For a while now I have felt that the site as it currently exists falls short of my vision of what it could be, and simmering frustrations with the technical limitations of the Tumblr platform have pushed me to the realization that Acousmata needs a new home and a new format.
So please bear with me as I make the transition—there is still much to be done, and it will likely be several months at the least before the new site is ready to be unveiled.
No one individual did more to bring harp technique into the twentieth century than Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961). Born in France to Basque parents of Sephardic heritage, Salzedo graduated from the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 16. After permanently moving to the United States in 1916, Salzedo quickly immersed himself in the contemporary arts and music scene. Among his many activities, he co-founded the International Composers Guild with Edgard Varèse and established the harp department at the newly founded Curtis Institute of Music, where he taught for many years. Salzedo’s contributions to harp technique were first set forth in his 1921 book Modern Study of the Harp. Beyond introducing a bevy of new notations and playing techniques, such as the “Aeolian flux” (Salzedo’s improvement on the traditional glissando), the book projects a modernist vision of never-ending musical possibilities. In his foreword, Salzedo writes, ”There is nothing difficult. There are only NEW things, unaccustomed things.” His own music ranges from shimmering Debussyan compositions of his early years to his more probing later works, which explore texture and form within an extended diatonic framework, as in this piece from his 1934 collection Short Stories in Music.
The work of Maryanne Amacher explored many diverse phenomena at the cutting edge of experimental music and sound art. In her City Links project, she created an artificial urban soundscape by planting microphones throughout a city and transmitting their input over telephone lines to a central location where they could all be heard in simultaneous superposition. She also developed an intensive approach to site-specific sound installations by investigating the effects of unconventional loudspeaker placement, so that “the rooms themselves become speakers, producing sound which is felt throughout the body as well as heard.” Her most distinctive compositional impetus was based on the phenomenon of “ear tones,” or otoacoustic emissions (OAEs), measurable vibrations produced by the ear either spontaneously or, more often, in response to particular musical stimuli. In her essay "Psychoacoustic Phenomena in Musical Composition," Amacher suggests the composer’s job is now to map out a new “perceptual geography” by coordinating three distinct levels of activity: the sounding source, the response tones stimulated in the listener’s ear, and the subjective aesthetic impression as the mechanical impulses are converted to electrical signals in the brain. Despite her relatively meager available output (two CDs on John Zorn's Tzadik label, plus a smattering of short articles), Amacher's work has exerted a large and seemingly ever-growing influence on contemporary sound art and theory.
Since the taxonomical work of Erich Moritz von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs in the early twentieth century, organologists have classified musical instruments into four major categories, each distinguished by its primary sound-producing mechanism: idiophones (vibrating body), membranophones (vibrating membrane), chordophones (vibrating strings) and aerophones (vibrating air columns). Beyond these basic divisions, scholars have proposed such logically consistent additions as electrophones (for electronic instruments) and corpophones (for the human body as a source of sound). We propose a seventh category: fictophones, for imaginary musical instruments. Existing as diagrams, drawings or written descriptions, these devices never produce a sound. Yet they are no less a part of musical culture for that. Indeed, fictophones represent an essential if hitherto unrecognized domain of musical thought and activity, and it is in order to catalog these conceptual artifacts that we have established the first institution of its kind: the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments.
Illustration of Francis Bacon’s “sound-houses,” from New Atlantis (1627)
While most of his colleagues were at least sympathetic with various leftist causes, the Italian composer Luigi Nono (1924-1990) was a devout Communist who believed that art must be of service to social progress. Nono had no compunctions combining the avant-garde compositional techniques of the mid-20th century (integral serialism, indeterminacy, electronic sound production, and tape collage) with explicit political messages. This stance put him in conflict with figures such as John Cage, whose happy-go-lucky embrace of anarchic individualism Nono saw as naive and politically dangerous. His 1964 composition La fabbrica illuminata (The Illuminated [or Englightened] Factory) was one of the most striking manifestations of Nono’s politically committed approach to experimental music. Based on texts by Giuliano Scabia and Cesare Pavese, this piece for soprano and four-channel tape incorporates manipulated sounds from the factory floor and the noise of political demonstrations. Nono intended La fabbrica illuminata as a “sonic diary” to record the inhumane treatment of auto workers in Genoa, Italy. But Nono also wanted to intervene directly in the struggle: he envisioned his music being piped in over loudspeakers during the workers’ protests.
Disparate Stairway Radical Other (excerpt, 1995) Lucia Dlugoszewski
American composer Lucia Dlugoszewski (1931-2000) cultivated a distinctive voice amidst the chaotic chorus of avant-garde music in the second half of the 20th century. She studied with Edgard Varèse in the early 1950s, and her music shows his influence, as well as that of New York School composers such as John Cage, who became advocates of her work. Dlugoszewski favored the use of unconventional instruments, such as the “timbre piano” (a systematic expansion of that instrument’s acoustic potential by means of Cagean “preparations” as well as unorthodox methods of exciting the strings) and a series of custom-built devices—some 100 in number—constructed according to her designs. Like many in her milieu she was powerfully affected by Eastern philosophy and its calls to reclaim the immediacy of experience. Through extremely subtle nuances of timbre, provocative silences, and brusque juxtapositions of sonic material, Dlugoszewski sought to circumvent perceptual habits and confront the listener with the immediacy of sound. She writes, “The first concern of all music in one way or another is to shatter the indifference of hearing, the callousness of sensibility, to create that moment of solution we call poetry, our rigidity dissolved when we occur reborn—in a sense, hearing for the first time.”
A highly secretive project of Detroit techno musicians James Stinson and Gerald Donald, Drexciya was a concept band based on a constructed Afro-futurist mythology. The duo’s title referred to an imagined underwater civilization inhabited by the descendants of unborn children of African women who were thrown overboard from slave ships crossing the Atlantic. Their music, released primarily on a series of EPs beginning in the early 1990s, explores a shadowy and evocative world of sonic imagery, an alternate reality of techno music in which the genre’s upbeat dancefloor roots are mercilessly deracinated by throbbing waves of dark sonic energy. Drexciya ended with Stinson’s untimely death in 2002, but Donald has continued to produce music under such names as Arpanet and Dopplereffekt.
The Messe de Nostre Dame of the great fourteenth-century poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) is the earliest musical treatment of the Mass by a single composer. In this first movement, Machaut spins out a vast web of music from just three little lines of text: "Kyrie eleison / Christe elesion / Kyrie eleison." (As the first and simplest unit of the Ordinary Mass, the Kyrie has always provoked the most sublime and inventive approaches among composers who have set it to music.) The labyrinthine polyphonic weft of voices, with its jarring dissonances and microtonal inflections, and the raspy, almost guttural vocal timbre of this performance by the Ensemble Organum, create an effect at once visceral and otherworldly—an atmosphere far removed from the stereotypical images of cherubic sweetness with which we are likely to associate medieval music.
In 1944, Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh attended a zar ceremony, in which music and chanting are used to cast out evil spirits and heal the sick. Because the zar is typically performed exclusively by women, El-Dabh wore women’s headdress in order to enter unnoticed. He also smuggled in a portable wire recorder (a predecessor to the magnetic tape machine) which he had borrowed from the Middle East Radio Station in Cairo. El-Dabh recorded the ceremony and later processed the sounds, filtering out the lower frequencies and adding reverberation by re-recording in a room with movable wall panels. The result was this brief but haunting piece of sonic art, in which ethnographic field recording merges seamlessly with the transformational editing practices of electronic music.
Fewer and fewer black musicians were playing jazz and I could see why, because jazz was becoming the music of the museum. A lot of musicians and critics are at fault for letting it happen. No one wants to be dead before their time, you know, when they’re twenty-one, and that’s what was going to happen to someone who went into jazz. At least that’s the way it looked to me. The only way that wasn’t going to happen was if somehow they got the ear of the young people again, and I didn’t see that happening. I didn’t even go to listen to most jazz groups anymore, because they were only playing the same musical licks that we played way back with Bird, over and over again; that, along with some of the things that Coltrane introduced, and maybe Ornette. It was boring to hear that shit. These musicians had become victims of the critics, most of whom are lazy and don’t want to work too hard to understand contemporary musical expression and language. That’s too much like work for them, so they just put it down every time. Dumb, insensitive critics have destroyed a lot of great music and musicians who just weren’t as strong as I was in having the ability to say, “Fuck y’all.”
From Miles: The Autobiography (London: Picador, 1990), p. 342.
In a compositional milieu where so many artists succumb either to the Scylla of late-romantic necrophilia or the Charybdis of bloodless avant-garde epigonism, it is refreshing to discover music that uses the old classical instrumentarium to novel effect. Such is the work of the Italian composer Franco Donatoni (1927-2000).
