Alessandro Bosetti's language explorations: between everyday life and meditation

Interviews 16.03.2022

What is music? Can our everyday voices and conversations, arranged in a tight polyphony, be perceived as music? Composer and sound artist Alessandro Bosetti gives us an answer, suggesting that we change our listening habits.

I would like to open this interview by talking about your Pièces à pédale, which the Gmem in Marseille performed on 15 March. These are five independent pieces, but I think they have in common the same spirit of doubling the voice through the electroacoustic device. How did the idea for this cycle come about?
The cycle started with two solos: one for Vincent Lhermet (accordion), the other for Gareth Davis (clarinet). Afterwards, I co-wrote a solo for Anne Gillot (recorder), and I realised that these three pieces shared the same very simple electroacoustic device, reduced to a pedal, and a way of doubling the voice, declined each time in a different way, i.e. I take the voice of the instrumentalist and put it back into play by using it as musical material. I was then approached by Athénor (the CNCM in Saint-Nazaire), with whom I had already worked on educational projects. They suggested that I collaborate with a mathematics laboratory at the University of Nantes. I had already collaborated with one of the researchers in this group, Assia Mahboubi. We had worked in parallel in secondary schools. I had asked her about the structure of my pieces based on voice and conversation: "How could you, a researcher in mathematics, formalise these pieces in mathematical language, these mechanisms formulated in a musical language?" or "For my part, I use more or less traditional scores (sometimes just protocols), but can we imagine the score as an algorithm, or a mathematical formula? And we thought about this together. 

In the end, all these pieces converged into one new piece, Sistemawhich is nothing more than a conversation with four mathematicians of this group, modulated by a system of instructions: they talk about what they want, but around them there is an instrumental ensemble that plays a musical score, and while they play, they operate the pedals, which give instructions, which have the effect of modifying their conversations.
That's how the idea came about to group these five pieces together in an ensemble that was initially a bit kaleidoscopic but which obeyed the same principle.

What concerns me in all these pieces is the friction between two forms of language: a formal, rational, exact language, which formalises things, which is specific to mathematics - and also to music in more than one way (if we think of harmony, or the form of grammar which describes musical events) - and a natural language which I use a lot in my pieces, and which is in reality a kind of chaos, of vagueness, something which is difficult to formalise, and which obeys a very simple score. The instruction would be: "Say what comes to your mind"! We do this every day, but depending on the context (intimate or professional), our words are more or less formalised. As Dante Alighieri wrote in The Divine Comedy (Purgatory XVII,25): "it rained in high fantasy", suggesting that fantasy is a space into which the rain enters.
For this reason, the way we express ourselves orally has always seemed very interesting to me, because there are always micro-variations, both in grammatical constructions and in prosody, and that is difficult to formalise! The friction between these two forms of language interests me. This is the heart of these Pièces à pédale.

You have long shown an interest in orality and improvisation, in conversation. That's quite rare among composers! Where does this taste for the impromptu and the indeterminate come from?
It's difficult to say. I've always had the instinct to look for "found objects" in everyday reality: seeing people talking, for example! This "found object" has an aesthetic interest for me, which I don't find in rational or constructed objects. Of course, I can intellectually construct harmonic relationships (mathematically, I construct the octave, the fifth...). And when I do field recordings, when I listen to people talking, I realise that there are rational harmonic relationships in the order of the spectrum in this speech, but there is a more chaotic factor in reality, in the field, which gives us harmonic objects that are not rational, and that is very stimulating! You think you've found a major third in a voice, for example, but on closer inspection, that third is not really right, it's a bit distorted.
So I understood very early on that there were strategies to adopt in relation to this subject. I don't just go and look for my objects on the work table, but outside. I escape! I find things that take me elsewhere. There is a kind of tension between these two objects, and it is very interesting.

For you, voices are often abstract objects, cut off from the bodies of these voices. At the same time, you often intervene on stage with your own voice. We have an example of this in the Portraits of voices given at the Nouveau Théâtre de Montreuil recently. You share the stage with the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. So there is still an incarnation?
Yes, and no. I have different functions or positions depending on the context, the score.
In Portraits of voices as in Plane-Talea, I engage in a somewhat absurd exercise in the idea of disregarding biographical identities, gender, the body of the voices. It is a paradox, because a voice cannot exist without the body that produces it!
In this composition, I act as a portraitist: I am on stage as Alessandro Bosetti but I interview voices, I talk to the singers of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, who allow me to complete these sound portraits from the anonymous voices. I like this form of anonymity
It's a bit different in the Pedal Pieces. The musicians/performers are present with their identities, in a context where identity is normally cancelled out, because often in instrumental music no one performer is addressed. I do this differently. My pieces are very much linked to the individuals for whom they are written. The piece Double, for example, was really written for the accordionist Vincent Lhermet. It is a portrait of him, which brings his character into play. The piece can be performed by someone else, but who will enter into a dialogue with Vincent's voice and experience, and you really have to take that into account: it's him, and nobody else!

