Conversation between José Luis Campana and Barbara Contamin (musicologist)

A force of attraction - world music


For a long time now contemporary music has been looking for new sonorities in order to combine them with traditional vocal and instrumental sounds. There are two options here: globalism (the contributions of instruments from Asia, Africa, South America, etc.), and tools such as: samplers, computer or other programmes. Which of these two options strikes you as being more promising, as being the most apt for releasing unexpected, interesting and novel sonorities?

In ‘world music’ you find rhythms, melodic curves, ways of tuning instruments, tone-colours, articulations and modes of play that are completely unheard of in our European traditions of notated music.

In particular, the whole variety that ‘world music’ can bring me is food for my musical imagination, whether I am composing purely acoustic or electroacoustic scores.

As for the second part of your question, my experience with regard to the operations of control and transformation of the musical parameters via the computer allow me to develop a technique of working through which I can apply (without necessarily the use of electronics) the principles and the results that I discover in CAM (computer assisted music). This means that I can compose works that are solely acoustic in which I employ writing techniques that are so-called ‘classical’ yet are very often modified by the use of techniques associated with electronic music.

My work is founded on a continuous play of instructions: a ‘controlling framework’ and ‘groupings of sound matter’ to be manipulated, and this will enable me to excite ‘inventivity’, which in turn will set off ‘emotion’, the whole evolving under ‘permanent control’.

I always try to keep a vigilant attitude in connection with the manner in which the listener will recompose my score after having heard it.

For me there are no permanent laws, but certain principles are nonetheless embedded in my compositions, ‘intemporal’ ones, for example: the reference points (the reappearance of a chord, a melodic curve, a sonority, a rhythmic structure) are for me ‘guiding threads’, ‘milestones’ that guide the listener’s ‘trajectory of perception’, in the same way that the formal concision and the economy with regard to material are principles that, I believe, if I manage to master them adequately, could give ‘coherence’ to the flow of my music. At any rate, this is one of my major preoccupations when I start a new score.

The aphorisms in your work Asi… for guitar and electronics conjure up at certain moments a historicising Hispanic atmosphere, despite the addition of the new type of articulation with which you treat the guitar. Is this encounter of the old and the new deliberate?.

Yes, absolutely, quite deliberate. Obviously, when I work with samples of ‘units of perception’ that are rhythmic, melodic or other, coming from sound worlds that I don’t know, I must study them, ‘tame’ them, learn the ways of treating and using them within the language I am busy structuring for this or that work, and then, in their multiple acoustic or electroacoustic forms, give them ‘meaning’, a reason for existence throughout the musical discourse of the work. For example: change them with similar forms produced by the main instrument (in this case the guitar) or else ‘mutate’ them with other modes of play, melodic curves or rhythmic cells from other musical sources.

As you can imagine, I don’t have to hand, for example, a musician who can play the Iraqi oud or the Bolivian charango, so I take samples and work at them with the help of the computer while still retaining, as far as possible, the original identity, the freshness, that is to say by not changing the essence with too much electronic transformation, as you can see in Asi… : I try, therefore, to create ‘symbioses’ of structures of perception that are ‘hybrid’, cross-overs of classical Western acoustic instruments and others from outside Europe. This forms a kind of ‘orchestration’ with two acoustic materials, though they are only in part subjected to electronic treatment. In this context, I use the computer to mix sounds, to put together, to modify the velocity of the melodic curves or rhythmic cells in order to transpose materials to new pitch zones, to add reverberation, but not necessarily to interfere with the inbuilt identity of the sound, in such a way that the listeners no longer recognise the origin of the selected samples, even if I use them in forms that are permanently fused.

You were recently awarded the First Prize in the ‘K Serocki Musical Composition Competition’ in Warsaw for your orchestral work TOI-tu…. Would you say something about the sound material used in this score?

This acoustic composition, written for an entirely classical formation, does not include any musical elements that are extra-European in origin. For this score I took three abstract structures: a sound bloc, a resonance and a melodic curve, that I treat, through the application of techniques used in CAM, but this time, there is no electronic treatment whatsoever. This type of procedure is also very common in my work as a composer.

In this way the listener will be able to hear in this score three layers of sound evolving simultaneously and following different transformations throughout the musical discourse, each in turn taking the principle or the secondary role as the musical situation requires. We have – almost permanently – a perception of three ‘tempos’, of three types of matter that become intertwined and that separate from the start to the end of the work.

This is music with evolving forms on a resonating ‘background’ that itself is in a state, as I said, of constant ‘mutation’.

As for the treatment of colour, I am inspired by painting. I have, for example, a trumpet play mezzoforte and then on the same notes (deforming them or not by very small intervals) I have a clarinet playing mezzopiano that appears and disappears, then a viola with the dynamic piano to mezzoforte then down to pianissimo. This produces a ‘hybrid’ tone-colour, an undefined colour. Most of the score is composed with this technique, something I have used with the orchestra for a long time already. As you see, I also find inspiration from the techniques used in an electronic music studio.