June 18, 2003

Stylistic Conventions Which Thwart Cross-Pollination

I've been thinking about assumptions, fashions, and expectations which prevent the academic and popular experimental community from collaborating or furthering each other's work. Here's a few quick concepts I plan to explore in the next few days.

1. The Beat
Academic electronic music avoids it now. It was possibly more fashionable while minimalism was briefly in vogue, but the post-minimalists seem to have little sway in academic electronic music now. The spectralists are in the vanguard (yes it's true it's just another name for Boulezianism) and new complexity (yes it's true it is just 70's complexity re-hashed) and the beat has taken leave.

Popular experimentalism seems to require a beat? Why? We're exploring, we're not necessarily dancing. What's with the obsession that even the most exploratory electronic music groups like Autechre have with a beat? Is it fear of losing audience share? Is it a fear of succumbing to accusations of 'intellectualism?'. I believe it's a little of both.

2. Tonality
Academics say if tonality is used in a modal or simple way, than its popular music, i.e. junk. You find very little music with white notes these days at an ICMC concert. Why is that? Is it purely fashion? Is the C Major scale that played out?

Popular experimentalists require white note adherence, or at least simple scales. It's true we find noise, but when a melody asserts itself it is uniformly white note based. Why is that? Again, is it a fear of being accused of intellectualism? How is music exploratory if it has to have a beat and must contain only white note melodies?

What is especially interesting is that both parties, the academics and the the popular electronic experimentalists will deny these assumptions, even as they practice them. Why is this? Fashion has unspoken rules, obviously, but must fashion prevent cross-pollination? Is fashion constrained by the arbiters of taste in each community to the point of incomprehensibility?

Posted by jeff at 08:54 AM | Comments (6)

June 17, 2003

All Tomorrow’s Parties 3.0 CD Released

All Tomorrow’s Parties 3.0 :: V/A (Autechre Curated) CD is reviewed:
. Noticeably, Curtis Roads, Bernard Parmegiani performances are not on the cd. Is this a result of omission for sales purposes? I can't imagine many artists not allowing for their performances to go to disk.

Posted by jeff at 05:51 PM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2003

Who Invents the Inventors?

I started this before Jeff posted his June 4th article, but it seems a nice follow-up.

For as long as I’ve been in this field, I’ve worked with, read about, and listened to musicians who all considered themselves to be ‘experimental’ in their musical approach. The number of said approaches is varied to a man, and it gets me to thinking: why use such a vague, universally applicable word for something that’s so personal and intimate? To that end, what is it that not only leads a composer to the conclusion that they belong under this umbrella, but drives them to compose in the first place?

I remember watching an interview with Stravinsky several years ago, where he relays an anecdote about being at a border crossing, and when asked for his occupation, he called himself an inventor: an ‘inventor’ of music, as opposed to simply a ‘composer’ of music. This is a rather romanticized notion for a composer as pragmatic as Stravinsky is often portrayed, so it speaks volumes about how he perceived himself. From a semantic angle, he’s making the contrast of being a ‘composer’ (one who assembles sounds, supposedly pre-existing in some form) against being an inventor (one who creates something that does not as yet exist). Inventors, by their very nature, experiment. Stravinsky, for example, experimented with combinations of octatonic sets with the standard diatonic scales. Probably the most successful of these experiments can be heard in his three works for the Russian Ballet: Firebird, Petrushka, and, perhaps most famously, The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky didn’t stop there, either: he even experimented with the past; specifically classicism, and all of its understood artistic meanings, from accepted conventions in voice-leading to ancient mythology. Late in his life he experimented with serialism, coming up with the concept of hexachordal rotations, which he used in Requiem Canticles. Serialism itself was a bold experiment; an attempt to find a new way to express harmony using the conventional 12-tone tuning system, eventually evolving to include rhythm and form.

When I meet musicians today who call themselves ‘experimental’ it seems that they usually mean one of two things: an attempt to reconcile two or more disparate musical styles or finding a new means of sonic expression, either harmonically (within the 12-tone temperament or with other tuning systems) or with timbre (with extended techniques of conventional instruments or electronic sounds, or any combination thereof). These are all worthy endeavors. The search for that which has not yet been done need not necessarily come to a successful conclusion to be rewarding; after all, sometimes it’s the journey – not the destination – that matters. The use of the term ‘experimental’ seems to imply an invitation to fail; this is certainly not a bad thing; often it is in the failed experiments where we as composers learn and grow the most. A composer afraid to make music that fails is a composer that fails to make music.

