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Conversations With Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music (Norma Beecroft)

Conversations With Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music
by Norma Beecroft
Distributed by the Canadian Music Centre (CMC), 2015. 474 pp. SKU: BK-pioneers-1.
$15.00 CAD

Norma Beecroft has shared a rare gift to aficionados and practitioners of electroacoustic music in a collection of interviews she conducted in the late 1970s with an impressive roster of innovators who have shaped the way we practice and think about electronic sound. A small sampling among the 23 fascinating interviews yields insights and reflections by Pierre Schaeffer, Iannis Xenakis, François Bayle, John Cage, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hugh Davies, Luciano Berio and Barry Truax, to name just a few. Released in 2015, the text offers an occasion to meditate on how their significant impact has persevered, and also on the ways in which the field has developed since that time.

Most of the interviews in the text are not given a precise date, but the majority of them appear to have been conducted in 1977. The year was exceptionally significant for the field in many ways, and the sense of excitement (and sometimes uncertainty) is evident in the exchanges concerning the development of new studios and new technology, and the social and economic realities surrounding the production of electronic music at that time. The year 1977 was the 100th anniversary of the phonograph, the year Computer Music Journal was established, and the year the two Voyager spacecraft were launched (along with their gold-plated copper discs containing scenes, greetings, music and sounds from Earth). Electronic music was becoming increasingly present in public life at the same time that the medium was encountering changes.

To some of the interviewees in Beecroft’s text, these changes offered exciting new avenues, and to others they represented a cooling down of the enthusiasm and revolutionary spirit of electronic music’s beginnings. François Bayle offers a particularly warm and optimistic discussion. His long-tenured post as director of the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) had then only recently involved integrating with the new Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA), representing an increasing interaction with the public sphere and other disciplines. Karel Goeyvaerts muses how electronic music had become almost ordinary, shifting from something that was “considered as absolutely different” to something with more “normal proportions” (p. 276). Gottfried Michael Koenig suggests that electronic means were becoming increasingly detached from the explicit æsthetic frameworks with which they were initially associated (p. 307), and Barry Truax examines the increasingly problematic role of electronic sound in the social and commercial environment.

Beecroft’s collection of interviews is notable not only for the many prominent names it includes, but for those it excludes as well. IRCAM was opened in 1977 and its founder Pierre Boulez (whose recent death at 90 came just as I was reading these interviews) is a shadow that follows many of the discussions. Boulez declined to be interviewed — a fact noted by Beecroft prefacing her interview with Jean-Claude Risset and Gerald Bennett, representing IRCAM on his behalf. Beecroft is not afraid of discussing the controversial composer and voicing her opinions in the context of the interviews, confiding to François Bayle: “Boulez’s music, for me, isn’t progressive” (p. 98). Whether the various interviewees agree with that perspective or not, Boulez’s impact as a pioneer of electronic music is felt throughout the text. Many of the other interviewees offer speculation on what IRCAM was to become. This glimpse into the institute’s formative days offers an intriguing window into the ways that it has evolved, exceeding some expectations, thwarting others.

Furthermore, 1977 was the year that Hugh Le Caine died. The pioneering Canadian instrument designer and composer is therefore not among those interviewed, but his impact is also conveyed through many of the other interviewees, especially in discussions with Gustav Ciamaga and Bill Buxton. 1[1. Norma Beecroft’s interviews with Gustav Ciamaga and Bill Buxton were republished in eContact! 17.2, an issue devoted entirely to Hugh Le Caine.] Addressing the idea of pioneering figures, Otto Luening suggests that “Le Caine was way out in front” (p. 189). As the 23 interviews in the text are organized as a kind of geographical tour — from France, to the USA, to Germany, the UK and finally to Beecroft’s home of Canada — Le Caine’s presence behind these discussions provides a kind of narrative impulse for the interviews: a pioneer providing much of the context for a Canadian composer working with technology to engage with other pioneering work around the world and finally return home.

Beecroft’s journey also highlights another significant exclusion among the interviews. Though she herself is a pioneer of electronic music, all of the subjects of her interviews are men. While there are many pioneering women in the field who were in fact active at the time the interviews were made (Pauline Oliveros, Daphne Oram, Éliane Radigue, Beatriz Ferreyra, Delia Derbyshire, Marcelle Deschênes and Hildegard Westerkamp, to name only a few at random), it is certainly true that electroacoustic music has often been a community exclusionary toward women. Pierre Schaeffer offers a perfect example of this bias when he discusses the current crop of students at the GRM, referring to them only as “les garçons” (“the boys”, p. 34). With these interviews published nearly 40 years later, I wish I could say that this is no longer a problem. Despite some arguable improvement 2[2. I am happy to note that eContact! has devoted three issues to the topic of “Women in Electroacoustics” (including its inaugural issue).], the gender dynamics of our field remain a significant problem, leaving at least one area where important pioneering work remains to be done, and yet another reason that Beecroft’s own work is to be celebrated.

Beecroft’s interviews are especially compelling as a window into a time when the computer was becoming an increasingly prominent aspect of much electronic music, but was still novel and distinct enough that it was pertinent for her to raise the issue in nearly all of her interviews. For some, such as Pierre Schaeffer and Gottfried Michael Koenig, the computer did not represent a fundamental shift in the nature of electronic composition, whereas others, like Vladimir Ussachevsky, Hubert Howe and Barry Truax, convey a kind of optimism and excitement for the new possibilities on the horizon. Whichever view one took, at that time “computer music” was becoming well asserted as a distinct genre of music, attracting various reactions. Desmond Briscoe cheekily suggests that “computer music is splendid for other computers to listen to” (p. 359) whereas Hubert Howe passionately champions computer music as “the only medium that there is that can provide you access to any sound” (p. 214).

Today the distinction of computer music from other forms of electroacoustic music is of course much less meaningful, as computers have become ubiquitous and generally superseded many of the analogue means of electronic music production. For the younger generation of electroacoustic composers, including myself, electroacoustic music has always been tied to the computer, and the device is not considered something requiring special scientific knowledge or rare economic or academic access. Throughout her interviews, Beecroft engages in discussions surrounding the difficult integration between creative and scientific ways of thinking, portending or insisting that these forces come together in order to take full advantage of electronic means of music making. It seems to me that her wishes have come true; at least in the sense that through the computer’s increasing accessibility these distinctions do not seem as severe today. The publication of these interviews now, then, gives as a fascinating occasion not only to examine the ways in which we have tackled many challenges, but also to consider how technological development has followed certain assumptions. Beecroft writes in her preface that her inquiries were spurred by a conference in Stockholm in 1970 organised by UNESCO and the Fylkingen Society that asked: “Does [musical composition using new technology] have a future?” (p. 4) Nearly half a century later, examining a time at which many futures were possible allows us to uncover the paths we have taken and consider alternate futures that we may pursue in our every inquiry.

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