Perfect Sound Forever

Iancu Dumitrescu

Interviewed by Tim Hodgkinson (March 1997)

Iancu Dumitrescu's music is spectral, is electroacoustic, but above all is a coherent totality grounded in a different conception. Of all living composers, Dumitrescu is the one who has most exploded sound. Dumitrescu's work is a negation, from the depths, of everything in contemporary music symptomatic of distraction, of banalization, and of a radical loss of purpose. His music is not a new convolution in the knot of modern music, but an unravelling of the curse.

Dumitrescu, composer, conductor and musicologist, was born in Romania in 1944. From the age of seven to twenty-two, he pursued conventional musical studies leading to an M.A. in Composition at the National Conservatoire in Bucharest. Towards the end of this period he met Alfred Mendelsohn, who introduced him to the music - then forbidden in Romania - of Schoenberg and Webern. A slight liberalisation of the regime beginning in 1968 catalysed a move towards more personal work amongst a group of composers that included Dumitrescu, Niculescu, Stroe, Vieru, and Olah. In 1973, Dumitrescu met Sergiu Celibidache, who made a profound impression on him and who introduced him to application of Husserlian phenomenology (see notes at the end of the article) to music. In 1976, Dumitrescu founded the Hyperion Ensemble. With Ana-Maria Avram, he set up the Edition Modern record label in 1990.

This article originally appeared in Resonance Volume 6 Number 1, available from LMC, 3.6 Lafone House, 11-13 Leathermarket Street, London SE1 3HN. Also, see the site of the London Musicians Collective, which puts out Resonance. Thanks to Phil England and Chris Cutler for their help.

Q: One of the first pieces I heard was Pierres Sacrées; I was very struck - as were many other people - by the sound of this music. It seemed quite unlike the usual sound of contemporary composed music. It had far more distortion, noise and violence. There seemed to be a shift away from stable fundamental frequencies, and a greater emphasis on the unstable aspects of sound. Do these characteristics of the sound have a special significance in your musical thinking?

D: First of all, you are quite right to say that there is this distortion, and secondly, it is absolutely deliberate. I myself was in a way surprised by it. When it first came - and during the development of this piece Pierres Sacrées there was a brief but intense period of experimentation out of which came this new sound - I wondered from what part of myself it had come. But I also knew that I needed it. You could say that this distortion in the sound comes from the attempt to release or unveil the god that is living in every piece of base matter. Pierres Sacrées placed me not only in the avant garde but also in the avant garde of deliberate and progressive use of distortion as an integral and necessary part of music...

On the technical level it comes from a kind of artisanal production. In Romania we had, and still have, a poverty and lack of equipment as compared with, say, IRCAM in Paris. Evidently - and this is not intended as a criticism - in the West, composers have at their disposal a massive array of technical possibilities. Unfortunately this tends to produce very conventional, very impersonal music. Music demands a process of introversion, of isolation and introspection. You have to go alone into your corner and concentrate. You can't be always looking around at what's happening, with your attention dissipated. But I don't want to say that this technology is inherently bad - simply that it was my fate to be poor.

Q: When you compose, do you start by examining a sound that interests you? You have said, on another occasion that, following the phenomenological principles of Husserl, you try to discover the inherent direction of an acoustic phenomenon, and that this leads to its modification in the imagination. To run over this briefly, in Husserl the appearance of a phenomenon requires the prior intentionality of the sensory act, so the phenomenological approach is to reveal this intentionality in terms of the character of the phenomenon - the immanent direction it contains. But, unlike a philosopher, a composer has to actualise what this direction implies - to make it happen in the real world. Given that these phenomena of resonance and complex harmonics are the result of very unstable physical conditions with virtually unpredictable behaviours, do you have to compose directly with the instruments, trying everything out before you set it down on a score?

D: Well, you want me to explain how I compose, and I will do just that. There are two main aspects. There is the process of trying things out on instruments to find new possibilities, to get ideas. And there's the importance of having a way of using what you've heard.

To explain in more detail, I begin with trying some sound: I concentrate and focus my intention on it - as in phenomenology. Then - again like phenomenology - I eliminate everything around that isn't strictly part of it. I start to isolate a very small world. This concentration and stripping away of everything else is not a stressful or desparate procedure; it is meditative, observant.

Gradually, after doing this several times, an image starts to crystalize. After this, and only after this, musical rationalism can begin to reassert itself, working on the memories of the sounds. Now structures can begin to develop, to extend into time; I can start to think of opposing themes and so on. All this is done in the presence of instruments, so to speak.

