Patricia Alessandrini

5 questions to Patricia Alessandrini (composer and installation artist)

Patricia Alessandrini’s compositions and sound installations often involve live electronics, usually with interactive video. Her works have been programmed in some of the world’s leading new music festivals, including Agora (Paris), Archipel (Geneva), Ars Musica (Brussels), Festival en tiempo real (Bogotá), Musica Strasbourg, Rainy Days (Luxembourg), Sonorities (Belfast), and Spor (Aarhus). She is currently a lecturer in composition with technology at Bangor University.

Technology plays an important role in your creative work. How vital is it to your output as a composer – can you imagine yourself composing 100 years ago?

Patricia Alessandrini

Patricia Alessandrini

The works would necessarily be different were they not conceived in the digital age, as digital technology plays a vital role in all of them. On the other hand, if I try to imagine what it would have been like for me to be a part of the artistic milieu 100 years ago, what comes to mind is the fascination technology held for many artists of that time, which mirrors – somewhat grotesquely – our own present obsessions with technology. So I could well imagine myself composing at that time by experimenting within some of the developing forms of the time, ‘photoplay’ and early film music, theatre with ‘mechanical’ themes, some early attempts to use technology as a nexus between different media; but while I appreciate for instance the influence of the Italian futurist movement, I also feel a certain antipathy for its ideology, just as I do for any current tendencies which uncritically embrace the ‘brighter future’ digital technology will provide.

Let’s discuss timbre, which I think is very important to you structurally. Were there any particular musical (or other) influences that first led you to think about the “inside” life of sounds?

I would say it has something to do with being a performer before I was a composer, in that I was concerned with the realisation, the phenomenon of the work in time, before I was with creating a symbolic representation, a score for a new work. One of the principal aesthetic aims of my compositions, from early on, has been to focus on the moment at which the performer succeeds in generating a sound from an instrument. I am interested in sound as a material in itself, especially in relation to what one sees, to the space in which it takes place, etc. and less interested in the musical materials themselves.

In a previous interview (ICElab 2012), you refer to some of your music being akin to reinterpretations of previous works, such as your timbral analyses and “orchestrations” of music by composers like Mozart and Purcell. Can you tell us more about the processes at play, and how you came to this way of working?

I was inspired to use existing repertoire rather than creating my own basic musical materials in part by an exercise in an seminar by Paul Koonce at Princeton University: to compose a work for piano based on a short work for piano by Mozart. I composed my exercise by removing all but a few notes from Mozart’s original piece; I have continued to use similar reductive processes in works such as Nani and Omaggio a Berio. I was also influenced by the writings and work of the artist Gerhardt Richter, and in particular this quotation from his writings: ‘I like everything that has no style…Because style is violence, and I am not violent.’ According to these writings, he achieved the state of ‘having no style’ through his paintings from photos, by giving himself a specific task to achieve: ‘not to have anything to imagine, to forget the meaning given to painting, colour, composition, spatiality, all that one knew and thought. All of that suddenly stopped being the premise of art.’ (Gerhardt Richter, Textes, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 1999, p.29).

You do your own programming and instrument-building. How important would you say it is for a young composer today to be technically grounded – and do you feel it is in any way different for a woman?

I think it is very important, and as the field evolves so rapidly, one also needs to keeping abreast of new developments. Especially for the latter, it is helpful to be in a community in which one may exchange expertise. This has been one of the wonderful things about being at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (Belfast): the idea there is to have composers, performers, researchers, and musicologists literally working together in one big room as often as possible in order to encourage knowledge transfer. This might seem paradoxical, but these exchanges contribute to one’s autonomy, because you gain skills which you can then use elsewhere, in other communities or on your own.

Of course there are complications when one belongs to an underrepresented group in a given community, as I have often been in specific situations, and as women are in electro-acoustic music generally speaking. Women working with technology need on the one hand to have confidence in the skills they have, and on the other to not become defensive about any lacunas in their knowledge, but rather keep studying and profit from learning from sources and from colleagues, just as men do all the time.

What are some of your pedagogical philosophies in working with young composers?

I have done a quite a bit of teaching in the area of Computer-Assisted Composition, which is rather straightforward in a sense: one must first of all aid the students in acquiring some general technical skills, then each student needs to be able to clearly articulate a goal, so that one may guide him/her in designing a (computer-aided) process suited to it. For me, this is a sort of analogy for all of my teaching in composition: I know that there are certain skills which tend to aid students in general, so I try to strengthen those, while at the same time working with each student on realising their own specific compositional ideas, which may of course entail very different problematics and skills.

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  • Arlene & Larry Dunn

    Thanks Xenia for this insightful interview with Patricia Alessandrini. We had the immense pleasure to hear ICE play her “Omaggio a Berio” at MCA Chicago last year, and then discovered she was sitting next to us in the audience.