Scheduled for Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2021, the cycle for string quartet and electronics, Aether Is a Haunted Place (2017-2021) by Maura Lanza, featuring background noise, white noise and radio waves for esthetics.
The work will be performed by the string quartet Quatuor Diotima, which in 2017 performed the first part of the cycle, entitled The 1987 Max Headroom Broadcast Incident, inspired by a celebrated case of TV interference that occurred in 1987 in Chicago – interrupting an episode of Doctor Who featuring an individual disguised as Max Headroom, a sci-fi character popular in the 1980s.
The cycle has since been completed, and the second and third parts will be performed for the very first time in Witten this spring. They are, respectively, Memories of the Space Age and The Voices Didn’t Stop After the War.
We spoke briefly with Pierre Morlet, cellist for Quatuor Diotima, to get the scoop on the musicians’ preparation for this performance.
The Performers’ Point of View
This cycle takes a close-up look at the esthetics of background noise, white noise and radio waves, and in general at the muddled use of high-tech and related malfunctions. How does your quartet express itself within such a framework, and how do the components of the quartet interact?
The whole piece is written, which is definitely an advantage. There were some preparations, in terms of chord structure and tuning, with some instruments playing out of tune, as well as the addition of a bit of Patafix to modify the sound of the strings. There’s also a lot of unusual multiphonic harmonics, and the construction of the sound is pretty complex. The opposite of what you would call a clear sound. I’d also say that in the making of these sounds, we’ve got radio frequencies, background noise, white noise.
This is a work that’s precise and worked out in detail. We play with the clicks going on in our headphones, so there’s no way the tempo varies, and we go with the flow. There’s nothing automatic about it, though. It’s all extremely controlled. We play exactly what’s written, with no alterations of tempo or dynamics.
As far as preparation goes, the fundamental thing was being able to work with the composer and the sound engineers. Sometimes the sounds of the instruments and the mics had to be modified, so we didn’t always have total control over the sounds coming out. Which is to say, what we hear in concert, on stage, is never what the audience hears.
In this cycle, what are the most peculiar characteristics in terms of Mauro Lanza’s musical language?
Two elements surely come to the fore. The first is the complexity of the sound. The aim is to create a sound that is halfway between white noise and harmonics. The second involves movement, which is totally dictated by the composer. We just follow the clicks mechanically in our headphones. Enormous elasticity there. Tension and release.
Excerpt from the composer's notes
The cycle as a whole deals with the aesthetics of ground noise, white noise, and lost radio waves, with the misuse and malfunctions of technology, and with the misinterpretation of a chaotic signal as pareidolia. It is also, somehow, a nostalgic homage to obsolete or soon-to-be-obsolete technologies and to the visions of the future these technologies carried. That future now seems irretrievably lost, but its ghost haunts us, like Ballard’s dead astronauts or Jürgenson’s voices. Max Headroom’s grin, arriving from a dark, media-dominated future (the one foretold by the cyberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s) and interrupting the techno-optimistic, old-school sci-fi of Doctor Who, has become a metaphor for how dystopia has taken the place of utopia in our collective imagination.
Photo: Quatuor Diotima © François Rousseau