Bozzini Quartet and Bye Bye Butterfly perform works by Bhagwati.

The grand premiere of composer Sandeep Bhagwati, Alien Lands is a concert light/sound installation that takes the audience into the heart of sonic motion. The concept: musicians from two ensembles are spread in the middle of and around the audience, playing in interaction with real-time computer-generated scores, spatialized sounds, and Jean Gervais’ light environments. The title’s Alien Lands are strange and unknown landscapes from our inner self, but also “the air of other planets” (Schoenberg) mixed with blurry memories of Indian, African, and Balinese music. Like monochrome photographs, they will pique your curiosity and incite you to explore these imaginary realms of sound.


The three compositions presented this evening are all variations on the theme of the monochrome. I became interested in the monochrome many years ago. I was tired of the luxuriant, mannerist decadence of much new music, with its refined sounds and impenetrable forms. I yearned for simplicity, but I do not experience the world as simple — and I could not fathom how to make simple music that would not feel simplistic to me. A year ago I visited the grand retrospective of works by Pierre Soulages at the Centre Pompidou — and was immediately convinced by his monochrome approach to simplicity.

The black in Soulages works, the colour in the works of Mark Rothko: both use very little ostensible refinement in the way they "compose" the work — no flashy virtuosity, no overbearing concepts, none of the show-and-tell attitude that characterizes so much of contemporary art and music — "look what I have found and what I can do with it, look how brilliant I am, look how socially conscious, how punky, how in tune with my time I am, look how elegant my transitions are, look how I can do what no one has done before, in brief: look at me (through my work)!"

The aesthetic riches of Soulages and Rothko’s work lie not in what they show off: their deeply layered explorations of the monochrome do not point anywhere but inwards, they draw us in, and demonstrate to us how wonderfully subtle our perception can be. Of course, how to translate such an approach from paintings — that like all static things so well defend their silent mysteries — into performed music was not obvious either. This concert is therefore only a first step towards a new sonic aesthetic of the monochrome: a monochrome that does not have to be passive and slow, featureless and strenuous, without melody and rhythm — listening to a lively market is a monochrome event as much as listening to dripping icicles in spring…

Each of the 4 movements of Alien Lands for percussion quartet uses a very limited number of instruments that carry the work, each uses one overall sound, one type of movement, one formal structure — and yet the listener can discover riches in its very limitations. All 4 movements are based on a lipogram poem (using only 9 letters of the alphabet) that I wrote in 2001, a poem that has fueled a series of large scale works since then. In all these works, the sequence of the letters in the poem indicates the formal structure — but the way they are interpreted is different each time. In Atavist, the letters govern the distribution of rhythms in space. In Divide, they change the colours of sound in an almost white noise field. In Nested, they are transformed into Indian percussion syllables. In Sentient they steer the evolution of tempi and sounds in space.

The 4 movements of the monochrom string quartet are in reality only four different realizations of the same underlying interactive score. The monochrom score is a partly graphic, partly traditional comprovisation score that tells musicians when to play, for how long and inspires their improvisation by pictures, poetic texts and instructions. It listens to the musicians and re-configures itself to generate the pages during the concert: neither musicians nor composers know exactly what to expect. One main instruction however remains the same: as long as one page is valid, each musician must play one kind of music only — creating a monochrome field of sound. Over the 4 movements, the settings of the score change step by step: while in the first movement the musicians all see an identical screen at the same time, in the last movement they decide for themselves when to turn to the next page, and can do so independently of each other — thus creating a layered comprovisation of monochrome musical colours, moving both through the real space of the concert and our inner, imaginary space.

Nil Nisi Nive (three latin logical terms: nothing — if not — nor), finally, is a reflection on Indian melodic construction and on the beauty of heterophony: a meditation on how melodies flow from each other and over percussion sounds to create rich webs of memory. And how nothing happens if not desired — nor imagined…

A final word: as all major efforts, this work is not only my own. At matralab [Concordia University], which I direct and which has produced this event, I was blessed to have a number of musical assistants who helped bring my vision of an interactive score into reality. Michal Seta developed most of the score (in close collaboration with Dominique Fober of GRAME Lyon). Mathieu Marcoux, Navid Navab, Adam Basanta, Max Stein & Julian Stein contributed significant elements of the software as well as logistical support. Jane Tingley coordinated the production together with Barbara Scales and Latitude45. My collaboration on the light installation with Jean Gervais and Nancy de Bussières was always inspiring and enriching. And finally, the musicians of the Bozzini Quartet and Aiyun Huang of Bye Bye Butterfly provided valuable input and suggestions in the research and development phase (apart from learning these non-standard works). I owe an immense thanks to all their efforts and goodwill. And I thank Concordia University’s Office of Research, the Concordia Faculty of Fine Arts, the Canada Research Chairs Program, the FQRSC and the CALQ, and last but not least, the SMCQ, for very generously financing the research and production of this work. It would have never happened without their funding and moral support.



Coproduction MNM / matralab (Concordia University) — Hexagram — Centre interuniversitaire de recherche-création en arts médiatiques