A Perspective on 20th Century Sound-Based Compositions

One of our team here has been studying and talking with the London-based composer, sound artist, writer and broadcaster, Robert Worby. As Karl mentioned, "It has been an absolute pleasure studying with Rob this last semester. His great insight into music history and composition flows easily from his enthusiastic teaching style. [...] He just really knows his stuff... Which is not surprising, considering he's been friends with the like of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen among others." Karl wrote the following essay for a piece of course work he did for Rob to explain where his interest in sound-based types of composition originated from.

“Trace the history of composition focusing on *sound* (and not melody and harmony) in the 20th century. Discuss compositions from both the acoustic and electroacoustic domains which you feel compellingly illustrate the potential of a sound-based approach to composition.”

Perhaps a pertinent starting point for this essay is the first entry for ‘sound’ in the Oxford English dictionary: “The sensation produced in the organs of hearing when the surrounding air is set in vibration in such a way as to affect these […]” The German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz observed that both melodic and harmonic sounds can stimulate a sensation in the organs of hearing (Wittje, 2016, p. 10). Thus one needs to consider how to define ‘sound’ for the purpose of this essay. The definition of ‘composition’ alludes to a way in which to do this: “The putting (of things) into proper position, order, or relation to other things; orderly arrangement; ordering.” Therefore, if one is to overlook the deliberate contrivance of ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ within all types composition for this investigation, it might be fair to assume that any sonic composition built on an aesthetic of ‘tonality’ – defined as “(t)he character of a piece of music as determined by the key in which it is played or the relations between the notes of a scale or key” – would naturally fall outside this essay’s remit. However, that does not mean that a melodious or harmonious composition cannot demonstrate a compelling argument for adopting a sound based approach to composition!

Considering the aforementioned, it is also worth noting that Helmholtz alluded to the subjective nature of harmony when he stated:

“The formation of scales and the web of harmony is a product of artistic invention and is in no way given by the natural structure or by the natural behaviour of our hearing, as used to be generally maintained hitherto.” (Helmholtz in Karolyi, 1995, p. 1)

This pertinently points out that the notions of ‘harmony’ and ‘melody’ can vary between cultural contexts, where one culture’s harmony or melody may seem inharmonic or unmelodic when presented to another culture’s inherited sensibilities.

There is little doubt that a move from the established norm of ‘tonality’ to one of ‘atonality’ during the 20th century was a glaring and unsettling point for many audiences (Karolyi, 1995, p. 1). After near on three hundred years of ascendancy and evolution, the steadfast practice of ‘tonality’ reached its zenith soon after the middle of the nineteenth century (Karolyi, 1995, p. 23). While Wagner is often cited as the composer who effected “the collapse of inherited musical formulas” derived from before the classical period, it was Schoenberg’s 1908 composition “Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide” that definitively made the first break away from using any reference to a specific musical key (Schueller, 1977, p. 397; Jarret & Day, 2008, p. 155). Schoenberg began experimenting further with aspects of “musical sound” recognizing three primary characteristics: pitch [frequency], color [timbre] and volume [dynamic] (Schoenberg, 1978, p. 421; Siedenburg & Reuter, 2012, p. 932). To make a point about how Schoenberg’s serialist experiments can be viewed as more to do with ‘sound’ than ‘harmony’, Earle Brown commented that a more fitting title for Schoenberg’s treatise “The Structural Functions of Harmony” would have been “The Structural Functions of Sound” (Brown to Beecroft, 2002, at 34mins; Schoenberg, 1983/b).

In 1863 Helmholtz made an important distinction between all sounds: those of ‘musical tones’, which are harmonic or periodic, and those of ‘noises’, which are disharmonic or non-periodic (Russo & Warner, 1988, pp. 60-61; Wittje, 2016, p. 9). Highlighting these distinctions, Helmholtz began to look at the human voice while investigating consonance and dissonance, specifically on how “sound color is independent of a particular sound source” (Kursell, 2011, pp. 181-184). Worby (2016/b) clearly states that the human voice is probably the most complex sound one can ever try to reproduce, thus making it an excellent choice for mastery: master the sound of the voice and one should be able to master other sounds easily. Kursell (2009; 2013, p. 192) notes that, while Schoenberg would not have read Helmholtz’s work, he definitely came into contact with the psychologist Stumpf’s work on phenomenology, which explains consonance as the fusion of sounds i.e. two tones that are played close together are heard as one single tone. Being influenced by Stumpf’s work, in 1909 Schoenberg composed “Farben: Ein Sommermorgen am See” which takes Helmholtz and Stumpf’s experiments with sound and places them into an orchestral arrangement for an interesting ‘coloring’ effect (Siedenburg & Reuter, 2012, p. 932; Kursell, 2013, p. 192). This acoustic composition, short in nature for an orchestral piece, fittingly begins layering textures of sound so that the “(h)armonic and melodic motion is curtailed, in order to focus attention on timbral and textural elements.” (Erickson, 1975, p. 37) Certainly the second of Schoenberg’s two notes for the conductor about this piece reveals how the sound should be played:

