Musique d'art (2019)
violin, viola, cello, double bass and processing — 50 minutes
The first step into the unknown is dissonance. Progress is energized by instability: each new step is proposed as the resolution of what came before. The final step into the unknown is silence.
This work will be the subject of an album on the Musikfabrik label in 2021.
I first heard about Ensemble Musikfabrik when I saw their videos on YouTube. These videos presented the process of reconstructing the instruments of Harry Partch (1901-1974), the American composer who laid the modern foundations of numbers-based harmony (just intonation), in which I am interested. I was immediately fascinated by Musikfabrik, but working with them was still a distant dream.
In 2016, I took advantage of my residency at the Hellerau Arts Centre in Dresden to visit Musikfabrik in their Cologne studio. I felt like I was in a candy store. In 2017, I offered them the concert project Musique d’art (2019) and they accepted to my great pleasure.
Musique d’art (2019) is a work for violin, viola, cello, double bass and treatments. In this case, the processing is the amplification of the sound of the retransmitted instruments with a four-second delay, circulating slowly between the four speakers located in the four corners of the room. The music is made up of long sounds, always quite soft, which make up chords that I have composed (from the Latin “componere,” “to put together”) like an uninterrupted thread.
The formal construction of the work is very simple: I gradually integrate harmonics of increasing orders. Here is what harmonics are. The vibration of an open string (without fingering) produces the fundamental frequency of that string, which is 1. In addition to its fundamental frequency, a string can produce a number of its harmonics if it is lightly touched, rather than pressed against the fingerboard. The harmonic obtained is proportional to the position of the finger in relation to the length of the string:
- the 2nd harmonic is obtained at half (1/2) of the string’s length;
- the 3rd harmonic at a third of the string’s length (1/3 or 2/3);
- the 4th harmonic at a quarter (1/4 or 3/4);
- the 5th harmonic at a fifth (1/5, 2/5, 3/5 or 4/5);
- the 6th harmonic at a sixth (1/6 or 5/6);
- the 7th harmonic at a seventh (1/7, 2/7, 3/7, 4/7, 5/7 or 6/7).
These harmonics are present at low intensity in the tone of the open string itself; this is what gives the sound of the instrument its richness. Also, the vibrating frequency of the string is inversely proportional to its length: half of a string vibrates at double the frequency, the third of a string vibrates at triple the frequency, etc. By extension, any musical pitch can be said to be harmonic if it is thus compared to another by a ratio of integer frequencies.
The harmonics I used are: 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, and 23. The 3rd harmonic produces stable and powerful intervals, which naturally fits an introduction. The 5th harmonic allows for relatively conventional major and minor chords. Halfway through the piece, signalled by the return of the open string of the solo cello, harmonics 11, 13 and 17 follow one another and create more and more tension. This tension culminates with the arrival of the 19th harmonic, which I used to create particularly dramatic minor chords, especially with their very broad arrangement in the register. The 23rd harmonic is used only once, as a climax in the high register, before the work concludes.
The interpretation of this work requires remarkable precision of intonation on the part of the musicians. I originally thought they were going to use a tuner precise to the nearest hundredth of a semitone, as we regularly do in contemporary music. But the musicians told me that if they were to follow the tuner, they weren’t going to follow each other in the same way. So it was all by ear that all of this was performed live in 2019, as well as during the recording of the album in 2020. The privilege of having been able to work with Musikfabrik allows me to dream even more.
Composition: Simon Martin
Performers: Ensemble Musikfabrik
- Sara Cubarsi Fernandez, violin
- Axel Porath, viola
- Dirk Wietheger, cello
- Florentin Ginot, double bass
Audio engineering: Jean-François Blouin
Lighting: Andréa Marsolais-Roy
Production: Projections libérantes
11.03.2019 – Musikfabrik – Cologne, Germany
24.02.2019 – Festival Montréal/Nouvelles musiques – Montréal, Québec
Photos by Jérome Bertrand, 2019