Photo: Emiliano Ortíz Benítez

Since Dániel Péter Biró’s arrival at the Grieg Academy his hallmark has been being breaking new and exiting ground, both in musical practice and composition. Biró who, amongst other highly rated musical institutions, has worked at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, was appointed Professor in Composition at The Grieg Academy in 2018. For his groundbreaking artistic research project, Sounding Philosophy, Biró, was awarded a grant for 2021-2024 from the Norwegian Artistic Research Program. In Sounding Philosophy the composer is doing artistic research connecting music composition, philosophy and science working with world-class composers and musicians alongside philosophers and scientists..

Space in music
You mention spatiality as an important concept in developing composition, is this a new way of thinking or does it exist a tradition in composition for spaciousness?

– The concept of space in music is very old. One can think of Venetian Renaissance traditions of spatializing musicians, the relationships between spatial proportions in architecture and music, as presented in Dufay’s Nuper Rosarum Flores from 1436, where the proportions of the composition, both in terms of tempo and length of sections correspond to those architectural proportions found in Brunelleschi’s Cathedral in Florence. But the history of music is one of emancipation: one could say that space – being previously a secondary parameter in music composition – having before taken a back seat to pitch and rhythm, is now a main concern in musical creation and reception. There are many reasons for this change, including the development of technology as well as the creation of new performance spaces. This also creates new paradigms for music composition in our time. In terms of my own work, I incorporate space into text-based compositions by creating connections between musical parameters such a pitch, timbre (sound color) and spatialization in electroacoustic performance contexts, Biró says.

In the composition Asher Hotseti Etkhem (Who Brought You Out of the Land), written for the Neue Vocalsolisten and the SWR Experimentalstudio, for instance the computer analyzes the pitch and timbre of the live voice and this determines from which loudspeaker the voice will be heard. In this way, according to Biró, two domains of musical information, here timbre and pitch, determines what the listener hears in the spatial domain. It is what I call “musical parametric translation.”

Links between history end experimental research
Can you say a little bit about where your way of thinking around composition originates? What times in your career has influenced you the most?

– It is hard to say which time period influenced me the most, as the different stages of my life stand in dialogue and affect each other. After receiving a very good and very traditional musical education in Hungary, I studied in Frankfurt, Germany with Hans Zender, a composer and conductor who was very important for the development of contemporary music in Germany. This was a very turbulent time in the country, just after the Berlin wall had fallen, and the social and political aspects of music became for me a prime concern, really opening up the question about what music is and could be. After Frankfurt, I continued with doctoral studies at Princeton University, where I was able to discover how composition connects to other fields like ethnomusicology, religious studies, philosophy, mathematics, technology and linguistics. This work was then further developed at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where I worked to complete the electroacoustic composition cycle Mishpatim (Laws), investigating how world chant traditions can be combined with music technology. One could say that my work creates links between experimental and historical research, as each piece of music is, for me, like an archaeological excavation in a new country, a way to discover both individual and collective memory and, simultaneously, to create new contexts for the creation and perception of compositional form and expression.

Emancipated music from harmony
Is it correct that John Cage has been an influence? Cage’s work was important both for artists and musicians, Is your musical practice and composition influenced by visual art´s way of thinking where the viewer is free to interpret? I am thinking for instance in music that the listener is not a polite person on a chair, but for instance laying down on the floor, going through a journey in hers or his mind.

– Yes. The work of John Cage has had an enormous influence on contemporary art and music. It is important to consider that just as Cage’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, emancipated music from harmony, Cage allowed for music to be anything – including silence and noise. But the main influence of Cage was to de-centralize the tradition of what we call “art music.” Today there is no longer a single geographical “center” of artistic production and no common musical language or compositional school. Rather, there is a diversity of musical species existing in a complex globalized artistic environment that goes in all kinds of directions at the same time. Of course, my own music incorporates influences from numerous world music traditions while being informed by European and North American compositional developments. In a way, I try to integrate the ideas of Cage in a dialectical manner, as memory, in both music and culture, still plays a central role in my work. In this way, the anarchistic “opening up” of music also allows us to question our role in carrying cultures and traditions forward and how one, both as a composer and human being, responds to these in terms of reaction, reconstruction, deconstruction and transformation.

Music that disturbs
When composing or playing, why are you going into the spaciousness, is it therapeutic, what experience are you looking for to create for the listener?

