American composer and installation artist Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) speaking at Ars Electronica 1989 in Linz, Austria
February 24, 2013, 3:34am
I just bought this book, and it’s at the top of my post-dissertation reading list!
The cover of the first English translation of A la Recherche d’une Musique Concrète (1952), published by University of California Press, Berkeley, November 2012. The book is in the form of a sound diary written between 1948 and 1952. Excerpt:
March 1948: Back in Paris I have started to collect objects. I have a “Symphony of noises” in mind; after all, there has been a symphony of psalms. I go to the sound effects department of the French radio service. I find clappers, coconut shells, klaxons, bicycle horns. I imagine a scale of bicycle horns. There are gongs and birdcalls. It is charming that an administrative system should be concerned with birdcalls and should regularize their acquisition on an official form, duly recorded.
I take away doorbells, a set of bells, an alarm clock, two rattles, two childishly painted whirligigs. The clerk causes some difficulties. Usually, he is asked for a particular item. There are no sound effects without a text in parallel, are there? But what about the person who wants noise without text or context?
February 17, 2013, 2:24pm
Acousmata will be on near-total hiatus for the next two months or so as I focus my attention on finishing my dissertation.
Stay tuned for exciting news about my upcoming projects, including a new vision for this blog.
Thanks for your support!
February 05, 2013, 2:48pm
From the album Benzaiten (1974)
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.
February 01, 2013, 2:58pm
January 21, 2013, 3:42pm
From the album Voyager (1993)
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.
January 17, 2013, 4:26pm
From the album Palace of Marvels (2010)
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.
If you dig Schmickler’s music, you should also check out the excellent annotated playlist he recently curated for RadioWeb MACBA entitled "Ontology of Vibration: Economics, Music, and Number."
January 10, 2013, 8:31pm
From the album Tragoedia (1969)
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. (The idea of Rochberg as a modernist beacon is somewhat ironic in light of his later notoriety as a poster boy for the neo-Romantic revival of the 1970s.) 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.
December 28, 2012, 6:52pm
From the album A Very Merry Electric Chrismas to You! (1971)
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.
December 20, 2012, 5:10pm
La Tonotechnie ou l’Art de noter les cylindres (Marie Dominique-Joseph Engramelle, 1775)
December 10, 2012, 6:00am
From the album Autonomous and Dynamical Systems
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.)
Image from Dunn and Crutchfield’s Theater of Pattern Formation
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.
December 02, 2012, 9:33pm
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.”
November 29, 2012, 3:33pm
From the album Vector (2010)
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.
November 18, 2012, 12:34pm
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.
Continuo will carry on his explorations, sans musique, at Continuo’s Documents.
November 16, 2012, 11:00am