"Portraits of voices" Alessandro Bosetti (teaser) from Alessandro Bosetti on Vimeo.

In Double, there are two types of voices: Vincent's voice, pre-recorded, and also his voice live?
Yes, it's like a montage of a radio play, but in which all the fragments are triggered by pedal strokes. So Vincent has a score to play, but he can manage his timing as he likes. He has to launch all the fragments that make up the montage of this piece. We recorded Vincent's voice as he discovered the instrument, which was totally new to him; a toy accordion, enclosed in a box. He opened the box and discovered the instrument. The recorded part is Vincent's ten minutes of wonder and surprise at this instrument, and his first attempts to play it. This toy instrument is a miniature version, obviously imperfect, of his superb concert instrument.

We could also mention another Pièce à pédale, Wild broadcasting, composed for Anne Gillot, a musician and radio woman, in which she improvises and simulates an antenna cut?
Anne came to me with an idea for a solo. I wanted to put the two faces of Anne in this solo: the magnificent musician - she plays the flute and the bass clarinet - but also the radio woman, the moderator (she presents music programmes on Radio Suisse Romande). I wanted to articulate these two identities. There are moments when her recorded voice interrupts her flow of words, and after a while, her identity as a flautist is integrated with her identity as a radio voice.

Since we're talking about radio, I know that this medium is very important to you, and that you have a strong link to radio creation. Is this because radio is linked to a form of orality?
For me, radio corresponds to a form of utopia of listening. I have always been interested in musical objects that are problematic for listening, or, let's say, hybrid. We know that we listen differently to music than to someone speaking in an audio room. It's a different kind of attention.
From the end of the 1990s, I did experiments on language that were problematic in the musical context, because it was no longer perceived as music, even in experimental music circles. It's a real question, honestly! Is it still music? How do you listen to it, in what posture? Our brain is quickly lost when faced with speech.
I imagined, in a utopian way, an intermediate form of listening, a listening more in the groove of the word, almost ecstatic, which didn't really exist. It so happened that at the beginning of the 2000s, I arrived in Germany to join a musical movement linked to improvisation (the "reductionist" movement). I had in my corpus of composers these creations with the spoken word, for which I could not find a place, and there I discovered the world of radio creation, in particular the Akustische Musik studio at the West-Deutscher Rundfunk, and the coexistence of non-hierarchical sound objects; voices, noises, sounds, on the same level. This gave me a lot of freedom! It was a new listening posture. Radio has always been that for me, namely a medium that broadcasts sounds, no matter what they are: silence, noise, speech, a chronicle, composition... But I must say that I also have a fascination for the more classical world of radio: the Hörspiel, as produced in German studios. I have been nourished by this tradition, from Bertolt Brecht to Kagel and current experiments.

What about opera? I don't forget that you are Italian; what is your relationship to this form of vocality? After all, you yourself describe some of your compositions as "pocket operas"!
Like any Italian, I was immersed in opera... and I always hated it! But like everything we hate, at some point in our lives it resurfaces and we have to come to terms with it.
So I went to take a closer look.
In many of my plays, there is a plot. They are conversations, free voices, but they function like radio operas, even though they are performed in concert. People often say to me: "Your plays are actually operas", and that's probably true, but without the staging!
One thing helped me a lot. One day, the choreographer DD Dorvillier reminded me of the definition of opera by Robert Ashley, who makes magnificent operas. He says that opera is "voices in a landscape "*, and that helped me a lot, even if I don't pretend to really do opera (because I don't belong to this world and I don't have the codes...).
There is a paradox though; I dedicated Sistema to Rossini, and there are echoes of his music in this piece, a form of free chattering of the four voices. I've always been attracted to tight polyphony and the 'chatter' side of polyphony. I find this in the madrigal, in the finales of Rossini's operas. Of course, at no time do I quote Rossini, but it's a reference that I keep at a distance in a certain way 

Your Portraits of Voices is more like a madrigal?
Yes, it's a tight polyphony, a counterpoint. I have always been sensitive to the polyphony of everyday life. We've all had the experience of a family meal, where ten people speak at the same time... and yet all the voices find their space in there! It's like the birds in the forest: each one has its spectrum and there is a timing of responses. If you analyse it, it's obviously more chaotic than a Bach polyphony, but there's a kind of coherence there. In this register, there are also materials that I have never used, because of their negative karma; for example, these television debates, where the guests shout at each other and speak together in a form of counterpoint...
I am interested in this complexity, and I find a reference to it in polyphony and in the madrigal of the Renaissance: it is fascinating! Over the years, I have tried to delve deeper into these writings, to immerse myself in them. The first reference is obviously Gesualdo, which led me in many other directions, including more modern things: towards Aperghis, Sciarrino, and even Ashley, who uses this a lot with a very different technique.
Portraits of voices are just voices, unprocessed and without a body. It's a choral piece: nothing but voices, even if there is an electroacoustic part!

"Portraits of voices" Alessandro Bosetti (teaser 3) from Alessandro Bosetti on Vimeo.

