Pierluigi Billone
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Lecture 2010 - Harvard, Cambridge Columbia University, N.Y.

Pierluigi Billone

To be a composer means for me to be at the centre of a constellation of questions.
My work is an individual answer to these questions.
It deals with very direct, open and clear formulated questions.
The real problem is: the possible answer.

The more general questions.

Which sense has my work, individually and in the social and cultural context I live?
Which is the real space of freedom, I can operate within?
As human being, as worker, as musician?
Which is my active and passive rule inside the musical world I live?
Which influence has on my creative freedom the culture in which I grew?
How direct, deep, real interested in, is my knowledge of the past, of the tradition, of the modernity, of the actuality? Is it a real dialogue?
Which rule plays this knowledge in my work?
What means for me as composer, Classical Music, Contemporary Music, Jazz,
Electronic music, Improvisation, Pop Music (in all possible forms),
Music of any kind, Traditional Music of my country and of other countries?
In which relationship are all these kinds of music with my work?
How open and sensible, or closed and inflexible, is the human and artistic context I am in touch with?
Which is the real geographical-cultural dimension today of the musical knowledge of an individual?

The more particular questions:

What does it mean Sound today? And where?
What does it mean for me, Sound and Experience of Sound?
Which real culture speaks inside me, through me, as an unknown and unaware voice?
Which knowledge do I really possess, theoretical and/or practical, of the rule my work- tools play, in my activity?
In which real relationship are, today, for me, Sound practice, Sound thought, and technological transformed reality?
At which degree and layer of awareness do I operate in my work?


If one takes and listens to these questions seriously, word by word, the answer is not so obvious and immediate. It could be even unforeseeable.

Every time someone decides to dedicate his energies to the music, he comes in touch with a sound conception and a sound culture, which are already defined and acting.
To be a composer means of course a work and a profession.
But this experience could also become an occasion and a way of knowledge.
In this case it is not always possible to know, where the way leads.


If I ask: what is Sound?

Something appears in the dimension of Sound.
It begins to be recognized as *Sound.
Not every vibration could be Sound.

Sound is not an acoustic definition.
Sound stands always for a revealing relationship.
Sound is a special kind of name:
it reveals what a human being is in contact with, on what he depends for his balance.
It is a rhythmical revelation, in an extreme wide sense.


*Sound is defined by an open constellation of meanings:
presence, contact, revelation, recognizing and belonging, centre of balance, necessity, communion (that has always been the case).

This constellation of meanings, whose hidden centre is Sound, renews its sense continuously.
It dislocates its centre.
It is a slow but constant change and movement.
Consequently, what is recognized and practiced as sound and as music, changes.
Or, in other terms, what demands our attention to be recognized as Sound, is always changing. There is no exception to this phenomenon.


The Acoustics as science has provided ultimate definitions and categories which explain the reality of sound. In this sense it is a form of revelation.
The acoustics proposes a mechanical model of sound, with its components and its laws of existence. On one side it has made possible a different approach to the sound, often with results which have an artistic interest. On the other side, this point of view has modified, influenced and monopolized the musical terminology so deeply, that now any different kind of thought has particular difficulties to articulate its own categories.
For instance a kind of traditional thought, not conceptual, based on differences whose sense is organic, morphological, rhythmical, or dealing with the space, that is to say a kind of thought which possesses and knows obviously a mechanical dimension, but which cannot be explained with these categories.

In the moment where Sound is understood and explained according to quantity of energy, wave form, periodicity, and so on, and the qualities and the differences are thought and explained according to mechanical categories, some big families of elemental differences such as Sound/ Foreign Sound, Forbidden Sound/Sacred Sound, New/Old Sound,
or such qualities like open /closed Sound, or more specifically differences like consonance/dissonance, and so on.
All these differences, which articulate deep layers of the experience of sound, find no direct access more to be in force.
They are like roots without a tree.


The existential- ethnical-cultural- roots of the differences find no open way more to the language, or lie in the restricted corner of the ethnical or psychological curiosity.
And slowly this event modifies also the possibility to think them, and finally to let them operate. If we consider that in all the modern world is spreading right now (Airplane and internet, to be clear) a kind of common musical thought, with its common technical language, with its complete lack of roots, and that it´s all what remains of completely different cultural traditions, then this question is more serious as it appears
at a first glance.

This phenomenon shows that the lack of cultural roots is not perceived as a problem.
Evidently, the human being who does not take care of his roots anymore stands and lives definitively in the rhythmical nowhere of the actual technological world.


