Electro-Acoustic Music and its Aims

Sometimes it is worthwhile to try to determine where we are coming from and where we are going, a useful process which can clear the mind's air. In fact this is what I have been doing for my own purposes recently. Since my overview ranges over areas which concern others, I thought that summing it up in a paper might be useful to me, and possibly of interest to others as well.

I am surely not the first person to ask that tired question: What is Electro-Acoustic Music? When asked by a friend recently, I put on a few discs of electro-acoustic music from Seamus to give an example, but I knew this didn't really answer the question. I found myself repeatedly tumbling around a mixed bag of concerns, out of which I sift the following thoughts.

Somewhere around l906, just when Einstein was publishing his important work on Relativity, a general process of "dematerialization" began to take place in the arts. It may have had little or nothing to do with Relativity, other than the fact that two activities in the same ambiance are likely to have some relationship. Almost simultaneously with the changed ideas about time and space and as early as Schoenberg's six little piano pieces and Ives piano work after he left Yale, music began to lose its traditional harmonic shape. Change suddenly occurred in all the arts, painting had changed shape and attitude almost before Duchamp's Lady had finished descending the staircase, while international Poetry started to unravel and knit itself up again during the great war. Nothing was going to be the same ever again. Why this all occurred at the exact time when men of science began to look at the world in radically new ways, we do not know. But looking back we recognize a radical and persistent change in all the varieties of taste and perception.

When in the l920's Vareze assembled new displays of analog sounds from acoustic instruments, ranging from the sound of the platinum flute to clicks and fire siren wails, he was doing something that was perfectly new as music. And it was clearly music. Those new sounds couched in startling rhythmic matrices must have seemed far more shocking then than now, when we can listen to a remastered CD of his once-recondite pieces with more appreciation than surprise. Many were trying out new musical ideas in those days, but it was Vareze who seemed to announce the future landscape best in his tightly constructed, odd little pieces.

When Vareze titled a piece Poeme Electronique in the l950's, it was more than a reworking of what he had been doing for years. It was a grand demonstration of what could be done with Electronic Music in a vast public performance with amplification sufficient to fill a great hall. Those clear and clean and specially designed sounds echoing in an airy auditorium space did catch the ear of young composers like Davidovsky by l950, and gave a new generation of composers one of the musical thrusts which were to develop as Electro-Acoustic music in the coming decades.

Two new antithetical threads appeared after the war. Cage had been meditating in the Zen garden of discovery, and came out with another set of startlingly new " designed-sounds" to be used in a chance world of aleatory music. At the present time the prepared piano and aleatory techniques are stock terms in a college music introductory courses and we can hardly imagine how unthinkably new and advance guard these notions seemed then.

The other thread was less obvious and would take more time to develop. When transistors appeared in l952, the giant tube computers of the wartime period vanished as the computer became smaller, more electrically efficient, and finally ended as a desk-size machine. Soon the smaller personal computer had become a a familiar piece of equipment on every university campus. By the mid l950's plans were laid to get music into the computers, with two aims. First aim was to be able to totally modify existing sounds, even to create entirely new sounds from sine and square waves, and even design new sounds from mathematical specifications. This was an entirely different avenue into new acoustics from Cage's wires and bolts fastened between the piano strings. A second aim was to be able to organize sequences of sounds in a rhythmic time-frame with a mechanical design, or as we now say with a computer-program. This goes back to the pioneering work of Max Matthews, culminating later in programs like Music V in Europe and Opcode's MAX here. Structures could be rigid and repeating, or they could be designed with randomizing patterns to become aleatory in Cage's sense. But of course they were not aleatory in the same sense as Cage's word, since they were random-designed rather than evolved by a process of pure chance.

By the l970's "synthesizing machines" which could make up sounds, had appeared. These were analog devices like the Arp, Moog, Prophet, some early Rolands and the great and remarkable Synclavier, all producing real-sounds in the auditory spectrum from oscillators with a battery of modifying stages. Here could be constructed an infinite library of "Electro-Acoustic Sounds", from clicks and pulsating grunts to sighs and wails, as well as imperfect imitations of flute and trumpet. Some compositions of the period sounded more like an early short-wave radio being tuned than Music, but many were surprisingly reminiscent of what Vareze had been doing decades earlier.

