by Kent Olofsson

Artist talk by Swedish composer and researcher Kent Olofsson on November 8th 2023 as part of the series of talks UNDER TEXTER / TEJIENDO CON-TEXTOS organized by petzetera in collaboration with NOX Escuela de Escritura Creativa and with the support from Swedish Arts Council.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the word «tone» is the highest open string on a guitar, the high E string. A tone that is very familiar to me, it was with the guitar that I started my career as a musician and composer.

The open high E string on the guitar, has a specific pitch, a fundamental frequency that oscillates 329.63 times per second. So, tone is linked to musical pitch, we also say “note” which is connected to musical notation and thus to the name of note, E.

But the string also has a specific sound, which can also be referred to as «tone». The word tone is linked both to musical pitch and to timbre, the color of the sound.

I can play that same note, the note E on several strings of my guitar, on the lower strings. Then I must press down the strings on the fretboard. The lower the string, the higher up the fretboard I must press to get the same pitch. But here each E, which has the same pitch, has a different timbre for each string. And I find this change in timbre extremely exciting – the same note that can change color, like a kind of light prism, but not a prism for the eye, but for the ear. This kind of color changes in sound has fascinated me and has often been a central element in my compositions.

When we think of a composer, we often think of someone who composes with musical pitches, notes. Yes, in Swedish the word for composer is «ton-sättare», someone who put down tones, someone who order notes in musical notation!

However, for me as a composer, the focus has often been on composing with timbres, the sound colors, rather than with pitches. When I have composed for guitar, the investigation of different tonal possibilities, in the meaning, sound color possibilities, has sometimes taken place by trying different, unusual tunings for the strings, where new tonal variations have been able to arise. An investigation that sometimes required a long time of experimentation and listening.

I started my career as a musician in my early teens playing the guitar. I quickly managed to become technically proficient on the instrument and I also started to compose. I became interested in classical and contemporary music and studied composition. Exploring the parameter of sound color was often central in my compositions, – for solo instruments and small ensembles as well as for large orchestras. Exploring the tonal possibilities of different instruments became exciting challenges, where new playing techniques also meant new tonal variations, new colors of the sonic prism. Here, exploring more unusual instruments, at least unusual in Western classical music, has been artistically a way forward for me to find new tones. The early Renaissance instruments have a wonderful tonal world, which I explored in works like «Vocations», for the seven-stringed string instrument Viola da gamba.

And in the work ‘Il liuto d’Orfeo’, where I composed for the Latin American string instrument charango, the tones of the charango were also used to become electro-acoustic soundscapes in which the acoustic instrument could reside.

Or in my work with Vietnamese instruments, which opened up new sonic worlds to me. Here, the close work with the musicians and the journeys to Hanoi were crucial. The work with the wonderful, and poetic 17-stringed citter instrument, dan tranh, was a great artistic experience. But the encounter with the Vietnamese language was also special. It is a so-called tonal language, where the pitch and pronunciation of a word is crucial to its meaning. The language has six tones. I don’t know Vietnamese myself, but having listened to and surrounded myself with the language for some time provided a kind of understanding that helped me to find the tone, the special kind of sensitivity and understanding I needed to compose for the Vietnamese instruments.

With the interest for the work with timbre, the sound colors of instruments, in mind, it was not surprising that my curiosity for electroacoustic music emerged. The new digital technology offered enormous possibilities to work with sounds. And for me it was also the combination of acoustic instruments and electroacoustic sounds that was particularly appealing. With the technology I could let the real acoustic sounds be extended, transformed, processed, and create enormously exciting soundscapes. It expanded my imagination. I could create sound worlds that were in between the real, the acoustic, and the imaginary, created by the electronic sounds. In this gap, you could say that special ‘tones’ emerged, tones that I had not heard before. It did become a long artistic exploration.

