Overview : Pelléas et Mélisande

Debussy had planned on writing an opera for some time prior to Pelléas et Mélisande.  Much earlier he had remarked,  “For a long time I had been striving to write music for the theatre, but the form in which I wanted it to be was so unusual that after several attempts I had given up on the idea.”  And in a letter to Ernest Guiraud in 1890 he wrote: “The ideal would be two associated dreams. No time, no place. No big scene […] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome […] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters whom I see at the mercy of life or destiny.” [i]

However, it was not until Debussy discovered the new Symbolist plays of Maurice Maeterlinck that he found a form of drama that answered his ideal requirements for a libretto. [ii]

Debussy wrote no arias, no set pieces, but composed instead a seamless flow of melodic recitatives and orchestral interludes.  The music is some of Debussy’s most evocative: hushed harmonic waves, moving in parallel motion, creating tension that is not ever entirely resolved.  The voices are set onto this bed of orchestral washes, and sing-speak the lines (which Debussy took directly from the play).

The story revolves around a love triangle between Melisande and two brothers.  Prince Golaud, grandson of King Arkel of Allemonde, the older brother marries Mélisande, but Pelleas, who is much closer to her age, is her true soul mate.  The opportunity for tension because of this dynamic is great, and Debussy’s music only serves to heighten it, despite there being no overt dramatic arias or other traditional operatic moments.

Roger Désormière’s historic version from 1941 can be found in several iterations, but the easiest to find is probably the EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” released in 2006.  There is another, arguably superior transfer, on the Andante label released in 2002.

More recently, Claudio Abbado conducted what many feel is the best overall version in 1991 with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Herbert von Karajan recorded this opera in 1978, also available as an EMI’s “Great Recordings of the Century” – but because it was put on three discs instead of the customary two, it may cost more than the others.

There is a serviceable Pelléas et Mélisande on Naxos, led by Jean-Claude Casadesus, released in 1996.  But while budget priced, it comes with no libretto.  However, it is true that reading a synopsis is probably enough information to more than enjoy the work, even if knowing the work more intimately will ultimately provide you with much more enjoyment and appreciation of what Debussy accomplished.

There are also several excellent choices on DVD.

Boulez, 2002; Andrew Davis (Glyndebourne), 2005; Natalie Dessay, Bertrand De Billy, 2010; and Nikolaus Lehnhoff, 2013.  But the one I like the best, despite it being the least traditional, is the one staged by Robert Wilson and directed by Philippe Jordan, released in 2013 from a 2012 production.

To sum up, audio recordings I would suggest to consider would be the Désormière (this is tantamount to mandatory) and Abbado, and the Robert Wilson DVD.

[i] Wikipedia article, Pelléas et Mélisande (opera), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pell%C3%A9as_et_M%C3%A9lisande_(opera), accessed 04/24/2015.

[ii] Ibid.

vibraphone | timpani | choir | viola [2015-20]

I had posted a version of this work several days ago but took it down almost immediately.  After living with it, I decided it needed some editing.  I completely removed one section and shortened the first part to the last third, tightened up the middle viola solo and re-wrote the last section significantly.  The piece is now about half its original length and much improved, IMO.

focus : early music

I really enjoy listening to music from the 13th-15th centuries.  This has been an interest of mine for almost as long as my love of music.  And I am told that often people who enjoy contemporary classical music also enjoy early music, and not much in between.  While that is not entirely true for me, I enjoy Bach and Haydn quite a lot, and recently I have even been finding Mahler and other late Romantics more listenable than I’ve felt in the past – still I could be happy, if I had to, without access to any music from 1600-1900.

My early music sweet spot would include Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377), Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474); Gilles Binchois (c. 1400-1460); Josquin des Prez (c. 1450/1455-1521), with the other lesser known composers, so roughly 220 years from 1300-1520.  Music from this period is Medieval into the Renaissance.

The way I like to hear it most is by one voice per part groups (OVPP), all male if possible.

