SG: Electronics play an important role in your music and you use them with remarkable regularity in your pieces. How would you compare this common use in today's music to what composers who had just discovered it did ? What specific function does it have in your new piece life-form written for Arne Deforce ?
RB: In life-form the electronic sounds are completely precomposed, and played back rather than performed. This might seem a rather traditional way of doing things but for me it’s quite unusual. One of the problems composers and performers have often encountered with this kind of situation is the lack of performative connection between instrument and “tape”, the necessity for the instrumentalist(s) to conform to its fixed timing, but here the cello is able to influence the sound of the electronics instantaneously in various different ways, just by playing: in different areas of the piece the cello cuts off one or another layer of the electronic sounds, or filters them, or affects their pitch or dynamic, or some combination of these, so you could say that in distinction to those pieces where the cello is transformed by electronics, here it’s the other way around. I don’t know of any previous example of quite this strategy being used - and of course it’s only made possible by the development of computers and programs which can analyse incoming sounds in real time. Nothing like that was possible in the early years of electronic music; although that’s not to say that the early electronic music was primitive in a musical sense. Musicians have always found imaginative uses of the most advanced technology available to them, whether this is a computer, or a valved trumpet, or gut strings rubbed with horsehair. I think we’re still at a very early stage in the musically creative use of digital technology. The way it affects my own musical thinking is constantly evolving.
A musical work is generated in a composer's mind but often develops itself in the collaboration with a performer. How was your second collaboration with Arne Deforce (the first one at the Centre Henri Pousseur was for Blattwerk in 2002)?
Actually, Arne and I have worked together on many projects since we first met in the mid-1990s. Between Blattwerk and life-form, for example, came nacht und träume for cello, piano and electronics; his cello had an important rôle in my music-theatre piece Unter Wasser which I wrote for Champ d’Action in 1998; and we have also performed together in a number of more improvisatory contexts over the years. I find myself attracted to working with performers who are not only capable of doing extraordinary things for themselves, but also suggest extraordinary things to me, like the idea of composing a piece for cello and electronics which would be an hour in duration. And obviously such a piece would also have to use our experience of collaboration as a starting point, and to take it in a new direction. So it doesn’t feel to me so much like a “second collaboration” so much as a new stage in a continuous process of sharing and discovery. Some of what happens in life-form was directly suggested by working sessions Arne and I have had; other aspects I think he has found quite surprising. I should also mention that my collaboration at the Centre with Patrick Delges is an important factor. His creative input as programmer of the live electronic system in Blattwerk was considerable, so that when I was considering how the system in life-form should work I was confident that if my proposal was at all possible, Patrick would find the best way to realise it.
Which qualities do you value in the combination between cello and electronics ? Is this combination intrinsically different when facing with a solo instrument than with a group or an ensemble ?
I think every musical setting is intrinsically different. Somehow I feel a particular affinity for the cello, even though I don’t play it myself. I think this has something to do with the kind of physicality, and the physical scale, of the instrument and the act of playing. My first cello piece, entitled Ne songe plus à fuir, was written in 1986 and is perhaps the first fully characteristic piece in my oeuvre, in that one of my central ideas, of “musical material” which evolves out of a contemplation of the physicality of playing, comes into sharp focus for the first time. The dimensions of movement in playing the cello, and the relation between these and what you hear, are laid bare as if the instrument is somehow a portal into the body of the player, rather than an extension of it.
The title of your piece "life-form" is a rather intriguing one and stimulates all kinds of images like travelling to other worlds. Could you tell us more about it ?
The title can be interpreted in diverse ways. Initially, by life-form I meant the form taken by the life-cycle of a metamorphic organism like an insect, which proceeds through a number of stages involving each time a change of habitat and a fundamental reshaping of the organism’s body, sometimes with massive discrepancies in duration, like the cicada that remains underground for 17 years before emerging as a flying insect for a few weeks: we think of the “adult” stage as the characteristic form of the insect, but actually from the insect’s point of view, if it had one, that final stage might seem more like a preparation for death. Which is not to say that life-form is particularly concerned with insects: different parts of it might be likened more to microscopic phenomena in the process of life like cell-division, or macroscopic ones like the complexity of ecosystems; or, as you suggest, to the idea of completely alien life-forms which might exist elsewhere in the universe. But the music isn’t so to speak “about” these things; it could more accurately be thought of as a metamorphic life-form in itself, an entity which emerges from silence, passes through a sequence of structures and environments, and eventually returns once more to silence.