Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What is electronic music, anyways?

I just heard that Peter Elsea, who ran the Electronic Music Studios at UC Santa Cruz from 1980 through 2013, has published the ultimate version of his studio composition handbook, The Art and Technique of Electroacoustic Music.  I haven't gotten a copy yet, but from its contents it appears to be a solid introduction to its subject from an authority and a gifted teacher who has maintained a studio which continues to represent the historical evolution of its techniques from live electronic music to the manipulation of physical audio recordings through analog synthesis, the design of dedicated hardware, hybrid analog-digital systems, all the way through to computer-based digital synthesis.

The publication of Elsea's book is a good opportunity to note how divergent the academic field of electronic or electroacoustic music has become.  There are several large university music departments or conservatories in which the study of "electronic music" is geared entirely to the production of midi-based mock-ups of written scores.  This can be useful, but it's far from a comprehensive approach to the topic, and it tends, in my experience, to be limited to gaining practical experience with a particular set of hard- and software.  For other departments, "electronic music" is, or has become, synonymous with computer music. (I recently encountered the introductory textbook used in such a department, in which the first chapter begins with the arguable assertion: "Electronic music is usually made using a computer, by synthesizing or processing digital audio signal.")  And there are still a handful of places where music is made from elementary electronic tools, like microphones, amplifiers and loudpeakers, maybe an oscillator or two and even the good old soldering iron comes into play for for some old-fashioned  hardware hacking or hands-on circuit bending in the lively on-going extensions of the David-Tudor-Table-Full-of-Tools tradition.  One of the curious results of this is that students can walk out of introductory Electronic Music classes from different schools and have practically no overlap in what they've studied. (Note that I don't believe this to necessarily be a bad thing!)  Against this background, Elsea's Santa Cruz Studio has been a rather unique example of a studio representing the breadth of the field, and his students over the years have gone on to careers in sound design and film sound editing, popular music recording and production, contemporary analog and digital electronic music, and even some oddball experimental music along the way.

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