This kind of musical composition was new and to be found only in a few dozen universities in l975, but it would become part of the fabric of a musical education in every college twenty years later. Most people applying for college teaching positions in music at the present time have extensive experience in electro-acoustic techniques, which are found in all music graduate programs and of course in myriad commercial recording studios which prepare material for TV and film use. On the one hand electro-acoustic music leads to degrees in college programs and to a scattering of concerts around the country for the EAM cognoscenti. On the other hand it flourishes as an industry, effectively and efficiently producing most of the sound one hears on the sound tracks of film and TV programs. It is no longer surprising to hear the hybrid use of synthesized sounds coupled with live instruments in an effects-drenched and hugely amplified concert of music by Yanni or John Tesh, which the public enjoys live even more than on the ubiquitous TV and CD. This is a different strain of music from the university-based work of the Seamus composers, but much of the underlying concept and electronic base is identical.

This brings up the matter of what music in the 21st Century really is. We still go to concerts to hear artists' personal interpretation in performances of Bach and Brahms, but this is not the performance based world of l900. The musical world has changed much more than we have noticed. Virtually all the music heard in today's world is electronically involved in some degree. There are many intervening electronic stages, from microphones through digital processing to remastering, and finally to performance on a theater set or in your home theater on sound reproducing devices. The luxury of hearing a symphony orchestra of a hundred pieces in a good hall is restricted to those who live near cities and can afford tickets, while performances by large orchestras are disappearing under impossible financial burdens. Music is no longer the business of a grand hall in l800 featuring the new symphony of Herr Haydn. It is everywhere, it is cheap, and it is electronic.

Only a minute percentage of our population can enjoy non-harmonic, non-diatonic music, while the rest of our world reclines on the soft couch of jazz, pop and country music in various denominations. Some popular music very rich and well constructed, but much is weak and thin from a classically trained composer's point of view. But the new musical aesthetic and new sounds which come from groups of the electro-acoustic composers are beginning to find their way into the general music culture. In 1952 Kurosawa had in his sound track of the Seven Samurai a virtual preview of analog synthesized possibilities, long before synths were commonly in use. We hear on commercially produced TV many segments of well constructed electro-acoustic work, partly because there are available trained composers who produce interesting sound sequences, partly because this can be done inexpensively in a commercial or private studio as job-contract work synching frame by frame a video tape. The old way of using a written score with a group of recorded instrumentalists has become prohibitively expensive in a commercially driven world.

If composers in Mozart's time were seen as craftsmen, later to become searchers of the soul and deep thinkers in the wake of the Romantic Revolution, what are composers supposed to be in this new century? For many practitioners in the arts, the only righteous way seemed to tear up everything that had gone before, and construct again from scratch. Atonality at one point seemed likely to scrub the notes out of the harmonic diction, just as painters dripped or splashed paint on nude canvases while sculptors inclined toward blobs or assemblages of unknown objects. For the first time around in the show and museum circuit, the key word seemed to be totally new and unique . Working in a artistic tradition was out, and those who could not devise absolute newness generally retired from the field. The less scrupulous were content to copy the old with some new twist, content with a footnote in the academic history of their art. Of course this "destroying the past" attitude toward art is a self-defeating process. In the final analysis you carry your impressions of the past with you always, old work (whether yours or theirs) all gets recycled in the course of time and when it comes out it will always be somehow different, without proclaiming its newness as Cutting Edge of the new age.

Where are we now?

We live in a new world of musical engineering, with blaring and bewildering new devices which can shape and organize sound plastically beyond belief. But it is not just a matter of what you can afford to buy, or what you can get access to in your school or university studio. Everything is available to look at and much to download from pages of url addresses on the expanding horizon of the net. We realize that we do not have the time to check all the things culminating right now, to read all the exciting new pages on the net, to update on all the new programs and hardware constantly flowing out of the cornucopia of the electronic engineering salesmen. If success is the art of being able to keep on-top-of everything - - - gadget-wise program-wise and module-wise - - -then many of us might well admit failure to keep up and at least have some peace of mind.

If one were to try to call up a handful of criticisms of Electro-Acoustic music as of the turn of the millennium, what would he come up with?

1) A lot of new work is reminiscent of some of the rich sounds of the synth experiments of the l980's, and behind that one can hear many of the ancient transients of Vareze even more clearly. This may be in part coming from the teaching of electro-acoustic music in graduate education, which was shaped in large part by the role of computers in making music . There may now be a trend toward partly unconscious imitation of the tonal sounds and sequences of the past, just as hundreds of highly competent l9th c. composers imitated the standard harmony of the classical period as a base for their new music. .

