Living Materials

Dafne Vicente-Sandoval

OCCAM XIII for bassoon

I met Dafne Vicente-Sandoval at the same punch-drunk, post-red-eye-flight rehearsal described in the introduction to Silvia Tarozzi’s article. Dafne was more reserved than the rest of the performers, and I found her a little bit intimidating. In the years that followed, the reasons for finding her intimidating grew: her writings are detailed and exquisite, her dedication to the work of Jakob Ullmann I find important and admirable, and she is at the forefront of pushing the bassoon—an insanely difficult instrument at its most basic—into new technical and sonic realms.

At the same time, Dafne is someone that is comfortable to be around. Silences are easy. Conversations are never dull and, in the few casual ones that we’ve had at least, immediately get into thought-provoking territory. This conversation, which occurred via email in December of 2020, is no different.

I have a strong affinity for Dafne—and Cat Lamb—because our proximity in the OCCAM Ocean. We were learning our pieces around the same time, and it feels like there is a similar set of interests and aesthetics as we look at our respective instruments. In February of 2021, Dafne and I got on an early morning Skype call to discuss edits. It felt natural to collaborate once again; on word choice rather than combinations of sound, but still quiet, warm, and a little intimidating.

NW I’m starting by asking everyone about their first experiences with Éliane, whether that means hearing her music for the first time, meeting her, or beginning your collaboration with her; whatever best represents the moment you feel you started engaging with her and with OCCAM.

DVS The first time I encountered Éliane’s work, ten years ago or so, I wasn’t yet in a place where I was able to perceive the incredible richness of her music. A friend of mine made me listen to one of her electronic pieces; I remember finding it attractive but, at the same time, I didn’t hear much beyond the immersive quality of the sustained sound, and I remained rather indifferent. A couple of years after that, Catherine Lamb was living temporarily in Paris. We met through common friends, and Catherine told me about the work she had been doing with Éliane on her OCCAM piece for viola [OCCAM XII]. The approach sounded very new and interesting to me. I then listened back to that same electronic piece—Kyema—and had a completely different experience of it than the first time. I was deeply moved by the beauty of the music and could not believe I had missed such a distinctive sensitivity to sound. So, as it sometimes happens with works of art, her music only opened up to me when I was ready to receive it. In the meantime, my own instrumental practice had evolved in a parallel direction; I had started a long—and ongoing—exploration into the complex behavior of harmonic partials [overtones] on the bassoon. Catherine suggested that I contact Éliane, so I wrote her a letter, sent it by mail, and a few days later, Éliane called me.

NW I think of French Conservatory training as based in reproducibility (this being anchored in my understanding of the trumpet tradition there). How did you move from that emphasis, if it existed for you, to work that emphasizes attention to timbre, improvisation, collaboration?

DVS I think that in many ways my musical approach has unfolded in reaction to the education I received during my studies in France.

I started playing bassoon in my late teenage years and was accepted at the Paris Conservatory only a few years later. I had done a bit of music during my childhood, but nothing substantial. I also didn’t grow up in a musical environment; we listened to very little classical music at home. So when I entered the Conservatory, I found myself in an environment that was completely alien to me. Most of the students there—at least in the classical music area—had been immersed in classical music from an early age and didn’t have much interest or experience aside from the very circumscribed practice of their instrument. As you are pointing out, the expectations of the institution consisted more in reaching a high standard level than trying to address each student as a creative individual. French education in general is flawed with a type of elitism that is at the same time extremely normative.

I didn’t really fit in there, but I didn’t yet have enough instrumental and musical maturity to oppose the institutional pressure in a constructive way. So my years at the Conservatory—especially towards the end when my resistance became more confrontational—were a real struggle. It is really thanks to a series of encounters—made outside of the Conservatory and mostly after my studies there—that I gradually found my own path as a musician and shifted my approach to a more personal and creative one. The experience at the Conservatory was such a disillusionment regarding the social realities of classical music performance that, after graduating, I was completely unsure how to go on with my musical life—or even whether to go on with it at all. When I finished, I took a year off abroad before finally deciding to resume my music studies in Switzerland.

