Entrevue-courriel avec William Kuo – À partir de Intended Assembly

MG : Pourrais-tu nous présenter brièvement cette nouvelle œuvre qui sera jouée à Montréal par Quasar ? Quel en était le projet ? Quelles idées as-tu été intéressé à développer dans cette pièce ? Et aussi : pourrais-tu en expliquer le titre, Intended Assembly ?

WK : 1- My new piece, Intended Assembly for Quasar continues two threads of exploration I have been pursuing, one of which began in 2014, and the other more recently.

The more recent exploration involves experiments I conducted on the clarinet with Vancouver clarinetist, Liam Hockley.

I brought him several containers of different materials including a ceramic pot, a metal pail, and a plastic bucket, hoping that they could act as resonators that would transform and filter the sounds produced by the resonator within the clarinet itself.

I also brought several vinyl tubes, which I intended on using to achieve extremely low vibrations by inserting them between the mouthpiece and the body of the clarinet, thus lengthening the instrument.

We played around with different set-ups, one of which involved filling up a bucket with water and blowing air into it to create different types of bubbling sounds.

The other exploration that began in 2014 involved activating different types of membranophones: snare drum, bass drum, timpani, using some kind of transducer(1). The first time I used transducers was in an orchestral piece, where I asked for vibrators to activate the drums at different regions of the membrane while specifying levels of pressure.

This time, I am activating the snare drum with a transducer speaker by sending a sine wave through it. I am particularly fond of the sonic transformations that occur over time, as the snare responds to gradually ascending or descending frequencies of the sine wave.

2- To summarize, Intended Assembly is a project exploring vibrations between different types of resonators: instruments, objects, and human bodies, as physical vibrations will be induced by sub-bass tones produced via electronics.

Moreover, it is a piece that allows me to contextualize and make sense of all the sounds I have discovered, to create a cohesive sound world that invites logical and symbolic interpretation.

3- Some of the ideas I am interested in exploring have been discussed in earlier responses. In addition to the what has already been said, I am also in the process of acknowledging the diverse and often ambiguous connotations latent within sounds themselves. I recognize that any given sound refers to an identity which could in turn recall a concrete object or an abstract idea. Upon hearing the sound of an ordinary saxophone, one may be reminded of the instrument itself, certain musical genres, or even specific songs or pieces of music. What are some meanings or networks of meaning that I may be able to invoke through the combination of prepared saxophone, water, field recordings, pure waves, and noise?

4- In explanation of my title, I will refer to the program note I have written:

The journey of each instrumentalist begins in roughly the same way: a combination of pedagogy and intuition orients the human body with the intended assembly of the instrument. Each act upon the instrument is met with resistance, from which sound arises through forces such as friction, velocity, and pressure. As a composer, I am driven by the possibility of encountering new identities formed by such resistance.

Ideas for this piece originated from earlier attempts to modify the clarinet using vinyl tubes of varying lengths. This preparation technique effectively lowered and narrowed the range of the instrument, such that each chromatic fingering produced a microtonal inflection with a darkened, muffled timbre. An unexpected discovery allowed clarinetist Liam Hockley and I to re-purpose the vinyl tube as an air pump that produced bubbling sounds inside a bucket of water. In the same configuration, the saxophone’s identity is temporarily suspended. Its intended assembly is reimagined with the addition of vinyl tubes and PEX pipes as new components of the instrument. Various other identities emerge: both the water bucket and snare drum become resonators, the latter by way of vibration speaker, and the saxophonists are transformed into object manipulators. Thus, through the act of composing, the haphazard becomes intentional. Composition becomes a practice of re-purposed intents.

In brief, the title Intended Assembly refers to both an acknowledgment and a confrontation of the intended assembly of instruments, the intended usage and functions of various parts, the intended roles of performers, and my own intentions as a composer.

(1) Transducer (ou : transducteur en français) – Définition donnée par le compositeur : Un transducteur est un dispositif convertissant un signal physique en un autre. Un transducteur électroacoustique par exemple, convertit un signal électrique en ondes acoustiques.


