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Overall Analysis of “Alias” by Åke Parmerud

By Erica Bridgeman      March 22, 2009


Åke Parmerud was born in Sweden. He was originally trained as a photographer, but later pursued music at both the University and Conservatory of Music in Göteborg, Sweden, respectively. He has composed electroacoustic and instrumental music, and has done compositions for theater, dance film and video.

Over the course of his career, Åke has won many awards and has even had one of his pieces, “Grains of Voices” performed at the United Nations in New York. He has done live interactive performances, and spent several years working with Anders Blomqvist. Their live performances together have been extravagant, as they have included fireworks during a European tour.

For the past eight years, Parmerud has been designing both software and sound for innovative interactive audio/visual installations, and has used the designs for some of his own work. Several of the pieces that he has created this way have been show across Europe and in Mexico.

The piece “Alias” was composed in 1990 and was a prize winner in the 19th annual Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition in 1991. It was included on the CD released after the competition.


Before going into detail about Alias, one ought to know about two composers from the Renaissance: Carlo Gesualdo and John Dowland.

Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) was both the Prince of Venosa, and Count of Conza in Italy, as well as being a composer most known for his harmonically complex madrigals.

Gesualdo of Venosa is largely famous for murdering his wife, her lover and their child. He caught the two lovers committing adultery in 1590 after his wife had been having the affair for approximately two years. He completely mutilated both of their bodies and displayed them in front of the castle they were in for the entire town to see. Being aristocracy, he was never convicted of the crimes.

Legend has it that the voice of his beloved wife haunted his dreams for the remainder of his life.

John Dowland (1562-1626) was a virtuoso lutenist and singer during the Renaissance, and the music he composed was rife with melancholy. His relevance to Alias comes from his song A Shepherd in a Shade, as the third stanza from the song was used throughout the piece:

Restore, restore my heart again,

Which love by thy sweet looks hath slain,

Lest that, enforc'd by your disdain, I sing:

"Fie upon love, fie upon love, it is a foolish thing."

The original song is of a shepherd pining over a beautiful woman who does not return his affection. In context, what is meant by “which love by thy sweet looks hath slain,” is, more or less, “your beauty is so great that it has overwhelmed my heart.” By crying out “restore, restore my heart again” the shepherd is begging for his heart ache to end and for this beautiful woman to want him and love him so that his suffering will end.

Alias is Parmerud’s interpretation of the dreams that Gesualdo supposedly had of his wife begging forgiveness. He interpreted the lyrics of John Dowland’s song to be what Gesualdo’s wife may have said to him literally. He took the phrase, “sweet looks” to mean that Gesualdo was gazing upon the scene of his wife with another man.  When she asks him to “restore, restore my heart again”, she is not only asking him to undo the massacre of her body, but to restore the love that they once shared and for him to not judge her actions so harshly.

It is my interpretation that Parmerud turned John Dowland’s song into a metaphor with Alias. He took the vocal aspect of it and the lute accompaniment and mutilated it completely. He massacred and slaughtered the original song as Gesualdo massacred and slaughtered the two lovers. Then, Parmerud publicized the song as Gesualdo displayed the bodies publicly for all eyes to see. In mimicking Gesualdo’s situation in the form of an electroacoustic composition, Parmerud has provided the world with greater insight into what the Italian composer may have experienced.


As there are two movements to this work, the analysis will be divided accordingly. The first movement analysis will focus mainly on lute and voice and how they interact with one another, as these are most prominent. The second movement will focus nearly exclusively on the vocal aspect of the work, both choral and lyrical. Throughout the entire analysis, I will be relating the piece to the concept discussed in the previous section and next paragraph.

Regarding the concept of the piece, the two movements could be interpreted as two separate dreams that Gesualdo may have had. The first dream would likely have occurred shortly after the murders had taken place. It is less coherent than the second movement, and resembles a nightmare one would have after a traumatizing experience. The second movement contains more voices and sounds both more accusing and remorseful than the first movement. The violence within the movement is sparse yet far more harsh.

