Almost directly beneath the composer Patricia Alessandrini’s feet, in a basement performance space, lurks a sheet of steel. We are sitting in the garden of a café next to Goldsmiths College, London, where she lectures in sonic arts, and after our conversation she invites me to have a look. Large enough to bend slightly under its own weight, the steel practically drapes itself over a pair of speakers lying on their backs on the floor. But for the spools of cable connecting it to a nearby laptop and mixer it could be a sculpture, or a piece of designer furniture.

In fact it is for an improvised performance due to take place the following day with clarinetist Heather Roche. Using contact microphones, Alessandrini is able to excite the plate with feedback, which the metal transforms into eerie hums and spectral tones. (If you pinch the plate in the right way, she shows me, you can filter its noise to draw out different partials. The steel buzzes between your fingertips.) Sitting to one side with her contrabass clarinet, Roche is able to blend with, augment, and disrupt these sounds.

A few days earlier, in the much larger space of Goldsmiths’ Great Hall, I heard a very different piece: Alessandrini’s 2007 string quartet “De profundis clamavi [hommage à Alban Berg],” played by the Riot Ensemble. (Disclosure: I am a member of Riot’s artistic board.) Some discrete electronics, but no heavy ironmongery this time. Four players on a stage, the audience facing them. A 10-minute piece played from printed notation. How, I wondered, have we got from one to the other?

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A student of Ivan Fedele, Paul Koonce, Tristan Murail, and Thea Musgrave, the New York-born Alessandrini holds PhDs from Princeton and the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) in Belfast, and has studied in Bologna and Strasbourg, and at IRCAM. Before coming to Goldsmiths in 2013 she had taught at Bangor University in Wales, and at the Accademia Musicale Pescarese in Italy. She might appear a model of the institutionalized academic composer, except that her music has a physical and expressive immediacy that refutes such unkind stereotypes. Her career has been shaped by encounters with composers with unusual relationships to new music’s institutional structures. From all of them, Alessandrini has taken a greater sense of freedom.

Upstairs in the sun-trap garden, I ask her about her first inspirations and she recounts an early encounter with Sofia Gubaidulina. “When I was first looking at contemporary music, she was one of the first,” she says, telling me how she fell in love with her scores after discovering them by accident in a public library. “When I met her later, I talked to her about some scores of hers I had studied,” Alessandrini continues. “And being a composer nerd meeting my hero I wanted to talk to her about pitches and what was happening. And she said: ‘You know, it’s like Bach. I have certain parameters that I always control, and then everything else is intuitive.’”

For several years now Alessandrini has started her pieces analytically. She begins with a pre-existing work, usually something canonic; examples include Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet K.465, and Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht.” Then she collects recordings of the pieces and superimposes them, digitally adjusting the files so that even though the originals are all played at different speeds, in her composite version everything lines up. This preliminary model is then re-transcribed—selectively and creatively—to create the score. In the case of “De profundis clamavi,” the model is the last movement of Berg’s “Lyric Suite” (itself a creative transcription of the Baudelaire poem from which Alessandrini takes her title). Alessandrini stretched and attenuated the original to leave a scarred after-image that recalls Gerhard Richter’s over-painted photographs.

With Clément Lebrun, Emmanuelle Ophèle, Alain Billard at the Gaîté lyrique • Photo Luc Hossepied
With Clément Lebrun, Emmanuelle Ophèle, Alain Billard at the Gaîté lyrique • Photo Luc Hossepied

Alessandrini calls her preliminary models maquettes, and sends me some of them to listen to. It’s a little like seeing photographs of a place, from the same spot but at different moments in history, stacked up and backlit so that they can all be seen at once. As every photo flattens into the same plane it become impossible to tell what is older or newer.

The effects in Alessadrini’s maquettes are striking. Because of the time-adjustment, the end result is not as chaotic as I was expecting. At times the maquette of Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht,” the source for her own string quartet “Forklaret Nat,” sounds plausibly like a realization for large orchestra. The overall effect is—just—convincingly “normal.” But it’s the details that are strange. Various artifacts litter the sound, including dramatic moments of microtonality when Schoenberg’s late-Romantic chromaticism stretches interpretative conventions to their fullest and the consequence of multiple attempts at “correct” intonation smear into an undisciplined blur.

Purcell’s “Funeral Music” is stranger still. Although the basic chords of the famous brass chorale are recognizable, they are radically distorted by the overlaying of multiple different tunings from the various recordings. Greatly time-stretched as well, each chord now sounds like a miniature Phill Niblock piece, all beating patterns and acoustic phantoms.

