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Sounding Art

Eight Literary Excursions through Electronic Music, by Katharine Norman

Sounding Art

This 227-page volume is less a handbook of music itself than a guide for those undertaking a journey through electroacoustic art. However, it contains fascinating information as well as the literary excursions to which the title refers. A CD containing excerpts of many of the works discussed in the text accompanies the book and adds to the experience.

Katharine Norman consistently finds joy in listening. An established composer and sound artist, Norman has published a number of works available on CD, including London and Transparent Things. She holds a Ph.D. in composition from Princeton, and was Director of the Electronic Music Studios at Goldsmiths, University of London, for five years. She held various other academic posts in the UK before relocating to British Columbia. In addition to her published works, she has a number of compositions available in the CEC’s online Jukebox, SONUS, including her series of “five-minute wonders.” Other information is available at her web site.

Norman makes it clear from the outset that she does not argue for any right way or wrong way to create or hear electroacoustic music. Instead, she advocates rigorous self-development in the pursuit of listening. Norman is happy to share her own responses to music, and does so extensively. Far from self-indulgent, each idea and anecdote is in the service to the reader and listener, as if to say, “Here’s how I make meaning of this, I wonder what conclusions you draw?” Just as important is her unspoken position as thoughtful fellow traveler rather than opinionated master. Norman speaks of herself only enough to inspire others. This is particularly helpful in the case of the classic question, “Do you really think that’s music?” Her answer is that it “depends on how you listen.”

An initial chapter reviewing early technological and historical advances ties together threads as diverse as the development of radio, the sound of audience members leaving a John Cage lecture, and Iannis Xenakis’ role at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, where Varese’s Poème Electronique was a highlight. One chapter models mid-seventeenth-century emblem books and discusses a handful of compositions from the last 50 years. Another chapter contains extended discussions and soundwalking with Hildegard Westerkamp. Still another contains fascinating discussion of voice characteristics and the perception of authority. Other highlights include an examination of Dhomont’s Sous le regard d’un soleil noir and numerous explorations of the nature of appropriation.

Norman writes in a plain style all too uncommon in modern music writings. She collaborates with the subject, reader, and listener alike. This does not mean that the book follows a set pattern; each chapter contains a number of thematic and visual digressions that both mirror and enhance the discussion while providing subtle challenges. Norman’s text and compositions pay close attention to space, particularly the space between herself and the reader and listener. She calls attention to the space between the time of creation and listening, the physical spaces involved in traveling, and the space of listening environments. Ironically, by calling attention to these spaces, Norman makes the gap between us all a little smaller.

Norman certainly knows what’s happening in contemporary music. While there are sections where it might have been even more helpful to include brief discussion of a number of other artists, she nonetheless provides an impressive overview of diverse areas in electroacoustic music. Artists as diverse as Luc Ferrari, Magali Babin, John Oswald, and Francisco Lopez all receive discussion. The inclusion of examples of the music she discusses gives this volume even more depth and breadth, making it an excellent choice for newcomers to electroacoustic music.

A shortcoming of this volume is the price. Although Ashgate has emerged as an excellent publisher in a number of areas (including renaissance studies as well as electroacoustic music) and this is indeed an excellent book, it is difficult to understand how such a high price is justifiable. Even Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner’s recent Ashgate book on women composers, published two years later, costs considerably less, and contains some 60 more pages of text. The inclusion of the CD in this volume cannot account for the difference.

Norman is one of a small handful of voices in the electroacoustic world who make this music stronger by highlighting the work of others. While many individual composers, labels, universities, or schools of thought appear to promulgate only their own approach — occasionally appearing downright jealous in doing so — Norman is able to bring out the very best in others and herself. As the course of music unfolds, she may well prove the adage that “who you are is as important as what you do.”

Information About the Book

Sounding Art: Eight Literary Excursions through Electronic Music
By Katharine Norman

Ashgate Publishing
February 2004, 242 pages, Hardback, 0 7546 0426 8, $113.31 CAD; $99.95 USD (Amazon).

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