Songs and voices

Année de composition
Instrumentale et vocale
Instrumental and vocal

In the work for electric ensemble Five Songs (Kafka’s sirens) written for Ensemble C Barré, the title alludes – but it is not a literal reference – to Franz Kafka’s story The silence of the sirens. In reality, Kafka’s story does not so much want to tell an alternative story (who would say that the sirens did not sing) as to suggest a paradox, to insinuate a doubt of perspective.

It is rather to this – to a possible paradoxical perspective – that the title alludes. It is a form articulated in five instrumental “songs” in which the poetic question that imposed itself on me was the following: what remains of the song when the voice disappears?

What can be the essence of singing and how can we perceive singing when no one sings? This presence of singing in the absence of a singing voice was the driving force behind the instrumental sound research, a kind of aporia that – like Kafka’s paradox – aimed to push back the limits of the instrumental ‘visible’.

This first question naturally calls for a question that is in some ways the opposite: what is the voice without the song? The voice for its pure presence, devoid of its orphic function? The voice as an instrumental body, and as a body in itself, the voice as a carnal presence that precedes and exceeds speech. A kind of apotropaic object that one would know without understanding it.

The exploration of this other half of the question led us to integrate a vocal ensemble into this musical journey, which therefore takes place between these two extremes. The extreme absence and the extreme presence, the song in the voice and the voice without the song. Between these two focal points of paradox lies perhaps what attracts Ulysses to approach the sirens.

This journey is structured in several moments that explore different aspects of the voice as a body, the voice as an instrumental body, the voice as a song, and the voice that, by embodying the word, transforms it, cancels it and exceeds it. All this is transparent, because all these aspects are neighbouring dimensions of the musical experience. By way of a simple listening guide, we will only say that the points covered in this journey are the following:

Five songs (Kafka’s sirens), five songs without voices

Voices. (15 min approx) Where the voice is present as a body, before it is song and before it is speech. A body that buries itself in the body of sound to transform and rewrite it. We are here before the text. There is a perceptive experience of vocal sound whose vocality would be forgotten: the experience of its corporeality through its occupation and its sciamanic transformation of musical sound.

Unvoiced (6 min approx.) The so-called “unvoiced” consonants are those that do not need the vibrations of the vocal cords to produce sound. This noisy part of the vocal emission allows articulation, and articulation is articulated time. This part takes place in a musical state of “pure time” where the voice inhabits and is itself trapped in a purely temporal writing.

A valediction for her sister (a love song). (6 min approx) This moment is a song in the true sense of the word. It is a love song for voice and acoustic guitar only. The guitar has a particular scordatura that makes it sound like a lute, and the vocal harmonic space is a non-tempered (just) microtonal space. The text used here is an ancient song in griko (a language born from the hybridization of ancient Greek with the native languages of Salento), collected in Corigliano. The anonymous folk text is still in a poetic “place” that precedes that of the poetic self and where intellectual and intellectualising intentions are still absent. It is about life unfolding, singing and dancing about birth, love and death, finding – so to speak – words in the street (of all folk songs there are always several versions). In the end, it is a poetry that has not yet been separated from the bodies. Here is the text in Griko and Italian:

Aspron e’ to chartì, aspro e’ to chioni,

aspron e’ to chaladzi, aspri ine i krini,

aspro to sfondilòssu ce i vrachoni,

c’echi is o’ petto dio mila afse asimi.

Isèa se kaman dio mastoroni

ce se pingéfsane i aji serafini;

ce se pingefsan ce se kaman òria,

pu ’e s’echi de’ is in ghì manku is in gloria.

Bianca è la carta ed è bianca la neve,

bianca è la grandine e son bianchi i gigli,

bianco il tuo collo e bianche le tue braccia,

poggiate al petto due mele d’argento.

Ti hanno pensata due grandi pittori,

ti hanno dipinta due santi serafini;

ti hanno dipinta e ti hanno fatta bella,

e non c’è uguale in cielo e sulla terra.

Vocali. (3 min approx) Here the spectrum of the instruments is associated with the spectrum formed by the modification of the oral cavity by the production of vocal sounds (vowels), which allows access to the different partials.

Bodiless (2 min approx.) Here the voice is confronted with an electronic double that questions its physical presence and the “natural” space of its sound radiation.

Andemironnai (a song of migration). (15 min approx.) Andemironnai or Iandemironnai is a refrain that forms the stanzas of a traditional Sardinian song, the lyrics of which are: “Iandemironnai andire nora ndira iandemironnai”.
“Many people trace the song (whose lyrics are now incomprehensible) back to very ancient times, perhaps to the Many people trace the song (whose lyrics are now incomprehensible) back to very ancient times, perhaps to the time of the mythical and very archaic Nora, a pre-nuragic city that is now submerged. The obscure refrain, with its term vaguely evoking “coming and going” and its “nora” voice, which is certainly of proto-sardinian origin, sounds very ancient. It is possible (if one listens to one’s imagination) that the refrain uses the word Nora to express the regret of a lost homeland: the city of Nora, an ancient Phoenician port of call (editor’s note: Carta Raspi dates it to the Shardana, but it could be much older), then a Punic centre and later a flourishing Roman city that retained to the end the pride of being the mother city of all the other Sardinian cities. In Roman times, it had a rank of honour equal to that of Kàralis. Its remains (temples, necropolises, quays, Roman port buildings, basilicas, etc.) were devastated by the action of earthquakes and the sea. Destroyed by the Vandal invasions, Nora was never reborn. These are therefore words whose verbal meaning has been lost, but which nevertheless have another meaning in the song that still embodies it today. (1)

It is a polyphony with polyrhythmic and microtonal structures where the instrumental writing thickens until the space is saturated. The concept of limit and temporal illusion is explored. The movement is inevitable and inevitably pushes towards the unknown. We then return to the sirens as an image of the limit of song and sound itself (Kafka’s sirens owed their horror to their silence, which could have broken the very resistance of Ulisses). Indeed, “the myth of the sirens has also served, among other functions, to enable a discourse on space, and in particular on the notions of limit, boundary and margin. These categories are both analogous and different in their various meanings: the limit is the place where something ends, but also where something begins, which makes reality measurable and thus meaningful; the border, on the other hand, presupposes a division, but also a relationship between the same and the different, between the self and the stranger. And this is precisely where the category of the margin comes in, defining what is neither on this side nor on the other of the border, the no-man’s-land, the place of passage, of transformation.

… to be continued


(2) Mancini L. (2010) “Le Sirene come paradigma del margine nella cultura greca arcaica”


Vocal ensemble

Instrumental ensemble
Double bass

Delegated production by Ensemble C Barré
In coproduction with the Biennale di Venezia, Ircam – Centre Pompidou, the Wittener Tage Für Neue Kammermusik, the GMEM – Centre national de création musicale and the ECLAT Festival in Stuttgart.
Supported by Impuls Neue Musik, Ernst Von Siemens Musikstiftung, Institut Français, SACEM, Fondation d’entreprise Société Générale and Fondation Orange.


Création mondiale
October 27th, 2023 | La Biennale di Venezia, Teatro Piccolo Arsenale, Venezia, Italy
By the composer

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