issues in new electroacoustic music

a ramble on where we are going today... and why?

by miriam rainsford

This essay came about as a personal reaction to the experience of being involved in adjudicating the 2001 Young and Emerging Sound Artist competition. YESA is an annual competition hosted by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), based at Concordia University, Montreal. In listening to the entries, I began to question what a young person who might fulfil this role could be, and after discussion with some fellow composers and musicians, I felt that it would be interesting to address this issue in an essay. This is by no means an attempt to make an academic proof, in fact while it may be couched in the style of academia from which I hail, my words are very personal, and I hope, provocative. Unfortunately as a jury member I cannot make reference to any candidates work specifically, nor can I reveal titles, or my final scores or the thoughts of other jury members; I have restricted myself to generalised descriptions. And to make a standard disclaimer before I start (!) I will say that the reactions and descriptions that I give of these pieces, and the accompanying rants about the directions in which contemporary music is going today are very much my own (and do not reflect the thoughts or opinions of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community!)

Firstly, to outline the criteria under which I was assessing the submitted pieces. From the guidelines for entry, the CEC describe the successful composer as follows:

A Young/Emerging Sound Artist (YESA) is likely, someone continuing studies in an educational facility or possibly someone for whom there has been little or no national or international recognition of their work and potential in the short period of time that they have been doing it.

The competition is open not only to young students and academics but also to older composers whose work has not yet been internationally recognised. Participants must be one of the following: A Canadian citizen, a permanent resident of Canada, or living in Canada on a work or student visa. The jury included 61 international composers who listened to and scored the works via the Web.

The pieces included in YESA 2001 all fell very much into the category of academic music, with one or two exceptions. As all the entrants were based in Canada, one would expect a certain influence or school to be evident, but it concerned me that, for a group who were being judged on their potential for leadership and groundbreaking work in their field, there seemed to be so much imitation of the "masters".

It is natural for a student to imitate his/her teacher, although for a Young and Emerging Sound Artist I felt it was important to explore and consider two issues: originality, and relevance as a sound artist in today's context. The result of this exploration gave rise to many more unresolved questions.

Taking these issues into account does not necessarily mean that I feel that all young leaders in their field should be writing music that is about or inspired by contemporary dance genres, for example (although this has been an interesting source of inspiration for many electroacoustic composers in recent years). But it seems disturbing to me when I hear a selection of pieces that are supposed to be representative of the music of today's youth, which are otherwise undistinguishable from the music of twenty, thirty years ago or more.

The school of acousmatic composition has a strong sense of heritage inherent in its style, and composers will argue vehemently over their lineage and trace themselves back to the founder of the style, Pierre Schaefer. Other contemporary composers sometimes have difficulty in understanding this concept - while it may be quite honorable to be involved in continuing a tradition, surely it is rather unnatural for a contemporary composer to be so firmly stuck in the past? Yet this is in fact true for most composition prior to this century. It is only in the last fifty years or so that composers have been quite so obsessed with a need for originality, possibly as a result of the plethora of styles that have been generated in such a small space of time. The knowledge of the history of acousmatic composition which adherents to this practise can display is indeed impressive; it is arguable that such an informed respect for past issues which one's music is then based on is more legitimate than those who choose to disregard the past in their search for originality. It is when a composer is unaware of the unavoidable influence of the past on one's music that I become concerned.

This discussion of originality is not limited to electroacoustic or acousmatic composition. It is an issue close to the heart of many artists, and raises its (ugly?) head frequently in the discussion of contemporary instrumental music. In fact, I would see the same issues at work in both the instrumental and electronic composition of today: a claim that Originality is King, yet a firm adherence to the disciplines of a particular academic school or teacher.

Indeed many composers have suffered under such a regime. As an M.Mus student at King's College London from 1994-96, I found myself very much an outsider looking in upon the school of English contemporary instrumental music. While I do not feel that my personal work was hampered in this institution, I was always the "odd one out" - especially as many composers had specifically come to Kings to study with the Chair of Composition, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and their music strongly reflected his influence. My teacher prior to my studies at Kings was the Dutch composer Ed de Boer (aka Alexander Comitas) whose work has been restricted severely and at times ground to a halt due to the limitations imposed by the Dutch school of composers on what is and what is not considered to be good contemporary music. Again, they claim that originality is the most important concern facing new music today, but the music of most composers sounded to all intents and purposes identical. de Boer was targeted as not being "contemporary" enough, as his music is unashamedly Neo-romantic, lush and beautiful. The Dutch composers in charge of administering commissions (de Fonds vor de Scheppende Tonkunst, a body similiar in function to the Arts Council) called into question this beauty, and denied that such blatant harmony could be considered contemporary.

Yet the ingredients of de Boer's music show more originality of thought than those sitting on the board of the Fonds, who seem to be imitating their academic leaders of fifty or more years ago. On one occasion I went to hear a concert featuring music by Ton de Leeuw and some of his past pupils, who are themselves leaders in Dutch contemporary music, including the late Tristan Keuris and his pupil (also a former teacher of mine) Ton Lambij. Three generations of cutting edge contemporary composers - but I could not tell them apart. It felt as if the entire concert was of the music of one composer (de Leeuw), and I left wondering what this said about their so-called claim to originality.

