I heard a good deal of electroacoustic music at the Música Viva Festival 2008 in Lisbon, both in concert and in installation at an outdoor Sound Walk, and was left with the keen sense of how incredibly difficult it is to communicate in this medium. We are in an era in which it is possible to attain technical perfection—gorgeous sounds, beautifully produced, moving freely though space, suspended in the air as transmitted through state-of-the-art diffusion systems (at this festival a stunning 16-channel Meyer system, expertly run by the director, Folkmar Hein)—and communicate almost nothing. Ear-numbing decibel levels and mind-numbing repetition have the potential to dull the senses and to ignite cravings for acoustic music.
In similar listening situations, I have often felt that what I am hearing is more of a sonic journal than a piece of music; that what I am experiencing is a composer’s fascination with a particular sound in his/her studio rather than a piece of music that has been crafted for public performance. As a composer I have experienced the joy of intense listening to a single sound that is possible with access to technology, but getting beyond the “that’s so cool” impulse to a well-crafted piece of music takes more than literal repetition moving through space at high amplitudes. Why is it that I can listen to the random repetitions of nature or urban environments and be endlessly fascinated, but cannot bring this same listening to the electroacoustic domain? Probably because I expect to hear the human stamp of the composer’s ear in the work, through the way it is shaped and molded into an aesthetic experience.
I realize I am bringing into the equation the expectation of a chamber music aesthetic—that sounds relate to each other in meaningful ways, that there are audible connections being made that bring disparate sounds into relationships with one another that go beyond mere coincidence. The natural sonic world truly is a random collage, to which we bring our own meanings and interpretations. But I expect more from a piece of music—I want to hear the composer’s ideas about what those relationships are, especially when there is no performer as intermediary. I, in fact, crave this. This is why I attend concerts, and when it is not made audible I feel enormous frustration. When I mentioned this to the Greek composer Sofia Kamayianni she responded that she felt it had become too easy for composers to be “autistic,” to live in their own worlds and forget about communicating with those outside it.
I heard two pieces on the Música Viva 2008 Sound Walk that crossed over from the domain of interesting sound into the domain of interesting music for me. One was by the Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös entitled Cricketmusic, in which he fashioned what easily could have become a clichéd natural sound into an elegant musical expression, one that used time within the sounds themselves and across the scope of the piece to shape the listener’s experience of the work. The Greek composer Panayiotis Kokoras’s Waltz at the Edge of Lorros was a collage with references to a music box, a heartbeat, a guitar, and a baby’s laugh, which again could have been a clichéd sound world, but instead, because of his careful crafting, created the gift of encouragement passersby needed to stop and listen, to become an audience.