Like so many of his European contemporaries, Donatoni cut his teeth in the 1950s at the Darmstadt summer courses, a crucible of avant-garde musical thought. Here he was introduced to many of the major figures of the scene, such as Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, and Cage. Although Donatoni viewed Cage with suspicion, he shared the American’s radical critique of compositional agency. His response to the crisis of ungrounded subjectivity in contemporary music was not to be found in chance procedures, but in a systematic process of recomposition through rules of substitution and permutation derived from the parametric analytical principles of serialism.
Donatoni’s music is generated by the ruthless cannibalization of earlier works, as fragments of scores are subjected to permutational schemes in order to form new material in a manner inspired by the alchemical process of sublimation. (Musicologist David Osmond-Smith’s description of Donatoni’s techniques includes such graphic anatomical metaphors as “cancerous proliferation” and “dismemberment.”) This method could of course be brought to bear on any music, not just Donatoni’s own. For example, his 1967 composition Etwas ruhiger in Ausdruck (1967) is based on a multidimensional analysis of eight bars from Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, No. 2.
While the transmutation of pre-existing material follows certain strict rules, its subsequent rearrangement into new configurations is done more or less according to taste. Following the moment-to-moment logic of musical transmutation, without a preconceived vision of how the composition is to unfold, Donatoni sought a musical flow that emerged from the very notational labor of composition, from the “juggling” of notes and proportions to which critics might attempt to reduce this eminently writerly form of music. For Donatoni there is no such thing as creation, only transformation: He declares, “I am not an artist but an artisan.”
After a fallow period in the early 1970s, in which he battled a spell of depression aggravated by the deaths of his mother and his old mentor Bruno Maderna, Donatoni returned to composition. Rejecting the conventional model of composing big orchestral pieces that were performed once and then forgotten, he now focused on producing works for soloists and chamber ensembles with whom he had a direct personal connection. His music from the late 1970s on is marked by deft complexity and cerebral playfulness. Algo IV, one of the last works Donatoni wrote before his death in 2000, is derived from the earlier work Algo, a 1977 piece based in turn upon the recomposition of a guitar lick by Django Reinhardt.
Italian-born composer-producer Doris Norton is one of the unheralded champions of early electronica. Norton’s music from the 1980s occupies the stylistic intersection of synth-pop, industrial, and techno music.
Long before launching a solo career, Norton was the voice of the Italian progressive rock band Jacula, led by her husband, Antonio Bartoccetti. The group released two albums in 1969 and 1972. Norton’s own work began to appear in the 1980s. Some of her earliest tracks, such as “Eightoeight” and “Underground” (both 1980), with their syncopated drum machines and clockwork sequencer lines, strikingly anticipate what would later be known as techno. (These tracks bear comparison to Charanjit Singh’s legendary 1983 record Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat).
Norton’s mid-decade releases are classic musical documents of the dawn of the PC era. She embraced the personal computer as a musical instrument uniquely capable of realizing her artistic visions:
In the late sixties I had already conceived computers as “personal.” I have always trusted in the benefits of solitude; [being] alone means freedom… What’s better than a “personal” computer for materializing ideas, by oneself? [source]
Albums such as Personal Computer (1984) were sponsored by Apple (and featured the company’s logo prominently on the cover) while Artificial Intelligence (1985) was purportedly created entirely via computer keyboard, whence the MIDI information was fed to a Roland JX-8P synthesizer. Later albums Automatic Feeling (1986) and The Double Side of Science (1990) were underwritten by IBM.
While the beat-oriented style of Norton’s music aligns her with such global fellow-travelers as Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk, her championing of the PC as a tool for self-sufficient musical creativity also connects her to more artsy musicians such as Pietro Grossi, Laurie Spiegel, and the League of Automatic Music Composers. Norton’s predilection for the bright, glossy timbres of early digital instruments also recalls Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader’s bizarre 1982 one-off Erdenklang.
While her music remains largely out of print and inaccessible, Norton’s early records have recently begun to receive the inevitable rediscovery treatment. Her 1981 album Raptus was re-released in 2011 by Italian label Black Widow Records, and her other albums from the early 80s are likely soon to follow.
This highly grooveable hybrid of progressive rock and traditional Japanese music was the first release by multi-instrumentalist Osamu Kitajima (disregarding his 1971 “homage to British pop-psychedelia” under the pseudonym Justin Heathcliff). After followup albums Masterless Samurai (1980) and Dragon King (1981), Kitajima moved decidedly in the direction of new age music.
The album takes its name from Benzaiten, the Japanese name for the Hindu goddess Saraswati, patroness of knowledge, music, arts, and science. It features a cameo by Haruomi Hosono, who would carry on the torch of Japanese avant-pop in projects such as his exquisitely weird 1978 solo album Cochin Moon and the synthesizer-driven juggernaut Yellow Magic Orchestra, of which he was a founding member.
The impact of the digital computer on music-making in the late 20th century goes far beyond the function of a perfectly docile performing robot to which it is typically reduced in the textbook history of electronic music. Some of the most creative composers of the past few decades have used the computer as a means of facilitating, complicating, or even participating in musical improvisation. (I’ve touched on some of the earliest efforts in this vein in earlier posts on the League of Automatic Music Composers and The Hub.) This is the approach taken by American musician and polymath George Lewis in his pioneering computer music program Voyager, developed in the mid 1980s.
The music is produced by the interplay between a 64-voice computer-controlled “virtual improvising orchestras” and two human musicians whose playing is converted into MIDI data by devices known as “pitch followers.” Every 5 to 7 seconds, a program subroutine shuffles the 64 synthetic voices, determining how many will be activated and whether they will carry over from the previous grouping or be brought in “off the bench,” so to speak. Further subroutines determine a bevy of musical details such as timbre of the active voices, the scales from which they draw pitches, their melodic behavior, dynamics, tempo, and many other parameters. Finally, with each run of the subroutine, a new kind of response to the players is decided: whether to “listen” to one, both, or neither, and how exactly to react to the musical input they provide. The result is what Lewis describes as ”multiple parallel streams of music generation, emanating from both the computers and the humans—a nonhierarchical, improvisational, subject-subject model of discourse, rather than a stimulus-response setup.”
Lewis emphasizes that his code is capable of generating music on its own; human input is entirely optional. By making the machine musically self-sufficient, he attempts to ”de-instrumentalize the computer”—to treat it not as a passive means of producing sound, but as a sentient musician in its own right. Guided by a “technologically mediated animism,” Lewis seeks to endow the computer with its own distinctive musical behavior, comparable to the sense of personality projected by human performers in the act of improvisation.
The dizzying variety of timbres, rhythms, and tones heard in a typical performance of Voyager was inspired by the concept of “multi-instrumentalism” developed by the members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, whose usage of many different instruments in a single performance allowed for a prismatically shifting ensemble sound “exceeding the sum of its instrumental parts.” (Lewis, who joined the AACM in 1971, tells the group’s story in his critically acclaimed 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself.)
What the work is about is what improvisation is about: interaction and behavior as carriers for meaning. On this view, notes, timbres, melodies, durations, and the like are not ends in themselves. Embedded in them is a more complex, indirect, powerful signal that we must train ourselves to detect.
Lewis sees Voyager as an expression of African-American cultural practices that challenge the Eurocentric biases of much avant-garde music. Favoring a maximalist aesthetics of surplus over the austere classical ideals of balance and equilibrium, Lewis quotes the scholar Robert L. Douglas, who writes that African artists want “to add as much as possible to the act of creation…to add to life is to ensure that there is more to share.”
The code for Voyager was begun in 1985 at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam and finished two years later in New York. It was written in a programming language called Forth, which Lewis described as “appealing to a community of composers who wanted an environment in which a momentary inspiration could quickly lead to its sonic realization—a dialogic creative process, emblematic of an improvisor’s way of working.” This performance, featuring Lewis on trombone and Roscoe Mitchell on alto and soprano saxophone, was recorded in 1993 in Berkeley, California.
One of the most talented and creative figures on the computer music scene today is the German composer Marcus Schmickler. His early solo albums, recorded under noms de plume Wabi Sabi (1996) and Sator Rotas (1999), feature delicately spun harmonic drones and textural morphings at times reminiscent of the music of François Bayle. Schmickler’s more recent works, such as Altars of Science(2007) and Palace of Marvels (2010), both released on the esteemed label Editions Mego, move in a different direction, probing extreme states of auditory perception and pushing the envelope of contemporary electronic production.
