Pierluigi Billone
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Mani.De Leonardis (Tom De Cock)

For 4 Automobile Springs and Glass - Pierluigi Billone (2004) – 18’

drs.Tom De Cock (researcher at Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussel, Regentschapstraat 30, 1000 Brussel, Belgium.) September 2011

Program Notes:

In Mani. De Leonardis (2004), for four automobile’s suspensions (three car’s, one bus’) and two glass-bowls, the rhythmic essence of the vibrating bodies – suspensions, glasses, player’s body and voice – interconnects parallel sound planes. From the ultimate energy of the percussion on the suspensions, to the feeble sound of the glass (the percussionist utilizes two wooden and one iron hammers), the hand never changes. What changes is the impulse that drives it, either violent or light at times. The hand varies the contact with the instrument, amplifying its possible modes and disclosing the full vibration potential, and at the same time our way of hearing. The title of the piece is reminiscent Federico De Leonardis (La Spezia, 1938) and his notion of “hand wisdom”, that is the awareness of learned making the hand possesses. Here, Billone deals with the problem of novelty through a radical approach. As exemplified in this piece, Billone’s music does not proceed along a well- trodden path. Instead, his music seems to start from the Holzwege where only the few can recognize the direction and find a way through the twists and turns. Even when it deals with well-known instruments, the sound Billone seeks for tends to go beyond the usual practice. It reconsiders every possible connection between player’s vibrating-bodies and instrument’s vibrating-bodies (string, resonant cavity etc.). In Mani. De Leonardis an object designated for a different use reveals sound spaces that were never heard before. Like in Giacometti’s sculpture two bronze hands hold the void (L’objet invisible, 1934), the absence, the energy that is suspended and retained, here Billone confers to the hands the power to release the unheard.

Practical difficulties:

-Finding the coils

Four different coils are needed, the set I used is the following: Coil 1: Ford Fiesta – Coil 2: Opel Astra – Coil 3: Audi A4 – Coil 4: Bus.

Other car brands can be used as well. The only points that are imperative: Coil 1 and 2 should be almond shaped and have 3 main rings in the middle to execute the part properly; Coil 3 and 4 are straight. Coil 3 should have 7 playable rings at least and the rings shouldn’t be too thick and in a way flexible to perform certain parts in the piece. Coil 4 should have 8 playable rings. This last coil has very thick rings, but one must make sure the rings aren’t too thick otherwise the low resonance that is produced by playing the coil with the wrist doesn’t come out properly. Coil 1 is preferably the highest in pitch, working down to coil 4.

If the coils are dirty or rusty when purchased, cleaning all the dirt and rust and treating them with an anti-rust spray before mounting and playing them will make the sound and resonance of the coils better and extend the life of the used hammers and foam.

-Finding the right foam

Finding the right foam to mount the coils was the most difficult part in preparing this piece. After trying all kinds of Styrofoam, isolation foam, rubber mats and combining these with each other, with felt extensions, making constructions of free suspension systems etc. I finally found a little piece of foam that manufacturers use for the inside of flight cases, the densest type. This kind of foam produces the least noise and lets the coils resonate at it’s best. I was also lucky to find flight case foam that was sticking on one side, so easy to mount on a flat surface and thus to the resonance box.

-Mounting the coils to the foam and the foam to the resonance box.

There is only one kind of glue that really works to mount the coils to the foam: normal super glue - the kind that dries in a few seconds. (Be careful to not stick the coils to your hands...!) Other types of glue like contact glues etc. tend to “eat away” the foam or are too flexible; this can result in unwanted noise and instability in the coils.

My foam was sticking by itself on one side, so easy to mount to the box. When this is not the case, make sure the foam can’t slide over the wooden box while playing the coils; this produces unwanted noise. Best is to stick the foam directly to the box with super glue and secure the edges with gaffer tape.

mani de leonardis resonance box 1When mounting the foam and coils to the box, be careful about the distances between the coils. Especially between coils 3 and 4 you need enough space to play a lateral movement, hitting the two coils alternately with each side of the hammer. This is the best initial position to start setting up, to check this lateral movement and the ideal movement you need for it. After that, you make sure the inner sides of coils 1 and 2 are on the same level as the inner sides of 3 and 4 and you are basically set to go.

