Listening to contemporary Ukrainian music: “Air mechanics” by Alla Zagaykevych

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Kyiv. The creation of an original musical world with contemporary language and images, consonant with the philosophical unique poetry of Mykola Vorobiov and Oleh Lysheha.

Villages of Polissia. A touch of primitive folklore through authentic singing with the luxury of folk polyphony.

Paris. Studying in the Mecca of modern composition, IRCAM Institute of Electronic Music, working in the best laboratories of the world, and communicating with live classics that once shook the music world.

All these are the starting points and main directions of the multi-vector creative path of Alla Zagaykevich, a composer who sculpts Ukrainian music into the world context and sets the tone for national art. Her sophisticated style combines a strictly rational approach to technology with sensuality in the expression of a musical image. It requires intellectual perception and, at the same time, admiration for sonority as such.

Alla Zagaykevych’s work widely presents the algorithmic method of composition, which involves relying on calculations, mathematical formulas and algorithms generated by a computer music system. This approach to creating music is currently one of the leading vectors of the development of musical art. It has been in existence for more than half a century, but even now it raises surprising questions such as “where is the place for inspiration?”, “what is the proportion of purely composer’s work?”. So, to understand the situation, let’s dive into the historical context of the emergence of algorithmic music

«The composing process turns into a real design, creation of a matrix, sketches of the future work, generation of its vocabulary and rules of its organization»

Algorithm in music: a primordial fact or the latest technology?

Ever since professional composition has existed, music has been created according to certain rules, within a system that organizes sounds into a coherent piece. Such a system is unique in each era. Yet, it is impossible to imagine Guillaume de Machot’s motet without isorhythm, Mozart’s sonata without tonal harmony, Webern’s opus without serial technique. These are the canons that form the sound profile of their era. From century to century, they give way to each other, but later they change, mix, and get reborn, while none of them goes completely into oblivion.

In the background of revolutionary changes that broke into art at the beginning of the 20th century and overturned the idea of ​​the very essence of music, the musical “vocabulary” increased to astronomical proportions. It has become similar to a Gothic stained glass window, a mosaic, with an innumerable number of multicoloured fragments, where, as if sinful and righteous (it is worth looking at the windows of medieval cathedrals to see how literal these words are), daring radical innovations and a moderate reinterpretation of tradition are combined.

How can a composer operate with such a gigantic arsenal of expressive means? How to get into the flow of modern music? How to write a unique work without resorting either to the imitation of predecessors and contemporaries or to self-repetition? And how, after all, can a composer manage to create a musical artefact of one’s age, if the age itself is so pluralistic and multifaceted?

According to the apologist of algorithmic music in Ukraine, Leonid Hrabovskyi, in a quick response to these rhetorical questions, the evolution of musical art “imperatively demanded to expand the “memory”, <…> beyond the limits of the human brain, in order to preserve this speed and productivity which distinguished classical composers with their essentially simple vocabulary in new, incomparably difficult conditions”. So, the new time gives the composer new challenges that require the formation of a new system, which became an algorithmic composition.

The connection between music and mathematics is primordial, since the birth of the Pythagorean tempered system. Now, the idea of ​​numbers, which is the core of music, is even more actualized. The composing process turns into a real design, creation of a matrix, sketches of the future work, generation of its vocabulary and rules of its organization. With the help of a computer music program, an individual “dictionary” is created for a specific opus, in the process of composition, the author himself forms the rules that will apply in the work, and he himself breaks them, if necessary.

The structure of a musical piece often evokes allusions to the construction of an architectural building – such analogies began as early as comparisons of Perotyn organums and medieval temples. Now, when a composer begins work on an opus by creating a virtually real architectural sketch, these two arts approach each other closely. It is not surprising that one of the founders of algorithmic composition is Iannis Xenakis, a composer and architect.

Noting the role of computer technology in the modern process of composition, he argued: “the composer becomes something like a pilot: he presses buttons, enters coordinates and watches the control panel of a spaceship floating in the space of sounds”. Following the metaphorical words of Iannis Xenakis, we can add that Alla Zagaykevych’s “spaceship” has already opened up a whole galaxy of algorithmic composition possibilities for Ukraine, both in the field of acoustic, electroacoustic and electronic music.