That said, of course I owe some very valuable things to the education I received in Paris: mainly a high level of rigor in my instrumental practice. But the type of outer virtuosity that the French school is obsessed with was transformed into an undemonstrative and more inwardly-directed one. In OCCAM XIII for bassoon, for example, each different partial region is reached through a very specific balance between air pressure, lip pressure, and a subtle opening of certain holes and keys—sometimes not even one-eighth of a hole or a key opening. That fine balance keeps moving each time the piece is performed because of the unpredictable reactions of the reed and the bassoon, which are living materials. One has to constantly relocate this, both in the instrument and in the body’s actions, requiring a lot of precision and adjustment on the part of the performer.

So, I went on with my studies at the Basel Musikhochschule because of a very inspiring bassoonist who was, and still is, teaching there. His name is Sergio Azzolini, and he is probably one of the very few bassoonists who has managed to have a solid career as a soloist in the classical music sphere while being something of an unconventional figure. He was very interested in historical bassoons and had a real sensibility for tuning systems, timbral shades, and the unstable aspects of the instrument. His teaching was not at all focused on contemporary music performance, but his instrumental approach opened up a much broader array of sound possibilities to me. Sergio was also relentlessly trying to push his own limits either instrumentally or personally, embracing failure as an unavoidable part of the learning process. As a student, it was very inspiring to witness that trial-and-error approach, compared to the dogmatic education based on a superficial type of perfection that I had received in Paris. So the years I spent in Sergio’s class brought about a shift in my conception of the instrument. I realized, thanks to him, that the bassoon wasn’t this rigid technology that classical music ideology had turned it into; that it was a space of infinite possibility, if one was ready to seek these other, less uniform and more chaotic, vibrational paths.

In Basel, I also met [composer] Jakob Ullmann who was teaching there at that time. I had never heard of him or of his music beforehand. He needed a bassoon player for a new ensemble piece he had composed, Praha, and I was recommended to him because I was the only bassoon student in the class interested in contemporary music. While taking part in this first collaboration, I could never have guessed the key role that Jakob’s music would subsequently play in my musical life.

These two different encounters definitely did change the course of my instrumental and musical path. But it took me many years of solitary work afterwards to make sense of these major inspirations and gradually define my own approach. On a more fundamental level, these two encounters initiated, in different ways, a shift in my focus; my emphasis as a performer moved from just playing to playing as a form of listening.

NW Your work, specifically, introduced me to the music of Ullmann, who you have been collaborating with for over ten years. I found a text of yours on his music’s relationship between space and sound and, especially, the fragility inherent in its dynamics. It resonated with some of the same feelings I have of OCCAM.1

DVS The music of Jakob Ullmann engages with sound in a liminal space at the verge of self-erasure. The most directly perceivable result of this assertion of fragility is the pianissimo dynamic that extends across almost all of his works. This characteristic, often pointed out in isolation, in fact carries with it far more complex musical implications: pianissimo is not an end in itself.

For the performer, the dynamic is not only an indication of a soft volume but, more radically, redefines the relationship between performer and instrument. Striving to hold one’s balance upon the line drawn between silence and sound, the performer initiates a fluctuating dialogue with her instrument, unceasingly seeking the threshold of vibrational response. The intense physical involvement requires effort in inverse proportion to the faintness of the sounding result. Even if Jakob’s music may, on first listening, seem static it, in fact, frames a continuous transformation of sound as the performer attempts to thread a musical texture down to the limits of the perceptible. The sonic weave thus unfolds in a permanent tension between the control exerted by the performer and the volatility of the instrumental response inherent in such fragile sounds.

NW Would you be willing to talk about the aesthetic/performative overlap or differences in these two collaborations?

DVS It’s funny that you are asking this question. I’ve actually never thought about the overlaps and differences in these two collaborations, even though Jakob and Éliane have probably been the two most decisive encounters I’ve had in my musical life so far.

I don’t really think of Éliane’s music as inhabiting the same liminal space, between silence and sound, as Jakob’s music. As you quoted, in Jakob’s music the pianissimo dynamic is the main constraint for the performer, who has to sustain an extremely soft dynamic across the entire duration of his—often very long—pieces. In general, silences are not notated in the score, but happen as a consequence of the perilous dialogue that is engaged in by the instrumentalist with the threshold of vibrational response of her instrument. The sound is always on the verge of breaking—and often actually breaks, putting the music itself at risk. I don’t personally find that extreme fragility in Éliane’s pieces.

