Forecast Festival: Carlos Gutiérrez

Music for the Head and the Body

In Infinite Warp and Weft, Carlos Gutiérrez highlights the experience of sonic illusions that arrive after an intense, concentrated musical experience.

Text by Emily Bick
Photos by Camille Blake

“When I was studying and wanted to start my career as a composer, I had this problem of how to represent my sound ideas,” says Bolivian composer Carlos Gutiérrez, whose project for Forecast, Infinite Warp and Weft, uses the structures of traditional textile weaving as a metaphor for composition. His work incorporates several forms of indigenous Andean music. Often working with panpipes, Gutiérrez employs a subtle interplay of tones, movements, and beat frequencies produced by a group of players to compose intricate structures.

“In part, the idea for this project started with the problem that emerges when you want to transcribe an Indigenous song,” he explains. “Western researchers transcribed examples of these tunes, but there is a huge lack of information in their documents. In the Western way of notating music, you can’t really notate most of these gestures and sounds because they are not really in the tonal system. The Western tools to analyze and transcribe the traditional music of Bolivia, and of many other cultures, are not enough to represent that. I was thinking of ways to not only represent this music, but also the compositional ideas that I have.”

Early visual representations of Gutiérrez’s project appeared onscreen as a landscape that could be navigated along a two-dimensional x–y axis, with a third dimension of zooming in and out of focus on granular moments or elements of sound. This movement reflects the minute differentials of tone in panpipes that elude other forms of notation. “If you have the same pipe, let’s say the pipe number five, there are small differences in each instrument. They provoke these beating sounds, and the smallest pipes have even more interesting beating results,” he explains. “Indigenous groups are looking for these sorts of differences. When you have this whole group playing you have different kinds of beatings sounding. These very small differences are even less than a quarter of a tone. The idea of the grid, which can be compressed or expanded, was to be able to work in very small detail.”

Weaving Sound with the Audience

In preparation for his project being selected for Forecast, Gutiérrez presented a modified version of a workshop that he used to do with children and audiences using traditional Andean music. He handed out panpipes to everyone in the group, and then gave them a rhythmic call and response exercise. Gutiérrez and his mentor, Greg Fox, met in Tokyo to further develop the project. “We’re going to present a sound installation,” Gutiérrez explains. “People will grab a panpipe, and we would probably have four or six mics, each with a specific programming. For example, if you approach the mic and play it just like ‘ah’ [sings] you will have a certain response, a rhythmic response. A different mic will give another response. People will be able to play in groups in front of these mics and have a more direct relationship with this idea of rhythms and flexibility.” A Bolivian artisan will supply the pipes and Gutiérrez is working with the programmer Carter Williams to deliver software that will generate rhythmic feedback from the players’ input. It’s a setup that allows for emergent complexity to be generated from simple starting conditions, as rhythms are looped and woven together.

The movement of players through the space is as important as their activity at the mics and the triggered rhythmic programming. Gutiérrez describes a formative experience at a festival of traditional Bolivian music, where he wandered through a huge gathering of several large groups of twenty or more musicians playing their own tunes in the same style. “When you are walking in this space and listening to these infinite configurations of sound, you can’t really even decide which kind of weaving to follow; it’s just really impressive, a massive experience in the space,” he says, “And it is always a very important topic for me in the composition.”

The Sajra

Gutiérrez also relishes the experience of sonic illusions that arrive after such an intense, concentrated musical experience. After one such festival that lasted several days, he continued to hear a mirage of music in the distance: “When I got back to the city or to my home, I kept listening to this sound, it’s incredible. It’s like there are soundings far away from here.” Later, he spoke with a researcher about a belief of indigenous Bolivian people that explains this phenomenon affecting musicians: “There is this spirit, it’s kind of a devil-like entity, but it’s also very fertile, which can give you some very interesting things. It’s an ambiguous entity that stays in your head. It’s called the Sajra,” Gutiérrez explains. In order to cast out the Sajra’s sonic devilry, legend has it, the affected person needs to hit themself on the head with a lucuma fruit. “I didn’t try that,” says Gutiérrez, “I really like the aural illusion. In an installation that I did in 2018, I installed a lot of these whistling bottles that sound because of the movement of the water, and there’s a whistle in one of the bottles so you have these different tones. I was installing them the whole day, and I clearly remember back in my hotel in that night, I had this same sensation… I decided I need to work in that way of composition, composed for the head.”

In Infinite Warp and Weft, music for the head and the body intertwine as players interconnect and respond to each other within the space and through infinite feedback loops of sound. “I was thinking that they also have the possibility to create these weavings in the space of the speakers, in this case,” Gutiérrez says, “This will be, for me, just the start of this idea. These sonic textiles could likely be expanded to more speakers, to different distances, to different ways of situating the speakers or the musicians in the space. It’s a field that I would like to research. This will be the starting point of what I intend to develop, a really big rhythmic generator.”

Video by Stephan Talneau

Emily Bick is Commissioning Editor for The Wire magazine, and a writer on music, technology, and culture. She is based in London.