First Movement

The piece begins with a gesture. It begins as a hollow, metallic drone and sounds as if it originates from a great distance away. It builds in amplitude extremely quickly to a rapidly repeating note, which fades out just as quickly as it arrives. This is performed on piano board, which only becomes apparent after the initial peak in amplitude. Piano board was likely used because it sounds similar to the lute, yet is more versatile in terms of pitch range and the ability for the chromatic scales mentioned later in the analysis. The importance for it to sound similar to lute is due to the fact that the stanza used was taken from a song written for voice and lute. The piece may have been initiated this way as an expression of Gesualdo’s experience: he knew for months that his wife was unfaithful, yet it only hit him fully when he saw the two lovers together.

The gesture is repeated several times, but is changed in both duration and pitch, hinting vaguely that a melody may be hidden within (see diagrams 1a and 1b). The gesture is repeated to the extent that the ear begins to perceive it is a texture. This texture begins to act as a support for the remainder of the movement, even when it decreases in prominence. Specifically, when the vocal aspect of this work begins at 1:05, the piano board falls to the sidelines. The fact that the texture is so disjointed gives the piece an atmosphere of unease, uncertainty and stress. Hypothetically, if Gesualdo was dreaming such a noise, would he not be tossing and turning in restlessness and fitfulness?

During the 5th repeat of this texture (36 sec) a melody can be heard in the shadows of the work, as indicated in the below spectrograph:

The voice in the first movement is that of a single female. Anytime numerous voices are heard, it is simply the same voice layered in different harmonies. The first time her voice is heard, it sounds breathy, hollow and metallic, similar to the beginning of the piece. It appears and disappears several times before dominating the auditory scene. During the transition, the piano board begins to lose its importance; this is demonstrated by the piano board fading in and out much more rapidly and with the tremolo ceasing to be present. At 1:30, on the very cusp of vocal domination, the voice has the same tremolo effect of the piano board at the beginning, creating a smooth and seamless transition. As mentioned previously, the phrase, “Restore, restore my heart again, which love by thy sweet looks hath slain.” From 1:30 until the end of the movement, that is all that the voice sings, though it is often so distorted that it is nearly impossible to discern. The vocal work at this point is likely meant to represent the voice of Gesualdo’s wife, asking him to restore their love, and revive her mutilated body. At 1:43, the vocal work smoothes out, becoming less piano board-like and more like a haunting moan clearly created by the human voice. It is at 1:20 that the next frequently reoccurring gesture is introduced: the theme of chromatic scales. These scales are most easily heard on piano board, though they are performed with voice and occasionally a celesta-like sound as well. The first scale is ascending, but the below diagram shows a descending scale that it is preceded by an ascending scale shortly after. Between the two scales lies the subtlety of repeated “s” sounds (diagrams 2a and 2b). The “s” is repeated so promptly that it sounds like a disjointed, distorted hiss sound, much like the characteristic sound of a snake. Snakes biblically represent temptation, which is what Gesualdo’s wife would have felt during the times she committed adultery. This is simply a speculation in keeping with the concept of the work. This “s” effect is present throughout the movement.

Diagram 2a

Diagram 2b

Throughout most of the remainder of the movement and beginning at approximately 2 minutes, the voices become so layered that harmonies and dissonances cannot be helped

Harmony and dissonance are an important aspect of this piece, since both piano board and voice are strongly tonal and are heavily involved in the work. The voice and piano board create many harmonies and dissonances with one another throughout the movement, but more so than that, the voice creates a great variety of chords when layered upon itself. When the voice strikes a chord with itself, it is far easier to perceive than when creating any sort of interval with the piano board.

Most of the piece contains dissonance. It is because of this that the harmony stands out so greatly when it occurs. As well as that, the dissonance immediately proceeding a moment of harmony can stand out even more. For example, at 2:54, “hath” is dominantly a harmonic chord. Both major and minor thirds can be heard simultaneously, but overall the sound is very pleasing to the ear, and is one of the more consonant chords heard throughout the entire work (with exception to the snippets of choral work in the second movement). Overall, particularly with the sexual connotations that “have” can imply, singing “hath” with both major and minor overtones gives the work a bittersweet undertone. At 3:00, the word “slain” is sung and contains the very close sounding intervals of seconds and sevenths. The word “slain” is repeated twice more with the same harmonies. Each time it is repeated, it becomes more distorted and disjointed. Not only does this cause feelings of alienation, but it is in keeping with the original texture/theme presented by the piano board at the beginning of the movement. Also, as “slay” indicates a violent death, repeating “slain” is a heavy reminder of the murder.