“The change of chords in this piece has to be executed with the greatest subtlety, avoiding accentuation of entering instruments, so that only the difference in color becomes noticeable.” (Erickson, 1975, p. 37)

As if inspired by Schoenberg’s development of “Klangfarbenmelodie” (or “sound-color melody”), in 1913 the Italian Futurist painter Luigi Russolo wrote one of the most important and influential texts on 20th century musical aesthetics, entitled “The Art of Noises” (Cox & Warner, 2006, p.10). In it Russolo declared to his friend, the Futurist composer Francesco Balillia Pratella, that “(w)e must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds” (Russolo, 1986). Soon after this decree, Russolo designed and built contraptions known as “noise intoners” or “Intonarumori”, which were boxes containing mechanisms that produced a variety of sounds, ranging from explosions to gurgling textures (Brown, 1981, p. 43). While there are no recordings of Russolo’s original compositions for his “Intonarumori”, Brown (1981, p. 35) notes a description from the Pall Mall Gazette of the first private performance of “Awakening of a City”, held at Pratella’s home in Milan:

“At first a quiet even murmur was heard. […] Now and again some giant hidden in one of those queer boxes snored portentiously; and a new-born child cried. Then, the murmur was heard again, a faint noise like breakers on the shore. Presently, a far-away noise grew rapidly into a mighty roar.

“[…] a few seconds later hundreds of vans and motor lorries seemed to be hurrying towards the station, summoned by the shrill whistling of the locomotives. Later, the trains were heard, speeding boisterously away; then, a flood of water seemed to wash the town, children crying and girls laughing under the refreshing shower.

“A multitude of doors was next heard to open and shut with a bang, and a procession of receding footsteps intimated that the great army of bread-winners was going to work. Finally, all the noises of the street and factory merged into a gigantic roar, and the music ceased.”

As Russo and Warner (1988, p. 64) state, “the intonarumori […] was a theoretical and mechanical impetus for destabilizing cultural limits.” It is little surprise, then, that Russolo’s 1914 Milan debut with the intonarumori caused a riot among the audience (Thorn 2002, p. 415). Despite this turbulent start, Russolo’s ensuing performances impressed the likes of Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger and Varèse (Brown, 1981, p. 32).

Varèse’s acquaintance with Russolo and Marinetti gave rise to people referring to him as a Futurist (Wen-Chung, 1966/a, p. 156). However, it is clear that, while Varèse shared similar ideas on how the “musical alphabet must be enriched”, he also felt restrained by the Futurist’s proclamation, asking “Why Italian Futurists, have you slavishly reproduced only what is commonplace and boring in the bustle of our daily lives.” (Varèse & Wen-Chung, 1966, p. 11; Wen-Chung, 1966/b, p. 1) Further to this, Varèse once stated that “(t)he Futurists believed in reproducing sounds literally; I believe in the metamorphosis of sounds in to music” (Varèse in Wen-Chung, 1966/a, p. 156). Despite Varèse’s negative outlook on neoclassicism, he felt Schöenberg’s twelve-tone system had something important to offer:

“Even if one disagrees with the premises of Schoenberg’s new method, one must admit that there was a pressing need for a discipline that would bring music back to its own domain, the domain of sound.” (Varèse in Wen-Chung, 1966/a, p. 156)

Varèse’s education in music and science allowed him to go beyond the Futurists by inventing timbres, textures and musical space (Wen-Chung, 1966/a, p. 151; Russo & Warner, 1988, p. 62; Hartsock, 2002, p. 534; Cox & Warner, 2006, p. 17). As an example, he achieved “the continuous slow use of glissandos […] by using the siren […]” in several of his compositions, cleverly demonstrating his dislike for the dogma of dividing an octave up into 12 equal tones (Hartsock, 2002, p. 530).

Furthermore, Varèse very much admired the compositional techniques of Anton Webern, a composer from Schoenberg’s “school”, finding them to offer “remarkable possibilities of expansion, new points of departure.” (Varèse in Wen-Chung, 1966, p. 156) Certainly Webern’s 1913 composition “Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10: I. Sehr ruhig und zart” shows a great degree of refinement to Schoenberg’s “Klangfarbenmelodie” technique, demonstrating how notes are passed between different instruments, thereby creating unique sounds from an otherwise common orchestral ‘palette’ (Pierre Boulez &amp London Symphony Orchestra, 1978; Worby, 2016/a).

