Interview with artist Alexandre Jamar
Constraint Harp - Artistic Issues
Winner of the first edition of the Elan Award, jointly attributed by the Orchestre national d’Île-de-France and IRCAM in July 2022, Alexandre Jamar has been rewarded with the commission of a piece for solo instrument, electronics, and orchestra to be produced at IRCAM, of course, and premiered by the Orchestra during the upcoming ManiFeste festival. The terms specify that the soloist must be a member of the orchestra, and the electronics must be applied to the solo part only.
Five Forest Studies, for piano and orchestra
So is created, in the basement of IRCAM, We will not waste a vowel for harp, electronics, and orchestra. The title, found in the last line of the last page of Georges Perec's La Disparition, indirectly brings us back to the approach to composition adopted by Alexandre Jamar over the last few years, namely "constrained" composition.
" For a long time I was reluctant to composing with constraints. I was not even interested in questions of language in composition, although these questions fascinated me when it came to literature! After a few pieces in which I allowed myself complete freedom, without much success, I asked myself if salvation would not come from constraints. So far, the constraints I have imposed on myself are not necessarily audible in the final piece. At least not as obviously as in We Will Not Waste a Vowel. For, here, the constraint arrived very early in the conception of the piece, and its role is central: I can even say that it was the starting point of the whole thing."
This primary constraint, Alexandre Jamar found it in the chosen solo instrument: the harp, or rather in its pedal system, which allows the performer to reach all the notes of the chromatic scale.
"The main constraint was to have all the instruments play only ascending scales. Starting with such a ‘stupid’ constraint, the idea is obviously to go beyond it or to get around it by being smarter than it - it's a bit of a game I played with myself... and I play by imposing even more constraints. So, the harp starts with a C major scale. Then it changes the D pedal to D flat, and starts again with a scale - and so on throughout the piece: the harp changes the scale played with its pedals. An additional constraint is that once a pedal has been changed, it is no longer touched. The note remains as it is (except during the cadenza, during which I allow myself to go back and forth)."
"The same constraint applies to the orchestra, except that it can play all the notes already played by the harp - which provides a sort of 'reservoir' of notes. If I had followed the same constraint of no backtracking for the orchestra as for the harp, I think the harmonic writing would have been less effective. And, of course, the same rule applies to the electronics, which only use notes already played by the harp."
Sfumato of the harp - Technological Issues
Alexandre Jamar is not, strictly speaking, a novice in the field of computer music. He studied with Yan Maresz, Grégoire Lorieux, and Luis Naón at the Paris Conservatory.
However, the commission for the Élan Prize is subject to a number of conditions, mainly logistical, which limit his explorations: the system must remain simple, with only two loudspeakers and two microphones capturing the sound of the harp (one in the resonance box, the other on the outside).
This new constraint did not deter the young composer, who decided to place the two loudspeakers on either side of the soloist, creating a kind of twin capable of producing more than a simple acoustic harp (superimposition of chords, multiplication of play, amplification, etc.). All this without real-time, however, except for certain nuances.
" The Elan Prize system condition obviously closes many doors, spatialization, for example, or augmenting the instrument. But the role of the harp in the composition is more that of a 'cantus firmus' than of a soloist in the strict sense: it is the very foundation of the organization of the piece, it gives all the information to the orchestra and nothing happens without its control, but it is not necessarily prominent. It is amplified, but the orchestra can cover it or reveal it. It is, above all, this process of sfumato, of masking/demasking, in which the electronics participate."
Taking up, like the orchestra, only the notes already added to the 'reservoir' by the soloist, the electronics play more on timbre effects than on written pitches.
"The sound files come exclusively from reprocessed harp sound samples, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable. João Svidzinski, the computer music designer accompanying me, and I worked on a base of harp sound samples, improved thanks to Florence Dumont, who will perform the solo part. Florence is extremely enthusiastic and curious, and contributes to the electronics, which retains the stamp of her performance."
"I approached writing electronics in a very empirical way, doing a lot of experiments with samples, playing modes, etc. João has a lot of experience with the harp, and knows very quickly what works and what doesn't. For example, when I talked to him about distorting the sound of the harp, he immediately showed me a granulation tool that he created himself, by implementing in the usual granulators a notion of rarefaction - which, like a grain of sand slipping into the process, gives a bit of unpredictability to the sound, which becomes a bit rougher and more agitated."