menu fr

"Tellur", an analysis

  Published in Cahiers de la Guitare n° 12 in 1984;  


To try and delimit the musical and aesthetic conception of Tristan MURAIL we quote the composer : "The sudden widening of our horizon of sound opened by non-European music, the appearance of electronics has drastically changed the givens presented to composers, throwing into question the very foundations of our music. Impossible today to take pleasure in the systems of writing inherited from the past, and resting above all on a combination of note symbols making a screen in front of the sound phenomena. On the other hand, from new propositions inspired by acoustic observations and methods of synthesising sound, a systematic reconstruction of the world of sound seems possible. Acoustic observation which has revealed the internal composition of sound and the nature of interactions between sound phenomena, permits us to capture sounds in all their depth, and in this way to work sounds directly with their components, instead of being content with combining the SYMBOLS of sounds (the notes and the signs of a score). Electroacoustic practice, mixes, echoes, re-injections, filters, synthesis of new complex sounds, proposed new forms to instrumental music. The influence of electronic techniques will be felt on musical writing and also on the way of playing required of musicians (sounds without attack, continuous transformation of sounds, from "pure" sound to sounds charged with harmonics, sounds carrying controlled noise). But the sheet of paper offers the advantage, contrary to the studio, of posing no practical limit to the imagination. One can by writing strive to extend, deform, exceed electroacoustic techniques considered then as models serving the organisation of new forms."



Presentation of Tellur by Tristan Murail :

Premiere : April 1977 in Paris, Salle Cortot by Rafael Andia

I have long wanted to write a piece using the techniques of the flamenco guitar. It was the encounter with the guitarist Rafael Andia who allowed me to put this project into execution.

Tellur resembles a sort of challenge: how to produce, with a short blasts and pinched instrument such as the guitar, sound continuums necessary for my compositional work, then mainly focused on processes, transitions, changes? The answer was to use the technique of rasgueado and even, more generally, the style of play, types of sound flamenco. The treatment of the attacks on the string, for example, is particularly fine and neat: thus reaches produie two textures evolving in different directions on the same rope at the same time (by decoupling the sound made by percussion nail on the ropes - sound precise and controllable frequency - and the sound from the strings own resonance). I also use progressive passages sound to noise (gradual stifling of strings), the gradual emergence of overtones, resonances harmonic chords, fingerings of unpublished harmonics, multiple trills combining left and right hand , etc. Tellur is a typical example of a score whose content derives essentially sound material provided by the instrument - an instrument, however, understood and used in a way that makes the bow to stylistic imperatives - looking for greatest possible interaction between base material and musical writing. The instrument is tuned in a special way, which allows the use of agreements or formulas rasgueado on six strings without falling back on the inevitable E-A-D-G-B-E of the guitar.





TELLUR rests on a play on the phenomenon of "entropy" and of reconstruction of sound: disaggregation and incorporation of "atmospherics" which give birth to new layers of sounds.   Entropy is an important basic idea taken from thermodynamics and describes the degradation of energy in a system. MURAIL himself gives us a definition of it in another of his works, "Mémoire-Erosion": "Entropy tends to return the music to a state of noise as the breath and the atmospherics accumulate on a track recopied several times."   TELLUR plays therefore on the fundamental ambiguity of instrumental sound (whatever that might be): in effect, this is never acoustically "pure"; it is always accompanied by a certain proportion of "atmospherics", of noise. It's a matter therefore for the composer to master this parameter, to integrate the sound with a vocabulary and finally to make it an element in the construction of the work, the other element being the rhythm. "Equally, in the ryhthmical order, the piece is crossed by a quasi-regular pulse but always unstable in tempo which can also be disaggregated by acceleration, by deceleration, infinitely. It is necessary to study carefully all the phenomena of progression in the timbres, the intensities, the accelerations and the slowings, which spread sometimes over quite long periods", the author advises [1] .   "The score plays equally strongly on the effects of continuity and ambiguity: the aggregations evolve slowly, the techniques of performance substitute themselves one to another in an indiscernable manner." he clarifies.   The timbres, the dynamic and the tempo are then models such that: "these permit obtainment of a smooth form, constituted of a series of "climbs"(letters ACEG) and "descents" (BDP)".

Understood by smooth form a conception uneventful of the time in which all musical parameters (timbre, pulse, dynamic) are interwoven in a process of evolution (or involution) continuous and predetermined, and no more subject to the caprice (inspiration) of the composer or simply to chance! It lives its own parallel life throughout the score: It breaks down by rarefaction or escape towards the infinitely small; it is reborn and grows in the reverse manner.   As an example, the following graphic gives a visual account of this notion of smooth form by the internal organisation of the sound/noise relationship throughout TELLUR:

  TELLUR therefore deals with the continuous phenomena which emerge logically from the problem of maintenance of sound on the guitar, on the problem of the mastery of timbre and especially on the sound/noise duality.