The first group like this I heard was The Hilliard Ensemble, a British male vocal quartet originally devoted to the performance of early music, founded in 1974.  The group has undergone many personnel changes, including the loss of the founding member Paul Hillier, and has also recorded (even premiered) contemporary music.  But one of their very best recordings is of music by William Byrd.

Byrd: Masses for 3, 4 & 5 Voices; Ave Verum


Most often Byrd masses are heard by a mixed chorus, with each voice doubled or more, which produces the standard choir sound.  Beautiful. However, if you have never heard this music performed by a OVPP ensemble, you have missed out on a phenomenal listening experience.  Done well, the polyphony is never clearer and each line can be imbued with the kind of emotional character solo singers routinely convey.  For this recording, Paul Hillier chose to transpose the music down in order to have it performed by male voices only.  A boy soprano was added to the Mass for Five Voices.  The Hilliard Ensemble has recorded music by all the major composers of this period, but I think they excel with English music.

Comprising six professional singers from five European countries, Cinquecento takes its name from the Italian term for the sixteenth century. The pan-European structure of the ensemble (its members are from Austria, Belgium, England, Germany and Switzerland) harks back to the imperial chapel choirs of the 16th century, whose members would have been chosen for their musicianship from Europe’s most prized musical establishments.

Formed in Vienna in October 2004 the ensemble has now established itself as one of Europe’s premier vocal sextets. The ensemble aims to bring the lesser known sixteenth-century choral repertoire from the courts of imperial Austria to a wider public, as well as performing a varied range of Renaissance polyphony with a view to illuminating to audiences the kaleidoscopic diversity of compositional styles operating within Europe over the period. Recent interest from modern composers has also seen the ensemble add a variety of contemporary works to its repertoire.

I recently bought six of their recordings but will spotlight this one:

Richafort: Requiem & other sacred music 


Richafort was a representative of the first generation after Josquin, and he followed his style in many ways. In some of his music he used fragments of Josquin’s compositions as a tribute. Richafort’s compositional techniques are typical of the period (smooth polyphony pervasive imitation, etc.) but he was unusually attentive to the clear setting of text so the words could be understood.

His requiem (1532) is written for six voices “in memoriam Josquin des Prez”.

Orlando Consort is another British OVPP male group that has been around for nearly thirty years.  They specialize in music from the mediaeval and renaissance, offering state of the art recordings of Machaut, Dufay and their lesser known contemporaries.  This is how they describe their repertory:

Our material spans a period of some 700 years, from the very beginning of western harmony to the early years of the renaissance. The programmes are based on a number of different themes individual composers, politics, geography, and religious festivals. Some deal with a specific period of years, while others trace the development of musical form through the centuries. The majority of programmes are of sacred music and often include one of the masses listed at the bottom of this page. In addition, the Orlando Consort has a considerable repertoire of secular material and is always delighted to prepare new repertoire to suit the needs and themes of particular festivals. 

One of the defining characteristics of the group is the fact that we always collaborate with expert musicologists on the preparation of editions, the application of performance practice and also on drawing from them an understanding of the context of the music. All the recordings also benefit from this approach, and you’ll see the names of some of the people who have advised us on recent projects. 

A recording I find very interesting is The Saracen & the Dove: Music from the Courts of Padua & Pavia around 1400.


The music on this recording is an example of Ars Subtilior, which might be thought of the most experimental of the medieval period.  It is a highly refined musical style of the late 14th century, centered primarily on the secular courts of southern France, Aragon and Cyprus.  Aside from the growing contrapuntal independence of the contratenor, the style is notable for an admirable tonal and motivic cohesion.

Stimmwerck is a male classical music vocal quartet ensemble specializing in the rediscovery and reproduction of the music of little known renaissance composers of the German-speaking world.  Their name reflects the ensemble’s structure and purpose. “Stimmwerck” comes from a 16th-century German term often used (for example, by Michael Praetorius) for a group of instruments of the same type but of different ranges, similar to the English term “consort of instruments”. Thus, the ensemble is a “Stimmwerck” of classically trained male voices in varying ranges, attuned to one another in skill.