Apart from his computer music, Schmickler has composed pieces for classical ensembles, such as Demos (2006), for choir, chamber quintet, and electronics, and Rule of Inference (2011), for percussion quartet. He also heads the spacey post-rock outfit Pluramon. Much of Schmickler’s work explores the interface between art and science, or aesthetics and epistemology, as for example his 2009 project The Bonn Patternization, a 10-channel composition based on the sonification of astronomical data.
Palace of Marvels is an ear-bending trip into the phenomenon of the Shepard tone, an auditory illusion which creates the sensation of a never-ending ascent or descent in pitch. (Roger Shepard, the discoverer of this phenomenon, is name-checked in the track “Shep’s Infinity,” as is French composer and acoustician Jean-Claude Risset in “Risset Brain Hammer.”) On this relatively simple foundation, Schmickler constructs a dizzying array of sonic variations—different perspectives on a common perceptual object—each one leading the listener farther down the rabbit hole. This is devilishly difficult music, but there is a sirenic allure in Schmickler’s work that compels you to keep listening even as your scrambled brain begs for silence.
The late 1960s witnessed the true coming of age of electronic music. While new instruments had been developed since the beginning of the century, and widespread production began to percolate in the wake of the Second World War, it wasn’t until albums such as Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967) and Wendy (née Walter) Carlos’ Switched-On Bach (1968) that electronic music reached the public ear on a massive scale.
Andrew Rudin's composition Tragoedia appeared hot on the heels of Subotnick’s record, which it followed in Nonesuch Records' groundbreaking series of commissions for original, album-length works of electronic music. Subtitled “A composition in four movements for electronic music synthesizer,” the large-scale structure of Tragoedia is based on the four fundamental emotional processes of Greek tragedy. While describing the work as an example of program music, however, Rudin cautions that the music “does not relate to any specific drama or event but attempts to explore those actions and devices through which tragedy is evoked.”
Rudin’s career up to the creation of Tragoedia transected a rich and fascinating period in the history of avant-garde music in Philadelphia. After undergraduate studies in which he was heavily influenced by the music of the Second Viennese School and Igor Stravinsky, Rudin went to the University of Pennsylvania in order to work with George Rochberg, who had recently become chair of the music department there. Rudin also studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, who taught as a visiting professor for one semester, and George Crumb, who joined the department in Rudin’s final year there. He may also have crossed paths with future pioneering sound artist Maryanne Amacher, who was an undergraduate at Penn in the early 60s.
Around this time, Rudin became familiar with the experimental stage art of the American choreographer Alwin Nikolais. Nikolais had recently purchased one of the first commercially available Moog synthesizers for use in his synaesthetic theater productions, and he demonstrated the machine for Rudin. Soon thereafter, at Rudin’s invitation, Robert Moog came to Penn and oversaw the construction of an electronic music studio in the basement of the Annenberg School for Communication. Tragoedia was produced not at Penn, however, but at the electronic music studio at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (later absorbed into the University of the Arts), where Rudin had taken a position as director of the Electronic Music Center.
The third movement, “Peitho,” which means temptation or persuasion, is a study in perpetual motion built around skittering chromatic figures. Its formal structure was inspired by the third movement (“Purgatorio”) of Gustav Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. The eerie and evocative textures of Rudin’s music quickly found their way into the cultural bloodstream: snippets from Tragoedia were used by famed Italian director Federico Fellini in his 1969 film Satyricon.
Coming at the tail end of the post-Switched-On Bach ”Moogsploitation” craze of the late 1960s, Douglas Leedy's A Very Merry Electric Christmas to You! is a lovely and musically sensitive synthesis (pun intended) of timeless holiday melodies and the cutting-edge electronic music technology of its time.
Leedy is an American composer, conductor, and musicologist whose slim discography belies his many years of activity in a variety of genres. In the late 1960s he taught at UCLA, where he also established an electronic music studio. Later he abandoned 12-tone equal temperament and pursued a musical style inspired by modal scales, minimalist repetitive patterns, and Carnatic Indian musical traditions. Since 2003, he has published music under the name Bhisma Xenotechnites.
A Very Merry Electric Christmas to You! features mostly “straight” arrangements of Christmas tunes, with some tracks (such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The First Noel”) showing off Leedy’s not inconsiderable classical chops in florid variations on melodic themes. In his version of “Silent Night,” a gently modulated electronic drone provides a perfectly soporific accompaniment to the lilting melody.
The album was produced at the UCLA electronic music studio and features both Moog and Buchla synthesizers, as well as a mysterious touch-controlled instrument called the “Ognob Generator,” a tiny custom-build device created by Leedy with the assistance of W. R. Biglow, Jr.
Leedy’s two other electronic albums, The Electric Zodiac (1969) and Entropical Paradise (1971) show his more experimental side. Entropical Paradise, for example, is a two-hour work comprising six “sonic environments” created by free-running generative synthesizer patches.
Not surprisingly, A Very Merry Electric Christmas to You! was not the only Moog Christmas venture of the period. The Moog Machine’s Christmas Becomes Electric, a decidedly tame introduction to the synthesizer, actually predated Leedy’s record by two years.
Born in 1953 in San Diego, California, David Dunn is an American composer whose music has explored the domains of environmental performance, field recording, and electronic sound synthesis. Working at the boundaries of contemporary experimental practice, Dunn has devoted his career to overcoming what he calls “music’s insufficiency as a discipline.” Making modern composition relevant, according to Dunn, means embracing the formative possibilities of new sound technologies, integrating the findings of post-Newtonian science, and approaching creative activity from a position of ecological awareness.
Dunn’s teachers include Harry Partch, with whom he worked from 1970 to 1974, and Kenneth Gaburo, to whom Dunn dedicated his beautiful 1993 composition “…with zitterings of flight released.” Although his own work explores avenues far from the mainstream of electronic music, Dunn is well versed in its history. His 1992 pamphlet “Die Eigenwelt der Apparate-Welt (Pioneers of Electronic Art)”—now 20 years old—is still an excellent overview of the technological and aesthetic developments of the genre’s first hundred years.
In the year 2000, Dunn founded the Art and Science Laboratory in Sante Fe, New Mexico, an organization devoted to (among other things) “electronic arts history and practice, post-cinematic aesthetics, robotics and haptics, sound art, chaos and nonlinear dynamics, bioacoustics, and environmental conservation and education.” Through these various activities Dunn pursues the vision of an integrated, post-disciplinary union of knowledge and practice whose purpose is, in his words, “to creatively put forth alternatives to the existing order.”
Though he acknowledges the ubiquitous influence of John Cage, Dunn also draws a sharp distinction between his own work and much of the post-1950 experimental tradition. Following the logic of Cage’s radical reconception of music, Dunn presses the question, “What is the meaning of sound-making activities if they are not traditional music and are not intended to be?” His answer is that music (and art more broadly) cultivates the discipline and focused engagement required to reorient ourselves to the spiritual and ecological realities of the 21st century. Music is a kind of survival training for the existential crisis of late modernity.
Music is not just something we do to amuse ourselves. It is a different way of thinking about the world, a way to remind ourselves of a prior wholeness when the mind of the forest was not something out there, separate in the world, but something of which we were an intrinsic part. Perhaps music is a conservation strategy for keeping something alive that we now need to make more conscious, a way of making sense of the world from which we might refashion our relationship with nonhuman living systems.
Dunn’s music can be broken up into three broad categories: site-specific works intended for outdoor performance; electroacoustic works using field recordings; and “pure” electronic works based on mathematical models.
In his environmental performance works, Dunn orchestrates interactions of human beings, machines, and the natural environment in order to musically invoke the “spirit of place” (genius loci) of particular locations. In Entrainments 2 (1985), three performers record stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the environment from three peaks in the Cuyamaca Mountains of California. These recordings are played back over loudspeakers during the performance, along with drones based on the astrological charts for the current time and location. In addition, ambient sounds are gathered, processed, and fed back into the mix by a parabolic microphone carried by a performer walking slowing around the perimeter of the performance space. A very different approach to site-specific environmental music is found in Mimus Polyglottos (1976), in which Dunn uses synthetically generated tones to initiate a musical “conversation” with a group of mockingbirds. (To hear the piece, check out my related post at Data Garden.)
With regard to field recording, Dunn has nothing but scorn for “preservationist” soundscapes that purport to capture the untainted sounds of nature. His own works in this genre, though based largely on unedited recordings, acknowledges his role in framing the acoustic image. Field recordings don’t so much capture the sounds of nature itself as they project our perception into what Gregory Bateson called the “fabric of mind” that connects all of reality. Recording is a human intervention; like composition it is a “strategy for expanding the boundary of reality itself.”
