A Series of Anamorphic Glances



By the time I started operating on the third primary work, I had almost abandoned the thought that improvisation could be productive for my practice. Additionally, I started questioning the role of live instrumental performance altogether. If a musical instrument or even human anatomy are already a form of textuality, how could I problematise the primacy of semiotic clarity over performance by abandoning notation, and yet remain within the – in turn, semiotic – constraints of physical interfaces?

At that point, I decided to concentrate on the potentiality of phonographic inscription. Such medium also possesses its own representational pitfalls, which must not be overlooked. It is by no means true that recording captures physical sound “as it is”, being still determined by its digital functioning, and ultimately by a culturally mediated human perception. The point though was not to use phonographic inscription as yet another “representative” technique: I was not recording to “convey” a live performance, but rather treating it as a support where I “kneaded” sound in one of its material manifestations. In phonographic inscription, sound maintains a degree of incommensurability, of ambiguity, of internal variation, as the materials of painting and sculpture do. It was my intention to bring such ambiguity to an extreme, to generate an unbridgeable conflict with the semiotics of sound.

At the same time, with the research team MusicExperiment21, I had been working on the seriality of the outputs as a manifest form of differential repetition in relation to a musical work. The research done by the team on a number of case studies, mostly based upon iconic musical works from the 19th and 20th centuries (among which were Kreisleriana op. 16 by Robert Schumann and the Diabelli Variations op. 120 by Ludwig van Beethoven), was presented as a series of experiments. Each performance, presentation, lecture-performance, installation, or publication related to the case studies, constituted one instantiation in a process seen as a continuum, and not as a sequence of self-contained objects. The aim was to give emphasis to the emergence of new epistemic properties of a musical work throughout a process of experimentation, and not to the production of finished aesthetic or scholarly outputs based upon such pieces – albeit that each instantiation might as well be considered as such. This suggested the introduction of a form of seriality in my practice. I was working with artistic processes that involved my affective response to a primary work, the reconfiguration of its internal relations in my own memory/forgetfulness, the interference of an involuntary dimension fixed through recording: all features radically bound to a singular here-and-now. All of this could be more consistently exposed by the production of what I named a “series of anamorphic glances”.

With the word “anamorphic”, I refer to a projectional technique in visual art aimed at producing distorted images whose recognition from a viewer requires either the use of special devices (such as mirrors) or the location of a specific vantage point from which to regard these images. Anamorphosis describes my operation: seen from a traditional perspective (what in painting would be the frontal view and what in my case would be interpretation), the new sonic configuration is confused and thus difficult to relate to a known image. But there are specific conditions under which it is possible to relate the image to its referent. In my case, such conditions are not scientifically projectional, but more complex. They involve my own experience as a performer, the distance in historical time that separates such experience from the primary work, the moment in which the new sonic configuration is produced, the use of instruments different from those envisioned by the original score, and the innumerable variety of incidents and accidents happening in the memory, in the sensation, and in the body. Each of the renditions in the series brings to the fore one of the possible relations that I, the performer, can entertain with the work. A multiplicity of performances, not only diverging from the primary work, but also from each other, could express some of the infinite possibilities of regarding a single object from different perspectives.


The first important new element that was operated on in the third primary work, the song Piange Madonna (1609) by Sigismondo d’India (~1582-1629), was this serial approach. Another relevant choice was to use only existing recordings for the preparatory phase, and no score. By this time, it had become clear to me that traditional interpretation already carries with itself the semiotic dimension of the score however great the margin of indeterminacy and ambiguity that physical sound can generate. Even in the case of early baroque music, where the non notated (with Adorno one would say “idiomatic”, cf. 2006, 67) dimension is very pervasive (the importance of ornamentation, the improvisational freedom of the continuist, etc.) it is still possible to access the semiotic categories embedded in the score. To use a linguistic metaphor: it is true that French pronunciation diverges much more evidently from its written notation than, for example, Russian or Italian. Nonetheless, if one is acquainted with the idiom it is perfectly possible, from the sonic substance of spoken French, to infer its symbolic codification.

