The following is a guest post by composer Igor Santos.
confined. speak. is a 15-minute work for violin and piano commissioned by the McKim Fund in the Library of Congress. It was written for Ensemble Dal Niente members MingHuan Xu and Winston Choi and was recorded in Chicago on October 27, 2020, for a virtual premiere on November 13 of the same year.
The work addresses the condition of confinement, expressed through various musical and metaphorical interpretations of the word. It is a humble reaction to our current times—the health/economic COVID-19 crisis—not so much by depicting and reflecting on confinement of space, but also thinking of confinement of expression as well—a feeling of impatience, of being stuck, of having to wait out the current status. Being creative during the last few months has been difficult for me, but writing this music was cathartic, and the process made it easier once such topic was defined.
In the context of some of my recent music, confined. speak. continues an exploration of paths designed to balance the complexity of a contemporary music lexicon (e.g. complex sounds/textures, extended techniques, microtonality, etc.) with narratives and procedures that are direct and empathetic to listeners. I am interested in art that maximizes its qualities of innovation and subversion and that also manages to be deeply personal, relatable, and that provides a sense of continuity of community.
Musically, I initially address these concerns through two techniques, namely mimesis and repetition. Mimesis is heard in the musical motives, “melodies,” and gestures of my works, all of which imitate the human voice or other sounds from the real-world. Repetition is heard as loops, loops within loops, and refrains—procedures that allow for nuances to be better heard, understood and contextualized. To me both these techniques invite the listener into a familiar place because they engage with memory: mimesis invokes collective memories from the outside world (sounds and gestures that are relatable to most people) while repetition establishes new memories from within. Rhythm and pulse also act as a kind of collective memory in my music, and I often use it to simplify and balance complex and rich soundscapes.
These techniques are explicit in my recent work anima (2019), for example, which blends performer vocalizations with extended instrumental techniques in pulsed and incisive rhythms—transforming them into kinetic and groovy textures—and which also employs repetition as a way to reify elusive timbres. My most recent large ensemble work, portrait IO (2020), takes this thesis to an extreme by presenting a sampler (with a bank of sounds from everyday life) and instruments in constant doubling with one another, all structured through a narrative of variegated repetitions and a simple logic of input/output (inhale/exhale, indoor/outdoor, open/closed, private/public, question/answer). My works with electronics all follow a similar mindset, one focused on defamiliarizing well-known acoustic instruments into what I call “meta-instruments” (e.g. études for piano and synthesizer (2014-16), and suggested affinities, a concerto for meta-piano and ensemble (2018)).
Mimesis, in confined. speak., is heard through the different ways in which confinement is sonified. Sound, for example, is confined through:
• the use of heavy mutes on strings (a metal practice mute for the violin, and blu-tack for piano strings)
• through short loops (representing confined/stuck time)
• through cluster harmonies, both chromatic and diatonic (confined pitch space)
• and through playing sounds from within a box—a “confined speaker” (or confined loudspeaker, to be more precise).
The latter serves as a theatrical and symbolic element in the work. The box (pictured below) is placed on stage between both performers and serves to muffle the speech recordings coming from the loudspeaker. This renders words unintelligible and alters the timbre of the voice (similar to the kind of muffled sound our voices get from wearing protective masks)—all of which is subsequently emulated by the violin and piano.
This “confined speaker” box also pays homage to a niche history: that of the 1950/60s conceptual artists’ obsession with boxes that produce unknown and mysterious sounds, such as Marcel Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise (1916) and sculptor Robert Morris’ I BOX (1961) and his better known The Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (also 1961). I have been fascinated by these works for some time, and always think about them in light of the following passage (taken from Duchamp’s “Notes”):
“A new box of Swedish matches, that we just bought, is lighter than an opened box because it does not make noise.”
confined. speak. also explores the sonification of constrained expression, represented through stuttering sounds and gestures, abrupt cut-offs of phrases, and other rhetorical devices that disrupt the fluency of music and “speech.” These devices are articulated by both the instruments and a boxed loudspeaker and function as recurring thematic markers.
Finally, it is of crucial importance that this work is written for Ensemble Dal Niente, who are now longtime collaborators of mine, and whom I see as a kind of musical family. I wrote this music with Winston Choi’s and MingHuan Xu’s strengths and personalities in mind, and while rehearsing they have added invaluable improvements to the score. Beyond this work, however, much of my musical thinking and writing is inspired by the ensemble’s ethos, and I am in awe of their intellectual engagement and action towards the aesthetic and social issues surrounding the field of new music. The work is dedicated to them, who continue to passionately (and carefully!) make music despite major logistical or spiritual constraints.
Nov. 8, 2020.