Excerpts from a Journal (of a Hideaway)

Published on May 4, 2018
Inscape by Hèctor Parra


In 2014, Hèctor Parra was a composer-in-residence at the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya. The institution invited the musician to submit a project for a new commission in 2017. Hèctor imagined the synoptic plan for a work for an ensemble of soloists divided into several groups, orchestra, and electronics. He was then able to secure support from other partners:  the Ensemble intercontemporain, IRCAM, the Orchestre National de Lille, and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln.

The proposed project makes several references to L’Univers chiffonné, a popular science text signed by Jean-Pierre Luminet. In fact, the way Hèctor recommends a spatial distribution of the instrumental and electronic effects establishes an analogy with the topology of the universe suggested by the astrophysicist.

January 28, 2016

It’s beautiful out this morning in Marseille: even if it’s cold, we’re out in the sun on Jean-Pierre’s terrace. We’re taking a little break during the second brainstorming session between Hèctor and the astrophysicist. The composer arrived at Jean-Pierre’s yesterday so they could work together. Hèctor asked him for a hand to “construct a form during these two, three days”. Black holes as creative momentum— a concept already explored in his work Caressant l’horizon—are back in Hèctor’s work: he suggests the idea of “a truly realistic journey” towards these objects without hiding the sensations he felt when watching the film Interstellar. For now, the dodecahedral geometry of L’Univers chiffonné is still a secondary facet of the work.

Yesterday, Hèctor showed Jean-Pierre the pre-compositional sketches of Caressant l’horizon. The major inspiration came from another one of Jean-Pierre’s books: Le destin de l’Univers. Then, using other texts, digital simulations, and YouTube videos, they talked about gravitational waves caused by the coalescence of neutron stars (the real detection of which is announced a few weeks later) and loop quantum gravity, stellar pancakes due to the tides, and baby universes.

Today, after a night of each thinking separately, the two actors touch base. They show each other their drafts resulting from their first discussion and certain remarkable coincidences emerge. We even see the past repeating itself, like a drawing by Hèctor connected to the holographic principle that was already in the sketches for Caressant l’Horizon, which came from one of Jean-Pierre’s books. Hèctor is extremely motivated to draw up an initial, formal storyboard for his work, using all of Jean-Pierre’s suggestions.

June 29, 2016

This morning at IRCAM, Hèctor seems very tired and a little demotivated. It’s hot, he has worked a lot the past few days with the students from the Cursus1 program for their concert. And, above all, the date for the premiere of INSCAPE was moved up a year in February. This has led to a total reconfiguration of the computer-music designers. In the meantime, Hèctor put all his energy into other commissions. However, he feels confident: Thomas Goepfer is his computer music designer again. Indeed, this couple has already had several successes as can be seen with works such as Tentatives de Réalité, Hypermusic Prologue and Te craindre en ton absence. Incidentally, Hypermusic Prologue was his first collaboration with a physicist, in this case the scientist Lisa Randall.

Throughout the morning, Hèctor showed Thomas his new storyboard so that he too can enter the world of analogies between music and physics imagined beforehand with Jean-Pierre. During these explications, a surprising memory surfaces. Hector talks with Thomas about the detection of gravitational waves and tells him how he had already used their predictions almost 6 years earlier to “create a feeling like the orchestra was throbbing by following the shape of the wave” in Caressant l’horizon. Suddenly, the composer sings a fragment of the sketch he remembered by heart for this work connected to gravitational waves while wondering how to adapt the instrumental strategies in the framework of electronic media.

Thomas spends the afternoon explaining to Hèctor certain software to calculate the trajectories of sound spatialization and thinking about the most appropriate materials to use for the sound diffusion given the needs of this new work. It is not easy for them to discuss, vis these subjects, what we would feel if we were affected by the drastic effects of relativistic physics, but their long-term roles for Inscape are well defined.

January 16, 2017

Following a light lunch, Hèctor, Jean-Pierre, and Thomas head towards IRCAM’s Studio 1 to work. This is the first time the three participants of the conception of the INSCAPE project meet. The composer and computer music designer have decided to invite Jean-Pierre to show him their progress on the electronics to see if he thinks their parallels between the astrophysical subjects and the sound results are successful and in a way, “realistic”.

Yesterday, Hèctor and Thomas finished their first tries with the test patches. In particular, an implementation of curves connected to gravitational waves is obvious: they act like a profile controlling the levels of several treatments that transform the sound in real-time. Thomas also used this time to create a curve (using touch, via an iPad), to make the tool more interactive; today, Hèctor and Jean-Pierre are playing with the system. The composer announces, that in any event, he is going to use a new controller for the cello and electronics, attempting to further refine and develop the ensemble of patches with Thomas. 

Towards the end of the day the trio decides to continue the next day to record Jean-Pierre reading a short text he wrote, conceived ex professo for the project. Hèctor aims to use it, in addition to a range of whispers, to develop the “holographic sections” of the work. Here, we his memory is reactivated again: one of the sketches for the end of the work contains the sentence “nous sommes un hologramme codé aux confins de l’univers” (lit. we are a hologram coded to the confines of the universe). It is fairly close to “we are even a warped hologram” found (in Catalan) in the storyboard for Caressant l’horizon, paraphrasing a short passage from The Black Hole War, a book by the physicist Leonard Susskind.


September 4, 2017: the premiere of Limite les rêves au-delà, with Arne Deforce at the Ruhrtriennale. Thomas and Hèctor worked over the summer with the cello player at the Grame. With this piece, they were able to build their toy model to adapt a sophisticated patch for the needs of INSCAPE, an undertaking that began at IRCAM in November.

Of course, the musical stellar voyage imagined by Hèctor is completely fascinating. Mine too, even trying to follow (including the detours) the cognitive stakes connected to the choice and the exchanges with the protagonists of this compositional project.

By José L. Besada, musicologist

1. Cursus - Practical training in Composition and Computer Music

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Hèctor Parra

Upon completion of his studies in composition, piano, and choir direction at the Barcelona Conservatory, Hèctor Parra (b. 1976) followed the Cursus program at IRCAM, courses at Royaumont, at the Ce...