Nicolas Vérin - Approaching contemporary music


Contemporary art music has presented for several decades a difficutly of approach to the general public, resulting in an decreasing audience. This is due to several factors, but the main one is the rupture with the tonal system, which remains the basic reference for almost everyone (although it could be argued that today, pentatonic has replaced major and minor as the main mode both in terms of what people hear and what they sing). Simultaneously, recording and mass distribution has provided music with a much broader audience and turned it into a market. To make things even more difficcult, advances in research and increased awareness of the past has given to classical (and baroque, medieval, etc.) music a larger thant ever footprint. As François-Bernard Mâche put it [footnote : Musique, Mythe, Nature ou les dauphins d'Arion. Méridiens Klinckseck, Paris 1991], the place of contemporary art music is then ever shrinking, caught in between the supermarket and the museum.

Many composers have tried to provide an introduction to their music, given that musical languages can be so different from one composer to another (or even sometime from one compooser's piece to another). However, this has produced a trend of texts which wording and primarily intellectual stance seem to put away more people than they attract. The first sign of this evolution has been the generalization of specific titles. Whereas there used to be sonatas, quartets and symphonies, the XXth century has seen an increase in the use of titles, to the point where it became the rule sometime after WW II. This is of course parallel to the evolution of music itself, becoming through that period more and more remote from pre-existing moulds, and which style, form, and even instrumental combination is ever more personalized. Not only each composer, but each individual work has to call for attention on itself, provide clues to its stake, imaginary world, or hint at a way it is to be approached. Listeners are compelled to find or at least to open up to as many different listening attitudes, somewhat paralleling the change of visual approach for instance between figurative and abstract painting. The use of specific titles is not enough and composers, often requested to do so by concert organizers, provide texts to introduce their music. Given that many new music works do not get heard after their premiere performance, there is a sense of urge to facilitate the first listening, so that something can be made out of it. I believe integral serialism from the early 1950's [footnote : the principle ot series applied not only to the twelve-tone row but also to the other parameters such as rhythm, dynamics, and timbre, resulting in a non-hierarchic organization, difficult to apprehend by mere listening].started to impose the point of view of the composer to the listener. In effect, the latter is helpless if armed only by his ears and desperately looks for something to hold on to. Therefore the conception tends to take precedence over the perceptible result,, the poietic process over the esthesic. Following Nattiez, it is necessary to discriminate between poiesis - all deliberations and operations carrried out by the composer in the process of composing a work, and esthesis - the perceptual process and the assignment of meaning to a work. [footnote : Nattiez, J-J.Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music. Trans. Carolyn Abbate. Princeton: Princeton University Press.1979) ]. Even though serialism has taken place - as a strict practice - during a very short span of time, its negative impact has been such that it still influences people, and has forged the myth of contemporary music, through which following generations have apprehended it before even listening to it.

There is also a most common confusion today between art and experiment. Whereas in fact each creation is experimental and the two notions are generally unseparable, many lay people tell us contemporary music is experimental, thus discounting its artistic value and justifying their demand for explanations so as to understand it. I believe this to be a false track, as in fact the point is not to understand, but to open up to a different listening attitude. Granted, this is not necessarily a natural and easy thing to do, but this confusion leads to another one : between intellect and sensitivity. If a rational understanding of the work is put forward through explanations, this will necessarily be to the detriment of a more sensuous approach. Yet we have here two complimentary facets of music. I will even say, as my professor Pierre Schaeffer taught me, that musical pieces need to succeed to work on three levels : sound (materials, instantaneous, sensuous), musical (language, structures, memory and anticipation) and a higher, extra-musical level ("meaning", poetic, philisophical, spiritual, etc.) [footnote : Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des objets musicaux, Seuil, Paris, 1966. A translation in English, long awaited, is in process].

