Richard Beaudoin © Justin Hoke
Richard Beaudoin © Justin Hoke

Richard Beaudoin’s microtiming

par Cinzia Rota | le 28 février 2018

We met the American composer Richard Beaudoin, who explained us microtiming: the composing technique he invented and perfected over the years.


Your composing technique is based on microtiming. What was the genesis of it ?

The genesis comes from my own interest in music of the past, but it really began when I met Olivier Senn, a researcher from Switzerland who came to Harvard in 2009, and gave a talk about measuring the duration of every sound in a recording by Martha Argerich: the prelude Op. 28, no. 4 in E minor by Chopin [1975 Deutsche Grammophon].

And when I saw this, I thought — I told him in fact, at that very event — that it was like the splitting of the atom. Something extraordinary had opened up for me because I could «see» a performance, see what the ear hears, in rhythm.

Just like the splitting of the atom, this technique has positive and negative consequences. In the negative sense, you could try to ‘teach’ musicians how to play rubato, which could be terrible. In the positive sense, as a composer, I sensed that there could be a new kind of material, which would be involved in the transcription into music notation of a performance, including the rhythmic proportions. This would give a very unusual surface, a very unusual rhythmic landscape — almost like the cantus firmus practice of the Renaissance and before, and yet different.

That was in February 2009 when he gave the talk, and by the end of summer, I had written already four of what would become twelve works, called Études d’un prélude, based on the Chopin. That was how it began.


And how did you elaborate this idea then?

The elaboration of that initial moment has become the last eight years of my life. My initial feeling was of great energy, and I did some things which I now consider as very simple. For example, I made a piece which was a little bit strange — very strange, in fact — called Chopin desséché (the title playing on Satie’s Embryons desséchés). I reduced the Chopin/Argerich material to just the moment of attack, but I preserved all of Chopin’s notes. It was a strange thing, and even now I feel strange about this piece. But it was the first thing I had to do, to create a space for myself.

At the time, I was studying a lot of French music interested in the spectrogram — music of Grisey and others, and Murail. I realized suddenly that I was looking at the rhythmic aspect and not the overtones. The first thing that I did was something that the spectralists did at the beginning, too, which is very pure, almost naïve, but exciting. So I made these experiments. In the intervening years, I have developed many more flexible and deeper ways of involving microtiming as a compositional material. This involves not being always faithful to the durations, but altering them as I wish.

This is like being a photographer, or perhaps like a painter who paints from life. One imagines Cézanne going to the field with an easel, and he has a scene in front of him. But the thing he creates is a kind of collection of those images, and re-forming them. But they are based on reality.

In my pieces since 2009 — after the initial ‘pure’ moment — I’ve become more like a painter. I see this picture, for example, of Glenn Gould performing Schoenberg, or of Thelonious Monk improvising. I see this rhythmic picture, but I don’t feel the need to always reproduce it perfectly. Mostly perfectly, yes, but then I use my own instinct — almost as a painter would — to re-shape.

I have a book of Cézanne paintings where you see the photograph of the scene he was painting, and also what he painted. The changes are profound. It must be true then of what I do now with these microtimings: the alterations are where I show my identity, and I show my shaping of material as a composer.


Very interesting. The comparison with painting is really effective.

Well, I am quite close with a great British painter named Glenn Brown, who had an an exhibition at the Van Gogh’s Foundation in Arles. I was just at his home, in Darsham, England, some time ago.

While he didn’t give me these ideas, we are incredibly sympathetic about this way of working. So my interest in painting for an analogy is not just casual — and it’s not just about Cézanne, for example — it is about how one might work today.


So how do you choose the pieces you use?

At the beginning, I didn’t. At the beginning, I used what Olivier Senn and his colleagues had measured, because these measurements take a long time. Maybe a little bit less now, but certainly a few weeks of very intense work.

At the beginning, it was these Classical sources, and these Romantic sources, and frankly this was problematic, because people thought that I was interested in old music. But really, I was just interested in what I could find.

When I was in London last year, I heard the premiere of a new piece for solo cello called You Know I’m Yours, based on a fragment of an improvisation on Body and Soul by Thelonious Monk. That’s another kind of material.
And I’ve just received — though I’ve never made a piece as of the date of this interview —some of the master tapes from the 1970s of Stevie Wonder, a great American popular musician with a voice which is incredibly fluid. The song is “Superstition”, which is a song you might know. So I have just the voice as an audio, just the keyboard on another audio. And I think I will make a work with these sources.

