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About this Piece

Composed: 2011
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (crotales, tubular bells, vibratone, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, tom-toms, bass drum, vibraphone, spring drum, tambourine, and snare drums), harp, piano (= celesta), strings, and solo electric cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)

The electric cello is an electromagnetic instrument. The kinetic energy of the strings is transformed into electromagnetic energy that can be manipulated in numerous ways before being reconverted into sound. This is the main feature of this instrument and the very source of its amazing power, so I decided to find the biggest possible magnet to base my work on. Reading some articles online, I learned about the existence of a rare type of pulsars that had the biggest magnetic fields in the universe, known as magnetars.

After learning about the existence of magnetars, I contacted Dr. Jonathan Arons from the University of Berkeley (an astrophysicist who happens to play the cello) who kindly agreed to have lunch with me. It was then that I learned all I needed to know (and more) about magnetars and their flares. He also put me in contact with Dr. Kevin Hurley – one of the authors of the articles I had read – who was kind enough to share with me data from three flares produced by three different magnetars collected by the Venera, Ulysses, and RHESSI spacecraft. I used this data to construct the base materials for my work.

Once I had the materials ready, I ripped two strings off my electric guitar and tuned it as a cello. Then I jammed on the materials to find out what could be done with them. I composed the solo part first, and showed it to Johannes Moser, who crashed in my studio for a week. During this time we defined how the final version should sound, leaving the score ready to add the e-cello FXS patcher and the final orchestration.

The work has three movements: fast, slow, and brutal. The data from the flares had some seconds of cosmic noise before and after the blast, so the first movement comes from and goes back to cosmic noise, which is represented by the use of hands and feet – ideal instruments for controlled noise chaotic textures. The core of the movement has the time line reversed: the decay of the flare becomes a gradual build up towards the big blast that dies out into the solo cadenza. This cadenza represents quiet and peaceful times, when magnetars chill out and return to balance.

The second movement explores melodies that build up to a mini-flare (magnetars also have small bursts), then falls into a cool jam, and dies out to the same ethereal ambience of the cadenza. The third movement bursts from nowhere into a fully distorted e-cello that leads into a brutal riff, which gradually builds up to the giant final flare.

Needless to say, the effects patcher (programmed by Esteban Chapela) is the most exciting part of an e-cello concerto. This software controls all digital as well as analog effects. It’s based on MAX/MSP and does many things: It governs the effects configuration during the entire piece, analyzes the audio signal, and provides a real time stream of information that is used to adjust the response of the effects to the playing of the soloist. Finally, it performs all digital FXS (delay, granulation, ring modulation, spectral freeze) while storing the MIDI data that turns on and off the analog FXS (distortion, wa wa, chorus, phaser).

MAGNETAR is dedicated to Johannes Moser, and to Dr. Víctor Manuel Chapela Castañares with gratitude for his scientific inspiration.

– Enrico Chapela