«…Algorithmic calculations created at the pre-composition stage ultimately remain behind the scenes of the composing process and are not identified in the listener’s immediate perception»

Zagaykevych’s riddle

One of the composer’s key opus is the acoustic sextet “Air Mechanics” (2005) for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello. The element of air, so beloved by Alla Zahaikevych in her works (chamber opera “Numbers and Wind”, “Wind, Stones, Flowers” for accordion solo, electro-acoustic performance “Run. Breathe. Silence”) acquires a literal embodiment in this work. The author programs all algorithms in such a way as to embody the movement of air masses as clearly as possible – in a polyphonic web of voices, alternating zones of textural statics and dynamics with constant waves of rise and fall, the ratio of relief and background thematics, a form that seems to reproduce only a few captured moments that came from nowhere and are going nowhere.

In this work, as in any other, built according to algorithmic principles, the creation process consists of two stages – pre-compositional and compositional. The essence of the pre-compositional stage is precisely the generation of algorithms (PatchWork software was used in “Air Mechanics”), the determination of the “rules of the game”, which are always selected by the author individually for this or that work. For the most part, it is impossible to fully solve the mystery of the algorithm without a special author’s comment.

Alla Zahaikevych’s extensive explanations of the principles of an organization in “Air Mechanics” are contained in Inessa Rakunova’s book (“Newest composer technologies. Creativity of Alla Zahaikevych”). From there we learn that the foundation of the concept of the work is the numbers 1, 2, 3. Each of these numbers has a specific parameter.

1 — “spatial landmark, i.e. location, rotation of musical material in the bottom, middle, and top positions”; 

2 — “melodic-harmonic landmark, formation of peculiar modal and harmonic supports and their environment”; 

3 — “timbral landmark”.

At the pre-composition stage, Alla Zagaykevych resorted to mathematical permutation, which provided 27 combinations of the numbers 1, 2, 3. Thus, 27 sections were formed in the construction of the musical material of “Air Mechanics”. In each of these sections, all musical parameters, including melody, harmony, and rhythm, are also determined by combinations of numbers.

Algorithmic calculations created at the pre-composition stage ultimately remain behind the scenes of the composing process and are not identified in the listener’s immediate perception. Instead, hearing instantly catches complex configurations of voices, which interweave and dissipate, sometimes forming massive timbre-textural clots, then sparse transparent lines. If the division into 27 sections is rather a constructive element that remains “behind the scenes” and is revealed only during a scrupulous study of the score, then the texture with its constant mobility and dynamic variability becomes a defining factor of form formation, clearly perceptible both aurally and when examining the visual score of the work – sonograms.

It is the texture as an expression of the time-space principles of musical organization that “verbalizes” the time-space movement of air masses by musical means. Inessa Rakunova draws an interesting parallel between the melodic and rhythmic organization of musical material and the laws of the existence of the air element. Thus, two large thematic groups are distinguished in the work, which alternates: with the reproduction of ascending flows and descending ones. In conditional upward movement, the rhythm slows down, longer durations are used, similar to how the speed slows down in upward movement through the air layers.

When falling, on the contrary, the speed increases. In the same way, in the music of Alla Zahaikevych, in the phases with conventional highway downward movement, long durations are broken up, and the effect of speeding up the movement occurs.

As you can see, the algorithm generated by the computer program is plastically subordinated to the author’s concept of the composer. In fact, the mission of computer technologies ends at the pre-composition stage, while the final artistic result is determined by the will of the artist. She herself sets the coordinates to the computer program, chooses the ones she needs from the nth number of generated musical formulas, guided by her own auditory perception.

That is, the computer provides an individual “vocabulary” for a specific work, and the composer herself creates the rules of syntax for this new vocabulary. Thus, from seemingly dry, purely rational mathematical algorithms, refined poetic music is born that breathes thick fogs and transparent thin air of mountain peaks.

Read also:

• 30 during 30. The most significant classical music works written during Ukrainian Independence

Listening to contemporary Ukrainian music: Leonid Hrabovskyi’s Trio

Peteris Vasks: “Our most popular piece is the National Anthem of Ukraine”

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