It is consequences such as these to which Alessandrini is drawn; not only tuning discrepancies, but all the differences in expression that are highlighted when comparisons are made so starkly. The fact that she is working with recordings—the evolving, living trace of a musical work, rather than the static score—is significant. Different echoes of history are captured in the maquette, and these become a feature. “For me the identity of the piece doesn’t reside in the score, it resides in the life of the piece,” she says. However, although her sources tend to be well known, she insists she is not playing a recognition game. “You don’t have to know the original. You have a different experience if you do, but you don’t have to know it. Something is not necessarily lost, it’s just interpreted differently.”

In 2009, Alessandrini met the Australian composer and BIFEM festival director David Chisholm while in residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. Here was someone else working outside the norm: “I noticed that he would write for any ensemble he wanted; he made his own projects, basically. And I was completely the opposite at this point.” Until then, she had written according to the commissions and invitations that came her way, and almost exclusively for ensembles with electronics. Chisholm’s example inspired her to think differently, and in 2010 she started to create much larger projects that she had instigated herself—“to take more control of the process,” she says.

One of the first of these was the kinetic installation “Adagio sans quatuor,” which has become something of a signature work. Now the metal plates enter with a vengeance: four in total, plus two metal instruments made by the sound designer and inventor Paul Stapleton. The musical material is Mozart: the maquette here derives from the opening minute and a half of the “Dissonance” quartet, radically slowed down to more than 20 minutes and dropping two octaves lower. For the transcription, in a sense the plates decide what to play, according to their physical properties. (They are also bent in real time, further altering their sound.) “I spent a lot of time with the plates just finding out what frequencies gave interesting results,” Alessandrini says. “Just as you would write for an instrument and you would write things that are idiomatic, imagine that you have an instrument that hasn’t been defined—it’s defining itself.” The result—a conversation in deeply booming harmonics between the instruments—is almost science fiction, so distant is it from the original, like dust from another star.

It was while working on “Adagio” that she met a third important influence, the composer Nicolas Collins, known for his work with hacked and homemade electronics. She first approached him with technical questions about her piece and he quickly became an important mentor. “All this time, since the early 2000s, I had had affiliations with IRCAM,” says Alessandrini. “But Nic is coming from a less scored music approach.”

It was at this time, and inspired by Collins’ approach, that Alessandrini’s interest in embodiment began. “Not just digital sound coming out of the speakers—not taking the speakers for granted—but getting into the medium and how it works on the analogue side,” she told me. “Again, stepping back and saying, ‘Here’s a dispositif that I’ve been using a lot; let’s break that down.’” Contrary, perhaps, to much of the ethos at IRCAM, she has “completely lost faith” in the idea that “I make sound and I put it out of speakers, and that I have this absolute belief that no matter the space or speakers it’s going to be more or less like this.”

The most extreme example of her approach so far may be the piece for solo cello and electronics she wrote in 2013 for Seth Woods, “Bodied Chambers.” Here there are no speakers at all; the player wears a pair of transducers and transmits electronic sounds into the cello through physical contact with the instrument. Sheets of metal are replaced with bodies of flesh and wood. Working collaboratively with the player, Alessandrini makes composition itself an action of the body (steel plates buzzing between fingers), and extends this image even into her method of recording transcription: “I’m performing the pieces as I compose.”

Bodies may be written into history—as both “Bodied Chambers,” and the recorded archives of Mozart, Berg, and Purcell show us. But they may also be written out of it. Alessandrini is sensitive to the political implications of her work, and on an earlier occasion told me that in spite of her reuse of the historical canon she feels her own relationship to the concert-music repertory to be “tenuous” because “as a woman I don’t really see myself in the concert repertory very often.” A forthcoming project with Ensemble Argento in New York throws this into stark relief: a piece based on the work of Alma Mahler, a composer almost completely erased from music history, and of whose music very few recordings exist. “It’s also going to be about the music that she didn’t write,” Alessandrini says. “When I used Mozart as a model, the remarkable thing is the incredible number of recordings. And that’s why I work with canonical pieces usually, because it’s also about the canonicity and the life that they’ve lived and our relationship to them. So picking Alma Mahler is really going to be about what I can’t find, and the frustration of that. And I don’t know yet how that’s going to manifest itself.” ¶

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and The Music of Liza Lim (Wildbird), and co-author of Twentieth-Century...