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Pierre Barbaud: French Gagaku (excerpt, 1968)

From the album Pierre Barbaud / Akira Tamba

Note: This is part of a collaborative post in conjunction with Continuo’s Weblog. The rare LP from which this track is taken is available there along with a biographical overview of the composer.

Barbaud album cover

In 1948 (the same year as the first broadcasts of musique concrète in Paris) Nobert Wiener published his groundbreaking book Cybernetics.  Released in a new edition entitled The Human Use of Human Beings in 1950, Wiener’s book launched a new intellectual discipline.  Cybernetics (from the Greek word for steering or piloting) was concerned primarily with the analogy between machines and organisms.  Wiener argued that machines could be made to learn through the implementation of feedback, whereby the results of previous actions were channeled into the system in order to guide future actions.  Needless to say, this idea was crucial for the formation of early computing and theories of artificial intelligence.

But what does this have to do with music?  The idea of machines for composing is not a new one.  Already by the 17th and 18th centuries, composers had begun thinking of a piece music as a system of units which could be manipulated according to mathematical formulas.  Around 1650, the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher invented the Arca musurgica, a box filled with cards containing short phrases of music.  By drawing the cards in combination, one could assemble a polyphonic composition in four parts, composed in perfect accordance with the stylistic constraints of the time.

Athanasius Kircher's Arca Musurgica

Another example of this kind of automatic composition is found in the musical dice-games which flourished in the late 18th century.  But in both of these cases, the unit of musical construction is the phrase as opposed to the individual note or sound.  And the object here seems to be the automated composition within a given period style, rather than the exploration of new formal possibilities.

The next step in this process was the reconception of sound as information, which was made possible by 20th-century recording technologies, and specifically magnetic tape, which on account of its ease of editing became the primary recording medium around mid-century.  An important conceptual stride toward the implementation of cybernetic or “systems” thinking in music was taken by Iannis Xenakis, who wrote an essay in 1955 entitled “The Crisis in Serial Composition,” in which he argued that contemporary music, although written note-by-note, was creating musical structures that were heard statistically, as cloud-like agglomerations of sound, rather than the points and lines of traditional contrapuntal organization.  (Indeed, in his 1980 book Vademecum de l’ingénieur en musique, Pierre Barbaud credits Xenakis with “the liberation of music from its dodecaphonic pillory.”)  By the late 1950s a number of composers, including Barbaud, Xenakis, Lejaren Hiller, Herbert Brün, and Roland Kayn, had begun to pursue what they called algorithmic or cybernetic music.

French Gagaku is a fascinating example of “motion within stasis” for thirty string instruments playing in quarter tones.  It was composed with the aid of the TONITA (Tonal Integrator Tabulator) and ANITA (Analytical Integrator Tabulator) programs of the Honeywell-Bull company.  In the words of Michael Philippot, this music “is not the result of the symbiosis man/machine but the product of human imagination reinforced by a precision and a sense of humility which only the machine can bestow.”  The intriguing association with the ancient Japanese court music known as gagaku seems to be based on an affinity with the austere indifference of that music.

Played 79 time(s).

February 04, 2010, 7:59pm

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