Were You There at the Beginning

  • Article

by Eric Maestri, composer

According to anthropologist David Graeber, solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, pleasurable activities almost always include sharing something. I think this is also true for /nu/thing: our friendship was born around music. Based on this friendship, which is not directly related to music composition, we wondered how to make the music we liked better known and how to be recognized for what we were doing. Our joint activity began in Italy in the 2010s: we all had international experiences and we wanted to show that today's music was alive.

At the beginning /nu/thing was the name of a blog that we and other musicians created to discuss music publicly, and in our own way. The hope was to encourage our community to question the aesthetics and politics of the contemporary musical repertoire and to speak beyond our "bubble". For me, this was an activist type of aspiration, responding to the need to find a place in this world and to collectively grasp a different meaning, one that went beyond music. I think that such a militant investment, expressed in a variety of ways, is common among the members of the group and continues today, even if we no longer write public blog posts.

We composed a single piece together, entitled I mille fuochi dell’universo (2017). It is a 40-minute work for ensemble and electronics, designed to be performed in a very particular space, the Pirelli Hangar in Milan. The 3-year period during which we worked on this piece helped us to understand that conceiving a work collectively is not the same as adding up the compositional acts of each individual, but that we should write as a single creator. If the act of composing is to choose sounds according to criteria that often remain at least partly unconscious, this act changes significantly when there are several of us: everyone has different ideas, expectations, and desires about the piece. The composition then emerges through a very open listening practice, which concerns the work, but also the relationship between us members of the collective. This practice requires us to formulate the musical questions through speech and consequently to find common strategies. It is a very time-consuming and complex approach, in total contradiction to what is usually asked of a composer today (e.g. to singularize, to write quickly, to differentiate, to distance, to circumscribe and to determine a clear and carefully constructed composi- tional territory). Ours is an exercise that requires an individual letting go; it requires a very broad perspective, changing one's standpoint in order to perceive the perspectives of others, which must gradually be formulated. This makes the musical form emerge from the divergence of the listening, which sometimes manifests itself in presence, there, in the studio, collectively, or at a distance, proven during individual moments of work in different spaces and places. I think that this way of composing goes beyond the individuality of the members and that through this practice the romantic idea of author disappears.

Usually, when someone discovers our music, the first question that comes up is how we organize our work. Technically, the answer is simple: if a work is collective, it means that it must be chosen and shared by all participants in every detail and at every level. Composing with several people imposes constraints to be solved. We live far away from each other and cannot be together for the whole composition period. The remote work is, then, necessary. So we compose using the same shared documents and remote working technologies: the cloud and sharing via online. A basic rule, perhaps the only one, has been gradually imposed: everyone can modify, delete, and transform the work of others. This radical approach—the only truly valid one—characterizes a unique compositional act. I think this approach is the only example of its kind on the contemporary scene today.

For this new piece, we evoke the idea of rebirth. Unlike our first piece, which had a rigorously calculated structure, here we established a preliminary plan and started composing freely. The basic idea is that of a journey. This journey is defined by stages that the sounds evoke, forming an abstract narrative. In this electronic piece, the voice has a very important role and it is possible to think of it as the journey of a voice; we are looking for a symphonic sound, which brings together different forms of writing and contrasting temporalities. In Were You There at the Beginning, music and light form a whole. Thanks to the sensibilities and skills of Thomas Bouaziz from Studio ExperiensS, we are in the process of finding powerful points of contact between sound and light. Our starting point is the system used in Xeankis' Polytope de Cluny: LED lights, lasers, mirrors, flashes, smoke. The work we present dialogues with the new realization of Xenakis' piece and appropriates its geometrical space.

Common points with Polytope are numerous. However, we wanted to distance ourselves from this piece, especially on the aesthetic level. While Xenakis' work is entirely imagined and conceived by the composer himself, who applied his poetic ideas to sound and light—giving a strong perceptual and aesthetic unity to the piece—in our case, we are four composers and one lighting artist. We collaborate, bringing together aesthetics, tastes, and desires. This difference is reflected in the result. In Xenakis' music, the masses of grains and textures create an organic whole, a sound complexity coordinated by a demiurge; in our case, we give life to a journey. We collaborate to create a sonic individual; we compose directional processes and tense surfaces. This new piece has a rigorous teleological form; it is characterized by movement and contrast. I think this puts our music on the plane of narrative temporality from which we hope to move the audience's listening and imagination. Here we focus our efforts: through imagination, we hope to impact our reality through listening and in this way assert a new meaning for our compositional practice that goes beyond the music itself.

Photo 1: /nu/thing with Andrea Agostini, Daniele Ghisi, Eric Maestri, Andrea Sarto and Thomas Bouaziz de Studio ExperiensS, in studio at Ircam, February 2022 © IRCAM-Centre Pompidou, photo: Déborah Lopatin
Photo 2,3 et 4 : /nu/thing in the Ircam's Espace de projection, repetition of Were You There at the Beginning, June 2022 © IRCAM-Centre Pompidou, photo: Quentin Chevrier

We use cookie technology to measure our online audience and to allow you to share content on social networks via link buttons. Further information.