Dunn’s best known work in this vein, Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond (1991), weaves together a number of field recordings made beneath the surface of North American and African freshwater ponds. The resulting composition is aptly described as “aquatic jazz…a dance between periodicity and chaotic swirl.” In the rich and highly complex rhythmic interactions of the underwater fauna, Dunn hears something more than the merely instinctual signals of senseless organisms. He imagines the insectoid orchestra as a collective expression of a profound sentience residing in the supposedly lowest forms of animal being. “The sounds of living things are not just a resource for manipulation,” Dunn writes, “they are evidence of mind in nature and are patterns of communication with which we share a common bond and meaning.”
More recently, Dunn released The Sound of Light in Trees (2006), an album-length composition based on recordings of beetles inside conifer trees in northern New Mexico. The beetles’ activities, inaudible to the naked ear and even to conventional microphones, are picked up by specially built “vibration transducers” inserted underneath the trees’ bark.
Apparently disconnected from his sonic investigations of the natural world, Dunn has also created several distinctive works of “pure electronics.” Here too, however, his goal is the same: to render in sound the immanent forces of dynamic systems. In all his activities, Dunn isn’t “composing” in the traditional sense, but trying to unleash latent energies and trace their trajectories as expressions of a cosmic order hidden just beneath the surface of everyday experience.
Lorenz (2005), a collaboration between Dunn and scientist James Crutchfield, spins out a dizzying cascade of sound by creating feedback loops between computer-generated chaos equations and a custom-designed audio interface. In another piece, Nine Strange Attractors (2006), Dunn follows similar procedures to explore the peculiar sonic behavior of various mathematical entities with names such as Owl, Pendulum, Rossler, and Van der Pol. As Warren Burt suggests, this piece can be seen as a modern spin on the classical genre of theme and variations, with each attractor offering a different “perspective” on the underlying sound-generation matrix.
Gradients (1999) was created using a computer program to convert the lines of computer graphics into shimmering fields of sine waves. The piece consists of three sections of equal length, each palindromic in structure and possessing elements of formal self-similarity as well. Dunn emphasizes that these works are not simply inspired by fashionable notions of chaos theory, but rather incorporate these mathematical entities into their structure. Computer models of mathematical formulas allow us to artificially recreate the complexity already existent in nature: the networks of sounding digits become self-regulating systems, chaotically ordered in the sense of the ancient Greek word kosmos.
Images from Bernhard Leitner's "Sound:Space" (1978)
SPATIAL GRID "The spatial grid is a three-dimensional grid of loudspeakers, a neutral frame for creating various spatial statements."
SOUND SWING “A minimum of four loudspeakers is required for a pendulum-like motion of sound in space. Two speakers mark the upper ends on each side of the pendulum, the other two speakers are placed closely to the left and right of the walking platform. The direction of the swinging motion is thereby always clearly established. The swing is physically and very clearly experienced. The location of the two upper loudspeakers has been empirically determined. The wooden panel is an acoustical resonance link between lower and upper loudspeakers…”
SOUND CHAIR I “Two loudspeakers are mounted directly on the chair. The sound shifts between these two points. The sound travels along inside the body without ever leaving it. One program for the sound chair is written down as a circular notation: the program can be repeated and experienced over an indefinite period of time. The calming, relaxing, soothing quality of this program is determined by the choice of instruments, speed and frequencies.”
HAND SOUND-OBJECTS “A loudspeaker is carried in each hand and placed on the body according to the program. Notation and photograph show a cello-tone passing through the body’s center. The sound increases its intensity in the back, jumps at the highest volume to the speaker in front where it fades away. This motion alternates in the two directions.”
VERTICAL SPACE FOR ONE PERSON “Diameter of both speaker drums: 75 cm. The level of the upper drum is adjustable. The lower the height the clearer is the perception of sound travelling in/through the vertical axis of the body.”
LATERAL SPACE “The loudspeaker behind the seat and the loudspeakers on both sides are alternately activated, resulting in expanding and contracting motions of sound. The person identifies with the source of sound behind the seat: the spatial expansion originates in the person, the spatial contraction terminates in the person.”
Kabutogani (Japanese for “horseshoe crab”) is a solo project of an anonymous French electronic music producer. The 2010 album Vector (spelled, in an apparent nod to Soviet Futurism, in Cyrillic on the album’s cover) was released on the renowned German label Mille Plateaux, which has championed the genre of “glitch music" since its release of the first installment in the Clicks & Cuts series in 2000.
The sound palette of Vector will be familiar to aficionados of the genre: piercing high-frequency sine waves, swelling white-noise washes, mechanical clicks and whirs, and sequenced percussive bursts construct a musical mise-en-scene that is both evocative and forbiddingly abstract. To my ears, the album recalls the meticulously controlled sound-world of German composer Carsten Nicolai (AKA Alva Noto) or the somewhat noisier acoustic repertoire of the Finnish noise duo Pan Sonic.
Well polished and at times even borderline formulaic, Vector works within a relatively narrow ambitus of aesthetic effect. Like a laser focused on a single point, it bores into your ears with its unremitting machinic rhythms and brittle digital timbres. In a track such as “Kuril Probe,” the elements come together to create a delicately structured sonic experience that, for all its “post-digital” coldness, attains an almost classical state of equilibrium.
Continuo’s Weblog, long the gold standard of experimental music blogs, has recently announced that it will be closing its doors after five years of activity.
During this time, Continuo unearthed innumerable musical gems that would otherwise have been consigned to oblivion.
Continuo’s project exerted a formative influence on my work and his words of encouragement were a huge inspiration in the early days of Acousmata. His site stands as a monument to his generous and visionary spirit.
Anyone who has ever digitized old LPs and scanned album covers knows how time-consuming and painstaking this work can be. Continuo did it with aplomb, at a pace that never ceased to astonish me, and somehow found the time to write insightful commentary for each post as well.
One of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic exponents of musical minimalism, the Czech composer Petr Kotik has lived in the United States since 1969, when he emigrated at the invitation of Lejaren Hiller. Kotik quickly integrated himself into the American new music scene. Working closely with composers such as Frederic Rzewski and John Cage, he relished the proverbially American spirit of experimentation. “In America, there is a tendency to welcome surprises and unusual ideas with much greater openness to it than in Europe,” he noted. “That could be one of the attributes that separates America from Europe.”
Kotik’s mature style is marked by the polyphonic layering of melodic lines, dissonant yet mellifluous, and characterized by a slow, processional rhythmic pulse. Although clearly influenced by American minimalism, Kotik’s music often has an angular and cerebral tone far removed from the modal sweetness of John Adams or Philip Glass. While those composers were driven by an urge for renewed emotional directness, in Kotik’s hands the stripped-down gestures becomes a vehicle of “dispassionate objectivity,” in the words of Petr Bakla. (In this respect, his work could be compared to that of American composer Tom Johnson.) In addition to composing, Kotik leads the S.E.M. Ensemble, an important contributor to contemporary music whose releases include a one-of-a-kind recording of the complete works of Marcel Duchamp.
The process of chance is an integral part of my method, not something that stands separately. Chance operations I use have a direction and are partially controlled. I then take the result and proceed to work on my own. The way I compose could be called a game. It’s a kind of a dialogue between the results of my method and my reaction to it, intuitively correcting, editing and introducing other elements in a quasi-improvised way. This result can be further processed by the method, which can set off a chain of more intuitive interventions.
Much of Kotik’s music uses modernist prose as its basis, creating striking parallels between tonal and linguistic patterning. His major work in this vein is the six-hour-long Many Many Women (1976-1978), based on Gertrude Stein's book of the same name. The piece also integrates contrapuntal techniques typical of medieval composers such as Perotin and Machaut.
Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, composed shortly thereafter, sets the prose of Buckminster Fuller's magnum opus Synergetics. The oracular proclamations of Fuller’s writing match up perfectly with Kotik’s architectural approach to vocal polyphony. The composer dismisses the notion that music can express or illustrate words, instead arguing that the two are governed by independent forms of structural logic: “For me the text and the music are two different entities.”
Music is expressing itself—music, nothing more and nothing less, just as everything else ultimately expresses itself, whether it is a stone, or a human being or a tree. […] Music invokes a situation that can lead to meditation; a personal, poetic and intellectual meditation. It is a field of sound, which we perceive in a time space. Music is not universal, it is always specific, and the ability to “understand” or navigate in this sound field requires education. A real education, that comes through one’s own initiative.
