Interview with Alexandre Rodichevski: between ars mathematica and ars musica

16 April 2011

A fragment from the video Fractales by Alexandre Rodichevski

The link between music and mathematics has long been established. The 20th century is undoubtedly that which brought about the most extreme consequences, and has transformed it into a scientific approach to music (Pierre Boulez graduated in mathematics like Philip Glass, Xenakis was an architect, and Messiaen an ornithologist). You are a scientist. How do you use mathematics and scientific tools in relation to music: as a source of theme-inspiration – with reference to your CD titles, like Ars mathematica – or as a tool for composition?

I would say, above all, as a tool for composition. An example of this is the way I used π (Greek phi), basing myself on its decimal representation and subsequently transforming it into music. However, throughout my compositional activities, the experimental phase (or mathematical, as you prefer to call it) is only the last step. In Minutes ‑ for example – I composed the pieces according to the absolutely traditional rules.

Minutes was your first CD, but – so it seems – not your first composition. When did you start composing music?

During my university days. I was boarding in a youth hostel with some classmates, who – like me – were attending the scientific faculties. Together we participated in a group experiment and composed an opera.

Libretto and music?

Yes. The opera was called Terror and talk about – to be precise– the theme of terror in the political world.

Were you referring to Robespierre’s France?

No, the setting was absolutely Russian: more precisely about Russia midway between the 19th and 20th centuries. We wrote in secret, basing ourselves on very limited tools, like a piano of the hostel, a guitar and percussion, not only in the sense of instruments but also vocals.

Has the opera ever been staged?

No. Those were the ‘80s: the theme we had chosen was decisively still risky. Terror remained an experiment, an overwhelming attempt which allowed me to approach music from a creative viewpoint. For a long time however, it remained an isolated experiment and was not pursued.

At this and the succeeding phases, what were your reference points at the musical level?

I listened to Pink Floyd assiduously, or rather, to some songs of Pink Floyd… I’d say to more than one group or artist in particular I was struck by some songs, some rock pieces of the ‘70s. As to the classic, I really loved the Russians: Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but also Mussorgsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Besides these, also Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.

Quite an extensive range: Western, Slavic…

In reality it is a rather abstract distinction: in fact I think that Russian music has always fixed its gaze on the artistic panorama of the West.

How about 20th-century experiments?

I can’t say they influenced me in a particular way. Once in a while I listened to some pieces of Messiaen, and found Xenakis quite interesting: what surely intrigued me was their link with the scientific field… though I did not identify myself with them as they always appeared to be distant from my own way of perceiving things.


In short: from Pink Floyd to Tchaikovsky. This automatically leads me to your first CD, Minutes, in which you made use of a heterogeneous musical style, packed with elements belonging to the classical repertoire and pop music. To this regard, a spontaneous question comes to mind as to what relationship flows according to you between these two musical styles – the culture thread and pop music – which we always consider as two rigidly separate worlds… at times even from the hierarchic standpoint.

I would put aside the distinction between the cultured thread and pop, and consider instead the “classical” concept.

Meaning that you prefer to establish a distinction that is merely chronological, not qualitative?

No, in the sense that it comes spontaneously for me to recycle – pass the word – the concept of “classical,” giving it, however, with a different connotation from the one commonly known. The classics are not for the composers, but for the pieces which – for some precise reasons – embodied a certain significance in the development of music. A classic piece for me may be a sonata of Mozart, likewise a song of the Beatles. As far as my compositions are concerned, it would be, however, impossible for me – even if I tried – to classify my music “in one block”: when I outline a piece, most of the time, I know that the result may be classical or pop, indifferently.

We spoke about Alexandre Rodichevski the scientist. What in your music, may I ask, has emerged from your Siberian roots?

Very little, I think. The titles of my pieces in most cases are not linked to my life in Siberia. Furthermore, the particular history of my country as a whole makes it difficult to determine what the Siberian identity consists in.

Understandably… because of the strong link with Russia. What about Matrioska, one of the pieces of your CD Minutes?

Certainly, in that case the reference is evident. In the piece I tried to recreate the impression of a roundabout dance of matryoskas: I even let my father who lives in Siberia listen to it, and he himself told me he found it fits with the type of image I wanted to represent.

Let’s now talk about your CD Cosmologies. I think it configures like a kind of macro-vision of the life of the Universe… as a time-dilated equivalent of Minutes: a day of the Universe. Cosmologies brings out the existence of three universes ‑ physics and humans – pervaded by a kind of astonishment. What role does the Divine play in your cosmological vision?

Cosmologies represents the reflection of a typically scientific vision. Not surprisingly the titles of the pieces – the themes – are conceived in a problematic and not assertive way: through complementary opposites.

The Divine therefore, is inexistent…

The presence of the Divine instead, can be perceived in two instances. In the short musical theme at the start and end of the CD, I narrate about the solitude before creation (Big Bang) and after the destruction of the Universe (Big Crunch). And this is the first “moment.” The second is seen in the piece Five Elements where I allude to the fifth element: the essence of which, as the old philosophers believed, constitutes the Soul. The piece is a homage to the thinkers of the past for the conception of the world.

The Elements of Quietness is your last CD. From the stylistic point of view, one perceives a marked change compared to the preceding CDs.

That’s right. The theme of The Elements of Quietness is characterized by an intense formal experimentation of which ‑ in reality ‑ some traces are already found in Cosmologies: I am referring especially to the piece Two Constellations. In that case I had already experimented on a new compositional method. I had used the coordinates of a constellation, then transformed in a sound expression: a procedure similar to what I used in π (Greek phi). In The Elements of Quietness I did nothing else but extend and strengthen this compositional method, transforming certain frequencies into musical expression; in this case, however, unlike the previous experimentations, we can say that I almost did not elaborate the final result – except for, obviously, the arrangement.

Have you also made experiments in the field of fractal music?

In the piece Fractales (from the CD Ars Mathematica) I used the methods already known in the ‘90s, of music derived from the Thue-Morse fractal sequences. My invention in this field is instead a composition based on the Peano curve.

You defined Minutes as “short musicals." For your piece Fractales you created a video. All of this highlights the importance of the link between music and image: is this an aspect you are thinking of developing in the future?

The visual element is undoubtedly very strong in my compositions. It stands at the roots of the creative act itself, in the sense that very often ‑ just when I am composing – I see a certain image. Take for example, Fall into Hell (a piece of Cosmologies). While creating it, I spontaneously imagined it as a ballet. The link between music and image is an aspect which I would like to develop of course, not only in the field of theater or cinema but also – and especially ‑ in relation to the world of dance.

Last question: what type of instruments do you need for your compositions? Do you think that in the future you will write music for traditional instruments?

The only instrument I use is the computer. I have a piano at home but I do not use it to compose. The sounds I draw inspiration from mainly refer to real instruments (especially in Minutes), and in my musical scores you find references to pianos, percussions, and piccolos. As to the future… who knows?

Translation by Yolanda Rillorta