It is difficult to find one's way in the maze of today musical currents, with the burst of the very notion of current. Individual composers are likely to vary considerably their approach from work to work. Thus a common trend with listeners, musicologists, music critics, to base their perception of new pieces less on listening than on texts about the music, that tend too often to become the principal source of "understanding". It is not so rare that music critics write without even having heard the music they speak of, believing nevertheless they have the right to express an opinion merely based on program notes. I had myself this experience at a concert in Dijon, after which a journalist believed he could accuse me of using a "self-justifying verbose gibberish ". Unfortunately for him, the text he referred to was not written by myself. The Festival Why Note that year had asked some musicology students to write analytical presentations. The evident distortion between the journalist's paper and the concert reality, as experienced by a majority of the audience, showed clearly - and it is difficult to know which is worse - either the absence of the critic during the last part of the evening, or his total deafness. [footnote : Nicolas Vérin, Droit de réponse. Le Bien Public, Dijon, 20 december 1997, also available at] Such cases abound, when papers scarcely mention what has been heard, to concentrate on writings, whether they be found in the program notes or elsewhere.

This can happen too with concert organizers, or other decision-makers in the music field (such as reading panels). Their confidence in what they hear is not strong enough and they tend to ground their appreciation on side elements (writings, reputation, renoun of performers or publishers of the previous works). It becomes even more serious when it reaches part of the audience. One frequently sees in the arts, for example shows one "has" to see and where most people spend several minutes to read the picture's names, dates and other pieces of information. Then they throw a mere glance to the work itself, that deserves no more, since they now "know" most of what there is to know. In the concert hall, this translates by an assiduous reading of program notes, which, added to the composer's reputation, will so bias the listening experience, that the latter can hardly ever change the previously established opinion.

What a paradox, when the essence of the musical work is indicible by definition, otherwise composers would rather write poetry, or even prose! Program notes and other introductory texts seem now to carry the whole weight to convey what music can bring. However, if music exists, one can think it is precisely because it brings something irreplaceable that cannot be expressed otherwise!

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Maybe the best way to fill the gap in comprehension is through lecture- concerts. A didactic approach towards the general public has been much in fashion - at least in France - starting in the 60's, particularly with the large number of vulgarisation talks given by Pierre Boulez around the Domaine Musical concerts. This formula has continued with success throughout the next two decades, with for example the weekly lecture- concerts at the Maison de Radio-France. But it seems to have run out of steam or reached grotesque proportions. One could attend in 1991 the world premiere of Pierre Boulez's new version of Explosante-Fixe at teh Centre pompidou in Paris. His presentation, even though extremelly well done and sometimes even fascinating, lasted for an hour and half, for a then six-minutes long work ! [foot note: it was the first stage of this version, much developed since, following the "work in progress" principle dear to Boulez]. In any case, it remains that if lecture- concerts appear to me beneficial in that they allow to go beyond the surface in a lively and musical manner, they address a fringe of the audience, already motivated and partially informed.

One can also, following the example of Xenakis, decide to limit the program notes to a strict minimum,to purely factual information, so as to avoid journalistic deformations, partial quotations making no sense, and especially bad interpretations. One could even eliminate them altogether, though we know concert organizers generally quickly fill up the void by fishing a text from a paper or any other source. One could require them to make the effort of presentation : it does seem to be part of their function. But one risks getting extremely standardized and superficial texts. How then can this new music be mediated ?

I would like to relate here a particular attempt, that I was lucky enough to be able to carry out thanks to an invitation by the Groupe de Musique Électroacoustique d'Albi. It deals with an electroacoustic composition, In vino musica [foot note: featured in the CD "Musique des Vignes" GMEA MP9201, distributed by Métamkine,], specially composed to be the closure of the journey through the sonic show "Music of the Vines" presented in 1992 at the Centre Culturel de l'Albigeois. It is made of five movements each corresponding to a particular cépage (grape variety) indigenous to the Gaillac region. The music was spatialized using an installation of eight loudspeakers and was accompanied by a tasting of five wines made from the five pure cépages.