Beginning in 1969 with the founding of the groundbreaking “concept band” Magma, France and Belgium became the breeding ground for a distinctively continental take on the originally Ango-American phenomenon of progressive rock. Ditching operatic vocals in favor of a primarily instrumental mix and integrating contemporary influences from jazz and metal to contemporary classical, groups such as Univers Zero and Art Zoyd forged a unique sound that is to my ears among the most valuable contributions to the music of the late 20th century.
One of the second-generation manifestations of the Franco-Belgian “avant-prog” movement was Present, a group founded by guitarist Roger Trigaux, in 1979. After contributing to the first two albums of the pioneering chamber rock group Univers Zero, Trigaux broke off in order to pursue a more electrified, guitar-based sound. Present has released 10 albums over three decades of existence and remains active to this day.
The opening track of the band’s sophomore release, Le poison qui rend fou, shows the group in prime form. While the rhythm section hammers out short, syncopated riffs whose sudden juxtaposition recalls the ostinato patterns of early Stravinsky, Trigaux’s guitar and Alain Rochette’s keyboard unfold a melodic polyphony at once jagged and elegant. The track also features a rare vocal element in the first few minutes, with singer Marie-Anne Pollaris belting out an angular atonal melody over a tripping funk groove. While the band’s hectic interplay at times approaches a state of collective noodling, at their best they display the exhilarating potential of rock-influenced music freed from the shackles of conventional song form.
Since the 1970s, the Belgian band Univers Zero has been forging an idiosyncratic synthesis of pseudo-medievalism, dark metal, and 20th- century chamber music. (The band’s homepage bears the motto, “If Stravinsky had a rock band, it would sound like this.”) A vital part of the important and under-appreciated European progressive rock scene, Univers Zero has maintained an unmistakable sound over 35 years of activity and a constantly shifting roster of musicians.
The band’s first albums, 1313 (originally released as Univers Zero in 1977) and Heresie (1979) were anchored by drummer Daniel Denis and guitarist Roger Trigaux. Their distinctive chamber-rock sound emerged with the addition of Michel Berckmans (oboe and bassoon) and keyboardist Emmanuel Nicaise. Univers Zero made a name for itself in the early 1970s by opening for French prog-juggernaut Magma. Later in the decade they toured with another pioneering group, Art Zoyd, and became active in the “Rock in Opposition" (RIO) movement, a cabal of mutually supportive progressive/experimental bands active from 1978.
Trigaux left the group at the end of the decade in order to start his own band, Present. Univers Zero’s three albums from the 1980s, Ceux de dehors (1981), Uzed (1984), and Heatwave (1987), marked a shift to a darker tone and a heavier reliance on electronic instruments. After Heatwave, Denis left Univers Zero to pursue a solo career and join up with Art Zoyd for a number of releases. With his departure, the band was effectively mothballed. After a 12-year hiatus, Denis and Berckmans brought Univers Zero back to life in 1999, releasing three new albums over the next five years. A live album, a set of archival recordings from the mid-1980s, and a new studio album have appeared since then.
Drawn from The Hard Quest, the album that launched the group’s third incarnation, the song “Rouages” (meaning cogs or wheels) evokes parallels with the jagged chamber works of Stravinsky or Bela Bartok, the gothic cadences of Dead Can Dance, and the imagined medieval music of Moondog.
Another piece in the archaeology of computer music comes into focus with the music of the Algerian-born French composer Pierre Barbaud (1911-1990), who was previously featured in a joint post between Acousmata and Continuo’s Weblog. Among the first to make intensive use of the computer as a musical tool, Barbaud pursued the goal of “automatic composition” for three decades, developed a number of early programming languages, and collaborated with like-minded figures in a manner more typical of scientific research than of artistic creation. And yet Barbaud remains a non-entity in stubbornly provincial English-language musicology, meriting not even a token entry in the illustrious Oxford Dictionary of Music, nor in Gerhard Nierhaus’ recent book (to my knowledge the first of its kind) on algorithmic composition.
Barbaud’s early works, written in the 1940s, adopted the dominant international style of neo-classicism and frequently bore ironic titles such as Cinq minutes de mauvaise musique (“Five Minutes of Bad Music”). Beginning in the late 40s, he began composing film music, and that genre became his primary source of income in the following decade. His scores include soundtracks for major French art-film directors such as Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. (He also made appearances as an actor in a number of Resnais’ films, including Hiroshima mon amour and L’Année dernière à Marienbad.) A vigorous autodidact, Barbaud also taught himself advanced mathematics and several foreign languages. Toward the end of the 1950s, he struck upon the idea of employing probability calculus to lighten the labor of composition.
Around 1960, Barbaud founded the Groupe de Musique Algorithmique de Paris (GMAP), joined by Roger Blanchard, Jeannine Charbonnier, and Brian de Martinoir. In the same year the group produced a collective composition called Factorielle 7, which was one of the first computer-generated scores. The piece was built around 5040 (7! = 1x2x3x4x5x6x7 = 5040) combinations of a twelve-tone row, devised using aleatoric techniques.
From 1959, to 1975, Barbaud found an institutional home at the French computer company Honeywell Bull. In exchange for unfettered access to the firm’s powerful mainframes, Barbaud was tasked with promoting the company through conferences and musical events—in essence, the international computer conglomerate took on Barbaud as a composer-in-residence, a uniquely 20th-century form of musical patronage!
In 1975, financial difficulties at Honeywell Bull led Barbaud to seek a new sponsor, which he found at the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA), where he worked in close collaboration with computer scientist Geneviève Klein and electrical engineer Frank Brown. In the spirit of scientific collaboration, the three released a number of works under the collective moniker BBK (Barbaud Brown Klein). Barbaud also corresponded with visual artists such as Vera Molnar and Manfred Mohr, who pursued analogous paths in their work.
Barbaud remained with INRIA until his death in 1990. During this final creative period he produced a number of tape compositions with evocative Latin titles, such as Terra ignota ubi sunt leones (Unknown Land Where There Are Lions, 1975), Vis terribilis sonorum (The Awesome Force of Sound, 1976) and Saturnia Tellus (Saturnian Land, 1980). Sadly, apart from the LP shared by Continuo and the recent release on the French label Terra Ignota, little of Barbaud’s music has seen the light of day.
Barbaud’s compositional and theoretical work centered on the effort to automatically generate musical structures from sets of rules encoded in algorithms and executed by computer programs. He formulated his project of musique algorithmique in a number of highly technical (and, alas, untranslated) books, including Initiation à la composition automatique (1965), Musique, discipline scientifique (1968), and Vademecum de l’ingénieur en musique, which was left unfinished and published posthumously in 1993. In addition to his theoretical works, Barbaud wrote monographs on Arnold Schoenberg and the Viennese classical composer Joseph Haydn.
For Barbaud, algorithmic music embodied the rational spirit of modernity, whose goal was “to submit the appearance of sound events to calculation, to demolish what is conventionally called ‘inspiration,’ to channel chance into charts and graphs—in short, to replace the mystical passivity of the composer in the presence of the ‘muse’ with lucid and premeditated activity.”
But far from being a “divine clockmaker” overseeing a perfect musical machine, Barbaud was a musical gardener, surprised by the unexpected flowerings of his botanical experiments. There is an incongruity that lurks in many algorithmic, mathematical, and formulaic approaches to composition: hyper-rationality of construction is paired with indeterminacy of sonic result. In this, Barbaud’s project resembles the “cybernetic music” of German composer Roland Kayn, whose vast, recursive modular synthesizer patches were meticulously built yet took on an unpredictable and quasi-sentient life of their own. (Indeed, Barbaud originally called his music “cybernetic” before settling on “algorithmic” as a more fitting descriptor.) But unlike Kayn, Barbaud is uninterested in feedback as a generative principle and focuses on tonal and rhythmic relations as opposed to textural metamorphoses. His music is closer in spirit to that of Iannis Xenakis, with whom he maintained a relationship of amicable rivalry.
Composed entirely by algorithm, Barbaud’s 1980 composition Saturnia Tellus gives witness to the composer’s quasi-metaphysical quest for self-creating “infinite music.” (His fascination with musical automatism stems from an unlikely influence: the Viennese composer Josef Matthias Hauer, who developed a mystically tinged and highly idiosyncratic form of 12-tone composition in the first half of the 20th century.) As Pierre Mariétan explains, the work is the result of a process whose outcome is unforeseeable but whose initial state is absolutely determined by the composer. Barbaud sets in motion a musical process which runs its course without intervention. He forbids any ad hoc modifications of the musical output; if it is found aesthetically insufficient, the composer must adjust the “controls” of the generative algorithm and then let it run again.
