Old Habits

As a composer most comfortable with (and excited by) acoustic instruments, I came to explore electronic sound production much later in my compositional career and I’m still a novice when it comes to a great deal of music software currently on the market. As one might expect, I initially approached composing for electronic media with the same habits acquired through years of notated composition for traditional instruments, which yielded mostly disastrous results. As of the new year, I’m starting an electroacoustic work that is giving me the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned since my first hesitant foray into an electronic piece about five years ago.

Among the many mishaps and miscalculations in my self-guided education, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that acoustic and electronic music each require their own compositional approach, and don’t fare well when shoehorned into the habits and priorities of the other.

In composing for acoustic instruments, I’ve found that I produce the most effective and imaginative results when I first concentrate on envisioning a unique sound world, and then devise a way to produce those sounds through the medium of music notation. But when working with an electronic interface, I’ve had better results doing just the opposite: finding a combination of a few sounds that sound well together, and then asking myself how to build a piece out of that.

Obviously, it’s not so cut and dried as that—because in both electronic and acoustic composition, there is a complex interplay of sensitivity to the embodied world along with an equally important awareness of our own inner voice, not yet embodied outside of ourselves.

But I do know that my own acoustic compositions are largely representations of something that was actually constructed offsite, in the world of the imagined, while in working with electronic sound my ideas seem to come into being only through a simultaneous contact with the immediate physical world—through what is present to the senses.

I feel there is much to be learned from both ways of working, and sometimes it is even through applying these modes of thought to situations where they are not entirely germane. (For example, thinking of an acoustic composition via the concept of loops or imagined faders can certainly help one think in a different way!) Perhaps what’s most important for composers is the facility and experience with many different ways of working, so that we never feel stuck with one inherited way of doing things.

2 thoughts on “Old Habits

  1. Alexandra Gardner

    Hi Dan! I understand your point, but you make it sound a little as if there is not the same level of personal imagination involved in the creation of electronic music. It may enter for you at a different point in the process, but the heavy creative lifting still has to happen.

    For me, although the way I reach the finish line of a completed work of instrumental or electronic music might differ, in the end there still has to be harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, and orchestration. None of that goes away with electronic music – they just require a slightly different frame of reference.

    Happy New Year and good luck with your new piece!!

    Reply
    1. danvisconti

      Hi Alex — thanks, my comments are only about my own experience but I completely agree with your comment. I was just trying to point out that for me, there’s a big difference in *how* the “heavy lifting” takes place when working with electronics–as in, I seem to make the most progress when I’m contact with the actual sounds I’m exploring (while I’ve gotten used to writing lots of notated concert music without being in touch with those sounds or instruments at all).

      I didn’t mean to suggest that their was any difference in the amount of imagination involved in the two ways of working–just that different ways of working each bring different ways of imagining into focus, and that we tend to get the most out of these experiences when we appreicate them for what they are rather than approaching them with our familiar routines and expectations.

      Happy 2012!

      Reply

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