Bennett Hogg

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Great Parisian Modernists

Great Parisian Modernists is the (probably) rather unlikely sounding title of a projected cycle of pieces for solo instruments and voices, with live electronics, that draw connections between “Great Parisian Modernists” and figures or ideas from ancient mythologies that are in some ways associated with them.  The project is modular insofar as each individual piece can be played separately, and different versions of each piece will be made for a selection of related instruments, but the separate pieces can also be combined together, as though they were constituent modules (arias, ritornelli, and scenes) of a music theatre work/chamber opera on the model of a Florentine intermede. As well as being possible in a live performance, I am also involved in a project to make this possible using a specially designed web-based system that I am calling ARCCADDE (Archives and Creative Collaborations for Artists in the Distributed Digital Environemnt), partly in homage to Walter Benjamin whose Parisian “Arcades Project” has informed and inspired my ideas. 

This aspect of the project is a long way off at the moment, but I have sketches for some of the pieces, and plans for others.  The Myth of Sisyphus (Camus, of course, is the modernist and Sisyphus the mythological figure) is for either solo violin or viola or viola da gamba or double bass and live electronics.  Existing as four different recomposed versions of what is essentially the same piece (and thereby reinforcing, at one register, the theme of repetition inherent to the myth) the idea is that these can combine heterophonically into a minitaure string orchestra to form the “human” ritornello (which again resonates with the theme of repetition) that structures and frames the other sections.  Ariadne’s Thread is for solo soprano and electronics, throwing light onto the series of “Ariadne” paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, and referencing the several Rennaissance interpretations of the abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus on the island of Naxos.  Minotaure! is for bass voice with electronics, and the singer will also be using some hand-held noise-makers and an electronic “bullhorn”.  It thematises Picasso as modernist and the Minotaur of the Theseus-Ariadne myth.  You cannot believe me….. is for modified tenor saxophone where small loudspeakers are built into the inner surfaces of the instrument’s keypads, allowing sound to be projected into the instrument, acoustically modifying the sounds produced, and forming a surreal site for a microscopic radiophonic drama.  Lying behind this piece is André Breton’s doctrine of “pure psychic automatism” from the First Manifesto of Surrealism and though he does not specificaly reference her, I have chosen to imagine a connection with the seer Cassandra, doomed to be ignored.  I have already made some preliminary experiments with the acclaimed saxophonist Julian Siegel, and am hoping to develop the modifications to the saxophone with the assistance of Dr. Patrick Olivier’s research group based at Culture Lab, Newcastle.

However, the first of the pieces to be completed and preiered will be L’oiseau chant avec ses doigts for 10-string classical guitar and a four-loudspeaker system of live electronics.  The modernist in question is Jean Cocteau, and the mythological figure is (or course) Orpheus, and I have taken several of the ideas from Cocteau’s film version of Orphée, in particular the scenes where Orphée gets “inspiration” from a mysterious voice broadcasting aphoristic lines over the car radio.  It transpires that this is the voice of the young poet Cégèste who is killed in one of the early scenes of the film, and who is broadcasting from the “other world”.  The trope of radiophonic or phonographic voices as coming from/opening doorways into the world of the dead is a strong trope in theories of the technologically disembodied voice, and the main subject of chapter 2 of my PhD thesis (see pages 54-175 if you’re interested in following this up).  It feels good to be able to be finally bringing together my academic researches with my creative practice in this way.

I have the extreme good fortune to be working on the piece with the dedicatee, Swedish guitarist Magnus Andersson, a project funded by EMS, Stockholm.  I’ll be keeing an updated project blog of this piece as it progresses.

The illustrations on this page are from Max Ernst’s collage novel Une semaine de bonté, published in Paris in 1934, and a rayograph, Kissing, from 1922, by the Paris-based American artist Man Ray – images I trawled off the web for a lecture last year, but for which I no longer have the credits or the URLs.  Theseus and Ariadne, perhaps, before Theseus lost interest?

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