But what am I going towards? You mentioned the instability of the sounds in my music in your first question, and this is very important. There is definitely not the idea of perfecting something, of making the sounds fixed and perfect for all time. The point is to find out how they can be different every time but in exactly the way that is right for that particular time. So the final stability is a relative one.

Stabilising the sounds is a matter of technique, of examining, for example, exactly what kind of violin bow produces what result. There is a process of ongoing research and constant noting down of results to find concrete solutions to making the sounds. Always you have in mind that in the end there will be a score, so that, in this respect, composing is writing, and this writing starts with noting down how sounds are made. This is what Stockhausen was doing in the 60's, and it's sad to have to say "was doing."

There's a constant search for the best way to write things so that the musicians get the right sound. Pieces are revised during, and as a result of, rehearsal. I use different ways of notating in different pieces and also within the same piece. There are sections with regular measures, other sections with free time. Especially with the orchestral writing there is very precise scoring to get synchronisation. But, even here, there are moments which are meant to be blurred, which is a big risk, because with an orchestra and only three rehearsals, you are courting disaster. But in the end, in this kind of music, everything is a risk.

Another aspect of the life of sounds, of their instability, is that the sounds live through the interpreters, and that each interpreter is different. Each person has, so to speak, their personal phenomenology. For each person you have to discover the things that are valid. Music has to acknowledge fully the uniqueness of persons and the fact that sounds only come alive through persons. It is not the person in the voluntary sense, but in the more objective, "given", sense. For example, I've literally dreamt my music two or three times; an unimagineable splendour, my ears exploding with a sound so magnificent that I had no way to recreate it. But, when I woke up, I was left with a kind of glowing emblematic image in my memory. This stayed with me, it had a kind of precision, very concrete, very real. What I am saying is that this is just me, a personal experience, and that my music reflects something that is in my unconscious. So it's not something artificial, imagined: it's ingrained in me. The ideal is in my unconscious. Of course there are other conceptions of the ideal - social, and so on - but here, in the case of my music, there is this inner ideal which I've been able to possess in a completely concrete form in a completely realised experience a very small number of times in my dreams. This is something really fabulous, to have this ideal sound in all its richness, its harmonic complexity...

A-M: Now perhaps Iancu can answer the question about Pierres Sacréess, the question of what in his unconscious produced this explosive and violent quality. When Iancu was doing his military service, which was extremely hard, hard for everyone, but also bad for a musician's mind, he once had to do sentry duty at night, guarding a military flag in an isolated place in the mountains.

D: Well, to go into confessional mode, which I don't really like; it was dark all around and there was one small light, like a masonic ritual. I had to stand to attention with my gun; my superiors could check up on me. To try to keep awake I wandered around a bit in the dark, feeling the mysteriousness of the place, but at the same time obliged to be a soldier. I started tapping quietly on various things to see if they had any sound: there was this very large sheet of glass hanging on wires which had a slogan on it; it had an interesting sound...

I realised after an hour and a half that I was incapable of standing any longer; I sat down for ten minutes thinking I'd be able to stand up again quickly if anyone came. But after two or three minutes of sitting, I fell asleep. I've no idea how long I slept, but whilst I slept I had a kind of cataclysmic explosion inside my head as if a thousand glass plates were falling and bursting at once. I wasn't observing the plates falling from outside; I was inside them falling and exploding, I was inside the sound. This dream perhaps lasted two or three seconds, but the explosion lasted an eternity, a lifetime, like a 20-minute piece of music. I was in the center of this explosion with a vast detail of sound but also vast force...

So the point of this story is that when we're trying to find out why something works musically and why something else doesn't, it's because there is something inside the being, the body, which works like this. I don't invent my dreams. I'm bringing things out of myself as if they existed inside. They are givens. I can relive these dreams a thousand times. They are inscribed in my memory. What connection there is to Jung or to Freud I don't know...

So I've understood that, for an artist, it's important not to try to become somebody else, somebody Other. It's important to look in yourself.

Q: When we first heard your music here, it seemed all the more remarkable because the image of Romania was that of a particularly arbitrary dictatorship crushing an impoverished and isolated country. What were your relations with this ruling power? To what extent did you work in secrecy? How did your music actually get to be played in these conditions?

D: A rule of terror presupposes a plurality of victims, and so there were links between these victims. When I was a student I had friends with whom I could exchange ideas. Terror always tries to empty its victims of their force, make them forget the strength of their unity. But in the world of art you could still have real friendships. Also, four or five years after the death of Stalin there was a slight liberalisation - only in culture, of course; not in politics. These little gifts were a technique of the regime.