-Constructing the resonance box

mani de leonardis resonance box 2To make the coils “sing”, you need a resonance box to “amplify” the resonance of the coils. This can be easily constructed yourself with cheap plywood. I made a box of 1000x710x270mm, made of Polish pine. For this you need following boards: 2 times 1000x700x10mm, 1 time 270x1000x10mm and 4 times 700x250x10mm. 2 of the 4 of the latter boards are used as reinforcement at the inside of the box, because the coils are heavy when mounted and the wood tends to bend in the middle if not reinforced. Everything can be either glued or nailed together or a combination of the two.

-Finding the right glasses
Ideally, the glasses are tuned in A and are two of the same pitch and sound colour. (The A can also help you find your intonation through the piece for the singing parts) Be careful to take glass that is not too thick or not to thin. Too thin glasses have better resonance but are easy to break. Too thick glasses tend to be too short of resonance. A practical solution, especially for practising purposes is glasses made of Pyrex, which is more resistant. I found my glasses in the candle department of Ikea; they can be tuned down by pouring water into the glasses. Also flower shops normally have a nice variety of well-sounding vases.

Also use soft foam to put under the vases, best is acoustic isolation foam, to get the maximum resonance and the least side noise out of the vases.

Technical difficulties:

mani de leonardis techniques-Assimilation and adaptation/amelioration of the different techniques and combinations of techniques

1.“Nicht gedämpft”: open full strokes on the coil, either at the edge or on the upper-side of the rings. For this technique, there are also damping actions, either immediately after the stroke, which results in a short full sound, or after a measured a mount of time, what results in a time-controlled full note.

2.“Halb gedämpft”: open full strokes while dampening the coil in a way the full stroke sound quality is still preserved, yet the resonance is shorter and controllable. You can compare this type of playing with playing half pedal on a vibraphone. I use the surface of the hand laid against the coil rather than putting pressure on it to obtain this effect, especially on coil 4.

3.”Völlig gedämpft”: open full strokes while dampening the coil with a lot of pressure, to obtain short sounds. No resonance here. Related to this technique are the “flageolet” sounds, which are obtained by dampening the coil fully while stroking it and then immediately releasing it to obtain high harmonic sounds. Some practice is required to optimize this technique fully.

4.”Extrem gedämpft”: this technique is only used on coil 3. The two last rings of the more flexible 3rd coil are pulled together while dampening, resulting in a dry glissando, where the pressure determines the height of the sound put on the two last rings.

5. Use of the fingers: Unclear in the score which part of the finger is to be used. I mostly used the top of the index or middle finger but when extra clarity is needed due to too much resonance in the coils, I used the fingernail of the index finger to get a brighter type of sound.

6. Use of the wrist: This technique is only used on the 4th coil. It is used to produce a deep bass sound by hitting the 4th coil quite hard on the edge. The resonance box helps a lot for this technique.

mani de leonardis vibrato techniques7. Vibrato techniques:

Three different types of vibrato occur during the piece: The first is obtained by the use of the wrist on the 4th coil like described above after hitting the coil in a full stroke at first. Second is a flageolet-vibrato on the first coil, obtained by alternatively hitting the coil and dampening it fully or half. (For the latter I didn’t really open-half close in the dampening action, but more shook my hand very fast while holding the middle ring of the 1st coil loosely.) Third vibrato effect is obtained by shaking a flat-opened hand between ring 4 and 5 of the 1st coil. This effect is very shimmering and sounds almost like a flexatone.

mani de leonardis voice techniques8. Voice techniques:

These techniques highly depend on the voice-type of the player. However some things are to be observed: The pitches are not imperatively absolute but the intervals should be respected as close as possible. Therefore the use of a glass pitched in A will help you to maintain your chosen pitches. Clearly decide what pitches you are going to use when you are practising the piece. Also, the choice of the pitches depends on the coils you are using, because the voice is used as an extension of the resonance of the coils. You basically just “sing along”. Only when the coils are dampened and the voice is written “solo”, it should be obvious that you are singing.

When the voice is used together with striking the chest, the striking is the most important; the voice is basically just an amplification of the strokes.

When the voice is used as spoken text, it should be performed as distant and objective as possible, almost without expression.

mani de leonardis glissando techniques9. Glissando techniques:

This is quite obvious how to execute. However it is important to take care of the angle of the hammer to obtain the written dynamics and gestures. The change in angle contributes extremely well to the articulation of certain phrases.

The glissandi are naturally often combined with open/half-open/closed dampening techniques. These differences should be as clear as possible, also in the articulation.

mani de leonardis extreme glissando techniquesAn extended glissando-technique is used only ones at the beginning of the piece, by connecting the woodenhead of one hammer to the extreme edge of the 4th coil, while performing a glissando on it. This results in a kind of “saturated” coil, like it would be prepared with aluminium foil.