Let´s consider for instance the distinction sound/noise, which is a not-specifically musical distinction. Its root is basically cultural; if we compare it with its acoustical definition, it is clear that we are completely prevent from recognizing in it, a trace of one deep existential act of exclusion.

One of the consequences of this lack of recognizing, is testified by a double-faced phenomenon: on one side the endless production of an academic, not-poetical, meaningless, pseudo-traditional music is actually one of the loudest noise we have to do with.
On the other side it seems that, to be interested in noise, or in a not traditional sound, or anyway in a not tradition-reducible kind of sound, could be already in itself, a poetical act.
It is growing up a form of new, academic, noise-conformism.

Such a kind of distinction and separation like Sound/Noise, recalls, is connected with, nominates and articulates, first of all and in a wide sense, a deeper principle of inclusion/exclusion.


*Noise means: what breaks the balance of the identity.

What doesn´t embody in itself and does not show the recognizable sign of sound.
What remains outside of the rhythmical world of sound.
What is excluded from the relationships which defines and identifies sound.

We could say: noise means what could not be accepted in the centre of the revelation.
Or also: noise means what could put in danger, the law of balance of a revelation.
For instance, noise will be excluded from the rank of sacred (whatever one recognizes as sacred).

One simple example: in Europe, during the old and middle age, by the Christian musical tradition the vibrations of trumpet, drum and cymbals were no more recognized as sound, and therefore excluded out of the rituals.
In the same age similar vibrations of trumpet, drum and cymbals were recognized as sacred forces in the Tibetan musical tradition, and therefore included in the rituals.


In this case, the acoustical distinction sound/noise, with its point of view, is completely irrelevant, it explains nothing, it decides nothing.

It articulates only a mechanical difference which belongs to a mechanical representation of sound, which is a perspective, inside an already opened sound conception, the west traditional sound conception, whose basic principles (by the way) have nothing to do with acoustics.

What is recognized as *Sound, whatever it is, becomes the centre, takes the rule and the power of a centre, and settles hierarchies.
Now, all the rest is *Noise.
But these two poles Sound/Noise remain essentially complementary.
What is in force as centre, will be not established by a theory or an individual,
it grows and builds itself through the internal tensions of a culture.

We could compare for instance: Ascension 1965 by John Coltrane and De Koonig 1963 by Morton Feldman.


Let´s try to lead these few considerations about sound, on some possible consequences, even if it could seem a provocation, but I hope an intelligent and welcome provocation.

First- Many theoretical and practical definitions of our musical tradition, have a sense only within the sound conception which created them und made them possible.
Consonance, Chord, Harmony, Pitch height, Timbre, Duration, Density, Texture, Process, Structure, Order, and so on as well as some cultural professional restricted rules such as Voice, Performer, Violin player and so on.
Outside this conception they have a different sense, or they have no influence, or they are irrelevant, or they do not exist at all.
They all presuppose a sound conception.
They are quite exclusively internal articulations of a particular given sound conception.

For instance for the Harmony treatise of Arnold Schönberg or for the theoretical considerations of Pierre Boulez in Penser la musique aujourdui, a Didgeridou performance is an event impossible to understand and decipher.


Second- Sound could appear and open a sound world everywhere, even in an automobile spring coil.
Sound risks always not to appear even in a Violin or a Voice.
A computer can produce vibrations, analyze and manipulate them, but it cannot think a Sound.


Third- More in general, if sound basically is no object but a relationship, which keeps inside a revelation, we should start to recognize that not only Morton Feldman, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, but also Miles Davis or Elvis Presley, the Pink Floyd and U2, are occasion for a revelation of sound which is unique, and therefore precious.
And more.
Also the music of the Pop Corn publicity or of the Breaking News is revelation,
and as revelation it concerns me.


Even the background music in a supermarket or in a Hotel lift, shows a relationship Human being-Sound, and is a revelation.
Here the sound is considered as necessary for the presence of a certain kind of human being.
In those spaces like a supermarket or a lift, a human being feels integrated
and in a form of balance or familiarity, if he is accompanied and welcome by a sounding presence. His attention can refer to a sound too.

Without it, a human being is probably directly in touch with the inhuman, silent and “desertificated” space created by himself, outside and inside…
But normally this silent contact with things, especially with the mechanical sound world, which could soon turn in an existential dialogue, it is something to avoid.

The necessity of this sound, the necessity to be always accompanied, surrounded and welcome by sound, reveals a particular tension and distance, which involves nowadays human-being and sound.
This distance consist also of sound, and in any case, the sound reveals and shows it.
I-pod, TV, Computer, everybody can understand it. Everybody is it. It needs no explanation.