It is part of a larger project. In some ways, my vision of these sources is almost like a small history, in and of itself. For example, Webern’s Piano Variations [op. 27] played by Pollini — this was the source of three works. Casals playing Bach. Baroque music. The Chopin which I mentioned. This recent set of pieces — one of which is called Bacchante, a solo cello piece — is Debussy’s own Welte-Mignon recording of his first prélude.

So here we have recordings that come to us from microphones, like the Casals, but we also have recordings that come to us in different ways, like the Welte-Mignon. If I were to think about the next several years of my life, I would think about looking at more varied sources, because now I have enough confidence in my identity.

It’s quite complicated to compose this way. One is not simply inventing ‘from zero’ every time. Therefore, the group of sources that you surround yourself with is like a relationship you have with a person for some years. They need to be carefully chosen, but they also must be spontaneous, somehow. It’s not a question of looking at a history book.

The most important aspect of a source, for me, is the fluidity of the initial performance. If I feel a performance is stiff, or somehow very slow, in a ‘dying’ sort of way, I can’t take it. I need to have vitality, so when the source gets elongated in the process, it still has some life.

But I don’t want it to have too much life! In a way, I kill it a little bit. When I stretch it out, I make it ‘low’ again and then I can bring it back to life.

For example, in the La fille aux cheveux de lin, I knew that I wanted to choose that work, and I went into the Harvard library and looked at all the recordings. We have a recording from 1927, by a pianist whose name I don’t recall now, but very rare and we have Cortot playing in 1931.

Cortot plays this work in around two minutes and twenty seconds, while Michelangeli’s recording is something like three minutes and ten seconds, which, by percentage, is extraordinary. It is almost adding 30% to the work, maybe more.

For me, the Cortot is full of life. Its full of a spontaneity. In fact, he wrote about the Debussy piece and said ‘she’s this young girl, she’s near the water, she might be looking at objects’. When you hear Michelangeli play it, it is not a girl anymore. It is like a kind of … statue of a woman. Frankly, its so majestic … I can’t bring it into my life. In fact, I don’t care to listen to that recording.

I have to be a little bit in love with the source, in a complex sense. I might not like it. When you love someone, its not a question of just admiring. So, I look for instinctive aspects that make me think: ‘yes, I want to investigate. I want to live in this phrase.’

Because in my music I really will live. I will live multiple lives in that phrase, because on a single source — on that ‘la fille’ — I made a series of works called The Artist and his Model. It’s six different works, each of a different length and with a different instrumentation. So each time a phrase will come, I have a different reaction to it. So therefore you want to have a good source, to build on.


Today, when you start a new composition, what inspires you?

I’m most interested in “recording” the world that I inhabit, psychologically, recording the impressions of what it is like to live today, and what I experience. Often my piece might have a source from the past, and it might be for a certain kind of ensemble which has a history, etcetera, but really I am always only writing about my own experience of the world and these other objects serve as abstractions that allow me to do it.

The first thing I move toward when I’m making a work would be sound itself. A kind of color in a sound that has an openness. Sound that has no edge, we could say. I don’t mean a sound within the source, but a sound that I imagine. That particular color suggests me a certain sound world that I keep with me while I work.

I have a source and a text, but this little guide (or instinct) is with me all along. By the time I’ve finished a piece, I don’t know the sound anymore. I’ve sort of molded it like a sculptor might, and then its part of the piece.

There is a beautiful quote from Proust, he says something like: “The older I get, the less and less I trust knowledge”. [The actual quote, from the opening of the prologue of Contre Saint-Beuve, is “Every day I set less store on intellect. Every day I see more clearly that if the writer is to repossess himself of some part of his impressions, get to something personal, and to the only material of his art, he must put it aside.” In the original: Chaque jour j’attache moins de prix à l’intelligence. Chaque jour je me rends mieux compte que ce n’est qu’en dehors d’elle que l’écrivain peut ressaisir quelque chose de nos impressions, c’est-à-dire atteindre quelque chose de lui-même et la seule matière de l’art.]

I think that is a true statement, because Proust “went through” all of knowledge first. He was a great educated man; he could write parodies of every other author. We are talking about a giant intellect. So it is not a question of saying, at the beginning of your life: “I want to be naïve”. No. You go through your life, and you gain a lot of knowledge, but at some point — perhaps at many points — you remember that all of that knowledge has gone back in, and you move to an instinctive place.