So how did we end up this way? This is a question that has occupied my mind for many years, and at one stage caused me to cease writing momentarily - I had a form of writers block caused by my questioning of the value of my music, and what it had to say in today's society. My adherence to postmodernism leads me to believe that any type of music is now valid, it is the composer's own statement of feelings, and that as I am not that composer, I do not have the right to condemn their unique statement. This makes life difficult not only because of the awesome pressure upon a composer thesedays to devise original thought in the midst of such diversity, but also when assessing student works or judging a competition. And in the context of this competition I made note of the title that would be given to the award winner: Young and Emerging Sound Artist of 2001. This suggested to me that the work of the successful composer should be making a statement of his/her role in today's society; regardless of whether that role was to be a blatant anachronist or a seeker of new sounds, I felt that their work should somehow address this issue. My eventual choice took this into account, along with the stated criteria of technical excellence both as a composer and in the recording quality of the work.

Ingredients. No composer can work entirely without influence or without the ingredients of compositional style, rhythm, pitch, form, duration, texture, timbre. But today's composers seem to be trying very hard to do so. In an effort to be original, composers have deliberately thrown out any ingredients from the past - a task that is in its very nature impossible to do, and I have never known a composer who could entirely avoid the influence of others, even if this is then disguised within their own work. Throwing out the ingredients leaves the composer in a situation as if he/she were a baker trying to cook bread after disposing of the contents of their cupboards: what results is nothingness. And this emptiness pervades the music of the last twenty years - although that in itself could be considered a statement addressing its role in contemporary society. But myself, I prefer to listen to something rather than nothing.

The other issue that concerns me in the music of today is its close relationship to academic schools. Universities. which were originally established in the Mediaeval period as a centre for thought, for exploration and innovation. History is undoubtably a valuable discipline, but although related, it is a seperate discipline to composition. Perhaps it is a cousin - one cannot address new music without addressing ones role in the "new", and this involves exploring the "not new", i.e. the past. But the past surely should not be the defining issue for new composers - or whether or not they are good imitators of their teachers (who themselves imitate their own teachers, and so on). This hierarchy is quite imposing for a young artist, particularly a young artist who may be studying in one of the worlds capitals. It is all to easy for a student to fall into the trap of getting good marks by pleasing their teacher - and pleasing their teacher by imitating his/her tastes and style. The danger of this practice is that the young composer learns nothing about how to express his or her own ideas, and this "technique" is in itself difficult enough to warrant a lifetime of study.

It makes me wonder when I hear a young sound artist imitating their own teacher so directly that I become concerned whether this person has their own voice, or anything of their own to say, and why he/she is afraid of making that voice heard. Surely the foundation for originality in composition has always been the fact that every person is different - no two persons thoughts, feelings or tastes are alike, and no two persons handwriting is ever alike, to give an everyday example. Likewise, the music of each composer will always be strikingly different - if and only if they are being true to themselves. This is the foundation of my personal thought as a teacher: to encourage my students not only to become acquainted with the techniques of composers past and present (i.e. to know their own craft and context) but also to discover themselves, their own thoughts and feelings, and the uniqueness of themselves as a human being. In this sense the relationship becomes akin to counselling, or to that of a music therapist and client: I hope to assist my students in becoming more aware of themselves, and enjoying that awareness of their own beauty as a person. I am not alone in following this method - but I know have met very few other than de Boer and my first teacher, the Tasmanian composer Don Kay, who have directly encouraged originality of thought in their students' work.

In counterargument, it is possible that informed imitation of the past is just as legitimate a method of composition as any other - taking into account the premise that any style is valid in postmodernity. This is true - as long as it does not become necessary to imitate a particular style in order to succeed in the field.

Also - it may be possible that a composer may well in fact have nothing to say - whether or not this results from being overawed by the plethora of choice available. It is in fact rare for a composer to be born with the romantic notion of an 'all-consuming creative fire'. Many students pursue studies in music simply because they are faced with a choice after finishing school, and happened to do well in the subject. This does not make their choice any less worthy than the prodigy who has decided at the age of five to dedicate his/her life to composition. Music and music-making is for all to enjoy, not just a University-based minority. (See Mstation contributor Laura Conrad's writings on this issue at

But are Universities a good place for music-making? Normally one would choose to study at a Conservatoire rather than a University in order to learn the skills of musicianship. Universities are known as places for promoting new thought rather than disciplines of practise - and in fact the courses in music available to students of a University are often restricted to musicology, analysis... and composition. Why composition? . Surely composers would be better served by the practical environment of a Conservatoire? Does composition fall into the category of intellectual study or musical practise? (and I would argue that it is a careful balance of both). Basing compositional study within the academic world-view of a University seems to suggest that one's music ought to be intellectually based, formed from great thought and mathematical planning - and indeed much of the music that comes out of Universities fits such a description. Does this make it good? Does it mean that compositions produced by Conservatoire students are less intellectually rigorous? I would answer thus: Intellectual orientation does not determine whether or not a piece is worth listening to. In fact much of this academic music becomes unlistenable. That does not make it bad - but does the composer want their music to be unlistenable? I would suggest that this option has not often been considered by the composer!

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