To recognize that every sound is always also a revelation, it doesn´t mean to give up distinctions and differences.
On the contrary, it is necessary to think that something precious lies in everything, touches and concerns me, something that, in every case, settles a revealing relationship between me and it.

At this point, if I have a bit intellectual curiosity, I should ask me:
which relationship is there between my music and the background music in the hotel lift or in the supermarket?
An answer like: “There is no relationship, that is ambient and entertainment music.
Mine is a serious one.”
This answer is too easy. There is only a part of truth in it.
Even if our cultural values system justifies and supports it, this answer remains inadequate.

If I would have even a bit of intellectual courage, the answer would be different.
A baroque music sounding in the lift of a modern building in 2010 can defend itself anymore, but its force as revelation continues to operate.
My music and the music in the lift have something essential in common: a destiny.


To think that it is necessary to let music sound in a lift, means that this human being is completely deaf, anyway deaf to sound, he only needs a minimal vibration to keep active his rhythmical-space sensors.

It works if it can be perceived as homogeneous vibration, recognizable as music, with no degree of expression or pathos, with a clear recognizable social status,
with a minimal degree of complexity which requires no particular effort of attention, but which could stimulate a minimal part of it. That is enough.
Nothing more than an elegant small light. It seems……

It is a doubled faced phenomenon: This human being is not interested in active listening to music, but he leaves constantly surrounded by sound, in the sound.
The need of a sounding reference is not possible to eliminate because of the existential balance of a human being.

This human being doesn´t wait any kind of revelation by music and by sound anymore, music and sound have become only a particular but indifferent quality of presence, such as a light, a picture a decoration.
Sound in this case – whatever the acoustics could say - means a background ethnical color.
Like a traditional carpet.
It is a new ethnic: post modern rootless technological human being.


This event of the music sounding in the lift is also a big question to my work.
Me , as composer, through my work, am I able to create the conditions
which allow again a real different relationship with sound to be ?
*Sound in the sense of the open constellation of meanings, I mentioned above:
presence, contact, revelation, recognizing and belonging, centre of balance, necessity, communion.

Perhaps yes, but I have only our traditional sound conception, the same which, nowadays accepts, as if it was indifferent, or even thinks that it is necessary, to have Vivaldi or Bach or a Boss nova sounding in the lift.

Therefore the answer is: NO. I am not able. And there are many reasons.

Unless I accept the risk to renounce to our traditional conception and I open a space where, a new sound dimension could appear, which in any case I do not know before.
I only know that is possible to start being on search of it, with the hope to succeed in making small steps, in order to create a way, along which other people could proceed.


Let´s make only a few general and introductory remarks.

It is necessary at the beginning to keep distance from the sound conception we already know.
Then, I simply stop to know what a sound is, and consequently what a noise is, what a pitch, what a Voice or Singing or a Bassoon. I keep waiting for a different starting point.


It is necessary to create the space for a certain quality of silence.
It doesn´t mean that there will be a lack of sound activity, but a suspension of its more familiar forms . It is necessary to create an emptiness where, if there is, a different sense of sound could appear.
Even if it means to change to a great extent the sense of music we know.


Probably, but mysteriously and enigmatically, at this point of the evolution of technology and system of life, it is necessary to take a knife and cut.
Nowadays the boundaries of our body are collapsed and confused in the thousand forms of the technological dispersion.

Sound should try again to open a new space inside the human being, a free space unbound from any possible “cable”.
Probably only from this renewed inner independence would be possible to observe the “dispossession” of our body (our rhythmical and time dispossession).


Only if the body “engraves” and “writes” the sound starting from itself as source,
the sound probably will give back a revelation of the same nature.
If the body circulates within its usual cultural limits, it will only reproduce them.
In a different perspective, the usual cultural limits of a body making sound,
could have no real reason more to exist. They could and should be overcome.


If I look at the face of my mother in a photograph, I can still distinguish this image from my real mother.
We should stop to believe uncritically, that on a CD the sound happens.
In a certain sense we know it perfectly, but we prefer not to think about it.
This form of existence made possible by the technology cannot replace the direct experience of sound, which is contact and communion, taking part, being part of it.
It is possible, to imagine and guarantee a kind of full existence of the Sound, where it disappears in case of a mechanical reduction and reproduction.


A body which takes on itself directly this whole care, to let sound have a possible place, it becomes a kind of “watcher” of this possibility, it becomes itself an instrument.

In this case a new sense of relationship, of contact with the material and of possibility of creating forms and gestures, must be open beyond the limits we learned from the tradition.
It is the secret task that the tradition itself entrust us.

If the fruits of this work will be not completely recognized as music,
it will be a sign that, at least, one is not on the wrong way…