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Chorale 1 (1999)
Maryanne Amacher

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.

Source: Sound Characters: Making the Third Ear


Played 555 time(s).

July 11, 2013, 4:11pm

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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.”


Source: Disparate Stairway Radical Other

Played 249 time(s).

June 21, 2013, 1:57pm

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"Hydro Theory"

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.

Source: The Journey Home (1995)

Played 1,197 time(s).

June 12, 2013, 11:04pm

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Miles Davis to jazz critics: “Fuck y’all”


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.

May 23, 2013, 12:41pm

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Franco Donatoni: Algo IV (1996)

From the album Chamber Music

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.

Played 257 time(s).

May 08, 2013, 2:19pm

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David Dunn: Excerpt from Gradients (1999)

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 categoriessite-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.

Played 269 time(s).

December 02, 2012, 9:33pm

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Paul Dolden: L’Ivresse de la Vitesse

From the album L’Ivresse de la Vitesse (1994) 

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 la Vitesse  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.

Played 209 time(s).

September 07, 2012, 9:23pm

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Susumu Yokota: “Kinoko”

From the album Acid Mt. Fuji (1994)

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. 

Played 629 time(s).

August 30, 2012, 9:55pm

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Wolfgang Rihm: Excerpt from Jagden und Formen (1996-2001)

From the album Jagden und Formen (Ensemble Modern, conducted by Dominique My)

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.

Played 329 time(s).

August 26, 2012, 9:13pm

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Godfried-Willem Raes: “Fuga Otto Nove” (1991)

From the album Logos Works

The Belgian composer and polyartist Godfried-Willem Raes (born 1952 in Ghent) is a self-styled muziekmaker (music-maker) whose work spans many different media and creative approaches, including self-built instruments and software, automata, compositional algorithms, and sound installations. Among Raes’ more ambitious innovations is holosound, an “invisible instrument” that translates the motions of a performer into sound via a computer-driven interface. (The idea of controlling sound through bodily movement has a precursor in the remarkable Terpsitone of Leon Theremin, invented in 1932.) 

In 1968, Raes founded the Logos Foundation, a new music organization built around the performances of the Logos Duo, consisting of Raes and his wife and fellow composer Moniek Darge. Raes later designed the Logos Tetrahedron, unique performance space in the Ghent city center. In addition to hosting Raes and Darge’s music, the space is used as a forum for a diverse array of avant-garde, experimental, and world music performances, from Japanese butoh to amplified plants. (Recently, Logos Foundation’s funding from the Flemish government has come under attack. Please sign this online petition to urge the continued support of this vital musical institution.)

"Fuga Otto Nove" is an extract from Raes’ Fugue Books, a collection of compositions created using custom-built software to implement rules of contrapuntal interaction between voices in a polyphonic texture. The goal was to devise a set of compositional rules that would elaborate a polyphonic web purely on the basis of the initial melody, known as the “subject” or dux. On the basis of the software’s analysis of the subject, it offers the composer a number of choices, guiding but not fully determining the process of musical creation. 

Intended as an object of “abstract music” in the tradition of J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, Raes’ Fugue Books leave open such details as instrumentation, tempo, and dynamics. The resulting music is at once rigorous and playful, and offers a distinctive contribution to one of the most storied genres of European classical music.

Played 191 time(s).

June 18, 2012, 1:47pm

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The Hub: “Waxlips I” (1991)

From the album Boundary Layer 

This Thursday at Vox Populi in Philly, computer music pioneers Mark Trayle and John Bischoff will be playing in a concert organized by my comrades at Philadelphia Sound Forum. Trayle and Bischoff are both alums of the network music collective The Hub, which in turn spun off from the seminal “micro-computer network band” the League of Automatic Music Composers.

The name “The Hub” was first used in connection with a performance by Bischoff and Perkis in San Francisco in 1985. The group appeared in its six-person form for the first time in a pair of concerts curated by Nicolas Collins in New York in the fall of that year. Breaking up into two sets of three, The Hub performed simultaneously at two separate Manhattan venues, connected via modem. (Kyle Gann dubbed this phenomenon, perhaps the first of its kind, “musica telephonica.”) Ultimately, however, the group opted for “in the flesh” performances, which allowed them to better respond to the unfolding algorithmic structure of the music.

This sephirot-like diagram shows one of the group’s MIDI configurations

In The Hub’s first incarnation, the members’ computers were wired together via a central memory unit they called “the Blob.” Around 1990, they adopted a MIDI interface, which allowed each player to communicate to any other directly, rather than through a common data pool. Later in the decade The Hub would abandon MIDI-connected homemade synthesizers for computer audio languages such as Max, and in the mid-90s they revisited the possibility of simultaneous music-making over the internet.