I’ve been at Harvard for eight years, and it has been a great time of ‘collecting’ a kind of knowledge, because there are people with conflicting ideas here, and also that come here to talk. And yet, when I read that little line, I recall that, when I’m composing, I’m not throwing my knowledge at the page. In fact, I’m undressing myself — down to my instinctive self — and then just imagining things.

All the knowledge is still there. Do you see? That’s the truth of it. In our field, especially because our field lives around academia, it is the case that the psychology of knowledge can get in the way and it can create a music which is quite sterile.

For me with microtiming and with this way of working, I feel the opposite. I feel that I have a hundred children still to be born, and that I don’t even know who their parents will be, exactly. I feel as though I’m scratching the surface. This is, in part, because no one else seems to want to do what I do.


So there is no one doing the same research?

No, there are now, but no one at the beginning, certainly. Now that I have been working, I receive messages sometimes from composers, in the UK and London mostly, that say “I’ve heard a piece … and I’ve been doing this … I’ve been thinking, or maybe I might try…” And I always try to give some encouragement, because I’m sure it will be very different than what I do. I’ve also received what might be construed as criticism or puzzlement from a tradition, because lately, certainly in Europe and also in America, this is not the normal way to work.

‘Borrowing’ — broadly speaking — ‘appropriation’ has been going on for centuries. Within the modern environment, and even since Beethoven, there’s been the sense that the composer is someone who creates ex nihilo — which is, I think, sort of a silly construct. Mind you, I deeply love Beethoven’s music and teach it and think about it. But in the 20th century …

And now here I want to make a point, actually: in the 20th century we have this continuing sense that the titans of the 20th century were also creating ‘from nothing’, but the more we know about them, the more I really see the work that I do as being directly in line with the preoccupations of Stravinsky, for example — who was an enormous borrower and transformer of material — and with Luciano Berio, who I also think is a grand titan.

Then, the real shock for me came from the scholar Yves Balmer at the Paris Conservatoire who is just at this moment publishing a giant book and also an article about Messiaen as a truly hungry borrower, as a borrower who is a glutton, sometimes. Who is filling himself up with Massenet, and with Debussy, of course, and also with Hindu chant and birdsong. There is some hint of Boulez being involved [in this practice], as these researchers have come close to feeling that Boulez might have learned such techniques.

I find in this a great confidence — a great inspiration — because there is not a composer in the world that is more original than Stravinsky, Berio, or indeed Messiaen. We don’t worry about these things. To find out that they are engaged with listening to the music around them, and involving it somehow, is completely natural for me.

But I think this tradition has been pushed outside. And so the mainstream of the ‘post-spectral’ composers is not one of borrowing and appropriation, and I actually think their music might benefit [from it], sometimes. Or maybe they are doing it already and they are just not telling. (laughs)


So now let’s talk about time, because time is one of the most important topics for a composer. And especially your work is about time — the time of the the original piece, of the first score, the time of the interpreter, then the time you choose to use, and then the new time that you create with the ‘global’ piece. And then the time of the listener, that comes in the end. So can you tell us maybe about your vision of time?

When I began working in this way, I became infatuated with time. I probably was beforehand, but it became such a central aspect. In the same way that a spectral composer might be so obsessed with color.

Time is a discipline in its own right. It is a beautiful and dangerous subject: as soon as you try to investigate it, it escapes you completely. There are theories where it exists, there are theories that it doesn’t exist.

When you come to an elemental level, it is a conundrum. Mind you, it is not a conundrum for me, because it is a plastic, malleable aspect of my art, which is a chiefly temporal art. Even more than playwriting, which has temporal characteristics … even painting has a certain temporality. But music is seemingly about the coloration of time, principally. It is about the control of time, the shaping of time, the ability to seduce your own mind and the mind of someone else using a kind of …

…You move the air in the room in a certain way, and yet create in another person, a feeling of a different time. I haven’t said that before, but that might be the chief reason why I been in love with composing music since I was a child. That very aspect whereby I could vibrate the room in the certain way, in a certain sequence, and it can enact a kind of reshaping of time. That summarizes how deeply I feel about time.

But what I’ve learned in these eight years of working with microtiming — and the kind of freeing that I feel from the ‘pure’ beginnings — is that there is more to music than time, and one cannot rely only upon it. I would recall Grisey and the lessons from the spectralists, which is to say, [the lessons of] color : when one hears a work by a great spectral composer, one is thinking about time just as much as color. And so it goes both ways.

