Fernando Manassero

Thoughts on collaborative composition of
The moth and The mesmerizing sound of accumulation.



Piece, sound process, woman, instrument, creation, installation, composition, rural, performer, composer, art.





This text collects my experience as a composer on a recent project with the percussionist Roberto Maqueda, that took place in 2019 before and during the first wave of covid-19 pandemic.


The result were two pieces that were developed in close collaboration between us, each of us working from his field and exploring different strategies of exchange. The creative process went through deep discussions on aesthetics, sound materials and technology. The performances took place in May, August and October 2021 at Manifeste Festival – Centre Pompidou, Paris as part of IRCAM Cursus, Attaca Festival, in Basel and Studio AnsermetRTS in Geneva, and involved musicians from Haute École de Musique de Genève and Hochschule für Musik FHNW Basel.




This project was originally planed to be a piece for solo percussion, ensemble and electronics, but the circumstances lead us to create two related pieces: a solo and an ensemble piece that included part of the setup of the solo piece. That is how The Moth for solo turntable and electronics, and The mesmerizing sound of accumulation, for solo percussion, violoncello, trombone, e-guitar, synthesizer/sampler/effects, and light were created. Both pieces are related visually and sound wise.


Electronics on stage


From the very beginning it was clear that the project would involve some degree of technology integrated in the ensemble as this is one of the common interests between Maqueda and me. The integration of that technology into the setup is at the core of these compositions. The departing points were, on the one hand to customize the instruments involved aiming to create a hybrid sound palette and, on the other hand, to recover the practices of rock and pop bands which are by nature hybrid of acoustic and electronic instruments. In that context, electronics are played by the musicians on stage, and not by a technician (or composer) from the mixing desk as it is usually done in mixed media music. Following the pop band concept, another no-go situation was to exhibit the technology involved as a material in itself or the common places of the electronic instruments involved: for example the turntable in The Moth. In this piece the turntable was approached from its most essential principle, that is the spinning disk and the friction of the stylo against the surface of the record. In the case of The mesmerizing sound of accumulation the disposition of the ensemble on stage, and the light system resembles of a pop concert.



Despite the sound world of these piece have also some reminiscences of a pop band, mostly through the electric guitar, the sampler or the drum set, all those elements are on a twilight zone between that and the classical experimental music sound world becoming something else. This new area opens up as a result of the collision of the heterogeneous palette of cultural references of concert situations that are triggered both from the sound as from the visual aspects. Thus, one key element to arrive to this audiovisual device was the customization of some of the instruments — eg. the turntable, or programming of the electronic drum kit, the synthesizer, and finally the design, construction and programming of a light system for the needs of the piece . The color palette includes ultraviolet light that is the visual connection with The moth.



Collaboration in the development of customized technology


The challenge and at the same time, the fun part of the project was to imagine the customization of the instruments that we would use, as well as the design and construction of the light setup for The mesmerizing sound of accumulation. The departing point was to rethink the drum set and create a hybrid instrument with the capability to deliver acoustic and electronic sounds.


Thus, the setup included small table instruments on metal and wood with different sound characteristics, plus the mandatories snare drum, hi hat, cymbal and kick drum. In addition, sensors were included to each of the instruments on the setup. Those sensors would trigger a set of complex electronic sounds. Finally a turntable was included as well in the setup. Its customization led to a whole new palette of sound, gestures that demanded a more extensive work, and so The Moth came to light. After studying the principles of the turntable mechanics and its cultural references, an obvious outcome was the idea of friction. As written in the program notes of the premiere of the piece:


“Developing the musical instrument and a notation system that both the actions and the electronics processes was at the core of the collaboration between performer and composer. The turntable as a device was reconceived taking as a departure point its two basic components: the spinning platter and the tonearm. The relation between cyclic time proposed by the platter, and linear time proposed by friction of the needle in the tonearm against the surface of the record are explored during the detour of the piece. The metal surface of the platter and a customized vinyl record form together a surface divided in several areas, each of them with a distinctive timber. The tonearm was rescaled to amplify the microscopic frictions of a normal needle against a vinyl record, to the scale of human gesture: The tonearm is now the arm of the performer and the stylus are actual needles of different materials attached to contact microphones. The accidents on the surface of those objects become rhythm elements at different scales. Sometimes as part of the texture, other times emerging to the surface. The dispositive is completed by a number of electronic processes applied directly to the incoming sound of the contact mics and manipulated by the performer in real time, and a spatialization is performed live by the composer.”



