Monday, January 21, 2013

Horacio Vaggione

Today’s the 70th birthday of the composer Horacio Vaggione (b. Cordoba, Argentinia 21st  Jan 1943). Vaggione is a composer of  electro-acoustic music who uses the very latest technology to explore the many shapes and forms of sound itself. Vaggione studied composition at the National University in C√≥rdoba and the University of Illinois USA and has been Professor of Music, University of Paris since 1994. Using compositional techniques such as granular synthesis, microsounds and micromontage, Vaggione creates sound-sculpture of intricate beauty and startling originality.

Like Rock music, electro-acoustic music’s embryonic beginnings can be traced to the 1950’s. In Paris, pioneer Musique Concrete composer Pierre Henry (b.1927) experimented with natural sounds such as a door creaking, then editing the recording through a variety of means, including tape-splicing, loops, backwards and filtering. Pierre Henry’s Voile D'Orphee  (Veil of Orpheus) of 1953 remains a work of staggeringly early originality and inventive process given the equipment available at the time. Henry's approach to electronic music-making seems to be have been advanced in Vaggione’s own unique sound sculpture. Both composers have for many years been resident in Paris.

I’ve had an interest in electronic music ever since acquiring Deutsche Grammophon vinyl recordings of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Telemusik (1966) and Hymnen (1967-68) in the early 1970’s. Stockhausen (1928 - 2007) was one of the most influential figure’s in the development of electronic music and was at times notoriously uncompromising in his artistic agenda to the point of gross insensitivity on occasions. His Gesang Der Junglinge (1955-6) uses both electronically-generated sounds along with recordings of a boy singing text from the Biblical Book of Daniel chapter 3 where Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace. Miraculously they are unharmed and begin to sing praises to God. Such thinly-veiled subject-matter suggests Stockhausen,  throughout his creative career was willing to use his music as a means to open the door for his audience to approach unpleasant aspects of the psyche. Stockhausen's Kontakte (1960) remains a landmark in electronic music. His large-scale work Hymnen (1966-67) lasts some 112 minutes and includes samples of National Anthems to illustrate world-scale historical events and their consequences. It’s a work which though dated, can be hard-hitting and revelatory; its also music which is very much of its time, being a psychedelic and apocalyptic vision.

Far more approachable is Stockhausen’s Telemusik (1966). Composed during a visit to Japan and using sounds recorded from temple rituals and ceremonies, the soft-focus tonality of this short work (17 mins.) reveals it as delicate and gentle work. Stockhausen interested the songwriter John Lennon (1940-1980) enough to ensure that the German composer appears on the background of the Pantheon of credited influences and admired people of the Beatles album-cover Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (1967). Much to the rest of the band’s alleged protestations, Lennon subsequently went ahead and insisted that his own electronic montage Revolution no. 9 was included on the subsequent White album (1968).

It was also during the late 60’s that the Moog synthesizer was invented. It’s previously unheard-of, seemingly magical abilities were showcased in the phenomenally popular album Switched-on Bach (1969) in which the music of J.S. Bach and it's contrapuntal nature can be heard with each voice/line sharply delineated. Carlos’s music received even greater exposure when featured in the controversial Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange (1971).

During the 1970's Horacio Vaggione visited all the major studio's with electro-acoustic composing facilities  in Europe. In many ways the 1970’s decade was the Golden era of electronic music and quite distinct from avant-garde acoustic-electronic music of the era, numerous rock and pop musicians developed electronically-generated music. The seminal albums by Kraftwerk, thematically shaped by the experience of motion via cars, trains and rockets (Autobahn (1974) Trans-Europe Express (1977) Man Machine (1978) and Computer World (1981) along with the less rhythmically-orientated and stronger in melodic content electronic music of Parisian Jean Michel Jarre (b.1948) Oxygene (1976) Equinox (1978) and Magnetic Fields (1981) demonstrated the new protean abilities of the electronic medium through advances in technology in the hands of the creative musician. 

Vaggione’s La Maquina de Cantar (The Singing Machine 1978) in step with the latest trends in music of the decade, uses loops of sound, not unlike Terry Riley’s ground-breaking A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) or even Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973). However, the heavily phased hypnotic, repetitious pure electronics such as by the German band Tangerine Dream in Phaedra (1973) and Rubycon (1976) which use large-time scale canvases became unfashionable for its excesses in the 80's. Such music-making soon tires the listener. In comparison Steve Reich’s Music for 18 musicians (1976) which lasts an hour, holds the listener in thrall,  its short phrases are skilfully juggled among members of an ensemble, Nor can one overlook the influence of early, so-called ambient music such as Brian Eno's Music for Airports (1978) while the aquatic soundscape of Jean Michel Jarre’s Waiting for Cousteau (1990) now seems to have become a classic of large-scale ambient minimalism. 

Vaggione’s latest release Points Critiques (2012) includes compositions dating from the 1990’s and the first decade of the 21st century including Nodal from 1997. There's a free download of Vaggione's 24 variations (2011) available at itunes. (Youtube clips of both titles below).

I remember a stunning performance of  well-amplified electro-acoustic music at Norwich cathedral in the 1970’s. Most listeners were amazed at how the combination of the acoustics in historical buildings with the extraordinary sound palette available to the modern composer using electronic equipment and transformed recordings sounded in such a setting. I also remember here at Norwich, the University of East Anglia once had, not only a school of music with studio recording facilities, but also visiting electronic music composers and a series of concerts devoted to the performance of electro-acoustic music. All now extinct, sacrificed upon the altar of pecuniary expediency.

Whether the appreciation of such sound-structures as Vaggione’s is an acquired taste from training the ear or simply the product of being able to listen without prejudice or preconceptions remains debatable. I quite like this statement made on Youtube about Vaggione’s music

The more art is abstract, the more it challenges the consumer. Consumers who are empty inside cry for forms and shapes. They have to, otherwise they are lost. Nothing is more telling about a person than the way he/she reacts to abstract art.

What is certain is that a rich variety of tonal texture and engaging demonstrations to the listener of how sound can be transformed in exquisite detail can be heard on Vaggione’s Points Critiques (2012). Each electro-acoustic composition is exemplary of granular synthesis and a fantastic listening experience. 

Happy birthday to Horacio Vaggione, grandmaster composer of electro-acoustic music.

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