Compositional process of defragmentation



Compositional process of defragmentation
Compositional process of defragmentation
Eli-Eri Moura,
Department of Music, Federal University of Paraíba – UFPB, Brazil
[email protected]
Proceedings of the International Conference « Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies »
Montréal (Québec) Canada, 28 février – 3 mars 2007
The compositional process of defragmentation discussed in this paper resulted from my
attempt to cope with questions such as the following: given our contemporary globalized
world, how to face the ever present demands for cultural identity in a country like Brazil (that
has always incorporated a very strong tradition of musical nationalism), without falling into old
nationalist usages, dogmas and clichés? How to develop a musical language that may grow
from a deep interaction with local musical manifestations, involving structurally not only pitch
and rhythm, but also timbre, texture and density as building elements of form and content?
How to make this interaction permeate several hierarchic levels of the composition and its
ways of creation? How to implement a musical isomorphism that may involve materials,
process (musical discourse) and form? In addition to the mentioned compositional process,
several related techniques and procedures are explained: zin-zout, textural rhythm, textural
melody, palimpsest technique.
My compositional research has been pervaded by the attempt to explore new relationships between
concert and traditional (folk-popular) music. Although traditionally applied to music that somehow
involves local folk elements, the term ‘nationalist’ is not appropriate to refer to my approach,
principally if considered in the restricted sense of the word – of evoking or expressing nationalistic,
ideological attitudes or folklorist feelings. If the term is applied, it should be then in the perspective of
creating a contextualized music. In a more open sense, this refers to a music that grows from an
interaction with elements of a local culture, but unfolds according to the two following views.
The first is the intention to implement a geographic contextualization, a regional reference that favors
a culturally diverse and multiple rather than a flattened out and globalized vision of the world. This is
as far as an ideological connection or motivation is concerned.
The second is the aim to achieve an interaction (with elements of a local culture) that occurs
structurally, permeating several hierarchic levels of the composition and its processes of creation. In
this interaction the cultural ingredient is at the basis, at the beginning of the process, influencing the
choice of raw materials, procedures and structures, and working as a triggering factor. From this
initial, basic position, however, the local traits may pass through transformations affecting the most
internal, inherent elements and aspects of the materials per se. Consequently, they may emerge in
different levels of the music in various forms and not always in an explicit profile, necessarily identified
with macro elements of the referential culture.
The idea is to avoid an interaction only on a superficial level, as is the case with music that simply
stylizes folk sources. In such music background components, generally pertaining to established
harmonic practices, support surface elements (melodies and rhythms), which are adjusted to fit
characteristic features of the local musical manifestation. This is an approach in which music follows a
path from universal towards regional vicinities. My objective is to pursue the opposite direction –
transcendence from the regional to the universal. In this regard, Bartók, a composer who unified at
pre-compositional and structural levels his expanded tonality with Hungarian folk music, is a
reference. In the case of my research, an association is made between a particular compositional
process, explained below, and some musical popular manifestations found in northeast Brazil.
In accordance with the second view mentioned above, this association is to involve not only pitch and
rhythm, but also other parameters like timbre, density and register in a structural way, as building
elements of form and musical content. To achieve this, a conceptual deconstructionist or
decompositional aesthetic is applied to the popular culture. Rather than considering large design
structures as reference sources (themes, melodies, rhythmic sections), I adopt a microscopic
approach, taking as main materials individual traces and/or small isolated segments, extracted from
specific musical manifestations. In a process I call defragmentation, these limited materials are the
basic elements. They are submitted to the procedures I call Zoom In and Zoom Out (Zin and Zout for
short), which demand several personal artistic choices at a pre-compositional, abstract level. Zin
consists of deconstructing, separating temporally and physically (in a metaphorical way) the elements’
constituent components, further detaching microscopic slices of sound and giving them closer and
closer glances, so that, let’s say, a specific timbre (or even just a particular aspect of a timbre) can be
identified and viewed (or heard!) as a separate entity. The procedure parallels the act of getting very
close to a painting, to a point that no meaningfully drawn outlines but rather texture, paintbrush
strokes, and details of the canvas itself are perceived. Zout applies to the reverse, the process of
reconstruction, of assembling gradually the slices of sound, components and elements of the reference
source. The idea in applying this procedure is that, in comparison with Zin, one can recognize from a
certain distance musical gestalts (i.e. the elements in their holistic forms), similarly as, in painting,
one can delineate clear and meaningful images.
