Residence Sasha J. Blondeau : 1/2

The artistic residency blog

It's back-to-school time, and with it the inauguration of a new artistic research residency, that of Sasha J. Blondeau. It's a residency unlike any other since it's not about sound synthesis or processing, motion analysis or tracking, or orchestration or composition assistance. Or rather, yes, it is about helping composition, but in a previously overlooked aspect: the conceptual elaboration of form, abstracted from any pre-established material or preconceived idea.

Form is undoubtedly one of the great unanswered questions of contemporary musical creation - and has been for the past century. Many aspects of musical writing have been called into question, reworked, revisited, even revised from top to bottom: melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, instrumental playing and so on. But whether because composers wanted to proceed step by step, or for lack of any real ideas on the subject, the elaboration of form remained for a long time confined to tried-and-tested procedures: the Second Viennese School thus remained faithful to the canons of classical form, the serials deduced large form from small form (in an almost direct manner), and the repetitives went looking for their long forms in non-European music. Certainly, the spectral innovated with process - but this process, often related to sound analysis, is in many ways a form legitimized by the material used.

Even today, many composers still draw on archetypal forms: arches, variations, mirrors and other triturations of the material. Others turn to a more intuitive approach, letting themselves be carried along by the material and its developments as they write. Still others prefer extramusical metaphor, or more or less scrupulously follow a mathematical model (sieve, probability, fractals, etc.), or draw their inspiration from the physical, biological or chemical sciences... Many of them give voice to a "journey" or "sound trajectory".

None of these approaches has ever satisfied Sasha J. Blondeau who, as soon as he completed his PhD in composition with the Representations musicales team at IRCAM-STMS, notably alongside Jean-Louis Giavitto, began to develop radically different tools to help him produce original forms that would also offer the listener perceptible musical dramaturgies.

His idea was therefore to conceive a spatial model in which potential musical ideas or formulas could be inscribed, even if the terms idea or formula are overly connoted in the musical microcosm. Perhaps we should speak instead of musical "concepts" or "modules". Symbolized by a given form (in this case, a tetrahedron, i.e. a polyhedron with four triangular faces), these potentialities are organized in space in relation to one another according to their proximity, or even their similarities when they exist. The elaboration of the shape then consists in imagining a journey through space, jumping from one tetrahedron to the next. Roughly speaking, from a given tetrahedron, the composer can move either to its neighbor - in which case there will be a sense of continuity, at least in certain aspects of the material - or to a more distant tetrahedron - in which case there will be more of a sense of rupture.
To fully understand the principle, we need to clarify both the model and how to use it.

First, the model: a tetrahedron has 4 vertex corners. Each of these corners represents an aspect of the material: one for timbre, one for pitch, one for rhythm, and one for power. Each is described (declared, as one would say of a computer variable) by the composer, in various forms: numerical, highly descriptive over time (evolution of a spectrum or rhythm), or even in the form of a linguistic expression. Example: for timbre, I want something brass-like; for pitch, more in the treble moving towards the midrange; for rhythm, animated and unbalanced; for power, dense, highly directive and polarized.

Two tetrahedrons may have the same vertex corners if the declared description of one of the variables (an aspect of the material) is identical—or even two or three—in which case they share an edge or side. In this way, you can observe their proximity visually, on the spatial representation you've created from all the declared materials. One thing leading to another, we obtain a graph in space with the various tetrahedrons declared, adjacent or not, more or less distant.
Next, its use.

Espaces @ Sasha J. Blondeau

The first step is to declare the different musical concepts you want to work with. You can declare as many as you like, even if you don't use them afterwards. And you may have to change them later, or declare new ones. In this way, the model remains highly flexible in the face of current needs.
What's interesting here is that there are no notes on paper yet. The musical concept doesn't really exist in the sense that it's still totally abstract - even if the composer may have a small idea, it could evolve or even change radically by the end of the process. This is a form of conceptualization reminiscent of the relationship established by semantics between a word and its signified: just as the word "table" gives an idea of the table, but does not describe it precisely (we know neither its size, nor its material, nor its color, nor its number of legs, nor its use, which is sometimes misappropriated).

The second step was to represent them in space - a step to which the Musical Representations team made a major contribution.

Third step—and this is the heart of the reactor—is to imagine a trajectory within this space. A trajectory that is coherent and relevant to the dramaturgy of the projected piece. Incidentally, the term "musical voyage" in a "sound universe" takes on a whole new meaning here! If we wanted to draw a parallel with other artistic disciplines, we could speak of the "plan" of a text or a house, or the "storyboard" of a film or comic strip.

The fourth step: now that the outline of the plan has been decided, it's time to write. You could almost speak of "realization", like that of a film or, in a more musical context, of a bass to be harmonized. Only then do notes, or sounds if the work is electronic, materialize on the score, whether paper or computerized.

In the same way that no two authors would write the same scenes or settings in exactly the same way ( putting the accent on particular details to suit their own sensibilities), and therefore not write the same book from the same synopsis or detailed outline, two composers will certainly produce two different pieces from the same given form. The same composer may even produce two different pieces from the same form, depending on his or her mood or inspiration of the day! What's more, the chosen trajectory may pass through the same tetrahedron several times, without the musical realization being identical each time - influenced as it is by the route taken so far or, again, the mood of the moment.

Just as an architect's design may evolve during the construction of a house, a chosen trajectory can be amended or rectified at any time. And even later: if a section of the trajectory doesn't work to get from one point to another on the graph, we can of course test others, just as we can take different routes to get from one place to another.
Today, while Sasha J. Blondeau refines this method of formal elaboration as his compositions evolve, he felt the need not only to rework it - but also to rethink the question of form and its conceptualization in composition more broadly - where he first imagined it: as part of the Représentations musicales team, as part of an artistic research residency. What tools can be used to control and constrain a trajectory in these spaces of musical quality? What links can be developed with more conventional timeline representations? How can we expressly integrate, in this type of spatial representation, notions traditionally used to talk about musical form, such as expectation, surprise, climax, development, leitmotiv, contrast or variation?

In addition to further developing and improving the method, to better define it, the challenges of this residency also include thinking more generally about formal conceptualization tools, and meeting fellow composers to discover, question and reflect on their own methods and practices.
In any case, the idea is to explore and reflect on effective methodologies and tools that can become mediums for thinking about form and dramaturgy.

Des mondes possibles

by Sasha J. Blondeau (recorded at the Centre Pompidou, 2021)

  1. Des mondes possibles by Sasha J. Blondeau (recorded at the Centre Pompidou, 2021)