Creating Music in the Factory of Sound
Elizabeth Thompson

Every two years, the town of Romont, Switzerland, transforms itself for a day. Or, to be precise, for 20 hours. 20 Heures de musiques Romont is a music festival that showcases a variety of genres, including jazz, pop, and classical. Usually, new music doesn’t take the main stage, but on September 22, 2012, the headline act was a daring, new composition by John Supko, Hunt Family Assistant Professor of Music at Duke University.

Usine (“factory”) began when the festival opened at 4 am and continued, without interruption, for 20 hours until the festival ended at midnight. The piece was commissioned specifically for the event by six-musician ensemBle baBel, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

ensemBle baBel considered performing a transcription of French composer Erik Satie’s Vexations, a piano work consisting of a short theme that that the performer is instructed to repeat 840 times in a row. However, the ensemble decided they would prefer to present a new work that paid homage to Vexations and Satie’s aesthetic. “They contacted me because my dissertation was on Satie,” says Supko, “but Usine was inspired by a number of other things, as well, including the work of John Cage, since this is his centennial year. The title itself comes from a chapter in Les champs magnétiques, a book by early surrealist writers André Breton and Philippe Soupault. Les champs magnétiques is an experiment in automatic writing, and my piece employs a similar technique with musical materials.”

Two sets of musical ideas, one in b-flat minor and the other in g minor, presented in 90-second cycles, form the framework of Usine. Every 90 seconds, a gong sounds and a new cycle begins. The performers make musical choices within the prescribed sets of material and are in dialogue with each other, as well as with a computer, which generates a new electronic sound environment—from more than 24 million possibilities—at the beginning of every cycle. These sound environments can include fragments of music by Ravel, Mozart and other composers, as well as what Supko describes as “glitchy noise samples,” and excerpts from 1950’s interviews with Breton and Soupault. When combined with human performance the result is a generative piece in which each musician’s contribution grows organically out of the sound world they hear spontaneously created around them.

“Usine is a work about surpassing limitations: physical, musical, even the limits of the imagination. The performers never know just how they might react to each other or to the computer-generated material, and neither do I, for that matter. I like the fact that, as the composer, I can be as surprised by this music as anyone else in the audience.”

How do the musicians hold up throughout a 20-hour performance? “I stipulated there must be at least two instrumentalists playing at all times,” says Supko. “Sometimes all six are playing, and sometimes other combinations of between two and five. Individuals can drop out and take breaks as necessary.”

Even with breaks, performing a 20-hour composition can’t be easy, but the members of ensemBle baBel are up to the challenge: they will present Usine again in Amsterdam in April 2013.