A case of defragmentation is found in my piece Circumversus (2005), for flute, clarinet, violin and
violoncello (Moura 2006)1. The piece has as reference source the
cantoria de viola from northeast
Brazil. A tradition descending from the Portuguese, the cantoria is performed by two poet singers
(called repentistas) who accompany themselves on the so called violas de arame (kind of twangy
guitars) and improvise on set forms about telling stories, facts, philosophy and politics. Figure 1 shows
a passage extracted from the cantoria de viola titled Quem Crê na Virgem Maria Não Pode Temer a
Nada (those who believe in Virgin Mary are not afraid of anything), sung by the repentistas Geraldo
Amâncio and Waldir Teles.
Figure 1. Passage from the cantoria de viola titled Quem Crê na Virgem Maria Não Pode Temer a Nada.
Circumversus unfolds as an allegoric representation of a cantoria melody and its viola accompaniment.
Governing the representative sections of the latter element, the defragmentation process takes as
limited material a single measure extracted from the violas de arame, shown in Figure 2 [AUDIO 1]
in a stratified form.
Materials of Circumversus are available for free download in the website of COMPOMUS – Laboratory of Musical Composition of
UFPB ( score (;
recording (
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
Figure 2. Measure extracted from the violas de arame in a stratified form.
The starting point is a Zin section, from measures 3 to 11, shown in Figure 3 [AUDIO 2],
representing a cut-out of the viola sound, in which some timbric aspects, such as certain resonances
of the strings, oscillating in tuning, are abstractly separated and amplified.
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
Figure 3. Case of Zin in Circumversus for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, measures 3-11.
In a subsequent Zin section, from measures 26 to 33, shown in Figure 4 [AUDIO 3], the sonority of
the passage refers to the ‘rasping’ sound, a little bit percussive and with oscillating tuning, typical of
the double strings of the viola.
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
Figure 4. Case of Zin in Circumversus for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, measures 26-33.
It is worth mentioning that such abstract interpretations – recreating the microscopic sounds by
means of instrumentation, textural organization and assigned harmonies – imply at this level of
structural thinking an act of free compositional creation. Thus, even though an accurate acoustic
analysis of the reference sources may eventually help in the act, the main criteria for compositional
choices at this level are my intuitive readings of the referential materials.
From the presentation of these microscopic elements, mostly dominated by timbre and texture, at the
beginning of Circumversus, the defragmentation process proceeds in Zout throughout six more
sections (interpolated with other materials of the music). As it undergoes, the process regroups the
mentioned sonorities, rescues other elements such as attacks, and follows a trajectory in which every
new stage either fuses or unites contiguously and simultaneously the microscopic components of the
former stage, creating intermediate and partial gestalts. Ultimately, the viola accompaniment element
achieves its most recognizable expression in the form of Textural Rhythm and Textural Melody,
explained below. The following list serves as reference:
 Measures 56-70 [AUDIO 4]: representations of the string attacks and some partial
timbric gestalts separated in time. First, in second plane, among other materials of the
music (measures 56-64), and then in first plane (measures 65-70).
 Measures 91-109 [AUDIO 5]: rhythmic approximation of the string attacks and timbric
 Measures 118-123 [AUDIO 6]: new level of rhythmic and timbric gestalts.
 Measures 134-137 [AUDIO 7]: emergence of a repeated note element (see Figure 2).
 Measures 142-144 [AUDIO 8]: gestalt of repeated note element.
 Measures 152-173 [AUDIO 9]: textural rhythm and textural melody.
In accordance with the proposed aims, these procedures not only allow for traditional parameters
(pitch and rhythm) but also secondary ones (timbre, texture, density, etc.) to work structurally. This
is especially the case with Zin, which tends to emphasize the most inherent and internal properties of
the musical substance.
The transfer of notions like closeness and distance from the universe of spatial arts like painting –
where they in fact belong – to the musical domain involves an application of different measures of
time, the crucial factor in music. The implementation of Zin (associated above with closeness)
depends not only on the content of sound, but also on the use of longer units of time associated with
this sound. This is due to the fact that in order to be meaningful, factors such as timbre and texture
need to be stretched in time; they demand time. Conversely, in addition to appropriate timbric
transformation of the sounds’ components, Zout (associated with distance) demands that these
components recur in smaller units of time in order to be comprehensible.