The G.M.E.A. (then composed of Thierry Besche and Roland Ossart, founders, and Vincent Geais and Marc Pichelin), and later the group Ouïe-Dire, which is an emanation from the GMEA, have carried on an extensive work on the notion of soundscape, first put forward by Murray Schaffer [footnote : The Tuning of the world, A. Knopf., inc., New York, 1977], or what they call "géophonie". The idea is to concentrate on a particular area, defined for example as a "canton" (administrative entity slightly larger than a village, that includes its surroundings). In a period of several weeks, all possible observations will be made on the standpoint of sound, and recordings made very carefully. Audition in studio on the material will allow selection, as well as slight editing, processing or mixing, touching up in the manner of a photography. Such "phonographies"; a term coined by François-Bernard Mâche [footnote : cf his piece Ianassa (phonographie de l'eau n°2] are much in the line of art photography, where the artistic process lies not in the creation of new material but in the capture of particular events happening at a given time and place, framed and recorded in a (necessarily) subjective manner.

The outcome of the process is to "stage" the recordings in a showing taking place in the midst of the canton, whether it be a museum, cultural center, or any suitable space. Dozens of loudspeaker are scattered throughout several rooms, allowing visitors a sonic promenade through a selection of banal or striking, sometimes beautiful excerpts, always representative of the acoustic reality of the surroundings. Visual elements, such as photos, texts, lighting, artifacts or more elaborate set designs, provide a guide on the path. Some sound recordings, because they are too long to be presented to all visitors, or their fragile nature requires complete isolation from other sounds, can be made available on headphones.

The idea is to bring out, to emphasize, to reveal to every visitor (hoping there is a large proportion of locals) the musicality contained in their environment. Their curiosity should become aroused and their sensitivity accrued to the acoustic world around them. This should develop an active listening attitude, allowing them to compose their own music by selecting distinct sounds, noticing chance relationship that may occur, unisson, echo, rhythm, texture, etc. and derive some pleasure from it. If such attitude became widespread, one could imagine the world as a happier place, and people with a more open mind, also towards contemporary music.

The "Musique des vignes" showing was the third or fourth of these "géophonies", and benefited of a larger scale due to its presentation at the Centre Culturel de l'Albigeois, which co-produced the event. The chosen canton was this time Gaillac, which main characteristic is to be a wine producing area. With a long history, it produces a fine wine, with a very distinctive quality.

The GMEA invited me to compose a piece that was to conclude the journey though the exposition. By agreement, all sound recordings made by the GMEA musicians would be made available to me, and vice versa. During the composition, I noticed that several varieties of grapes - cépages - indigenous to the Gaillac region are not to be found elsewhere. I chose to base a movement on each of them, and proceeded to capture as much qualities as possible for the wines produced with each cépage : impressions of taste, smell (bouquet), look (robe), feel, as well as descriptions of the grapes. This provided me with a filter, a grid, through which I sorted and organized the field recordings that comprised grape harvesting, fermentation sounds, pouring, bottling, as well as various sounds from the environment, such as birds, distant church bells, etc. I also drew upon my sound library, carefully listening to previously made sound ranging from improvised sequences with water dropping on a cup, to synthesizer eerie drones.

It became very clear, after composing a rough version of two or three movmeents, that they were going to be mostly static, as the description of an instant stretched over a longer time. This seemed to me problematic since it lent to a succession of rather non-directionnal mments, and such contemplative mode needed to be renewed, refreshed. It then occured to me that bottling sounds - that did not find theur place yet - were very interesting and theu dynamic, rhythmic qualities would provide the contrast I needed. I thus inserted an interlude between each movement, giving me a satisfying form with five movements and four interludes.

The composition process went on by combining and processing a choice of materials, adding also new ones whenever needed (created in studio using synthesizer, sampler and specific recordings). The last stages were editing (using one of the first commercially available hard disk based unit, synchronized with a 12-track digital recorder) and mixing (manually, but with four hands and a lot of rehearsing and many takes). I benefited from the assistance of Marc Pichelin in all stages, while some sound recordings were made by Thierry Besche, Roland Ossart and Vincent Geais. The latter also introduced me to Gaillac wines, in several tasting sessions in cellars or at Gaillac's Laboratoire d'oenologie.

