Listening for the Soul in the Machine

Festival Música Viva 2008

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.

12 thoughts on “Listening for the Soul in the Machine

  1. Chris Becker

    “…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.”

    A friend and fine composer of what you could called “electronic” music called this the “gesture” of a composer. And it takes a LOT of time to make that gesture audible in the medium of prerecorded music.

    For instance, I remember a well known older electronic composer asking my friend if an effect he had achieved where sound literally traveled around the room in circles (and in other architectural shapes) across and array of speakers surrounding the audience was done with a plug-in. My friend said no – that he had instead edited by hand (with volume and panning envelopes) across several tracks in his multitrack program the sounds that the audience would hear in order to create the effect. And the end result was that you heard his literal “stamp” (or gesture) in the piece – although you might not understand exactly why that was the case.

    This is a big topic and I’m hoping some people jump in and go off on it…

    Reply
  2. colin holter

    Fixed-media music is a real chimera. With minimal technical training and a few thousand dollars in audio gear, a composer has access to any and all conceivable sounds; at the same time, electroacoustic concerts are still rife with white-noise whooshes and reso filter pads that their creators labored over for months. I suspect that part of the problem is the doubled-edged nature of the fixed medium itself: Although sound people can exert quite a bit of control (sometimes exercised with great aesthetic sensitivity) over how a piece is presented, it isn’t interpreted like instrumental or vocal music has to be. This limitation, along with other problems not present in the field of acoustic music (including the unusual and fast-moving correlation between technological development and available sound material, the ontological dilemma of applauding an empty stage, the challenges of multi-channel sound diffusion and audience seating, and the intricacies of speaker shape and design as compositional considerations), has pretty much soured me on tape music, although I do think there’s an emerging place for binaural music designed for headphone listening.

    In any case, glad to hear that Ms. Kamayianni is still at it!

    Reply
  3. Ryan Manchester

    I went to a school that placed a huge emphasis in electronic music. I experienced the same type of perception to most of what I heard because it seemed the composers were more concerned with the technical aspect rather than the aesthetic. Not to mention the degree requirement of MANDATORY attendance at the electronic music recitals inevitably produced a rather strong cynicism within me regarding the music (being a primarily acoustic composer doesn’t help, either!!). Then I discovered interactive music, and although I don’t compose it myself, it is a much better listening experience on all levels. The specific piece I’m recalling was a new graduate student’s work for viola and computer in which the viola played beautiful gestures and the computer processed them in real time to create an accompaniment. I’m not writing this to “expose” everyone to this style because I’m sure most everyone that reads these articles is fully aware that it exists. I’m stating that it would be nice to see the electronic scene make a shift into this way of realization. I’m glad to see I’m not alone on the issue of “sameness” in electronic music!!

    Reply
  4. Chris Becker

    I don’t think we have a consensus here as to what “electronic” music or “tape” music is or an acknowledgment of its potential for creative expression.

    I think Linda’s point is basically the same as the one she made in her previous NMBx essay – and that is, she finds herself responding to the “soul” of a composer heard in their compositions be it “acoustic” or “electronic” – while acknowledging and wondering why that “soul” (or “gesture” or “funk”) isn’t always audible?

    I work a lot with prerecorded sound. A lot of this work is composed for dancers – so there is a whole other layer of performance happening in conjunction with my “electronic” work. I think my collaborative work with choreographers – as well as some great guidance from one sound artist in particular who taught me a lot about mixing as well as mastering – has brought level of poetry and “soul” to my work that wasn’t there initially when I began using the tools we’re name dropping.

    And frankly, I hear a LOT of “acoustic” music in the realm of chamber music performance that is as samey, dull, and souless as any of the “electronic” work Linda and the other posters are describing. I would never discourage a young composer finding their way with a piece. But intellectual and creative laziness is just boring. My point I guess is that we need to push ourselves to get our hand in our work. It doesn’t just happen by magic. There is technique there as well as an intuitive thread we hold on to and follow – if we can keep our minds and souls open to it.

    Shanti. Shanti. Shanti. :)

    Reply
  5. Lisa X

    “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.”