An example of Barbaud’s code, using the language ALGOM 4
The American electronica group Matmos is anchored by the duo M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, who form the nucleus of a protean musical collective that has enjoyed the collaboration of many illustrious musicians, including Björk, Sun Ra collaborator Marshall Allen, and vintage electronics guru Keith Fullerton Whitman.
Matmos made a name for themselves beginning in the late 1990s with their imaginative and exquisitely musical collages of recorded sounds. Combining rigorous sonic empiricism with a Dada-esque search for the absurd, the group’s self-assembled catalog of samples reads like a Borgesian taxonomy of the bizarre:
Amplified crayfish nerve tissue, the pages of bibles turning, water hitting copper plates, liposuction surgery, cameras and VCRs, chin implant surgery, contact microphones on human hair, rat cages, tanks of helium, a cow uterus, human skulls, snails, cigarettes, cards shuffling, laser eye surgery, whoopee cushions, balloons, latex fetish clothing, rhinestones, Polish trains, insects, life support systems, inflatable blankets, rock salt, solid gold coins, the sound of a frozen stream thawing in the sun, a five gallon bucket of oatmeal.
Having built their reputation on their skillful deployment of “found sounds,” Matmos took a surprising turn with their 2008 album Supreme Balloon, which eschews meticulous sample-work for the lush, rubbery tones of old-school synthesizers and drum machines. (The album comes with the disclaimer “no microphones were used at any point.”) Among the diverse menagerie of instruments heard here are the mysterious “Electronic Voice Instrument” and the one-of-a-kind Coupigny modular synthesizer housed at the studios of INA-GRM in Paris.
The catchy and charming flavor of Supreme Balloon is at times reminiscent of the music of Felix Kubin. But there are plenty of proverbial razor blades in this colorful candy, and more than enough sonic weirdness to avoid alienating devotees of their earlier and more experimental work.
When I hear music like this, I begin to hope that tomorrow or in one or two years this new discovery—perhaps through the mediation of cosmonauts—will become reality, and, in so doing, further influence our daily life…and perhaps then the kingdom of humanity and reason will arrive sooner than hoped for. Art must move ahead of life and indicate the direction which life is to take. Music such as this—as in the case of all modern art—affirms that this is possible even in the 20th century.
—An anonymous 30-year-old Czech, upon hearing an excerpt of Herbert Eimert’s Epitaph fur Aikichi Kuboyama during a study on the perception of electronic music conducted in 1966. Quoted in Vladimir Karbusicky, Empirische Musiksoziologie (Wiesbaden, 1975).
Richard Pinhas, the Sorbonne-educated student of philosophical rock star Gilles Deleuze, is best known as the prime mover behind the pioneering instrumental rock band Heldon, featured previously on Acousmata. Pinhas first began releasing records under the name Schizo in 1972. The first Heldon album appeared in 1974, and Pinhas put out his first solo LP in 1977. These projects are all characterized by powerfully evocative instrumental tracks laden with pulsing sequencers and Fripp-esque guitar filigrees. Though heavily influenced by the German Krautrock phenomenon, Pinhas’ music is more dramatic and developmental, and at times approaches the large-scale formal ambitions of progressive rock. Taken together, Pinhas’ albums from the 1970s and early 1980s represent an ambitious attempt to unite the experimental tendencies of rock and electronic music—the guitar and the synthesizer.
The ensemble Pinhas put together for L’Ethique could be seen as a kind of supergroup of 1970s French avant-rock, featuring three alumni of the legendary “concept band” Magma: Clement Bailly (drums), Patrick Gauthier (synthesizer), and Bernard Paganotti (bass). In “The Western Wall, Part 2,” the group delicately constructs a wall of sound around a single, repeated synthesizer melody, creating a musical mise-en-abyme that summons a mood of epic melancholy.
Take the symphony orchestra, pass it through the sieve of digital recording and signal processing, apply a heavy dose of mind-bending montage effects, and you have an approximation of L’Ivresse de laVitesse by Canadian electroacoustic composer Paul Dolden. In this work, Dolden uses computer audio technology as “a platform from which to launch or capture otherwise impossible musical performances,” creating a “virtual orchestra” through the layering and manipulation of hundreds of individually recorded tracks.
While the work of his peers such as Francis Dhomont and Robert Normandeau belongs clearly to the French musique acousmatique tradition stemming from the mid-century work of Schaeffer and Henry, Dolden’s musical style is harder to pin down. At certain moments one can hear hear a connection to early works of American “tape music” from the 1950s, such as Vladimir Ussachevsky's Fantasy in Space, in which flute recordings are used as the basis for surrealistic, deep-sea soundscapes. Much of Dolden’s music from the 1990s has an undeniable over-the-top sensibility that could be characterized as post-modern maximalism—pieces such as Revenge of the Repressed - Resonance #2 suggest John Zorn or even “plunderphonics” pioneer John Oswald)—while the earlier music represented on this album, Veils (1984-85) builds a gorgeous edifice of electric drones.
About L’Ivresse de la vitesse (Intoxication by Speed), Dolden writes:
The title is an allusion towards my current artistic intentions which involve the speeding up of an excess of musical ideas so that the composition and its materials exhaust themselves in the shortest time possible. The intoxicating aspect of speed is evoked by using primarily fast tempo markings and rapid changes in orchestration, density and dynamics. These elements can be particularly sped up to the point of exhaustion and intoxication in the digital audio studio which is limitless or virtual in its color and density possibilities.
The music of Japanese composer and DJ Susumu Yokota represents a style that not too long ago I would have dismissed out of hand. It could be described as “ambient techno”: beat-oriented electronic music better suited to ambient listening than proper dancing. (Yokota is also an active house DJ and has also released a number of albums in that idiom.)
Having come around a bit not only on techno (witness my ongoing obsession with Charanjit Singh’s sublime Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat), but also on music conceived for background listening (helped in part by Joseph Lanza’s fine book Elevator Music), I now find much to appreciate in this peculiar genre of music. One of the nicest things is how it can happily occupy different positions on the spectrum of auditory attention: you can play it in the background as a pleasant an unobtrusive sonic wallpaper, but you can also listen intently and discover in certain tracks an unexpected wealth of musical detail. This very quality was one of the fundamental criteria of “ambient music" as theorized by its founder, Brian Eno in the late 1970s.
The defining characteristic of this music is the almost unremitting presence of the four-on-the-floor bass drum. On this foundation, the compositional technique typically consists of the layering of loops within a static tonal framework. In “Kinoko” (“Mushrooms”), this template unfolds slowly, beginning with a soundscape of birdsong underlaid with a deep filter-swept bass drone. What sounds like the Godzilla roar gives the scene a decidedly mesozoic air. An eerie ostinato on a synthesized bell-tone enters, followed shortly by a syncopated tom-tom. When the thumping bass drum makes its inevitable appearance several minutes in, the tableau is complete and the music can run its course. The overall sound-image is strikingly evocative, providing the listener with enough substance to feed the imagination, but not so much that the experience is emotionally overdetermined.
The phrase of a French critic writing about Italian opera around 1700 has long stuck with me. Describing its daring (and to French ears, undisciplined) style, he states that the music “owes its greatest beauties to those irregularities which seemed to threaten it with destruction.” This lovely expression often comes back to mind when I hear the music of the German composer Wolfgang Rihm.
Emerging in the mid-1970s, Rihm’s music could be seen as a highly idiosyncratic reaction the dominant midcentury modernism of Stockhausen, Boulez, and company. Though hardly listener-friendly in his own work, Rihm emphatically rejected the restrictions and dogmas that characterized much of the serial and post-serial composition of the postwar decades. (“You can’t make art with taboos,” he quipped.) His search for a more intuitive, direct, and viscerally expressive form of music corresponded to Theodor Adorno’s call for “informal music,” an approach to composition in which the rigors modernism have been absorbed and internalized, allowing the music to attain an organic wholeness without abandoning structural rigor.
Much of Rihm’s music can be heard as a late-20th-century reckoning with the Austro-German romantic tradition, from Beethoven through Brahms and Mahler to the Second Viennese School. This musical heritage surfaces in Rihm’s work in various ways, sometimes quoted directly, more often alluded to or subtly invoked. His openness toward the resonance of musical tradition, however, should not be mistaken with the conciliatory stance of a “neo-romantic”: the historical fragments in Rihm’s music are often disturbingly out of place and unsettling in their effect.
