METALINGUAL MOUTH OF MUSIC:
VERTIGO OF SIGNIFIERS AFTER POSTSTRUCTURALISM
Music as text? Music as intertextuality? Music as language? Music as meta-language?
by Jelena Novak
Listening music by João Madureira (b. 1971) one could easily be pushed to raise the mostly structurally orientated questions mentioned above. It could be asked: Is music a group of signs? Does it acquire a meaning only in relation to other texts of culture? Is music a system of communication? Is it a language on language? These are just few common definitions of text, intertextuality, language and meta-language that are endlessly reconsidered. Frequent re-posing of those questions by, through, or around music show that contemporary literary theory, after poststructuralism, remains intriguing for composers, performers, musicologists and others active in the world of music. João Madureira shows interest in precisely these types of questions, and the answers he offers through his musical language may well revise linguistic considerations of music.
Madureira belongs to the youngest generation of Portuguese composers, amongst whom he is taking a significant place. He is active both as a composer and teacher of composition (he teaches at the Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa and the Escola Superior de Música e Artes do Espectáculo in Oporto). His career is developing brilliantly and steadily. Madureira's opus contains around twenty works for various instrumental ensembles - different chamber ensembles, chamber orchestra, symphonic orchestra, and one piece for violin and real time electronics ( Solo , 2002). His compositions have been heard in some of Europe's most significant contemporary music festivals - for example, World Music Days and the Music Biennale Zagreb - and some of them are available on CDs - Samba de uma nota só (CD published 1996) , Encontro (2000, CD published 2000) , Rumor (2001, CD published 2003) , Loop (2004, CD published 2004) .
The musical language he is developing is related to the languages of authors who are deeply involved in tradition and the impact of European high modernism in music, and who tend to reconsider and deconstruct that tradition along the vector trace by spectral music. That tendency could be named post-spectralism, and in Madureira's work it could be said that he is linked with this tendency; indeed, he himself has used the phrase "post-spectral". In a wider sense, the composer belongs to the group of authors of late postmodernism to whom modernism, or even the early postmodern past, is as poetically distant as any other artistic practices.
The position that post-spectral composers are taking towards spectral music is analogous to one that, for example, composers of post-minimal music are taking to repetitive, so-called minimal music. In post-minimal music, the use of repetitive techniques is typical, but the harshness of the repetitive processes is weakened since one of the basic features of minimal music - reducing the sound activity to the absolute minimum - has disappeared. The technique remained similar, but the "ideology" changed. An analogous process occurred with post-spectral music. The ideology of spectral music, based on the 'struggle' against the rigorous rules of serialism and post-serialism, become smoother, but compositional techniques used by spectral composers are still used as signifiers to which new meanings are attached.
Almost half of Madureira's compositions are scored for instrumentalists and voice, whether the voice recites or sings. An attraction to poetry is, in fact, one of the most significant characteristics of his oeuvre . Moreover, the composer's relationship to the structuring of music is meta-linguistic, which means that structurally his compositions could be taken as maps of a network of meta-linguistic signifiers whose dramaturgy is similar to the dramaturgy of spoken language. Madureira has explained that, according to him, "music is essentially text, and that text has essentially to do with music" (From the interview with João Madureira, See: www.mic.pt , Accessed 29.09.2005). It is not hard to agree with his position concerning music as text. Both structuralist and poststructuralist definitions of text prove that music has the ability to act as group of signs. There then follows a question that is inevitable in this line of thinking: Is music a language? This question is much more complicated, since both structuralist and poststructuralist definitions of language are more ambivalent, leaving, discursively speaking, "empty space".
Both questions of language and text are closely connected to Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of signs, in which the division of sign to signifier and signified was essential. Madureira describes a similar division in speaking of music-text relation: "Words themselves, to me, are always completely double. I am now composing music for some poems by Ruy Belo, a collection under the title Boca Bilingue (Bilingual Mouth) . Boca Bilingue is an essential language; when we say something we immediately say it in a particular tone and in a particular way. And this particular way betrays the meaning of what we are apparently trying to say. From that point, one creates a labyrinth of different meanings for the text: because the text is music" (From the interview with João Madureira, See: www.mic.pt , Accessed October 3 rd 2005). In other words, the signifiers of music stay the same, but what is signified is always changing, and is dependent upon the person who perceives it.
Such theoretical perspectives lead one to the essential writings of one of structuralism's inaugurators. In comparing music and myth, Claude Lévi-Strauss respected the integrity of music as a system of signs. For him, music is "myth coded by sounds instead of words". The unusual structure of the text of Lévi-Strauss's book Mitologiques (chapters of Strauss's Mythologiques I bear music titles: Overture, Theme with Variations, Sonata, Symphony, Fugue, Invention, Toccata, Divertimento) came from the author's playing with the similarities of myth and music. He wrote on myth using music, and on music using myth. Lévi-Strauss defined music as "language minus meaning". He claimed that in music meaning is beyond sound, so that every listener has the possibility to attach to it countless signifiers - a construction to which arbitrary meanings are assigned. But if meaning of the same signifiers is always changing, the question of music as language still stays open. João Madureira continues the exploration of those issues along the seductive border between music and language.