I often get the question that all composers learn to despise: “What’s your style?” My answer, the most honest one I’ve come up with so far, is, how the hell should I know? I’m just the composer. I write what’s in me to write, without preconceived notions about style or accepted (or worse yet, fashionable) conventions. ‘Fashionable conventions’ are usually an artifact of the academic atmosphere, and really have no place in true musical expression. Once a composer gets over that intellectual hurdle (or goes around it by avoiding academia altogether), that composer can be said to be working as a true experimentalist, to the effect that he’s taking what he knows and trying to synthesize it into something unique and personal. The other side of the coin, however, is the composer who uses the word ‘experimental’ as a ruse to cover up music that is really compositionally incoherent and insincere, examples of which are far too numerous to mention here, but are painfully and instantly obvious to knowledgeable musicians.

Stravinsky is just one of countless examples of the experimental composer, of course. Monteverdi experimented, and in doing so gave us the dominant seventh, establishing the tritone as the fundamental engine that drives tertian tonal harmony. Bach experimented, and in doing so wrote in a harmonic style that was often 150 years ahead if its time. The conclusion that I come to is that all composers – all sincere composers – experiment because it is their very nature. It comes down to the innate search within each of us to find our own voice as a composer, combined with a sincere desire to expand the possibilities of the art, along with the ears of our audience. Some find it early on in their careers, some go to their graves having never discovered it, but in the search is the great experiment: What can I, as a composer who is uniquely me, contribute to the art that no one else has done, or, at the very least, will be instantly recognizable as something I did? A musician who is not experimenting is either probably engaged in a rote academic exercise (a 3-part invention for their counterpoint class perhaps) or auditioning for American Idol. Those of us active in the electronic medium are no exception. Joe has it right: every timbre we create is a secret kept under lock and key as a secret family recipe: a piece of code, a combination of waveforms and effects on a synth, a series of envelope settings, all come from the spirit of ‘let’s push this button and see what happens.’ And we allow these creations to interact and watch the results.

If the experiments have all been done, then there must be no music left to write.

Daniel McGarvey

Posted by at 05:19 PM | Comments (2)

June 06, 2003

The Fertile Land of New Sounds Revisited

OK, a few more fertile areas for exploration that I'm interested in, at least:

1. Physical Modelling Strangeness

Physical modelling synthesizer processes can be sources of incredibly bizarre timbres. Whether its the mis-shapen steel drum that morphs into a sitar-like blues harp or the distorted guitars that being to overblow like trombones, there are seemingly infinite new sound sources in the mis-use of physical models.

2. Physical Modelled Noise Production

In Perry Cook's recent book Real Sound Synthesis for Interactive Applications, which by the way includes an audio CD and tons of C++ source code, he introduces plenty of models for producing natural sounds such as glass breaking, walking on snow, other chaotic and complex sounds we live with. Using these models in music should provide a rich source of very complex percussion sounds and noise textures.

Book Info:
Author: Perry Cook
Title: Real Sound Synthesis for Interactive Applications
Publisher: AK Peters Ltd.
Year: 2002 ISBN: 1-56881-168-3
Price: $39 250 pages

Posted by jeff at 08:52 AM | Comments (0)

June 05, 2003

Electronic Experimentation Today - Fertile Territories Ahead?

After my post from yesterday, I've been thinking of areas that could be fertile for exploration.

1. Irrational tunings.
Jean-Claude Risset, in the notes to his piece, Inharmonique, called irrational tunings the 'future of music.' What is an irrational tuning? It's any tuning system that utilizes pratials that are inharmonic, i.e., not in the harmonic series. Typical musical usages involve close mappings between the tuning and the timbre. For example, recent (and not so recent) studies of Indonesian musics has found that the 'nodes' of tuning systems utilized by their metallic instruments closely map the resonating nodes of the timbres of the instruments. Many composers have written pieces attempting to use FM sounds with irrational tunings, my piece, Jardin des Merveilles, a tuning was found after the FM timbre was chosen. William Sethares has explored this musical technique and written a book about it, Tuning Timbre Spectrum Scale.

2. Very large grain 'granular' resynthesis
Popular software ReCycle and many samplers allow for the creation of very large grain size chopping sounds which can be reconsituted into the original sound. Many composers today in the popular genre IDM, utilize this technique, but I don't feel that the experimentation is complete. I wrote a few entries ago about SquarePusher's utilization of this technique within the popular song form framework and how the chopping created new textural expectations that were fulfilled within an entirely different chopped textural area. It's not just beats that can be chopped up in this manner, vocal passages, improvisations, etc. could be. To create musical expectations within this paradigm, and not just deconstruct and reconstruct arbitrarily as a gesture could be a worthy area of exploration.

Stay tuned...

Posted by jeff at 08:49 AM | Comments (1)

June 04, 2003

Is Experimental Music Today Really Experimental?

I've been thinking about what it means to call your music 'experimental' and it seems that in 2003, the experiments have all been performed.