Only during the last stages of mixing came the idea of a giving the piece simultaneously with a wine-tasting concert, as the result of a discussion with Thierry Besche, who immediately acted to make it happen. Vincent Geais chose the five particular wines, each made of 100% of a typical cépage, as I was working on the spatialization. The piece had been mixed onto six tracks, so as to allow a listening experience as full as possible, "inside" the sound. I used the GMEA's Matrica, a device they had commisioned to Ruben Fernandez (designer of the famous RSF analog synthesizers). It comprised an expendable matrix of 64 voltage controlled amplifiers (in hardware), permitting control of all possible paths from 8 sources distributed over 8 speakers. This was controlled by MIDI, using a software written for Macintosh, allowing to draw the envelopes of all sound paths. This was yet a prototype, and needed to have a higher level control, since it required to manually draw all 48 envelopes.

Fortunately, I was able to work on location, with the actual sound system and room, so I could test the result and correct it at will. Three days of intense work were just enough to write the automation of the 20 minutes piece. This was worthwile, since the wine-tasting concert was given over 30 times in the five weeks the "Musique des vignes" showing went on.

Although a familiar experience - at least to the French - wine tasting is generally a rather unprecise one, since most people do not possess much specific vocabulary. This does not mean perception itself is not refined, but that such limited vocabulary certainly hampers on memorisation and recognition (one could arguably consider this to chiefly concern specialists).Thus we are faced with a familiar yet possibly refined, but rather unintellectualized experience of concentration on one's feelings : here, look, smell, taste and feel are all called upon. Why couldn't we do the same with sound ? In a way, this is already the situation of electroacoustic music : a music which is carried through chiefly by sensation. I do not mean here to be reductive. Most achieved works present all three levels : sonic, musical, and significance. But I want to stress the fact that this type of music can bring a sensuous pleasure, often the first perception one feels, especially when it is well spatialized over multiple loudspeakers.

Thus the wine-tasting experience shares with electroacoustic music an approach based on pure sensation, and seems to be an ideal introduction to the listening experience. Indeed, it has been evident that the majority of the public was able to enter easily into an attentive listening of this music. They found support and possible comparisons which made the experience easy and agreable. Suppleness, strength, grain, force, subtlety, flowery, red fruits, attack, sustain- here are some terms used to describe sensations that could be used towards both the wine-tasting and the music.

About a thousand persons from the Albi region (south-west of France) had the experience. For the most part, they would not even have set foo in a contemporary msuci concert, (or maybe even a classical one). They seemed to enjoy themselves, be at ease, and would often stay 15 or 30 minutes after the music was over, to prolong the experience, discuss among themselves and ask a few questions. Clearly, the usual bias about the difficulty of understanding this music, its "intellectualism", were absent. Once the anguish to try and understand brushed aside, and a propitious climate to pure perception was installed, this music came across easily. Without doubt, the installation, the way to organize the performance without reference to the traditional concert, all concurred to evacuate the uneasyness sometime generated by the absence of live performer (in this case, this was possibly an aid, in that it allowed to establish a different ambiance from the "bourgeois" concert that could have put off this audience).

Beyond the mere anecdote, I think this is very significant. Indeed, how long has it been and how often is it that we hear composers - other actors of contemporary music - complain about audiences that try too hard to understand rather than to be open to perception ? And yet, who wrote all these obscure, mystifying texts as program notes glanced through with anxiety concert-goers ? This is an unacceptable paradox, which we must overcome if we are to avoid complete rupture between contemporary art music and its audience.

