Sonata for Bicycle (2020)

Sonata for Bicycle

In the beginning, the performer is asked to start spinning the crank arm of an upside-down bicycle forward. The aim is to try to find a speed that produces the least sound possible from the vehicle’s machinery. Soon, releasing the crank arm produces another, slightly louder sound: the whirl of the freehub. Changing gear, yet another sound. Later, the score also asks the performer to listen to the inevitably slipping out click-sounds of the freehub, and then to imitate these rhythms by flicking the front wheel spokes in canon. Finally, in one of the concluding moments of the piece, the performer is instructed to conduct a 100-second discovery-survey on the various rhythmical loops produced on different nodes of plucked spokes while spinning the wheel in a musically-sensible manner, that is, come un organetto a manovella (ie. “like a barrel organist”). The piece also includes quite a bit of cantabile… but not for the sake of pitches or tunes, but for the joy of (the bicycle) finding a singing voice and letting it ring.

While adjusting themself into the concrete materiality of the bicycle at hand, the performer is decisively more of a (co-)listener or an enabler than a master or a creator. The score, a set of tasks in notated rhythm, is based on a transcription of a video documenting the composer’s planned improvisation of said tasks – tasks instructing, in various ways, to listening to the bicycle. This ‘feedback cycle into itself’ is an effort in equalizing the performer and the instrument (even the composer?) to a revised power balance. It is an effort in finding a space where the nonhuman component, the “instrument”, is liberated from its traditional of rôle of being a mere object, a means to an end – essentially, a tool – and empowered to initiate the dialogue in sound. This is to promote the idea of us, humans, actively listening to the nature around us instead of just forcing our way over it. Furthermore, this particular dialogue is suggested to have been naturally initiated by the object’s materiality; a bicycle is, in essence, a spinning machine. Bringing this piece about is thus not really only about “making of plinking sounds”, but of creating a space for listening to matter’s moment of cantabile.

In a rendition, the performer brings the particular bicycle into the realm of listening – by using the machine in the most obvious, stable manner requested by concentrated listening – just as much as the title of the piece brings this particular “ride” into the realm of music. Whatever results, in my humble opinion, is a material voice in its ephemeral beauty. And the voice sings (and purrs)… s(u)onare > sonata.

The original impetus for my first notated piece for a non-instrument came already around early 2009, and in the meantime got inspired by the Gutai Art Manifesto of Jirō Yoshihara, the MANI works of Pierluigi Billone, the constellations of Hanna Hartman… probably also John Cage, the Futurists and everybody composing for objects ever since. But above all, it is inspired by habitual listening to natural materiality (< lat. mater, mother) of things concretely offered by nature herself, and my surroundings in general. In 2014, the concept of this project got focused on the bicycle, and finally, in 2019, “a new piece for a non-instrument” was officially (and in clairvoyance) commissioned by percussionist-performer Kalle Hakosalo for his Finnish New Percussion Music concert, with funding from Kone Foundation and Madetoja Foundation. The resulting Sonata for Bicycle (2020) was composed while being supported by Arts Council of Finland (Taike) with my first full-year working grant.

© 2020 Jarkko Hartikainen