In a way, you can call this a process of interpolation. But
you can also just have the starting point, and a system which transforms
that starting point: this is ”extrapolation.” In general, I prefer to know
where I am going, but sometimes I just try something, and see what happens.
Perhaps I should speak a little bit about the next piece, Ethers, which will
be performed here in Ostrava. I wrote Ethers two years after Mémoire/Erosion.
You still find the idea of transformation and repetition, but this time there
is no looping. The durations of the repetitions are also subject to a process,
which means you never have a steady pulse. The tempo is never stable; it
always accelerates or slows down (which creates lots of complications for
For me, the piece is mainly about relativity. Everything here is relative;
there is no fixed time reference. There are also a few technological models
involved in this piece, like echo chambers, reverberation, and my first attempt
to use frequency modulation in order to organize pitches. The piece is written
for flute and five other instruments. The flute is the principal instrument,
but does not have a real solo part. Actually, its role is to provide acoustic
models for the piece. I didn’t try to analyze the spectrum of the flute at
that time, but I experimented with some of its “extended techniques,” and
used them as models for the instrumental textures.
[draws on blackboard]
At the beginning of the piece, the flutist is singing – that’s the square
note - and playing another pitch at the same time. In addition to these two
you will get two resulting sounds. So, how do you get them? Well, let’s say
this C#4 (the sung pitch) has a frequency called “A” and the Bb5 (the played
pitch) has a frequency called “B”: then the resulting sound [is] A plus B,
and B minus A, i.e., a D6 (in fact, a quarter-tone too high) and an E5. So
you see that with a very simple calculation, you can predict the result very
precisely. This is similar to amplitude modulation, often known as “ring
modulation.” Ring modulation was one of the first devices used in studios
early on to create
inharmonic timbres. The initial section of the piece is based on these modulation
sounds proposed by the flute. The strings start playing very high sounds:
flageolets, which are, in fact, harmonics of these four pitches that compose
multiphonic sound. [draws on board]
Progressively, the frequencies played by the strings come down and introduce
the flute, anticipating its multiphonic sound. After the flute plays, we
go back progressively to the high ranges – the string harmonics - and start
process again, until the flute proposes a new combination. This acoustic
model is also used at the very end of the piece.
[TM plays Ethers]
I said that with ring modulation, if you input two sounds, you get the sum
and the difference of their frequencies. This is supposing that the two sounds
are very pure, like sine waves. Of course, if you use instruments they never
are, and you also have to take into account their harmonics. Let’s make an
example with simple sounds: let’s say sound “A” has two harmonics [draws
on board]. The second harmonic of “A” is, of course, twice the frequency
fundamental. Let’s say sound “B” has three harmonics: B, 2Bs and 3Bs. Now
you have to take into consideration all of these five frequencies and intermodulate
them. The result will be: A+B, A–B, but also, 2A+B, 2A-B, A+2B, A-2B, etc....
It can be quite complex. In the first section of Ethers, the trombone is
one of these second-order modulation sounds, which enriches the harmony.
Lucier: When you sing the C# and play the Db, can you actually hear those