Waxlips, conceived by Tim Perkis in 1991, provides a great example of the group’s approach to computer-augmented improvisation:

The rule is simple: each player sends and receives requests to play one note. Upon receiving the request, each should play the note requested, and then transform the note message in some fixed way to a different message, and send it out to someone else. The transformation can follow any rule the player wants, with the one limitation that within anyone section of the piece, the same rule must be followed (so that any particular message in will always cause the same new message out). One lead player sends signals indicating new sections in the piece (where players change their transformation rules) and jump-starts the process by spraying the network with a burst of requests. The network action had an unexpected living and liquid behavior: the number of possible interactions is astronomical in scale, and the evolution of the network is always different, sometimes terminating in complex (chaotic) states including near repetitions, sometimes ending in simple loops, repeated notes, or just dying out altogether.

Played 129 time(s).

September 19, 2011, 10:38am

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Roger Winfield: “Windsong 2”

From the album Windsongs: The Sound of Aeolian Harps (1991)

Although the underlying acoustic principle is an ancient one, the first detailed description of a human-built Aeolian harp (also known as the wind harp) comes from the 1650 compendium Musurgia Universalis of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. The instrument, which appears under the heading “Machinamentum X,” is featured in a series of fantastic devices for making music without human intervention.

Kircher often gets credit for introducing the wind harp into European letters, but the instrument was mentioned briefly in the Magia Naturalis of the Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta, published in 1588. As R. Murray Schafer points out, the instrument turns up in various forms in many different world cultures, including a miniature version built into a kite, well-known in China and Java.

The Aeolian harp gained new life in the late 18th and early 19th century, when it was hailed by Romantic poets as the transcendent spirit of nature made audible. Coleridge, Keats, and Wordsworth, Goethe and Schiller, and later Emerson and Thoreau all devoted lines to the instrument, which provided for sensitive souls of the time a kind of meandering, ambient music avant la lettre.

A sketch of the instrument from Kircher’s book Phonurgia Nova of 1673

Attentive listeners noticed that the sounds elicited by the wind harp were often strangely dissonant and bore no apparent relationship to the fundamental pitches of the instrument’s strings. These unexpected frequencies confounded acousticians, who concocted a number of theories to explain how such sounds arose from the interaction between the wind and the string.

Only in the late 19th century was a satisfactory explanation attained: the wind passing over the string creates tiny eddies or vortices around the string.  At a sufficient velocity these eddies break off and produce a tone, which may elicit a sympathetic tone in the strings if it corresponds to one of the string’s harmonic frequencies. These “friction tones” were a new acoustic discovery and accounted for the unique sound quality of the Aeolian harp.

This modern example of the sound of an Aeolian Harp is from the 1991 album Windsongs by British musician Roger Winfield, who recorded a variety of harps using magnetic pickups (similar to those found on electric guitars) to amplify the otherwise delicate tones of the harp into something rather more powerful. The recordings were edited after the fact to create musical contrasts, but underwent no substantial processing or effects.

(For more information: The Alsatian composer Georges Kastner wrote a massive study of the instrument in 1856 entitled La Harpe d’Éole: Sur les Rapports des Phénomènes Sonores de la Nature avec la Science et l’Art. The book has unfortunately not been translated. An excellent recent history of the Aeolian harp can be found in the book Instruments and the Imagination by Thomas Hankins and Robert Silverman.)

Played 140 time(s).

September 02, 2011, 7:41pm

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Yasunao Tone: Excerpt from “Solar Eclipse in October”

From the album Musica Iconologos (1993)

Japanese polyartist Yasunao Tone is an alumnus of many major experimental art movements of the 1960s and 70s, including the seminal free improvisation outfit Group Ongaku, the international neo-Dada collective Fluxus, and the Japanese computer art pioneers known as Team Random.

Tone’s most characteristic music involves experimentation with the generative musical potential of digital recording technologies and the process of transduction between different forms of information. In the mid-1980s he began exploring the unexpected sound potential of compact discs, taking advantage of the error correction mechanism triggered by misreadings of the ones and zeros in which sound is digitally encoded. By applying scotch tape with tiny pinholes to the bottom of the CD, Tone scrambled the player’s storage retrieval logic and coaxed a sputtering, crystalline music from the disc’s binary data.


A similar concept underlies Musica Iconologos, a 1993 work commissioned by Thomas Buckner of Lovely Music. Taking as his source material two poems from the Shih Ching, the oldest extant collection of Chinese poetry, Tone digitized the images of the poem’s characters and generated histograms from the resulting visual data. These histograms, in turn, were converted into sound via computer software controlled by Tone’s technical assistants at the Electronic Music Studio of McGill University in Montreal. Each of the 187 characters in the poems was turned into a tiny burst of sound merely 20 milliseconds long. These bursts were then elongated and woven together according the verbal logic of the poems to create the music that you hear.

