Building music in the digital studio is directly crafting sound, rather than designing written instructions for it to be recreated by others.
In the digital studio we still write these instructions; they are refined and layered over multiple “rehearsals” with the machines in the virtual band, to create this thing, this performance, that is the heard work.
But it isn’t a thing. And I’ll come back to that.
Having written notes on paper for years (well, decades) I am now mostly using digital tools to manipulate found or partially-formed sound objects.
Problems about simulation are delicious because they are new and have not yet been answered with authority.
How far can we take the sound of the piano – seeming in respect of its touch and handling, as closely as possible to be ‘played’ – beyond the current capabilities of performer or instrument?
Many new questions dominate these compositional inquiries and the tentative development of a Concept of Virtual Performance is an attempt to address these.
With acousmatic music’s absence of palpable communication – from a player to a listener – there are problems for some in deciding how to encounter the music.
It does not seem to be like a told story where the teller and the tale are a part of the same experience.
The movie is the closest form in another medium and yet this – of course – contains representations of people and their interactions.
Even if without a traditional plot, the movie contains elements that are both within and outside (commenting on) the story – diegetic and exegetic elements – between which the viewer attempts to differentiate.
If music by unseen, inhuman hands is embedded in a space, blended with it, not directly presented but allowed to be experienced, a radically new relationship is formed between the artist and the listener, the listener and the work.
The seated listener at the symphony concert engages both with the sounds directly and something beyond them, which the sounds are perceived to embody.
So does the listener to a recording or at an acousmatic ‘performance’.
But two profound differences intervene when we try to make a direct parallel.
Firstly, acousmatic music is not always discernibly distinct from its surroundings, because the place, for which the sound structure has been built, contains its own auditory character, activity and flux.
Secondly, there is not necessarily an intention to communicate a message, an object.
It may be that the sounds have been so organised to represent an analogue to a physical form or phenomenon, a process of change or a simultaneous condition of stasis and motion (a delirious favourite of mine, since hearing, as a child in the middle of an orchestra, Bartok’s Dance Suite.
And the composer or sound artist no longer necessarily attempts to communicate in a quasi-linguistic form.
They may be asking you to consider the juxtaposition of two sounds. The pulsing that such a combination creates.
Two frequencies added. Each of them. Their total. Their difference.
All audible, whether between two violins slightly out of tune with each other or between more complex, harmonic textures that change slowly over time:
Now it is not the perceived commencing journey that is interesting,– harmonic direction back towards its starting place –but the shifting, restless sonic moment.
There maybe a mirroring of the place in the artifice apparently flung down there with such casual ease.
If it is possible – as I sorely hope – to de-reify music and composition,
to replace the idea of music as a ‘thing’, with the truer idea of an attempt at reconjuring fleeting dreams or visions,
such that a musical composition becomes less an isolated artefact and more a sensory element of the place it is encountered,
just as the noises of a building, street or seashore cave characterise our sense and memory of it, then…..
…then new functions for music,
transcending the ritualised offerings of music as ‘things’, with a social job to do, a message to impart, as has existed in the concert hall and church setting for centuries,
may finally in some senses be achieved.
From a perspective of authenticity of reproduction
– be that reproductive of an entire illusion or a construct of recording –
headphone-audition offers a more believable experience than speaker arrays and can be used to create a more illusory boundary between environmental noise and the deliberate contents of the sonic artefact.
Unfortunately, for anyone reading this who says
“Yes, but what the hell happened to art that makes sense, tells a recognisable tale that we can discuss as though it were an object covered in symbols whose meaning is widely agreed?”,
I have some difficult news.
In Hervé Vanel’s study on John Cage and Muzak, or what French composer Eric Satie advocated in the 1920s as ‘furniture music’, he refers to Lev Thermin’s 1919 electronic musical instrument, the Theremin.
(A recent resurgence in interest in the Theremin after a period of oblivion, accompanies the accelerated development of digital musical interfaces like the Eigenharp and the Håken Continuum)
“As Cage perceived it, the Theremin was undoubtedly ‘an instrument with genuinely new possibilities…nevertheless, the problems remained that the Thereministes…did their utmost to make [it] sound like an old instrument…performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past” and that it “amounted to imitating the past rather than constructing the future.”