10. Special techniques:

mani de leonardis extreme soft roll10.1 Extreme soft “roll”:

This technique requires some creativity. You have to kind of “overplay” your muscles, so your hand is shaking in a relatively controlled way and the leather side is hitting the side of the coil very quick and soft, almost like an overplayed one-handed roll on the marimba. In my interpretation, I added some leather to the hammer on the side, what made it easier to perform this technique.

mani de leonardis dampening coil10.2 Dampening coil 4 on ring 4 while playing:

Instead of dampening coil 4 at the last rings, here the middle ring is held and dampened in an extreme way, which results in a low resonance when hit in a full stroke. The resonance is comparable to the one that is obtained in point 6.

mani de leonardis extreme flageolet10.3 Extreme flageolet on coil 3

This flageolet is obtained by holding the extreme point of coil 3 with two fingers and then releasing immediately after hitting, technique is comparable to point 3, only with two fingers, also used in another way on coil 1.

-Avoiding pain in the joints, skin and hands

The playing techniques that are described above are sometimes very extreme for joints, skin and hands. Inconveniences I suffered from while practising the piece where: Blisters on fingers and palm of the hand due to dampening the coils while hitting: nerve-blockage in the thumb resulting in having a “numb” thumb-top for over a month; stress related pain in the joints due to the shocks cause by dampening techniques; pain in the finger tops; blisters on the finger tops due to holding the hammer.

Some solutions that could avoid these pains: using bicycle gloves, at least to dampen the coils; using Compeed plasters, which work as “second-skin” for finger tops and palm; never keep on playing if something starts to hurt anywhere....

-Finding the right playing height and position

This is naturally depending on the height of you resonance box. If the resonance box is like described above, two concert piano stools mounted to their highest position are ideal to support the box. These are also quite easy to find in any concert hall and save space in your car. Make sure the set-up is not mounted too high, because of playing convenience. If it’s too high, you tend to constantly overplay your muscles and it will be hard to make it through the piece. If it’s mounted too low, back problems will occur sooner than you think....

-Independence of voice and hands

When practising and performing the piece, you will notice that what is written for the voice in the score, needs to be performed quite independently from what you are playing in the hands at that moment. This needs quite a lot of attention to obtain a natural-sounding result. What I did, is practising these passages extremely slow, at 1/4th of the original tempo, and then speed those up little by little, always making sure the result sounds very natural. If the basis for this is constructed in a natural way, the end result will sound flowing and easy, and this is what we are looking for.

Interpretational difficulties and composer’s remarks:

-Use of the voice

Like mentioned above, the use of the voice in this piece is accompanying the coils or being a sustained resonance of the coils. It should never be soloist or too loud. When I first worked with the composer, I learned the whole voice part quite loud and present, and Billone immediately asked me to change that. The voice part should be observing, objective and not expressive.

Yet, I think it is very important to practise the voice part in the same meticulous manner as the coil part, to obtain a harmonious whole that sounds very natural.

-Musical tactics

All of Billone’s pieces are very long (Mani. De Leonardis is about 18 minutes long) and the musical material is so different from what we are used to, that it is difficult to plan a musical tactic for these pieces. In a way, the music is very expressive and gestural, what made me choose for an intuitive approach. Not really shaping or phrasing, just see what comes next. Like this you can also achieve his demand of moving from one movement of the piece into another without connection, as a total surprise.


Sketches used in the text:

All sketches that were used in the text are taken from the scores and the legends of the described pieces. Copyright © Pierluigi Billone.

All websites are stated as found on the Internet on 22/11/2011:


Other references:

-Tzlil Meudcan Festival and summer course, Israel, 29 June 2011 until 9 July 2011: Various working sessions with the composer on all the pieces.

-Ars Musica Festival 26 March 2010, Brussels: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Felicija Blumenthal Centre Tel Aviv, 27 April 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Konzerthaus Detmold, 14 July 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Internationalen Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt 25 July 2010: performance of “Mani.Mono”

-Porgy and Bess Wien, 1 december 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono” -Minoritensaal Graz, 2 december 2010: performance of “Mani. Mono”

-Felicija Blumenthal Centre Tel Aviv, 7 July 2011: performance of “Mani. Matta”, “Mani. Mono” and “Mani. De Leonardis”

-Since the start of the working process in 2010: Various working sessions with sound engineers (a.m. Tom Philip Krause, Alfred Reiter, Alexandre Fostier)

-Intense email conversation with the composer about the performed pieces.