A table with a variety of electroacoustic music gear. Image courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates for NYCEMF and the New York Philharmonic Biennial)
Electroacoustic Music is Not About Sound

Electroacoustic Music is Not About Sound

Yes, I do mean this title to be provocative, but my intention is to question some of our priorities and assumptions about composing, not to be polemical or suggest some correct way of composing. Rather, I am sharing some thinking that I have found serves my students and me well. The main thing I want to explore is my own attitude about musical time. Admittedly, this is a huge topic, with whole books and dissertations rightly devoted to it. I can only scratch the surface in a blog post so will just try to (re-)start a conversation about something which seems, strangely, to have become accepted as settled business. While I am at it, I am wondering too about our seeming complacence at having given up control of pitch.

There are basic aspects of compositional thinking that seem to have become almost extinct—particularly, but not exclusively, in the realm of electroacoustic music.   To put it plainly, the ideas of narrative structure and of pitch specificity are now rarely considered. To claim that pitch specificity is important is to risk being labeled a reactionary or, worse yet, conventional. An even more profound change has taken place in our discourse regarding time—the most salient feature of music.  There is the strong suggestion that it is quaint to think of music as a narrative form, unfolding in time. The notion seems so old fashioned that the use of time-denying alternative terminology, adapted from the non-time-based arts, has become accepted practice. (The term sound-object comes to mind.) But, there is still a lot to be gained by an awareness of and the ability to control pitch, no matter how abstract and seemingly “unpitched” musical materials may be. And the unfolding of structure moment by moment is still what music is about—that is, it is about time. I love inventing sounds as much as anyone, but without attention to time we just have sounds. Sound unfolding in time, on the other hand, produces musical thought.  I write this while fully realizing that some readers will find this statement obvious, while others will find it either shortsighted or just plain wrong.

Scrutiny of the nature of sound itself has intensified over the years, especially in the context of electroacoustic music, where the possibilities for the creation and manipulation of sound are truly endless. In fact, the very experience of composing in the studio encourages this focus.  It is an incredibly gratifying experience to work directly with sound, listening to and changing material in real time.  The immediacy of this experience is one of the things that sets work in the studio apart from instrumental writing. This change in our way of making music convinced many composers that a fundamental change was also at hand in the very way in which a piece could embody meaning. The de-emphasis of pitch as the main carrier of an idea, in favor of a more foreground function for timbre, was already well underway in the early 20th century. (The Farben movement in Schoenberg’s Opus 16 is one of the usual examples, while Scelsi demonstrates a further development.) From the 1950s on, the development of technology to capture and manipulate sound accelerated this conceptual transformation.

A mixing console, processor, speaker, video screen and other equipment in Eric Chasalow's music studio.

New materials do demand new approaches, but this does not erase the necessity of paying attention to shaping the narrative. On the contrary, distinctive sounds, each potential in its own perceived space, allow for a new narrative clarity. Just as in film, our more famous time-based cousin, music can have multiple narratives intertwining and adding complexity to the flow of ideas. With crosscutting, flashback, and the like, one can create powerful illusions of nonlinearity, but in no case are we able to escape the reality that time only moves forward.  When we acknowledge this fact, we face the necessity of structuring musical time with great care.  If we do, it is more likely that the music will require and reward an intensified engagement by the listener. This allows us to invoke memory in subtle and powerful ways.

I am very well aware of philosophies that propose to disrupt older notions about musical time, deriving from work that goes back at least to the mid 20th century.  There are tropes on the static as “the eternal” (Messiaen), “moment form” (Stockhausen), and “discontinuity” (my old friend, Jonathan Kramer). It’s just that no matter how many alternative philosophies I encounter, I am always led back to the fact that there is still power in the flow of one moment of experience to the next. It is true that our brains can hold multiple impressions at once, and reorder and reconsider them fluidly. Still, we experience a piece as a succession of elements, and the ordering of these drives the overall experience. If I can get you to care about how time increments in my piece, you will become an engaged listener. Conversely, if I cannot convince you to follow the narrative journey, you will not hear what I have to say. If I only convince you to listen some of the time—to drop in and out of awareness—I have provided, at best, an assemblage of moments rather than a cohesive argument. Another way of thinking about this is in relation to aleatoric relationships we encounter everyday. We may be surrounded by objects, and it is possible that by being awake to our surroundings we will become aware of inherent, even beautiful structures, but it is more likely that the chance experience will not rise above the mundane. (Apologies to John Cage, whom I heard express otherwise many times.) The artist is able to create and reveal meaningful connections where we may not otherwise find them, and for composers, time is the most powerful domain with which to achieve this.