Cage complained that the new affordances of this radically different sound-producing object were being ignored, betrayed even, by a continued pursuit of old practices, the hunt for old meanings through new tools.
Implicit is the futility of finding a new means of sound production if it is only to be used for making “old” sorts of sounds.
Another advocate of new technological affordances for the discovery of new ways to communicate new things, was Edgard Varèse in “The Liberation of Sound”:
“the new musical apparatus I envisage, able to emit sounds of any number of frequencies, will extend the limits of the lowest and highest registers, hence new organizations of the vertical resultants: chords, their arrangements, their spacings, that is, their oxygenation.
Not only will the harmonic possibilities of the overtones be revealed in all their splendor but the use of certain interferences created by the partials will represent an appreciable contribution.
The never before thought of use of the inferior resultants and of the differential and additional sounds may also be expected. An entirely new magic of sound!
I am sure that the time will come when the composer, after he has graphically realized his score, will see this score automatically put on a machine, which will faithfully transmit the musical content to the listener.”
Varèse’ prescience could not have foreseen the specific challenges of turning automated transcription and transmission into music or the ironically arising insecurities of digital preservation.
We are still though in a very ‘primitive’ technological state.
We have new, magical tools whose affordances for sonic production we are still learning to match – whether due to ability or willingness – with new, magical thinking.
To sound ourselves in languages entirely different from those we have ever spoken.
Furthermore, Varèse’ and others’ predictions
– that automata could be well enough instructed to deliver, without intervention, ‘soundscapes’ whose richness of expression equals or surpasses the possibilities of acoustic performance –
could neither anticipate the dependence of users on ‘plugins’ to “re-humanise” an entirely quantised sound.
Just as an aside – it seems so counter-intuitive to first input uniform sound data then use automation to make it seem human, an embodiment of some notion that two machine processes can equate to one human one?
Humanising or giving the appearance of sentient, mediated, ‘delivery’ (note please, not ‘performance’) must be the most exciting challenge of our new digital tech
– and yet celebration of the tools themselves seems to take precedence over using them to do something,
at once enough of a continuation of extant practice to be a recognisably communicative form,
and yet to make a promising departure from it. . . .
The complex arts of simulating human agency in things at once physiologically or cognitively impossible and yet plausible – these are my obsessions.
I have never met any other composer or artist in another medium who shared these fascinations.
It seems strange to me that the digital studio should be so shortly explored as a means
– not only as it widely is, of creating new ‘unrealities’ but –
of extending the plausible yet impossible.
Of permitting what Bach and Scriabin could only imagine but never dare to transcribe for fear that it was inaudible to all but them.
Digital music seems either to involve MIDI for acoustic composer to demonstrate to performers or an exploration of the tangibly inhuman, whether in house, trance or electroacoustic languages,
of sounds that (in the latter) carry little connection to the neuro-physiological activity that thousands of generations of practice and inheritance have stamped upon our tiny, biological responses to stimuli.
And of course, makers of music in all fields remain suspicious of each other’s ability to speak credibly; the same tribalisms exist as, for example, when fighting broke out over the reported death of tonality, more than a hundred years ago.
A universe of expressive, evocative possibility lives in the tools and yet the fact of their ‘machine-ness’ seems to remain problematic, necessary to remember, like noting but avoiding acknowledgement of a person’s difference.
Varèse speaks from an age of detailed, manual craft,
with a vision of the same application, of commitment, to its implementation through tools then unavailable;
he cannot foresee the cultural changes, or absence of them in music composition that will eventually be engendered by these tools.
Maybe it’s that they are still just too new to us and the new digital instruments are still in their infancy;
but as he foresaw, we are already finding it
“necessary to abandon staff notation and to use a kind of seismographic writing much like the early ideographic writing originally used for the voice before the development of staff notation.
Formerly the curves of the musical line indicated the melodic fluctuations of the voice, today the machine-instrument requires precise design indications.”