Bit-makers - with Christopher Trapani

Bit-makers is a series of interviews of artists about artistic research. The title of the series is a wordplay with "beat-makers", for pulsed music producers. Most of the artists develop their own creative tools, in the form of computer programs producing "bits".

Portrait binaire:


How would you describe your work as a composer/researcher?

My work is poetic, in the larger sense of the term. I like to write pieces that aren’t necessarily in the same stylistic vein; I prefer that each piece be a world unto itself. I see my work as a synthesis of multiple influences and themes. I have a great affinity for folk music and, at the same time, for technology.

On my website, there’s a thematic index with an overview of my compositions. It’s not a traditional classification by instrumentation or by date: this thematic index groups together, for instance, all the pieces that deal with New Orleans, or all those about islands, etc. It’s crucial for me to think about my work in this way.

The other important aspect in my work is literature. I also studied literature, and my pieces are very often inspired by a novel or a writer.

Do you have favorite authors or novels?

I could talk about it for hours! I would say first of all Thomas Pynchon, who has been a big influence. Italo Calvino also. Primarily authors from the second half of the 20th century.

Is it natural or is it difficult to write music inspired by literature?

It’s a seed that was planted from the beginning with me. As a teenager, I loved reading and listening to music, and I always looked for the links between the two. Today, when I read a poem, I’m always asking myself how I would set the same shape in music. Searching for these connections allows me to bring together several lines of thought in my work. The same piece can explore technology and the idea of the exotic… For example, I have a piece called Convergence Lines, a 25-minute piece for ensemble and electronics, based on the novel V. by Thomas Pynchon.

When you look for these connections, do you have a method, a conceptual strategy (for example translating rhythms, sonorities, form), or is it more of an intuitive, poetic approach? 

I work both ways. In certain pieces, I give myself constraints, such as closely respecting a poetic form that I try to translate into sound. With End Words, for example, I wanted to explore multiple ways of translating the strict poetic form of the sestina. The words at the end of each line are repeated in a predetermined and imposed pattern, and this shape is reworked into multiple musical parameters: texture, duration, spatialization, pitch…

Other pieces are much looser in spirit… In those, I am more freely inspired, I’d say.

You also mention technology as a central element in your work.

Technology is important, of course. I work mostly at the computer. I’ve constructed my own tool box that allows me to work sometimes with sound itself, sometime in a symbolic fashion, meaning with traditional notation.

As far as technology goes, I don’t have a particular specialization. Even when I was studying on the cursus at IRCAM, certain classmates said, for instance, “I want to work on synthesis” and concentrated all of their efforts in that direction. Instead, I worked a bit with physical models, a little score following, a bit of concatenative synthesis. In the ten years since, I’ve worked with several different research teams. I don’t see myself as a researcher who will try to develop a deep knowledge of a single tool.

It’s a little like my general approach to composition: a synthesis between multiple ideas, a careful search for the right tool that corresponds to the musical idea behind a piece.

Is this diversity a need, something you can’t repress?

I didn’t start by consciously telling myself that I wanted to become a person with eclectic interests. It’s something that instead developed naturally, organically, over time. And always, I think, in response to my musical interests.

For example, on a short trip to Turkey in 2004, I discovered that Istanbul was a city that fascinated me, just like Turkish microtonal music. 

Two years later, I decided to move to Istanbul, mostly thanks to its music. Around the same time I discovered here in France both spectral music and work done at IRCAM. I came to see microtonality as a link between the two traditions. It’s not an obvious connection, but it’s a rather common aspect of the types of music I’ve been interested in exploring.

I’ve always wanted to lead my life this way, to follow the thread of what interests me at a given moment. That’s how it’s come to be that at 38 I’ve lived in six or seven countries, I’ve traveled a lot! It’s something I’m proud of but which also has its disadvantages. Even though my music is often performed in France, I’m not really anchored in either the French scene or in the US, where I currently live and where I’m often viewed as a more European composer. I’m caught between these two worlds all the time, which is both good and bad…

What do you feel is missing? Are you missing a home base, an audience… ?

Without a doubt, it’s a feeling of belonging. That might be the main theme of my life, the sensation of not really belonging to any particular place. Constant wandering. It’s disadvantageous career-wise, for funding. But at the same time, I can’t complain, I have plenty of work!

Would you say that your musical research is a reflection of your life, of your need to travel and to discover new things?

Yes, the two go together. I very rarely have the urge to redo something I’ve already done in my work.

In the midst of this variety — music for ensemble, electronics, mixed, plus all of the traditions that have inspired you and that you try to incorporate — do you see a common thread, one thing that all of your pieces share?

