“Music with Silent Aitake’s,” Frankfurt January 2015. Photo: Walter Vorjohann
In the 21st Century, numerous composers have challenged the strict delineations of musical genres and aesthetics. Aesthetic approaches depending on ‘crossover’ and ‘multiculturality’ have pervaded countless musical genres, with varying degrees of success. For Frederic D’Haene, the coexistence of different musical systems (both in technical and cultural terms) is a positive response to the dissolution of a common ground (such as tonal syntax) since the end of the 19th Century. Rather than building a new musical language from scratch, he searches for elements from all kinds of backgrounds that can work together in a mutually reinforcing way. The essence of his composition technique, which he himself calls “paradoxophony,” is the combination of two or more musical worlds in which none takes control over the other.
MUSIC WITH SILENT AITAKE’S is a splendid example of this paradoxophony. On the one hand, D’Haene combines the sound of an ensemble of western instruments with that of a traditional Japanese gagaku orchestra; on the other, he has invented musical material and designed a pitch structure starting from the points of tangency between the two worlds. In his approach to the composition, D’Haene has ensured some points of reconciliation, but both groups remain faithful to their identity and tradition. He deliberately avoids Eurocentricity or exoticism.
A first challenge D’Haene had to face in this composition was the tuning of the instruments, since gagaku is tuned considerably lower than western standard tuning. He solved this issue by relying on the essence of any kind of music: sound. Each sound consists of a fundamental tone, enriched with many sympathetic frequencies called overtones. Some of these frequencies are ‘out of tune’ if approached from the Western point of view, but therefore could be matched with the pitches of the gagaku ensemble. Due to this painstaking effort of meticulously researching points of convergence between the two ensembles, the sonic result is surprisingly harmonious. In some instruments, D’haene asks for a different (microtonal) tuning of the strings, in order to enhance the resonance between East and West. The two upper strings of the double bass, for instance, are tuned three quarter tones higher than normal to match the pitches of the Sho (a Japanese mouth organ).
The fact that D’Haene often composes with drones (long-held tones or chords that are a basis for harmonic movement) contributes to the overall coherent impression of this composition. MUSIC WITH SILENT AITAKE’S is built on the alternation of a drone on E and one on B. A single drone can act as the basis for several harmonic spectra, which are paradoxophonically combined.
A second challenge in composing and performing this piece is related to differences in performance practice. Western and Eastern music practices have an entirely different understanding of time. Whereas Western music takes control of time by imposing regular and symmetric pulses and beats, Eastern music follows time in a much more natural way. In gagaku, there is no conductor to mark the beat, but all the players try to acquire the same sense of time by listening to each other. Recurring rhythmical patterns (such as ‘katari’ and ‘mororai’) and accelerating figures lead them from one musical section to the next. In MUSIC WITH SILENT AITAKE’S, the form and direction of the music is very much oriented towards the gagaku practice, but the conductor plays an essential part in keeping both worlds together. In line with traditional performance practice, D’Haene provides clear reference points in the score which act as auditory clues for the gagaku players as well, but there are also moments where they abandon their usual repertoire of rhythms and melodies and approach their instruments in a non-traditional way.
Lasting over 40 minutes, MUSIC WITH SILENT AITAKE’S is quite demanding both for the players and the audience, but its compelling form guides the listener from beginning to end through an exciting new musical universe. The composition begins with the first of three netori, the gagaku equivalent of a classical prelude. In traditional gagaku, netori is the presentation and exploration of a chosen scale, introduced by all the instruments in a fixed order. In MUSIC WITH SILENT AITAKE’S, however, each netori focuses on a different group of instruments and prefigures elements of the section to follow. Also in line with the gagaku tradition are the gradual build-ups of tension and dynamics, leading to climaxes (kuwaheru) and important moments of silence.
Perhaps the paradox of the concept of paradoxophony is that one tends to forget that there were two different worlds at the origin of the composition. The Western ensemble and the gagaku not only co-exist, but they enhance one other, opening up new sonoric and expressive possibilities.
— Klaas Coulembier