During the Great War (1914-1918) acoustical knowledge and technologies became highly relevant in creating an effective propaganda strategy (Wittje, 2016, p. 8). As a result of this development, there were some paradigm shifts to the way in which musicologists began to see music: acoustics moved away from the classical European compositional form (and the theoretical frameworks that had been inscribed in musical history for so long) and began to look at the soundscapes of battlefields and modern urban living (Wittje, 2016, p. 9). Varese’s 1921 composition “Amériques” alludes to this change, using dense textures of orchestral sound (which he called “sound masses”) set next to one another in ‘blocks’, clamoring around a brief reoccurring melodic theme on alto flute (Hartsock, 2002, pp. 530-531; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Riccardo Chailly, 1998). The brash and often violent sounds hint at how Varèse had been creatively inspired to mix orchestral timbres together to mimic the sounds of a bustling vibrant city like New York (Hartsock, 2002, p. 531). In the interwar period, Varèse goes one step further with his composition “Ionisations” (1929-1931), which becomes the first work of its kind to use predominantly percussion instruments “as the foundation of a musical form” (François, 1991, p. 49). As François (1991, p. 49) notes, Varèse was looking for an original form outside of pitch structures, by trying to tame the noisy timbres of percussive sounds. In the piece, one can clearly hear how Varèse groups these percussive sounds not only according to their timbre, but through their dynamics i.e. linking them by their decay and the speed at which they are played, among other things (François, 1991, p. 55). Varèse made it clear that he was interested in “internal rhythmic and metric relationships” as well as in the “sonorous aspects of percussion as structural, architectonic elements” (Varèse in François, 1991, p. 49). “Ionisations” also clearly demonstrates the effect that Russolo’s sound based compositions had on his own work (Radice, 1989, p. 13; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Asko Ensemble, 1998).

John Cage is notably the first composer to focus on using ‘found’ sounds, something clearly demonstrated by his 1939 composition “Construction in Metal” and his prepared piano pieces “Sonatas and Interludes” (1946-1948) (Takahashi, 1987; Chadabe, 1997, pp. 24-25; Third Coast Percussion, 2012). Certainly he alludes to the inspiration that Varèse’s “Ionisations” had on him (Beecroft to Cage, 1977, at 12mins). Cage wrote (Cage in Chadabe, 1997, p. 25) about “Construction in Metal”:

“I felt the need of finding some structural means adequate to composing for percussion. This led me eventually to a basic reexamination of the physical nature of sound. Sounds, including noises, it seemed to me, had four characteristics (pitch, loundness, timbre and duration), while silence had only one (duration). I therefore devised a rhythmic structure based on the duration, not of notes, but of spaces of time…”

In 1951, during his investigations into the nature of sound, Cage paid a visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard University (Toop, 1995, p. 140). There he discovered silence was practically impossible to experience directly, noting two continuous sounds: the high pitch of his central nervous system and the low rumble of his cardiovascular system (Toop, 1995, p. 140; Worby, 2016/d). Realizing that the universe was continually creating new sound, he decided to combine this with his ideas about creating rhythmic structures out of ‘spaces of time’ and fill them with ‘silence’, thereby positing his most famous composition “4’33”” (Chadabe, 1997, p. 25). Nyman (1999, p. 72) points out that “4’33” was a public demonstration showing it was impractical, if not senseless, to attempt to retain the traditional separation of sound and silence.” To confirm Nyman’s observation, Oliveros says that “you really can’t have sound without silence or vice versa.” (Baker, 2003). Worby (2016/d) suggests that this piece “gave us permission to do sound art” and laid down “the idea of listening as an art.”

While Cage was the first composer to begin experimenting with electroacoustic music in his “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” piece (employing two vary-speed turntables, two discs of vinyl with sine tones etched on them, a cymbal and a muted piano), it wasn’t until shortly after World War II that major developments in sound recording and reproduction began to hint at the endless compositional possibilities of electroacoustic ‘sound’ (Hutton, 2003, p. 49; Worby, 2016/d). Undoubtedly the advent of mass consumer technology gave greater freedom to composers, allowing them to redefine all the more how sound could be used within their own compositions. In a lecture, Worby (2016/e) demonstrated how the microphone and triode valve (an electronic amplifying vacuum tube) allowed Harry Bidgood (in his “Telling it to the Daisies”) to sing more quietly and still be heard over a loud band, thereby creating a more intimate feeling between the performer and listener.