Conceptually, the harmony was likely meant to symbolize the love that Gesualdo had for his wife, and the deep affection that he longed to feel from her. That being said, the dissonance is likely a tool emphasizing Gesualdo’s feelings of resentment, jealousy, anger, pain and suffering. The fact that there is so much more dissonance throughout the piece indicates how great the ratio was of jealousy and anger to love and affection. When harmony and dissonance juxtapose, it shows the conflicting thoughts that Gesualdo was having regarding his love for his wife and the extreme dislike he felt towards her unfaithfulness.

Shortly after the initial emphasis of “slain,” the work begins to get more hectic and violent. The melody that was once moderately distinguishable becomes discontinuous and broken. As the melody is torn piecemeal, it sounds increasingly like shouts of terror. This first occurs at 3:37 (diagram 3) and is even more evident by 5:39 (diagram4).

The end of this movement ties the entire 6 minutes of it together beautifully. As the piano board enters at the very beginning, it approaches from the right speaker. As the last “slain” is sung, it is only audible from the left speaker. The way that it the work comes and goes seemingly passes through your mind as it did Gesualdo’s. “Slain” is repeated three times at the end similarly to the way it was earlier in the piece; the difference for the end is that it becomes less distorted with each repeat.


Diagram 3      Diagram 4

Second Movement

This movement begins with a low frequency, breathy, metallic drone. The drone quickly falls to the background and ceases to dominate the listener’s ears, but demonstrates its immense value once it departs. For the most part, this movement is well balanced: it has long periods of dreamlike delicacy and short spurts of an attack-like gesture. These “attacks” begin few and far between, but as they occur closer and closer together, they become a seamless transition into the nightmarish portions of the movement.

The vocal work in this movement is taken in a different direction than the previous movement. It is still, in many cases, distorted and incomprehensible to the human hear as singing, but the difference in this movement is how often it is undistorted. Entire lines of the original John Dowland song are heard; the entire stanza is completed by the end of the song.

Choral work appears distinguishably 4 times throughout the movement. The choral work used, in specific reference to the prominent presence of male voices, could be a symbol of how tortured Gesualdo was at the thought of another man having carnal knowledge of his wife. Just before the first time it appears, the drone disappears for the first time as well. A distorted “slain” is sung, and the choir emerges from behind the high-pitched electronic voice at 8:20. Because of how greatly the low frequency drone dominated the auditory scene up until that point, the choir sounds as if it is singing alone. This is not the case. What may be described as the upper register of the drone is still present. The momentary choir ends naturally at the end of its phrase and the rest of the piece simply continues without it.

The second time the choir sings, it is distorted and sounds comparable to the music from a carousel at a carnival. The phrase sounds childish and dreamlike, and, unlike the other 2 portions of choir singing which are all different, this one is a repeat of the one heard 26 seconds before.

At 9:32, the choir sings for a third time, and, like the first time, is largely solitary. The raspy repeats of “restore, restore my heart again” have faded away and taken the regretful whispers with them. The new drone, an irritating, moderately high-pitched buzzing sound, has disappeared and, once more, there is little else to distract from this moment of beauty and harmony. This time though, the choir bleeds directly into the second line of the favoured stanza by Dowland: “which love by thy sweet looks hath slain.” For the first time in the entire work, this line is heard clearly, followed immediately by “restore, restore my heart again” sung clearly and beautifully in the original melody. This part of the work is very subdued and lovely. There is no violence, no harshness, only the impressions of beauty, love and regret. The peace endures while, “which love by thy sweet looks hath slain” is sung in the original tune after some subtle whispers and delicate other sounds. The serenity does not entirely end, but is rather interrupted with the loud violent noises that sound like an abrupt last scream. It is at this point that we hear the third line of the stanza, “Lest that, enforc'd by your disdain, I sing” for the first time both overall and in melody. Below is a waveform diagram (diagram 5a and 5b), illustrating the contrast between the violent, harsh portion of the piece and the serene portion.

