Interview mit Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri

Das Gespräch mit Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri fand am 21. Oktober 2010 in einem Café im Berliner Prenzlauer Berg statt. Gegenstand des Gesprächs ist das Stück Operator und ihre Zusammenarbeit mit dem Künstler Pe Lang. Das Interview endet abrupt, weil die Batterie des Aufnahmegeräts leer war.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

There is the instrument, there is the imagination of sound in your head, and you have to get those two together. At some point in your life you must have said that you need knew or different instruments to meet your imagination.

Well, I have been working a lot on the idea of preparation, since the beginning of my careers, I would say.

You mean preparation as in "prepared piano", as in "eraser between strings".

Yes. I started with really simple things that lead to more complex sounds. But in general I treat the instruments as objects. And I am always interested in changing the conditions in order to transform an object into an instrument and an instrument into an object. So that is why I focus a lot on the performer's behaviour, the "how" in "how we do things". The preparation is one way to modify an instrument, to expand the realm of sound. It is an interesting kind of object, because once you insert a little paper into – let's say – guitar strings, there is a little area that is isolated and there is a limitation going along with that at the same time.

What do you mean by area? An aural area?

Physical, also. On the instrument. So the performer has to be aware of that. And you have to adjust your body based on that. So what I do here in this piece, I created this device in collaboration with Pe because I wanted expand on this idea like something similar to a bow, which is a stimulating object. But it is a kind of medium. It is an object that is in-between the performer and the instrument. And I am very fascinated by this idea.

By making the performer behave differently than from what he is used to, are you trying to teach the performer? Are you making him aware of something? Are you trying to get the musical set-up to a point where something unexpected might happen because he has to act differently from what he has been taught?

It is about setting the parameters, the basic conditions of the performance. And I think it is fascinating how easily this can be achieved; just by a simple preparation everything is changing automatically.

OK, the piece we are talking about is Operator. But you have used devices by Pe before.

Yes, for about three years now. And we took some of the preparations I had used in the past and extended them, like we use motors or some constructions, which will help these preparations to run autonomously.

Do you tell him what you want? Or does he build things and you then figure out what you can do with these devices?

I can give you an example. The piece that was performed in Darmstadt call Yarn; I used a cotton wheel with a thread. The performer is pulling the thread and this cotton wheel makes a sound because it is lying on the strings. So I then conceived a construction together with Pe, which allowed me to use several cotton wheels simultaneously. So sometimes we will look at things that I already have and see how we can develop this, how we can take it further. And then sometimes there is a discussion or an observation. Often we are looking for continuous sound. So we are trying to figure out how we can make that possible. So sometimes he has ideas and then I tell him how those ideas could apply to on of my pieces. Often the devices are also related to his own work. A piece that we had, that we actually developed together, used this little machine that has a chain and drops things. This came out of a long discussion that we had and he had used this machine years and years ago, but not in that context. I look for machines that have been used in sculptures or installations, and I put them into a different context.

You use them because they are objects.

Yes. It is about the object. But it is also about the possibilities that go along with that. Because it can be very hard to produce a continuous sound. When you use a bow there is always a little break when you change directions. There are no continuous sounds on the piano.

An interesting part of the sound production is the beginning and the end. Why are continuous sounds important? Is it about the process?

No, it has to do with continuation, be it visual or sonic in character. And how I try to achieve this for instance, you might know this piece of mine, Kein Thema?


I wrote it for three percussionists: Steven Schick, Ross Karre and Justin De Hart. And I chose to generate this piece out of a really small number of gestures. And actually by means of repetition of these gestures. So in that sense you realize that the performer throughout the piece is repeating the same gestures, but I place these gestures under different conditions. So for instance you are dealing with the same material, with the same physical action, but in different contexts. But this gives a sense of continuation, at least on the visual level. I am looking for a sense of flow in the piece.

This would then become a unifying aspect of the piece; the gesture is always the same, even though the context and the sound result might vary. This would be arguing from a very classical standpoint.

But it is a good point. I am looking for connections. I always want things to be related to each other. And they can be related either sonically or visually. The sense of repeating here is not the same as in minimal music. But it creates an environment. Somehow you need to use them in such a way that you give the impression that they belong to each other. You have to create this connection between the objects and the material. Did I answer your question?

Yes. But maybe the question wasn't all that appropriate, treating the gesture like a motive in classical music ...

The way you organize materials sound. When you organize harmony it is quite clear that each tone belongs to a scale. But when you are not using scales, you need to find other ways to create a sense of coherence.

By means of an environment ...

... or some kind of system. Whatever.

Keith Rowe once told me how important it was to detach the guitar from his body in order to find a new approach to the instrument. I have the feeling that when you are talking about the performer's behaviour you are in fact talking about something similar.

It's a good point. Because the instrument is an extension of the performer's body. And once you literally you take it away from your body it becomes an object. And I think it is a very interesting point – for the musician but also for the audience. It is about the attitude also. You can't avoid it. So what I do is, setting different parameters in order to explore new possibilities.

