Saturday, June 13, 2009

Scelsi 4th Quartet problem with cello tuning up

Nerdy stuff: I've coached the Scelsi 4th quartet a few times and each time we've experienced problems with tuning the cello A string up to C. The string snaps under the high tension. I recently discovered that using a 1 mm gut string solves the breakage problem. These can be found where viola da gamba strings are sold. Thanks to Guust Francois, Amsterdam luthier par excellence, for helping out!

Friday, June 5, 2009

preserving the Scelsi Archives... first round

When working with Giacinto Scelsi I saw that the original improvisation tapes of were in danger of physical disintegration due to age, heat and humidity. After he died, the Fondazione Isabella Scelsi asked me to assist in the first round of preservation to digital format. Why me? I lived in his sister's apartment on the first floor (Giacinto in his famous apartment on the 4th floor) while rehearsing and assisting him to gather, organize, and edit his manuscripts for original publication with Schirmer. And as someone who'd listened to many of the ondiola tapes with Giacinto,  the infant Foundation thought I should also be the one to do the first backup from analogue to digital format. It is now being retransferred by professional archivists and will be made available for listening. 
The article in the Foundation magazine on my preliminary work appears here in Italian. I'll search for an English translation.

Scelsi/Uitti Resonators

Scelsi resonators

Interview from a meeting at Udin&Jazz, June 28 2008 published in the Rivista della Fondazione Isabella Scelsi in Italian.

The rivista drawing is of one of Giacinto's originals, the middle photo is of the later models I redesigned, while the bottom photo is of the model I made for Giacinto shown flipped back when not in use. (The 'butterfly' body normally sits between the strings on the normal bowed side, the wings vibrating on top of the strings)


Luciano: Tell me about the sordinos you redesigned with Giacinto in the 70's.

FM Thank you Luciano, First I'd like to say that technically speaking, they aren't mutes at all as mutes are used to dampen the sound- but they are actually resonators designed to produce a low rumble. When I asked Giacinto why he wanted to incorporate this sound into the second quartet and Triphon, he said that this sonority reflected certain Tibetan ritualistic practices wherein a ground tone, or vibrating sound was produced to evoke a certain magical power along with the Tibetan flutes trumpets and chanting monks.

As a practitioner myself, I haven't been able to verify these practices in the Buddhist canon; perhaps it was a visionary interpretation derived from his own meditative experiences.

Luciano When did this all take place?

FM I met Giacinto in the mid-seventies and almost immediately began to work on his solo cello composition Triphon (1956). We soon discovered that the metallic resonator he'd developed with a New York sculptor had some basic design problems for performing musicians. When playing forte or fortissimo it vibrated so heavily on the bridge that it lost its stability; it vibrated itself loose and eventually fell off. Of course this was an impossible situation for performance.

Luciano: Why did Giacinto ask you, a performer, to redesign his resonators?

FM A bit of personal history will help you understand why I got involved in all this: the seventies was an exciting period of experimentation in timbric research. I was very much involved in all this as well as improvising solo and in groups such as Nuove Forme Sonore. This lead me to develop a chordal technique wherein the cello could be played polyphonically, first with an extreme convex bow that I commissioned from Roman luthier Giorgio Corsini, and later through the use of two bows in the right hand. By having one bow under the other over the strings, one could play 2,3,4 strings simultaneously and any combination of non adjacent strings that my previous work with a curved bow couldn't obtain. And relevant to this interview, it was during these years that I developed several preparations on the strings and resonators for my own music including one that amplified difference tones in quasi-unison playing, producing an octave below the sounding pitches. Giacinto was aware of my work of course and asked me if I could improve the design for his own mute. I agreed to try. I'd seen several variants of his original resonator produced in copper and brass in differing proportions with weights soldiered on the top. They were all hand made and exuded the charm of antique relics that one might discover in the back room of a monastery. The body of some were made in brass while the weight was copper and vice versa, which led me to think that the designer, while keeping the basic form, was experimenting with the differing sonoral properties. They were all constructed of a thin double metal sheeting which straddled the strings loosely while balancing on top of the bridge, with another double strip that straddled the back of the bridge as a grip . It would be normal for a skulptor to assume these were secure on the instrument as the legs and tail extended a considerable length below the strings from the bridge. But for a player it was soon obvious that with extreme vibrations of the strings in forte playing, they slowly worked themselves higher and higher on the bridge until they eventually tipped over and fell off. (see my sketch in Rivista pdf)

Luciano We documented some of this in the Rivista Isabella Scelsi numero, anno

Luciano How did you solve this problem?

FM To redesign them, two fundamental requirements needed to be addressed: uninhibited vibration on the strings and at the same time, complete stability. I decided to experiment using the same materials as the originals. During this experimentation period, one problem presented itself: in Triphon the sound of the resonator needed to be reduced or eliminated in the second movement and reintroduced in the third. Therefore the design needed to accommodate these back and forth changes quickly, without time consuming or clumsy actions of putting on and off in performance.