The formalization and notation involved a number of discussions and trials an errors to achieve an accurate notation for the materials. As the repertoire for turntable is scarce and the few references available were related to the traditional DJ scratching techniques, we opted to create our own, and used a multiple system, each of its lines represented the different parts of the tone arm, and the real time processing of the incoming signal, as well as the cues to trigger the samples in the electronic part. In the first stages of the composition I improvised with the turntable myself until I found gestures that I could replicate with similar aural results. After those sessions, I wrote a first version that Maqueda studied and found the limitations and other possibilities that we explored. The final score is the result of this process of polishing, filtering and orchestrating the noise of friction.



Later on this instrument was included in The mesmerizing… as part of the setup, and also several passages of the solo piece were preserved and served as the base for the second part of the piece. The light setup was as well the challenge as it was completely made and programed by ourselves. The creation of this device involved another level of research and discussion to find technical solutions with compelling aesthetic results for the light to be an active formal component of the piece. This process brought once more a whole new world of possibilities that weren’t fully developed, and at the time this paper was written it’s under revision.




T-t: tonearm against turntable’s platter. P.K: pitch knob (sample bending) ordinary notation and c 2 olors: effects on/off S: Sampler (triggers pre-fixed samples)



Final thoughts: roundtrips between composing and performance


Working in collaboration requires to put aside the traditional categories in which we are educated as musicians. In this kind of projects the division between composer and performer blurs and becomes a space in which the composer is required to do more than write the score at the same time the performer gets involved in the composition process. In the case of this particular project our specialities didn’t fuse completely, as finally I was in charge of the score and Maqueda of the performance, but we were at all times exchanging opinions in both ways: the remarks from the performance side influenced the writing of the score at the same time the customization of the instruments set the framework of the project and required to adapt or create performative techniques. One important difference with the normal creative process is that it requires to acknowledge the other’s practice at a different level. The lack of reference and the specificity of the instruments involved required to develop specific techniques, and therefore it required several sessions of improvisation to explore those new sound domains.


From a broader perspective I find that the most important is that this kind of collaboration goes against the romantic idea of the lone genius, still present in the new music scene, no matter how novel the music may be. Collaborative creation aims to a collective practice, and as such, it retrieves an element that is at the core of any musical culture. The agents involved contribute from their field of work to a common project of creation, which requires an open mind set in terms of tolerance to others ideas. By allowing creative partners to try ideas on top of ones own is most times nurturing, as new points of view normally tend to enlarge or deepen something that was already implicit in the original idea. But naturally it requires an extra effort in terms of communication and tolerance. From my experience, I found that putting ideas into words should be done in a way that is clear for the other part. From the other side, it requires an extra effort to interpret others ideas, but once more an open mind set proves to be the path to understanding, to finally reach the goal of the project. A successful project of this characteristics should start from similar interests among the participants and a deep knowledge of their work guided by an open mindset.


In a more personal level, it is important to mention that by no ways I’m suggesting that individual composition should be avoided, but I believe that the mindset should be adjusted. Collaborations like this one have broaden my perspectives as a composer and nowadays I have more tools to understand performance, to communicate my ideas more clearly, orally or how I render my scores, but most importantly, I have acquired the ability to set a channel of fluid exchange with the musicians that play my music.


Geneva, June 2021





The Moth for turntable and electronics (2020) by Fernando Manassero in collaboration with Roberto Maqueda. Recorded at Grande Salle – Centre Pompidou in May 2020



The mesmerizing sound of accumulation (2020) by Fernando Manassero in collaboration with Roberto Maqueda. Recorded at Klaus Linder Saal – Hochschule für Musik FHNW Basel in August 2020


Date Published

July 2021