During the summer of 1984 I attended the six week educational course at IRCAM. Whenever I left the Institute I found the square in front of the Pompidou Centre ringing with the sound of panpipes. A South American group would busk there every day playing their traditional music, and it was striking to see that huge, metallic building completely dominated by the sound of those little bamboo tubes.
Antara is the ancient Inca word for panpipe, a term still in use today in Peru. And the history of the panpipes is indeed ancient, with roots dating back thousands of years around the world, not only from South America, but also China, the Pacific and Southern Europe. There is an equally large variety of panpipes still in existence today, ranging from big single tubes to rows of small whistles.
Panpipes have many qualities which have been lost to today’s concert instruments, amongst them a vibrant rawness and freshness of timbre. However, panpipes also have many sever constraints, including great limitations on pitch mobility and velocity. Long held notes are impossible, as are large chords. Even some melodic lines cause considerable difficulty as, on larger tubes, they have to be shared between two or more players (a technique akin to ‘hocketing’ in medieval music). The computer can solve all these problems and more, and so in this piece the sound of the oldest of all wind instruments has been recorded and transferred to the most modern of computers, initially the IRCAM 4X, creating an instrument ranging from the equivalent of panpipes 20 metres high to pipes of only a few millimetres. These are played via two Yamaha keyboards, which are surrounded by an ensemble of fourteen players.
At first the panpipes are used entirely melodically, almost naturally, and they encounter and communicate with two modern flutes. The flutes themselves often play in a manner akin to their ancient predecessors, hocketing melodies from left to right with almost no vibrato and a breathy sonority. (Only later in the piece does the playing style of the modern flute begin to evolve). Eight strings act as a background to these confrontations, often in the form of a dance-like accompaniment.
This active, energetic music is threatened by two deep, growling trombones and two percussionists, the latter playing almost exclusively a plethora of anvils. These forces invoke the real power of the computerised keyboards – huge sustained microtonal chords, sweeping glissandi, breath-like sounds, percussive timbres – all derived from the original panpipes. At the largest climax the keyboards engulf the orchestral anvils in a myriad of metallic sound, after which the opposed sound sources of metal and reed fuse, and speed towards a coruscating but tranquil conclusion.
In this piece the electronic part is played live on the keyboards, with no tape, no click-track and no electronic effects. This not only allows spontaneity and rubato in performance, but also permits a deeper integration in compositional terms between the electronic and the acoustic.