In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer composed five sonic pieces, entitled “Cinq études de bruits”, using a cutting lathe, four turntables, a four-channel mixer, filters, an echo chamber and a mobile recording unit (Palombini, 2002, p. 433). These pieces particularly highlighted how technology could offer a ‘freeing’ aspect to sound composition and set musique concrete firmly into its stride by allowing found sounds to be recorded and used as a compositional resource, effectively doing away with the need for an orchestra and musicians (Palombini, 2002, p. 433; Schaeffer, 2013). In these five recordings (which were held to great acclaim by the French public), Schaeffer used sounds gathered from locomotives, toy tops, percussion instruments, piano sounds (recorded by Pierre Boulez), whistles, saucepans, canal boats, words sung and spoken and a harmonica, among others, and arranged them into compositions (Chadabe, 1997, pp. 26-27). Despite the radical nature of these works, he rejected his first piece “Étude aux chemins de fer” (1948) because the sounds of a train station remained too recognizable (Kahn, 2001)!

In 1951, the French Radio organization “Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française” (RTF) presented the “Group de Researchers de Musique Concrète” (GRMC) with the first purpose built electroacoustic music studio in the world (Palombini, 2002, p. 434). Soon after this, Messiaen and others bade Schaeffer to break with the past and explore new compositional procedures (Palombini, 2002, p. 434). Between 1951 and 1953 Boulez, Messiaen and Stockhausen created further pieces for the GRMC (Palombini, 1993, p. 542). Later on, even Varèse, Honegger and Oram descended on their studio to use or explore their cutting-edge facilities (Palombini, 2002, p. 434; Hutton, 2003, p. 49). After stricken disappointment with his first musique concrete composition “Etude” in 1952, Stockhausen went on to compose his “epoch-making” “Gesang der Jünglinge” in 1956 (Chadabe, 1997, p. 31; Toop, 2002, p. 494). This piece was essentially “made up of electronically-produced vocal-type sounds, consonant noises, a scale of intermediate forms of tone-mixtures, words sometimes comprehensible, sometimes not, but word-sounds clearly abstracted from word-meaning” (Schueller, 1977, p. 406). It investigated the “continuum between pitched sounds and ‘noise’”, allowing Stockhausen to develop ideas he had about the human voice at the time (Toop, 2002, p. 494; Worby, 2016/b). A review by Decroupet and Ungeheuer’s provides great insight into how Stockhausen went about composing this serial masterpiece (Decroupet, Ungeheuer & Kohl, 1998). This was also the first-ever multitrack tape composition to produce a “surround-sound” experience (originally five channels), where “the spatial location and movement of sounds was integral to the composition process” (Toop, 2002, p. 494; Worby, 2016/b).

Bearing in mind Oram’s visit to the RTF Paris studios and her interest in musique concrète, it is of little surprise that the BBC eventually (if somewhat reluctantly) procured their own answer to the GRMC: the Radiophonic Workshop (Hutton, 2003, pp. 49-50). At the Radiophonic Workshop, Oram composed a piece of sound in 1957 for a television play called “Apmphytryon 38”, which became the very first composition to be derived entirely from electronic sound sources (Hutton, 2003, p. 50)! The sonic textures in this 49 second piece are created using nothing more than a bank of sine-wave oscillators, a filter and a tape recorder (Hutton, 2003, p. 50). No sooner had Schaeffer sent the orchestra and musician on their way, it seemed Oram had dispensed with the need for environmentally recorded “found-sounds”!

One obviously didn’t need all the expensive equipment that the RTF and the Radiophonic Workshop had in order to create interesting sonic compositions, something Oliveros clearly demonstrated (Oliveros to Baker, 2003). In the late 1950s, soon after tape machines became available for the mass consumer, Oliveros began recording sounds from her apartment window (Oliveros to Baker, 2003). Working with them creatively, she slowed down the playback speed to hear what they would sound like (Oliveros to Baker, 2003). To add to this, she would even experiment with hand-winding the tape reel while recording sounds for unusual effect, as well as amplify quieter sounds from small objects with the aid of an apple box, even using the bathroom as a reverberation chamber and, perhaps most ingeniously of all, placing a microphone into assorted lengths of cardboard tubing to create different types of sound filters (Oliveros to Baker, 2003)! This culminated in her 1959 piece entitled “Time Perspectives”: a 20 minute abstract arrangement of novel sounds that clearly demonstrate Oliveros’ interest in the “physicality of making music.” (Oliveros to Baker, 2003; Pauline Oliveros, 2014)

While part of the avant-garde was moving into the electroacoustic domain, the Greek composer Xenakis answered back with an acoustic composition in “an attempt to demonstrate […] that the human orchestra was capable of out-classing, in the matter of new sonorities and finesse, the new electronic techniques which were threatening to oust them.” (Xenakis, 1975) “Metastasis”, composed in 1954, sees Xenakis leave behind all familiar musical forms, shapes and languages (Service, 2013). In this piece he uses notes without any division; they simply move continually across the frequency spectrum, thus, freeing sound from any type of tonal division (Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra & Hans Rosbaud, 2009; Worby, 2016/c). DeLio (2001, pp. 232-233) seems to confirm this, stating:

“(F)or Xenakis, the process of composing was a process of investigation and discovery, an ongoing search for new sonic materials as yet untested as musical matter […] At one point in music history the boundary for Western music consisted of a set of twelve pitch classes. Thanks to composers like Xenakis, such boundaries seem to have disappeared; we hear every sound of a musical work in the context of the entire world of sounds.”