It’s true that in most of her compositions, maybe in all of them, the sound emerges gradually from silence, to go back to it at the end in the same manner. A very controlled fading in and out of the sound frames the piece, but I would not characterize her music as very soft, or even as soft. On the contrary, I feel that what she calls in French le jeu des harmoniques—or the play of partials—requires a certain volume for it to happen in the instrument—at least on the bassoon. Apart from the beginning and the end, I don’t really think in terms of dynamic when I perform one of Éliane’s pieces. I follow a thread that leads us—the instrument and me—from one partial region to another; to a large extent, the dynamic is inherent in these different regions and happens as a natural consequence. At the same time, it is also clear that the subtle shades of the sound that Éliane cherishes, as well as the listening experience her music creates, don’t belong to loud dynamics. It is something—not too loud—that Éliane herself will point out during our working sessions. So, clearly, a control over the dynamic has to be exerted by the performer in order to enhance the delicate shimmering of partials her music is made of, but I don’t perceive that as a central element of her music. “Loud” and “soft” are not really criteria here, I think; dynamics emerge as a byproduct of the acoustic qualities of the sounds that are being produced.

In Jakob’s music, the extreme softness is not an end in itself but a way to obscure the musical content by presenting it on a razor’s edge in an almost self-erasing form. That musical content, which is made unfathomable, is grounded in a cultural tradition—mostly Western classical music. One of his pieces, for example, uses the dodecaphonic series, another one an Advent hymn from the Reformation, and another includes wind trios inspired by Georgian polyphony but the tuning of which is based on Greek tetrachords. So, his music refers to a cultural tradition which then appears in a fragmentary and defamiliarized state. Éliane’s music comes from a very different place, I think: a much more interior and intimate one. Even though one could be tempted to look in her music for various influences that relate to elements of her personal life—musique concrète, visual arts, American experimental music, Buddhism—her compositional approach seems to have arisen from a very personal place outside of a clear lineage.

Her approach is also much more spontaneous than Jakob’s and seems to have unfolded directly out of the making of her pieces and the crafting of the sound material. That was true for her electronic pieces and has translated itself into a different form through the collaborative process with instrumentalists. Jakob’s approach is much more constructed and intellectual, even though the complex layers that are built into the score are afterwards obscured in performance. Maybe as a result of the latter, the listening experiences that Jakob’s and Éliane’s music invite are quite different. Éliane’s music is intensely immersive and has a sensuous quality while the sound image in Jakob’s music is fractured and peripheral. The sound—and the music itself—always seem to remain at a distance, beyond reach. At the same time, I have the feeling that, in both, the music proposes a very specific and powerful listening experience which works on the listener’s unconscious.

To go back now to a performative aspect that seems to overlap: both Éliane and Jakob have a predilection for sound materials that have an unstable nature: partials, feedback, wolf tone for Éliane and very soft sounds, glissandi, awkward tunings, extreme scordaturas for Jakob. Both embrace that instability which is closely bound to the materiality of sound production. The instrumentalist has to preserve the inner beauty of such a fluctuating material while exerting control and not falling into mere randomness. To give one concrete example: in order to play very softly or to produce certain partials when playing their music, I use a specific technique of embouchure in which my lips are positioned at the extreme edge of the reed’s opening. As a result, the reed is more exposed to the surrounding air than with the conventional embouchure, causing a less stable level of moisture, which in turn increases the volatility of the reed’s response. In the case of Éliane’s pieces, I would say that the volatility doesn’t merely shape the minute details of the sound, but, even more, steers the musical course that the sound takes.

This point leads us to the main difference between Éliane and Jakob’s compositional approaches. Jakob’s music is score-based. The relationship between a score and its realization in performance is often very complex and, in many ways, remains enigmatic—even to the performer. His scores often require multiple decisions or include equivocal instructions so as to prompt a very creative undertaking on the side of the performer. Listeners are often curious to look at the score after a performance, and they are always puzzled when they do so, because they did not imagine such notation for the sound output they just heard. Jakob’s compositions clearly exist in a separate form outside of their performance and independently of their performer. In this regard, Éliane’s approach is much more radical: the making of her pieces is characterized by a collaborative process between composer and performer based on orality and the absence of a notated score. One could say that her pieces only exist through their realization in performance; the performer is the score—or the other way round. This very personal—and personalized—working process fundamentally questions the conventional relationship between composer and performer in addition to the work’s status as known in the Western cultural tradition. The beauty of it is also that—as Éliane says herself—she only understood these multiple implications of her work a posteriori.

NW I think there are similar concerns in how I have learned to approach my relationship to the trumpet—which may have some similar technical difficulties with volume, attack, decay—through working on OCCAM X. Did your apprehension of “striving to hold one’s balance . . . between silence and sound” come out of your work with composers, or did you seek out collaborations based on an inherent desire to experiment in this way with the bassoon?

DVS It’s hard for me to unravel a clear chronology. My instrumental practice and my collaborations with composers have been closely intermingled.

In a similar way to what I just mentioned regarding Éliane, I often only understand afterwards the underlying reasons which lead me to collaborate with a particular composer: why this or that particular work echoed strongly in me—as an instrumentalist but also as a person—rather than another one. Most collaborations I’ve been involved in didn’t unfold from a conscious decision or an active seeking-out.

In the case of Jakob, for example, our encounter was random. As I already mentioned, I first got to play his music basically thanks to chance circumstances. After collaborating on Praha, I became involved in performing other compositions of his and progressively found myself dedicating a large part of my musical life to the performance of his music. But it took me many years to understand why I had been so drawn to performing his music. At some point, I realized that the feeling of estrangement from our musical tradition that Jakob’s music conveys was deeply echoing my personal path as a musician. As I already mentioned, my late start as a musician framed a particular relationship to my instrument but also to the performance of Western classical music repertoire. There was always a gap in-between, cluttered with many questions; it never felt “natural” to me to play my instrument or to express myself in a music which had been composed centuries ago for performers of a different time and culture. At the same time, I always felt strongly and intimately bound to both my instrument and the musical tradition. So, it was complex. During my years as a classical music performer, I almost always experienced a kind of split: performing was at the same time a very familiar, but also an alien, practice. My encounter with Jakob’s music gave a meaning to this dialectical—and sometimes painful—relationship. I found through his music a space where those contradictions could live together in a fruitful way.

Regarding my work with Éliane, when we started working on OCCAM XIII together, I had been exploring the odd behavior of partials on the bassoon already for some time. I had actually performed an improvised solo set a couple of times, which was based on the harmonic series of the lowest pitch of the bassoon—low B Flat—which is the material that OCCAM XIII is exclusively made of. At the same time, that improvised solo was extremely dissimilar, not just in the minute details of the sound, but also in a much more fundamental way. What I learned from Éliane was a very different way of listening to this material, which led then to an instrumental practice that was much more pointed and precise. From there, a tension arose with the volatility of the partials’ behavior which gave that solo its specificity and, therefore, a completely different focus. So, I think that I unconsciously knew the potential richness of this material before meeting Éliane; but my work with her expanded it to regions I had no idea of.

© Daniel Molina
© Daniel Molina

1  “The music of Jakob Ullmann engages with sound in a liminal space, at the verge of self-erasure. The most directly perceivable result of this assertion of fragility is the pianissimo dynamic that extends across almost all of his works. This characteristic, often pointed out in isolation, in fact carries with it far more complex musical implications: pianissimo is not an end in itself.

For the performer, the dynamic is not only an indication of a soft volume; more radically, the soft dynamic brings about a redefinition of the relationship between performer and instrument. Striving to hold one’s balance upon the line drawn between silence and sound, the performer initiates a fluctuating dialogue with her instrument, seeking unceasingly the threshold of vibrational response. The intense physical involvement required stands in inverse proportion to the faintness of the sounding result. Even if Ullmann’s music may, on first listening, seem static, in fact it frames a continuous transformation of sound as the performer attempts to thread a musical texture down to the limits of the perceptible. The sonic weave thus unfolds in a permanent tension between the control exerted by the performer and the volatility of the instrumental response inherent in such fragile sounds.” from “Dafne Vicente-Sandoval on Performing Jakob Ullmann,” first printed in Blank Forms Journal 2: Music from the World Tomorrow.