I am not of course offering wine-tasting as the response to all problems. Merely, it has been helpfull in sheding light and identify precisely the inner workings of an important issue. It suggests one kind of solution, which is to associate other media in the perception, in a way that breaks away with the traditional concert ritual. This is applcable mostly, or at least more easily, to electroacoustic music.

Maybe the most important is that the keys to a work be given by the work itself. For example, one can state from the beginning elements and relationships which are going to be the subject upon which the listening experience will be focusing. The piece must therefore be, in this perspective, its own guide, and lead the listener in a clear manner. Is it in contradiction with the depth or maybe mystery a true work of art must possess, allowing enjoyment and discovery after repeated listenings ? This fundamental question must be borne in mind, but I think it can be overcome.

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A part of uncertainty is desirable in the approach of a new work. But it should not be complete uncertainty. This may much vary according to individual tastes, with one person prefering a walk at random in a wild forest, while another will need to follow clearly marked paths in order to concentrate on her feelings.

" some of the difficulties which audiences have with modern music do not result from the fact that the redundancy rate of this music is at times so low as to be unable to counteract the cultural noise which is always present in a communication situation. Uncertainty is important in the arousal of meaning and information. One must, however, distinguish between desirable and undesirable uncertainty. Desirable uncertainty is that which arises within and as a result of the stuctured probabilities of a style system in which a finite number of antecedents and consequents become mutually relevant through the habits, beliefs, and attides of a group of listener. Undesirable uncertainty arises when the probabilities are not known, either because the listerner's habit responses are not relevant to the style (cultural noise), or because external interference (acoustical noise) obscures the structure of the situation being considered."

[Footnote : Leonard B. Meyer, Music, the arts, and ideas, University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 17,]

Therefore no situation is ideal for all. But program notes may provide, for those who want to read them, indications to what may be significant what will not be relevant in the listening experience to come. It seems to me organizers would be better advised to write up their own program notes, or have them written by competent people if they do not find themselves equipped for it. These notes should allow an understanding of the music and the composer's intentions, but should not be strictly focused on that aspect, and rather give some useful informations, key indications to facilitate access, without too much bias. Indeed, each work can be approached by as many ways as there are listeners.

Moreover, any other way, for example through the association with other senses, such as images or taste, that allow an easier approach, without the need to provide expanations, seems to mehighly desirable. Above all, I think of paramount importance, given the present-day context where there is no common language, that a work should contain its own guidelines, exposed in a musical yet clear fashion at the beginning of the piece.

In vino musica was an important step in my personal development, in term of composition and also in a greater awareness of the issue of the audience's perception. The time is gone when artists could remain in their ivory towers. Part of the creativity has to be spent on how to reach people, without compromises over the content.





Appendix 1 : press about In vino musica

"The music of Mauzac, light, earthly without excess, with a slight taste of stony river... the Lenc de l'elh proposes a point of harshness softened up by distant little bells. A somewhat exotic sound, low and dry, and an electronic bird complete the tableau. It is as one of these memories that evades one as you capture it, auditive and gustative notations, too brief and yet that leave an indefinable impression... The Syrah is a music/wine that is anchored, strong, which attacks with an acidity that disappears right away. Far away sounds or words, whispered, liquid, deep, it is rough and real like jute linen. The Duras is a wine whose sound has travelled much, garnered many a scent of herbs, of liquorice roots heated by the sun, of dews and autumn haze. It is a tale narrated as if by the fireside. Finally, the Braucol is an elaborated music, reflective, with electronic bamboo breathings, it's a wine of today, with vocal sounds, in which each instant makes one bite in handfuls of bitter and fragrant berries, makes one travel."  

Michel Thion, Révolution n°673, 21 January 1993.


Appendix 2 : program notes for In vino musica


Five movements and four interludes :


Mauzac ; Interlude 1 : machines 1 ; Syrah ; Interlude 2 : bouteilles ; Lenc de l'elh ; Interlude 3 : machines 2 ; Duras ; Interlude 4 : aquatuor ; Braucol


Each of these five pieces was inspired by a typical cépage (grape species) from the Gaillac region. I these work, I tried to establish, in a purely personal and subjective way, correspondences between several senses - sight, taste, smell and hearing. Four interludes bring some air into the piece with clearly differentiated short and rhythmic material. Some of the source materials come from the wine-making activities : sounds of fermentation, pouring or flowing liquids, bottling, etc.

