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Writing about music with a writing machine
The ideas behind the piece „Writing Machine“
by Nicolas Bernier

“Writing Machine” is an acousmatic concert piece written for eight channels. It was inspired by the American author William S. Burroughs and is based on observations of the relationship between his work and electro acoustic music.

I am fascinated by his writing technique, which is called “cut-up”. This technique consists of taking several texts, cutting parts of them out and reassemble them in an aleatoric manner until getting the desired result. I applied that technique to the words of the author until I got new structures, a text yet unpublished.

Burroughs had himself undertaken similar experiences with tapes. While experimenting with sound, he discovered a way to deconstruct language. It is the deconstruction of language that I wanted to explore in my piece. When hearing “Writing Machine” the listener will not recognise Burroughs’ original text but recognising some words will bring to mind a feeling of similarity and proximity to the literary world of the author.

But Burroughs’ world of words does not for me resemble his literature as such. His words evoke images in the mind, abstract landscapes, textures, and colours, places where form will rise at times above its foundation. I applied the electro acoustic processing to the voice in the same sense so that the words would not remain words at such but be transformed into aesthetic elements. I distorted the words so they would be difficult to understand and their material qualities would overcome its semantic or narrative qualities.

The piece starts with a long montage of very densely packed words. By leaving out any punctuation and any breathing spaces by the speaker, I wanted to create a phrase that could go on infinitively. Always keeping in mind the desire to translate the effect the reading of Burroughs’ work had on me into music, I wanted to evoke this idea with a gesture that had no end, with a pulsation that never seems to want to cease. In this introduction, the listener can familiarise himself with words used throughout the piece but which as a result of the distortion might become incomprehensible.

The rhythm remains present throughout “Writing Machine” for a long time. The short sonic elements, which lard the piece, often articulate a relationship with the text. Sometimes they are used to (…).

The other important rhythmic element, one more naïve, is found at the end of the piece. The term “heavy metal” is actually believed to have been coined by William Burroughs and I’m trying to integrate music of this name. In the way distortion is applied to the short sonorous elements throughout the piece the relationship with Heavy Metal becomes most evident. At the end of the piece, the electric guitars drown in an ocean of distorted elements, an obvious reference to heavy metal.

The following quote from the text "Sound Identity Fading Out: William Burroughs’ Tape Experiments" by Robin Lydenberg sums up pretty well my intention of exploring rhythm and language in "Writing Machine".

„(…) Burroughs’ tape cut-ups often produce an assaultive pulsation (…) leaving the listener unable to construct context, linear sequence, or even syntax from what he hears and thus liberating him or her from these imposed patterns of thought. As he (Burroughs) explains in "The Ticket That Exploded", “The content of the tape doesn’t seem to effect the result”; the power resides instead in the rhythm, in patterns of alternation at specific intervals.“

The material
Apart from the voice, the major part of the sonic material actually does come from a typewriter. By turning my attention to this object, I discovered its large pallet of musical functions. I was quite amused by it, it turned out that that writing machine offered a whole world of sounds: a bell for the high (very pure) sounds; the carriage that is pushed back for the (…) sounds (which have a very wide spectrum of frequencies) and the keys for percussive sounds.

So, my starting point is a typewriter, which I can write music with, with which I could transform musically and metaphorically the material, which appeared before me when reading Burroughs.

I find that throughout all of Burroughs’ literature certain groups of words are transformed into material by reoccurring. By being repeated, the words loose their meaning, they become detached from their subject matter and change into form. They change into decorative parts (…). For example, the “frequency of junk” for me is a strong image, which dominates the setting of Burroughs’ “cut-up” trilogy. Using the sounds of the bell of the typewriter I transpose this “frequency of junk” into music.

For me this all comes down to distortion and metal. The distortion to create metallic sounds, the “heavy metal” guitars, the percussion sounds of the keys hammering against the metal of the typewriter. Reading Burroughs has definitely metallic qualities for me. Metallic with all its rupture, its rigidity, its purity and its violence.

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