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
This has a twofold implication. First, as the defragmentation process governs the expansion and
contraction in time of the reference sources, discrete musical contents are created. Second, different
types of transformation may occur between Zin and Zout final states, demanding large-scale
measures of time. Accordingly, the ways in which the process is organized in time, implementing
transformational and transitional states between Zin and Zout, make also possible the creation of a
specific design on a large-time scale, i.e. the large-scale form of the piece.
Connecting different aspects of the piece in several ways, the defragmentation process is effective in
implementing a musical isomorphism that involves materials, process (musical discourse), content and
form. Linked to this factor, there is the aim of entailing a certain degree of dynamism and organicism
to the music, achieved especially in the continuous process of transformation (generally from micro to
macro dimensions), in which the basic reference materials from folk music are abstractly
It is opportune to say that in gestaltic segments of Zout, due to aesthetic issues, I attempt to bring up
the reference sources to the surface in a way that they do not become extremely obvious or explicit.
To do so I apply varied techniques, among them those I call Textural Rhythm and Textural Melody. In
the first case, a multitude of sounds is organized to form a sound mass, but in such a way that, by
means of their particular placement in time, register and density, small rhythmic patterns from the
reference source may be perceived diffusely emerging from the sound mass. The idea is extendible to
the melodic realm, as these factors may be put to work to also form diffused melodic fragments, or
even a diffused melody (if it is the case), inside the sound mass. Thus, the sound mass plays off
against rhythmic patterns (Textural Rhythm) and against a melody or melodic fragments (Textural
Melody) that are made of the sound mass’s own constituent pitches. Because the listener may shift
attention between the textural (global) and the melodic (internal) dimensions that run simultaneously
– or even perceive their simultaneity – one can say that a counterpoint of different parameters or
musical dimensions is at work.
A rhythmic pattern from maracatu de baque virado (maracatu of the twisted stroke), shown in Figure
5 [AUDIO 10], serves as reference for the construction of a Textural Rhythm in my orchestral piece
Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos (2003), starting at measure 289. From the carnival parades of
Pernambuco (a northeast state of Brazil), maracatu is a dance-procession that evokes the past courts
of African sovereigns. In the procession, long toadas (songs) are accompanied by a group of
percussionists playing gonguê (cowbell-like instrument), ganzá (rattle), tarol (snare drums), and three
zabumbas (cylindrical wood drums), called repique (small), meião (medium) and marcante (large).
Figure 5. Rhythmic pattern from maracatu de baque virado.
The Textural Rhythm of this passage was created by first assembling a version of the referential
rhythmic pattern with melodic interpretations of the toques (repeated individual rhythmic patterns and
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
cells) of the maracatu percussion instruments, by simulating their registers, contours, accents,
agogics and rhythmic traces, as shown in Figure 6 [AUDIO 11].
Figure 6. Melodic interpretations of the toques from maracatu de baque virado.
Aiming at a simultaneous creation of Textural Melody, a quotation of a typical maracatu melody, in
broken octaves, is also inserted in this passage (shown in the second staff of Figure 6). The quote is
the toada called Nas Água Verde do Má, extracted from Guerra Peixe’s book Maracatus do Recife
(1955, 145), illustrated in Figure 7.
Figure 7. Toada called Nas Água Verde do Má, from maracatu de baque virado.
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
The pitches are then distributed transversally (instead of linearly) among the participating instruments
of the sound mass (built here with flutes, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons,
trombones, piano and harp, with similar articulations and dynamics), creating a special case of a
hocket technique and/or klangfarbenmelodie, illustrated in Figure 8 [AUDIO 12].
Figure 8. Sound mass incorporating Textural Rhythm and Textural Melody, extracted from the piece Noite dos
Tambores Silenciosos for symphony orchestra, measures 290-293, in simplified writing.
Having music itself as its subject, this defragmental music is intended to allow a simpler, more
obvious model of perception, instead of taking very hidden sound structures as a starting point, as in
other kinds of 20th-century and contemporary musical languages like fractal and spectral music. In
looking for balance between technique and intuition, at the same time that it establishes a
predetermined path, it also allows for much freedom of artistic decisions and interpretation in the
several stages of the defragmentation process. It should also be taken into consideration that from
piece to piece the application of this process undergoes variations due to the natures and contents of
the different cultural sources used.
