Ricardo Mandolini

Asymmetry: I noticed in the concert last night that the piece that preceded yours was a kind of compendium, a collection of all the electroacoustic tropes of the last 60 years.

It was like a little history of electroacoustic music. And then yours came along, and it was as if….

Ricardo Mandolini: We’ve all ready done this.

Asymmetry: Yes! We’ve done that. Now here’s where we can go next. The contrast between the two pieces was so amazing. It was really interesting to hear those two pieces back to back.

Ricardo Mandolini: I represent a line in composition that could be called narrative music. Narrative music because it wakes up images and histories. There is not actually a history, a program, but you can imagine that this program exists.

For example with this piece you just heard, Cristina o el delirio de los hipopótamos; in a way it’s like a cartoon gone wrong. The cartoon things begin, and you see what’s coming, what is happening. And this comical image will develop to another situation, which is like a war with shouts and everything. The piece advances, and you begin to understand that the beginning… was just the beginning. The piece ends in another spiritual point that has nothing to do with beginning. We never turn back; we just re-form.

This is something I am absolutely interested in. How what you hear at one moment is one thing, and five minutes later you have to reconsider what you had heard and to say “No, that was not exactly what I heard. It was different.” Well that’s exactly the type of music I like. Something that has the same sense when it begins and when it ends is for me somewhat boring.

So I’ve been doing this kind of composition for many years. And I like it very much. I have to say I think I have many other things to compose. Because this last piece for me was a real discovery of something. Now I think I will continue. [Laughter]

Asymmetry: Well if you live as long as Elliott Carter….

Ricardo Mandolini: Ah, Elliott Carter; that is a good example for me. That’s an interesting example, Elliott Carter. Well I am 58; I will be 59 this year [2009]. So I would say I have been composing for thirty years, probably more. Yes, I would say my whole life I have been doing these kinds of horrible things. [More laughter]

Asymmetry: How do you think things have changed over those 40 years?

Ricardo Mandolini: Well, I have witnessed several revolutions in technology. I began working with just scissors. My first contact with computer music was at Studio EMS in Stockholm, where I worked Tamás Ungváry. The computer was a monster. [Makes monster noises.] It was a PDP-15. The information was loaded in with perforated paper. Yes. And we had terrible memory. Storage was about 500 million tics. That was terrible. You could just manage about two seconds of music.

Nowadays you can have about one hundred giga-tics; it’s incredible.

Asymmetry: Well this little thing [holds up an SD card]–16 gigabytes.

Ricardo Mandolini: It is not to think about it; it is terrible. The promise of technology is exponential.

So anyway, I worked with these big computers, and I have two or three pieces composed with these monsters. But the problem at the time was that the system was not very stable. You had always problems with computers of this sort.

And while at the time we did have everything that we have now, we had to go from one studio to another to work, and that meant having to learn different technologies. For example, the Studio of Sonology in Holland with Fritz Weiland and the Studio EMS in Stockholm with Lars Gunner-Bodin had the same PDPs, but they had two different programs and nobody could understand how to cope with this. You could not translate the programs from one studio to another. You cannot imagine what this means. Well the transition to simple programs and the home studio is an absolute advantage to us, with programs very colloquial if you like, like Protools. And of course, there are programs that have some idiosyncratic value as a composing program like Max/MSP.

I like technology but always with this reservation, that you cannot explain the value of a piece by its technology.

Asymmetry: When I talked with Francis Dhomont in Montreal for his 80th birthday, he said that what composers need is technology that is completely transparent. That you never ever have to think about the technology when you’re using it.

Ricardo Mandolini: He’s right.

Asymmetry: He says nobody thinks about the technology of the piano when they learn to play that instrument or to write music for it.

Ricardo Mandolini: He’s right. Francis Dhomont is somebody who I have known for many, many years. And I appreciate him enormously; he is a very intelligent man. What he said is right, absolutely right. We don’t think in terms, intellectual terms, when we are playing piano. Otherwise we could not play. He’s right. Why should we do this when we make computer music?

Asymmetry: Yes. Exactly.

Ricardo Mandolini: Technology should be incorporated in such a way that you don’t need to speak about it. So I agree 100 percent with Francis.

Another thing, you can be a very bad programmer and a very good composer. The one has nothing to do with the other. I also know programmers who are horrible composers. Nothing to do with each other, they are two different fields.

Asymmetry: Some very important people in the electronic music world are terrible composers.

Ricardo Mandolini: Yes.

Asymmetry: But if we had not had them it might have been more difficult.

Ricardo Mandolini: For example, this week we are going to have one of the pioneers of electronic music, Max Mathews.

Asymmetry: That’s one I was thinking of. Exactly.