2) With the ubiquitous availability of the previous analog and now digital synths, there is a general range of sounds promoted by the nature of the instruments, so the results naturally will sound like synthesized music. We need a careful and cautious vision with which to approach our electronic composing machines, lest music sounds specifically synthesized. New programs are constantly striving toward the full sound of traditional Western instruments, but there is a fine degree of control which a performer with a well understood instrument can provide beyond the capabilities of a finely programmed musical sound. It may be that the fusing of traditional and synthesized sounds will reach a new level of musical acoustics suitable to the age in which we live.

3) I was recently playing some recordings for friend who asked the brutal question: "Why do we have so many pieces composed of Tones which whip, whine, chug and grunt along with a few clicks and uneasy silences? And why do so many pieces sound so much alike?"

I think the key word in his question was "tones". With equipment at hand we can do anything we want with the tones, and we end up spending an disproportionate amount of our effort building up our timbres. This brings up the question: What ever happened to rhythm? If sounds follow sounds in an uncontrolled or randomized series, that does not constitute rhythm at all. Rhythmic simplicity has always been the weak link in our Western music. Ultimately rhythm can have extremely complex patterning, based on large odd numbered series, or on Fibonacci numbers, or on the other hand it can be very simple. But the pattern must be variable in toto , it must not be slave to a polka beat or the number of quanta in a stock measure. Our present danger is inattention to rhythm, which must not be an side-issue which surfaces incidentally while we are busy monitoring our carefully manicured timbres.

4) What happened to the musical line? I won't even go so far as to suggest that tradition term, the melody? Leaving diatonic notions to the side early in this century, we were quickly open to whole-tone and chromatic options, with tempered scales as well as a total portamento. Our word "scale" is merely the Latin scala "ladder", which is used for progressing somewhere in terms of pitch, while not inviting rhythmal variations automatically. It is only in a closely arranged sequence of Pitches and Rhythms that you have the heart of melody-line.

But then again, who said you can't be diatonic when you want?

I have seen teaching manuals of this generation which absolutely preclude triadic harmonies as well as diatonic progressions, as "not giving the sound of new music". This message has taken root, as you can tell from much new music in which the only progression is by major fourths, while the usual progressive-dissonance is a minor second or tritone. This is as unimaginative and boring in its own way, as the old careless habit of ending every final cadence with a dominant-to-tonic sequence reinforced with major/minor thirds. We have many scalar options to experiment with: diatonic, chromatic, quarter-tone, eight-tone, the ancient historical modes and the tunings of other societies in other parts of the world. We can have a world of new Melodies if they are generated from new procedures, which will be new and different and they will probably not sound like our traditional "melodies" at all.

5) In a highly mechanized, engineering society, it is most important that we do not lose contact with the hand-made object. In furniture making, house building, pottery and cuisine, we seem to have sensed the danger and re-discovered the value of what is devised by the mind and shaped by the hand. Someone said that the hand is the cutting edge of the mind, certainly something any serious instrumentalist knows well.

I find live-composing or improvising as it is often called, the natural medium for hand-worked music, but someone else can do it in a different way with the hand guiding a pencil on paper or nowadays on the computer screen. As we use mechanical systems for putting together music, we can lose the ancient hand-crafted feel, thus missing the sense of musicality which distinguishes a Mozart from a very similar arranger in Mozartean style

The human brain is a much more complex designing machine than the best music program, since it responds with complete memory to all sounds ever heard, while it combines them with "today". I can think in musical terms of the visual image of the willows outside my window on the foggy afternoon, something no machine can imagine considering. I have faith in the composing capabilities of my brain, which can be accessed most directly through fast and intuitive impulses of my body, my hand constructing something real,. whether on screen, paper, or the keyboard of my piano.

It should not really take a Zen seance to realize that best thoughts come through the leak in the roof.

6) The term Pan-tonic in l920 meant something like all-intervallic. In a similar train of thinking, Pan-rhythmic must mean using all kinds of rhythms, a hard lesson for Western ears. We are at the present time highly developed in pan-timbral awareness, we have been doing our homework in that area very well. Now perhaps we should start thinking about the other areas, and the first of these is a more complex set of rhythmic possibilities..

Pan was the Greek woods-god, a frighteningly chaotic and oversexed little goatish man with a set of pipes, who overturned order wherever he went, producing universal chaos. It is interesting that he was considered the force behind ecstatic music. I would recommend to you and to myself that we attend to the music of the Great God Pan more carefully in the coming years, and reshape the contours of our music into a more vital and more personal art, one which can receive inputs from that curious frontal lobe which dictates so much of what we do, without revealing anything about its secret pathways of thought in the human brain.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College