  The flamenco reasgueado, in its continuous form e,a,m,i permits simultaneous resolution of the problems of maintenance of sound and the sound/noise balance. In effect, the impact of the nails on the strings determines the segments of string between the impact and the bridge. The tone of the vibration is very high (a strong component of noise) which gives rasgueado its rattle. These notes generally superimpose themselves on the principal note whose pitch is given by the position of the left hand on the fretboard. If one muffles these notes one obtains, alone, the very rapid rattle of atmospherics whose pitch is uniquely determined by the distance between the fingers of the right hand and the bridge. This is, the way TELLUR commences: [2] .

Here the rasgueado is realised on a single string, the 6th, betwee the rosette and the bridge, about 9.5 cms from it. One can there superimpose a natural or even an harmonic sound producing in this way two distinct voices on the same string.(the 6th)

The rasgueado on one string can be executed on any string on the condition that neighbouring strings are damped by the left hand. By shifting the right hand towards the bridge, one obtains at the same time a lighter roll of percussions on the bridge (page2, 6th system). Later, the rasgueado is extended to the 6 strings, creating a breathtaking deluge of sounds of uncertain pitch and difficult to perceive.

  The rasgueado strumming "across and back" as executed by jazz guitarists with a plectrum is symmetrical from the point of view of timbre and cannot be rendered by the index finger because of the nail/flesh dissymetry. One will obtain it if one unites the nails of the index finger and the thumb at their tip to form an obtuse angle. To this sort of very metallic tremolo of three sounds it adds a percussion effect of the left hand which violently slaps the strings on the fretboard accelerating it, during which the right hand continues its rasgueado strumming.

  One introduces in this way a "layer of sounds" completely independent of the first, particularly on the rhythmic plan. In the same spirit, one finds an effect known in the folk music of Latin America: the muffled percussion, realised by the shock of the palm on the strings superimposed on rasgueados.

These same effects of superimposition on rasgueados are equally applicable in TELLUR to the trills. It is the right hand which comes to the aid of the left which already executes two simltaneous trills.

Here, it is the index finger of the right hand which introduces the third trill by hitting the fret board at the fourth fret. Or alternatively, the index finger of the right hand presses on a note (the B of the 2nd string) and it is the thumb which realises a tremolo (E,F) above the fret board.

  The "scordatura" employed permits some harmonic trills in unusual tones (the F is on the 6th string, case IV). As a result one can there superimpose self-accelerating layers of chords of four sounds.

The combination of rasgueado and double trills allows harmonic aggregations of eight sounds to be obtained.

A simple means of progressing from sound to noise is to relax the pressure of the fingers on the strings. This is "play above the frets" which "dematerialises" the sound. In reality this noise is composed of harmonics of very high pitch (2nd string, case XVII). To partially "re-materialise" this noise, it suffices to slide, little by little along the string towards a harmonic of lower pitch (case XVI - D sharp).

 Finally, on isolated notes, one finds in TELLUR subtle differences in some of the attacks; for example some slurs of the left hand effectuated in reverse, that is to say by pushing the string towards the outside of the hand (instead of pulling) which gives a softer timbre than the ordinary slur (page 6, letter E): also the play of the thumb "rest-stroke" can use the back of the thumb nail, an effect which approaches the classical "pizz. à la Bartok" (page 6). etc.



  As a conclusion to this brief analysis, one can note that the problem of maintenance of sound and investigation of timbres is not new in the history of the guitar. In the 17th century, ornaments and "batteries" (a French name for a type of rasgueado) are some of the original solutions for the baroque guitar. The guitarists of the 19th century, with their imitations of instruments and the process of tremolo also bear witness to the preoccupation. With TURINA and other composers of the 20th century, the rasgueados is employed especially for these connotations. But what one can consider as new that TELLUR brings to the guitar is the assimilation of these techniques in the construction of a rigorous form without precedent in our literature.

[1] To effectively render these effects to the ear, the durations have been calculated to the average curves of acceleration, in general of logarithmic type ( the instinctive accelerations of musicians are always of this type).
[2] The tuning of the guitar is, from bass to treble: F, A, E flat, G, B, E; and later it becomes: C sharp, A, E flat, G, B, E.