Jadgen und Formen (Hunts and Forms), a 55-minute work for orchestra, bears many of the hallmarks of Rihm’s style, characterized above all by the masterful pacing of textural shifts and a frantic expressive immediacy that leaves the listener gasping for breath. As Seth Brodsky poetically elaborates:
Form in Rihm’s music, the score’s path from first to last measure, acquires the unclassifiable as the contours of a violent spill; shape is dictated by a kind of creative emergency. A Rihm work does not develop; it survives, as if just un-caged, and goes wherever it can in order to keep going.
One could write a history of experimental music through the lens of feedback as an acoustic principle. Perhaps the best known exponents of this technique are David Tudor (particularly in his 1972 composition Untitled) and Toshimaru Nakamura, who in 1997 gave up his guitar in favor of a “no input mixer.” Another prolific and little-known musician to explore the world of feedback is the New York-based musician and visual artist David Lee Myers. Between 1987 and 1993, Myers led the solo project Arcane Device, in which he used custom-built feedback circuits to create unique, otherworldly sonic organisms.
Instead of electroacoustic feedback—think of the microphone picking up the output of its connected loudspeaker—Myers employs what he calls “purely electronic” feedback, in which the signals of effects circuits are doubled back onto themselves in recursive configurations. There is no “original” acoustic source, only the electrical fluctuations bouncing around and redoubling within the system. When amplified, the result is an unpredictable and always changing sonic output that Myers gradually tames, molds, and whittles into musical objects, both through studio recording and live performances.
The outputs of electronic devices - particularly those intended to create a modification of some kind to an audio signal, such as time delays - are fed, via custom-built mixers, to their own inputs. In this way, these devices never receive signals from the ‘outside world’, and instead feed on a diet of their own product. A whole new function of these devices appears, bearing little relation to their intended purposes. The way I envision it, the devices are provided the opportunity to ‘sing their own songs’; the resulting sounds represent nothing other than the free circulation of electrons within. In effect, these sounds come from nothing, and more than one observer has proclaimed them to arise ‘from the ether’.
Myers views feedback and self-oscillation as means of unleashing the latent acoustic energy of the universe: he does not compose music so much as create the ecosystem in which it can arise. He seeks the liminal zone between nature and humanity, where music is neither “random science” nor the “gesture of an artist’s hand.” Since 2000, Myers has pursued these ideas into the optical domain as well, exploring the visual expressions of electrical feedback through the digital processing of patterns generated by an oscilloscope.
Yma Sumac was the adopted name of the Peruvian soprano Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo (1922-2008). Even more sensational than her pedigree—she claimed to descend from Atahualpa, the last Incan emperor—was Sumac’s vocal range, which spanned over four octaves, from a husky baritone in the lower register to a keening coloratura in the upper reaches.
Though she was hugely successful at the height of her career and hailed as one of the most remarkable voices of the 20th century, Sumac is relatively unknown in comparison to famous divas such as Maria Callas. The reason for this neglect? Sumac lent her voice not to the mausoleum music of the European operatic tradition, but to the kitschy, novel, and wildly popular genre of exotica.
Sumac and her husband Moisés Vivanco came to the United States from Peru in 1946, and her first U.S. album was released in 1950, just ahead of the exotica wave that would soon sweep the country. This debut record, The Voice of the Xtabay, was conducted by Les Baxter, who would go on to record some of the genre’s landmark albums. Most of Sumac’s music, however, was composed by Vivanco, whom the liner notes for a 1996 re-release of The Voice of the Xtabay refer to as “an authority on ancient music, especially that of Peru.” This may be true, but the further claim that he “based his compositions and their arrangements on authentic Incan melodies and rhythms” seems unlikely, to be polite. The music of Sumac and Vivanco is thus an interesting example of what could be called auto-exoticism—that is, music produced by members of a culture which reproduces the expected stereotypes and adds the claim of primal, irrefutable authenticity.
Sumac’s most adventurous tracks, such as this one from her 1953 album Inca Taqui (Chants of the Incas), demonstrate the remarkable convergence between the more outré manifestations of popular music and simultaneous developments in the avant-garde: some of the vocal techniques here could be taken from the contemporaneous compositions of Berio or Stockhausen. “Chuncho” purports to mimic the rainforest menagerie of monkeys, jackals, and various birds. “The creatures of the forest taught me how to sing,” she told an interviewer in 1989.
Keith Fullerton Whitman is a one-man army of electronic music. I first knew of him as the proprietor of Mimaroglu Music Sales, a premiere source for rare and hard-to-find albums within a broad experimental/electronic spectrum. Later, I learned that Whitman was also the main figure behind Creel Pone, a mysterious label devoted to releasing small print runs of CD re-releases of ultra-rare LPs, presented as “Unheralded Classics of Electronic Music - 1952-1984.”
Beyond this staggering curatorial work, Whitman somehow finds time to make his own music, as well. His earliest records, released under the moniker Hrvatski, trafficked in an EDM-inspired sound with heavy doses of sonic weirdness. Later work under his own name explored a more free-form approach to electronic composition that nonetheless betrayed Whitman’s intimate familiarity with the deep history of the genre.
I was fortunate to hear Whitman’s recent performance at the Sonic Acts festival in Amsterdam, where he unleashed a brutal, 10-minute fusillade of raw analog noise in swirling quadrophony. The tone of the music on Generator is for the most part much more reserved, dominated by gently churning sequencers, pure electronic waveforms, and a cumulative, layering approach to compositional form. In its directness, whimsy, and sheer joy in the phenomena of sound, Whitman’s Generator recaptures the experimental spirit animating the best of the electronic music tradition.
Electric Music of the Spheres: The Forgotten Futurism of Jörg Mager
“Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” –Walter Benjamin
The history of electronic music—whatever that term may mean—is characterized by a deeply rooted teleological bias. Past events are understood in terms of a more or less explicit evolutionary drive toward some inevitable terminus of technological development. Most often, this endpoint is represented by the digital computer, of which all earlier manifestations are seen as groping, imperfect approximations. But the last 20 or so years have provided ample evidence of the enduring relevance of ostensibly outdated musical devices: take, for example, the return of vinyl records as a listening medium, the resurgent interest in analog synthesizers, and the fascination with circuit bending as a means of breathing new life into outdated consumer electronics. In the face of this apparently “post-historical” phase of modern music technology, the conventional narrative loses its explanatory force.
We are in need of new models. Instead of seeing the past simply as a means of explaining the present, we need to view history as a reservoir of possibility whose significance depends on its rapport with our imaginative sense of futurity. The discovery of technological paths untread can both point up the contingency of the technological process and provide imaginative seeds for new avenues of development. Understood this way, the purpose of history is, in the words of Siegfried Zielinski, “to dig out secret paths in history which might help us to find our way into the future.”
One of the most remarkable “secret paths” in 20th-century music was that of the German musician and instrument builder Jörg Mager. Amid the turmoil of the Weimar Republic, Mager rose to prominence as a visionary inventor and a prophet of modern music. For a brief moment, he was among the most visible and controversial figures in European musical culture. Mager’s sudden decline and eventual disappearance mirrored the grim fate of Weimar modernism after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.
Born in the small Black Forest town of Aschaffenburg in 1880, Mager entered into a family that prepared him well for his eventual destiny: his father was a clockmaker and his mother sang in the church choir. His education was modest, and he was musically self-taught, as his family couldn’t afford to send him to conservatory. After reaching adulthood, he settled into a career as a schoolteacher and amateur organist.
Mager’s baptism into musical experimentation came by happenstance. According to his own account, during a summer heat wave in 1911, the organ he played at church went badly out of tune. Enchanted by the instrument’s strange sonorities, Mager began investigating the history and theory of microtonal music. He soon commissioned the construction of a harmonium tuned in quarter-tones, and in 1915 he self-published the fruits of his research in a little pamphlet entitled Vierteltonmusik (Quarter-tone Music).
In 1918, Mager fled Munich after participating in the failed Communist revolution in Bavaria. He made his way to Berlin, where he joined up with a cadre of microtonalist composers who had gathered in the Prussian capital to study under Ferruccio Busoni. This cosmopolitan group included the Germans Mager and Richard Stein, the Czech Alois Hába, and the Russian Ivan Wischnegradsky. These composers were united in the search for instruments capable of playing microtonal intervals. While the others pursued specially constructed variants of traditional instruments, Mager hit upon the idea of creating a new kind of instrument based on the technological resources of the emerging radio industry. In the early 1920s, while working in a factory assembling radio components, Mager cobbled together his first electric instrument. It consisted of a simple hand-crank that could be rotated about a semi-circular metal plate. An electrically generated tone varied continuously in pitch as the handle was moved. Mager called this invention the “Spherophone,” inspired by the Pythagorean legend of the perfect music of the spheres.
