Manuella Blackburn: Petites étincelles

Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh, Tempo, no. 73:228, April 1, 2019
Thursday, July 11, 2019 Press

True to its title, Manuella Blackburn’s latest collection of works, Petites étincelles, is a dazzlingly sparkling album. The listening experience is like a trip into Blackburn’s Sonic Chocolate Factory where the listener receives a Golden-Ticket guided tour into the inner playground of a sitar, a tall glass of fizzy drink with large floating ice cubes, an old Kodak Brownie camera, a ticking clock, and a slide down the strings of a sarod into a warm pool haloed in light at its exit.

The album features five acousmatic works composed between 2012 and 2017; each exploring a musical language that explores the expressive potential in microscopic sounds. Often, her work features everyday sounds created by everyday objects such as clocks and cameras, and Blackburn’s utilisation of the ‘sound objects’ is direct, referential and highly recognisable. In contrast with the treatment of the objet sonore in early acousmatic music, where each individual sound is heard ‘as itself’, thus dissociating it from the source of production, Blackburn’s approach is often mimetic and uses these sound entities as entry points through which she invents new musical vignettes, imagining the secret lives of objects and mobilising the inanimate to become the protagonists in her musical storytelling.

The collection presents two aspects of Blackburn’s work as a composer: an interest in coalescing musical elements from micro-level organisations, and research into the sourcing and employment of musical sounds from the other cultures: in this case traditional Indian instruments.

The works Ice Breaker, Snap Happy and Time Will Tell form a series that deals with sounds from an everyday, domestic setting. Ice Breaker for example, opens with a bell-like pulsation juxtaposed with the fizzing of a fresh soda. These tiny sounds are assembled into a dreamy texture that, when accompanied by the quickly moving ice crackling and chirping air bubbles, creates an atmosphere akin to an electronically synthesised ocean-scape. An affirming moment arrives at around 30-second mark in the form of a swirling ice cube in a glass, defining and (re)contextualising the previously heard sounds into a narrative with specific subjects in focus.

Aside from the assembly of materials through the process of building micromontages – the extraction of short, pointillistic grains of sound from recorded files and the rearrangement thereof in time – the presence of clear pitch and harmonic materials in Blackburn’s work appears to be the other driving force behind her musical trajectory. For instance, starting from around 5’32", the ice cubes plunging into the glass continue to reverberate, but are now transformed into gently oscillating chords, transferring the rhythmic energy and gesture of the recorded sound into a musical one expressed through pitch contour and harmonic motion. This approach to combining recognisable sound sources and musical elements inevitably contributes to an overall cinematic listening experience – the audience constructs the visual elements using its imagination, and the music serves as the intermediate bridge, functioning both diegetically and as an reinforcement to the imagery. Overall, it is a delightful experience to imagine oneself becoming an ice cube, floating in a pool shaped like a tall transparent container, surrounded by jet streams of crisp bubbles in carbonated water – refreshing and best served ice cold, with a loved one.

The two works that bookend the album – Javaari and New Shruti – are partially a result of Blackburn’s involvement in the Instruments INDIA project, a sound archive established in 2015 for educational and compositional use of traditional Indian musical instruments. Despite using a similar methodology in the treatment of these recorded sounds, the two works are presented with significantly different musical and aesthetic, priorities. If the other three works focus on furthering Blackburn’s personal interest in the assemblage of small sounds en masse, here the composer’s intention to establish a new paradigm for cross-cultural sounds use is clearly felt.

In Javaari, the timbral possibilities of the sitar are explored in four episodes, each focusing on a different intensity in the ‘explicit cultural sound use’. The piece begins with a collage of short, bouncy sounds derived from elements such as plucked strings and strikes on the tabla, and this first episode lays the scene: a bountiful tapestry made up of pointillistic and colourful objects that are foreign in nature, but are reconstructed through common practices in electroacoustic music. The recognisable sound of the sitar enters at 3’50" with its iconic pitch bend, despite sounding like a glitching hologram, jittering and struggling to be perceived fully, in order to progress forward. The sitar gradually gains momentum from the rhythmically pulsating environment, shifting from being somewhat stuck in the foreground, to finally come to a long-awaited epiphany at 6’10".

Overall, the piece examines the possibilities in positioning and arrangement of iconic sounds that come with their own historical and cultural association. As acousmatic music exists purely in the auditory modality, the challenge posits in the synthesisation and expansion of these significant extra-musical elements with the ideology of Western art music. Debates about ownership of material and a contemporary version of musical exoticism will likely always be part of the discussion concerning current-day crosscultural collaborations. However, Blackburn’s sensitivity in showcasing each of these foreign entities through preserving, developing and expanding their unique idiosyncrasies, results in two highly polished and engaging works that turn a crossing of cultural boundaries into an encounter that is mutual and understanding, exemplifying an enjoyable intercultural listening in acousmatic music.