I have to ask another question concerning the objects you work with, the sound stimulating devices so to speak. Do you have feelings for these devices? They are in fact almost "cute" and seem so fragile that one would like to caress them. This might sound really stupid. But do you get emotionally involved with these objects?

Well, I think I know what you mean. And I must say that before I start using the actual motors, I will focus a lot on how to change the performer's behaviour and how to expand the world of physical gestures and how to lend it some kind of meaning. Up to the absence of the gesture. And there was a point where I thought that this could be a challenge for me, to put a kind of new instrument between the performer and me. How can I still communicate? It was like stepping into a new world, a bit like Keith Rowe says, stepping back from one's own body. Following a new path. For me it was a challenge. It is not really my background. I am not an engineer. But it gives me a chance to put myself into the performer's position. Because when I give a new preparation to the performer he is faced with a new situation. But that it is in fact me, who is facing this situation.

I would like to ask something about the compositional process ...

... but it also has to do with finding the right materials and the right machines. They always have to have some kind of organic feeling. They are not perfect machines that produce exactly the same sound or behaviour each time. They are not unpredictable, but very organic. They are not perfect the way they act. That is something that attracts me.

An imperfection?

I wouldn't call it imperfection ...

... or an original?

I was trying to reproduce physical movement but through machines.

I guess the problem is these imperfections, because a lot of things do not presuppose perfect regularity. A friend of mine was trying to build a machine that would rock the baby's cradle, but it turned out to be quite difficult because of so many irregularities involved.

I can imagine. But I don't have to deal with that so much because I still have a performer who is using the object. So I have two worlds working together.

A fuzzy logic and a not so fuzzy logic.

Exactly. It is a moment of discovery. These machines are really carefully chosen. One machine has a motor and then on the axis there is a wheel, but there are some little imperfections on the wheel. So that gives me a variety of rhythms and the performer can employ the device in different manners. A perfectly round wheel would have made me stick to what the machine can do and only that. But given the performer I have solved that problem.

Is it important for you to rehearse with the musicians?

Absolutely. It is not even rehearsing. I have to work with the musicians. If I could work with an ensemble for a whole month, every day in the same room, working, building etc. that would be an ideal situation.

Something like a workshop, a Werkstatt.

I don't know. It's not a workshop situation ...

I was thinking about a workshop like the Rubens workshop.

It is a crucial question. I don't necessarily think in term of: somebody is an expert on that and somebody can focus on this. I mostly like to work in the same room with everyone because I want the musicians to be aware of what is happening. To have a very good knowledge of what the pianist is doing, how the devices work. I want them to have a very good understanding. And also to be related to each other, to engage them. They have to listen to each other. This is also how I develop my scores. They are all tied up with invisible strings. And the musicians know that whatever they do will have an immediate impact on somebody else. And I want them to have access. I think it is great thing to allow people to have access to your curiosity and the things you are creating.

But you are still an authority.

I am the one who brings the idea, the concept, and who will make decisions regarding the structure of the piece. But I am there to learn from the performers. And if there is enough time I always take into consideration how they react. I want to know how it feels physically. That is what we did in the past two rehearsals or meeting. I prefer to call them meetings. We were testing the devices with Pe, if they work for them, if they are maybe to heavy. Because instrumentalists know how their instruments work. They know very well. So of course I have to listen to them. They can tell me that this device will probably need to go faster. Or if it safe with the instrument. Do they feel comfortable to use a certain device on the instrument? We have to consider transportation. Is it easy to use? And so on.

But when you go into the first rehearsal you already have a timeline for the piece.


So you know how the piece is going to begin, end, and what is going to happen in-between?

I always said that we composers need to learn how to organize rehearsal time. It is always so limited. In my case the preparations und set-up might take a long time. So what I do, I try to focus on the main characteristic sounds that I am trying to achieve. There I things I want to have in the piece and I will not compromise, I will not sacrifice. And once I have that, I will create something like a skeleton. And from there on it's building and constructing. The core of the piece has to be there. I will always wait several minutes for a first impression. The devices are just really important. Pe is left-handed so he made a device that works really well for a left-hander. And the violin player immediately said: this is not so comfortable. (laughs) For me that moment is testing my intensions. Do I want to have an extra element for the performer to work with? Do I want him to learn something, which maybe in the beginning will feel a bit uncomfortable? Or do I want to make it easier. Should he focus on the new device or on making the sound? Those things can be really important.

So there is a core to every piece.

Sometimes. Sometimes I make a new discovery. I am attracted to a single object. And I want to create a context around this object that will support this object. This could be a sound. And I ask myself: what can I do with this sound? At other times I have the whole piece in my head from the begging to the end. It just goes "boom" and that's it. In this case I was attracted to these wheels. And this was going back to my cotton wheel; this was going back to my previous pieces. I was also attracted to the idea of continuous movement as a form. Something that comes back again. But it is the same material, the same surface. There is friction with the same material. But somehow the context is different.