The focus of their work together is the bringing of forgotten or less well-known renaissance composers of early music in the German-speaking regions once again into public recognition.

A recording that is an exceptional example of their work is:

Paminger: Sacred Vocal Works 


Leonhard Paminger was one of the most important of the early Lutheran composers who combined the style of Josquin’s successors with the native German style. He won international recognition early in his career and his works were included in French and Italian anthologies. Apart from a few German secular songs, his works consist mainly of settings of Latin antiphons, responsories, psalms, hymns and Propers, and German Protestant hymns. Most numerous among his works are the cantus firmus free motets, in which passages of free counterpoint alternate with imitative polyphony.

There are many many more recordings I could talk about, the world of early music is very large and I encourage everyone to venture outside your comfort zone and listen to early music.

Finding the recordings mentioned in this article:

Byrd: Masses for 3, 4 & 5 Voices; Ave Verum

Richafort: Requiem & other sacred music 

The Saracen & the Dove: Music from the Courts of Padua & Pavia around 1400

Paminger: Sacred Vocal Works 

They can also be found on most streaming services such as Spotify.

new works : spring 2015

Five new works

trio : double reeds + fixed media [2015-13]

Scored for oboe d’amore, english horn and bassoon and a fixed media track including samples of ocean waves.

trio : clarinets + fixed media [2015-14]

Clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet with field recording made outside my home at 8:42 am.

trio : low instruments + fixed media [2015-15]

Contrabassoon, tuba and double bass with choir and bell samples.

duo : pianos + fixed media [2015-16]

Two pianos with samples of struck objects in a variety of ambient spaces: parking garage, stairwell, cathedral and others.

duo : bass flute | bass clarinet + fixed media [2015-17]

Bass flute and bass clarinet with electronic sounds.

Antecedents of Ambient Music

It was English musician, sound designer and conceptualist Brian Eno who first officially coined the phrase “ambient music”. In the sleeve notes to his 1978 opus Ambient 1: Music For Airports he defines it as music “designed to induce calm and space to think”.  Eno’s concept of “ambience” is music that can be either actively listened to or used as background, depending on whether the listener chooses to pay attention or not.[i]

However, the antecedents of ambient music can be traced much farther back than 1978.

Elements of ambient music often include the following:

  • Slowly developing sound textures
  • Long time spans
  • Non-functioning harmonic conception
  • Incorporates environmental or field recordings
  • Can be appreciated as background music or as primary focus

Background music existed long before recent times.  Tafelmusik (German: literally, “table-music”) is a term used since the mid-16th century for music played at feasts and banquets. Often the term was also used as a title for collections of music, some of which was intended to be so used.[ii]

satieBut there is evidence that in the latter half of the 19th Century it was the development of music without form or functional harmony that eventually led closer to the idea Brian Eno articulated.  In fact, the idea of “music to be ignored” was first articulated by Erik Satie, who wrote what he called “furniture music” (musique d’ameublement).   This was music which had no set form and sections could be re-arranged as a performer or conductor wished, much like furniture in a room, and to act as part of the ambiance or furnishings.

Here’s a description from program notes of the intermission music written to be performed at the Max Jacob’s play Ruffian toujours, truand jamais:

“… ‘We are presenting today for the first time a creation of Messieurs Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud, directed by M. Delgrange, the musique d’ameublement which will be played during the intermissions. We urge you to take no notice of it and to behave during the intervals as if it did not exist.’”[iii]

A looped quality was part of the music, the sections could be played over and over for as long as needed for the intermission.  But it was another work by Satie that more closely resembles what we think of as ambient music, Vexations.

Apparently conceived for keyboard (though the single page of manuscript does not specify an instrument), Vexations consists of a short theme in the bass whose four presentations are heard alternatively unaccompanied and played with chords above. The theme and its accompanying chords are written using strikingly eccentric and impractical enharmonic notation. The piece is undated, but scholars usually assign a date around 1893 on the basis of musical and biographical evidence.