    Linda, I think it is important to understand that people go to concerts for lots of different reasons. I too feel frustrated when I go to a concert with the hopes of one thing and I get something I don’t really want at all. It is hard to chose the right concerts to go to.

    I guess I just can’t tell by your post if you want to make better choices about concerts, or if you want more composers to make music that better fits your aesthetic, or if you sincerely want help approaching music that currently frustrates you. If it is this last option please let us know. Maybe some links to the frustrating music and I bet some people here at NMBx might be able to help.

    Reply
  6. William Osborne

    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.

    How do we define the meaningful relationships between sounds that create a good composition? Stockhausen’s electronic works seem to always convey this sense of meaningful relationships. His musical thinking was always rigorously structural and based on strong ideas about the relationships between the sounds. There are so many elements to his musical thought that go beyond mere sound. Terms like semiotics and dramaturgy come to mind.

    I think it was Milton Babbit who said that nothing grows older quicker than a new sound. Good compositions are not created by interesting sounds alone, but rather by creating contexts that allow sounds to speak poetically.

    I think George Crumb is interesting in this regard. He invented a lot of new instrumental effects, especially for the piano, but that was never an end in itself. It was the poetry created through the contextualization of the new sounds that was important for him.

    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 wonder if this sort of “autism” in new music began about the time classical music became oriented toward the bourgeoisie. I don’t have time to outline the idea, but this somewhat ironically led to the world we have today where composers write music principally for other composers. This trend was probably already evident in 1835 with the composers surrounding the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik – Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and numerous others all writing and commenting on each others music . It only took about 80 more years for new music to reach the kind of insularity it has today where a general public is almost completely excluded.

    Postmodernism tried to solve this problem by incorporating elements of popular music into “new classical music,” but the results have been mixed because related historical forces surrounding the rise of the bourgeoisie led to the industrialization of popular music and brought yet another host of problems. Asking pop to rescue classical is like asking a leper to heal an aids victim.

    And one more thought. Electronic music festivals are especially insular because they are a small and even more rarified part of the new music world. One of the worst problems is that for the most part they rely on only a couple software programs, MAX/MSP and SuperCollider. Even though these programs are powerful and flexible, they still contain epistemological biases that often cause composers to write similar sounding works — and ones that lack structural coherency. (I should elaborate but I have no time.)

    Timbreal studies are new to western music and so there are few models for structuring them. After observing this problem in several electronic music festivals, Ian Whalley (New Zealand) wrote an article suggesting that system dynamics modeling might be used to create narrative structures for computer music. (Here too I have no time to elaborate, but I briefly discuss his ideas in this review:)

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/icmc-eng.htm

    Anyway, much room for discussion in Linda’s comments.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  7. dusman

    Just want to make it clear that I do not title my posts–in some ways I think this one sets it up to sound as though I have a certain aesthetic bias when it comes to electroacoustic music. I don’t think I am talking as much about aesthetics here as I am about form–which I do admit I expect to be there in a piece of music.

    I compose in this medium myself, and so my comments are directed at my own composing as well as that of others. I like Bill’s quote from Babbitt a lot–it says what I was after much more elegantly!

    Colin, I also think your point about the concert hall and its expectations are on the mark as well. Binaural listening I am convinced would be much better for lots of this music.

    Reply
  8. William Osborne

    Binaural listening I am convinced would be much better for lots of this music.

    In this regard, we might remember Morton Subotnick’s two seminal works, Silver Apples of the Moon and Wild Bulls. In 1967 and 1968 respectively, Nonesuch became the first company in history to commission electronic works for tape to be directly produced on an LP with no human intermediary. And interestingly, they are still two of the best electronic music works that have ever been written. (Both works are now available on a Wergo recording.)

    Why did the classical recording industry not follow this very successful venture with similar electronic projects? Would the electronic work of Brian Eno be an example?

    At this point, the idea would probably be moot. It makes more sense for most (if not all) electronic composers to simply stream their electronic works directly on the web and forget the marketplace all together. An exception might be those using 5.1 surround which still does not have an effective system of web distribution. But then again, DVD-Audio is a format that still hasn’t caught on anyway.