What do these voices say?
In this piece, as in Plane-Talea, I have chosen to intersect fragments that have a real beginning and a real end, and I have chosen elements that are located just "before the meaning", so that you can't really guess what is being said. The Voice Portraits follow a particular strategy: I chose people because of their voices and what interested me in their voices. I was transparent with them about it: "it's not you I'm interested in, it's your voice". So we spent time together, moments of life, but I concentrated on the voices and not on the people. I chose little bits of these voices that touched me and spoke to me, beyond what the person was telling me. It's a bit of an absurd exercise really; it's perhaps even impossible to go through with it; it's almost a form of listening meditation! It may happen that bits of conversation come out, words, but it's not so important, there's nothing to understand.

In Sistema (and therefore Piece with a Pedal) it's different. The conversations are free, so yes, things are said, but the conversation, the libretto of the piece is completely free: the four people on the stage say the first thing that comes to mind. They have very precise formal rules to follow - when you start, when you stop, who you relate to, oppose, approve of, or whether you sing or speak - but the subject matter is completely free. They can talk about interesting, boring things, about themselves, about the device, or explain what they are doing, explain very technical things about their job, they can also talk about problems with train delays before arriving at the concert venue: it's completely open! And I intervene only on the rational form of this conversation. It is the friction between these two aspects that interests me: the irrational and the rational. 

It's true that there is an emancipation of language. We don't care about meaning, and we're only interested in phonetics, in sounds. At the same time, it's a language that never stops saying things, even if I look at it with the "ecstatic" gaze of someone who's meditating, ignoring what these people are saying, I know very well that they're saying things (declaration of love, political speech...). The score doesn't forbid anything, so there is always a tension there.

Alessandro Bosetti - Diary - 1st stage ( full recording ) from Alessandro Bosetti on Vimeo.

The Plane-Talea cycle consists of about thirty pieces. You have accumulated a lot of archives that you have selected and combined. Do you plan to continue this cycle?
It's an old project that started in 2016. I'm surprised that it's still going on. It's an archive of voices, in which I currently have about fifty voices that have become anonymous. I am trying to classify these voices according to their owners. They are all arranged in thousands of small fragments. I'm still collecting voices, and I'm also interested in doing performances with this project.
I arrive on site, three or four days before, and meet people; that's a beautiful thing in itself. I do portrait sessions with people, interested in their voices, and I like that more and more. In the course of this exploration, I have real conversations, but I don't feel obliged to capture these moments in my play.
The cycle continues: there are two new pieces in progress.
I must add that every time I go to this archive I find new things. It's vast!
The music that comes out of there works a lot on accidents. There are lots of things to find in this archive, surprising associations, and I try not to use the voices from this archive for other projects.
It's sampling without processing: small fragments of voices only cut at the beginning/end of the vocal emission. It is a work of sampling and permanent recombination. It's very simple technically and it's a form of simulation of what vocal writing could be. It's a vocal writing laboratory that coincides with my musical fantasy.


I remember a performance of Plane-Talea at Densités a few years ago. You were behind the computer and the audience was surrounded by speakers; you had installed a form of acousmonium.
me it's not exactly an acousmonium in the sense that what I do is multi-mono. All the voices are recorded in mono. I don't use any space simulation, there's no idea of spatialization. It's a multiplicity of mono points in space that are arranged each time in an improvised way, according to what I feel about the space where I am. It's much simpler than an acousmonium, even if it is an orchestra of loudspeakers.

Are there times, Alessandro, when you can't stand human voices, the human? You must be haunted by all those voices?
No doubt! It's my interest in language that drives me there. I have an injunction in me that has always pushed me to make music with language. I don't know why! I even envy musicians who assume that music doesn't have to say anything. For my part, I've always been confronted with the obligation to express things. That's why I'm very wary of language, and at the same time respect it. Sometimes I try to get around it. In political discourse, for example, there are situations where you see the limit of language. You can be faced with someone who tells you that he loves you, that he wants your freedom, and who at the same time murders you! And that can drive a human being mad... So language is not everything. I have to find tricks, to sublimate language...

In your book Thèses/voix, published by Les Presses du réel, you express things that are essential to you, but this time through writing. It contains working texts, but it is also a poetic work and at the same time an essay.
These texts are in one way or another extensions of my work on the voice. At the beginning of my interest in language, there is obviously an interest in literature, even if I have mainly worked on orality. Many texts were generated in this way. At the same time, there was also a whole theoretical work that developed, and it seemed to me that these texts had a beauty. Everything took shape little by little. It's a hybrid object, with, on the one hand, some sort of autobiographical essays in the tradition of Brodsky, Walter Benjamin or Sebald - because this type of writing has had a strong impact on me - and also dialogues in the tradition of the philosophical or scientific dialogues of Galileo or Giordano Bruno, or even transcriptions of my plays.
So it's a series of texts that run parallel to my work on sound creation, that are intimately linked to my work on the voice, and which at the same time have an aesthetic and philosophical interest.

Interview by Anne Montaron

Photos © Eric Sneed
Photos © Pierre Gondard
Photos © Alessandro Bosetti


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