Maurizio Azzan : instability is the pivoting existential condition

Born in 1987, Maurizio Azzan studied composition at Conservatory of Milan (with A. Solbiati), at CNSM of Paris (with F. Durieux, Y. Maresz, L. Naon), at IRCAM and with Salvatore Sciarrino. He has received a bachelor and a master in Philology and Ancient Literature from the University of Turin.

His interest in visual and performing arts, as well as in ancient and contemporary literature, has deeply influenced his concept of music as a dynamic space-time network, in which instability is the pivoting existential condition.

His music has been performed in festivals and venues such as Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, MITO SettembreMusica, Milano Musica, ManiFeste, Impuls Graz, Mozarteum Salzburg, Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Time of Music Vitasaari, Budapest Music Center, Dampfzentrale Bern, Gare du Nord Basel, Biennial Festival of the European Recorder Players Society, Open Recorder Days Amsterdam, Teatro La Fenice of Venice, among others. Ensembles and soloists who have performed his works include Ensemble Intercontemporain, Divertimento Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble, Mdi Ensemble, Schallfeld Ensemble, Proton Bern, Ensemble Fractales, Ex Novo, IEMA, L’arsenale, Sentieri Selvaggi, Anna D’Errico, Antonio Politano, Ruben Mattia Santorsa, Ghenadie Rotari, Susanne Fröhlich, Marie Ythier, Lorenzo Derinni and Andrea Monarda.

Winner of the National Prize of Arts from the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research, in 2017-18 Maurizio Azzan is artist in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts de Paris.

His works are published by Edizioni Suvini Zerboni-Sugarmusic S.p.A., Milan

THE QUESTIONS

What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

I wasn’t born into a musical family, but I fell in love with classical music and began to study piano when I was 12 years old. By normal standards, I guess I started quite late. Nevertheless, from the very beginning, I clearly remember spending many afternoons improvising on my instrument and transcribing them. I tried to imitate the music I loved – Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, Chopin, Prokofiev. I listened to radio every day while I was studying, writing down the composers and works I was hearing. During high school, while I was dreaming of becoming an architect, my craving for music increased dramatically without me having the slightest idea that I could be a composer.

This went on until my Italian literature teacher – a very cultured and intelligent person – unwittingly triggered something within me. At the end of a lesson focused on Monteverdi’s Madrigals on Tasso’s poems, he played a recording of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for the class. This cycle of pieces has been a sort of revelation for me; it was my first contact with experimental contemporary music of this sort. The piano, and more generally, sound, time, and form, were not the same anymore. I was fascinated by the magic of these sounds, which seemed to come from another world, whose acoustic spaces I could not have imagined. After a few months of experimenting on the piano strings at home, I made what was perhaps the most important decision of my life. I went to the nearest conservatory, asked to enroll in the composition course.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

I think the composer who has most influenced my listening has been Salvatore Sciarrino. During my first composition lessons at the conservatory, my teacher presented Sciarrino’s Un’immagine di Arpocrate for piano, chorus and orchestra and it was a real shock to me. Sciarrino’s way of dilating time to create virtual and unprecedented acoustic spaces is a mirage that has stayed with me to this day. Later, I got to know Sciarrino. His enormous understanding of culture and his way of weaving links between his music and the world around us – without dogmas, poses, or prejudices – deeply impressed me.

Some years afterwards, while I was studying at the Conservatory of Milan with a great interest for the music of Gerard Grisey, Tristan Murail and Helmut Lachenmann, I had also the chance to meet two composers who gave a definitive turn to my training: Francesco Filidei and Pierluigi Billone.

Discussing with them and discovering works such as Ballata, Finito ogni gesto, Ogni gesto d’amore, Mani. Long, Bocca. Kosmoi, AN NA and Δίκη Wall, just to name a few, have been huge impact on my compositional thinking. Finally, among other pieces that have marked me in many ways, I should mention Franck Bedrossian, Dmitri Kourliandski, Rebecca Sauders, Simon Steen-Andersen, Beat Furrer and Georg Friedrich Haas, beyond those – actually very numerous – of composers of my generation with whom I am in a constant contact.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

To me, form means exploration in the widest sense of the phenomenological relationships between time and space included into a performance area. Whether it is a solo instrument, an ensemble, or an orchestra, every sound body put in vibration corresponds to a territory for me. Each region inside it is nothing more than an acoustic place inhabited by specific sounds and gestures linked to each other, and I try to present these elements from different perspectives. I like to think that music is nothing but a window opened to an energy which incessantly flows and whirls in perpetual instability. I observe the life of this instability at different degrees of distance and in different temporalities, exploring how some elements emerge on a certain scale in a precise place and repeated in other situations and at other levels. I work with sounds that overcome physical barriers imposed by the instrument – the bridge, the keyboard – to relate what is beyond that boundary with the other side, finding out how apparently contrasting aspects are actually related. Once I have chosen the right perspective, this is what mainly guides my formal thinking in every piece.