In his 1924 manifesto A New Epoch of Music through Radio, Mager proclaimed his vision of a musical revolution made possible by electric instruments. “Radio” for Mager did not mean a medium for broadcasting pre-existent music, but rather the technological basis for a radical new form of musical production:
The music of the future will be attained by radio instruments! Of course, not with radio transmission, but rather direct generation of musical tones by means of cathode instruments! […] Indeed, the cathode-music will be far superior to previous music, in that it can generate a much finer, more highly developed, richly colored music than all our known musical instruments!
After years of development, Mager’s instrument was finally unveiled at the 1926 summer music festival in the Black Forest town of Donaueschingen. This event was a stunning showcase of experimental musical technologies of the time: Mager’s invention vied for attention with the eponymous instrument of the Russian inventor Leon Theremin, as well as an array of original compositions for player piano and mechanical organ.
Although it was overshadowed at the time, Mager’s instrument quickly gained notoriety throughout Germany. Several major composers, including Paul Hindemith, enthusiastically endorsed Mager’s efforts, and in 1929 the Society for Electroacoustic Music was founded in Darmstadt to support his research. He was given a luxurious Rococo manor to use as his musical laboratory and provided with skilled technicians to work under his guidance.
Mager’s instrument had by this time taken on a different form. He had abandoned the crank mechanism in favor of a conventional musical keyboard connected to an ingenious device he called the “musical pantograph.” This functioned by adjusting the capacitance of the sound-generating circuit so as to alter the musical intervals between the keys. The acoustic “length” of the keyboard octave could be made as small as a major second, so that each successive step represented an interval of a 12th tone.
By the late 1920s, however, Mager’s focus had shifted from pitch to timbre. As early as his 1924 manifesto, he had alluded to the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie(tone-color melody), coined by Arnold Schoenberg in his Treatise on Harmony. The notion of composing not with pitches but rather with artistically coordinated successions of timbre, which Schoenberg had imagined in the realm of orchestral music, was transposed by Mager to the virtually unlimited domain of elektrische Klangerzeugung (electric tone-generation). The fluid, malleable tone of electric instruments would enable not only the modeling and manipulation of all existing timbres, but also the exploration of a hitherto unknown world of synthetic sounds. Mager declared, “Whoever has occupied himself even a little with electric sounds will be forced to the conclusion: there are yet things in music of which our book-learning cannot dream.”
Ever the empiricist, Mager used a variety of techniques to explore new timbres, including chains of electrical circuits (what we would now call high-pass and low-pass filters) and unconventional speaker membranes. To mark this shift, Mager called the new incarnation of his instrument the Partiturophon, from Partitur, the German word for a musical score. Just as a score represented the varied timbres of the orchestra, Mager’s instrument brought numerous electrically generated timbres under the control of a single apparatus.
By the early 1930s, Mager was at the peak of his fame, hailed throughout Germany as an inventor of genius. In 1931, he was commissioned to provide the sound of the legendary “Grail bells” for a production of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. The next year, he produced sound effects for a staging of Goethe’s Faust in celebration of the centennial of the poet’s death. Mager’s account of his music describes a variety of surrealistic musical gestures: “In the prologue the sun intones with an ethereal, oscillating vibrato. The growling of the poodle is accompanied by microtones. For Walpurgis Night there is ghostly, demonic, eccentric music. The howling of the long-tailed monkey is effected by powerfully vibrating metal membranes.”
Just as he was enjoying these great successes, however, Mager’s fortunes began to turn. In 1930, a new electric instrument emerged: the Trautonium, invented by Friedrich Trautwein. Unlike Mager, Trautwein was a professional ly trained engineer, and the Trautonium quickly captured the imagination of the musical press and stole the spotlight from Mager. Paul Hindemith, who earlier had spoken favorably of Mager’s undertakings and expressed interest in composing for the Spherophone, now lent his considerable prestige to Trautwein’s fledgling instruments.
At the same time, Mager’s prickly manner and paranoid suspicions had begun to alienate his supporters and drive away many of his collaborators. In 1932, chafing at the pressure to complete a market-ready version of the Partiturophone, Mager allowed his contract with the Society for Electroacoustic Music lapse. In spite of further public appearances and published articles, Mager’s career soon began a precipitous decline. Efforts to ingratiate himself to the Nazi regime came to naught, and by mid-decade Mager led a virtually nomadic existence, bitter and impoverished. He died in 1939, and all of his instruments were destroyed in the conflagration of the Second World War.
Inevitably, the question arises, “How did these instruments sound?” Presumably, the tone of Mager’s instruments resembled that of contemporaneous instruments such as the Theremin, Trautonium, and Ondes Martenot. The music composed for all these instruments was often strikingly conventional, and Mager’s is no exception: in spite of his bold futuristic proclamations, his only notated composition for the Spherophone is a quaint “Little Christmas Lullabye” written in 1933. But Mager also spoke evocatively of “indirect” or “eccentric” music composed of noises and “extra-musical” sounds, and even advocated Seismophonie, or the amplification of sounds from beneath the earth’s crust, an interest that points toward later practices in experimental field recording. Ultimately, Mager’s primary form of musical production was the public demonstration of his instruments, a practice in which we may descry a precursor of the “live electronics” to emerge in the second half of the 20th century.
One account of such a performance provides a glimpe into the period’s tendency to hear electric sound in terms of metaphysical transcendence—a habit not unique to the early 20th century:
Mager plays for us a short, improvised piece, a truly intoxicating bacchanal of strangely mixed magical sounds, which gave one the impression that the door to another world had been thrown wide open. One doubts no longer the unique and unprecedented meaning of his work. The console, from which the closing of electrical contacts calls forth entire series of unexpected scales, entire floods of astounding harmony as if summoned from nothing, controls the gushing limitlessness of the sounding world. Mager stands on the threshold of something final and absolute, for no vibration, wisp of tone-color, no slightest trace of existing sound could resist the will of this magical organism. Everything must become sound, everything is subjected to the fate of tonal birth, and must emerge into reality: from this console, the spheres are orchestrated.
Mager’s influence in the years after World War II was virtually nonexistent in his native Germany, where pioneers of elektronische Musik such as Herbert Eimert and Karlheinz Stockhausen sought a form of composition entirely free of the “touch” of the performing musician. Ironically, it was in France that Mager’s work found a receptive audience: Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète, frequently cited his influence, and Schaeffer’s colleague Abraham Moles honored the German as the “true founder of electronic music.” When the first histories of electronic music began to be written in the late 1960s, however, Mager was generally nowhere to be found—a negligence that continues more or less uninterrupted into the present. His importance for the genre—let alone the history of instruments—is to be found less in his direct influence than in his visionary quest for the transfiguration of music through modern technology.
The fragmentary and fascinating global history of early industrial music becomes richer with every rediscovery of once-forgotten pieces of the puzzle. One recent find for me is the seminal Australian act Severed Heads. Founded in Sydney in 1979, the group existed in various forms until its ultimate dissolution in 2008. Like many other acts of the period, Severed Heads skirted the fluctuating boundaries between industrial, experimental, and electronic dance music. Earlier records exploited tape loops and gritty, distorted synthesizer textures, while later releases took on the polished, sequencer-driven sound of 80s electro-pop.
"Adolf a Karrot," a noisy, bouncy, and strangely upbeat little anthem, originally appeared on Blubberknife, the group’s third album, which was issued on cassette tape in 1982. The track was re-released on the 2008 compilation Adenoids 1977-1985, which collects Severed Heads’ early recordings on a 5-LP set.
Gagaku is an ancient form of court music from Japan. It is thought to be the oldest continually performed ensemble music in the world. Used in religious ceremonies or to accompany performances of dance or Noh theater, the music is characterized by the unfolding of stately pentatonic melodies played by wind instruments (and, in this example, doubled by vocalists). The shō or mouth organ provides a distinctive harmonic wash, while the meter is marked by plucked strings and a shakubyoshi (clapper) played by the lead singer.
Saibara is a genre of folk song arranged for the gagaku ensemble. The genre stems from the Heian period (roughly the 9th to 12th centuries A.D.) but its roots lie in yet earlier traditions. It is not to be confused with saibari, a genre of Shinto music intended for the entertainment of the gods.
The incandescent, beam-like sonorities of the gagaku ensemble and the drastically slow pace of the music combine to create an effect of imposing—even terrifying—gravity. Many 20th-century composers have been inspired to write their own interpretations of gagaku music, including Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Olivier Messiaen, and Pierre Barbaud.
"Listening to gagaku is a history lesson in sound…. It is one of the clearest adumbrations left of the grandeur and artistic taste of the court of ancient Japan." (William Malm, Japanese Music, p. 104)