Tone’s experiment resonates with a deep techno-naturalist fascination with the dream of using musical devices to unlock the latent sonic forces inhabiting the world around us. The result is a harsh but beautiful music, an alien language opaque in meaning yet governed by some uncanny syntax. Refracted through the transfiguring lens of computer technology, there glimmers the faint but unmistakable trace of movement, intelligence, life.

Played 119 time(s).

July 12, 2011, 7:04pm

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William Sethares: “Ten Fingers”

From the album Xentonality (1998)

William Sethares is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His musical research centers on the possibilities and problems offered by microtonality or xenharmony, that is, partitions of the pitch continuum other than the conventional 12-tone equal temperament that has dominated Western music for over a century.

In particular, Sethares has investigated the relationship between timbre and tuning system.  He argues (and demonstrates with audio examples) that our conventional sense of consonance and dissonance of musical intervals is based on our hearing them played by instruments with harmonic spectra, that is, instruments whose overtones are related to the fundamental as whole number multiples (2f, 3f, 4f, etc.).  12-tone equal temperament (or 12-tet, to use the lingo) is a system of tuning that approximates the intervals inherent in sounds with harmonic spectra, such as those created by most string instruments and open pipes.  But the harmonic spectrum is not as universal as we are typically taught: sound sources such as bells and metal bars, while possessing determinate pitch, have overtones in nonharmonic proportion to the fundamental (for example, 1.6f, 2.9f, etc.).  

Sethares shows that one can construct custom scales based on the timbral properties of any given sound, such that the dissonance (measured in terms of beating between frequencies in close proximity) is minimized or controlled.  One can also reverse the process, starting with a tuning system (for example, one of Sethares’ favorites, 10-tet), and determining the overtone structure needed for instruments to play within this tuning with the minimum of dissonance. Thus unusual tunings that might sound grating with harmonic timbres are made strangely consonant—but still distinct and different from 12-tet with harmonic timbres.

This example, whose full title is “If God Had Intended Us to Play in Ten Tones Per Octave, Then He Would Have Given Us Ten Fingers,” is composed for an artificial guitar-like timbre specially constructed to play in 10-tone equal temperament.  It is from his 1998 album Xentonality, and also found on the CD included with his book Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale.  His 2002 release, Exomusicology, uses his ideas on the relationship between timbre and tuning to explore “the music and culture of fictitious creatures and nonexistent alien species.”

One of Sethares’ imaginary musical instruments: the “Trident,” a marimba that plays in 7-tone equal temperament 

Played 70 time(s).

February 15, 2011, 1:07pm

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Iancu Dumitrescu: Monades (Gamma) for 6 monochords, crystals, and metallic objects

From the album Edition Modern 1002 (1991)

As a young composer in Romania in the 1960s, Iancu Dumitrescu heard the distant siren-call of the European avant-garde: “The music of Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Messiaen, Berio, circulated clandestinely, being prohibited, from one hand to another, by copies of tapes which had become almost unlistenable. But imagination continues to hear what, in fact, did not exist any more. The spirit of modernism, of new worlds being beyond these deformed sounds, raucous, grating…”

In the 1970s, Dumitrescu studied with the the brilliant and eccentric conductor Sergiu Celibidache, whose metaphysically-tinged musical philosophy, fed by such diverse intellectual sources as phenomenology and Zen Buddhism, had a powerful influence on the young composer.  Dumitrescu would later refer to Celibidache as his “spiritual father.”


Dumitrescu’s mature compositional work has been tightly organized around two institutions: the Hyperion Ensemble, which he founded in 1976 with his wife, the composer Ana-Maria Avram, and the record label Edition Modern, started in 1990, on which many of Dumitrecu’s and Avram’s recordings have been released.

While his music can be broadly grouped with the spectralist movement, Dumitrescu distances his work from that of the French spectralists (Grisey, Murail, Dufourt). He views his music as an attempt, through modern techniques, to reanimate the primal Orphic power of music:

My approach implies many ancestral, primitive sources. All that is archaic, elementary, magic, today finds the value of an acute modernism… What remains [beyond logic] is the field of the mystic. I believe that music has an enormous proportion of this mysterious remainder. It would not have any value if it were different. Its value lies only in the fact of bringing to consciousness something not otherwise able to be thought. It brings nuances to us, modulations of thought which do not have an equivalent.

Played 79 time(s).

February 09, 2011, 11:25am

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