The Italian composer’s hcmf// premiere
draws inspiration from an eerie voice of the past.

Science or magic? Some might say that contemporary music is a bit of both. And for several years now, Mauro Lanza’s music has explored the borders between knowledge and imagination and the ways in which people throughout the centuries have tried to categorise and imitate the world around them.

His quest continues at hcmf// 2015 with the concert by United Instruments of Lucilin on Saturday 21 Novemberfeaturing the world premiere of The Kempelen Machine. Combining a live singer with voice modulations produced by computer-controlled accordion reeds, the piece takes its name from the eerie-sounding artificial voicebox created by the 18th-century inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen – an innovative designer whose best-known creation, the chess-playing Mechanical Turk, was a notorious fake.

Italian-born Lanza started his studies on piano in Venice before winning a place on the Cursus computer music programme at IRCAM, where today he is a teacher and research composer specialising in computer-assisted composition and physical modelling synthesis.

hcmf//: Can you remember when you first discovered contemporary music and what drew you to it?

Mauro Lanza: It’s not exactly contemporary, but I remember hearing someone rehearsing Sortie (the last part of La Messe de la Pentecôte by Olivier Messiaen in the concert hall of the Venice conservatory and going straight to make the inscription in the composition class. I was 15 or 16.

Before that, I was ‘composing’ some cheap piano music, and I had fun with a cassette recorder, trying to record as many sound sources as possible at the same time (radios, televisions) while torturing some homemade instruments… I think the inspiration came from Sciarrino’s Sui Poemi Concentrici: the public television was broadcasting a whole reading of Dante’s Commedia with his music on the background. It sounded weird to me at the time and I wanted to do something weird as well.

How did you make the journey from the piano to IRCAM?

I went to IRCAM without any knowledge of computer music, programming or acoustics. I was part of an ensemble in my last Venetian years (so I had the chance to have immediate feedback on my early compositions), while doing academic studies and some masterclasses with composers like Ferneyhough, Sciarrino or Grisey.

I met great people, many of them still good friends, during their classes, and we shared information about recordings, scores and competitions. Someone recommended to me the annual IRCAM course and I made the application, without really believing that I had the slightest chance of being selected.

Since I was working extensively with pencil and paper on formalisms that could have been easily solved by a computer program, the most attractive things for me in the Cursus ‘menu’ were the classes on computer-aided composition.

How do you approach each new piece – with an idea, or a sound, or a question?

Concerning the purely musical aspect I would describe my process of composition as a continuous feedback between the reality of sound (and the reality of the objects that produce the sounds) and the abstract process of formalisation.

The dialogue between these two instances most of the time fits the pattern Vision -> Formalisation, where the focus on an initially vague, intuitive musical idea is slowly obtained by tuning up a ‘model’ (an algorithm, a computer program, or simply a strategy of writing, the machine that makes the idea). The whole process can be riddled with ‘creative’ errors. It can happen, for example, that some strategy, unfit to reproduce the original ‘vision’, ends up outputting something completely unexpected, yet intriguing.

But this is just the last part of the process. Recent pieces were often triggered by extra-musical ideas: the world of the automata and the mechanisation of bodily processes for The Kempelen Machine and Anatra digeritrice; carnaval, anarchy and Agamben’s notion of “state of exception” for Ludus de morte regis and La bataille de Caresme et de Charnage; visual installation-like ideas for Le Nubi non Scoppiano per il Peso and the collaborative pieces of the Systema naturae cycle.

What interests you about technology and inventions from previous centuries?

I am fascinated by the territory between Renaissance natural magic and modern science. The mechanical wonders of Kempelen, Vaucanson and other geniuses of the golden age of the automata lived exactly in this no man’s land where the hoax and the genuine invention, the circus-like trick and the systematic investigation seem to coexist without apparent contradiction.

What else are you working on at the moment, and what will you be doing soon?

I will work for the third time with [Turin-based researcher and musician] Andrea Valle for a new piece for instruments and computer-controlled electromechanical devices.

The two previous pieces’ names were Regnum animale and Regnum vegetabile. The next will then obviously deal with the mineral kingdom and will be called Regnum lapideum.

All the pieces are part of a cycle called Systema naturae, a sort of big catalogue of miscellaneous imaginary beings, inspired on one hand by the Medieval tradition of bestiaria, herbaria and lapidaria and on the other by the systematic description of nature that dates back to Linnaeus.