The Mauzac opens the piece, with suppleness, finesse, smoothness, with a rather yellow color, almost golden, sweet - it is mostly used for a sweet white wine well known in the Paris bistrots -, calm and champêtre. Follows an interlude, Machines 1, that combines in a rhythmic fashion several bottling machines with other sounds. Syrah comes next, violet, somber and slow, strongly built but with melancoly, distant and as hallucinated. The second interlude plays with Bouteilles (bottles), rubbed, hit one against another,and hybridized with intrumental sounds. Fresh and fruity, the Lenc de l'elh ("far from the eye" in Occitan, the old language of southwest France) gives fine white wines with bouquet, aromas of white flowers, springtime ; it is lively, light, shiny. It gives out a feeling of permanence, through held sounds or repetitions, small aerial bells, a certain plasticity, a large sonic space made up from multiple plans in which are present both fragility and tenacity. Then the Machines 2 come out, working from small explosions of fermentation to rhythms that little by little let one hear their mechanical origin. Then comes the Duras, a very old cépage, of a bluish black, producing a delightful wine, elegant, colored, amusing. It is the occasion for a danse, in an ascending spiral shape, light and enlivened. The Aquatuor is a dialog between four independent parts, obtained by various filterings of flowing liquids or of fermentation. The piece ends with the Braucol, ("wild bull" in Occitan), with black bays, grenat, very marked. Powerful and dramatic, grave and balanced, it develops a depth and ends with wild and intense aromas.

The realization of In vino musica was made possible thanks to the help, in a great many different domains, of all the members from the Groupe de Musique Electro-acoustique d'Albi-Tarn, and it is in all friendship that I dedicate this work to Thierry, Roland, Marc and Vincent.

In vino musica is available on the CD "Musique des vignes" (GMEA MP9201, distr. Métamkine), along with other pieces by Thierry Besche, Marc Pichelin and jazz saxophonist Jean-Marc Padovani.



Appendix 3 : list of performances of In Vino Musica (as of january 2003)


-November through December 1992 :Albi, approx. 30 performances at the Centre Culturel de l'Albigeois, with wine-tasting and space designed by Jean-François Prigent, lighting by Thierry d'Oliveira.

-May 1995, Paris Galerie de l'Ecluse, (2 performances)

-September 1993, Berkeley, California, CNMAT, opening of the season, with wine-tasting

-December 1993, Annecy, Festival "Concerts d'Hiver et d'Aujourd'hui", full version with wine-tasting, spatialization and designed space

-December 1993, Paris, Festival Electro-CD, Grand Auditorium de la Maison de Radio-France ; concert version, spatialization by Jean Schwartz

-January 1995, Grand Auditorium de la Maison de Radio-France ; concert version

-October 1996, Moscow, Autumn Festival ; concert version

-June 1997, Brussels, Rencontres "European Electro-acoustic Music" ; concert version

-June 1997, Sens, Workshop of sculptor Yvan Messac ; concert version

-December 1997, Dijon, Why Note Festival, concert version (spatialized over 16 speakers)

-June 2001, Evry, concert of Nicolas Vérin's electroacoustic music class, with performance by three different students

-March 2002, Dijon, Scientific colloquium on Taste, 2 performances in a cellar, with wine-tasting and design by Véronique Verstraette

- October 2002, Mâcon, Centre Culturel, Festival Paragraphe, 2 performances with wine-tasting and design by Véronique Verstraette

-several airings : France Musique (May 1993 and 1995), France Culture (excerpts in March 2001), Radio Parabole in Dijon (1998), FR3 Toulouse (regional television excerpts in 1992)



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