Introduction text for the sound installation by Sébastien Roux “30 Vuza Canons” at Rome’s Auditorium, June 1-30, 2016.
What happens when we stop hearing individual notes and start perceiving a melody? What happens when we no longer see individual birds flying because we have started to see a flock? When does a swarm of people turn into a crowd?
We are used to considering such changes as events that only concern the field of perception.
But what if they constituted actual transformations at work outside of us?
Let’s stop here. I would like to ask you to take one step back and follow my reverie: imagine a person roaming the streets of a city without ever meeting anyone else.
In imagining this person, it is only natural to believe that he is alone. It is just as natural to believe that this person considers himself to be the only representative of his species. As he has never met anyone else, it never crosses his mind that one day this might happen.
Stop again and imagine that there are actually two people roaming this city, destined by some bizarre law of nature never to meet. Sometimes they brush by each other: one steps out of a vehicle only a moment before the other enters it. However, the encounter never takes place, no matter how imperceptible the small intervals between the departure of one person and the arrival of the other become.
In this case too you may agree with me that both people are probably convinced that they are alone and unique. As they have never seen anyone else, they do not ask themselves how they came into the world – nor do they suspect that they might have to leave it one day.
With another small effort of the imagination, we can now picture a third person wandering about, and then a fourth, a fifth and so on, until we reach the largest possible number of people who can occupy the available space in the city and move about unaware of one another, as though caught in a giant 13-puzzle.
Our imaginary city is now totally packed with solitary beings who, while existing in close proximity to one another, never meet as they continue to move about and swap places. No place is every occupied by two people at the same time; no place is ever left vacant. The city is a compact, solid and living whole.
Let’s move away and gaze at the city from a distance: now it is the city itself which moves, alone, across the flatland of an apparently empty and boundless continent. It slowly migrates, rebuilding its foundations and walls, each time on a new plot of land. Convinced of its uniqueness and solitude, the city does not believe that other cities may exist out there. We might picture other wandering cities, but let’s stop here.
These people or cities are like atoms of the universe or like individual instants in the flux of becoming, which closely resemble the notes of a Vuza canon: a kind of rhythmic canon developed by the mathematician Dan Tudor Vuza in the 1980s, where each time interval is filled by a single note and in which, when all voices have made an entrance, all time intervals are filled.
The canon is a contrapuntal musical composition in which one or more imitations are progressively added to a melody.
Usually the new voices are harmoniously juxtaposed to one another and to the original one. One particular exercise in inventiveness for the contrapuntal composer trying his hand at a canon is to create admirable and harmonically coherent melodies and juxtapositions.
The peculiarity of the canons based on Vuza’s mathematical model lies in the fact that they feature melodies alternating notes and pauses, with each note from a new voice falling in an interval left vacant through a pause made by a previous voice. In such a way, no note is ever juxtaposed to any other; and when all voices have finally made an entrance, their notes follow one another with no break, leaving us wonder what we are listening to: is it a single extended melody or the perfect interweaving of several melodies that imitate one another?
Like our imaginary city of solitary walkers, the Vuza canons composed by Sebastien Roux enable us to take a close look at the process which turns what is multiple and fragmentary into a compact whole.
These canons explore the moment in which all available places are occupied and what previously appeared to be a swarm of different beings comes together as a single, living and indivisible entity.
Sebastien Roux’s music is made up of simple elements – sinusoidal waves, square waves, clicks, and short segments of white noise. It does not require any more complex elements, because it achieves fulfilment through the pure beauty of these original components and focuses on the moment in which these simple elements merge or interact with one another, creating something new. The degree of complexity of the original material is of little importance: what matters is the powerful brining into focus of the moment in which a variation or small genesis occurs – for example, the moment in which individual notes turn into a melody or in which other sound elements of various nature turn into something more complex.