– For me, the question of spirit in music is inherently connected to arts’ ability to disturb and question pre-existing norms. Simultaneously, for me, music composition is a way to investigate memory and history, as our modes of listening remain in contac with ossified traditions and cultures. The experience of listening should be, for me, a kind of surprising discovery, which sets in motion new modes of thinking and perception. Therein, the musical experience – existing as an element of history – can be discovered anew. Many of my works stand in dialogue with historical works; for instance my string quartet Lizkor Velishkoach (To Remember and To Forget) responds to Schubert’s last string quartet while the Mishpatim (Laws) cycle takes ancient Hebrew Bible text and chant as its main point of departure. In this way, the modern and experimental co-exists both with historical and ancient temporalities.

Inspired by Spinoza
What should the new music be, what can new music be? Existential, psychological or philosophical – or all of these? 

– The experience of listening should be, for me, a kind of surprising discovery, which sets in motion new modes of thinking and perception. New music, in its ability to ask difficult questions, has the possibility to be itself a kind of sounding philosophy, as a musical work can create a conceptual space that can move beyond purely aesthetic realms. In my composition cycle, Scholium Secundum, written as part of the Sounding Philosophy Project, supported by the Norwegian Artistic Research Program, ideas about cognition and the mind, as conceptualized by Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) become translated into musical structures and expressed through compositional analogy. In the course of writing this work, I consulted with philosophers Grit Schwarzkopf and Gunnar Hindrichs, which allowed for the compositional translation of philosophical ideas to become an integral part of my artistic praxis. In this way, historical and contemporary ideas about the mind, consciousness and intelligence currently play a role in my compositional process, which while constantly changing and transforming, serves to provide new ways to discover and experience the relationships between sound and spirit.

Must travel to research
At present however the Grieg Academy has facilities that are not adequate for cutting-edge research in the field of composition, so Dániel Péter Biró needs to travel to Germany to conduct artistic research for the project and worked at the Experimentalstudio where he composed the piece Asher Hotseti Etkhem (Who Brought You Out of the Land).

Biró states that a key factor in the development of music today is technology, and technology is a core component in the planned facilities at the future Grieg Academy building in Møllendal.

– It is nothing less than the future of music at our institution that is at stake if we don´t get new studio facilities, says Biró who claims that the development of music depends on new technology.

– performance spaces and new technologies and on extending creative possibilities.The development of music was always contingent on the development of musical instruments, performance spaces and new technologies and on extending creative possibilities. To progress in the field of composition it is necessary for technology to interact with existing musical traditions. In order to do research and work with electronics composers and musicians therefore need the right type of facility, Biró explains. The only way to take the next steps in musical composition, is to have the facilities to make this interaction happen, for instance with electronics.

Spatialized audio
A main way to extend the functionality of musical instruments, is to alter the material sound of the instrument via live-electronics and to project this new sound of the instrument into space. In this way, spatialized audio has become a main part of the contemporary musical vocabulary. For instance, in one of Biró’s pieces the pitch and timbre of the voice controls where it is projected in a spatialized setup. Biró explains this process here and describes this work further:

– Such methods to work with music are being explored in the Research Project Sounding Philosophy. In this project, we integrate new developments in live-electronics, computational ethnomusicology and artificial intelligence into compositional frameworks. We need proper facilities in order to do this.

Can put the Grieg Academy at the forefront
Head of Department at the Grieg Academy, Randi Rolvsjord praises Biró’s work. –  In composition, we have very exciting professional projects and a professional environment that finds creative solutions to the challenges we face with the Grieg Academy building. When we move into a new building, this will give us completely new opportunities to be at the forefront of the development of contemporary music and composition. In the current building we have major challenges both related to the size of the room and music technology. It is very difficult to place the type of music technology that such a study program needs in current premises.

International cooperation
Last year a small studio facility was built at The Grieg Academy to accommodate the needs of the research into electroacoustic composition. – The studio is very limited in terms of size, it isn’t enough to have a larger audience. One can work with it, but it is not enough for the future” says Biró who has used his international network to get access to good studios. – We have done many projects, together with the SWR Experimentalstudio of the German radio, which is one of the major institutes for music technology in the world. This is a world-class institution, with a lot of renowned composers and musicians connected to it, and continues to be an important studio for experimental music. The work with them has been presented at the Ultima Festival in Oslo and recently at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany, which used a multi-speaker setup on three floors of the museum. The facilities at the Experimentalstudio in Freiburg are excellent and truly highlights what we lack at the Grieg Academy, says Biró who adds there is not any Scandinavian music department that has such old and poor facilities as at the Grieg Academy.

Dániel Péter Biró’s work with music technology was presented in an hour-long-radio program of the German Radio on February 5, 2023:


From the concert i in The University Aula at the University of Bergen where professor at the Grieg Academy, Einar Røttingen played "Triadic Memories" by Morton Feldman. This was part of the Artistic Research project "Sounding Philosophy". Photo: Anette Andersen