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Eating and Beating Eggs

Some thoughts on electroacoustic composition

University of Calgary

I like that particular type of music that does not push. I spent the weekend with Karlheinz Stockhausen, and he had a lot of my scores, and he took them to his room and said goodnight. And he came down in the morning and he said, “I know you have no system, but what is your secret?” And I said to him, “Well, Karlheinz, I have no secret but if I could say anything to you, I advise you to leave the sounds alone; don’t push them; because they’re very much like human beings — if you push them, they push you back. So if I have a secret it would be, ‘don’t push the sounds.’” And he leaned over me and he said, “Not even a little bit?” —Morton Feldman, 1966. (1)

OK, you see that chicken? I’m gonna eat the next thing that comes out of its butt! —Michael Oesterle, 2007. (2)

In many of my electroacoustic pieces (and some of my concert music) I’ve adopted a methodology which relates to both these ideas. After attempts in some early electroacoustic pieces at manipulating the materials in a similar way to concert music materials, I realised that another approach may produce happier results. (3) This realisation came about from my fascination at that time with American minimalism, but also from thinking about total serialism and indeterminacy. All three of these disciplines have to some degree the sublimation of the creative ego as a goal, though perhaps it may be argued that total serialism seeks not so much to sublimate as to exalt the ego to a position of omnipotence. The music which results from applying such opposing methods, however, is to many listeners indistinguishable — one need only think of Boulez’s Structures and Cage’s Music of Changes. The idea of abdicating creative power and control usually raises the hackles of most people, musicians or not, who are outraged by the notion that a composer is not making decisions or taking responsibility for their work. Cage expressed it very well by pointing out that the composer using a random process to answer questions still must know the right questions to ask. My small revelation was that I could obtain results which were not only intrinsically interesting, but also were close to a pre-conception I had of the piece, by allowing external processes (external to me, that is) to shape the source material. (4) In the end, the piece may be more or less what I wanted, more or less interesting and may be worth keeping or not (many were not!), but there is something liberating about setting up parameters and letting a process happen, a sense of experimentation and openness. I felt that I was in collaboration with the technology in the creation of the pieces. Another Cage thought which has stuck with me is that a good idea can come from anywhere, so why not from a signal processor, a computer or a broken Moog module?

This spirit of experimentation can perhaps be summed up in the phrase “What if?…”

What if I eat the next thing that comes out of a chicken?
What if instead of eating it I separate the yolk from the albumen?
What if I beat the yolk for 10 minutes with a fork?
What if I beat the albumen?

It’s So Long (1986) consists of 3 sections, each one based on Frank Sinatra’s recording of Harold Arlen’s One For My Baby. Each one was made by asking “What if I did this to the source?” and “that’s interesting — what if I keep doing it?”. The first section was made by playing the source material backwards at double speed through my trusty guitar pedal (Ibanez UE 303B)—first through an autowah, then a compressor, then a stereo chorus. There is reverb added from a Lexicon spring unit.

For the second section I sped up the source to 8x and passed it repeatedly through a flanger (Roland DEP-5) using slightly different settings on each pass. I can’t recall how many passes I made — probably about 20. After this the tape was slowed down to normal speed, so that all the high frequency artefacts were now in normal pitch range and almost nothing of the original song can be recognised.

The third section was made by using the final few seconds of the song in a tape loop feedback system — each time there is an additional layer of flanging applied. I seem to remember having to EQ the bass away in the first few loops, so as to guide the pitch upwards, otherwise the resonant frequencies were in the boomy 100Hz range — not the effect I was after. When the tape is reversed we begin with the most processed version and work down to the original.

I remember making several attempts at the first section, tweaking the pedal’s parameters to find the most pleasing sound, but this was basically real-time processing and was not complicated. After having decided on the methodology for the second section it was simply a matter of knowing when to stop flanging. The 2nd and 3rd sections were inspired jointly by Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room and by Gilius van Bergeijk’s Pro Juventute, both of which involve repeated processing of the source material. For the 3rd section of my piece the process is happening more organically and in “real time” (even though we hear it backwards.) This section was the trickiest to make, and I threw away half a dozen versions before settling on the present one.