Worby (2016/c) further notes, most of Xenakis’ compositions tend to be generally derived from a wall of sound and, thereby, his works can be seen as the precursor to “noise music”.

In 1958 Ligeti, who was given the chance to work with Stockhausen after producing several “penetrating analytical studies […] in which he criticized certain aspects of serial composition”, made an electroacoustic piece, entitled “Artikulations” (Sallis, 2002, p. 255; Worby, 2016/c). This piece was made up of purely electronic sounds recorded onto four-track tape and demonstrated how two sounds might abstractly converse with one another within the stereo field (Sallis, 2002, p. 260; Asko Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw & Schönberg Ensemble, 2008; Worby, 2016/c). In 1961 Ligeti notably composed “Atmosphères”, which was made up of “dense, web-like sound textures” that changed slowly over time via a process called “micropolyphony” (Sallis, 2002, p. 256; Berliner Philharmoniker & Nott, 2008; Worby, 2016/c). Sallis (2002, p. 256) comments further on “Atmosphères”, saying “Ligeti managed to collapse what were previously considered to be foreground and background elements of musical structure into a magma of evolving sound.”

In his ongoing quest to discover new sounds, Cage composed “Cartridge Music” in 1960 (Chadabe, 1997, p. 81). One important difference about this piece is obvious: he wrote it with an aim to be able to perform electronic music live (Chadabe, 1997, p. 81). This composition allowed him to investigate an exceptionally novel pallet of “small” sounds, which needed amplification in order to be heard properly in a concert hall (Chadabe, 1997, p. 81; Worby, 2016/d). This was done by placing assorted objects into phonographic pick-up cartridges e.g. feathers, guitar strings and the like, and then amplifying their outputs to hear the detail in the sound produced (Chadabe, 1997, p. 81; Worby, 2016/d).

Inspired by Cage’s works, the composer named Raymond Murray Schaeffer founded the “World Soundscape Project” (WSP) in the late 1960s to study the acoustic environment and the impact that technology had on it (Westerkamp, 1991, p. 1; Rumson, 2002, p. 448). However, Schafer’s approach to sound was more systematic than Cage’s own methodologies (Rumson, 2002, p. 448). Rumson (2002, p. 448) notes, “Schafer is not concerned with mere pitch or even rhythmic awareness, but with sensitivity to sound in all its manifestations and then hard on the relationship of awareness and creativity.” Two particular members of the original research group, Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp, have composed a diverse collection of carefully considered pieces made from sounds that they have gathered from the sonic environment. Probably the most notable of these is Westerkamps’s 1989 composition “Cricket Voice”, which uses recordings of crickets song – both slowed down and at normal speed – from the Mexican desert (Segel, 2002, p. 80). A review by Segel (2002, p. 80) notes, “(u)ltimately an encompassing landscape piece, it proved beautiful and meditative, with flowing layers of tones falling upon the listeners.” Here we can clearly see how technology and scientific knowledge have afforded compositional practices to become enriched by everyday ‘sounds’ (DeLio, 2001, pp. 231-232).

“Of all the changes that have swept across our musical landscape, it seems to me that none has been more significant than the simple fact that what we now accept as material for making music includes virtually anything that we hear in our daily lives.” (DeLio, 2001, p. 232)

As we have already seen, electroacoustic compositions were not the only ways in which a composer can investigate and experiment with new sounds (Oliveros to Baker, 2003). One can also leave behind the limiting sonic textures of present-day musical instruments by inventing new instruments, just as Harry Bertoia did in the late 1950s (Brien, 2015, p. 3). The renowned American sculptor discovered the latent resonant possibilities hidden in the fine metals he was using for his furniture and sculptures and, in a barn that he owned in some Pennsylvanian woods, he began building a selection of sonic sculptures and gongs, which he played late at night, recording his efforts on ¼” tape with four microphones (Brien, 2015, p. 3). He eventually would play back these recordings through monitors via a second tape machine, all the while recording himself playing along to these recordings, which effectively produced some interesting textures of ambient sounds (Brien, 2015, p. 3). Of these compositions, the earliest is his 1970 “Bellissima Bellissima Bellissima”, which beautifully relays the sustained shimmering tones revealed from his unique instrumental compositions (Brien, 2015, pp. 3-4; Harry Bertoia, 2015).

