Motoric considerations are at the forefront of compositional speculation. The peculiar maneuvering required to play each instrument implies compositional strategies that will ensure the optimization of the chosen instrument(s).
When I composed my harp solo piece Phalanges, I used a series of devices (e.g. paper between strings, tuning fork, constant pedal glissandi, half-pedal buzz, etc.) to destabilize the performer’s typical way of operating on that instrument. More than seeking mere effects, I saw the instrument as a sonic object that could be subjected to different types of ergonomic demands. If one is able to understand the ergonomics behind traditional gestural moves, one is also able to penetrate the depths of gestural potentialities—a state of affairs where the superimposition of new gestures implies not only a unique motoric vocabulary but the assumption of a new compositional output.
In my Percussion Studies for solo guitar, I attempted to create a set of pieces (or movements) that have in common an unusual playing technique called the Tapping Technique. This technique enables me to intersperse a set of percussive sounds performed over the guitar’s body and executed only with the hands, that are flexible and fast enough to coexist and interact with the pitch material. In other words, to pass from a note to an effect (any percussive one) and back to a note, it is imperative for the effect to be easily accessible (i.e. ergonomically viable). My goal was to demonstrate that it is possible to treat the percussive effects using the same rhythmic constraints normally employed for the pitches. The complex rhythmic structure used in this and other pieces of mine is an important tool providing not only compositional substance, but filtering the effects and allowing them to surface at very precise points.
Early in my compositional career, I made a point of knowing intimately the instruments for which I wanted to write. I acquired a cello, a viola, a violin, I rented a harp, a trombone, an oboe, etc. This is fundamental if we composers want to excel in mastering the intricacies that exist within the instrument itself and more importantly between the instrument and performer. The physical extension of my pieces, as they project beyond the mere instrumental mechanics to involve the performer as a whole—his/her body as a donator of sounds—is a fundamental aspect of my understanding of the ambiguities between gesture and sound. The re-channeling of energy spent in performing can acquire the status of structural cell if we view the bodily reaction to the music being played as a complementary detail. A scream, a click-tongue, a hum, the tapping of the feet, etc., can be enlisted in the contrapuntal presentation of the sonic materials. However, I might add, minus gimmicks. The point here is to make sure that the flow of materials of diverse textural qualities or weights are to be presented always as something new.
My piece, Exoskeleton for solo viola, proposes to reinvent the way a traditional instrument, a viola, ought to be played. The name Exoskeleton (meaning: outer shell of insects) is a metaphor for the exporting of my tapping technique (created specifically for the guitar) to the violaÕs morphologic context. Again, working with a palette of percussive sounds, noises and pitch oriented material (pitch is not precisely indicated in the piece, only rhythm), I managed to accomplish a true deconstruction of the expected sonic qualities inherent in the viola. First, a violist cannot play this piece. Only a guitarist. This first subversion betrays traditional modes of motoric and gestural demands that are incrusted in the tradition of viola music making. Secondly, the compositional byproduct of such a posture is not necessarily “viola music” but “pizzicato music” played at speeds never heard before with the instrument. Therefore, on top of the playing speed, the compositional newness and integrity of the piece and the instrument is maintained since the viola is submitted to complex technical demands where ergonomic considerations play a fundamental role.
For me, composing involves emotional and intuitive responses to the world around us. I always deeply mistrust a complete anything. Independent of the type of material that you are working with (be it a chamber piece, a Bossa-Nova, a popular song or a symphony), subverting the means and the expectations of a specific art form is part of the business of being an artist in a world where such function is already confused with a commodity.