Helicopter String Quartet (1996) - full transcript

One, two, three... Ready!

30, 31, 32...

1, 2,

3, 4, 5, 6,

7, 8, 9, 10,

11, 12, 13, 14...








- Eight!
- Nine!

- Ten!
- Eleven!



I don't have any philosophy,

but all my life I've dreamt

that I can fly,

and that I know
what it means to fly.

In lots of dreams

I leave earth.

I often dream

that I'm in a cellar,

surrounded by people in tuxedoes,

holding drinks in their hands,

and I know I could shut them all up
in one go.

They don't want me there.

Then I'm on tiptoes
and I let myself go,

I just take off
and I end up on the ceiling.

And then...

I swoop down to the floor
and fly up again,

and everyone says, "Oh!"

Then I turn elegantly
at the wall.

I dream that the people
are all speechless,

watching me, a man, fly.

Or I dream
that I'm flying over mountains.

That's a classic.

My music has shown it
from the start.

In the studio I close my eyes,

I have my hand on the fader,

and I try to form the sounds.

I send them through the speakers

like a bird flying.

That's not a philosophy,

more like a primitive dream

to make the music fly
because I'm flying.







My dear Jan,

what a long way you've come!
It's amazing!

And you have so much work to do!

Thanks a lot.

Hello, everyone.


It's nice and cool here.


my first works,

the 4-channel Song of the Youths,

and Groups for Three Orchestras,

I've composed the musical space

around human beings.

The sounds come
from every direction,

and circle around the people
in rotation.

With Groups...,
the orchestras are all around.

Then, with Carré
for four orchestras and four choirs,

the four conductors
have their backs against the wall,

and the audience
are looking into the middle,

in rings.

The choirs and the orchestras...

are placed

across 270 degrees.

You hear the music all round.


is electronic music
with piano and percussion on stage.

You're in total contact
with a circle of speakers.

It's an idea I developed

in the music I wrote before
the Helicopter String Quartet.

Invasion, for example,

which you can play
outside a concert hall.

In the hall
I make "octophonic" music.

We have a cube of speakers,
14 metres high,

with a square of speakers
above the audience,

and a square at the audience's level.

The sounds go diagonally
at the same time,

and at different speeds,

or turn in spirals,

or in unequal circles.

Then there are musicians,

with speakers tied to them,

who move around to the right
and left of the audience,

in front and behind.

The work is called Invasion.

It only lasts 70 minutes.

It was the first time a work
had taken into account a space

outside a concert hall,
while being musically relevant.

And now, a piece that flies away,

I want to make spaces
a part of it,

not simply the spaces
of the town and countryside,

but all the spaces on the planet.

Using long-range transmissions,
visual and acoustic,

we can conquer space

with flying objects,

so music is everywhere

that musicians are.

The latest technology
can link us to them.




Is this your first string quartet?

It's the first
and probably the last!

All my life,
I've never composed anything

for a classical formation.

In fact...

The string quartet is a prototype
from the 18th century.

Just as the symphony
and the solo concerto

are the stamp
of a very particular era

in composition,

both as regards interpretation

and form.

All my life
I've kept away from that.

I haven't taken up
the classical forms.

I'm a pianist
but I've never written a concerto,

and I've refused commissions
for concerti for violin or piano.

The same goes for symphonies
and quartets.

This quartet
is the result of a dream.

When the work was commissioned,
I said, "No way, never!"

Then I dreamt it.

And that's when everything changed,

because I started imagining
the four musicians flying,

in a completely different room.

The show is put on for an audience

sitting in a concert hall.

They imagine
the musicians in the air,

playing in four flying objects.

In the future,
they could be in flying objects

that go up even higher.


Like with going to the moon,
you have to rehearse.

Don't just assume that everything
will be fine on the 25th,

that the 12 transmitters will work.

If we haven't done tests,

then we're taking a great risk,
and it could be embarrassing.

Like when a rocket doesn't take off.

It'd be embarrassing
if people came

after seeing the advertising,

and it didn't work.

We have to get to Deelen aerodrome.

Or elsewhere.

We should be able to test it
beforehand in a helicopter,

with all the equipment.

If we don't have enough money
to equip all four helicopters,

we'll take the same equipment.

They told me
there were other helicopters,

different from the concert ones.

I said the turbines
were too powerful.

We'd just hear a buzz all the time
and not the rotors.

I saw them play

and it was
as if I was seeing double.

In the helicopters,

even though I knew
they were in different helicopters,

I was able to control them all,
from the inside.

Also, inside the hall,
on the four monitors,

on the columns of screens,

we could see
each musician multiplied

like in shop windows

or at the World Expo.

When monitors
are piled up like that

and images are repeated,

it creates a different effect.

