issues in new electroacoustic music

a ramble on where we are going today... and why? page 2...

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(continued from page 1...)

So: if the practise of academic study leads so dangerously to the swallowing-up of individual thought, or the sacrifice of musicality in order to promote intellectual rigor: why not look outside of academia?

The difficulty here is that for composers working in electroacoustic music, it is very difficult to find support for performance, diffusion or recording of their works outside of the academic world. The academic world has funding to support this area - which record companies will notoriously avoid with a 10 foot pole as it is not considered "saleable merchandise". But the academic world has turned to furthering its own tradition - with considerable funding and support. The musical world is notoriously a political minefield, and distrubingly personal or political allegiances may often determine whether or not a certain school of music may be supported by its peers. The furthering of traditions may seem OK if you are a young student wholeheartedly interested in becoming a member of a strong academic tradition such as acousmatics (and if you wish to trace your lineage back to Pierre Schaefer!). The sad fact is that I see many young students suppressing their own interests and ideas in order to get ahead and get a job in academia, where they can be assured that they can keep working in their chosen field without having to busk for a living.

I as a composer find this prospect depressing: indeed I have been known to approach what could be described as a clinical state if forced for even a short period into becoming someone other than who I am. Sometimes this has been due to the need to earn a crust: improvising music for children's dance classes, or working for a short term outside of pure original composition or even the musical world can induce such states in me. I would be very surprised if other composers did not share these feelings: in his study of personality profiles of musicians, The Musical Temperament (OUP, 1996), Anthony Kemp found that composers scored most highly in the traits of self-sufficiency, imagination (and stress! Perhaps evidence for the romantic notion of the suffering artist?...)

It makes me sad to consider such a possibility of accepting second best - and my personal tendency to live in the moment most likely classifies me as having the archetypal artist's temperment, of which I am proud! But again, like those composers who have a burning desire to create or to have something to say, perhaps I am one of a minority - and the extreme emotions that I experience need not be an issue for other composers.

However, getting back to the YESA competition: the pieces which I felt were worthy of being described as the work of a Young and Emerging Sound Artist did in fact look outside of academia for their inspiration, in order to address the composer's relationship to the outside world and to the present day and age. One in particular seemed to be reminiscent of the sound design of games music (for more information on this subject read John Littler's interviews with computer games composers, also in this issue of Mstation!) - although this could also have been defined as pure acousmatic composition due to its heavily processed electronic nature. The composers' fusion of these two entirely independent schools of thought intrigued me. Another piece caught my attention as it featured drum'n'bass rhythms - although these were composed with some skill from snippets of human voices in conversation. The relevance in today's context was immediate, yet the piece was not overtly obvious in its references to the music of today, it was still very much a personal expression, and this gave it a higher value in my eyes than someone who might have directly mimicked the latest drum'n'bass loopz of a top underground DJ. The Canadian composer Ned Bouhalassa, himself a lecturer at Concordia University until 1997, flaunts an obvious love of contemporary underground dance music, and in his biography he describes this as being an important source of inspiration which brought life to his music after the dryness of the academic world. His pieces are some of the few by leading academics that feature snippets of drum'n'bass samples and MIDI, couched within an intriguing hybrid of acousmatics and soundscape composition.

Christopher Penrose is another composer of striking originality - partly he has found a solution to this issue through sampling other composer's music. He developed the *nix application pV during his doctoral studies at Princeton Univeristy, which later grew to become PVNation, for Linux and Mac OS X. The sounds which PVNation is capable of creating are not available from any conventional plugin, and so this becomes one means by which his music has such unique qualities - perhaps this is also due to the influence of his wonderfully eccentric personality and his embracing of non-conformist thinking! In an interview published on his website he states:

"Artistic mutations and deviations from any perceived social aesthetic norm are highly desireable due to my knee-jerk non-conformist leanings. And mutations and deviations from my own aesthetic sense are also highly desireable. I do think of myself often as an explorer, a nomad travelling and discriminating among a rich space of aesthetic scapes and climes".

His music is full of artistic mutations and distortions, sometimes recognisable, as in the sample of Madonna's "Into the Groove" which ends his work Manwich (1993) and sometimes leaving only the residues of their contemporary cultural associations, often as a reference to the extremes of American culture which he experienced in his 'home town' Hollywood. Other pieces by Penrose can be heard on the website After the Taj Mahal.