One particular electroacoustic composition that fully realized the avant-garde’s imperative to explore any and all sonic possibilities came from Alvin Lucier. In 1969 he composed “I Am Sitting in Room”, which aptly highlights Lucier’s main concern with composition in general: how the physical aspects of sound interact with the acoustical spaces in which they are made or heard (Burt, 2002, p. 269). In this piece, Lucier is heard reading his simple statement of intent:

“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but, more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.” (Lucier, 1969 in Burt, 2002).

As Toop notes, Lucier’s piece is as much a scientific experiment as it is an electroacoustic composition, offering as many possibilities as there are rooms in the world (The Hear and Now Fifty – Alvin Lucier, 2013). Toop goes on say, “(t)here is a fascinating reverse movement or counter movement within the piece in the sense that you loose meaning of the voice but you gain meaning of the piece as you move through it.” (The Hear and Now Fifty – Alvin Lucier, 2013)

In the 1960s the San Francisco Tape Music Centre (SFTMC) was setup as a non-profit organization by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender (Baker, 2003). Wanting to expand on their two Hewlett Packard oscillators and tape machine setup, the SFTMC worked with (and financed) the engineer Donald Buchla, helping him create the Buchla Modular Electronic Music System, a.k.a. the ‘Buchla Box’ (Hickling, 2014; Morton Subotnick (RBMA Madrid 2011 Lecture), 2015). Subotinick’s 1968 “Silver Apples of the Moon”, which exclusively features sounds made on the ‘Buchla Box’, provides an abstract, yet wondrous array of novel synthesized soundscapes that are glaringly free from traditional musical forms (Morton Subotnick, 2011; Morton Subotnick (RBMA Madrid 2011 Lecture), 2015).

As sound synthesis became more commonplace with the advent of the ‘Buchla Box’ and the Moog synthesizer, so too did the array of synthetic sounds found in compositions (Gibbs, 2007, p. 26). During the 1970s, while at Stanford University, John Chowning developed a new sound synthesis method (over and above the established techniques of additive and subtractive synthesis) called Frequency Modulation (FM) (Roads, 1996, pp. 225-226; Ingleton, 2016). In 1973 Chowning (1973, pp. 526) published a paper that “yielded an insight which may prove to have general relevance in all natural sounds: the character of the temporal evolution of the spectral components is of critical importance in the determination of timbre.” His research inspired him to make several compositions that beautifully demonstrate the potential of FM synthesised sound: shimmering metallic spectra with durational variances morph in and out of alien harmonies, resembling choral vocal textures (John Chowning, 1988).

It is worth noting that computers certainly aided Chowning with his research. As Max Mathews (Mathews in Park, 2009, p. 12) declares:

“[Chowning’s] discovery of the FM synthesis techniques, came just at the time when complex computer chips were understood well enough so that it was feasible to design special-purpose chips to do particular operations-in this case, FM synthesis.”

Funnily enough, it was Mathews’ own publication in Science magazine that brought Chowning and Jean-Claude Risset over to Bell Labs (where Mathews was working at the time on the “Music” software programs), which facilitated Chowning and Risset to make their respective discoveries in FM synthesis and spectral synthesis (Park, 2009, pp. 11-12). Mathews verifies the importance of this meeting by saying, “Risset’s and Chowning’s reading the Science article was the start of a very essential and important movement in computer music.” (Mathews in Park, 2009, p. 12) The combined efforts of Mathews’ “Music” software research and Miller Puckette’ block-diagram compilers (a graphical interface) evolved the very popular, modular Max/MSP software, making computer music all the more readily accessible to research institutions (Mathews in Park, 2009, p. 20).