For example, despite the fact that it is scored for flute and piano, without voices and literary text, Encontro (2000) has a meta-linguistic structure. There are present features typical of the linguistic exchange of opinion between two actors in dialogue: short expositions and "answers", where the "answer" bears the main components of exposition, asymmetrical structure and dramaturgy based upon a set of micro-climaxes, etc. The relation between the flute and piano parts develops until the end, where, as expected, a revised recapitulation of the material is presented. The composer himself wrote that Encontro is "a dialogue between different interpretations of the same material, different discursive possibilities and different instrumental attitudes" (See: www.joaomadureira.com/pt/frames.htm , Accessed October 11 th 2005). Basically, signifiers are present, but without stability in what is signified, it is not possible to discover the meaning of the language. Despite the fact that linguistic text is not used in the piece, we continuously expect words, or the meaning they bear, to resolve the last "secrets" of the dynamic dialogue. In Poemusica (1998), the author's and listener's positions are significantly different.
Achieving a distant resemblance to Erik Satie's album Sports et Divertissements (1914) , in Poemusica Madureira uses verses in Portuguese written by Herberto Helder . As the title suggests, Poemusica lies between the institutions of poetry and music. Helder's picturesque and vivid verses are accompanied by a piano part that suggests the dramaturgical structure of the narrative of Helder's poems. The atmosphere created evokes strong visual impressions connected to the objects that the verses are about. The piano part's structure is asymmetrical, even "hysterical" at some points - quick changes of dynamics, rhythmic multiplicity, and the "self-productivity" of the music flow... The whole impression of the piece, despite the fact that the score is strictly written down, is a kind of improvised approach to it. The most exciting effect of the piece is the relation between music and text, "sliding" the text over the music and "sliding" the music over the text... And the voice part has its own freedom of expression - the composer does not state how he wishes the text to be spoken, a fact that obviously creates the possibility of an extremely large number of different variants of this piece. Depending on the voice and the way the vocal part is performed, Poemusica changes its face from performance to performance. Musical language lies in the field of free atonality. Instead of a tonal centre, which was the main actor in the narrative of tonal music, now the role of the main actor has been moved to the world of linguistic objects (for example words for different colours, fish, and artist) found in Helder's poems. For potential listeners who do not understand Portuguese, Helder's poetry even becomes music itself.
Some of Madureira's compositions have titles connected to the world of linguistics - for example, Glosa (2001) for marimba and 15 players. Glosa is a name for an international auxiliary language that is "object oriented", in which words are concept centres. It is an artificial language to aid communication between speakers of different native languages, and its construction and functionality were based on principles similar to those used in Chinese language. It could be claimed that the structure of this composition is also meta-linguistic, as though one were listening to a language one had never heard before. When learning a new language one designates its structure by indexing known words as "signals" for the meaning which is looked for. Similarly, in Glosa , we are tracing marimba signals that drive further the whole structure of the composition. As Madureira says, an increase in his interest in spectral music is visible after this composition: "The whole of Glosa , for example, moves towards greater dissonance, but in a very gradual and practical way; the way I did it was to go from a banal and more consonant overlapping of spectra (overlapping at the 5 th s etc), to an overlapping of spectra. After the 5 th comes the 3 rd , and so on, until I reached an overlapping of a minor 2 nd and an augmented 4 th. It was a very simple basis. In that piece even the positioning of the spectrum is constant, so there are fixed pitches and fixed registers, or each note is in a fixed register" (From the interview with João Madureira. See: www.mic.pt). The piece's dense structure and its harmonic progression guide the listener through the dynamic dialogue of the virtuosic marimba part and the rest of the ensemble.
Madureira often uses literary text in his compositions. Not only as a text for singing, but as text which is to be spoken or reproduced from a CD during live performance: for example, part two - Arte Poetica - of Três Momentos para Ana Hatherly (2003). In this composition, whose primary title was Eklampsis on Three Poems by Ana Hatherly ( Eklampsis Sobre três poemas de Ana Hatherly ), fascination with emitting and radiating meanings (metaphorically - eklampsis) is a driving force of the composer's imagination. Verses which evoke nature ( No Jardim ), spreading words symbolically connected to the art world, and the reduction of artistic expression to the minimum ( Poema 1 ) opened up a rich archive of procedures for treating the spoken/sung word. Madureira's relation to text is intriguing, especially in Poema 1 . As in, for example, Berio's song Monotone in which the composer uses a text by James Joyce, the relation to the text is tautological. In the manner of repetitive music by, for example, American "minimal" composers, the soprano parts are superimposed polyrhythmically. They recite a single word throughout the whole composition. That word is "one", in several languages. And the word is loaded with many meanings - unique, solitude, real - to mention just a few of them. From this, we can perceive a lost modernist unity, a lost unique view of the world, lost originality, and other modernist "myths". During composition, the signified "one" changes the signifiers that originate from different languages - English, Portuguese, and German. It is as though the composer were asking us: Could we understand each other if we spoke different languages? Close to that is the eternally problematic sentence proscribed to music: Music is a universal language that everybody understands...
