Philippe Manoury -

Philippe Manoury - "Das Wohlpräparierte Klavier"

On September 5, 2021 at the Boulez Saal (Berlin), Das Wohlpräparierte Klavier (... troisième sonate ...) the new work for piano & electronics in real time by Philippe Manoury will be premiered by his commissioner: Daniel Barenboim. Here is the transcript of the interview with the composer about this premiere:

Could you explain to us when your musical path crossed that of Daniel Barenboim? More precisely, how did the idea of this Das Wohlpräparierte Klavier, which will be premiered on 5 September in the Boulez Saal in Berlin, come about?

François-Xavier Roth was conducting Pierre Boulez’s Répons in the Boulez Saal and Barenboim was so fascinated by the way electronic sounds resonated in this hall that he asked who could write for him a work for piano and electronics that he himself would premiere. In that very hall. That's how François-Xavier suggested my name to him. That is how it all started. I had long had the idea of writing a work called Das Wohlpräparierte Klavier, for several reasons. When I lived in California, I was surprised by how many composers still continued to use prepared pianos, John Cage’s somewhat Dadaist invention that I thought had essentially disappeared. In reality, this concept has remained somewhat stagnant in the United States. Moreover, we cannot make it evolve. However, the idea of transforming the piano with electronic means is always of great interest. Daniel Barenboim was afraid at one point that I would ask him to play the prepared piano. I quickly reassured him by telling him that we would not put any needles, screws or pieces of wood in his piano. The electronics would take care of everything!

I compared this method of transforming instrumental sounds with that during Bach's lifetime, when musicians quarrelled over different ways of tuning keyboards, dubbed the quarrel of the temperaments. When he wrote his Wohltemperiertes Klavier, Bach wanted to show that the keyboards could be tuned so that they could play in all the keys. There are many analogies between this period and our own…, except that in the 17th century, music’s theoretical problems inspired the minds of intellectuals and philosophers alike, which is far from being the case today! So I made a reference to Bach by dividing my composition into two main sections: a fairly free-spirited fantasy followed by a rigorous and strict form, as he often did. For the latter, I inserted another reference, ironic and almost a parody, to Cage. He wrote Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. His “sonatas” are small pieces in the spirit of the simple forms of Scarlatti's sonatas. As for myself, I decided to compose a more developed sonata, in the spirit of Beethoven, interrupted by interludes of freer forms. So there is a subtle element of parody in this work, but rather in the sense that Joyce parodied Homer in Ulysses. There are no parodies or musical quotes in this work.

 In an enlightening text found on your website, you explain working on a "chamber music work in which the piano will converse with an electronic discourse, which will not be entirely fixed in advance, like an "open form" ". This dialogue between man and machine seems very current; could you describe for us these characteristics and the aesthetic intention which led you to work on what you call "virtual scores"?

I have been developing this concept of “virtual scores” for more than 30 years. It is about setting up computer processes which collect the data of the musical performance and use them as compositional parameters. The computer samples what the musician is playing, sometimes analyses it, and uses it to create musical structures. Electronic music in real time will be calculated based on this interpretive data. This should not be confused with improvisation; it is the composition which takes into account the interpretation. The performer does not improvise, he has before his eyes a score as precise as possible but, as is always the case, there are an infinite number of ways to interpret it. Each interpretation will therefore be unique each time. The interpretation, in all its details, is by definition unpredictable. The performer knows he has to play one note after another, but he cannot decide the exact time between them or the amount of energy he will place on that note. He can determine the outlines, but certainly not the exact values. It is this unpredictable element that I sample with the computer. It is not necessarily a question of using the principle of "open forms" but rather organising the virtual scores so that they are sensitive to the way in which the performers are going to play, for example they adapt their tempo to that of the musician. A classical score is a written work frozen in time, and that's perfectly acceptable. We still play scores from the 16th and 17th centuries which have not changed. But the way we interpret them has changed greatly. A virtual score, on the other hand, is born when the performer plays and disappears forever, once that moment has passed. People often ask me: is music always different? I answer: yes, and it is also the case when you listen to any work in the repertoire. I am therefore reintroducing a completely traditional framework. I do it because, in its early days, electronic music was like cinema. They were fixed, recorded sounds, insensitive to time and acoustic situations. You could neither slow down, nor accelerate, nor adapt your tempo to the acoustic conditions, which are fundamental data of musical practice, all civilisations and eras combined. I wanted this digital culture, with its fascinating features, to join traditional musical culture. This is possible today because we have computers that have offered great flexibility to electronic music. This would not have been possible in the past.

Going further, you indicate in your text that the work will "speak" of "influences" and "attractions", you even go so far as to suggest the idea that it "will tell the story of a human being influencing the world around him, despite resistance, inertia and sometimes enmity.” It is hard to believe, however, that this is "programme music" as it was known in the 19th and early 20th century... Could you clarify the meaning of your metaphor?     

Naturally, this is only a metaphor. Our brain is made in such a way that we develop an irrepressible tendency to try to predict the future, even if only the future in the shortest sense of the word (less than a second for example) when we listen to music and even a spoken phrase. This phenomenon has long been studied by philosophers and scientists. Think of it as if we were dealing with magnets drawing us to them. Music possesses this phenomenon of attraction on several levels. Our current Western civilisation, still in the grips of the same tonal music - even more so with the global rise of pop music - confirms this entirely. We know that such and such a chord will end a phrase or a work; even if you don't know its name, you can feel it. This power of attraction, which is linked to prediction, has tended to disappear in different styles of contemporary music. I want to reintegrate it without falling into neo-tonality or returning to the traditional forms of the past. For example, hearing a slow repetitive sound rotation that accelerates and goes up towards the higher registers makes us imagine it as a force of attraction for other voices, like a star around which planets revolve due to its gravitational pull. The other voices will then approach it and try to embrace its movement as well as its sound. A voice will attract another towards it and shape its development. Again, all of this is only possible thanks to the technology of computers. For me, sounds are no longer just an acoustic phenomena, but they are objects that send information to each other and influence each other. Sounds speak to one another, one might say. I'm sure we are here at the start of something that is just beginning and could have great significance in future music - if we accept that music goes beyond mere entertainment or the object of fascination of purely conceptual avant-gardist trends in which sounds no longer have any importance. For this reason, it is necessary to continue working with the sounds themselves and not to reject what they contain in them as a source of new expressions. I'm currently thinking about some sort of sound attraction theory.

The natural model of the “flocking” of birds also seems to exist in this work. Could you explain to future listeners of the work how they should “listen to themselves” during the performance of the work?

The "flocking" phenomenon observed in the clouds of birds seemed an excellent model to me for these attractions. In reality a bird is in contact with 7 or 8 other birds around it and, if it flies in a different direction from the cloud, it will influence each one of them, which in turn will influence 7 or 8 others, and so on. So the whole cloud will gradually change direction. What is fascinating about this model is that there is no leader. Each individual can, at any time, become the provisional leader of the others birds, which amounts to saying that there is no leader. But I'm not sure it's possible to transpose this pattern directly into the music. As always, it will have to be adapted to a musical reality. I am going to create layers of electronic sounds as the audience enters the room. These layers will be distributed among several sound layers which will influence each other, a bit like the "flocking" of birds. And it is in this context that Daniel Barenboim will sit down in front of his piano and start playing. And it is he who will then become the "leader" of the electronic music that surrounds him.





Philippe Manoury - Das wohlpräparierte Klavier
for piano and electronics in real time
World premiere: 5 September 2021 

Pierre Boulez Saal
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Gilbert Nouno, electronic Music Design
Philippe Manoury, mixing