Between 1981 and 1984 Pierre Boulez composed “Répons”, which was developed at the “Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique et Musique” (IRCAM) (Crispin, 2002, p. 80; Worby, 2016/c). This piece was the first responsive composition of its kind i.e. the orchestra would play something and a computer program would modulate it in response to what had been played (Worby, 2016/c). Despite the great interest in this piece (primarily as it is the first composition to fuse the electronic and the acoustic), it is Boulez’s earlier serial composition “Le Marteau sans maître” that is worthy of note for the purpose of this essay, as it shows an interesting sonorous method for mixing ideas about music and poetry (Crispin, 2002, p. 78). In 1954, Boulez used three poems of René Char’s as a “structural determinate rather than a source of affection” for the music (Crispin, 2002, p. 78, Worby, 2016/c). Char’s poems are very abstract; that is to say, they were written so that the words were arranged on the basis that they sounded aesthetically pleasing together (O’Hagan & Boulez, 2007, p. 634; Worby, 2016/c). Boulez performed exactly the same procedures as Char, only using instrumental timbres instead of words (Worby, 2016/c). This piece was described by Stravinsky “as the finest work of Boulez’s generation” and has generally been hailed as Boulez’s masterpiece in serialism (Crispin, 2002, p. 78, O’Hagan & Boulez, 2007, pp. 632-633). Despite its “idiosyncratic” serialist method, which results in even the most competent of listeners having trouble recognizing any type of serialist organization within the piece, Lerdahl confirms its aesthetic qualities by stating, “Vast numbers of nonredundant events fly by, but the effect is of a smooth sheen of pretty sounds.” (Lerdahl, 1992, pp. 97-98) Despite this suggestion of mystique, O’Hagan clearly notes the serial methods used by Boulez to create this piece i.e. intervallic displacement generates new serial groupings used throughout the cycle of all four movements (O’Hagan & Boulez, 2007, pp. 635-640). Boulez’s comments on the results of his method, particularly relating to the final movement, are revealing about his aesthetic aims for the sound of this piece: “(t)he poem is the centre of the music, although it becomes absent from the music, like the shape of an object that is preserved by lava after the object itself has disappeared.” (Boulez in O’Hagan & Boulez, 2007, p. 640)

But perhaps it is Bernard Parmegiani’s efforts that have best demonstrated the potential for a sound-based approach to composition. Having avidly listened to musique concrete on the radio as a child, he ended up first working with Schaeffer and Xenakis in 1959 at the GRMC as a sound engineer (Khazam, 2013). Then, several years later, attending the two-year GRMC training course, he was finally accepted as a composer there (Khazam, 2013). After many seemingly innovative compositions, he finally produced his masterpiece in 1975, entitled “De Natura Sonorum”, which (as it’s title suggests) was created “to investigate the nature of sound by opposing natural and artificial sounds” (Khazam, 2013). As Khazam (2013) further notes, “It took a rigorous, almost scientific approach to sound, associating, in 12 brief movements, different instrumental, electronic and concrete sounds.” This work set aside the crude, earlier sound experiments of the GRMC and allowed a new creative genre to come into being: acousmatic music (Khazam, 2013; Bernard Parmegiani, 2015).

Denis Smalley’s “Pentes”, from 1974, is an important acousmatic and electroacoustic composition with regard to understanding how sound can be used in composing (Harrison, 1989, p. 531). It uses a selection of sounds recorded from orchestral instruments (as the source material), which are then analyzed for their various acoustic properties and redesigned into novel sounds (Truax, 1984, p. 205). As Truax (1984, pp. 205-206) points out about this work:

“The […] title (meaning slopes, inclines or ascents) describes the contours of specific sound layers, as in the explosive attack sounds with long textured decays, and the larger-scale accumulations, as in the attractive middle section where the drone harmonies of the Northumbrian pipes […] gradually unfold and lead to a brief and haunting traditional melody on that instrument.”

In “Pentes”, Harrison notes “the origin of sound is of secondary importance to the role they play in the musical argument” and suggests that this composition’s popularity is, in part, due to the mimetic and highly abstract sounds used within the piece that allow an audience to listen to it in several ways (Harrison, 1989, p. 531). This idea seems to be echoed by Bathes, who says, “(w)e know that today post-serial music has radically altered the role of the “interpreter”, who is called on to be in some sort the co-author of the score, completing it rather than giving it ‘expression’.” (Bathes, 1977, p. 163) This exceptionally penetrating, yet open way, of composing with sound allows one to create dreamscape textures of sonic realism that have not been heard before, something that Varèse and Schaeffer were both vociferously aspiring toward. As if to verify this notion, Smalley (1997, p. 107) states:

“The art of music is no longer limited to the sounding models of instruments and voices. Electroacoustic music opens access to all sounds, a bewildering sonic array ranging from the real to the surreal and beyond. For listeners the traditional links with physical sound-making are frequently ruptured: electroacoustic sound-shapes and qualities frequently do not indicate known sources and clauses. Gone are the familiar articulations of instruments and vocal utterance: gone is the stability of note and interval: gone too is the reference of beat and metre. Composers also have problems: how to cut an aesthetic path and discover a stability in a wide-open sound world, how to develop appropriate sound-making methods, how to select technologies and software.”

Certainly Smalley notes that modern day acousmatic music has evolved around ideas of psychoacoustic understanding, whereby tones can be made to move freely through aural spatiality and even vanish into the distance as the spectra-morphological energies discharged by a set of speakers influences where we perceive the sound to be in our field of hearing (CIRMMTvideo, 2014).