Microtimings de Richard Beaudoin

Microtimings de Richard Beaudoin

In Microtimings, a recording I released in 2012, most of the works are quite ‘pure’. And when When I hear them again, I see my own blindness to a music that is both more independent of time and also attached to time. Some of those pieces move in that direction, but the music I’m making now is much freer with regard to time.

Actually, it is not a bad analogy : remember when I was talking about Proust and this idea of moving through knowledge or intellect? The music that I’m making right now is deeply connected to time — certainly the time of a recording and the millisecond level measurements of the sound events in sequences. And yet the next step frees it completely from those times. The information and the inspiration are still there, but I have a ‘freer hand’.

We could refer again to the painting analogy, where late Cézanne could make a very abstract rendition of a landscape. The representation is somehow very distant, and yet you know that his eye is still as focused on all of those details. He chooses to be freer. I am choosing actively to be freer with the ‘hyper-focus’ on the temporal object. It is still there at the beginning.

I think there is so much more to do with microtiming — with inventions and innovations from this initial idea — that might take the timing of my pieces into a different place, into the realm of the ‘very long’ or the ‘very short’ or the ‘very active’.

I will tell you this — for anyone who might encounter my music before or after listening to this interview — the profile, the experience of, let’s say, five of my works or ten of my works, is often quite different from piece to piece. You have some pieces which are quite slow — they sometimes have the color of work of [Morton] Feldman. Others which are hyperactive and etched and quite rhythmically specific. And things in the middle. Songs, that are sometimes more fluid and from a Lieder tradition. I know that this is confusing to some people [who expect] a kind of ‘single identity’, a ‘single harmonic identity’. But [for me] it is this preoccupation with time. If you looked at all of those works, and you understood their relationship with how they unfold in time — the sense of what a phrase is, the sense of the relationship to the source (but even without knowing the source) — you would see a great uniformity.

When people are confused by this, I often remind them of the output of Stravinsky, for example, who frankly shouldn’t have written all the pieces that he wrote. They don’t sound like they can come from one person. But as time goes by, we come to see that they are all fused, and that there are preoccupations. This for me is a great way to live.

I know you have been in America now for a year. You can see that this is not a country that is interested in one way of anything — one way of eating, one way of living, one way of identifying in the world. Its geography is also extreme: one thinks of the Grand Canyon, of New York City, of the Great Plains, and all the coasts, and Hawaii, and part of that imbues itself in an American psyche which doesn’t say: “Our music sounds like this, every time. The next generation will move things ahead two inches, and their music will sound like this…”

One thinks of Boulez — a composer who I admire so greatly — and how his late period sounds like the music Debussy would have made. And I admire that kind of closeness. (Obviously Le marteau would not have been made by Debussy, but …explosante-fixe…, or when one hears Memoriale, one thinks how close it is.)

In America, we simply don’t move in those increments. We go to a different road and we travel away from the source, away from the center, rather than with a feeling of linearity. You [Cinzia] know some of the current French scene, but I would be interested to see what younger French composers feel about that continuity. Because here [in America] we don’t feel it. We feel ourselves, and our environment, and then we are imaginative. We hopefully are imaginative. (laughs)


You studied in England and in the States, so you have this vision of two different ways of approaching composition and music…

Yes. When I went to England the first time I was, I think, 20 years old. I was stunned to learn that what the English composers were interested in at that time — which was 1996 — was American music. They taught me how little I knew about my own country, and my own music. They would cite Charles Ives to me, and I would say, well I’m sort of embarrassed by Charles Ives sometimes, with the quotations of these rousing songs. And they would say ‘no, no, listen again’. Morton Feldman’s music — I’ve admired it, I’d say, but it is quite … and they’d say ‘no, no, listen again’. The ideas of Cage, which were still very strong in England. I had an education about my country for the first time only when I left.

In my mature work — I’m 40 years old now —my music is more well-understood, more often performed, and well received in England. I think there are probably reasons for that, I don’t fully understand all of them, but certainly the analogy with painting …

My music is written with a pencil, in the sense that I don’t write electronic music, so there is a kind of standard tradition, but there is [also] a conceit. There is something slightly conceptual about transcribing a recording. The combination of a conceptual underpinning with a craft of presenting, seems to be well-understood in England, even well-liked.

