No one ever crafted a violin or clarinet sui generis. Instruments since forever-ago have been fashioned from prior models, be they viols or marrow-sucked bones. They are suffused with not only sonic signatures but cultural meanings, with aural and visual components that most anyone can identify and understand. But the computer is a different beast; not as beholden to the history of craftsmanship, having no visual association beyond passive faces reflecting LCD glow, it provides a world of possibilities to the point of paralysis. It’s an issue that every electronic musician has to confront at some point, or at many points.
Ben Hackbarth, a product of UC San Diego now working at IRCAM in Paris, has never written music comprised solely of electronic sounds, but the medium is predominant in his music nonetheless. Much of his work—whether the solo vibraphone piece Open End or the large chamber work Crumbling Walls and Wandering Rocks—incorporates electronics not as a color or effect, but as a primary element.
Though a familiar element in his artistic output, electronics are nonetheless something that he struggles with conceptually. Computers may be capable of producing a near limitless range of sounds—but that very quality of novelty can rob music of any elements which bind it to our banal reality as concertgoers. “I think we’ve all had the experience where you listen to electronic music and sounds are very amazing, very effective—they’re stunning,” he says. “But they’re not necessarily meaningful. They don’t necessarily stick to us, and we don’t carry memories of them past the experience of the concert into other situations or other listening experiences.”
Hackbarth looks for a solution to his “meaning” problem within the properties of instruments that are historically well defined: drastically limit the electronic materials for each piece, and thus the possibilities, and segment the sonic space. In the initial moments of his music, Hackbarth creates electronic textures that correlate to instrumental sounds in a way that listeners can relate to: the sounds in the beginning of Open End mirror the sinusoidal signature of the vibraphone; the digitally produced percussive envelopment at the beginning of Crumbling Walls is easily differentiated from but closely aligned to the assaulted drums. But once given these roots, the electronics develop within the confines of their own system of rules, not those of the instruments they emulate. “I’m getting more interested in the engaging with the psychology of listening to instruments as being a platform of departure for electronic creation,” Hackbarth explains. “I want to draw a lot more attention towards this idea of the electronics being really close to something an instrument could do, but that’s somehow impossible.”
Hackbarth is a composer dealing with acoustically and electronically generated phenomena who is seeking out meaningful artistic experiences in new territories. The fact is that the process of exploring new sounds in an acoustic instrument—which usually involves breaking down the role it typically plays—and building up the walls of a newly cerebrated electronic interface are not terribly similar things. Rudimentary acoustic instruments have been around since the dawn of man; electronics are in their infancy, with no boundaries to play against. Hackbarth’s way of exploring within such lawlessness is to define strict limitations, which allow his dreams to sound. Experimental music is always a nebulous term and idea—but if that’s not it, what is?