The piece bears the inscription “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities” (Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses). From the 1960s onward, this text has mostly been interpreted as an instruction that the page of music should be played 840 times.[iv]

On September 9, 1963 John Cage organized the first public concert of Vexations performed by a group of pianists until all 840 repetitions were complete, lasting over 18 hours.  This concert is when I think ambient music was born.

If one were to attempt to capture the entire history of music in a few sentences, I might suggest that music began as simple melody, slowly progressing to simple harmonies, culminating in the tonal system of functional harmonies.  By functional harmonies, what I mean is the kind of system where dissonance is resolved into consonance.  The tonal system established a foundation for music and was how composers worked for over 300 years.  But after reaching an apogee in the 18th century the tonal system began to drift until by the 20th century “atonal” music became the predominant method in which a composer would write music.  However, much music continued to be organized according to the principles of tonal music, especially popular music, right up until today.  But during the middle of the 20th century, many composers began working with sound (for sound’s sake) and writing music which was formless and primarily interested in texture and color.

It was during the latter half of the 19th century that composers began to stretch the limits of the tonal system, pushing the envelope of what could be interpreted as a consonance or dissonance.  Harmonies began to be treated relatively, with some (e.g. sevenths and seconds) which had been exclusively heard as dissonant began to be treated as consonances.  This eventually led to the complete abandonment of the idea of “functional harmony”.

Composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel would string together a series of harmonies that did not function as tonal harmonies had done historically; they were more interested in establishing a mood from the color of the sound.

Another style that could be seen as a precursor for ambient music was the Futurism style started by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1911 with his three manifestos, Manifesto of Futurist Musicians (1910), the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music (1911) and The Destruction of Quadrature (Distruzione della quadratura), (1912).  The most pertinent principle of Futuristic music regarding ambient music was their idea of the “liberation from the past and from “well-made” music”.

Futuristic music directly led to musique concrete since both utilized natural or industrial sounds pieced together, with the primary difference being that musique concrete was created with taped sounds while futuristic music was performed live with specially made instruments.

cageBut in my opinion the most important antecedent to ambient music is the music and ideas of John Cage.  It is no coincidence that John Cage also found Erik Satie’s surrealist ideas engaging, specifically Satie’s furniture music.  Cage’s music was focused on highlighting the environmental sounds around us, to shift the audience from thinking that music could only come  from the stage, by a performer.  Cage also used chance and non-western music as inspiration.  Indian Classical music often includes drones as part of the music, the Indian tanpura (or tambura, tanpuri) is an instrument precisely designed to produce drones.

Also, Cage’s music was conceived of without time constraints, another hallmark of ambient music.  One of his works, Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) is a composition in which Cage opted to omit the detail of exactly how slowly the piece should be played.  A performance of the organ version began in 2001 is scheduled to have a duration of 639 years, ending in 2640.

Morton Feldman was arguably the most important colleague of John Cage.  Feldman’s music is one which seems the closest to what someone like Brian Eno does when he records ambient music.  Feldman’s music develops slowly, and involves the repetition of tones, and often instrumental textures, and can be described as inducing a meditative state.

Cage and Feldman were working from the 1950s through the 1980s, and Brian Eno’s first ambient music was released in 1978.  Minimalist composers Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich – all whose music exhibits traits that can be identified with ambient music – followed in the 1980s.

I would diagram this evolution something like this:

Erik Satie > John Cage/Morton Feldman > Brian Eno > Terry Riley …..

Since Eno’s recording, Ambient 1: Music For Airports there have been many recordings done which express this style.  Entire genres and sub-genres have been created, e.g. new age,  spacerock, chillout, trance, dub, drone and so on.  Artists as diverse as Alvin Lucier, Taylor Deupree, and Phill Niblock continue to create ambient music.