Neither of these composers eschews intellectually informed composition - in fact both are lecturers at University institutions: Bouhallassa at Concordia, and Penrose is a Lecturer and Composer in Residence at Keio University, Japan. Their music is balanced by innate musicality - and is indeed quite listenable, while at the same time challenging known musical worlds. A delicate balancing act - and possibly why so few actually succeed at becoming truly great composers, despite the growing numbers of students being trained in this area.

The music that I am personally most attracted to - and often stand quite in awe of - are pieces where their composers pose more questions than they answer. In my training within the academic world I have little patience to listen to yet another piece of bad audio noise - it perplexes me that particularly the acousmatic school seek to hide the nature of their sounds (this being an important part of their philosophy) by processing them so heavily that the original cannot be heard, and all that remains is audio noise. Time stretching seems to be heavily favoured and produces a characteristically electronic sound as the sample quality becomes lossy and distorted. But to my ears it is almost indistinguishable from Stockhausen's pioneering works for oscillators and tape of the 1950s - 60s. So what are these composers doing in their expensive University-funded 32 track ProTools dedicated hardware studios?

When I hear the same sounds incessantly, and particularly those which are painstakingly mathematically constructed, defined and explained to the nth degree, I am pleasantly surprised to hear the unsolved mysteries of a composer such as Luc Ferrari. While he is very much of the pedigree and generation of classical electroacoustic thought, he seems to seek to do the impossible with music, and frequently succeeds. His "Petit Symphonie" begins with samples of flutes, and seems to be note-based in an almost orchestrated manner, but somehow manages to end with spoken voices. There is a brief transition, but no explaination of this morphing or any obvious links to give it reason. And again in "Presque rien avec filles" he combines indoor and outdoor soundscape recordings with a drumkit and other musical sounds, without feeling the need to explain away their magic. It is this freedom which is so refreshing to hear in a world where everything must be accounted for. "Why the **** should it be?" is my response. Surely as composers we are here to lead thought, and not to feel we have to follow the instructions of past composers, however worthy of recognition their music may be. We are not them, and surely we have something of our own to say?

Mathematical composition, along with disposing of ingredients, seems to have been responsible for the death of musicality or listenability in many composers' work. On listening to the works of Iannis Xenakis, which are known for their representation of precise mathematical and scientific phenomena, one is struck not only by their precision but by the composers love of the beauty of pure mathematics, and his fascination with structure, science and architecture. These works are in the forefront of contemporary composition not just because of their skill, but because of their emotional impact - and while they are indeed challenging to the ear, I could listen to them again and again! Emotion seems to be shunned by many composers as being a temptation to retreat into the past; but the lack of emotion present in many contemporary works only adds to their emptiness and lack of appeal.

Surely the act of creating a piece begins with a desire to communicate with an audience? This is an emotional connection - even if that emotion happens to be annoying or disturbing one's audience. The skill of a good composer lies not only in his/her ability to construct form, but also emotional form. It is true that mathematical form can be captivating - as in the works of Xenakis or J.S.Bach's Art of Fugue. But mathematics in itself is not music. It takes a special skill to convey the beauty of mathematics within the language of music without losing oneself in an uncommunicative and dry representation of formulae. Unfortunately the emphasis on intellectual and mathematical thought promoted by academics seems to bypass this most important concern. Which in itself may indeed be the composer's intention - not every composer wishes to create soaring neo-Romantic heights of emotion, and the composers intent may well be to create a piece devoid of emotion in order to make a quite valid statement on modern life. But I suspect that all too often the lack of emotion, and thus lack of connection with ones audience, is because students are encouraged to dismiss emotional content as being a weakness impeding rigor of thought. This again is rather like throwing out ingredients: no-one can dismiss emotion from their life, let alone from their music. Emotion takes many forms, not all of them being pleasant or unpleasant. Deliberate indifference is also an emotion, and may be interesting for a composer to explore. Also, the complexity of emotional reaction to a piece of music means that one person may find a piece disturbing when another finds it unaffecting; what is one man's meat is another man's poison, and so an absolute evocation of emotion may well be impossible. But rejecting the importance of emotion, as well as being an obvious weakness in one's compositional palette, seems to suggest to me a possible cause for the pervading emptiness of much contemporary music.

