Re: [WAVE_LIST@UNT.EDU] The Engineer Composer - LONG!!

Subject: Re: [WAVE_LIST@UNT.EDU] The Engineer Composer - LONG!!
From: Kevin Austin (
Date: Tue Feb 01 2005 - 00:03:09 EST

At 09:11 -0500 2005/01/31, William Osborne wrote:
>There is much to be said for the engineer composer. There is something
>almost existential in the mathematical and musical nature of the
>world. When mathematics returns to music, it is almost as if it
>returns to its mother's arms.

In my teaching, I do not make the distinction. My view is that the
electroacoustic composer needs to have a solid fundamental grasp of
all aspects of the discipline, aesthetic and technical, which will
include history and repertoire, basic studio practices, acoustics,
psychoacoustics and linguistics, and analysis and composition, and
that examples of these should be drawn from a wide range of
electroacoustic practice.

>But there is also something to be said for a sensible division of labor.

This is the traditional european model of the composer working with
engineers. The history of ea has shown that this is highly
restrictive, as the allocation of the necessary resources becomes a
limiting factor.

>For whatever reason, the Ircam model for collaboration between
>resident composers, engineers, and performers seems to have proven
>the most
>effective for producing a large body of high quality music.

This is at the highest international levels of ea. An important
aspect of the work at IRCAM is that their research has become
available to the public over the years, even though a touch expensive.

The other side of this is that the "base line" available to people
working outside the institutions has risen and rises ever more
rapidly. Hardware (such as a dual G5), and software (running 96/24)
is now within the reach of most serious ea practitioners. (This may
be an operational definition of "serious".)

>On the other hand, some institutions are less focussed on bridging
>the gap between composer and engineer.

Could you site a couple of examples please?

>They feel this might not always be necessary.

Could you document this interpretation?

>Understandably, the institution's engineers create music themselves.

Some specific examples? CCRMA?

>The instruments they develop sometimes even become proprietary (at
>least for a time,) something like a trademark that makes their
>artistic statements unique.

Is this in reference to the DX-7? or IRCAM?

>A special authenticity has been assigned to these engineer composers.

You may assign this "special authenticity", but in my experience
there is no widely accepted "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" in
the ea community.

It may be as Hugh LeCaine's widow was at pains to point out, there
are no institutions, only individuals.

>They are often thought to be the deepest practitioners in the field,
>those who first reveal the special musical beauties of the
>mathematical world.

This statement may be a reflection as how you perceive and organize
reality ... my perception and organization is somewhat different. The
special beauties of the mathematical world, translated into sound
dates back at least 3000 years in China, and back to the Greeks in
western civilization.

>They become the Brahman's of computer music.

Could you provide (say) 4 or 5 names?

>If composers want to be the most hip and cutting edge, they must
>become engineers, even if it means vastly reducing the time they can
>spend on actual music-making and the development of cultural

Possibly you live in another culture than the one I live in, where
"hip and cutting edge" may have other parameters that define them.

>The inevitable result is that many composers become so caught up in
>technological issues that their musical lives become dissipated.

I am not convinced of the perceptability of the cosmic nature of
inevitability. I have a strong taste for the cosmic law of cause and
effect (karma) as reflected in the cosmos, and even in the lines of
the hand, and would like to know who (some of) these composers are
... by name.

>Naturally, questions arise around this concept of the engineer composer.

Naturally is a cultural conceit.

>Does a formal musical education make a difference?

A question asked again and again in many circles. There are the odd
individual who did not get or seek a formal musical education, but I
feel in discussions about the general community, it more important to
focus on the 98% rather than the 2% who are the exceptions.

>Do all those years studying music history, its literature and its
>theories increase one's aesthetic comprehension?

As a teacher, I would like to think so, but a quick review of history
will show that Hitler rose to power on top of one of the greatest
cultural achievements of western europe -- Germany and Austria in the
19th century, and the United States has gone into rapid cultural
decline in the past 4 years.

>Does it help to have studied how the human mind has organized
>abstract sound for the last four or five hundred years and how it
>has contributed deeply to the development of our human identity?

Again, I would like to think so, but an examination of the United
States in the past 4 years may lead to that question not being so
easy to answer.

>Does rigorous performance training contribute to cognitive structures that
>are important, and perhaps even essential, to musical meaning?

The disciplining of the mind in my experience can contribute to
cognitive structures, but I feel that the concept of "musical
meaning" is still up for grabs.

I have played examples of Chinese opera styles to highly
(performance) trained (western) musicians, and they have found the
divergent styles to sound remarkably similar. The extraction of
"meaning" is, IME, cultural.

>Can these things be learned over at the school of engineering?

A school of engineering is often a program that has to meet stringent
regional and / or national standards. I have met musicians who happen
to make a living as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc etc.

>Part of this problem centers around the way the computer is disembodying

Sorry, I don't see the problem. It is my experience that having sound
issuing from a loudspeaker seems not to 'disembody' music, as that is
more than 98% of most people's experience.

For me, it is not "the computer" which does anything, it is the
people who use the computer. I have noted in this age of
PhotoShopMusic, that there are visual artists who have not understood
the breadth and depth of the discipline of sound and interpretation
of sound. (Did you hear the "Forty Voice Motet" monstrosity?)