Recommended recordings

Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Morton Feldman – Rothko Chapel

Taylor Deupree – Faint

Erik Satie – Vexations

John Cage – Cheap Imitation / Harmonies Apartment House 1776 by the Arditti Quartet

Terry Riley – Descending Moonshine Dervishes

[i] A Short History of Ambient & Downtempo Music, (Mike G.), AmbientMusicGuide.com – A history of ambient, http://www.ambientmusicguide.com/pages/history.php, accessed 11/19/2014.

[ii] Unverricht, Hubert (2001). “Tafelmusik”. In Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan.

[iii] Erik Satie’s Musique d’Ameublement, some ninety years later, Nicola Bernardini, v.1220 2008-11-23, quoted from Pierre-Daniel Templier. Erik Satie. Rieder, 1932.

[iv] “Pianoless Vexations (Erik Satie)”, UbuWeb.com.

new work : brass quintet + fixed media

A very quiet work.  This MIDI iteration of the brass quintet [ 2015 – 8 ] is scored for two cornets, tenor horn (Eb), mellophone and euphonium and fixed media, but can also be played by the standard quintet of trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba or bass trombone with slight modification.

New Voice: Sam Salem

Sam Salem

Website | Soundcloud

Sam Salem (b. 1982) currently resides in Manchester (UK), where he completed a MUSM in Electroacoustic Music Composition in 2007 and a PhD in Composition in 2011 at the University of Manchester.

Sam’s work is focused upon the sounds of urban environments: each of his pieces focuses upon a specific geographical location. His music aspires to illuminate and explore the hidden musicality and beauty of his geographical subjects, as well as his own relationship to his environment as both a source of inspiration and musical material.

He has undertaken a number of creation residencies at institutions around the world, including Ems (Stockholm, 2013-14), La Muse En Circuit (Paris, 2012-2013), Technische Universität (Berlin, 2012), STEIM (Amsterdam, 2011-12) and Musique et Recherches (Ohain, 2011). He has also been nominated and awarded in a number of international composition competitions, including: Concours Luc Ferrari (2012, Winner), Luigi Russolo Competition (2012, Audience Award), Metamorphoses (2012, Nomination), Competition Destellos (2012, Nomination), Joensuu Soundscape Composition Contest (2011, Third Prize), 11th Musica Viva Composition Competition (2010, First Prize ex-aequo) and Musica Nova (2010, Honorary Mention).

Sam is co-director of the Distractfold Ensemble, and currently teaches at Canterbury Christ Church University. 


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

As a child, I was fascinated by a micro-cassette Dictaphone. It belonged to my dad, and I remember frequently hearing the sound of his dictation. Of course, his (tape) voice was always entirely incomprehensible to me, and I used to smuggle the mysterious object out of his desk drawer… I would record household sounds, my own voice, my sisters, and the cat, before stealthily returning the recorder. 

I really have no idea what his secretary must have thought. To my dad’s credit, I don’t think that he has ever asked me about it. Is it possible that no one ever noticed the difference? That both of our voices were incomprehensible (and indistinguishable from each other) to whoever had the task of eventually decoding them? 

I also remember: my mother’s voice drifting up to my bedroom, as she sang to herself… and crying as a baby (my parent’s harried faces / the knowledge that I didn’t really need to cry).

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Having grown up in a small and somewhat grim city, I really had no clue as to the existence of  electroacoustic or contemporary instrumental music as either a genre or an activity until quite late on. When I eventually discovered electroacoustic composition in my early twenties, I knew immediately that it was what I wanted to do. 

As a boy, I was very influenced by the surge of (predominately) British electronica in the mid to late ‘90s, particularly the Warp label artists and their ilk. To my ears, they sounded very much as if they had arrived, fully formed, from a parallel universe. 

To return to the question, and thinking about the kind of music I write these days, I would say (in no order of preference) that I am, or was recently, influenced by: 

Hildegarde Westerkamp, Eliane Radigue, Luc Ferrari, Bernard Parmegianni, Scott Walker, David Berezan, John Chowning, John Cage, John Wall, Jon Hopkins. All the Johns. 