In No Jardim , a characteristic stamp is given to the whole by the depersonalized female voices; they give this part of the piece a litany-like atmosphere. Although in Portuguese, it sounds like a prayer in an unknown language consisting of a series of invocations and supplications by the leader with alternating responses, in this case, by the other voice. The treatment of vocal part is cleansed of every kind of "sediment" of stereotype. The "origin" of the voice is also "blurred". It could be the voice of an earlier music, an archaic voice intoning a litany, but in any case a voice that is "purged" of the sediment of romanticism. Furthermore, the emphatic "calm" throughout Arte Poetica suggests distant worlds and atmospheres that evoke a kind of silent religious ritual in which an artistic text is declaimed "instead" of a religious text. The whole composition could be seen as the search for an art adequate to the high technological, depersonalized, sometimes hermetic, era of late capitalism and its practices of signification.
The compositional technique Madureira uses in Loop (2004) for saxophone quartet shows the essence of his approach to the musical structure in works in which spoken text is not used. The whole composition is based on one material, a "signal" which is repeated, changed, vivisected and dissolved during the course of the composition. Listening this piece is like watching the structure of an atom under the microscope, and looking it from all possible perspectives of the medium of the microscope. The "signal" is disintegrated, since its structure is changed by adding rests and unexpected rhythmic changes. It is being deconstructed, especially within the listener's perception. After hearing this kind of structure, it seems likely that one would remember the composition synchronically - one does not remember how it flows through time, but one remembers the different transformations through which its main motive runs.
A similar compositional procedure is used in piece Fulgor ( Glow , 2004). There are impulses for the re-perception of the material which has been constantly repeated in variants. There are persistent rhythms of "breathing", structured by means of the constant variation and inversion of one material. The very material that is varied has contrasting but complementary units - a kind of "inhalation" and "exhalation". The dramaturgy of the composition is arch-shaped. Some of its characteristic features are fragmentations of a symphonic way of thinking; there are slow graduations of tension which first ascends, comes to a climax, and then gradually descends towards the silent end of the composition. Fulgor is one of Madureira's most recent pieces, and it is both a development and a confirmation of compositional practices used in his earlier works.
Comparison of Fulgor with Loop brings out an intriguing view of Madureira's recent compositional writing. In both cases there is a deconstructive procedure based upon the slow, but relentless, even obsessive deconstruction, of chosen material, the basis of the piece. In Loop it is a "technique" similar to one used in video montage, in which it is possible to stop and view every frame separately. Viewed in this way, the picture, or situation, recorded becomes less important than its structure, or parts of that structure, the viewing of which gives a completely new light to the whole of the recorded material. In Loop , the material is not recorded but written down, analysed, fragmented, and rendered in fractals. It is as though those fragments and fractals had been put under an "audible magnifying glass", which gives us a new perspective of the whole, its meaning and signifying procedures.
In Fulgor the concept could be seen as similar, but the way in which it is accomplished is different. A visual analogy for the structure of Fulgor would be a kind of double loop, something like Douglas Gordon did in his video "Through a Looking Glass" (1999), "... where he projects the famous scene from Scorsese's Taxi Driver (in which Robert De Niro's character, Travis Bickle, repeats the words "You talkin' to me NULL" to his mirrored reflection, and draws a gun) onto two facing walls of a darkened room. Gordon amplifies the scene's disturbing effect by pitting the two Travises against each other, with the viewer caught in the crossfire" (See: http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2002/03/08/29721.html , accessed October 11 th 2005). Similarly, in Madureira's Fulgor it is as though two auditory screens (each of them containing the same material, looped on itself) were synchronized in a way that traces a random choice between two scenes of the same looped material. That makes the relationship between two "audio screens" always different, because the same material reads through itself over and over again, and every time finds a new context for its own signifiers that are constantly changing what is signified.
It is probably possible to find traces of further development of Madureira's musical language in the above-mentioned dialectics. Future re-readings of the virtuosity achieved in Encontro , the relentless "signal structure" of Glosa , the institutional ambiguity of Poemusica, the alienated atmosphere conceived in Três Momentos para Ana Hatherly , the deconstructive procedures used in Loop and Fulgor, will multiply this composer's musical language and make it progressively even more part of the age of relentless, movable signifiers in which we live.