During this experience, some of the processes underlying the production of resemblance came to the fore. In the first two “glances”, I managed to produce the desired degree of resemblance with the primary work; such was not the case with the third. In the third version, the attempt was to “anamorphise” the word “Madonna” [my lady], and the corresponding melodic profile when sung by the soprano. However, this rendition followed too closely the internal relationship of the elements contained in the first term of the analogy. Concretely, I tried to shape some sounds that could relate to the single phonemes of the word, and to stretch the time span of the original song – few seconds – over five minutes. The result, on the one hand, was more of a “homothetic”[1] projection (or scaling) than an anamorphosis; and, on the other hand, I devised of a sort of a new code through which to “translate” the old one (pitches and phonemes). Even if for a potential listener the result would still be completely divergent from the original, the action I exerted on a fragment of the primary work was again a “story” told “in a long diatribe through the brain” (Bacon in Sylvester, 1999, 18). From my side (if not from the side of the listener) the correspondence remained highly traceable – even predetermined.

Even if the role of live instrumental performance had been set aside during this working phase, I still had to face the necessity of presenting these outputs in front of audiences. Simply projecting a pre-recorded soundtrack during a concert situation was no solution. If the materiality of sound was at this stage the strongest element through which I was emphasising the performative moment as divergent from the score, I could nonetheless not ignore the other great form of materiality in and through which performance takes place – the materiality of the stage situation, its visual and acoustic impact, the relationship with a performing body, or, eventually, with its absence. The sublimation of the instrumental gesture in pure sound was a promising idea, and in line with my research. All the givens that had defined my “being in the world” as an interpreter would be taken out of the stage (not only the musical text, but also the instrument, the instrumentalist – perhaps the anatomical body itself). I was proceeding towards subtraction; but it was not sufficient to just project sound, or to eliminate the physical presence of the performer, in order for subtraction to happen.

I made two attempts at staging Piange Madonna, none of them completely satisfactory but still interesting for the progress of the work. In the third instantiation, I worked as in the case of Vicentino’s madrigal, by devising a semi-improvisatory instrumental part to be performed live alongside with the soundtrack. For the other two instantiations, I worked with live interaction through a midi controller, launching and processing the prerecorded and edited samples in real time. This option, again, could generate an ambiguity, an abysm between sounds and gestures, allowing the breaking of the one-to-one correspondence between instrumental interfaces and sound generation.


[1] Homothesis is a mathematical transformation in which the original coordinates remain fixed and the distance between any two points is multiplied by the same number.


P O W E R S   O F   D I V E R G E N C E

Piange Madonna, after Sigismondo d’India’s homonymous song

Composer: Sigismondo d’India (~1582-1629)
Primary work: Piange Madonna
Published in Le musiche da cantar solo (1609)

- Preparatory phase: listening to existing recordings of the piece (Gloria Banditelli, mezzosoprano, and Tiziano Bagnati, theorbo; Maria Cristina Kiehr, soprano, and Concerto Soave dir. Jean-Marc Aymes). For the first phase of this piece I used no score, only existing recordings.
- Compositional phase (generating the sonic image): new rendition n. 1: recording and electronic editing of a soundtrack produced using voice, percussion on wooden table, midi instruments, Ableton Live software; new rendition n. 2: recording and electronic editing of a soundtrack produced using klaxon horn, Ableton Live software; new rendition n. 3: recording and electronic editing of a soundtrack produced using kazoo, cello bow, singing bell, home-made wind instruments (plastic tubes of different sizes), midi instruments, Ableton Live software.
- Semiotic and performative phase (designing the live performance): devising a semi-improvisatory part for electric guitar played with cello bow. New rendition n. 1: designing a live performance with midi interface Korg Nanokontrol 2 and Ableton Live Software; new rendition n. 2: designing a live performance with midi interface Korg Nanokontrol 2 and Ableton Live Software; new rendition n. 3: designing a live performance for soundtrack and electric guitar.

