Qwalala, a river of colorful sounds

Federico Favali

Independent Researcher, Italy


This paper aims to show how an architectural structure can generate a musical structure. In 2017, I visited an installation of the American artist Pae White – Qwalala – that has been open to the public at the Venice Biennale. The title of the work means: “place from where water descends.” It is a word of the language of the Pomo, a Native American people in Northern California. Indeed the work by White is inspired by the form of a river that was extremely important for the life of the small community. The installation for the Biennale is constituted of many glass bricks with different colours: white, red, yellow, green, blue and their variations. The bricks have inner lines. The form of the installation is inspired by the form of the river.

As a composer I tried to understand how such a type of structure could generate a piece of music. Which are the relations between lines in the installation and lines of the instruments in the score? Which is the relation between consistency of the work by White and texture in my composition? These are only two of the several questions I’ve had in my mind for many months.

Being struck by this magnificent work, I composed a piece titled “Qwalala”. My composition is written for a 12-element ensemble, and thus it has been possible to use a large variety of musical colours to follow the colours in the bricks. The form of my composition, as well as the inner dynamics of its structure, is inspired by White’s work. I wrote several patterns (rhythmic and melodic) representing the bricks of different colours, using musical elements to represent the constitutive elements of White’s work. Considering recent developments of theories between mathematics, music and images, I thought about a musical form representing Qwalala, with an overall shape made up of modular elements.

Thus, in my talk I will highlight how I saw these links between architecture and music and especially I’ll put the attention on how I could write a musical form starting from a physical object. This issue is particularly relevant for my research as a composer today: creating a musical form starting from other forms of art or from the nature or artistic objects.

Keywords: Qwalala, River, Time


The music of the Italian composer Federico Favali has received international acclaim, being performed worldwide by many remarkable ensemble such as Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Lontano Ensemble. His catalogue includes vocal music, an opera, solo instrument compositions and music for ensemble and orchestra. In 2014 his opera “The fall of the House of Usher” has been premiered at the Teatro del Giglio of Lucca (Italy). In 2015 he was invited to the Daegu International Contemporary Music Festival (South Korea), and in 2016 to the Crosscurrents Festival (Birmingham). He is also active as a musicologist. Focusing primarily on analysis of contemporary music, his writings have been published by several sites and reviews. He graduated in musicology at the University of Bologna (Italy). He studied composition at the University of Birmingham, King’s College London, Conservatory of La Spezia, New York University and Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (Buenos Aires).