All of the proceeding, however, cannot exist unless listeners allow for the time necessary to experience a piece of music. This has certainly become more and more rare in lives mediated by devices and experienced in five-second chunks. My most naïve idea may be that anyone is willing to concentrate and truly listen through a piece of music at all. If we cannot make this assumption however, we lose musical experience, so to abandon this hope is to abandon music. There is a larger topic here about where we are when we hear music—a concert hall (or alternative formal space) or online, on the subway, in a variety of other informal contexts.

Let’s turn then to the matter of pitch. Why does an increased interest in sound, or the foregrounding of one of its elements, timbre, mean that now pitch is an unimportant element? Am I the only one who finds it ironic that, as we pay such close attention to sound, so little attention is given to pitch specificity? Pitch is such an important part of the complex we call “sound.” Yes, timbre and pitch are not independent in the physical embodiment of a sound, but we can and do think of controlling them independently, and there are many computer tools for doing so. Isn’t ignoring pitch structure a kind of dumbing down? Aren’t we asking listeners to stop paying attention to important details when we fail to make choices regarding pitch? Are we perhaps giving up the precise control of pitch because new technologies make other things easier? Do the newer contexts and new technologies distract us? Perhaps some of us have emerged from the highly politicized prominence of serialism with such distaste for pitch that we feel relief in its seeming erasure.  Perhaps it is just the pendulum swinging from one extreme to the polar opposite. Whatever the reason, I find the lack of attention to pitch impoverishing.  We need every detail, every nuance at our disposal as musicians. Performers know the importance of nuance very well, while composers sometimes are too willing to let some things slide. What is especially great about electroacoustic music though is that it adds to what can make up the layers of meaning in music. Sound of any source and quality can be brought into dialog with any other, creating layers of meaning.  Spoken texts can collide with environmental sounds, familiar instruments, or synthesized sounds that seem completely nonreferential.  Even with these diverse and complex sources, pitch is still very much present and need not be ignored.

While many of my electroacoustic pieces provide good examples of what I am discussing, the beginning of one older piece, Crossing Boundaries (2000), is particularly clear.  The piece layers sounds from many sources, including recordings of spoken text from archives and answering machines, and bits extracted from historical recordings.  It starts with a quick succession of pitched sources that combine into a complex that we can hear as mostly an Eb chord, oscillating between minor and major. The sounds are more fluid and ever-changing than one would get in an instrumental piece, yet the Eb moving to D, then elsewhere (one can follow very specifically) creates a harmonic framework that provides a feeling of upbeat, focusing attention on the entrance of speaking voices.  The whole middle of the piece lingers around G, but as this starts to move, it changes the sense of time passing dramatically. For much of the piece, our attention is on the voices as they speak various short phrases, many of which refer to the concept of time. The piece is, then, an expansion of word-painting technique, and the underpinning for this “metamusical narrative” is a framework of sonorities that is always kaleidoscopic and never imitative of traditional instruments, but where the pitch choices matter a great deal. It is an example of pitch structure shaping the larger musical trajectory of an electroacoustic piece.  I must add too that, in spite of this example, I do not mean to suggest that tempered pitches are necessary. The entire universe of microtonal tunings is wide open, especially with tools that allow our precise control of frequency.

What is true of composing is also true in analysis. One may discover meaningful relationships within a piece by considering the dimension of pitch where one might not expect. My former student, John Mallia, did his dissertation on Varèse’s Poème électronique, a piece most often discussed in terms of the wide array of sound sources it employs. John discussed these too, but much of his work looked at aspects of the structure where harmonic relationships were clearly very important, particularly in shaping phrases.  The analysis even finds precedence for these structures in Varèse’s instrumental pieces. It should not be so surprising that composers carry what they know about music from working with instruments into their studio work. The trick is to use the new context to spawn new musical possibilities, but figuring these out does not require throwing out old concerns as much as we might imagine. There have been numerous examples throughout history of new forms developing through a tension between evolutionary and revolutionary thinking, and there is no reason to think we have somehow recently escaped the value of historical precedents.

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13 thoughts on “Electroacoustic Music is Not About Sound

  1. Miguel Frasconi

    The premise of the article is a false one. All one has to do is listen to the work of Mort Subotnick, Carl Stone, Chris Brown, and many others, old and new, academic and not, to discover new and exciting views of pitch and structure. I’m certainly glad I no not live in this author’s world.

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  2. Eric Chasalow

    Miguel, We do live in the same world, and there is room for many different views and approaches. No disagreement here that there are people who care about pitch (and narrative) – and you give good examples. But there are an awful lot of composers missing the opportunity because they feel we have somehow moved beyond the need to pay attention in this way. I encounter it all the time with professionals and students alike, and see how a little intervention transforms what students can do when their attention is focused in this way.