To cut matters short, we might say that Sebastien Roux’s music is marked by the constant observation of the coming into being of the music itself and of the moment in which individual sounds which are not musical yet become part of something different, something more organic and complex which we call music. The focus is not on its being music but on the moment just before it becomes such. This music exists on the threshold of its birth, as though between the existence of a cluster of scattered and disjointed notes and their coming together to form a melody a suspended and fruitful time were to be found, which knows neither notes nor melodies.
This moment is the instant just before the entrance of the last voice in a Vuza canon, where – like water suddenly freezing when it reaches a certain temperature – different interweaving lines merge into a single line.
The bringing into focus of these generative forces at work in certain musical arrangements is also a feature of various other compositions by Sebastien Roux. This is most notably the case with the striking Inevitable Music, a rigorous attempt to translate Sol Lewitt’s drawings into sound – or, rather, a brilliant interdisciplinary translation of the written instructions which are the only permanent trace of such drawings. With Inevitable Music we constantly get the impression that we are witnessing the birth of one or more musical subjects, the moment in which a range of different elements ‘click’ together, engendering mysterious yet manifest creatures that seem to live in a parallel time of their own. What is most striking and thrilling is not just the opportunity to listen to these sounds in all their beauty, but being able to witness their birth.
Sebastien Roux’s music is often speculative and requires us to embrace an expanding moment and a field of forces and transformations that is more extensive than the one which a form of listening exclusively rooted in a point-like present seems to offer.
This desire to call into question the idea of music as the event of an instant is also common to other composers such as Anton Webern, Aldo Clementi and Tom Johnson, who have identified the canon as the musical form that offers the greatest possibility of simultaneously occupying different moments in the time of a composition and of assigning it a more complex and multi-dimensional temporality.
In Sebastien Roux’s works the variation is even greater, insofar as the focus of the listening is that infinitely fruitful moment of indecision between the one and the many, that vivid fringe of time – to quote British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead – where a musical creation comes to life. (1)
This vivid fringe is the land in which all the cities in history are reborn over and over again. It is the city in which each of our embodiments endlessly lives on, exploring its narrow alleys and broad avenues. Most importantly, as the reader who has been following my musings will appreciate, it is the far from horizontal temporality in which Sebastien Roux’s musical creatures thrive – the inhabitants of a realm and city in which no one every occupies a place that is not his own, so as to leave another place vacant.
While the example of a city of this sort has helped us to understand the form of Vuza canons, at this stage it may seem like a bit of a stretch: in the cities we inhabit and are familiar with, particularly very crowded ones, we are bound to meet other people – no geometric and abstract situations of the sort just described are to be found.
I therefore invite you to return to what we regard as our world and city, trusting that you will have gained at least some understanding of the underlying structure of Vuza canons.
Once you have made your way back into the world familiar to us, I invite you to consider one further aspect of our reality as living beings which makes our community very similar to a Vuza canon – namely, the presence of just one subject for every individual.
For each person – what we call an ‘individual’ – there is only one single subject and one single awareness stating ‘I’ for each individual position.
This relationship can hardly be conceived in any other terms: in our city and in our real world we never find two different subjects filling the same space, and no individual is ever without a subject, if not in death.
In this city – I speak of ‘city’ as a metaphor for the community of conscious beings – we cannot think of ourselves as doubles or as having an ‘I’ that is superimposed upon and merged with that of another person. We feel an unstoppable desire for this and deep down – where our relentless rationality cannot reach – we convince ourselves that this is possible, that in our world too this variation and change may finally take place.
Individual awarenesses walk the city streets like themes from a huge Vuza canon whose overall texture is given by the sum of all individuals.
Each individual has a single ‘I’ – and no individual lacks one. One after the other, imitatively – through birth, growth, and death – they all enter into the vast canon of humanity, which is forever suspended on the vivid fringe foreshadowing its merging into a boundless conscious wreath, a single compact melody – solid and wonderfully alive.
(1) The passage of nature leaves nothing between the past and the future. What we perceive as present is the vivid fringe of memory tinged with anticipation (The Concept of Nature, ANW 1919).