The revolution: change while revolving.

It is like looking back and forwards at the same time. And with this piece I knew I wanted to work with ensemble Mosaik. Actually, I felt that being in Berlin I should really be working with them. I was very happy when the commission came. And I have worked with Enno and that was great. So part of the piece are the people I want to work with. And when it comes to the piece, I want to challenge myself by using devices and all the way through the people work with these devices. They operate the instrument.

You would never say that somebody "operates" a piano or "operates" some other musical instrument. He would be a machinist. So you are referring to the fact, that they are machinists as much as they are artists?

When you play piano you have to use the pedals. In a way you are operating these pedals.

As opposed to the keys?

It is the only way to operate the system, that part of the piano.

But you wouldn't call that "operate".

But you are operating the machine ...

... which is the instrument.

It is "operate", but in brackets. It is the medium to operate. By operating this machine, you are playing on the instrument. That's why I question the difference between operating, playing and performing.

Which has to do with theatrical aspects and the presence of an audience.

Which has to do of being aware that playing only means: producing the sound. Performing means being aware of how you are using your body, of your presentation.

Peter Ablinger had this string quartet in Donaueschingen, where the musicians had to rehearse the piece live on stage. And one of the things that became evident was how insecure the musicians where rehearsing this piece they didn't know in public.

For my piece for Klangforum I prepared the instruments so that they lead to unpredictable sound results. And the score is done in such a way that the performer is being asked to imitate somebody else’s sound. So lets say I am the violin player and I have to imitate the sound from the piano. And the percussion player has to imitate the violin player. So that becomes the imitation of an imitation. So in a way this is impossible to do. Every time you play you have to stretch your ear. And the insecurity you were describing was absolutely there. And that's really a contradiction. You play music but are not meant to listen at that very moment. And I had another similar situation with my piece Yarn, where there are two string instruments tied up with a fishing line. And the percussionist is actually playing on the fishing line. So you have to keep this line stretched. Otherwise it won't work. The way you hold your instrument will of course affect your own sound. So everybody has so much to listen to. In the scores I don't notate the actual sound. That wouldn't make sense for a music that is different every time. But on the other hand, going back to the piece for Klangforum, Reciprocal, there the presence of a conductor really influenced the psychology of the performance. Enno's presence helped make the performers feel more comfortable. When I first send him the score he said that he wasn't sure that he should actually conduct the piece. But I really wanted a conductor, because I was sure that otherwise it would ...

... fall apart?


Does Operator have a conductor?

Yes. We are even considering to have him control some volumes.

Like a mixing board?

There are sensors that he can control by means of pressure.

And it makes a sound?

Maybe I should tell you what happens in the piece. There are wind instruments and there is a little speaker in a plexiglass tube, which we attach to the bell, the lower part of the instrument.

This is an English horn.

Yes. So the sound goes through the instrument. The musicians are not meant to blow. I have the same sound that goes through all the wind instruments.

This is a sound? Or it is just an impulse producing some wind?

No, it is a sound. We use white noise, random noise, a square wave ...

These are elementary electronic sounds.

Yes, that was the idea. Very basic sounds. But the interesting thing is that, even though it is the same sound, it will sound differently within each instrument.

I see. The instrument modulates the sound? Do you hear the original sound?

You hear the original sound, but it is different because of the body of the instrument. And the performers open and close keys. They will open and close their mouth to influence the sound, particularly on the flute. So originally I wanted to have sensors on the instrument, so that the performer has the ability to control the volume of the sound going through his instrument. But as he needs most of his fingers to play and because there are moments where you need to press all keys down, that eventually led to the question if not somebody else could control the volume. And who might that be.

He, who has nothing to do ... (laughs)

... and all fingers free. So we thought that this was something Enno could do.

And this is done according to a score, or Enno just judges the situation on his own.

Both. There is a score but you always have to adjust the moment that it is happening. You have to react. It would be strange for people to ignore the moment just to fulfill the score.

That is true. But the score does give you an idea of what should happen.

But at the same time it is really obscure when you are writing for a location you don't know, for an audience you don't know, because their presence will change the acoustics as well. So writing a score is maybe like writing poetry. It is almost naive in some way.

You are very alone when you write a score.

So then we have another device. There is a vibrating motor attached to the mallets. It is really nice when you move it on the surface.

It is almost like a massage stick.

It is a really weird sensation to have this on your hand. For once you have the chance to sense what is happening on the instrument when you are playing, this vibration, you now feel it in your own hands. For me that was a really nice experience.

Not only the kettledrum is vibrating, but you yourself are vibrating, too.

Then there is a wheel run by a motor.

It runs fast or slow?

It runs rather slow. It runs with a 9-volt battery. And there is just this speed.

And the wheels excite the strings, by placing it on the strings, lengthwise and crosswise.

Yes. I have a sound example. (Klangbeispiel)

There is a lot of motor noise.

It is a combination. The body of the instrument amplifies the motor. The motor is chosen because of that quality.

It is part of the piece.