With the increasing sophistication of digital audio technology, my search could develop and continue. I could now use the technology to increasingly influence the shaping of tones in the sense of timbre. The fundamental pitch of an instrument consists not only of a single frequency, but of a fundamental tone and a number of overtones that give the instrument its specific sonic character. With technology, these overtones could now be manipulated in different ways, giving rise to new tones, new sounds. They could be manipulated vertically, as well as horizontally.

After working mainly with concert music, I then started working with theater. My sonic landscapes and my compositional methods, proved to work well in the experimentation of contemporary theater, where my tools could become part of a dramaturgical work.

When it comes to theater and acting, we can talk about how the «tone» of an actor’s voice can be very powerful. A text can take on so many different meanings depending on which tones the actor and the director choose to play with. I became interested in precisely this: the relationship between the written text and the particular, chosen tone with which the actor performs it. And what relationship my music could have to the relationship between text and performance. These three components, which we can say all have their tones: the tone of the written text, the tone with which the actor performs the text, and the tone of my music, can form a very specific interaction. These three components can all change and then the meaning and emotion of the performance changes. Here, tone is something that is about mood and emotion, in Swedish you can say that it strikes a tone, in the sense that it triggers an emotion.

When working with musical theater, different types of music can contribute to different expressions in interaction with the other scenic elements. Stacking notes vertically gives us chords, they can be harmonic, resting chords, as well as inharmonic, dissonant chords. Chord progressions, harmonic sequences, can be highly emotional, and just hit a «tone», a special feeling.  All choices I do are based on the expression I seek.

In a theater space, music based on timbres can be exciting and effective in creating a sonic scenography. A soundscape with a specific tone, providing associations and a flow for the imagination to create inner images. Working with sonic landscapes became an important part of my work in the performing arts, both for theater and dance, and yes, even in opera productions. Music as scenography, a sonic landscape wherein other music can appear and be heard. Well, you could perhaps imagine melodies dancing in a sound field. 

We can use the term «tone» to say something about a scene in a theater performance, a «tone» in the sense of a specific mood. A scene where many elements interact to create this mood, this tone. Text, movement, light, sound and scenography that together set a specific tone. Yes, I think we can talk about that. 

I read in a text by a prominent composer of electroacoustic music, when it comes to creating the experience of space in an electroacoustic music piece, to let the spatial parameter be the most prominent, there is one interesting aspect. Despite the fact that although sound and music must have the time dimension in order to exist, for the sound waves to be able to spread and reach our ears, it is here about time becoming space. This means that “tone”, especially in the sense of timbre, can be about space and the experience of space. A sonic space can give us a particular feeling, can strike a tone within us. There is something poetic about that. Tone – something that is both time and space, motion and atmosphere, thoughts and emotions. 

I have spoken briefly about my artistic practice based on the word «tone». 

It is interesting that it has a simplicity in that I first associate it with a pitch, a simple musical note. But the tone has a specific color, which it has through the overtones, which are different for each instrument. Yes, it can be different within each instrument, like the guitar, where the same note can sound different. Tone is therefore about color, timbre, sound changes. These shifts can in themselves have a great beauty, a poetry in the changing sonic colors. Tone can also imply a particular mood, an atmosphere. A room, a landscape, a scene in a theater performance can have a particular tone. And tone in the theater can be the tone of the actor’s voice and performance that gives the text a special meaning. 

So, what do all these meanings of the word «tone» have in common? I think about it for a moment and realize that the common denominator is that they are vibrations, oscillations, something that is set in motion. The string that is struck vibrates with a number of oscillations per second, which means that we perceive a pitch and also hear all the overtones. The actor’s voice is also vibrations through the vocal cords set in motion. And the scenography in the theater that has a «tone»? Well, what is set in motion is our inner emotions, which can perhaps be seen as strings that are set in motion and gives an inner emotional tone. Perhaps we can see ourselves as instruments, where our inner strings can be set in motion through art experiences and let the tones ring, vibrate, move and change us as human beings.