Whereas in America, I think that writing your music down on paper generally — except in certain circles — is confusing. In that case, the idea that there is some ‘conceit’… For example if I go to Tanglewood, and I talk about what I’m doing, I think there is a sense that, they might say ‘you should really get rid of that cantus firmus business, and write some tunes, some melodies, some harmonies that will be invigorating and people will like them’. That’s not where the music in me lives. The ideas and the intertextuality of these different times is what brings me close to music.

I feel at this moment — though I think it will change — with those two educations that you mentioned, it is in England where there is a reception. People will give a paper about it, or make a recording and I don’t know about it. I’ve been invited next year to be a research fellow there — at the Royal Academy of Music, London — to basically to teach about microtiming and to teach about these ways of working, and so we will see where that goes.


You are currently a teacher at Harvard. What are the most important things that you teach to your students about composing?

I think — when I teach — about how I was taught. In this sense: I was not told what to do, even how to do it, but I was told to really investigate my own sense of the world. And I think the success — ‘success’ is a strange term — the energy that I feel around composition, which is the source of my whole life, is grown inside me. It is true of my parents, who are not musicians. When I said I would like to study music, they said ‘we’ll take you to your lessons’. They had no idea what they were doing, but they supported the interior desire that I had. With students I try to do the same.

I do two things: if we are looking at a piece from the past, I put the students in the position of ‘what decisions the composer had to make” and I often recompose with them. I say, let’s take this phrase. You take a piece of Lachenmann, you write the first two measures, and then you say, ‘continue’. Then you show them what Lachenmann has in his own measure three. You ask: ‘Why is this? What is he responding to?’It is in a re-composition that you see a way of going forward. What will you do next year in your life? What will I do next year, in my life? How we continue a thought.

The other thing that I do with students — and this I think, perhaps, is in some American tradition – is that I don’t assume that anything in the future will be like what it is now. I want to prepare them to have an innovation, or a confidence, or a dream of a music, that maybe exists, but probably doesn’t exist, which they then can follow. Because I don’t think that the world in contemporary music is simply going to wait for someone to move the ball two feet.

I think the there will be certain revolutions … There are already, let’s be honest. So, I would us the word innovation not in a ‘computer-science’ sort of way, like Google or Apple, but to give [students] a sense that is not going to be good enough for them — and even for me — just to write a good phrase. But to think of what music is, in our society, might lead them to make a piece for police sirens, or a piece that occurs over a year’s time, but it also might have them writing piano music phrase by phrase. When you push a student to that level — when the whole conception is ‘in their lap’ — then you find out who is sitting in front of you.

I often joke that everyone speaks, but not everyone writes music. But I would like if you were to write a piece of music, or someone else, because when you write a piece of music, nothing is hidden. You simply can’t use a rhetorical [device], you can’t use the tone of your voice, you can’t rely on being beautiful, but when you write a piece of music you separate from yourself, and put your identity on the page. So, when a group of young composers all writes new pieces, you can see everything about them at that moment.

That is a great, but terrifying, part of music. It takes courage for a student, and for anyone, to say ‘this is what I’ve made, and it is just [made of] sounds’. It is not a speech about civil rights; it doesn’t have the obvious beauty of a fashion model. You are saying: ‘these are sounds that are in this order’. I try to teach a student how naked or how exposed we all are, as composers. Then you realize that you have to make something now that is ‘real’.

I should say that I don’t teach them to do what I do. Maybe in the future, I might, now that there are more examples. I’ve made maybe 28 or 29 works in this way. But I wouldn’t be interested to have a little school where someone came and I taught them how to make a microtiming and then they went off. I would be interested for a student, or for any other composer, to have a conception different from mine.

I was talking with a very fine American composer named Eric Wubbels, in New York City — a really fine pianist who plays Peter Ablinger’s music, and quite complex music — and I admire his music as a contemporary. It’s very different from mine. He made a piece recently and it involved some Schubert, surprisingly. We were talking after he performed it in a small concert, and he said that he realized, as he was writing it, that he was doing something like I was doing, meaning invoking this music of the past. I don’t know whether he was using a recording or not. But even composers that have very a different viewpoint will ultimately find themselves — because of an invention — visiting the ideas of another composer.