Ricardo Mandolini: Thank Max Mathews we are all here.

Asymmetry: Yes, absolutely.

Ricardo Mandolini: But none of us would say that Mathews is a good composer. Gérard Grisey is different. He is a very good composer and at the same time a good technician, but this is very strange example. He’s the only example I know.

Really for me Grisey is a miracle. I don’t know how he does this. I don’t understand.

Asymmetry: You had mentioned something earlier about composition and heuristics.

Ricardo Mandolini: At the same time as I compose music, I am also lecturing at the university, Lille III in France. What I’m lecturing on now you can call “musical creation.” The philosophical roots of this discipline, the correct name of this, is heuristics, which comes from eureka. What Newton said when the apple fell on his head, “Eureka, I have found it!”

For many years I’ve been working in this discipline. There are several Latin American universities teaching heuristics. One of them is in Buenos Aires, Universidad Nacional de Tres Febrero. I’m going in July (2009) to Argentina and to Brazil to continue my lectures and just to try to improve this new discipline of music.

When I speak about composition of course I speak from a very individual point of view. It’s subjective, I know, but I wonder sometimes if you can also find in this subjectivity some universal elements. My point of view is that that’s what heuristics should mean. It should mean also that somebody who has not exactly the making of a composer can at least recompose, can remake a piece of another composer. And just have the feeling that he’s doing it. It’s an illusion but a very important illusion because this is a way that everyone can understand contemporary music.

There are two ways of interpreting contemporary music and music in general. You interpret music as just an observer, somebody who’s observing and hearing. But you can also try to remake it with the means you have, with your voice, with your curves, with your movements, with your gestures, with the instruments. In this way, you demonstrate in what you are doing what you have really gotten from the piece.

And this is the real door or the real password to contemporary music. Not only the observation, not only the intellect, but your body, your gestures, just doing it. In a way, to reconstruct a piece means the same as when a hungry baby cries and says “ba ba bu bu.” Or when she asks her momma to please take her in her arms. The words are the same, “ba ba bu bu.” Because she has no other words to say. The same expression has two semantics. With the same expression, the baby says two different things.

Apply this to people at a concert. What are you really feeling when you come here and hear a piece of electronic music? Tell me what you heard and show me what you heard. Not only just tell me, because telling is just one thing; show me. Demonstrate to me what you heard in the same way as a baby demonstrates when it’s hungry. You do this and you’re doing heuristics.

What I’m just trying to explain is what Aristotle said in the Poetics about mimesis, a representation of things. Here is where Aristotle introduces the word catharsis. We use catharsis now in psychoanalysis, following Freud. But for Aristotle, catharsis means how you express what you are feeling.

So what I’m saying, Aristotle has already said. It’s absolutely not new, but it is new in this context. It is new in this society, which doesn’t consider the value of illusions and dreams. In this society and this civilization where we are, what is important is what we know. And what we know is in a way sacrilized. But it is not important what we feel.

Asymmetry: Yes, that’s true.

Ricardo Mandolini: And in the arts and in music and in everything, feeling is what is really important.

When I have a group of students, I have to produce in them the necessity of expression. And they manage to do things, and I’m very quite satisfied with the results.

I am now writing a book about heuristics. And this book will be published in three languages. And I will write an article for the Oxford University Press where I speak but in more simple terms about heuristics. And it is in English. Yes, I have to write in English. I don’t need to say that the work I’m giving to the translator is terrible. But anyway. [Laughter] Well I think that this is the best definition I can say about music and arts in general.

Asymmetry: How does this relate to your own music?

Mandolini: There’s naturally a difference between all that and what I do as a composer. There is a relationship, but it’s not exactly the same.

Asymmetry: So heuristics then is for the listeners?

Ricardo Mandolini: For listeners and for musicologists.

Asymmetry: It’s not for composition students as such?

Ricardo Mandolini: No, it is also for composition students, it may help to give some sense of what they’re doing. Naturally it’s not a compositional way of thinking, but something following composition.

And it’s very difficult to pass along knowledge of illumination or intuition, of these feelings you can’t explain in terms of causality, in terms of corroboration. We can see this when we look at other cultures. For example the Iranian Sufis. Just to understand what they think and how they think, we have to admit that there are ample possibilities of knowledge.

And when the dervish’s dance, they are not only using a sort of hypnosis, they’re seeing things and learning things of another dimension.

Which brings me back to Aristotle. I started to say that imagination is a field between our intellect and our feelings. How easy and simple that is. This is the anima in Aristotle. It’s very simple. Imagination is something that’s in another field. But the whole history of philosophy has been to neglect this point. Because it is not agreeable for somebody who is very fond of what he knows and what he thinks to say that imagination is also a part of knowledge. Philosophers are ashamed to admit this. In my most recent studies, I demonstrate that Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason is the best manual of imagination and heuristics ever written.