A   S E R I E S   O F   A N A M O R P H I C   G L A N C E S

c a s e   s t u d y :   s i g i s m o n d o   d ' i n d i a


Of these three divergent performances, I consider rendition n. 1 to be the most satisfactory in terms of attaining a divergent resemblance with the primary work. However, when analysed more closely, it is hardly possible to detect recognisable shapes. The most clearly detectable aspect of the primary work is the pace, the punctuation, the plaintive mood of the melodic shapes and of the lyrics. Such a very faint traceable correspondence with the extensive elements of the primary work might be also due to the fact that no score was used for this version, but only some of its recordings.
The sonic image begins with a gesture recalling the harmonic shift opening the song (word “piange” [weeps]), and is followed by a descending line that refers to the successive figure, which in the primary work seems to imitate a sobbing (words “Madonna ed io” [my lady and I]). Another descending line follows, a hybridisation of the descending line “madonna ed io” with another one (words “come del mio” [as much as in mine]). The next melodic “whistled” recalls the melody of the last phrase (words “anima al pianto avvezza” [soul used to tears]), suddenly compressing the compositional arch of the primary work by bringing the beginning close to the ending. This section is concluded by a short descending fragment, resembling the “mio” [mine] at the end of the first period in the primary work.
After this, the opening fragment returns, hinting towards the repeat in the primary work, yet, it is soon lost in the more undifferentiated background. The final section corresponds to the final period of the song (from “anima al pianto avvezza” on), save that the melodic scraps suggest more the profile of the fragment “come del mio”.
The harmonisation that sometimes hits the voice-like lines in the new performance is not produced by the actual playing of chords, but by adding a resonator filter to the recorded sample at certain moments. This effect, perforating the melodic space through an opening of the harmonic spectrum, recalls the presence of an accompanying instrument (such as theorbo), underscoring the vocal line at specific points in the primary work.
In this example, several elements emerge that bear no traceable correspondence to d’India’s song. These sections or elements are recurrent in all of the new performances produced for this project, yet in this case they are particularly pervasive, where at times they almost take over the entire structure and almost overwhelm the recognisable figures. This can be due to the structure of the original song that was organised around clearly separated phrases, and was steadily punctuated at the end by a cadence with a small fermata. In this new performance the silences and fermatas have enlarged and almost taken over the sounding space.

Rendition n. 2 concentrates on two elements: (1) the melodic lines, which are slurred over and blurred (the contour of the melodic line of the singing voice is partly preserved); (2) the plaintive mood that both the lyrics and its musical setting convey. Lamentation is the general theme of the lyrics, in the primary work this is conveyed by fitful melodic lines – enhanced by the singers through a large use of ornamentation – and by the semitonic relationships between chords, in an almost onomatopoeic imitation of weeping.
In the new performance, the vocal quality of the lament gets liberated in its pure timbral state. I have used a voice-like klaxon horn, whose harmonic amplitude is modulated through the use of the hand as a trumpet mute and through electronic processing. Choked and sobbing, the klaxon horn produces fragments of melody as if it were a larynx deformed by fits of weeping. The initial recording was elaborated through pitch modulation made with Ableton Live software – since the horn allows for too little a melodic range – vaguely contouring the melody of the original song. Afterwards it was split and delayed through granular synthesis, which created a sort of polyphonic-harmonic layer on top of it, recalling the function of the continuo underlying and accompanying the singing voice.

Rendition n. 3 is presented here as an example in which the resemblance with the primary work failed to be produced. This version was designed following an attempt to anamorphise the word “Madonna” [my lady], and the melodic profile of one of the segments of the song when this word is pronounced. However, anamorphosis in this case followed too much the internal relationship of the elements contained in the first term of the analogy. I detected some sounds that could relate to the single phonemes of the word, and I stretched the tempo. The result, rather than being an anamorphosis, was a combination of a homothetic projection (or scaling) and the creation of a sort of a new code where to translate the old one (pitches and phonemes). If, on the one hand, the correspondence remains highly traceable, on the other hand its resemblance does not take place through the modalities and goals inherent to the project.

"Divergent performances" of Piange Madonna, versions 1, 2 and 3. Lucia D'Errico, soundtrack

Live version of the "Divergent performance" of Piange Madonna, versions 1. Lucia D'Errico, samples and MIDI controller

execution of Piange Madonna, Maria Cristina Kiehr and Concerto Soave