The listening experience is like a trip into Blackburn’s Sonic Chocolate Factory…


Giuseppe Aiello, Blow Up, no. 253, June 1, 2019
Tuesday, July 9, 2019 Press

Sempre però molto, molto acusmatiche.


Giuseppe Pisano, Toneshift, July 8, 2019
Monday, July 8, 2019 Press

Nikos Stavropoulos is a Greek acousmatic music composer, formally educated in the UK and based in Leeds. His strong academic background links his work to the British school of Simon Emmerson and Denis Smalley but, despite his aesthetic being deeply rooted in that field, Nikos has a very personal perspective and carefully blends his Mediterranean heritage within his work, resulting in a complex structure of cultural references and mythical vestiges.

Micro-lieux is a collection of works composed between 2003 and 2017 and connected together by a very unique standpoint about the nature of granular sounds. In all his pure acousmatic pieces Stavropoulos includes organic elements and constant references to botany, seeds and vegetal corpuscles from which new life can stem and fractally evolve into the most complex and unexpected shapes. His gestures never feel as they were artificially sculpted by human hands, instead they happen gently as if they were the most natural consequence of the interactions occurring between organic agents. The composers behaviour in such setting is maieutic, fertilizing the soil and helping to extract and shape a formal sense from the rhizomatic structure of the natural chaos. Compositions such as Granatum, Ballistichory and Nyctinasty are the best examples of this particular attitude, in which the composer feels more like an Arcadian observer of utopic ecosystems and wanders, body and mind, in an introspective elegy, ready to be infused by the truth of a sonic revelation, an acoustic granular epiphany.

A totally different discourse is necessary for Granicus. Here the martial rhythmic patterns counterpointing the concrete sounds set us in a primitive tribal environment of Doric flavour, while the reference to the battle of the Granicus River — the first major victory of Alexander the Great against the Persian empire in 334 BC — together with the ponderous bass pedal entering about half way through piece, serve to establish an epic narrative that flows strongly throughout the piece.

Once again the electroacoustic consciousness blends with the Greek heritage of the composer: while the interaction between percussion phrasing and electronic sounds shares features with the live electronic performances of Gilles Gobeil, the choice of timbres and pace are reminiscent of percussion pieces by Iannis Xenakis, such as the second movement of Rebonds, Psappha and Peaux from Pleiades.

This is a strong first release for Nikos Stavropoulos, and a very good asset for Empreintes DIGITALes.

This is a strong first release for Nikos Stavropoulos, and a very good asset for Empreintes DIGITALes.

First Half Highlights ~ The Top 20

Richard Allen, A Closer Listen, July 1, 2019
Tuesday, July 2, 2019 Press

Crickets and clocks, seagulls and strings ~ one could be forgiven for thinking Sophie Delafontaine is writing a Dr. Suess book. Her natural curiosity is just as great, and on Accord ouvert she translates her alliterative collections into electroacoustic studies.

Her natural curiosity is just as great, and on Accord ouvert she translates her alliterative collections into electroacoustic studies.


Frank P Eckert, Groove, June 27, 2019
Tuesday, July 2, 2019 Press

[…] Ähnliches lässt sich aber genauso gut mit einer strengen kompositorisch-konzeptuellen Arbeitsweise erreichen: Die britische Komponistin Annie Mahtani nimmt auf ihrem Debüt Racines (empreintes DIGITALes) das „ernste” Genre der akademisch neutönenden Elektroakustik und übersetzt es in elektronische Klänge, die in ihrer nahbaren Ästhetik mitten im Ambient angekommen sind. Mahtani arbeitet mit Ideen der besonders der Sound Art geläufigen Praxis der Akusmatik, also mit „natürlichen” Klängen, die spezifisch für eine Wiedergabe auf mehrkanaligen Lautsprechersystemen manipuliert werden. Durch die elektrische Verstärkung und digitale Herausarbeitung von Klängen, die in den unbearbeiteten Feldaufnahmen, welche Mahtani als Klangquellen dienen, eventuell gar nicht hörbar wären, werden dokumentarische Aufnahmen zu immersiven Soundscapes, die auch ohne den akusmatischen Kontext perfekt als Ambient funktionieren.

… documentary recordings become immersive soundscapes that function perfectly as ambiences even without the acousmatic context.


ST, Electronic Sound, no. 54, July 1, 2019
Thursday, June 13, 2019 Press

… the record is consistently engaging and often brilliant.

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