The important thing is that, for the rulers, there was no essential difference between Beethoven and Stockhausen. For completely stupid and uncultured people there is not even the perception that one kind of music poses problems that another one doesn't.

When I was a student we had Stravinsky in the library. My bad reputation in the world of music began here - from my repeatedly listening to Stravinsky records in the student library.

Gradually my compositions came to be played by friends who were composers and musicians and teachers. But I was constantly criticised by the official Union of Composers, the Stalinists, people who pretended to be influenced by folk music, but not real folk music, a kind of banalised, reduced version. Then, within the group of people I knew, I was the youngest, the least disciplined, the most ignorant. They were more professional, more competent; they knew everything about serialism. So I was criticised not only by the official people but also by these unofficial people. Later, when they started to win official prizes, they thought of me as a wasted talent. What they didn't see was that real talent means being driven to go into as yet unknown areas, to find a space that is uniquely your own. Looking at myself from this perspective, I'd say I haven't achieved much. But at least I've not given in to the laziness in my own spirit.

From the beginning of the 1970's I received a certain respect all the same because my work was increasingly recognised abroad - in Germany, Holland, France and Italy. The Paris-based group "La Petite Compagnie", led by Maguy Lovano, also a composer and musicologist, had a great enthusiasm for new music and brought out a record with one of my pieces; there were performances in several French cities, and I was played on Radio France and other stations. Unusually, almost simultaneously, two of my pieces were accepted for the international Gaudeamus competition in Holland. German radio played my music, and I had scores published in France and Germany.

This was my first contact with musical life as it then was. This contact was actually paradoxical. On the one hand, my music had been chosen for its modernity; on the other, people over there were not quite ready at that time to understand it. For the first time I found myself not only amongst the most modernist composers of my generation, but also ahead of the ideas of the time. This little "difference" was gradually to develop to the point where it finally became an actual "divorce". So I've always found, in the intellectual milieu of contemporary composition, that some people are drawn to my ideas, whereas others greet them with almost total incomprehension.

By the way, it's been suggested that my music was very influenced by that of Scelsi. In fact, if you listen to my recordings, it's clear that I largely developed my music in the 1972-75 period before anyone had heard Scelsi. You could even say that my music contributed to how Scelsi was listened to when his music first became known in the 1980's. The fact that there are parallels has to be read as an aspect of synchronicity....

Q: Where do your musicians come from? How do you choose them? Who are they? Do they come from the conservatoire?

D: There is no other music in Romania; it's rare to come across musicians from rock or jazz, and when you do they tend to be very specialised, professional, conventional, not open to different ideas. My musicians in the Hyperion Ensemble are music teachers with normal training, or members of the leading symphony orchestras of Bucharest, or also sometimes talented young players from throughout Europe. There is one current exception, who is a theatre director, and also a geologist. Before, we had a percussionist - an architect, who also played rock drums; he couldn't read notes, but was an extraordinary and talented player. The main thing is open-mindedness, obviously.

What I offer to musicians is a re-education in musical technique which goes back to the source, to the basis of rhythm, to the pythagorean monochord, to the thousand other possibilities for making music with a single string, or blowing a single note. Clearly my associates are not always able to follow this musical adventure. If they also happen to be working in orchestras several times a day, they get contaminated by other musics. There is a lack of exposure to techniques of concentration such as Zen and Yoga in Romania. Musicians - and I'm talking not just about Romanian musicians, but about all musicians here - find it hard to concentrate spontaneously on what is happening in the moment; they can only concentrate in a consciously directed way.

I myself am very fascinated by philosophy and theory, but I've found out that it's catastrophic when I'm working with an orchestra to start telling them the theory behind the music; the musicians simply stiffen up; their thinking minds interfere with the intuitive movements that I need for the music to sound good. So I quickly stop and tell them to forget what I was talking about, and then we get a better result.

At the same time my music has a primitive aspect, like primitive painting: a human primitivity. In my musicians, I'm looking for a region of the psyche where there are nuances of the pre-cultural. Why? My contacts with musicians are difficult; I use this approach as a provocation, to see how they react, to see what their primary reactions are, to see if I can find something more than pure primitivity, to see if I can channel and refine what is in their inner nature.

My music emerges in the context of a specific Romanian consciousness combining elements of Eastern and Western thought. What does this mean? You might say that in Western thought, there is an emphasis on external time, and that in Eastern thought there is an emphasis on internal time. This second kind of time is more cyclical, more linked to the body, the experience of being alive in a body. In Romanian culture, we have a strong feeling for this interior time; this made it possible for me to move towards another kind of musical rhythm.