The fourth time the choir occurs (11:59) it emerges from a build in amplitude. The overall sound builds greatly in intensity, and in the midst of the increasing tension the choir presents the listener with several seconds of rich, full harmony. At the end of the phrase, the piece returns to the quiet delicacy that is maintained for most of the movement.

Diagram 5a

Diagram 5b

The use of space in this piece is highly effective, particularly when in conjunction with layering. An excellent example of this begins at 11:42 but is most noticeable immediately prior to the choir’s fourth entry. The phrase “restore, restore my heart again” is repeated three times in succession to one another, beginning approximately one second apart. Since the three layers are sung a semitone apart, by the end of the phrase, the layers of “heart again” occur much closer together. They way that they are panned causes the second and third phrases to sound like an echo of the first. The fact that the echoes appear so close gives the work the immense feeling of claustrophobia. When these echoes are followed by the choir, the sound is overwhelming. It is as if Gesualdo cannot escape the condemnation of his wife and her lover and child, and he is enclosed in his own mind with voices forever enforcing upon him the thoughts that his actions were irrational and wrong.

The remainder of the piece progresses the way that was mentioned at the beginning of this section: The amplitude gestures begin few and far between, but as they occur closer and closer together, they become a seamless transition into the more nightmarish portions of the movement. The climax of this piece is difficult to describe as “nightmarish,” as this piece is a representation of a dream that Gesualdo would have had months, or potentially years, after the murder of his wife. All shock would have ended; he would have only been tortured by the memories of her love. The climax is full and rich and sounds as though a revelation is being dawned on Gesualdo. That revelation becomes clear almost instantly, for the piece ends with the last line of the stanza being sung without any distortion and with lute accompaniment: “Fie upon love, fie upon love, it is a foolish thing.”


Overall, Parmerud was extremely successful in creating some of the dreams that Gesualdo may have had of his wife haunting him after her death. He created a confined space in which to place his music and he used themes that, when repeated throughout the work, did not become boring or uninteresting to listen to. He took a song, the beautiful song of love and life, and twisted it around and made it as horrible and disfigured as the victims of a brutal murder.


Ake Parmerud. “Ake Parmerud”. http://www.parmerud.com/Alias.html

Ake Parmerud. “Alias”. Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition 1991 CD

Ake Parmerud. MySpace email (see appendix)

Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition 1991. “Alias”. CD Jacket.

Encarta Digital Encyclopedia 2006, “Carlo Gesualdo”.

Goldberg Early-Music Portal. “John Dowland”.



Mar 11, 2009 8:18 AM

Subject:RE: Alias


Hello Erica...

Thank you for your interest. The song by Dowland I choose mainly because of the sentence "restore, restore my heart again that thou by thy sweet looks hath slain". The story of Gesualdo tells that he killed his wife and her lover (and possibly also his two children...). In his dreams he is then haunted by the voice of his dead spouse, complaining of his hard judgement and possibly trying to tell him that although she was untrue, in her heart she always loved him. Of course this a somewhat odd interpretation since in the original text it is quite obvious that the complaining part is a man longing for a beautiful woman, but I could also read "sweet looks" as the way Gesualdo was wiewing the scene in the bedroom. Anyway, that was how I thought about it to the best of my knowledge. The choir part was not recorded by me and unfortunately all data has been lost so I can not be of any help there....sorry...

Hope you can do something with it anyway. Let me know if there is anything else you wonder...

kind regards


----------------- Original Meddelande -----------------

Från: Erica Bridgeman (410671831)

Till: Ake Parmerud

Datum: 10 mar 2009, 20:42

Ämne: Alias

Hi Ake,

I have chosen the piece “Alias” for my analysis assignment; I find it both beautiful and haunting, and it has captivated my interests greatly. I have a few questions about it though, that I hope you won’t mind taking a few moments to answer:

Firstly, what inspired you to create this piece? Why did you choose that particular poem by John Dowland?

Secondly I would like to know about the choral work in the second half of the piece: did you record the choral work yourself? If not, who were the performers and conductor?

Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.


Erica Bridgeman