An Interview with Tristan MURAIL



Rafael Andia : You wrote: "Tellur is the fruit of the meeting of an old desire - that to write for the guitar by using all the techniques of what is for me" the true "guitar - and of a guitarist knowing these particular techniques as well as traditionals like the back of his hand". A question which will interest surely our readers: what is "the true" guitar?
TRISTAN MURAIL : My impression is that the traditional guitar such as one usually hears it is a treason of the original instrument: in fact it is a product of the XIXth century. People wanted to imitate the other instruments and to make guitar something sizeable, i.e. able to play classical music. The guitar is in the beginning an"ethnic" instrument. Of Arab origin (quitara), it is used in Spain to play the arabo-andalusian music and flamenco, but with a very different technique which leads to very different sounds: those I use in Tellur. What I like in the guitar, it is precisely not the guitar of SEGOVIA, its polished and decorous side, but the use that one makes in flamenco and also in Latinamerican music, although I'm not crazy about these musics for themselves.

R.A. - Then BACH with the guitar...?
T.M. - I find that awfully tedious; I prefer to hear it on the harpsichord!

R.A. - R.A. - Some guitarists and certain composers think that the ten strings guitar brings a solution to the problem of the contemporary writing for guitar. What do you think about it?
T.M. - The limitations of the guitar do not come from the number of strings but well from the number of fingers! The guitarist has in any case only four fingers to use with the left hand. Therefore, already with on a six strings guitar there remain at least two strings which one can use only open or withbarré. Result: it is always the open tuning which one hears (partially) in all the guitar music .In Tellur, the writing in rasgueados on all the strings posed this problem to me: I rather had two too much strings that four strings less! Modifying the "standard scordatura" (E, A, D, G, H, E ) can help to turn this difficulty. I also used the index of the right hand like auxiliary of the left hand on the fingerboard to obtain other notes than those given by the open strings. For complex harmonies or polyphonies, there are also subterfuges like combining trills and rasgueados: one can thus obtain"chords" of eight sounds on a guitar with six strings!

R.A. - What represents Tellur in your work?
T.M. - Tellur is rather a challenge in my work. The nature of the guitar is opposed so much to the type of music I write. I use usually evolutions of masses of sounds, complex superpositions. With the guitar there is not mass nor either the sustain of the sound.

R.A. - This bet wasn't this a little the frog which wants to become as large as an ox?
T.M. - Yes, it was a question of transforming the guitar into a symphony orchestra. But not by increasing the density of the writing in the traditional sense, because one very quickly reaches a limit for the execution. My work is done on another plan: in the articulation, the timbres, in other dimensions of the guitar little explored.

R.A. - In this connection, one intends sometimes to say that contemporary music in general is above all a succession of groundless effects, sound gadgets. In the field of guitar, for example, one often attends with beautiful "stamp (i.e; timbre, french joke) collections" in pieces known as modern.
T.M. - It is true that one often used in the contemporary music timbre effects that I will call "decorative" because they are used as ornamentation in the meaning of the early music. But it is not at all what I wanted. I have sought through the guitar instrumental result is a consequence of this research, i.e. the consequence of a will of organization and composition and not a precondition. I did not want to modify the principles of writing that I employ for the orchestra or the chamber music. What I had to modify on the contrary, it is the concept of the guitar, or rather, I had to rediscover (or failing this, to invent) what in the guitar could correspond to my needs for organization and evolution of the sound. Since this moment, all these "effects" fit then in an extremely rigid formal logic. But all this does not prevent that the piece does much effect, which I seek too!

R.A. - What represents the guitar for a young composer of the end of the XXth century like you?
T.M. - As for all the instruments, I believe that the times of the connotations are exceeded: formerly the oboe was pastoral and the guitar was Spanish . Now it is used for its timbre which is very beautiful, very hot (cf the Marteau sans Maître). Nevertheless, it is conceived for the tonal music and it suffers from it just as the harp or the piano. It is especially necessary that the traditional guitarists evolve. I would like that they can control these new techniques, in particular the rasgueados and the percussion techniques and sound sustain, and add them to the traditional ones. It is for all the instruments that the evolution is currently done in the direction of the timbre. See the winds where research led to multiphonic possibilities and complex timbres.

R.A. - You are busy more and more with electroacoustic music, in particular within the group of the ITINERAIRE. Do you believe that, in the future, the instruments will be eliminated little by little or on the contrary will cohabit in good household with the synthetic sound?
T.M. - Better than that, the current tendency is with the bringing together and even with the synthesis of both. With the synthetizer, one can arrive at a kind of control of the instrumentalist on the electronic sound which is more interesting. For example, there are synthetizers which can be ordered by a saxophonist and which acts like a saxophone: they answer the breath and the tongue blows! And one can have all the possibilities of hybridization between electronics and instrumental.

R.A. - And for the guitar?
T.M. - For the guitar this exists already for a long time: it is the electric guitar! I used it much in ensemble works: it allows a very fine control, very precise of the electronic sound. But this question could be the subject of a whole article!