Of course philosophers are not very fond of this, because I’m killing some idol, the idol of knowledge as self-determined truth. But I can demonstrate that Kant knew perfectly well that imagination is an element of knowledge, a strong and very important element. And the philosopher who saw this best is Heidegger, who saw some kind of transcendental imagination going through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Well, imagination is something very, very special. It can be systematized, it can say what the goals are for activity, things that knowledge cannot capture.

Asymmetry: Their attitude reminds me of what Northrop Frye said about logic. Logic is for keeping the conversation on the right track, not for discovering new things.

Ricardo Mandolini: No. It’s a closed system. The moment you want to establish a final intention, you have to cope with imagination. Otherwise it is not possible. That’s the problem of pure reason. What Kant is not saying, but what I am saying, is that pure reason is the same as imagination. Philosophers are always very angry with me for saying this. Because I am telling them that things are not really what they expect.

Asymmetry: They should be more philosophical about this.

Ricardo Mandolini: They should be more philosophical, yes you are right!

Asymmetry: It sounds like philosophers are missing something.

Ricardo Mandolini: Yes. Something’s missing in philosophical thinking. Something very important, they are missing something very important. And that is that what reason says is always an illusion.

Asymmetry: Sure.

Ricardo Mandolini: Notions of space and time that come direct from reason, a priori, are illusions. We work with these illusions, of course. We have to. There is no other way.

Asymmetry: This sounds very much like what I’ve heard called notional models.

Ricardo Mandolini: That’s very nice, notional models.

Asymmetry: They’re not truth, but —

Ricardo Mandolini: But they’re pragmatic; you need them to live. There is a principle that should be named the principle of illusion. This is what Kant means by the principle of regulation. That means, I can say things as if they were right. As if they were produced by nature, whereas really I am the one who established these rules. As if; and we live the whole time surrounded by this “as if.” There is a passage, a very slight passage between a metaphor and the reality.

And many people use metaphors as real things.

Asymmetry: That’s certainly true!

Ricardo Mandolini: That explains for example the terrible negative illusion of nationalism. The feeling of belonging to the same group, as in a team of football. This feeling of belonging to something is an illusion. We don’t belong to things. We are just what we are. For good or for ill. That’s it.

And that’s why I like Aristotle. Because he never thought of things in terms of absolute proof. Plato is different. Plato speaks of truth, always. And what is behind things is the truth, an idea. Something absolutely absolute. Aristotle never thought in terms of this. He understood that reality is full of metaphors. With things that aren’t. With illusions that are, in a way, fantasies. But we need these fantasies. They’re rhetorical. They’re dialectic. And they’re poetic.

So I think the first thing to do with truth is to make it relative.

Asymmetry: If only we could succeed in doing that.

Before we finish this, I wanted to ask about the Journée Cage.

Ricardo Mandolini: Ah yes, you have found my curriculum vitae. You have all ready seen that I don’t have a web site. I don’t like web sites in general. But of course I have many things going around about me in the internet. Journée Cage is something I helped to organize in Lille. It was one of my students who was behind it. He was doing some kind of re-creation of four minutes and thirty-three seconds with orchestra.

Asymmetry: Oh good. I did that piece with band, once.

Ricardo Mandolini: Yes. Okay. And why not?

Your question is interesting, really. Because that will oblige me to show one aspect of my way of thinking. For me Cage has an enormous value, and the history of music is just now telling us how important he is. Forms like, for example, net art. Or cooperative and collective ways of composing, which would not be possible if Cage had not been saying “you have to really problematicize your will.”

In a way we are all distributors of this thinking of Cage. We can play with willing, as in composition parameters. And to say “here is absolutely determined, and here is absolutely non-determined, indeterminate, and we can just play with this. It’s really the parameter of composition.”

And this is absolutely new. Cage introduces into music what I will call the aesthetic of devices. Cage has the same relationship with a piece of his as for example a piano maker has with the piano. She has made the piano, but she’s not responsible for how it will be made to play. In the same way, Cage can be surprised at what the music of his own piece is doing. He made the instrument, he made the device. He’s not controlling what’s happening in the device.

Asymmetry: Yes, that’s true.

Ricardo Mandolini: This aesthetic of the device is the exactly the same as what Boulez has done in Europe with the series, with serial music. That is also a device. What Schoenberg achieved with pitch and what Messiaen continues and then Boulez is all the same idea. The idea that we can make automatic composition. We can make a composition without the help of the will of the composer.