Having said that, I am probably most influenced by the work of my peers: I sincerely believe that there is more good music being produced now than at any other point in history.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

My working process can be pretty… complicated! The process is a loop, an act of sculpture: gathering and shaping materials, reflecting, adjusting. I write as much as possible, as frequently as possible, and compose continuously, from piece to piece. 

My compositional process can be both time and labor intensive. For example, my most recent work, The Fall, took around two and a half years to complete. Of course, every piece is different, and I think my preferred gestation period is around 3-4 months… but there was something about The Fall… it was an adversarial presence in my life for a little while! 

My process begins with recording. I travel to a location and make field recordings for a week or two (or preferably 3 or 4). This first step is already very important to me, along with the idea that the location should be unfamiliar. 

I travel with no preconceived notions of what I’ll find. I drift around, following my ears. It’s a way for me to be in the moment, concentrating on the present. This always results in the capture of something that seems rare or serendipitous, and gives me the sense that life is surprising, if I remember to pay attention. I love this part of the process: listening, in silent reverie. 

I’ve recorded in New York, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and most recently Stockholm, and written self-contained pieces using the materials gathered at each location. This is also very important to me: the idea that a location delineates the musical vocabulary of a piece. The challenge, and excitement, comes from finding (and exposing) the piece within my recorded materials. All these fragments of locations / strangers / events are also fragments of the past. There’s something very beautiful about exploring these fragments, which feel very distant in the studio and inhabited by ghosts… 

Next, I edit and catalogue my materials. I’m very interested in extracting information from my recordings (beyond the anecdotal!). I use digital analysis to extract spectral information, which I often re-synthesize into textural material using digital or analogue re-synthesis. I also like to work with the “behavioral” information within recordings… I annotate shapes, transients, rhythms etc., abstracting the form of a particular sound and recreating it using different materials. I then go on to create sketches, which develop into larger passages and… well, I loop around in the process for around for 3-6 months, until a piece pops out. 

To answer your original question, I do use a computer! I also use field recorders, microphones, analogue filters, effects and synthesizers, and a range of software. The contrast between working inside and outside the studio is important and very necessary to my compositional practice. 

Electroacoustic music is a technologically facilitated medium, but I’m not really too interested in exploring purely technical ideas. I love the possibilities that technology affords, and I believe in craft and skill, but I am not an engineer or technical researcher. However, I would like to push the electroacoustic medium, and the use of field recorded sound, to its limits (and then perhaps a touch further).

Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.

The piece that I would like to present is the first movement of The Fall, which is titled Too late, too far. It was constructed entirely from recordings of Amsterdam. The program note and link are below. I hope that you enjoy it. 

Too late, too far (2014) 

“I like it, for it is double. It is here and elsewhere.” Albert Camus, The Fall 

Too late, too far is part of a larger work entitled The Fall, composed between 2012 and 2014. The compositional process began during a residency at STEIM in December 2011: Amsterdam was the source from which I collected the materials for this piece. 

I think now of the unwitting owners of actions contained herein: the cyclists and joggers of Vondelpark, the man on a bridge who offered a bike for a cigarette, the swans calling across the Red Light District, the choir of Sint-Nicolassbasiliek, and the countless others, long since dispersed but not forgotten: shouting, singing, laughing, swearing, clapping. I think also of the creaks and rhythms of rocking boats, of passing trams, the ubiquitous bells and horns, the rain, wind and lapping water, and the 5:00 AM fireworks on New Year’s Day. I consider these materials as fragments of sound, but also, now, as fragments of time. Sometimes their shimmering light is obscured, sometimes it is revealed. 

This work, “peopled by bad dreams” (and the occasional good one), balances somewhere between loss and hope: after more than two years of work, this is its final character. 

Too late, too far was premiered during the Distractfold Ensemble showcase at the 47th International Summer Course for New Music, Darmstadt, 12th August 2014.