Inspection (Notes)

Notes on the collaboration with Florian Hecker for the piece commissioned by BBC Radio 3.

Hecker’s sound work is just that: he’s not writing music (in any easily recognizable sense), he’s working with sound as a material, and with various techniques for analysing and synthesising sound. So, in collaborating with him, you really have to start with the sound, and what it’s doing in the piece.

In this case, what you’ll hear is a progressive approximation of some original source material, which is itself has been synthesized/generated by Hecker. So he’s literally reprocessing his own work here. It’s not that it’s the same signal, degraded to different degrees throughout the piece; it’s actually being algorithmically reconstructed, it’s a resynthesis, a remaking of the original source. And this is done by analysing and coding the original sound using a set of descriptors that are intended to capture aspects of its timbre. Timbre is the peculiar ‘whatness’ of a sound—for instance the difference between an E-flat played on the cello and the same E-flat played on the trombone—and it’s something that, in research on sound and hearing, has proved particularly difficult to define and analyse. It’s something like the final frontier for the science of auditory perception.

So what’s really being asked here is what you need to know, what structures you would need to identify, in order to resynthesize something from the ground up. And what it is that characterises the timbre of a particular experience of sound—something very specific and singular that goes beyond description in terms of notes, pitch, duration, and those kinds of traditional musical parameters, although of course there’s a modern tradition of composers explicitly working with timbre, probably starting with Debussy.

The title ‘Inspection’ is a reference to this process of trying to look inside, to analyze and discover, in order to resynthesize something. I am thinking here about the possibility of capturing a stilled image of ourselves, a definitive image that would almost be like looking at our own death; but how looking at ourselves always creates a further disturbance, another reflection, and changes us into someone else again, so we can never really capture ourselves in that definitive way. From Charon, the boatman who ferries souls of the dead across the styx, I take the theme of a ‘crossing’, getting from one bank to the other, achieving the perfect reproduction and then being at rest, to resonate with the technical construction of the piece.

Putting these things together led me from inspection to introspection, and to the process one goes through in trying to, as the oracle said, ‘know thyself’. In the process of psychoanalysis or any psychotherapy, the patient goes through a series of episodes in which they create and recreate their own narratives of themselves and of their lives, using the limited materials available to them at each point, whatever they have managed to understand and become conscious of. Throughout this process they repeat and reiterate their story, and repeatedly remake their image of themselves and of the events they’re dealing with; and it hopefully becomes clearer, but without ever reaching that definitive final stage where everything would be fixed and understood—because then effectively you’d no longer be a living person…!

So the libretto ended up in the form of a dialogue between an analyst and his patient, both of which are recited by voices which themselves are synthetic reconstructions of a human voice.

The analyst basically lays down the rules, describes abstractly how the process, the crossing, is going to work—so that’s kind of a description, within the piece, of how the piece itself is constructed, and what will happen. Then the patient, or analysand, describes in more immediate and visceral terms his movement from a painful kind of disorientation and inability to discern anything certain, being adrift in this pure noise, crossing through various stages of recognition, repetition, identification of features and landmarks, toward an understanding of the self that is being revealed or constructed.

I think for listeners it also becomes evident that the process of listening is also not just a passive process, it’s a constructive, or reconstructive process. Although in a sense Hecker’s work is very objective, coded, and precise, when it’s performed, because the sounds are unfamiliar and unrecognizable, it really brings into the foreground the listener’s role in constructing what’s heard, how it’s heard, and what it might mean. As listeners, when we concentrate, when we try to discern what we’re hearing, we are also reconstructing something from clues and fragments, trying to ensure that sound has recognizable structure, that it can be comprehended, that it can somehow make sense to us, maybe even trying to make it into a kind of music. The listener is also participating in the process of resynthesis here.

Ultimately the libretto describes the experience of the piece itself, and dramatises the predicament of its audience. But the words themselves, and the voices they’re spoken in, obviously, also form part of the sonic fabric of the piece—in the end, although they perform this descriptive role, the words themselves are also just another sound material.