Partition de Regulation, page 7 © William Kuo


MG : Dans l’un des volets de ta réponse à mes premières questions, tu évoques « les connotations diverses et souvent ambigües qui semblent en latence au sein des sons eux-mêmes » [ma traduction]. En écoutant l’une de tes pièces récentes (Regulation), où apparaît à la toute fin un enregistrement de sons concrets (sound file) assez clairement évocateurs, je me faisais la réflexion que l’apparition de ce fichier-son était comme un aboutissement logique du monde sonore que tu venais de développer, dominé par l’utilisation de modes alternatifs de jeu instrumental ou encore de sources sonores inventées. Dans ce monde, nous nous éloignons évidemment du mode de perception que la plus grande partie de l’histoire de la musique nous a légué, qu’elle a développé jusqu’à un haut degré d’abstraction et de raffinement, et qui est axé principalement sur la perception de rapports de fréquences précises ordonnées dans le temps (les « notes », dans la mélodie, l’harmonie, le contrepoint, par exemple). En nous orientant vers le fait sonore premier, ou vers un monde sonore plus global, comme dans la musique concrète, avec ce que cela signifie aussi d’évocation, de connotation, de référentialité peut-être encore plus grande, y a-t-il selon toi une perte ou un gain vis-à-vis de l’histoire, qui serait comme un retour au cri et au viscéral, voire à l’animal ou au minéral (? , par rapport au mot et à la parole qu’évoquerait la note ? Y a-t-il chez toi une volonté d’aller vers l’organisation d’une totalité du sonore et de délaisser le monde trop restreint des notes ? Ou bien l’histoire continue-t-elle d’infléchir, d’influencer ta façon d’organiser ce matériau plus « primaire », comme un « surmoi » où la conscience des « notes » ne peut être repoussée ou réduite au silence ?

WK : What concerns me more than the relationship between the two worlds (pitch-based vs. sound-based) that you have described is the way in which musical materials are contextualized and how sonic contexts influence our perception. I don’t think that I am moving away from pitch relationships, harmony, or counterpoint. In fact, all these elements are indispensable pillars of my music. However, one may postulate that I am working on a wider grid, where the physical sensations produced by frequencies in certain ranges and combinations take predominance over exact pitch. Moreover, harmony in my music often adopts timbral or textural functions.

I do think that my music is still very much rooted in Western classical music because of the way I have been trained to perceive and organize time. However, I have begun to find subtle ways of acknowledging my musical influences outside of the Western classical tradition, particularly with the piece Regulation.

How can I make sense of my personal listening history? What do my preferences say about my values or world view? Some studies have shown that preferences or taste are linked to genetic predispositions and that aesthetic choices can be dictated by the desire to construct a distinct social identity, to conform to the tastes of a certain demographic. So I often ask myself, what is the “tribe” that I wish to belong to? Or more specifically, from a composer’s point of view: who is my audience? What can I contribute musically as a reflection of contemporary thought and culture?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I turned to hip-hop and rap — music that I listened to growing up and continue to listen to. In your question, you alluded to my preoccupation with connotative sounds but musical genres themselves are also latent with connotation. Hip-hop is known for its sampling of other equally connotative musical genres such as jazz, R&B, and soul. Similarly, although the discipline I work in is known collectively as “New Music” or “Experimental Music”, certain aesthetics within this practice can be “connotative” when they remind everyday listeners of horror film soundtracks or sci-fi sound effects.

I wanted to find ways to acknowledge my musical influences and to reference them, without direct quotation, transcription, or arrangement of hip-hop music. For this reason, I used a recording of a crowd at a rap concert as a found object embedded in the beginning and at the conclusion of my piece, Regulation. In its first manifestation, the recording is transposed several octaves lower and unrecognizable; only at the end is the original recording revealed, but coloured by the resonance of the piano. My initial intention was to manipulate the recording by transposing the recording linearly and continuously, from the lowest possible octave to the original octave, thereby embodying the contour of a glissando — a central element of the composition. Through this transformation, I wanted to demonstrate the evolution from the abstract to the concrete. I eventually abandoned the idea because of technical issues but the transducer inside the piano offered another solution: as the recording abruptly stops, its sudden disappearance triggers the resonance of the piano, thus transporting this concrete sound into the realm of the abstract.

Instead of quoting hip-hop or rap, I chose to focus on the collective social behaviour of an audience at a rap concert. I borrowed the distinctive sounds that arise from this particular social setting, where fans enthusiastically worship their musical hero through very explicit and sometimes very uniform verbal and physical means. I wanted to temporarily situate listeners of my work in a social situation very different from that of a Western classical or New Music concert setting. New Music, Classical Music, Hip-Hop, Electronic Music, R&B are all categories that have deep roots in my upbringing. I am looking for a common thread amongst them so as to truthfully acknowledge them in my work.


Partition de Regulation, page 17 © William Kuo

MG : Pour terminer ce bref échange, tournons-nous vers la suite des choses… Quels sont les projets qui vont t’occuper, ou auxquels tu aimerais te consacrer comme compositeur dans un proche et plus lointain futur ?

WK : My next project will be a piece for Ensemble Nikel to be premiered at Gaudeamus Muziekweek in September 2018. I will also be working on two solo pieces to be premiered in Vancouver in 2019: one for solo percussion and another for solo clarinet and electronics that will focus on the techniques I discovered with Liam Hockley. In the long term, I hope to be less afraid of condensing and simplifying my musical materials within a composition and to go deeper inside them. I also hope to more fully and explicitly integrate into my work, the musical influences that I had mentioned in my earlier responses.

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