This other kind of rhythm that I found is actually everywhere, and inside everyone, but hidden. It is primary, related both to biological processes and to phenomenology.

I found a kind of proportionality between the act of playing a note, and the pause which follows it. There is an alternation of activity and rest. This is biological, the rhythm of physical movement, systole and diastole, the heart, the step, tension and then relaxation of muscle. From this incredibly simple observation I began to think out another world of rhythm, a world linked to cosmic and human naturality, to number, to quantity in terms of moments of action and moments of rest. I found that the pause following a number of actions, a group of actions, is specific to it. There is a proportion between action and inaction.

Then I made a phenomenological reduction, cutting away everything that masked the true nature of the phenomenon. I found a special quality in particular numbers. The pause depends psychically on the character of the number of the actions. What is the immanent direction of the music at this point? There is a first number one, a single stroke, a pause, then the next number one, another single stroke, but now we are aware that there was something before, so it's changed: there is a potential direction - the second one can be more, or can be less, or can be equal, to the first. This depends on the phenomenological direction I want to give to the music.

So my percussion writing is based on this rhythmic concept. Or the bass on Aulodie Mioritica with Fernando Grillo. What is the pause? Everything, the action of the rhythm, and the pause, is linked, according to the direction given to the music. The rhythmic structure is both logical and intuitive.

I realised that Western culture is only aware of a small part of a much wider rhythmic conception based in biological rhythm, and the notion of feedback in information theory. Western musical culture has succeeded in abolishing real pauses. If you listen to Beethoven, the thinking is actually all continuous; there is this projection of an external meter that always carries on, even when the music is taking little breaths between the notes. But this is just one possibility. It is not necessary to coordinate music only by meter. Of course this has given us tremendous riches. The idea of symphonic music depends on synchronization. But there is also a lack of freedom, of diversity. In my music there are coordinated parts and also free rhythm parts. Measured music is just one case in a potentially vaster musical world that acknowledges birdsong, breath...

Something that arises from this difference in conceptions of rhythm, is that when you are working with conventionally trained musicians, and you persuade a musician in the group of the rightness of a certain rhythm of playing, then all the others get contaminated and follow the same rhythm. In fact what you want is to get each musician's part coherent in itself, to have it played in its own rhythm, which is also the rhythm of that musician at that time.

In my older scores, I left in the numbers written over the groups of notes, indicating that I had thought of these groups in terms of numbers and my intuitions about these numbers.

Q: Yes, I had been intending to ask, thinking about a reference you made to Pythagoras, how you used number in your compositions.

D: There's the phenomenological aspect, and also the intuitive aspect; the need for something pure and very ancient, the need to go back to origins. For this, I give to numbers an almost mystical meaning, but not a symbolic or cryptic meaning. I am not using numerology. I want to live these numbers, to live them as essential actions.

Through pure intuition, of the Husserl type, I obtained a consciousness of each number, found what was for me the real nature or character of each number as action. This can't be detailed logically; the inner structure of the number has to be discovered for yourself through concentration. You have to get rid of all pre-conceptions from Western musical thinking about rhythmic groups. If you do this, number can become a part of your musical language, so that each pause is absolutely necessary for the actions that precede it.

Q ; If music's real concern lies outside history and historical time, what becomes of the imperative to innovate in music? How is it that the use of "profane" technology can facilitate a realisation of the sacred? Can you explain the convergence, which seems to be implied in your work, between modern electro-acoustical technology and an approach to transcendence?

D: You mean the convergence between an idea of progress towards the future in music and an idea of the sacred which is either outside history or grounded in the distant past?

Q: Yes, and also progress in the particular sense of involving new technologies of amplification, and so on. This implies an increasing rationalisation of knowledge and skill, something that does not sit, at first sight, easily with phenomenology. But you have done extensive work in electro-acoustics. Do you see a contradiction here?

D: First, yes, you are right, there is a contradiction in my work. Second, this contradiction is in me, and is fundamental. I'm split between two tendencies, one towards the past, the other towards the present and the future emerging in the present. So there is a discontinuity, a kind of dialectic without conclusion, unresolved. There is a nostalgia for something that I never knew, but feel that I once lived - which isn't true, or only in an anthropological sense - and there is also something that is absolutely necessary to say now. The conclusion? I am a person who is exposed in an X-ray photograph revealing divergent tendencies, and out of this divergence comes something which is a part of my necessity. I am incapable of being other than I am. At twenty-five, I could have chosen to do something else, but now it's too late; there has been this evolution towards something which is highly specific and personal. I was influenced by Husserl's phenomenology, by Yoga and Zen, by Orphism.

