During a Lifetime // Chiyoko Szlavnics

December 13, 2017

By Nolan Sprangers

Beginning in the twentieth century, there is a clear fascination in the relationship between mathematics and the compositional process: Bartók used the Fibonacci sequence to determine form, and Schönberg's struggle with triskaidekaphobia influenced his compositions as well as his personal life; the list goes on to include Xenakis, Denisov, and other individuals who experimented with unconventional compositional methods. However, Chiyoko Szlavnics stands as an unique figure among these composers because she has given us the opportunity to quite literally hear mathematics; where Bartók and others used math as a framework or abstract inspiration, Szlavnics uses math as a performing force. Szlavnics has developed a style in which she beautifully combines the mathematically pure sine wave with the artistry of acoustic human performance by Konus Quartett .

In her album During a Lifetime, released as part of Another Timbre’s series on Canadian composers, Szlavnics showcases her artful intersection of math and music. I was extremely impressed by her ability to make the sine wave a subtle and expressive instrument. Szlavnics' music is often based on minimalist line drawings that she creates; the influence of the drawings on her music is immediately recognizable because they share a similar minimalist style. While listening to the album, I was struck by the undivided attention that this style of minimalism demands; the subtle, but constant, changes in Szlavnics' music will go unnoticed unless the listener is constantly and actively participating in the music.

Composed for saxophone quartet and sine waves, this piece introduces the listener to Szlavnics' unique ability to utilize the sine wave as a part of an acoustic ensemble. During a Lifetime uses an extremely slow tempo to emphasize slowly shifting harmonies—these changes are often precipitated by elongated glissandi. This focus on harmonic—or alternatively, y-axis—material creates a minimalist style that emphasizes gradual but constant change; the gradual crescendi and decrescendi maintain a dynamic nature in the sustained sonorities.

Furthermore, I found the timbral contrast in this piece interesting; the timbres produced by the electronic and acoustic instruments are the opposite of what one may expect. Throughout the piece, the sine waves provide a subtle, pure timbre often sought by performers of acoustic instruments. In fact, my saxophone teacher has often talked about creating the acoustic purity of a sine wave when playing a wind instrument. Conversely, the saxophones use multi phonics to provide a more harsh, growling timbre to complement the sine waves.

In Freehand Poitras, we hear Szlavnics exploit the x-axis material, contrasting the development of the harmonic y-axis material in During a Lifetime. In this piece, Szlavnics develops a minimalist style through discrete repetition and variation of the opening motivic unit. Although this is an entirely different approach to minimalism, the repetitions of the motif allow the listener to compare statements of the motif and identify slight changes that are happening each time. While listening to the piece I was always able to hear something new: each moment of a glissando presented new harmonies, finding another voice I hadn't identified before, or noticing the gradual changes in intonation that had prior remained unnoticed.

Also composed for an acoustic ensemble and sine waves, Reservoir (2005)—a precursor to During a Lifetime (2015) and Freehand Poitras (2008)—brilliantly combines Szlavnics' previous exploration of the x and y axes with a wide variety of timbral colours. Every instrument  provides an indispensable sonority to ensemble sound, which often changes as instruments enter and exit. Furthermore, this piece made me fully appreciate the musicality of the sine waves: they are not just a pre-made electronic track over which the ensemble plays; rather, the sine waves are dynamic and musical when responding to the ensemble, and are an essential part of the ensemble sound.

After entering this project quite ignorant to the value sine waves could add to an ensemble, I am very thankful to have heard this album. Szlavnics' music has expanded my understanding of what "electronic music" is. Her subtle, minimalist style has provided a new, artistic identity for the sine wave.

All images appear with the permission of Chiyoko Szlavnics. You can learn more about Szlavnics and her music by visiting her website, chiyokoszlavnics.org.