I experimented with modifications that straddled the strings like Giacinto's resonator, but without much improvement. Only by departing completely from the original resonator did I find new model that worked; a floating "butterfly" design whose wings rested loosely on top of the strings while the body was weighted between the strings.

This allows the performer to flip it backward without removing the fastenings. Later on, I made several variants of this design, weighting it down with lead. Add Image

Luciano You used them for the recordings that you made with Giacinto, no?

FM Giacinto liked the sound and design so much that he took me to his own lawyer who set up an appointment with a patent attorney. The attorney told us that it would be very expensive to take out a worldwide patent, pointing out that without a large commercial market, a patent wouldn't be worth it. But the lawyer added that we automatically had the copyright on them with my signature, so it wasn't pursued further.

Giacinto asked me to make up several extra sets for quartets as well as some reserves.

I used this model when I premiered the Trilogia in the Como Festival in 1979 and again for the recordings we made of the Trilogia both in the International Studio in Rome, and again when I recorded the Trilogia and Ko-Tha in a better acoustical space with Dutch radio producer Frans von Rossum. Giacinto agreed that these latter tapes were far superior and they were eventually used for the Raretone vinyl release and later again for the Etcetera cd release with Michel Arcizet. After changing ownership several times, it is now available through in the Netherlands.

Luciano Are these older recordings available?

FM While preserving the original archive of all Giacinto's tapes by transferring from reels to DAT. I did run across some recordings of Devy Erlih and others, but never found those old recordings we did in the International Studios. In any case, the published recording is the one that Giacinto and I both preferred so perhaps the first one isn't of importance.

I subsequently redesigned the resonator with brass weights instead of lead, the design principle and sound being the same and recently made up a set of these for the Flux String Quartet's Scelsi series at Miller Theater, New York.


It has very recently come to my attention that this design I made for Giacinto has been modified by various designers. I've not seen nor heard them.

Up until now I have produced my originals upon request and hope to be able to continue this in the future.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Anatomy of an Invention

Presenters: Frances-Marie Uitti and Adrian Freed
We present a new musical gesture controller that supports conventional and extended two-bow cello gestures with the unusual feature that it has no strings. The presentation will show how ambitious performance goals and experimentation drove a search for new gesture sensing techniques and materials that are integrated in the instrument.

Frances-Marie Uitti writes:
In 2005 I was invited to CNMAT under the UC Berkeley Regents Lectureship Program to do research on ergonomic sensor placement on my Jensen electric cello. With David Wessel, Adrian Freed, and Michael Zbyszynski, we came up with some interesting and innovative ideas about how to steer the computer from the instrument in a way that could be integrated into normal playing. We later presented this work in a paper at NIME and ICMC.

This instrument was a very important improvement for me as a performer as I find the presence of a computer with all its external gadgets used to control programs on stage highly distracting to the audience. 
Adrian and I have since discussed integrating these ideas further into a new instrument and last summer sketched the basic design for this new instrument/controller.

Since I already have some beautiful acoustic cellos, a collection of ethnic cello-sized instruments from my travels in Bhutan, Mongolia and Uzbekistan, and the Jensen instrument, I thought it redundant to make another electronic stringed instrument of any sort. Liberated from that constraint, Adrian and I extended the principle of a bowed rotating spindle sensor (already tested in 2005) to an array of virtual strings, using their endless spinning to measure speed and direction. I realized during our brainstorming session that we could more than double the "strings" intersected by my two bow technique (one bow above the bridge and one under) by constructing a mirror bridge directly underneath the upper one. This creates an oval shape that allows me to intersect 3 different sets of 4 string groupings, plus all the non-adjacent combinations of 3 and 2 string groupings.
And once the mirror bridge oval became fixed in the design, I thought to have a double fingerboard to correspond with the thumb on the backside actively controlling data. The wide flat fingerboard is covered in 6 long linear position and pressure sensor strips on the front and 6 on the back, giving me 12 virtual strings to stop, tap and squeeze.

The lower bout is equipped with an infrared sensor to measure bout width as an alternative to a foot pedal controller.
I feel incredibly privileged to develop this project with the support of CNMAT and Greg Moore at Maybeck House, as well as having the opportunity to work closely with the multi-talented Adrian Freed who dons the various hats of inventor, luthier, electronics designer, programmer, and musician.
Composer John MacCallum and researcher Andy Schmeder have been essential to the project in their development of the microcontroller and Max/MSP software.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Some updates on the two bows. Much to my pleasure I heard bass legend William Parker using two bows in one hand at the Udine Jazz festival last year. He positioned both of them above the strings straddling the bridge, one on each side, which created some haunting double stops. Great!

A cellist in Colorado who goes by her Yoga name of Gayatri is also trying out two bows after seeing me use them in Chicago. At that concert for the Renaissance Society (University of Chicago) Mark Dresser and Lou Mallozi, and I joined forces to form a trio of bass, turntables and cellos. We're in email contact and I'm most interested in what she will do with it.