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  3. Robert Scott Thompson

    From my perspective electroacoustic music that embraces the materials and methods of “music,” in a general sense, can often be more engaging and successful as art than works that are simply “sonic” – exploring the joys of pure sound for its own plastic sake. As a juror for a recent international competition I was struck by how few compositions – pre-selected for final review by the panel – evidenced the kind of approach that Eric describes in this article. Those compositions that did embrace a sense of pitch and time structure (tonality and narrative, perhaps) were more successful to my ear as music. I also agree that some of the seminal electronic works of the past – such as Sidewinder, Touch and The Wild Bull, all very inspirational to me as a young composer – did not eschew the fundamental concepts of music – pitch lattice, temporal structuring (formal design) and narrative. This is the difficult work for the aspiring composer – learning to master the materials and methods of composition itself regardless of medium or genre. There is an astonishing (alarming?) similitude in the works of aspiring electoracoustic composers today in the final “sound” of their music – similar gestures, techniques, musical proposals, forms – and these are sometimes (often?) dangerously cliché. The spark of an original voice is drowned out too soon, and before it can offer an authentic utterance, by the latest processing technique or plug-in. I was amused when an established colleague of mine, nearly exclusively an electroacoustic composer, one day remarked “We are all frauds and charlatans, you know?.” My response was to suggest he quit playing with sounds and start composing music. Not sure that went over too well. ;-)

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  4. Miguel Frasconi

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my comment, Eric. I share your concerns but do not see them as limited to the realm of electroacoustic music, and, as such, see your article perpetuating a false stereotype of electronic music. I think one of the promises of 21st century music is that we can incorporate the awareness of sound as a physical object into the temporal activity of narrative. Without the latter we are stuck in the late 20th century and without the former we are stuck in the late 19th. But to blame electricity on the ill use of either is simply incorrect. What I fear is that your article will be seen by composers under 40 as an excuse to forgo the use of electronics, allowing it to be used only for dance music.

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  5. Michael Robinson

    This is essentially a conversation about Language and Image in music. Comparisons between contemporaries Brahms and Wagner come to mind. Paradoxically, music focusing on Language may create an Image, and music focusing on Image may develop a Language too.

    Those “electroacoustic” juggernauts (I prefer “rock” because its more colorful and expressive), Led Zeppelin, were inspired by the Image of a song by the band Spirit to create their opus Stairway to Heaven. However, Led Zeppelin’s language moved in a different direction almost from the onset, and then developed a different set of Images too on the way to creating a masterpiece.

    One of many extraordinary aspects of Indian ragas is how they commence with Image and gradually turn towards labyrinthine explorations of Language.

    If it sounds good do it and let it be.

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  6. Eric Chasalow

    You are right that this is about all music. And there are new “objects” we can incorporate and make music that just cannot exist with traditional instruments. Different approaches allow for different music. And certainly studio work focuses the ear like nothing else. I am not worried young composers will ignore electronics – the evidence is otherwise. But I do understand the concern. There has been such a strong tendency to segregate composers into those who write for instruments and those who do electronics, often in order to be critical of those in the electroacoustic community. I remember friends in England in particular complaining about the situation there. But more and more composers do both and I think that is how it should be. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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  7. Hayes Biggs

    Bravo, Eric! Very beautifully and clearly expressed. While I never got into composing electronic music, you have here reminded me of the aesthetic that I carry with me in listening to the pieces in the genre that mean the most to me—very much including Poème électronique—the aesthetic I learned from Mario, Art Kreiger and others. A lot of things worth pondering here.

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  8. Michael Karman

    The real question, revealed in the comments so far, is “what is music?” The most revealing remark in that regard is this one: “quit playing with sounds and start composing music.”

    When I read those words, what I think is “what’s the difference? ‘Playing with sounds’ and ‘composing music’ are the same thing as far as I can hear.”

    The observation about fraudulence that sparked that remark could have come from an idea (fallacious, I think) that writing music is a fraud–similar to Feldman’s sense that maybe music was not one of the arts? Or maybe from the same sense of uncertainty that any innovator can feel, like Pollock plaintively wondering if what he was doing was really any good?

    This conversation will never end, because it revolves around two incompatible and irreconcilable notions about what music is–based on two incompatible and irreconcilable notions about what kind of thing time is. Not sure that that’s a bad thing. Not sure that it’s good, either.

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  9. Robin Parmar

    The author’s thesis is that pitch and narrative have become “almost extinct”in “compositional thinking”. Nowhere is any evidence given for this rather bold claim; so it must be seen as simply authorial preference. Even this claim is undermined by allowing in the definition of pitch to include “the entire universe of microtonal tunings”. How then does the author wish to distinguish between composers working from the regularised staff (“tonality”) to those working primarily with the timbre of a sound, regardless of any pre-ordained frequency grid? Worse yet, the article’s title is a prime example of bait-and-switch: start with a provocation and then ignore it. Usually one can blame an editor for this duplicity, but here the author takes credit. Since all music is instantiated as sound, electroacoustic music is definitively about sound. Attempts to constrain the aesthetic potential of Western art music to simplistic formulations of pitch was already doomed a century ago. Varèse, anyone?