The advantages of a Conservatoire environment, where one is surrounded by practical musicians, may assist here in bringing a certain truth back to the composer: when one hears one's works performed, the immediate challenge is raised "Is this what I really want?". Being faced with the practicalities of performance, and the reality of music-making, is a positive experience on the learning of a young composer - while still forging ahead with new thought, the student is brought back to reality by the mundanities of whether a musician can play the piece put in front of them, as well as what it really sounds like outside of the composer's head. What I would suggest (which is true as much for Conservatoire as well as University composers - and often the differences thesedays are quite blurred) is that composers do not ask themselves enough questions. The purpose of postmodern thought in making all things permissible seems to me to be to ask questions. Why am I doing this? Is this what I want to say? These are all questions that it is important for the student to ask, although he/she may never find answers, the asking leads to new avenues of creativity.

Academia is often accused of elitism, and the rigor of intellectual practice seems only to confirm this impression. Perhaps those who have suggested this are themselves insecure in the presence of genius; it is a classic bullying knee-jerk reaction to dismiss the challenge to one's thinking that a clever person may present. Also, the practicalities of getting academically oriented music performed or supported often mean that it is kept within the ivory tower of a well-funded academic institution. Turning away one's audience may well compound this problem, and this may become an important issue for young composers to address as funding becomes even further restricted, even within universities. But composers seem to still encourage the notion of antagonising one's audience - perhaps that because certain works of early this century which later were to be considered landmarks, caused riots among the audience in their premiere performances. There seems to be a flawed logic operating that the reverse must also hold true: that if a piece antagonises its audience, it must be good.

The elitism of the academic world may well have a positive effect in providing a hothouse for the development of new thinking. This in itself should be encouraged. What is disturbing is when it comes to light that where there is funding, there is also politics. Many institutions are run by the demands of internal as well as external politics. In 1996 a report published by Ed de Boer, accompanied by damning statistics, criticised the Fonds voor de Scheppende Tonkunst for favouring the works of composers who sat on the adjudicating boards of this body.

It is also extremely difficult for funding bodies to be unbiased to their own tastes. The difficulties of establishing criteria for judgement in the postmodern age have already been addressed above: if everything is OK, how can one judge a piece? What becomes good and bad - and how can one differentiate between an objective good and bad, and one's own likes and dislikes. And does this mean that there is no point to judgement at all... and in the long run once this train of thought is followed through, is there any point to creating music? Many composers find this a consistent stumbling block which may well lead them to cease writing altogether. Others decide that 'what's right for me is right' - very true, unless they then seek to hypocritically impose their own judgements of what is right, or what is great new music, upon others. Surely this is not an issue right now: time will tell what is going to last as 'great' music - and for now, the point of writing is the individual's journey of self-discovery. If it is important for that person, that is all that matters.

In the meantime emphasis seems to be being placed on a certain style favoured by academia, and accompanied by the support offered by institutions, this often implies to students "Get with this or you will have to get out". Academically oriented music by itself is just one of the many options open to a composer of this day and age. What becomes of concern is when following this path becomes the only way to get ahead, or when the domination of a a particular line of thought seems to make life difficult for those who disagree - contrary to their so-called postmodernism where everything is valid.

I myself am an academic and have found benefits both in the practicalities of Conservatoire study and the intellectual discipline and challenge of academic study. It would be hypocrisy for me to condemn academic music when I myself create works that will probably never have an audience outside of the University world. But I recognise that it is important for me to balance these challenges with the reality of my need to support myself, and with the reality of the responsibility that I and other young composers have: one day these Young and Emerging Sound Artists will most likely rise to become teachers themselves in order to obtain academic support; teachers who will either support the seemingly inherent traditions in current electroacoustic music, or who will manage to see beyong their own personal likes and dislikes as being the basis for judging whether a composer's work merits support.

So thats it. Complaints, rants and reactions to my potted theories can be emailed to us here at Mstation.org - why not join in the discussion? And keep your eyes peeled on the CEC Website for the outcome of this years Young and Emerging Sound Artist composition...

©2001<mr>

 

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