I think there are things that on can recognize in my music as personal touches. For one thing, I have a great affinity for color. Many of my pieces make explicit reference to colors. To light and color. In Spinning in Infinity for example, a piece for orchestra and electronics, there’s a double inspiration: the shape of a spiral and the color wheel. I’ve developed a way of working with color, which changes constantly and always in a loop. In this piece, I’m speaking mainly about timbre, instrumental color.

I think I have my own rhythmic language as well. It’s not necessarily easy to explain; it doesn’t involve meter or repetition, but it is nevertheless very active most of the time. I sometimes say explicitly that I’ve been inspired on the rhythmic level by mosaics, patterns like those from North Africa.

Beyond that, I think I have the same harmonic proclivities in most of my pieces; I often structure them in a similar way, with my own sense of wandering…

Could we say then that you have a coherent and constant style in your work despite diverse influences that differ from one to the next?

Exactly. When I was at IRCAM in 2010 I wrote a piece called Cognitive Consonance for the Festival Agora. It’s a title I chose as a sort of manifesto of what I wanted to accomplish at that time—and what I still hope to do. That is, to write music that is cognitive and consonant at the same time,

A large percentage of contemporary music from the US is consonant, but a little too naive, too basic. On the other hand, it was very common a decade ago to encounter pieces that were too cerebral, lacking any real engagement with sound, which seems to be a little less the case today. What I found with Grisey, Murail, and Leroux was a detailed conception accompanied by a love for sound itself, and for ideas of consonance. That is the goal I wanted to express with that title, which I could still use as a slogan.

That could be the common thread between all my pieces. What ties them together is the idea of exploring consonance, of expanding the definition of consonance to include, among other things, microtones.

I don’t want my pieces to be listened to just once. This is another idea that comes from literature: a good novel can be read on multiple levels; not everything is evident at first glance, some things are a bit hidden. And by re-reading, you understand better, you catch more. Certain composers are successful in writing music that is impressive, from the start and on the first listening. But my music is not like that.

If you gave your listeners the opportunity to listen multiple times to your work, what reactions do you think that would inspire in them?

I’ve thought a lot about this question, but it’s still rather hard to respond. What I appreciate in a given work, whether musical or literary, is being able to listen or read and to pick out connections, multiple references, both within the work and pointing outwards. That’s why I admire Thomas Pynchon so much. You can’t argue that Gravity’s Rainbow, or other large-scale works, are formal masterpieces. There are always pages you could eliminate, but those pages serve to elaborate, digress, and to evoke outside elements. They spark connections between what one has already read and what one is currently reading…

That is the cognitive goal of music for me: to be able to illuminate with small flashes connections or references that might not otherwise be evident.

My piece Waterlines is the one that goes furthest in this direction, because there I am explicitly exploring American music. There are references to country music and the blues — I took lyrics directly from old blues records. And at the same time, the music is also very spectral and Europeanized.

How did it occur to you to synthesize the blues and spectral music? Is it a challenge?

It came to me pretty naturally. I started to write this piece around 2005. I was living in Paris, I was just discovering this music and establishing connections. In spectral music for example, there is this idea of a continuum between noise and consonance. I saw a parallel with the oscillation between tonic and dominant chords in the blues. In both traditions, you find drones, microtonal inflections. Many common features, in the end, that might not have been obvious right away. My work flows from there reflections that were already beginning to take shape in my mind, simply by listening to one thing after another.

You have both musical and extra-musical influences. You speak about colors, and the light of Istanbul. Does that play into your work, and to what degree?

Of course. Right now, I’m in residence in Cassis in the south of France; I spend my days looking out at the sea, observing small changes of color. All the time. The piece I’m writing is going to conjure that sensation. Last year I had a commission for L’Itinéraire and Ensemble Modern, and wrote a piece called PolychROME. I was living in Rome while composing the piece, and I wanted to write something inspired by the atmosphere of the city—its colors, its sounds, its motifs, and its very special light.

How does this sort of permeation take shape? In your imagination, or in your concrete work?

That’s complicated to answer, because it’s always a personal process and one is never certain to be able to trigger the same emotional response in another person.

With PolychROME, I didn’t stop with the idea of reproducing or evoking an atmosphere. I set out to find poets and writers who opened similar doors. I found a short story by Geoff Dyer, a British writer. He talks about his own experience of Rome as a dead city at the end of summer: the light creates the effect of a reverse eclipse, where everything is drenched in blazing light but at the same time nothing in the city moves. That’s the feeling I try to recreate at the end of the piece. I asked myself what would be the musical equivalent of a white light getting brighter and more intense.