What is Orphism for me? There is, of course, the cultural link, that Orpheus was a hero of the Thracian people who lived in my country. But what is my personal reading of Orphism?

First, all or any part of reality can be sacralised. But this domain of the sacred is unknown, uncertain. You need a special courage to go towards it. Secondly, this Orphic domain is the domain of metaphor, linked to art. It's not the world of reality; in music you are making something which is behind reality. Sometimes I even try to show that to the audience in the way I conduct the group, to make people's minds look further than what is physically in front of them. Music is not sound, it's behind, beyond sound, revealed by sound. It's a type of communication, but what is communicated is not rational, and to this extent, music is "like" mysticism. The aesthetic is aurioled by something that is evident but indefinable. Hence the attitude is mystical, even if the music is not.

The third aspect is that the Orphic geste is unique, unrepeatable. Orpheus did things in a new space, entirely new things. You arrive in this space, you have this experience, and it dies immediately after you have it. I come to London, and my intention - I failed on this occasion, tragically for me - is to do something absolutely unique, unknown even by me, that can never happen again. I have a schema, and I want to aim for a new experience, and this is the Orphic experience.

How can I prepare for this? By opening myself to the flow passing through every instant, which is outside me, which descends onto everyone. This I learned from my great teacher, Sergiu Celibidache, the conductor and philosopher, who I was fortunate enough to meet around 1973. I can describe his attitude like this: Celibidache is going to tour with an orchestra, conducting Beethoven's Third. After twelve days of rehearsals with the orchestra he says, "I come to the performance empty; I refuse to know what I'm going to conduct." He comes onto the podium and raises his baton for the auftakt, and in that instant of suspension every single detail of that moment in time becomes relevant to the performance.

Only by opening the whole configuration in this way can it have a chance of acknowledging every aspect of the living situation. You are putting your heart on the table. You throw away the guarantee of a merely satisfactory, but at least competent, performance. The awareness of every musician is opened out to all the possible combinations of the instrumental parts that come alive from the score.

And of course, there are an infinity of errors. There are the errors of the first day. On the second day, perhaps you can reduce them, but there are the new errors, the ones that only come on the second day, and so on. From Celibidache, I learned to strive against dead perfection. I learned to try to release and channel the actual life that is circulating in every musician.

Discography (All tracks by Dumitrescu, unless stated)
on LP
Ed. RZ 1001; Medium II, Cogito
Ed. RZ 2001; Aulodie Mioritica, Ursa Mare

on CD
ED.MN.1001; Medium III, Cogito/Trompe l'Oeil, Aulodie Mioritica, Perspectives au Movemur, Apogeum.
ED.MN.1002; Au dela de Movemur, Monades. / Avram; Ekagrata, Eignum Gemini, Zodiaque.
ED.MN.1003; Pierres Sacrées, Harryphonies (alpha), Grande Ourse, Harryphonies (epsilon).
ED.MN.1004; Astrée Lointaine, Holzwege. /Astalos; Symetries. / Avram; Archae.
ED.MN.1005; Galaxy, Movemur et Sumus, Reliefs, Memorial Alternances, Basoreliefs Symphoniques.
ED.MN.1006; A Priori, 5 Implosions, Mythos / Avram; De Sacrae Lamentationem, Icarus.
ED.MN.1007; Mnemosyne, Impulse, Clusterum I / Avram; Quatre Etudes d'Ombre, Asonant III, Metaboles.
ED.MN.1008; Holzwge Kronos, Fluxus, Sirius Kronos Quartet / Avram; Ikarus II, On the Abolition of the Soul.

A Note on Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that holds both scientific materialism and philosophical idealism to be reliant on major and unjustifiable presuppositions about the relation between human consciousness and objective reality. Better, then, to leave this relation open, and to consider only actual appearances. From the observation that appearance is always the result of an intention, two main procedures are developed. The first tries to reduce, to strip away all the mental luggage that is superfluous to the actual appearance of a phenomenon to consciousness. The second aims, by systematic variation, to distinguish what is stable from what is fluid in an appearance.

On this basis Husserl tried, amongst other things, to understand how entities in the human universe appear to have stability in time; he argued that retentions in human memory are not only of primary impressions, but also of the "act-phase" of forming these impressions. By multiple superimpositions of such retentions, is built up a sense of our selves as passing through time, and of the stable entities that we perceive as passing through time alongside us. Musicians have long been drawn to Husserl, perhaps because, as his image for this emergence of a complementary sense of time and self, he uses the activity of following a musical melody. (See; E.Husserl. The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. trans. J.S.Churchill. Bloomington Indiana. 1950.)

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER