Helga Arias "Be sensitive to its environment involves going beyond sound"

Helga Arias (*1984) is a Spanish composer living and working in Switzerland.

Her music explores the link between acoustics and electronics and leads our listening to a microscopic perception of sound.

As an observer sensitive to societal issues such as sexism or harassment on the internet, Helga has developed a series of pieces denouncing the lack of moderation on social networks as well as increasingly rampant verbal and sexist violence.

I had contacted Helga more than a year ago to perform her piece Astraglossa, which we performed with Soundtrieb in June 2021.

Our exchange took place in Basel last February.

Can you tell me how you decided to become a composer?

Like many other composers, I discovered music through the piano at the age of six or seven. I followed a very classical musical path until adolescence, studying all the classical repertoire: Chopin, Beethoven's sonatas... And somehow composition already interested me. I always tried to offer musical variations and was not really focused on respecting the text, I preferred to improvise. Honestly, I was completely unaware of the possibility that one could be a composer, let alone a woman composer !

And then there was a first trigger, around the age of sixteen when I started playing in a metal band in which I sang and played the keyboard. I composed the music and wrote my lyrics myself. During this period, I discovered a whole counterpart of alternative music, all extremely experimental: doom metal, gothic, noise… Many musicians with whom I played, and who had no connection with the classical world, introduced me to composers like Ligeti, Penderecki or Stockhausen. These three are obviously not from the same world but they have opened up fields of reflection from their music made of sound mass, and texture. Many musicians from all walks of life have taken hold of these notions. And then quickly, I decided that I would never be a classical pianist, that was just not my goal. I embarked on a composition course that I studied in Granada where I first had to take courses in orchestration, counterpoint and fugue before actually joining a composition class.

Then you continue your studies in Italy.

During my studies in Granada I received a scholarship for an ERASMUS at the University of Music in Milan where I then followed the teaching of Javier Torres Maldonado (Mexican composer born in 1968). Javier remains one of my teachers, I loved working with him, he brought me so much… I was so happy to study with Javier that when he was appointed professor at the University of Parma, I decided to follow him, it coincided with the end of my studies in Granada.

What did you learn from him?

First, he trusted me and made me realize that I had a lot to say. It forced me to look deep inside and answer existential questions such as « what do you have to offer and express through music ». Javier also opened me up to electronic music and to a way of understanding composition that goes beyond technical notions such as knowing how to write counterpoint, mastering harmony even if in his music, he pays enormous attention to these notions. .

Above all, he made me understand the need to get out of school and to understand what being a composer entails: going to concerts, festivals, academies, meeting musicians. When you are a young composer there is no better advice because it is absolutely essential.

You then went to Vienna and then to Graz (Austria) where you studied with Karlheinz Essl and Beat Furrer, what did they bring you?

Obviously it was different than with Javier, I was more experienced and I already had a clear idea of ​​what interested me.

Karlheinz helped me with everything related to electronic music, he and his whole team gave me the necessary technological tools to realize my own ideas.

With Beat, it only lasted a year. He is very interested in the personality he has in front of him, what she writes for, these musical and artistic tastes. I remember endless but fascinating conversations during collective sessions between him and these students. It was very stimulating to be confronted with so many different points of view.

Let's talk more specifically about your music and about a recent piece for saxophone quartet Milk spilt on a stone. It is a purely acoustic piece, and yet listening, we are very close to the electronic sound. Then you take advantage of a very horizontal writing where from an initial explosion, the sound continues to dissolve.

This quartet is obviously the perfect example of music that dissolves and closes in on itself. I was interested in a natural phenomenon, to try to trace the trajectory of a sound, a bit like when you see a liquid spilling on a surface and to see what trajectory it will draw. In the same way one can imagine that a sound can follow multiple trajectories: it can be absorbed by another, gradually disappear, divide... When composing the piece, there was a lot of intuition in the idea of let a sound go its own way and it's quite radical in this piece.

I often hear that my music has no rhythm. I remember a discussion at an academy where one of my young colleagues wanted to point out to me that I never dealt with the parameter of rhythm. Georg Friedrich Haas (Austrian composer born in 1953) who was directing the seminar then cut short and replied quite curtly: « Obviously she works on rhythm but in a whole other dimension! ». And indeed, I like to work the rhythm on natural models, namely on a microscopic level or on the contrary on a very stretched level. In Milk spilt on a stone there is a lot of work on what we call « battement » (this acoustic phenomenon that we hear when two notes are very close to each other). It is a phenomenon that has its own rhythm, and is impossible to notate or obtain with traditional rhythmic notation.

You were talking about natural models: to draw a parallel with one of your compatriots, we could cite Alberto Posadas who also works on these models (in this case fractals). Besides, just like in your music, he uses a lot of so-called « extended » instrumental techniques. I am thinking of the piece Astraglossa for solo piano and electronics.

You refer to Alberto Posadas, who is a composer that interests me a lot, I know his music very well and I was lucky enough to receive his advice. Alberto has developed a considerable and fantastic work concerning instrumental research, he taught me to experiment myself with the instruments in order to find the sounds. I admit that I was very skeptical at first. I thought I could save time by going directly to the interpreters. But over time, I realized that I could achieve unique sounds because they weren't restricted by instrumental technique. The technique is a filter, sometimes unconscious, but it conditions the gesture and the way in which we imagine having to produce the sound. But what is most important to me is to get the sound I have in mind, without any consideration for a technique that would be called « right ».

Astraglossa is a piece that was originally for solo piano and electronics which I then extended by adding three other instruments, percussion, saxophone and accordion. I must say that writing for piano was very difficult at the beginning, because I am a pianist, I was completely blocked and unable to get out of traditional techniques. But with the help of other pianists, we explored the possibilities and tried to produce sounds that would be closer to the electronic part, namely white noise, interference sounds, radio signals.