    I think the web will also affect new music theater in a similar way. It appears, for better or worse, that the Met’s video broadcasts are going to become the new model for presenting and experiencing opera, especially in the States. The logical development will be to write music theater specifically designed for the video medium and that can fully exploit the resources of video production. The extreme artificiality of operatic convention will fall away – including the expensive orchestras that accompany them. Music, theater, and perhaps even remnants of the bel canto voice will combine with newer technologies closer to the lives of current generations.

    And just as with electronic music, the means of delivery will become the web which will soon reach high levels of audio and video fidelity.

    It is so odd to see so many composers waste years laboring under the burdens of opera and its antiquated world only to write yet another failure in a genre that has hardly had a life for a hundred years, and which will never be revived.

    New technologies so clearly point to a new future, so why are so many composers and music producers ignoring the inevitable?

    William Osborne

    Reply
  9. dalgas

    William wrote: In this regard, we might remember Morton Subotnick’s two seminal works, Silver Apples of the Moon and Wild Bulls. In 1967 and 1968 respectively, Nonesuch became the first company in history to commission electronic works for tape to be directly produced on an LP with no human intermediary.

    Oh, I think Mort was reasonably human back then (and still is!). His touch is all over them like four butterflies, yet sharp as a sidewinder; at least until spring…

    One reason they still work so well is that Subotnick didn’t go in with much of a score in hand first; he started by exploring and mastering his instrument (in this case very specifically the Buchla synthesizer), its personality and possibilities, and letting his inspiration come from that interaction.

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  10. Lisa X

    “In 1967 and 1968 respectively, Nonesuch became the first company in history to commission electronic works for tape to be directly produced on an LP with no human intermediary.”

    William, when I think of the truly great tape pieces from that time period the first one that comes to mind is Pet Sounds, and I think it came out in 1966! We probably wouldn’t call it a commission but I’m not sure that is important.

    Reply
  11. William Osborne

    … he started by exploring and mastering his instrument (in this case very specifically the Buchla synthesizer), its personality and possibilities, and letting his inspiration come from that interaction.

    True. The Buchla was not only his instrument, he also helped develop it. I should have been clearer when I spoke of the lack of a human “intermediary.” The Buchla was one of the first synths in which a sequencer was an integral part. The “performance” by the composer, could in effect, be keyed in (even with very limited keyboard skills.) In my view, that kind of electronic creation is significantly different from something like a solo piano, violin, or cello recording that could conceivably be made by a composer who had written the works. This uniqueness is also increased because the work was multi-timbreal in ways not possible for acoustic solo-instrumental works, including the organ.

    The recordings were also unique in other important ways. First, the LPs were planned before the works were created and specifically for them. It is extremely rare for classical recordings to planned before the works are written. And most importantly, the recordings were created specifically for LPs with the idea that an electronically created composition would be translated to an electronic medium for distribution without there ever having been a live, concert hall “performance” – and that for all practical purposes, a live performance would never exist.

    Wendy Carlos’ “Switched On Bach” was created in 1968, one year later than “Silver Apples of the Moon.” (And one might also argue that the Carlos works were arrangements, not compositions.) Does anyone know if there were any earlier works by electronic composers transferred directly to electronic media for their reception? Might one count the works by Stockhausen broadcast directly by the WDR? I haven’t looked up the dates for those early works.

    I think the direct transfer to an LP was important, because it seemed to reflect the new nature of purely electronic music. As noted above, “performances” of electronic music in concert halls without performers often have a somewhat sterile quality, while transferring them directing to recordings allows people to experience the works in settings more suited to the medium .

    William Osborne

    Reply
  12. philmusic

    In my “stick in the eye” “Man and Machine”performances which are live Upright Electric Bass improvisations with real time electronics-since I am in the moment I don’t think about anything-it just happens. I don’t practice my improvisations with or without the synth equipment for several reasons. One being if I practiced these performances would not be improvs. I do practice set ups. Saves bunches of time.

    That said, as an after thought, I realize that I either ignore, follow, comment, become one, or perhaps just part of the electronic sounds.

    For me the the Machine comes last.

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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