Monday, November 15, 2010

In and out of the Studio

I've been in and out of electronic music studios since 1978, when I was part of an effort to lobby my school board to approve a course in electronic music, the first to be offered in California at the High School level.  (The course was approved when an elderly member of the board was assured that "no, we wouldn't be making disco music like those BeeGees.")  We had a very simple monophonic synthesizer, a few tape recorders, an 8 channel mixing board, and almost enough cable and mics to make interesting music.  We spliced a lot, a skill I still value highly (this post, for instance, is a product of splicing), but the most valuable experience was learning to listen closely to recorded sounds, to hear and become more articulate about each of the parameters represented, and then to imagine how these sounds could be presented in larger ensembles and continuities.  Later, in two different Universities, I got to work in two very different studios, each with its own distinct instrumentation, configuration, and attitude.  Such diversity — particularly with regard to attitude — still prevails when one compares electronic studios: a course at one school nowadays may be essentially a course in getting electronic mock-ups of a written-out instrumental scores, another school offers classical studio techniques, from splicing to modular synthesizers, another focuses on computer generated and processed sounds, another algorithmic composition, and still another will insist that every student learns to solder their own gadgets. This diversity is a very healthy situation, AFAIC.  

Since earning my academic traveling papers and being sent off into the real world, aside from hit-and-run visits to radio station recording studios here in Germany I haven't always had a real studio to call my own.  However, on the one hand, contemporary technology makes it possible to do a lot with a modest home studio, often built around just a desk- or laptop computer  (my earliest arrangement of the sort used a Atari ST, first with the Kuivila/Anderson programming language FORMULA, and later to drive a Rayna Synthesizer, with its 59 very accurately tuned oscillators.)  On the other hand, the experience of working in the studio can be said to have penetrated musical technique to such a deep level that the actual question of whether a piece uses electronic resources or not is often besides the point.  I love that anecdote about early-on in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, when Sender and Subotnick, then designing their first modular synthesizer, sat down with a copy of the score to Le Marteau, just to make sure that the synthesizer would be able to do everything described therein.    

This fluidity between electronic and acoustical resources is also a healthy situation, I think.  Example: I recently wrote a small piano piece that could be described as the output of a sequencer, a pair of filters and a couple of noise generators, or it could be described in terms of a primitive serial technique influence by chance operations.  Either process could have led to the same piece. Fluid. Another example of such fluidity could be found in an assignment I gave to some high school-age students in a composition workshop.  Some of them were working with instruments and notation on manuscript paper, others with synthesis programs, both live (pd) and generating fixed sound files (CSound).  For the assignment, we first learned something about cetacean audio communication (kids love whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and then each was required to make a small piece using three kinds of sounds available to these animals — frequency modulated whistles, burst-pulsed sounds, and clicks. They had to do some analysis — figure out what the salient qualities of these sounds were —, then some synthesis — how to emulate such sounds, or sounds with similar structural or formal qualities whether with electronics, instruments, or voices —, and finally, to devise some musical structure which accommodates all of these sounds, perhaps creating meaningful relationships between them, perhaps leaving them as highly differentiated streams of events in a polyphonic environment. All of the finished pieces offered interesting solutions, the best of them made some real music, and — once again surprising the old appropriate technologists that I am — it soon became clear that there was no inherent advantage or disadvantage to the particular technology chosen; that was a non-issue.  A healthy and fluid situation.

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