Re: electroacoustics - rap to tap to zap to frap

Subject: Re: electroacoustics - rap to tap to zap to frap
From: John Oliver (
Date: Fri Aug 06 2004 - 17:22:27 EDT

On Aug 6, 2004, at 4:17 AM, wrote:

> In a message dated 8/6/04 3:25:10 AM, writes:
> Making a patch for a Buchla or an FM7 is NOT programming... period.
> There
> >>is little to no ambiguity here. If you think using your FM7 means
> you are
> >>programming, you are deluding yourself.
> Has anyone mentioned that to create music, it's how well the music
> expresses what the composer wishes to have heard, not whether sounds
> are programmed?
> Vivian

Vivian - that was exactly the point (though I did not directly state
it) of my last (rather cryptic) post/probe.

I have great respect and admiration for those who dedicate themselves
to computer programming. Without them, so many new sounds and ideas of
organizing them would not be available to those without programming
skills. I think it's reasonable to observe that the computer
programmer/composer has the possibility of much higher control of sound
at the DNA level, but that doesn't mean better pieces come out. I do
not think that programming skills are required to create experimental
music or any music. Experimentation can occur at the micro or macro
level. I think those who have programming and composing skills may
create a composition that succeeds, but I don't think that composition
will de facto be more successful than those pieces being created where
there is a division of labour between programming and composing.
Actually, the latter is becoming the norm, isn't it, much like the
instrument builder and the composer for orchestral music? I'm thinking
of the great quantities of "computer music" being created by composers
using software synthesizers created by commercial or independent
software designers. Or, as Lawrence said, and I agree with him,

> In the 19th century, the development of the modern piano opened up an
> enormous range of possibilities for composers, so the development of
> "piano music" became a significant force in new music of the time.
> Since then, the piano has become simply a standard instrument in
> western music, implying no particular style or genre, just a routine
> workhorse. Is the computer, which created startling new possibilities,
> already into this transition phase?

But Eliot, your point is not about whether computer music succeeds as
art in the ear of the perceiver, but rather about a qualitative
perception that is only possible by computer-produced sound, right? The
creation of "astonishment" though, is also in the ear of the perceiver.
A comb-filtered/granulated voice may be astonishing to a novice and
hackneyed for the advanced.

Anyway, at the risk of stating the obvious, more knowledge is a good
thing but division of labour is sometimes necessary for the success of
a creative enterprise. For example, the composer who knows the
principles of construction of the instruments of the orchestra and
understands their spectra is more likely to write music for those
instruments that will sound well. In addition to this, the composer has
to understand the kinetics of the musician's movements that make the
sounds come from the instruments. No one would say that the composer
must build the instruments to write well for them.

For me, attempts to attribute stylistic characteristics to the gross
categories of computer music, or electroacoustic music confuse
categorical and stylistic naming. Orchestral music describes the notion
that a lot of instruments are used to make the noise. Then you talk
about the music. "Orchestral Music" is not a style. The same, I argue,
with "electroacoustic music" and "computer music." Discussions of
technical means and aesthetic result need to be separated. For example,
if one were to use FM or Csound to create a Sheppard scale effect, it
would be "computer music;" if one were to use an orchestra to create a
similar effect, it would still be "orchestral music." How many spectral
composers use computers to create complex music that then gets
performed by an orchestra? Computers were used, but it's not computer
music. For that, we have the term "computer-assisted composition." So
we need more terminology it would seem.

The new ideas that occur because humans use computers are what interest

But it's Eliot's part of this discussion that brings computer music's
definition (and potential revised definition) into clear focus for me
when he says:

> computer music has got to constantly ask itself about things only
> possible through computation. By
> definition it must have a developing edge. Ultimately that means
> doing astonishing things in music,
> because the computer, besides its lowly status as "tool," is also a
> machine for creating astonishment.

I really like Eliot's way of expressing that computer music must have a
"developing edge" but that it must at the same time be based on
listening. Eliot says:

> So the way in which listening
> is constructed seems to me paramount in trying to situate computer
> music.

Even so, I think that "the way in which listening is constructed"
depends on the listener's experience and culture. But this definition
keeps the notion of the composer's intention as an aspect of the
definition. As long as humans are still listening and that humans are
the intended audience.

Computer music, so defined, is narrow and would exclude activities
where there is a more generalized use of the computer in music (where
the "developing edge" is lacking). New terminology needs to be invented
to identify the qualitative difference between the different
activities. Or does it? Perhaps we just need subcategories?

I had been wanting to express the amazement that the composer
interacting with computer experiences, but gogins beat me to it:

> I feel the speed and precision of computing
> very much make it possible to think and do things heretofore not only
> impossible, but even unimaginable.

His next point brings up an interesting issue.

> I certainly feel that the computer is a blessing to me -- I'm sure I'd
> be
> at best a mediocre composer without it, but I have yet to feel I've
> plumbed
> even the edge of what I can do with it. The unimaginability (before
> they
> run, anyway) of the algorithms evades my limitations and, in
> particular,
> avoids a certain kitschiness that I don't seem able to escape in my
> unassisted musical imagination.

What can be done without the computer? Many composers who only use a
computer to notate the score might agree that there's much more to do
even without a computer. And what is this kitschiness that you can't
avoid? This is an issue that is central to finding a new computer music
(or even just "music") that brings together the human need for certain
archetypes of musical structure with the "unheard of" ("inouie" in
French). Will computer assisted composition or computer music be able
to enlarge our (composer's and audience's) perceptual experience to a
point where a new language emerges that can express both amazement and
emotional feeling? Can the assisted imagination be educated by the
interaction with the computer to enrich the kitschy one? I think the
generalized presence of the computer in the creator's workflow, and in
the lives of creators and audience, set the stage for the shift.

But without the "amazing developing edge" that computer programmers
explore, the rest of us won't have the new tools to work with.


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