pour yves klein

20 July 2007 - muzikologi


mémoire de composition de 1ère année – en hommage à yves klein – sous la direction du Dr. chris kennet – a obtenu un First – (en anglais)

Yves Klein is a composition inspired by the French artist Yves Klein’s Symphony Monotone, a piece consisting of the same note played over 20mns by a chamber orchestra and followed by a 20mns period of silence[1].

Taking the concept further, albeit in a slightly different direction, I orchestrated it for a classical formation consisting of: clarinet in Bb, violin, viola, cello and contrabass, to which I added a shakuhashi (using its low range) and an oboe d’amore. The addition of those two seldom used instruments was a personal choice and has no structural significance. The number of instruments was chosen because of the central place the number seven holds in Pythagorean mysticism, an area of study which greatly interested Klein.

Each instrument plays the same note, A, and has a different note duration, from a range of 1 to 7 times a quarter note, hence the choice of 7/4 as the time signature. For instance, the viola’s note lasts a whole note plus a quarter note, while the cello’s lasts for a dotted half-note . Here too, the assignment of note length to instrument has no structural significance.


The structure of the piece consists in a loudness change performed by each player on their note, and spread equally over its duration, from a minima (pp in this instance) to a maxima (ff) and back to the minima again. The overall sonic result is therefore a combination of different periodic amplitude changes, each with a different frequency. For instance, the rate or period[2] of the viola’s variation in dynamics is 5/7 (5 quarter notes), while, during that same time, that of the cello is 3/7 (3 quarter notes).

It takes 65 bars for all the instruments to be in synchronisation again with respect to the start of their respective amplitude changes. While I am certain that it is possible to predict the length (expressed in number of bars) of the entire cycle (whatever the instrument periods maybe), my knowledge of trigonometric mathematics (addition of Cos and Sin functions) is insufficient for that purpose.

Curiously, at a metronome tempo of 90BPM, the piece lasts 4’40”. The digits of this timing equal those of the current concert pitch number. Amateurs of numerology may wish to explore the significance of this, if any.

One of the co-tutors for this course, Chris Kennett, has suggested obtaining sonograms of an actual live performance, in order to see how each musician is affected in the rendering of their specific amplitude variation. I welcome this idea, since it is unusual for musicians of an ensemble to perform crescendos or decrescendos out of synchronisation with one another over a sustained period of time. Moreover, such a study would be equivalent to exploring the nature of the feedback of the music production process upon its performers.

Another avenue would be to explore the effect those combined amplitude variations may have on the listeners, be it the performers or the audience. The field of psycho-neurology has shown that the brains produce electric currents whose periodic frequencies are specific to its current state. At the human level, these states correspond to moods or affects. Conversely, listening to a specific sonic rhythm will induce the corresponding state inside the brains. These are the so-called Alpha, Beta and Theta low frequency waves. By assigning specific frequency numbers to the amplitude changes, it may be possible to “sculpt” the mood of the listeners.

The overall structure of Yves Klein can be summarised as a constant periodic variation superimposed on the individual elements of a sonic process. The variations could be applied to other aspects of the pitch production process, specific to the nature of the instruments involved (glissando, sforzando, pitch, note duration, the period itself, etc…). This leads to a more general formulation for an approach to composition, whereby a constant periodic variation is applied to the different components of a sonic production process, while it is happening. Also, the numbers involved need not be integers but could be irrationals or complex[3].

I cannot but notice that this methodology is akin to Minimalism, whereby a piece is non narrative, a-teleological, and based on periodicity. I am particularly thinking of La Monte Young’s Map of 49’s Dream, and Terry Riley’s Keyboard Studies 7.

the score

[1] First performed in Paris, 9 March 1960, as part of an opening of the artist’s paintings exhibition. It is not know whether Klein was aware of the works of John Cage or not.

[2] Expressed as a ratio of the time signature denominator.

[3] The idea of distributing the real and imaginary parts of complex numbers among performers is appealing.

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