Since the repeated images
are all the same,

you're more attentive
to what is actually happening.

It's engraved in your mind.

I didn't mention
that dream to anyone.

It was so strange...

I thought that if I suggested it,

people would think
I was round the bend!

I kept it to myself.

I didn't even tell my family.

Usually, I tell them everything.

The musicians have headphones
and hear exactly

10, 9, 8, 7,

6, 5, 4, 3,

2, 1... bang!

Then it starts
and they play for 18 minutes.

It's very precise.
I have the score in front of me.

18 minutes, 36 seconds,

all at the same time.

They all receive the same signal,

the same click track,

then there's a descent,

which lasts from 2 to 3 minutes,

composed to resemble

the descent of the helicopters.

That's the top line,
that's the second one,

the third and the fourth.

You can see I've given a colour
to each musician.

There's a reason for that.

The score's written
in four colours.

I'll show you this page,
for example.

At the top it's the first violin,
then the second.

The first is in red,
the second, in blue.

Then the viola is in green

and the cello's in orange.

The lines cross here,

and that's how they play.
I composed it like that.

Here you can really see
the trajectory,

so to speak, of the tones,

how, from one octave to the next,

they have to be played glissando.

Below it's the resolution,

and each musician has his voice,

which lets him read out
what he has to play.

By analysing it,
that's what you'll get.

I want to bring together spaces

with musicians who aren't
in the traditional setting,

along the lines

of a violinist on a chair
in front of his music stand.

The violinist plays

and the sound around him

spreads out in a space

which is nothing
like a concert hall.

How do we manage that?
Nobody knows yet.

the roof of the concert hall

would open up.
Places likes that do exist.

We'd see the stars

and the four helicopters flying.

The theatre manager
would announce to the audience

that the quartet was in the sky.

One day,
the following thing happened...

I was working in the studio

of electronic music in Cologne.
The WDR studio.

It's a studio with windows

to the east,

overlooking the Rhine, which is
about 150 metres from the studio.

There are port buildings.

The studio's windows
are ten metres across.

Suddenly Katinka,
who was in the studio

with Steven and two technicians,
said, "Look!"

Through the left-hand window

a green helicopter was approaching,

followed by another helicopter,
a third and then a fourth.

The four helicopters
were flying together,

near the ten-metre picture windows,

over the Rhine,
and they flew off to the right.

I thought,
"That's a sign from heaven!"

No one can explain it.

The two technicians cried out,

"That's incredible!
Four all together!"

In any case,
it was a supra-rational sign,

or... not irrational,

but a supra-mental confirmation,

that the project
would be seen through.

It's things we can't always explain

that make us carry on.

I spent half the night awake,

thinking what other possibilities
there were,

what I could come up with.

I imagined
the craziest situations.

Since I was little
I've always loved bees.

My uncle had lots of hives.

The buzzing made by lots of bees

is a magic sound to me.

It's never constant.

I imagined a musician
sitting in a cradle of steel wire.

But he couldn't sit
in the middle of the bees.

They'd sting his hands
and he wouldn't be able to play.

In my dream that night,
a technician had a spray,

which he sprayed all over his hands

so the musician could play.

I had these dreams
because of the Helicopter Quartet

that we're going to rehearse today.

I dream more and more
of the possibilities

for my music

to include sound happenings

that you obtain

neither with musical instruments
nor with the voice,

nor with electronic music.

Two, five, nine...


Twelve. Great!

Twelve, fifteen...


and nine are the sums
of the numbers.

You've got 390... 465...

453... and 324.

By adding up the figures
on the number plates

you get 12, 15, 12 and 9.

That's wonderful.
Four to five, four to three.

- Hello, Bart.
- Hello.

- How are you?
- Fine.

It's wonderful.

Hello, Stephan.

I have to explain
what it's all about.

These are the four helicopters.
Come on.

This is the principle...

It's important, they're going
to take off in an hour.

In each helicopter
there's a camera.

The musician's there,
with a music stand.

They're very handy accessories.

Each musician will have headphones,
good and tight,

like this.

He'll hear the click track

which will be sent up

to synchronise the musicians.

In his headphones he hears

the sounds from the mixing desk,
another essential accessory,

which will mix his voice

and the mike
that'll be fixed to his instrument.

A technician will be near the pilot,
facing the pilot,

and he'll mix the sound.

If the musician
wants to bring up the instrument

or his voice,
the technician will do it.

The sound will come
through his headphones,

but also in the hall where I'll be.

That's very important.

The headphones are important,

as is the mike
fixed to the instrument.

You can't see it there.

And now...

After several tests,
we put the mike here.

It'll record the sound
of the blades.

At first, we put it there,

but we put it here
because the results are better.

