Mastering the Epiphanie Sequence
A few words or so
I’ve been asked to note a few thoughts on the possibly contentious subject under discussion in this edition of eContact! Presumably, this is because Dominique didn’t find me too difficult to work with on preparing the Epiphanie Sequence for release on CD, soon to be published by Sargasso. (1) Mentioning the proposition of mastering works of electroacoustic (EA) music may be contentious, I’m thinking here of the role of the composer. And by EA music, I’ll focus my thoughts on work created in the studio for fixed media rather than “live” or otherwise real-time generated music. I might help to reflect on the words of Varèse, spoken in 1939 at what might be called the beginning of the Common Practice of EA:
Whatever I write, whatever my message, it will reach the listener unadulterated by “interpretation”…. It will work something like this: after a composer has set down his score on paper by means of a new graphic … he will then, with the collaboration of a sound engineer, transfer the score directly to this electric machine. After that anyone will be able to press a button to release the music exactly as the composer wrote it. (2)
By describing a score, it is likely apparent that Varèse hasn’t exactly left the “old world” of paper composition behind. I expect, like many of my fellow EA composers, while I do use scraps and sheets of paper to jot ideas down and keep my thoughts straight in the studio, these papers can hardly be thought of as scores. And, these could hardly be handed to a technician to realize my work. For most of us who create works in the studio (unless we’ve received a commission from an institution like IRCAM and are assigned a technician), our Common Practice usually involves the role of composer and Varèse’s “sound engineer” embodied in ourselves alone. I take great care and pride in crafting the sounds, gestures and shapes which find their way into my works. And, I usually begin the compositional process this way — finding, listening, shaping my individual sounds. The composition itself is quite a bit about putting these together, and the changes I make to them.
I would suggest the contentious aspect of mastering becomes the problem of interpretation. Varèse demands his music reaches “the listener unadulterated by ‘interpretation.’” If our triumph is the unification of Varèse’s composer and sound engineer in one person, why on earth would I be content to turn over my music to another? If the achievement of our EA Common Practice is the avoidance of the “adulterations” introduced into our music by performers, conductors and other musicians, the bane of composers of ages past, why fuss with a mastering engineer? Surely that would be missing the point, adding the distortions of “interpretation” and failing “to release the music exactly as the composer wrote it.” Anathema!
Ok, so I’ve done it, I’ve had my music mastered. (3) Perhaps it’s time to excommunicate me from the EA faithful. Or … perhaps not.
Let’s step back for a moment from our glorious achievement of the unification of Varèse’s two roles. Varèse uses the word “collaboration” to describe his notion of the efforts of his two personalities. For my efforts with Dominique, I have tended to use the words “work with”. In preparing the three pieces of the Epiphanie Sequence for CD, I felt that I needed to work with someone to get it right. And, we do have some vocabulary for the sort of someone required: mastering engineer. There were several different sorts of things that needed to be “got right”. One of the pieces was made in a studio different from the other two, so sounded different due to level and EQ choices. All three of the pieces had a variety of tonal and level loose ends. They all needed to be brought down from 24 to 16 bits. These and other similar tasks comprised the various remedial chores I felt necessary to address before the works were ready to print to published CD. Working with someone who has a great deal of experience addressing tasks like these, the tasks of the mastering engineer, made sense to me.
Once work began, I found Dominique was able to offer more than reparative actions. And this is where we can come face to face with the problem of “interpretations” offered by the mastering engineer. Dominique was able to offer changes making this moment bigger, or that one brighter, or this one more aggressive, or that one more present. Because Dominique the mastering engineer is also an EA composer, there is the ability to provide suggestions and offerings that make sense within the context of the common practice. I chose to work with him, rather than someone who has no experience of EA, because of this. But what of the bigger moments that become too big, or the present moments which should really drop to the background? It’s back to the notion of “work with”. If we remember that small changes can make big differences, which can then shift musical meanings, having someone to work with to get the meanings right can be a great asset. Composing in the studio I often do this anyway, inviting other composers or listeners in to hear what I’m doing and make comments as I work. I found working with a mastering engineer to be very similar, except that the changes needed ended up being carried out by Dominique rather than me. And, Dominique’s practice as a mastering engineer often meant solutions came very quickly to him and may have evaded me.
Um, yes, so what of the too big or too present moments? What of “interpretation”? Maybe this is the point to try Varèse’s word “collaboration”. When moments became too much of this or that, it gave us the chance to discuss what was intended musically — and whether this was happening before in the unmastered version and what might be necessary to make it happen in the mastered version. At times, the musical intention was only marginally happening in the unmastered version, and in diffused performance these “loose ends” were brought together. Having another pair of skilled ears and hands involved in the process of preparation for CD meant the possibility to collaborate to meet the intentions of the composer. The composer, that’s me!
Pickering, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Other Articles by the Author
“Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia 35th Anniversary Celebration.” Web Site Reviews, Computer Music Journal, (1999).
“Some Thoughts on Music heard in Bangor.” Sonic Arts Network Journal of Electroacoustic Music, Vol. 11 (May 1998).
“Two Concerts at the 27th International Festival of Electroacoustic Music” (Bourges, France). Review. Computer Music Journal Vol. 21, No. 4 (Winter 1997).
“What is Ambisonics and how can I get some?” eContact! 2.4 — Diffusion multicanal / Multi-Channel Diffusion. Montréal: Canadian Electroacoustic Community, 1999.