Asymmetry: Interesting. I had never thought of it like that.

Ricardo Mandolini: Yes. And the big contradiction of European composers is that while they make these devices, they still have the aesthetic ideas of the past. You cannot control something when you have millions of possibilities. It’s not possible. There are no criteria to control it, so Boulez fixed it in a contradiction. If we make use of this series, we have to find the criteria to control it. And there’s exactly the point where the series is dead.

Because you cannot find this criteria. All series are quantitatively alike. You cannot say this is better than this. You can’t. It’s not possible. So this is the way people should understand the revolution. Composers like Xenakis, like Boulez, or like Cage, they are working exactly in the same sense, working with what is the possibility of probabilistics. Because it is not possible to determine a criteria to select things.

Cage would say if there is no selection of things, we accept this. At this moment our will is suspended. We don’t use will as an element of composition. But Boulez continued to use his will, and so he contradicts himself. Xenakis the same. But what they all were looking for was a sort of robot music, of automatic music. Lejarin Hiller’s Illiac Suite is an example of this kind of effort. [Theodor] Adorno had a terrible debate with the modern composers of his time, with Boulez and with Cage. Because they were not using selective criteria, not establishing a language for the piece.

Adorno for me is the bracket, who closed one period of music. Because, what he says about the Wahrheitsgehalt is that you find some material in a historical context, you transform this material, and you make this transformation because you have a global intuition of form that’s going to make the piece continue the piece to the end. This is also fiction of course.

Asymmetry: Of course.

Ricardo Mandolini: Of course. But this fiction lets the composer work in the sense of having a selective system. This selection is the construction of the language. What you find as composer is just the grammatical elements of what you’re going to produce in your language. That’s exactly what had been happening. And this is exactly what Cage stops in the moment that he says “No, you don’t have to compose this way. You can compose in this other way and just program this device that in a way imitates nature and the procedures of nature.”

And nowadays we still have this problem: just to compose and to determine everything or not. Or to establish exactly what is the degree of determination.

Asymmetry: And that’s where we are.

Ricardo Mandolini: That’s why Cage is so important.

I should say I’m not speaking of John Cage as composer, but I also think that of course many of the things we make of Cage depends directly on the interpretations we make of him. And I don’t think that the music of Cage is interpreted well. Because his thinking is not really understood. It means there are not many people who understand what he means.

Asymmetry: I know I keep buying recordings and thinking “it’s not being played well.”

Ricardo Mandolini: Absolutely. Absolutely aware of the fact that when we hear Cage, we are not hearing what he meant. Absolutely not.

The only version I really appreciate of 4′ 33″ is the version that Tudor makes on the piano. Tudor was somebody who was pretty close to Cage, and he really interprets what Cage means.

I would also say that Cage is perhaps the only composer that really understood the thinking of Kant when Kant speaks of beauty. In his four definitions of beauty, Kant is speaking of nature, I think. And what Cage says is always to see what nature makes and try to apply its procedures.

The whole European tradition is always to be translated in terms of conflict, in terms of fight, in terms of physiological tension between materials on the one hand and composing on the other. As when Kant talks, for example, about the fight, the struggle between the imagination and reason. When he describes the problem of sublimity, a struggle that is physiological and needs time. In a way, the music of Cage is atemporal. But the music of Beethoven is absolutely temporal. It’s absolutely dynamic, the dynamic that Kant describes when he speaks of sublimity. The same dynamic that Hegel has in mind when he speaks of the history of music in terms of aesthetics. And he says beauty is classic, the classical period. Greeks. And what comes in the period of ancient Egyptian culture is symbolic. And what comes afterwards is romantic. These three periods are described in terms of an equation between form and content. As when Nietsche describes the Apollonian and Dionysian categories. As when Heidegger says earth and world in “The Origin of the Work of Art.”

And it’s also the same as when Adorno speaks of truth in the arts and the fight and struggle between historical materials and composing.

What is this struggle about? It’s very simple. The struggle is about how to make the piece, in a sublimate way, to be so similar as possible to what you are as a composer. To be a mirror of yourself. That is the big drama of occidental composition. The drama of Narcissus. How to transform what I have here, in a mirror.

And Cage says “No, please don’t do this.”

That is impossible. It’s not that he is not willing. It’s the willing of not willing. That’s complicated, and it’s subtle and just saying “No” doesn’t speak about willing.

Asymmetry: What Cage called intentional unintentionality.

Ricardo Mandolini: Yes. And for the modern arts, we have to decide in this dialectic between Cage and Adorno, between determination and indetermination. We have to compose. We have to choose our way in these terms. To build a mirror or to do it in a different way.

This is the big problem.

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