I think that’s what Messiaen did, actually, to come back to Yves Balmer’s work. I think Messiaen was writing and he thought: ‘this phrase of Mozart just does the right thing, and so I won’t take it exactly, but I’ll take what I need’. He wasn’t ‘kneeling down’ before Mozart, and he wasn’t trying to ‘kill’ Mozart in a kind of Oedipal sense — to ‘destroy’ your parents or anything of this sort. I think he was saying that there is no better way to make the next moment in my piece than to bring in this construction, this shape, this miniature structure.

I will say — contra Messiaen — that in my music I don’t quote at all. My music has an entire music underneath it, as a substructure, but at no time do you hear a little bit of this, or a little bit of that. Whereas with Messian it is quite the opposite. His substructures are entirely his own, it seems to me. He is not borrowing sonata forms or any of that —certainly he didn’t use recordings like I do — but his surface, his moment-to-moment, is a way of crossing the river by way of stepping on this pebble or on this stone. He uses other composers to step across these little rivers, and so it is a kind of a yin and yang in terms of how I think about borrowing, and how he thought about borrowing. Yes, he’s an enormously influential figure. I’m sure that French composers know how beloved he is in the United States, but in case they need to be reminded. (laughs)

(De gauche à droite) Richard Beaudoin, Pauchi Sasaki, Steve Smith, Suzanne Farrin, et Tyshawn Sorey à The Kitchen, Chelsea, New York, Decembre 2016 © Nomi Sasaki

(De gauche à droite) Richard Beaudoin, Pauchi Sasaki, Steve Smith, Suzanne Farrin, et Tyshawn Sorey à The Kitchen, Chelsea, New York, Decembre 2016 © Nomi Sasaki

So let’s talk about your actual work. You are currently working on a song cycle based on Paul Celan’s German translations of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Can you tell us about this project?

In fact, there are two projects right now, and they feel quite different, and sit on different parts of my desk.

This Celan project began when I was the guest of Bertrand Badiou, a scholar of Paul Celan at the École normale supérieure. He knows that I live almost next door to Emily Dickinson’s house [in Amherst, Massachusetts] — in fact, he came to my house when he was in America. He told me that Dickinson was translated by Celan, and I was stunned by this idea. I knew Celan’s poetry, and while in spirit they are both philosophical visionaries, in actuality they are very different poets. I was excited, and as a gift to Bertrand I set one of them, for voice and piano, and I gave him the manuscript.

About a year went by — more than a year — and while it is not common for me to react musically to world news, the events in Paris last fall occurred, with the Bataclan. The Dickinson poems are all about the experience of death — not as a negative, but as a sort of philosophical truth. In the few days after, I made another setting. I had been reading the Celan poems over and over again. Then it opened out, and I started continuing. The piece has no relationship to the terrorist act, but perhaps I just thinking about France again.

The inside of this work is an example of a ‘free’ use of microtiming. Here the microtiming is Glenn Gould in 1965 recorded the Schoenberg op. 19, no. 1, with his creaking chair which creaks (as the chair I’m sitting now creaks), and he hums and he sings. All of those sounds are microtimed. The first piece that I made with it is a chamber work called New York Mikrophon: the microphone captures everything, not just the notes and not just Schoenberg’s piece.

I also like that the ‘transatlantic-ness’ of Schoenberg and Gould, of Celan and Dickinson, of myself — as you might know, my father was born in America of French descent, my mother was born and raised in Poland. And so there was a lot of transatlantic thinking.

The songs are not continuous microtimings of Schoenberg. It is Dickinson’s poetry, or Celan’s poetry; it is neither, really, it is neither Dickinson nor Celan in that piece. The piece’s title is …mit einem Zwischenkreis. ‘Zwischenkreis’ is a technical term for a a kind of connected circuit in electronics. That phrase is in Celan’s translation — so I see this circuit of artists, of poets, of musicians, of myself, with really nobody at the center.

In this piece, whenever Celan’s or Dickinson’s poetry asks a question, the Schoenberg/Gould material comes, a little bit. But it is probably 90% free composition and 10% borrowed. This set of songs is the first time I’ve used microtiming like that. It is much freer. If you like, it glances in the direction of the source, when it wants to, whereas the earlier ‘pure’ pieces are fixated ansare staring right into the source’s eyes, all the time.

If I can speak about the other work, because I want to show the contrast. This other work is for flute and eight voices. The flautist is Claire Chase, and the voices are Roomful of Teeth. In the case of the microtiming— just to be specific — it is based on a microtiming of Claire Chase herself playing the Varèse — also a composer with French and American heritage — the Denisty 21.5 of 1936.