Precisely, what issue do you address concerning the link between acoustic and electronic music?

This question of the link between acoustics and electronics appeared fundamental to me during my years of study with Javier Torres, when my way of understanding and perceiving sound changed. Coming from the classical world, I tended to reason only by thinking about the usual parameters of music: dynamics, rhythm, pitches, tempo, timbre. As I explained to you, I am interested in natural acoustic phenomena and if we translate these phenomena using only these traditional parameters, the field is quickly restricted and we are quickly overtaken by the weight of tradition and how music has been written for 500 years. But if we broaden our focus and think of music as an acoustic phenomenon, that is to say with specific properties (waveforms, decibels, frequencies) then the paradigm changes. When I came back to acoustic music, after having written a lot for electronic music, I wanted to continue to reason with these parameters. Imitating the electronic sound with traditional instruments has been done long before me and in a wonderful way. But my reflection is more linked to the way of conceiving the sound phenomenon.

A second aspect of your work opened with three pieces Grab them by the p**** !, #YouToo, Hate-follow me. Three pieces mixing music and video. You are tackling a strong subject, namely sexism in society, as well as our relationship to social media where you denounce both online harassment and the use of fake news. How did the desire to tackle these subjects come about?

For years I was obsessed with sound and everything we talked about before. Since my childhood, I have been extremely sensitive to all these noises that surround me and this obviously influenced the fact that I wanted to become a composer.

Over time I realized that this obsession was more generally related to the relationship I had with my environment. In the end we can't separate the sound from the rest, we are sensitive to the world around us and we quickly realize that this world is complex. At the time of writing these two pieces, we were in the middle of a « metoo » moment and I was extremely sensitive to these problems related to sexism because a lot of women still experience this sexism, it could have happened to me but also to friends or colleagues. I sometimes denounce the attacks suffered by women by posting messages on the internet. I know that sometimes it may not be the best solution to change mentalities but this question makes me fragile, vulnerable and it is my way of reacting. These two pieces are very close to each other, moreover ideally the two pieces could be played in the same concert because there is a version for violin and clarinet or violin saxophone. The two dedicated performers of the piece (Xelo Giner and Jenny Guerra) encouraged me in my choice to deal with this theme. They are two women with strong personalities who themselves faced sexism due to their origins or the environment they frequented.

For the video part, you use content collected on social networks mainly from Twitter, often violent, sexist or insulting content. How did you articulate the relationship between video and music?

This is a difficult question because I do not consider myself a video or a visual artist. In any case, I do not consider the video as the central element. The video is a support for the musical part and not the other way around. The music remains the most important element and given the violence of the images or messages that I included in the video, the music had to be powerful as well. The power of the image is extremely strong not to mention the fact that I chose a very explicit and violent material. Music is by nature more abstract and can mean or suggest several things at the same time, the image sometimes does not suggest anything other than what it shows.

Finally, you recently embarked on a series of pieces where the collaborative aspect is very important. The first being I see you for string quartet. You say that the piece was composed and performed whereas the musicians « met a few hours before the premiere ». Can you explain the process ?

I see you was a commission from the International Contemporary Ensemble, placed just before the Covid-19 pandemic. The conditions turned out to be rather extreme, I had no possibility of meeting the musicians and they themselves could not meet to work. With the artistic director, we had the idea of ​​working on a composition process based on online interaction. When writing a string quartet, one usually thinks about the notions of heterogeneity/homogeneity in the sound of string instruments. Here I rather wanted to paint a musical portrait of each of the performers.

So we created an online tool where each of the musicians had to fill out forms with many questions about their personality (their musical tastes since childhood, reactions to musical excerpts that I sent them).

In a second step, I created a whole collection of visuals ranging from animations to fixed forms from which they had to improvise, record and send me the audio material. With all these materials, I accumulated a lot of material and during this whole process I was never in contact with the musicians. It seemed important to me to leave them free in the answers and improvisations they gave me.

The third step was to carry out a filtering of all the accumulated material, to analyze it by finding patterns of response, contrasts, then to organize it, to find a form. In the end, there is a lot of improvisation in the piece but often coming from the recording sessions.

Another example is a piece you developed with Vortex ensemble (Geneva) signifié, signifiant for seven instruments.

This series of collaborative pieces is rather recent. It is for me to explore the possibilities of an interaction between composer and performers within the framework of a creative process. I wanted to see and observe the world through other eyes/ears than mine and get away from this obsession with « pure » music. Composing is such a solitary job that when the pandemic started, I felt the need to go for new things, to experiment and to get out of the aesthetics that I had developed during all these years. This is why it seems important to me to involve the performers in the composition process, if only to confront myself with other points of view, other ways of understanding certain questions as vague as « what is sound? » , « what is form? ».

The piece composed for Vortex is based on the concept of « signifié signifiant » (concept developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure): the « signifié » being a read word and the « signifiant » the way one understands this word. And this of course gives multiple interpretations, even with simple words like « table » which depending on the culture will bring together a multitude of forms and interpretations.

The composition process joins that of my work done with I see you. We organized several work sessions where the performers had to prepare a catalog of sounds related to a series of musical terms that I had listed: vibration, interference, dissonance, consonance, noise... I left it up to the musicians to choose to use any pitches, techniques or modes of sound production.

Even if there is a large part of improvisation, I do not necessarily leave the form open. All this material collected during our work sessions allowed me to write the second part where the instructions become more and more precise and concrete. I add levels of concretization until the last part is completely written. The purpose of this work is to build and show the understanding of words, sounds and their meanings from different perspectives.