Another idea came via Rome’s marble statues. We know them as white, but we also know that in antiquity they were painted in lively colors that have since vanished. I wondered if we could look at polychrome statues that have gone white and imagine restoring their lost color. We’d begin from something spare, slowly adding color. The musical analogy I imagined starts with percussive sounds, very dry, that gradually gain harmonic resonance. Specifically, I used the Cuban timbales, which always have a light resonance in addition to their percussive attack.

I made some recordings and tried to explore with the help of the computer how I could emulate that resonance; first of all, to orchestrate it literally, then to give the impression that little by little the resonance was becoming more powerful that the attack. It’s a process that unfolds over three minutes, 

moving from a sparse, arid space to a world rich with color and resonance.

I used analysis tools like AudioSculpt to examine the waveform and the harmonic components of the timbales. I also used Orchids, the assisted orchestration tool currently being refined at IRCAM.

Do you also develop tools as you need them?

Yes, all the time! In the field of electronics, I am stuck between two worlds. I’m not just a composer, and I am certainly not a developer either, but I manage to create tools somewhere in the middle.

Electronic music, for me, is collaborative work. That might be obvious in France, but in the US, people don’t think of it that way. There, when I’m asked to write a piece with electronics, there is never a computer music designer to work with, no assistance; I have to do it all myself. And I can do that, but it doesn’t help to advance musical thought, nor the state of research. I find that to really be a shame; I really prefer the way of working here in France.

In the US there is another tradition which has become dominant: the DIY tradition, meaning you do everything yourself. It’s common to see composers who create their own instruments. It’s not as refined as in France, and you are limited to your own knowledge.

A composer’s job is still thought of as very isolated and lonely, like something you do alone off in a closet somewhere. On the contrary, I think a collaborative context is really beneficial for electroacoustic work.

Is that why you make your tools available to others?

Most of my tools, especially those developed at IRCAM, are in a constant state of development and evolution. There are many that haven’t yet been made publicly available, because they still need to be optimized. I would be really glad to get there one day!

It’s a constant challenge at IRCAM; no one has enough time. It’s normal, of course: projects unfold in a context of constant production and energy often goes towards making pieces work in concert, with a deadline that can be missed. Finding the time afterwards to go back to the same tools and improve them, that’s usually very difficult.

How do you go from the development phase to the writing phase, and vice versa? Is it hard to stop composing in order to devote yourself to developing a tool that you need in order to continue?

For me, the tech elements of a composition are integral from the start. Right now, I’m working on a piece which will be played in Marseille. I’m writing the patch and the score at the same time. As soon as I have an idea on the page, I have its sonic equivalent on the computer. I’m lucky to be able to work like this because I’m creating the electronics with a set of tools that I’ve been constructing for a while now, so I can be relatively sure that they’re working.

But I have worked the other way around too; it depends entirely on the project. If the idea is to attempt something new with electronics and I have to build a patch from scratch, it becomes difficult to compose  at the same time. You have to test, to go back and forth… And that can get to be frustrating, sometimes — having the feeling of not being in one space or the other… That’s when collaboration really helps.

More broadly speaking, why music? You are attracted to many things; why this path in particular?

I always knew that I wanted to be a composer, from the time I was fairly young. I decided around nine years old that I wanted to pursue music. I think that’s because music has a side that is more open to subjective interpretation than, say, literature. It allows you to evoke, to communicate — I don’t want to say “without being explicit,” but that is the general idea. It is what I appreciate the most, what allows me to play with varying levels of directness in what I write.

What brought you to contemporary music, though, given your interest in folk and blues?

I remember well telling myself that classical music, notated music, was the field where one could do anything. One can synthesize, encompass everything. Growing up in New Orleans, jazz was everywhere. Many of my friends played jazz, and me too, a bit. But I quickly began to feel that it would be rather hard to bring the Ravel string quartet into the world of jazz. On the other hand, with classical, notated music, you could easily write something that suggests jazz.

It was a naive thought, but also perceptive. I realized later that it was far more complicated than I thought, for instance, to portray Turkish music in the context of a contemporary piece. You really have to have the right players. I often find myself in a situation where I want to make reference to certain traditions, certain styles of playing that are unfamiliar to the Western instrumentalists I’m working with, who often need a little guidance, and it’s never guaranteed to get the right result.

But I prefer to write what inspires me, with “ideal” instruments if necessary. I’ve had real practical problems with some of my pieces, like Cognitive Consonance, which I mentioned earlier. There is a solo part for qanûn, a Middle Eastern instrument with plucked strings — and it has to be a Turkish qanûn, not an Arabic qanûn, because the layout of microtones is different. After its premiere, the piece was never played for eight years, too difficult to stage. But we recently recorded it in New York with a Turkish qanûn player who lives in Montreal, and the CD has just come out ( There isn’t always a happy ending like that one, but fortunately, a little satisfaction from time to time!

Propos recueillis par François Vey.