In this sense, working on large or small forms is not different to me. There are aspects of the sonic material that require extremely dilated temporalities and a recursion of events to be perceived, and this occurrence can easily widen the final proportions of the piece, as in dove tutto è stato preso (Innerspace II), a solo piano work written for Anna D’Errico and commissioned by the Yvar Mikashoff Trust for New Music, or in Wasteland_almost a landscape, written for mdi ensemble and Festival Milano Musica.

At the same time, there are other aspects which can only live in very short formal arcs, as in the case of the three pieces that constitute Geometrie nelle mani, a cycle of studies for amplified guitar written for Ruben Mattia Santorsa.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

By nature, I am used to having a side of myself deeply obsessed with order, with the other side being extremely dispersive, reluctant to any form of discipline. Although sometimes I tried to commit myself to a kind routine for composing, I quickly realized that my process might involve months of apparent inactivity – an important phase of very slow and fragmentary reflection – to which, at any moment, can follow an immediate need to fix and elaborate on matured ideas. When I am undergoing reflection, it is impossible for me to put something on paper. The instability of the material that I explore seems to constantly elude any mental schematization until I can find a good perspective from which everything takes its precise position. Over the years, having more and more projects and frequent deadlines, I have understood the importance of organizing partial rehearsal sessions before I have to deliver the score. This forces me to budget my time more effectively while working on different projects simultaneously.

As for the use of the computer, I have to say that it is a fundamental tool. It allows me to listen to sounds I’ve recorded while working alone or with performers on instruments, and it helps me to create real simulations of the most complex parts of my pieces. I use ProTools to create sessions – sort of preparatory cartoons – in which I compose excerpts of reworked improvisations, looking for the form and timing that can best highlight the characteristics of sounds which interest me. Once these points have been identified and fixed, I represent the whole development of the piece, down to the smallest details, on squared paper as a time grid, transcribing it on a proper score only after having finished all the work in this form. From this point of view, the final score is nothing more than a means of communicating with the interpreters and not at all a real compositional space. In fact, compared to my modus operandi, the parametric vision of the sound that a score offers for some precise historical reasons is not always suitable to represent the aspects of sound I am working on.

Thus, though I have learned computer-assisted composition during my studies, I don’t incorporate it into my own work. I think software like OpenMusic or PatchWork were born from the idea that a machine can model human thought through parametric grids unrelated to any real context, and this makes it absolutely incompatible with the way I think about sound and my interests in its instability. I link the notion of instability to phenomenological and contextual aspects that no algorithm can ever adequately schematize. To me, these types of software offer a hypocritically neutral work space because, as any other tool, they impose a precise vision of what sound and music are, excluding that which differs from this vision. Honestly, for me, it is precisely the deeply human presence of these unstable gray areas, where the algorithm reveals its limits, that constitutes the richness of the listening experience. It is there that I try to find the sense of what I do.

Please describe a recent work.

Wasteland_apparent emptiness, written in 2017 and commissioned by Ensemble Proton Bern, is the second part of a 50-minute long cycle for amplified and spatialized ensemble. The whole project, which I started three years ago, is a sort of imaginary musical journey through an abandoned world covered by objects and waste left by humanity; a sonic geography, suspended between the sound installation and a clearly articulated musical speech. The three groups of musicians placed around the audience explore all the spatial relationships between themselves using different setups – from the duo to the whole ensemble – and the evolution/deterioration of their sound, deeply distorted by the generalized use of special preparations conceived to widen their inharmonic possibilities and alter the surface of the instruments.

After the first part, in which two soloists and a small ensemble have corroded their sound to a saturated noise, Wasteland_apparent emptiness starts from this rubble without form nor shape. During the piece, played by eight musicians on the scene, this neutral and informal matter is observed at a very close range, allowing the elements to be recognized and explored as they resurface from time to time. However, this constant interaction, in the attempt to frame this unstable material, quickly results in an establishment of relations, an imposition of form. Musical form emerges as the process of its own creation.

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