For 45 years
I've been continually trying

to introduce into music

the sounds we hear every day,

and then making music of them.
It's a dream.

The whole world will become music.

It ought to be possible.

Oliver, they let you in!
Were you on the list?

You're very pale. Are you ill?

The flu?
But look at the sun up there!

Up here you have four systems,

and four down below, too.

In the top system,
the black notes indicate

a formula,
or the beginning of a formula.

What I call a link.

I'll sing it faster

than the metronomic indication here.

We're at point zero here.

The first part, to here,
lasts 23.8 seconds.

I'll sing it faster,
in my own voice's range.

That's the top voice.
The second...

The third voice.

They were the first voices,
and I decided

to switch from tone to tone
in the melody.

From the first, for example,

I use the red colour

to link to the third melody.

And I come back to the first,

then a tone to the second,
back to the first, the second...

First, second, first,
third melody, and so on.

The second colour is blue.

I start with the 1st note
of the 2nd melody...

Then it's linked to a note
of the upper melody,

and to two notes of the lower one,

then to the upper one,
the intermediary...

the upper, the lower...

The 3rd melody is green.

It goes from the first note
of the 3rd melody

to the 2nd note of the upper one.

It comes back then goes off again.

So that's the green line.

The last line is orange.

It goes through the tones
that I've left open.

It doesn't have a tune of its own,

but it goes looking for notes
from the three others.

So that's the orange line.

It's like giving presents
at Christmas,

and not knowing
if they'll work or not,

if they'll make the right noises.

Poor Graeme, he's still playing!

They had to learn
- and that was the hardest job -

to prepare, to bring out

and to listen to the melodies

or the formulas
of the other musicians,

in order to first of all understand
the polyphonic framework.

That took a lot of time.

The point they're at now,

they know who's coming next,

and they're doing crescendos,
accelerandos and tremolos.

The tremolos are differentiated.

At first they were all the same.

Now they're like...

The second with accelerandos!

I have to get used

to the fact that,
without cease,

the sonic colours
and rhythms of the blades

blend in with the instruments.

I've learnt something
I hadn't foreseen,

which is that, from time to time
you can improvise.

I mean with the four signals
from the rotor-blades.

You can bring them up

without, however,
drowning out the music,

and it resonates beautifully.

In the four columns of speakers,

when you get the rotor-blades
coming in, like waves,

and you hear them move off again,

as if they were autonomous,

you really hear the movements
of the machine in flight.

And what's the result, now,

compared to what you hoped for
in your dream?

It's hard to answer that.

It's very down to earth.

The monitors are there,

I have to deal continuously
with the mixing desk,

the settings and the mikes,

and all of that has become
the most important thing.

In my dream I was freer.

I floated through the air,

I was a creature without a body,

and I could even see
through the helicopters.

It's very strange in dreams,

objects don't always represent...

an obstacle.
You can see right through them.

I could, at the same time,
watch the earth

and the groups of people,
who seemed minuscule,

and I could even hear them
and see them.

All that has disappeared.

I'm once again in a concert hall

with black curtains

and four columns
of television screens.

As I told you,

I'm surrounded
by all the technical material

that makes the project possible.

Right now, I can't commit myself
to saying anything

relating to the imagination,

and its transformation
via technical means.

The technical aspect
has become the main thing.

I think...

we should send the musicians
to the helicopters.

Bart, we only want
to hear the instruments.



Ten... eleven!


Why are you starting again?

- You told me to!
- Go on, start again.

It's been a symbol
of my musical oeuvre

for 45 years.

The thing that isn't played
or heard

is the most fascinating thing
for me.

For every new work

I wait for a sign, a premonition,

in order to discover
in my imagination

that which I've never heard

and that which has never
been played before.

New instruments, new sounds,

new combinations, new shapes,

new spaces, new languages...

I've just been working
on a choral work

for four months, World Parliament,

in which an artificial language

is sung
in several artificial dialects.

And the singers had never
spoken those words before.

It's a new language I developed
just for the piece.

That's what I'll continue to do
all my life.

For each new departure,

I wait for something inside me

and the means I will use.

Something I've never heard before,

that has never been played,
that has never been done.

May my...

Through music, may my spirit
continue to develop

in the discovery and invention

of spiritual forms,

and to constantly enlarge
the acoustics

of my sonic spaces

and my listening faculties.

May I be able to recognise contexts,

and really discern the layers

and the interactions with my ears.

The eyes often help the ears.

It's a goal without an end.

I'd really like to have

a body that can do a lot more

than the one I have at the moment.

And I hope that one day
I'll have a spiritual body

of which I can demand even more

than my present body
with its human senses.

Subtitles by Howard Bonsor

Subtitling by TVS - TITRA FILM