I met bassist Jiri Slavik last summer when I played a concert in Salzburg and he's since been taking it up. We are communicating via email on how to best solve some of the techy problems- they are completely different on bass due to the verticality and wider span of the right hand on the bigger bridge (photo above of his hold) . Keep your ears open for Jiri, he's an event!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

an adventure

At the request of some students, friends, and colleagues I am starting this Irregular Blog to document my research in new techniques of cello playing, resonator design, instrument building, and bow making. Some of it will be pretty nerdy, and some written on the fly.

long ago....
As a small child I dreamt of playing the cello in the warm classical manner, but as my studies progressed I found myself careening off onto wonderfully strange paths that took me ever deeper into the unknown. The wilder the terrain the better. And the cello is so sonically rich and intrinsically beautiful that no matter what one plays, it never looses its warmth.

Chordal playing grew from an idea into an obsession during my student years in the mid-70's when I lived in Rome and frequently improvised with groups such as Nuove Forme Sonore, and later alone. It was during this solitary improv time that I felt a growing musical need for explicit rather than implied harmony.

I commissioned a curved bow from a local Roman luthier, Giorgio Corsini, so that I could access all the strings simultaneously. Heaven! At least for several months.... It seemed the perfect solution, but gradually l found it too heavy sonorally for my own music.
I dreamed of being able to play any string of my choice in any combination with the others, to be able to control the timbre of each voice, and to have differing dynamics and articulations for each string. An independently voiced, multiphonic polyphony.

After months of experimenting, the solution came to me; manipulate two bows in the right hand. In this way the left hand is free to play chordally as well as melodically, and two bows give the flexibility for playing the 4 strings non-adjacently and in any combination, with a large independent gamut of dynamic and expressive possibilities.

In 1976, I premiered the 2 bow technique with works of my own at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, and in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, VPRO radio Netherlands, RAI Italiano etc . And subsequently in countless solo concerts throughout the US, Europe, Russia and Asia.

This was a time of rich ideation. As the left hand is the chordal limiter in its defined span, I found that new tunings could facilitate chords normally unreachable. I researched the use of many tunings and stringings (more than 75 to date) each of which give different timbric and harmonic possibilities.

I further restrung the instrument using 4 A strings, or 4 D's etc. This work was recorded in 1979 on the Cramps, Milano label of Italian cultural icon, Gianni Sassi. It is due for imminent re-release on JdKproductions in cd format. Luigi Nono was very much interested in the two bows as well as the tuning and restringing ideas I'd been exploring. In the 80's we taped my improvisations during the research sessions at the Heinrich Strobel Stiftung in Freiburg Germany, and he later used it extensively in his powerful political work, Diario Polacco II. These tapes of my improvs were later given to me and would be interesting to document after all these years. Louis Andriessen also used this restringing idea in the perfect jewel he wrote for me in 1981, La Voce. And Jonathan Harvey again used 2 D strings in his beautiful dedication, 3 Sketches.

Since that time, the two bow technique has grown to include controlled poly rhythms between the bows. Technically, the two bows act as one bow, in that the right arm controls the horizontal actions. But the vertical articulations within these movements are totally free.

Some cd's: ECM there is still time (with Paul Griffiths reading) Uitti 2 Bows from BVHaast, Sonomondo with Mark Dresser on Cryptogramophone, Uitti/Sharp (with Elliott Sharp) on, and Imaginings, Sargasso of improvisations with Jonathan Harvey.

Along with Luigi Nono, Gy├Ârgy Kurtag, Giacinto Scelsi, Jonathan Harvey, Guus Jansen, Jay Alan Yim, Richard Barrett, Vinko Globokar, Clarence Barlow, James Clarke, David Dramm, Geoffrey King, Martijn Padding, Horazio Radulescu, Sharon Kanach, Martijn Padding, Peter Nelson, etc have written for me using this technique. Nederlands Muziek Centrum has the Dutch works and the others are published variously by larger and independent presses: Faber, Universal, Peters, Boosey, etc.

The two bows can move independently in a vertical sense: the under bow playing very close to the bridge while the upper bow is sul tasto. They can slide smoothly to the ordinary position and reverse the sense while moving horizontally.
The two bows can produce independent articulations, accents, durations, legati etc. For example the upper bow can play staccato while the under is legato. The under bow can produce jete while the upper is legato and vice versa. Keep in mind that the under bow has less amplitude than the overbow for voicing and melodic lines.*
Cross rhythms (three against four, four against five) can be articulated between the bows, though the bows move in the same direction as the arm.
The upper bow can move into col legno position (and back again) while the under bow continues in ordinary position.
Both bows can play col legno, but one must reposition the bows for a fraction of a second to change their positions.

In general, horizontal bowings are suited to the two bows and in the case of the large detache, the volume of the cello is doubled. Tremolandi acquire a rich and complex timbre. All up and down actions (for example,double spiccatti) are a challenge to control. I am redesigning the bows these last years and making them (6 prototype designs so far) to facilitate more control.
The use of two bows in conjunction with stopped or open strings can produce multiple multiphonics of eight or more pitches.
There is some documentation on my website