Is music that morphs sound experimental? Morphing timbres has been used in many pieces, Lansky, Risset, et al, and even used in popular Hollywood films (Willow in the tent scene).

Is microtonal music experimental? After Partch and Haba, et al, it would seem that microtonal music is old hat. We can come up with new scales and explore them, but isn't that what composition is about? Would employing new software devices to explore these realms be considered experimental in 2003?

Is the use of noise experimental? Since the work of Varese, the use of noise has become fairly well-trodden territory. It would seem to be if an entire genre of music has developed around a musical technique than it is no longer experimental - Noise music .

Is the use of stochastics or randomizing procedures experimental? Since Cage and Xenakis explored this territory so thoroughly in the last century I find it hard that it could be considered such.

Is the use of computers to write music or to search for patterns or to generate passages or timbres experimental? Again, very well-explored territory.

Is ths use of computer-generated speech or vocal timbres experimental? Again, with Lansky's work and the use of speech synthesis embedded in most PC's (although not utilized well by software) I can't see how artificial vocalisms can be considered experimental.

Good composers, IMO, look for unexplored combinations of timbral, textural and melodic elements. That is the nature of the search for newness that all good artists indulge in. Is it possible that there will be no more experimental music?

And while I indulge in these thoughts, is it possible that without experimentalism there is no more avant-garde? Leonard Meyer predicted that in the near future, a dead end would be reached in experimentalism and that musical styles would freeze, in the same manner that Egyptian art had become frozen.

One can certainly imagine amazing new musics produced from combining the many diverse elements we have at our disposal today. One brilliant innovation in compositional technique and new musical fashions emerge. But these new fashions, IMO, cannot claim to be the new order of music; the new avant-garde if they are merely mixing known elements. They are just today's music, fresh and lively. One of the great reasons to keep up with the electronic scene. If new musical styles are going to develop, experimental or not, it will be here in the world of electronica.

Am I missing something? Is there some new realm that experimentalists are exploring that I've left out? Does being avant-garde not imply experimenting?

Posted by jeff at 01:08 PM | Comments (3)

June 02, 2003

Listing of Experimental Electronic Music Streams Updated Weekly

Found a great list of audio ad extremem in a recent posting on rec.music.classical.contemporary - WEEKLY CONTEMPORARY CULTURE - proven stereo streams most without US entertainment INDUSTRY domination. It is a listing of great audio streams online playing contemporary classical, electronic and experimental musics from around the world. The coolest thing is that it rates the stream, updates its validity weekly and has some commentaries on its subject matter.

Posted by jeff at 08:48 AM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2003

Synthesizing Carnatic Music With the Computer

Very interesting article about creating Carnatic (Southern Indian) music via the computer. From the author M. Subramanian:

This article describes the present situation in synthesizing Carnatic Music with the computer, the problems and possible solutions

The full article can be found at http://carnatic2000.tripod.com/compmus.htm


Posted by at 09:08 PM | Comments (1)

Birthday Broadcast for Terry Riley & Harry Partch

When: 24 June 2003
Where: WKCR FM NY 89.9 or in Real Audio and MP3 Format worldwide www.wkcr.org

The New Music Department at WKCR is celebrating the birthdays of both Partch and Riley with a 24 hour straight broadcast of their music. The show will focus on the entire career of Partch and up to 1978 for Riley. The reason given for the cutoff date on Riley is due to "relavance & quality" Well I don't believe that but there is only 24 hours to do this and many of Riley's most innovative and groundbreaking works do fall into that time frame. As one who has been an avid listener of WKCR for many years, the various music departments do a great job on these special broadcasts playing not only commercial releases but many private and rare recordings. So if you are a fan or are just curious, mark your calendars and tune in. At this moment, WKCR is finishing up a 5 day Henry Grimes festival (ending tonight at 7:00pm EST) so you still have time to tune in and and listen to that!


Posted by at 12:21 PM | Comments (1)

Quotes for a Sunday

One of the problems my music has had is that it's an abstract music, and people are not being educated to deal with abstract music or abstract thought. The abstract plane involves many levels, the first being self-realization or having some fundamental understanding of what you think about things. Abstract Consciousness is not necessarily relevant to being a great Republican or Democrat.
-Anthony Braxton-

The concept of the expanded time structure composed of long sustained tones and the unique tonal palette of those works came to me not by theoretical deduction, but by inspired intuition. This new approach to composition and hearing evolved not from my great appreciation of Anton Webern, but from environmental influences as well: the sound of the wind; the sounds of crickets & Cicadas, the sounds of telephone poles & motors; sounds produced by steam escaping such as my mothers teakettle and to the sounds of whistles and signals from trains; and resonance's set off by the natural characteristics of particular geographic areas such s canyons, valleys, lakes, and plains.
-LaMonte Young-

Posted by at 11:28 AM | Comments (0)