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Swiss pianist Dominique Barthassat explores sound architecture

Sound and space share an unexplored relationship. A Swiss pianist-composer tries to unravel it

Avantika Bhuyan 

Dominique Barthassat's interest in techno-heavy sound architecture began early when he started studying computer composition techniques with Greek composer Iannis Xenakis

One usually associates the tangible — bricks, mortar and landscape — with architecture, but hardly ever the word “sound”. However, Swiss and composer has been trying to create a dialogue between sound and space for the past decade now. “Say, if you are sitting in the front at an open-air concert, you will perceive the same sound differently than if you were at the rear. The sound is not coming straight at you; instead it envelops you,” says Barthassat whose fingers fly about in constant rhythmic motions, as if on a piano, as he launches into an explanation about sound architecture. “Sound architecture allows people to move about, as they would within a monument, so that they can perceive and sense sound differently,” he says. This opens a whole new sensory context for the listener, with the acoustics of the space and the music creating a unique auditory experience.

Barthassat’s interest in techno-heavy sound architecture began early when he started studying computer composition techniques with Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. “It is a new engineering and spatialising concept that needs specialised computer software,” he says. He works with three programmes: one, which is used to create sound effects like in the movies; two, to attribute sounds to different spaces; three, to alter sound perception. Then by using live sounds, piano compositions and digital effects, he creates a “sound architecture piece”. He has applied this auditory practice in all sorts of environments — from performing in the locker room of a bank in Switzerland to creating thematic ambience sounds at a telecom conference.

As part of his concert in Delhi, Barthassat will perform ‘Indian Suite’ which incorporates eight soundscapes inspired by Indian landmarks and will feature Indian instruments such as the tabla and the sitar. He has been visiting India regularly since 1997 when he performed with Amaan Ali Khan and late Ustad Shafaat Ahmed Khan. He last played in March 2014 at the Jaipur Art Festival.

His upcoming concert is a prelude to five circular scores to be performed in Delhi next year. These have been inspired by landmarks like the Jantar Mantar, Humayun’s Tomb, the City Palace in Jaipur and Rock Garden in Chandigarh. The score that evokes the architecture of Jantar Mantar is centrifugal in nature, just like the monument. Similarly, the composition titled “The Heavenly Gardens of Humayun’s Tomb” develops a monumental fresco sound with the help of qawwals, Persian and Indian percussions and whirling dervishes.

“While the concert next week will not feature live musicians, the one to be held in 2015 will not just have a live orchestra but also kalaripayattu performers, archers and yoga practitioners,” he says. The concerts will also feature live sound navigation — that allows three-dimensional, 360-degree panoramic listening. But when performing in an outdoor space, is it possible to discount factors like traffic sounds and bird calls? “I think it is beautiful to integrate these sounds into the piece. When we went to Jantar Mantar, we realised that the muezzin calls for prayers at a certain time. So we decided to incorporate these in the composition. But yes, we can’t hold a concert in a traffic-heavy area,” he says.

Dominique Barthassat
Though he will use a normal piano on Monday, next year will see him perform on his hybrid instrument which he doesn’t have to tune according to different temperatures and ambiences. It also allows him to project a video during the concert. “India is the best place to test these innovations as there are huge spaces here and the audience is very receptive,” he says.

will perform “Indian Suite” on November 3, 7.30 pm at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi

First Published: Fri, October 31 2014. 20:04 IST