Acousmatic music aside, there are also some important acoustic compositions from the later part of the 20th century that demonstrate how a sound-based approach to composition can yield stunning results. One of these is “Into the Blue” by Rebecca Saunders, which clearly demonstrates how carefully arranged acoustic sounds, derived from traditional acoustic instruments, can just as well invoke a similar type of sonic experience to that procured by acousmatic music (Rebecca Saunders, 2015). As Adlington (1999, p. 48) notes, Saunders is obsessed “with resonance and with the material qualities of sound”. She also demonstrates a clearly intuitive and organic procedure to her composition style by saying:

“When composing I imagine holding the sounds and noises in my hands, feeling their potential between my palms, weighing them. Skeletal textures and musical gestures develop out of this. Then, like pictures placed in a large white room, I set them in silence, next to, above, beneath and against each other.” (Saunders in Adlington, 1999, p. 48)

What with the advent of powerful and affordable computing technology, along with the “Digital Audio Workstation” (DAW), the internet has become inundated with a plethora of novel sonic compositions from a frighteningly vast array of aspiring composers/musicians. However, quantity over quality is not necessarily the trade off here. Amidst the deluge of new aural works, there are sometimes startling glimmers of devastating originality from people who have had no formal musical training whatsoever, which is something that Varèse chastised the Futurists for (Wen-Chung, 1966/a, p. 151+156). Particularly Autechre’s “Chiastic Slide” and Aphex Twin’s remix compilation “26 Mixes for Cash” are two series of works worthy of note (Autechre, 1997; Aphex Twin, 2003). Both of these artists have also cited Parmegiani as a guiding influence to their own compositions (Khazam, 2013; Worby to Richard, 2016). Listening to these, there is no doubt that the originality of these artists rests with their considered use of highly abstract sounds within their compositions. Further to this, the “hierarchies” that Parmegiani (and others) were subject to in the world of musique concrète i.e. waiting for a central figure to grant one the use of facilities in an expensive record studio, are no longer valid or, necessarily, needed (Khazam, 2013).

Varèse’s, Russolo’s and Cage’s edict to expand on the types of sound used in composition has not changed much over the course of the 20th century. However, the technologies and, thus, the methodologies used to realize new sounds have. In some ways this has afforded the composer-of-today a chance to free themselves from the confines of the ‘commonplace’ acoustic palette derived from orchestral (and other static forms of acoustic instrument) type sounds. However, as science uncovers the finer empirical details of how sound’s inner workings function via wave-theory and the like, sound based composition methodologies tend to use ever more technologically detailed methods for creating new timbres and sonic textures (Chowning, 1973; Park, 2009). This (perhaps) means that the act of composing can become more procedural and less intuitive (Smalley 1997, p. 107). Certainly this is something that Pierre Schaeffer became aware of while composing musique concrète at the GRMC, as well as Max Mathews when he wrote “The Technology of Computer Music” in 1969 as an instruction manual for musicians (Palombini, 2002, p. 434; Park, 2009, pp. 12-13). Even so, there is little doubt that Varèse and Cage, who harbored a reverence for science being able to free the composer from the dogmatic musical sensibilities of our past as well as the sonic textures inherited with classical instruments, would be impressed with where some composers have taken sound (Wen-Chung, 1966/a, p. 151; Cage, 1977, at 40mins; Russo & Warner, 1988, p. 62; Hartsock, 2002, p. 534; Cox & Warner, 2006, p. 17).

As we can see, a sound-based approach to composition has let composers move beyond established norms. Worby (2016/d) mentions there are now as many new ways of composing as there are composers, adding that perhaps we are reaching the limits of what music can achieve. Tom Service generally agrees with Worby’s view, but suggests that we are living in an age where there are so many seismic events occurring in music that we now rarely notice them when they occur (Tom Service: Where have all the seismic moments gone, 2016). Mathews feels that the technology nowadays has unlocked the limits to what can be done in computer music, stating that “the bottleneck is no longer in the computer.” (Mathews in Park, 2009, p. 19) Instead, he feels that “the future lies in understanding the reaction of the human brain to music” (Mathews in Park, 2009, p. 20). Certainly Lerdahl seems to agree with Mathews’ notion, stating “(m)usic-generating algorithms alone have always produced primitive outputs; not enough is know about musical composition and cognition for them to succeed.” (Lerdahl, 1992, p. 98) Whatever the future holds for composition, one thing is for certain… While this may seem like a time where the only limit to what can be done rests within the composer’s imagination, musicology needs to work within various disciplines of science (psychology and neurology) in order to open up the field of musical aesthetics to develop more innovative and pertinent compositional methodologies.


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