International Academy of Electroacoustic Music / Bourges
1998: “Electroacoustic Music: reflections and prospects”


A letter to young colleagues

Valverde del Camino, 30 April 1998.

Dear Friends,

Recently I received various suggestions concerning this year’s theme, along with the invitation to develop my point of view upon the vast subject of the future of electroacoustic music.

Before I say anything else, I would like to state that I am ready to bet hundred to one that elec­troacoustic music will enjoy a rich future. We can now look back upon a most fascinating half cen­tury -and also look forward to a half century that promises to be every bit as thrilling. Some of us were hardly hatched when the starting gun went off. Nevertheless, in the space of barely two gene­rations we have witnessed a period of technological development such that we may legitimately consider ourselves the fathers or the grandfathers of something.

The interaction between succeeding generations will never cease to be a rewarding and diverting subject of study. At the beginning of the Sixties, the Spanish composer and founder of “Zaj” Juan Hidalgo, confessed: “John Cage is my father and Marcel Duchamp is my grandfather”. And re­cently I read in a magazine that Steve Reich is the grandfather of “trance”! This kind of shameless takeover attempt that typically reclassifies Erik Satie and even J.-S. Bach as New Age composers makes me feel like turning all my family archives into confetti. However, it is more fitting and dig­nified to react in a moderate way and modestly accept any paternity whatsoever, rather than deny that we are the ancestors of something.

Luckily, it has not been necessary to wait “at least two or three hundred years”, as Messiaen thought in the Fifties, for the inevitable renovation to take place. The renovators have arrived, some have accomplished their mission, and some have already become outdated. Numerous candidates have rapidly followed with the intention of renovating the renovators. Do they perhaps expect or demand that we transmit something to them? The first image that occurs to me when I hear the word “transmit” is a chain transferring movement from one toothed wheel to another. Transmission is something dynamic and therefore implies movement and force, i.e. life. It is also synonymous with “communication”. We transmit and communicate as long as we are alive. After which, it is no longer a matter of transmission, but of heritage. I think this distinction is of fundamental impor­tance. When it comes to transmitting, as in the case of muscular activity, there are two kinds of communication: voluntary and involuntary. The first category includes compositions, articles, etc. -in short all that which has crossed over from our private mental lives by means of a wilful act. Our behaviour and our attitude to life belong to the second category.

Deliberate and formal transmission is, of course, that which is likeliest to last, because it leaves a written trace. However, it is impossible to leave no traces at all, which means that we have very little control over the traces’ contents. Millions of beings have come and gone without leaving any trace. Is the artist destined to be different in this regard? The answer -and this is not a condemna­tion- appears to be yes. In which case we can quite legitimately demand the right to a certain amount of control over what we leave behind, even though in practice this is often almost impossi­ble.

Creation is a voluntary act -nobody, as far as I know, has ever created under duress- but the way we feel about what we have created does not always remain exactly the same as at the moment of creation. The alchemy of time may change what we see as being the quintessence of our message, and may drive us to sort out the good from the bad. Some people might object to such self-censure: what right do we have to sit in judgement upon a creative process which we do not really control and whose true nature we know nothing of? As is so often the case, we have the choice between two diametrical opposites: either to be a little god sitting on his throne deciding who will go to heaven and who will go to hell, or to say: “This is how I have lived. Take it or leave it”.

In any case, whether we approve of a work in part or in whole, it should be done under the best conditions and in the most authentic way possible. In a manner of speaking, each artist becomes his own Foundation. I am thinking here of Stockhausen, revising and correcting every last little note, and recording his entire catalogue. Do we all possess this kind of energy? Furthermore, do we wield this kind of power?

I do not know exactly what advice I would give to a younger composer. At any rate, it will be short and sincere.

In fact I might be saved the trouble by quoting Rilke: “Ask yourself the following question, and answer it with the utmost frankness: would you die if you were not allowed to write? If the answer is no then you no longer have the right to carry on writing”. A harsh statement, if we transpose it into our world today, where technology makes available to many that which but a short time ago was the privilege of a few, thus seeming to give credence to that pseudo-democratic illusion of art for the masses. I do not cite the poet here simply for convenience, but out of a deep conviction, be­cause what he says runs parallel to my own experience of creation and of life. Life and creation are not separate entities; they share the same nature and the same privilege: “an ineffable solitude”.

In this letter therefore I will say to the young composer that I feel incapable of teaching him any­thing -which is why I have never wanted to teach- because I consider it superfluous to point out what is before our very eyes, and I find it pretentious to teach what cannot be shown. I would say to him that the only possible apprenticeship begins by means of a voyage to the interior in search of the smallest and most secret corner of solitude, and from which one may look upon the farthest ho­rizons. “When those who are close to you appear nevertheless to be very far away, the space you live in will at last be great and will touch the stars.”

Solitude -“works of art are infinite solitudes”- springs into being only when we dismantle those supporting structures built entirely upon other people’s experiences. Solitude becomes possible only when we refuse pre-existing solutions.

What else could I say to a young composer? Perhaps this: “Do not seek for answers straight away, first live out the questions”. Moreover, perhaps one last remark by way of closing: “Be neither ex­cessively unhappy while you are composing, nor excessively glad after you have finished”.