>In his keynote address for the ICMC 2000 in Berlin, Joel Chadabe,
>said, "We want a holistic instrument that stresses the intellect and isn't
>dependant on the body. We can play the sounds of a cityscape. Why do you
>need a body for that?" Even though he is not against the body, he spoke of
>it as an unnecessary hindrance to music-making, a limitation to freedoms of
>the intellect. This philosophy is fairly central to the engineer
>composer, since their bodies often do not have much musical training

Am I to understand that you are saying that Joel is an engineer
composer whose body does not have much musical training?

>Some feel this approach might be based on false assumptions about
>what humans are.

I don't know who "some" are, or how it is possible (outside of a
specific cultural and historical context) to speak of "false
assumptions of what humans are". This begins to sound somewhat like
the American conservative right having the "right" (true) answers.

>The engineer composer's disembodiment of music is also a very
>gendered issue, since it has long been observed that women
>composers, and other types of women creators such a performance
>artists, are much more inclined to highlight their bodies on stage
>than men. In short, women seem to be more at home with the body as a
>performative medium. The reasons are probably cultural. The body and
>nature are coded as feminine, while the mind and technology are
>categorized as male. (I have some interesting references for this
>coding if anyone needs them.)

Could you site examples of this from Chinese, Japanese and (north and
south) Indian sub-continent cultures?

In support of this idea is the number of dancers who are women, and
the massive under-representation of men in the dance world.

>There are also practical questions raised by the elitist ethos of the
>engineer composer.

I feel that you have made a psycholinguistic jump here to the
"characterization" of the (so-called) engineer composer as being
"elitest". You are completely free to characterize groups with any
term you wish, you may even wish to dismiss me as an uninformed
idiot, but I do wish to point out that I have understood your posts
to be leading to this particular "characterization".

>When engineers create instruments for use only by themselves or
>their small group, they can become almost impossible for musicians
>to use.

My understanding is that this is part of the great American tradition
of the individual ... (Henry Cowell), and more notably Harry Partch,
Conlon Nancarrow, and the microtonal schools that follow from their

There is a tradition of (unique) instrument design dating back some
30 - 40 years, and many groups in the 60s and 70s built their own
instruments for their own use. (See Sonde aka MUD from Montreal).

>An ethos of geekish elitism can make the instruments unnecessarily
>opaque and poorly documented. Sometimes this obscurity *very
>consciously* reinforces an often male oriented, insider atmosphere.

Hmmm is this an operational definition of "geekish elitism"? Is this
meant to be insulting or am I missing something? Could you provide
(say) half a dozen names of these "geekish elitists" so they could
enter this discussion?

Or is this perhaps a touch of hyperbole to make a point?

>Artistic expression is almost always culturally isomorphic with the larger
>values of society.

I like the concept (sic) of "almost ... isomorphic". My understanding
is that isomorphic means existing in a one-to-one mapping, which
something is, or, as Humpty Dumpty would have it, it isn't.

>The exclusive ethos of some kinds of computer music (which is a
>continuation of the elitist technological orientation of serialism)
>might be inevitable, since elitism is an essential part of
>capitalism and its cultural expression.

Hmmm ... a rather global generalization, but it is not only
'capitalism' which has elitism. A quick reading of Chinese history
from the Song Dynasty onwards (or a study of the caste system in
India). might dispel the notion that this is only a contemporary
western issue.

>(And no, I am not a Marxist.)

And yes, I am a Marxist. A Groucho Marxist.

>As is well-known, in the United States, the top one percent of the
>population holds more wealth than the lower 90 percent. The
>financial patrons of the arts are the very wealthy. It essentially
>unavoidable that an elitist system of patronage will create a
>concept of art that reinforces, justifies, and rationalizes an ethos
>of elitism.

Indeed. It wasn't the rest of the world who voted last November.

>As the linguist Noam Chomsky has noted, one of the principle
>functions of elite universities is socialization in elitism itself.

Chomsky is one wise man ... er person

>In any case, this focus on the latest technology creates music that becomes
>rather predictable due to its aesthetic and technical confines.

This has been true of Western music, IMO, for a long time.

>A homogeneity evolves because so many people end up using relatively similar
>synthesis programs that are categorized as acceptable or "cutting edge,"
>especially MAX and SuperCollider.

As happened in the mid-18th century onwards with the classical symphony.

>These programs are very flexible, but composing with patches can
>create aesthetic and epistemological biases that incline music
>toward certain kinds of sounds and effects.

Much like VI - II - V - I

>Washes of sonic material made by stuttering loops of granulated
>sound shaped by glissing modulated timbre become somewhat ubiquitous.

This could be because of a lack of exposure to non-American
electroacoustics. The Montreal "acousmatic" scene (eg Dhomont, Calon,
Normandeau to name but three) do not fit this 'simple' pattern. You
may wish to peruse the Empreinte digitale catalog for about another
40 - 50 CDs of examples of how "non-Americans" do it.

>As always, there might also be aspects of this elitism that are
>gendered. It has been suggested that men are... er ...quite often
>preoccupied with their equipment.

Gack!! Yes. More than "quite often" ... a quick read of Ulysses will
point out how often Leopold Bloom farts.

>Well, anyway, maybe you get the idea.


>P.S. If it doesn't already exist, it might be useful for someone to
>prepare research specifically studying women engineers who develop audio
>technology used for computer music. Who are they?

Do you know the story of Dika Newlin at the Bell Labs?



This archive was generated by hypermail 2b27 : Sat Dec 22 2007 - 01:46:06 EST