Ex Machina documents the collaboration between visionary American alto sax player-composer Steve Lehman (currently a professor of music at the California Institute of the Arts near Los Angeles) and the French Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ) under the artistic direction of Frédéric Maurin, who co-composed this work with Lehman. This conceptual work was conceived of in close collaboration with IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique Musique, founded in 1977 by Pierre Boulez) and explores ways to integrate aspects of French spectral music into jazz improvisation and its title evokes spectral pioneer composer Gérard Grisey’s iconic Tempus Ex Machina (for 6 percussionists, 1979) as well as Lehman and Maurin’s inspired fusion of electronic sounds – driven by interactive software – and the acoustic orchestration and real-time performance of soloists in the ONJ big band. Lehman and Maurin declare that they hoped «to foster a sense of artistic adventure and discovery, establishing new connections between humans and machines in the fields of composition and improvisation, and encouraging listeners to experience an immersion in sound like no other».
The most ambitious Ex Machina features compositional processes and performances relying on new technologies. Computer-music researcher Jérôme Nika helped integrate electronic sounds into the core of the ONJ using software he developed at IRCAM called Dicy2, which models listening behaviors and musical memories, while also adding rhythmic complexity and timbral nuance to the ensemble. Dicy2 was also used as a pre-compositional tool, and integrated directly into the overarching concepts of orchestration, rhythm, and form. This software became a generator of electronic orchestrations for the composers and an improvisation partner for the musicians.
Ex Machina premiered at the 2022 edition of Festival Présences in Paris, centered around the music of Tristan Murail (another spectral music master and Lehman’s composition teacher at Columbia University from 2006–2012), but Maurin also referenced Grisey’s early models of spectral harmony in his two-part «Speed-Freeze», which plays with different layers of temporality. This work was recorded at Bauer Studios in Ludwigsburg, Germany in January 2023.
This intriguing, dramatic work employs otherworldly spectral harmonies in a fascinating manner. These nuanced harmonies are reinforced and transformed in real-time by the live, interactive electronics. The musicians of Lehman’s Octet – long-time comrades trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and vibes (tuned a quarter-tone higher than normal) player Chris Dingman, and ONJ’s musicians interact and improvise brilliantly with these harmonies that merge elusive perceptions of the timbres, and with the propulsive polyrhythms (0ne of Lehman’s compositions, «Ode to Aklaff» is an homage to drummer Pheeroan Aklaff) and computer-driven sound transformation. The integration of Dicy2 adds a decisive lament of risk-taking, surprise and constant discovery as well as an otherworldly, Sun Ra-tinged atmospheric sound to the urgent, layered one of Ex Machina, blurring the common distinction between composition, arrangement and improvisation, and contemporary music and modern jazz.
Steve Lehman (alto saxophone, electronics), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Chris Dingman (vibraphone), Frédéric Maurin (direction, electronics), Fanny Ménégoz (flute, alto flute, piccolo), Catherine Delaunay (clarinet, basset horn), Julien Soro (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Fabien Debellefontaine (baritone saxophone, clarinet, flute), Fabien Norbert (trumpet, flugelhorn), Daniel Zimmermann (trombone), Christiane Bopp (trombone), Fanny Meteier (tuba), Bruno Ruder (piano, synthesizer), Stéphan Caracci (vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, percussion, synthesizer), Rafaël Koerner (drums), Sarah Murcia (double bass), Jérôme Nika (generative electronics creation, artistic collaboration), Dionysios Papanikolaou (IRCAM electronics)