Variations also occur in regard to the scope of the process, as it may govern the piece as a whole or
affect the music only in a partial way. In the second case, I usually contrapose a music that is
abstract and free of any folk reference to the one that is characterized by a distinctive
defragmentation process, related to a regional reference, so that a surface hierarchical level of a
counterpoint of different kinds of music is created. One can say that the abstract kind represents a
constructional synthetic music that stands against the organic music derived from the popular
manifestations. The interplay of the synthetic and the organic, interconnecting an artificial language
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
and popular cultures through a formal bridge, implements a new dimension to the counterpoint of
different musics, as this counterpoint now involves not only distinct referential folk sources but also
musics of different natures and qualities.
With no external references, the free music undergoes a transformation, governed by what I call
palimpsest technique, in which the hierarchy of the musical parameters changes along with the units
of the musical discourse (the musical content). These changes lead to an emphasis on the status quo
of the parameters themselves which, increasing in importance, tend to dominate the mentioned units
and neutralize their position as the carriers of the highest hierarchic structural level of the music. The
transformation of this free music occurs in time, but one can say that its musical discourse develops
somehow vertically, because the units of this discourse progress through a chain of distinct
parameters, instead of following a more conventional horizontal path within the confines of a single
In practice, the free music may expand from musical events that may represent the harmonic
parameter, for example, passing through varying stages that typify the parameters of melody and
texture, until expressed as a sound that may denote the parameter of timbre. As in a palimpsest, the
process is based on writing above other writing. Once a new stage is completely reached, selected
elements from it start growing up, getting detached from their basic structure to form a new content
(which is carried out by a new parameter). This is to say that the musical substance, which in a
certain moment represents the musical surface, in the next instant becomes reference background,
i.e., the structure elaborated as a support for the next compositional choices.
Circumsonantis (1999), for string quartet,2 is one of my pieces that use such procedure. The work
alternates and superimposes a music devoid of any local references to one that alludes to the roda de
capoeira – an Afro-Brazilian dance-like fighting game, developed by the slaves in the sugar cane
plantations of Bahia, during the 19th century. The following extracts, in Figures 9 to 15, show seven
spots of the piece where the procedure is at work. They encompass first a representation of the
harmonic parameter (Figure 9) [AUDIO 13], subsequently disintegrated by means of rhythmic
articulation – slow (Figure 10) [AUDIO 14] and fast (Figure 11) [AUDIO 15] – and by means of
segmentation and horizontalization of the representative chord of the harmonic stage. Linear
segments from this chord are directed towards the representation of the melodic parameter, as they
become identifiable melodic fragments (or motives), first framed and fixed in specific registers (Figure
12) [AUDIO 16], later put in movement throughout the tonal spectrum (Figure 13) [AUDIO 17]. In
sequence, the multiplication of the motives leads to the formation of texture (Figure 14) [AUDIO 18].
Ultimately, more fragmented, superimposed and saturated, the motives form a specific texture that
becomes the main carrier of the musical discourse (Figure 15) [AUDIO 19].
Figure 9. Harmonic element (chord) rapidly approached at measure 2 of Circumsonantis.
Score and recording of Circumsonantis are available for free download in the following link:
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
Figure 10. Elaboration of the chord by means of slow rhythmic articulation, measures 9 to 14 of Circumsonantis
(5th to 10th in the example).
Figure 11. Elaboration of the chord by means of fast rhythmic articulation, measures 21 to 30 of Circumsonantis
(2nd to 11th in the example).
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
Figure 12. Melodic horizontalization of the chord generating motives fixed in register, measures 43 to 48 of
Figure 13. Motives put in movement throughout the tonal spectrum, measures 51 to 56 of Circumsonantis (3rd to
8th in the example).
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies
Figure 14. Motives directed to texture, measures 59 to 67 of Circumsonantis (5th to 13th in the example).
Figure 15. Multiplication and superposition of small melodic fragments (from motives) generating texture,
measures 72 to 77 of Circumsonantis (5th to 10th in the example).
The procedures described here cover only a part of the compositional processes and techniques
(applied to the diverse musical parameters) that I have used in the exploration of alternative
compositional ways, along with a search for a renewed musical language, that could be intrinsically
associated with Brazilian Music.
Moura, Eli-Eri. 2006. Circumversus para flauta, clarinete, violino e violoncello. Grupo Sonantis
(COMPOMUS/UFPB). Independent Recording BRPPD-06-02661.
Peixe, César Guerra. 1955. Maracatus do Recife. São Paulo: Ricordi Brasileira.
Composer au XXIe Siècle – Processus et Philosophies

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