Friday, September 12, 2008

Electronic without Electricity

My teachers include composers who are well-known for their pioneering work in electronic music, but despite a few student etudes and some more recent sound installations, almost all of my own work has been for acoustical instrumental resources. But — and this is also true for many of my colleagues — the experience of electronic music, through the classical tape and analog synthesis studios of my high school and universities, has been essential to all of my music.

Among the concrete effects of electronics: (1) Amplification. The microphone made it possible to focus more closely on the detailed contents and development of a sound over time, and was essential to a more acute analysis of sounds. Amplification also made it possible to physically disassociate the source of a sound from its signal, both in space and in time. (2) Precision. Essential aspects of musical style are revealed by the ability to perform or measure performances more accurately. Inventions, not only electronic, like the metronome, the piano roll, and the sequencer (with lots of interesting technologies along the way, from the pendulum to the Rhythmicon) have revealed stylistic conventions (i.e. rubato, swing) and complex rhythms, metres and tempi relationships to be ever more interesting phenomena and to suggest intriguing new possibilities. Likewise, electronic pitch analysis is having profound effects in the domain of musical intonation, in terms of both performance and perception. Through sound recording and sequencing, repetition has acquired qualities sometime profoundly alien to music dependent upon live performers. (3) Continuity. Both the basic states of an electric circuit — on and off — and the possibilities offered by magnetic tape editing (with all the possibilities of splicing, in all lengths, shapes, and orientations (a body of technique derived from film editing, which itself derived many techniques — cuts, fades, etc. — from ballet and opera, in one of those sweet loops of influence)) have fundamentally changed our experience of music as a temporal form. And (4) Channeling. A continuum of possible polyphonies have been opened up and artful mixing allows one to combine and to segregate individual signals as well as to assign them to specific or transitory positions in physical or virtual spaces. While the synthesis of new sounds (or the recording, analysis, and manipulation of existing sounds) is akin to instrumentation, mixing has increasingly appeared to be a higher level of orchestration.

Although institutional structures often suggest that electronic music is largely a distinct genre made in its own, relatively isolated, community, there has always been considerable musical middle ground between acoustic and electronic music-making. Many composers of works requiring only electronic or electro-acoustic resources also explored the possibility of combined live instruments and/or voices and electronics. Sometimes it is unclear whether a work or element of a work is electronic or acoustical in origin. One of my favorite examples is found in the early electronic music of the Guatemalan composer Joaquín Orellana, who, in the absence of modern synthesizer technologies, created a number of acoustical instruments, mostly of scraped, struck, and blow bamboo, which very precisely imitated synthetic sounds in works for magnetic tape. I previously mentioned the collaboration between members of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and Donald Buchla in creating a modular synthesizer in which the designers used a page of a Boulez score as a kind of spec sheet, to insure that the instrument could perform all of the features required in the score. The remarkable Peter Plonsky performed virtuosic vocal pieces ("mind emissions") which were easily mistaken for synthesized sounds. (Plonsky was also, in the 1970's, a prematurely virtuosic live player of turntables, well in advance of later djs; a recent survey in the New Music Box unfortunately omits Plonsky's name). Later experimental instrumental music would apply the same loop and delay techniques first tested in the studio. John Adams has been candid about the debt parts of his instrumental technique have owed to studio technques, most famously gating. As an example of my own work, a recent set of piano Variations, just music for two hands on a plain vanilla piano, can be heard as the product of a virtual modular synthesizer patch, with a sequencer and a band pass filter each controlled by a random voltage.


Paul H. Muller said...

Another possible effect of electronics - at least on performing: loss of ensemble. I have played broadway musical type productions where all of the acoustic instruments were via microphone and mixed in a soundboard. Good for the production, perhaps, but we did not listen to each other very much.

Maybe for that kind of music nothing suffers too badly, but it all seemed unhelpful at the time.

Dan said...

As a listener, I've grown increasingly disenchanted with electronics. I used to be a big fan of all kinds of electronic music. I remember going to hear Boulez do one of his big electronic pieces in Symphony Hall in Boston, with real-time manipulation through computers (this was back in the 80s, when such things were Really Cool). I used to think this was Hot Stuff.

Now I feel differently. Electronics too often allow for sloppy musicianship, because too many musicians either rely on the electronics to cover up their inadequacies, or assume that the sound crew will clean up their performances. The most egregious example of this:-- most pop, folk, and jazz musicians can't sing without a microphone now. Beyond that it seems to me that most or all musicians can't really hear each other as well when electronics are involved (partly because what they hear of the electronics is what comes through the monitor speaker which may or may not be any good). And then what's coming out of a speaker is always coming out of a speaker, whereas musical instruments make sound waves in many subtly different ways.

Yes, it's nice to get those unique sounds out of a synthesizer or other electronic sound generating device -- yes it's kind of nice to sample other sounds (the whole musique concrete thing, although it sounds hopelessly dated to me these days)-- and if the musician controls the electronics, I suppose it's OK. But the experience is never quite the same.

Like this.... last Thursday, I went to a harpsichord recital -- unamplified in an acoustically beautiful hall -- a virtuoso performance -- in a situation like that, the sound waves seem to alter me almost on a cellular level, and the feeling of transcendence was like nothing I've ever gotten from any performance involving electronics.

My $.02 worth, your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...


Do you know where I can get recordings of Orellana? I've got one cassette that he gave me when I visited back in the early 90s but would love to get more. Scores too (once again I only have one). Any ideas?
chris shultis

Daniel Wolf said...


the best place is