So Claire is playing a piece which is about her own recording. The title of that piece is Another woman of another kind. That refers to a line in one of the poems, but also involves the duality of Claire now — as a performer — and Claire’s prior self, which will be sung and played in the piece.

That is a work of seven movements; they are all somehow related to the microtiming, but only one of them properly annunciates the Varèse as a microtiming. Only one of them does what I have done in the past, and the others do many [other] things.


Interesting. So when can we listen these pieces?

A few of the Celan songs were recorded here at Harvard by Sarah Pelletier and Lois Shapiro. The flute piece — Another woman of another kind for flute and voices — will be given in New York in early December 2016 in a couple of performances at The Kitchen [in Chelsea], and then I believe Claire is going to tour with it. While I was in London we were talking to European choirs about performing it. In fact, the vocal parts will also be recorded, and so the piece will also be playable as a work for flute and four audio speakers, where the voices will come out of the air.

The text for that piece are certain unpublished poems by Paul Griffiths, the great writer, music historian, music critic, the librettist for Elliott Carter’s opera What’s Next?, librettist for Tan Dun, librettist for Hans Abrahamsen recent piece …let me tell you. The Abrahamsen [text] is very moving, it is told using the words of Ophelia, whereas these new poems are quite quick, sort of comic, in an absurdist sense. They are not a metaphysical rumination on existence. They are a kind of … in Italian you might say commedia. A ‘comedy’—a Dantesque comedy — about identity.

There is a line: “It seems I should remember what to say / but in my mind I hear strange troubles speak / and I, concealed in silence, shall not play;” There is another line: “These words, I will say this, are not my own, / I mouth the lines, and see them as they die”

In this piece, there is all this discussion of words that are not yours, the idea of utterances that you can see, and move around. It is very — yes, you are pointing at me, but its true — when I read these poems I thought (he calls them ‘stories’ actually) — when read these stories I thought that these poems are effectively about the way I compose. Which is why I have an enormous energy for this piece right now.

The Celan/Dickinson songs were an experience of a certain kind, but the fact that the poetry was older contrasts greatly with the feeling I have about the flute and voices piece, which is taking me right into the present day. The stories of Griffiths … have a freshness. One of them begins like this “If you think about it, life, if you think about it, think about it, if you think about it, when you think about it, life, life, life, when you think about it, when you think about it, would you think about it? Life, life, life, life, life, life, life, life, life, life…”

They are unusual. They have these ‘looping’ characteristics about them. And the piece has eight voices, and flute, so the flute is very much the main event, but there are so many possible narrators. There are so many possible ‘I’s (meaning ‘je’).There is a competition, in a way, in this ensemble for who is the identity. That’s why I say it is a commedia of identity.

The Griffiths texts seem to be the perfect texts for me, because I have been ‘feeling’ this piece — I say that in an abstract sense — greater than I have felt about a piece for a little while. Once it is finished, it will mark a kind of change in period for me, if only because to react to this text is to need to invent some kind of new music.

But also — and I’ll stop after this, because you can see, when I am working on a piece, I can say a few words — the Varèse is not the governing object; it’s just one object. And the Griffiths poems are not the governing object; they are just one object. For the first time [there is] a kind of new balance between these objects. I mentioned before that when I began this way of working, it was one object, and it was governing. Now, I have a kind of identity where I can pick up these objects, turn them in my hand, put them down, and pick up another object. So the freedom that I feel in this piece is greater than I have before.

It is the same as you, as a journalist: you get better at things, frankly.


Like everything in life. It is normal.

And you see it in the old composers, too.


And even in art, in everything. Painting…

Yes. The important aspect is not to stop: you know if you keep working you will turn up — almost like a farmer turns the soil — you will turn up something that can be very fruitful.



Interview conducted by Cinzia Rota on the 19th of April 2016 at the Harvard University Department of Music.

Since giving this interview in April 2016, Mr Beaudoin has completed several new commissions: (1) Another Woman of Another Kind for Claire Chase and Roomful of Teeth, premièred at The Kitchen in New York City in 2016, (2) Digital Memory and the Archive for violoncellist Neil Heyde, premièred in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2017, (3) I Only Play for Roomful of Teeth, premiered in the Rose Building at Lincoln Center in 2017, (4) Superstition for Roomful of Teeth, premièred at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017, and (5) AH ZI ZA AH ZA for Dashon Burton and Claire Chase, being premièred at Harvard University on 29 March 2018.

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