Occasionally it happens that a piece comes fully formed at the first attempt —one of these which fell into my lap in 2001 was if you, too, are going…. I was commissioned to make a piece for piano and electronics for a festival celebrating Canadian and Mexican music and had decided to use a recording of Mariachi music from some badly beaten vinyl I bought in a flea market as a starting point. The plan was to emphasize the scratchy sounds from the LP and use that as an accompaniment to and commentary on the piano part — the sounds would emanate from small speakers placed inside the instrument. I decided on a song called Si Tu Tambien Te Vas, Dora María — an amiable C major march. I began working to remove the non-scratchy sounds using EQ and phase cancellation tools in Logic Audio. I’d got pretty much what I wanted, when on a whim I decided to let the computer interpret the recorded song as MIDI information — for this I used Studio Vision, because when I’d experimented with Audio-to-MIDI processing in the past, it had been more accurate than Logic. The resulting MIDI file was very inaccurate, quite far removed from the march tune, but was so exquisite that I decided that it would become the piano part as it was. The majority of it hints at F minor and contains many repeated notes and repeating evolving fragments (quite like the music I make up myself in fact) but the rhythmic complexity was so intense that it took me 6 weeks to cast it into legible form. (5)

I decided also that I wanted the electronics to begin with very spiky sounds (6) and gradually smooth out somehow, at the same time descending in pitch. It seemed appropriate to me that since the computer had already made so many good decisions, I could surely trust it to handle this aspect of the processing as well — I wanted the pitch of the scratches to fall about 4 octaves and I found that the piano part contained 47 occurences of the note C2. Therefore each C2 triggers Logic’s Pitch Shifter to lower the vinyl noise by a semitone. At the same time a noise gate lets more of the surface noise bleed through the texture along with the spikes of the scratches.

It is clear that this sort of enterprise, involving release of creative control and collaboration with and trust in one’s technology, to some extent shapes the æsthetic of the pieces which are made. Dramatic form is very unlikely to present itself as a result of this methodology, and this suits me very well. It may not be appropriate for every piece and I certainly do not suggest that it is somehow a “new path” or anything of that kind, but I am very glad to have it in my toolbox.


  1. Quoted in Jolyon Laycock and David Charlton, “An Interview with Morton Feldman.” Accessed March 1, 2007.
  2. In a lecture at the 11th Windsor Canadian Music Festival, February 2007.
  3. I don’t mean to say that I was unhappy with the pieces that I made this way, rather that the process of making them was for me rather painful. I’m very happy to push notes around when writing chamber music, and have relied on systems for that purpose in much of my music. With electroacoustic work it is different for some reason — perhaps because the possibilities are too vast and I feel unqualified to choose the “best” among so many worthy candidates.
  4. This reminds me of the process of dyeing fabric with plant dyes where one begins with an idea of a goal colour, but the materials by their nature do not allow for precise prediction of outcomes based on repeatable actions — leave the fabric in a certain concentration of dye for a specific period of time, stir at regular intervals, rinse a certain number of times, apply a mordant of this metal in this concentration for this period of time. The resulting colour will probably be similar to the last time these procedures were followed, but unlikely to be identical. A decision which must be made before engaging in this kind of work is to be prepared to accept the outcome as “close enough” and to celebrate its particular beauty. Of course very often it happens that the outcome is not close enough — then the piece is either abandoned or adapted for a different project.
  5. I confess I was non-plussed when Colleen Athparia, who gave the première and subsequently recorded it, sight-read the part.
  6. In the recording of the piece on the Centrediscs label the first (electronic) sound has been removed, presumably by an engineer who took it to be an undesirable artefact.

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