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  10. Eric Chasalow

    Hayes – Thanks – I will look for George’s essay, which I do not know. Send it along please if you can.

    To Robin, This is a blog post, so the kind of evidence one would like in a well-argued thesis paper is mostly absent. My claims come from the rise of a body of work that would require a larger space to properly critique. I chose not to vilify anyone or any piece. My approach was instead to discuss a phenomenon I have seen in teaching for many years, where young composers have not yet learned to control all the elements – or have learned that one need not pay attention in that way. To write a piece, it is not enough to do something for a while, and when that something gets old, just start doing something else. Yet this is precisely what one hears in piece after piece. I want to write music that has a strong dramatic shape and try to teach others how to achieve that too. Yes – examples would be essential in a longer article.

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  11. Lawrence de Martin

    The deprecation of music into background and soundtrack status is the death of musical value, i.e. the willingness of listeners to give it attention and monetary reward. Harmonic (or anharmonic) synthesis, sampling and processing are easy means to novelty in electro-acoustic composition, but are ignorable after a moment of a novel sound without prior context from hearing development in timbre, articulation or modulation.

    Perception is developed to accentuate changes, ignore constants and interpret to remembered dataset. A few new sounds devoid of melody, harmonic progression and rhythm are boring, but a stream of constantly novel sounds is fatiguing, as each will cause a small adrenalin release. It is also difficult to find that many sounds that are recognizably new but not annoying, as that will increase the fight or flight reaction.

    Neuro-physiological MRI analysis shows the cortical region of musical intelligence has dedicated decoding for melody, harmony and rhythm which are combined for musical cognition. These elements appear to form a minimal set of parameters for a sound to be classified as music, as opposed to noise (interference with utile sound). This argument should not be over-simplified, one must account for the complexity of sound that can imply one or more of these; music traditions like Gamelan have irrational harmonic and melodic structures; and irrational meter all within the boundaries of music.

    BUT, non-tonal sounds like random and pseudo-random distributions can’t give rise to perception of melody and harmony and are at best adjunct or contrast to tonal content. The fricative sounds of the physical world appear to offer a parallel to randomized pitch but contain a wealth of information in the chaos, unlike electronic based noise. Manfred Schroeder generated intelligible speech from a synthesizer bank of 500 phase modulated oscillators with constant flat frequency distribution, but this is still physical modeling of temporal coherence and well adapted to extracting speech from noise, but not music.

    There is further a discrete region of the cortex closely linked to musical cognition for mapping space, therein combined with spatial information derived from speech, vision and proprieception. The aural sense of space depends mainly on transient reflections, which in cases of speech and music consist of consonants containing both first order and envelope transients. Just like in speech, consonants are 5% of the energy and 50% of the meaning of music. The transients that define the beginning and end of fingered and vocalized physical oscillations illuminate the auditioning space, preferably a composer intended acoustic.

    Categorical constructs of musical vowels (tones) and consonants (how notes start, stop and transition) are hard-wired into musical intelligence, and one of the weak points of electro-acoustic and electronic music. Volume-based ADSR algorithms are missing the clarity, richness of nuance, temporal precision, detail of inflection and visceral impact of highly evolved traditional instruments.

    Physical modeling attempts to capture plectrum and hammer sounds, but humans are so finely attuned to micro-sounds and micro-structure of consonants that we differentiate the lower information content of electronic generation of audio signals for both speech and music. This problem leads composition away from rhythm, as it is laborious to construct sounds and time lines corresponding to ear training of physical sound.

    Consonants frame rhythm as well as the context of acoustic space, and rhythm frames the time propulsion of narrative. This is especially true in consonant and rhythm base language groups like Germanic and Aramaic. Narrative is also inherent in dynamics, crudely in volume modulation, but more in the timbral shifts of acoustic instruments with dynamics. The non-linear responses to volume changes by wood, gut, skin and aeolian edges enhance aural cognition the absolute dynamic, anchoring it against the adaptive loudness perception of hearing.

    Traditional performance practice encodes a wealth of meaningful complexity. The musical expression is in the micro: micro-tones, micro-rhythms, micro-dynamics, micro-timbres and micro-sounds. To engage at the same level, it behooves composition to utilize the formal theoretical structures where the novel sounds are recombinant with culturally embedded memory, and concordant with the instinctive motivation to follow trails rather than contemplate objects, hence melody, harmony, rhythm and narrative.

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