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Keynote Lecture to the Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium 2007

My presentation today is triggered by two recent events in my life. The first was reaching the age of 60. This was really brought home to me when I first proffered my Senior Citizen’s pass on the bus. Hang on a moment, I thought, only old people do this, surely! So I can no longer claim to be an iconoclastic young thing, or at least not a young thing.

The second was a question at a recent social gathering. I’ve recently become Composer-in-Residence in the North East of England, a three-year appointment, and my first full-time job (so, to any young composers in the audience, I can honestly say that if you just stick at it you’ll eventually find a job). At one of the events at the University of Durham where I’m now based, I was asked, “How long have you been in the music industry,” to which, of course, I replied that I’d never been in the music industry. It’s anticipated in Anglo-Saxon culture, where trade and utilitarianism are supreme, that everyone is in some business or other (if they’re not a full-time academic that is) and trying to make something to sell. The question is particularly poignant in the UK with the death of manufacturing, and the rise of industries that bear the same relationship to manufacturing as contemporary art theory does to painting. The “music business” is still a key player in the economy, and being “in the music business” might get you an audience with the Prime Minister, and endless coverage in OK or Hello magazine. So preserving a sense of value, as opposed to the “exchange value” of economic theory, has to be a large consideration in what you do.

The Normalisation of Electro-Acoustic Art

I began making electroacoustic music in the 1960s when there were no (accessible) computers — computers were vast beasts kept in sealed rooms at a constant temperature, exclusively attached to University Science Departments, and attended by minions who typed computer code onto punched cards which they fed them into a reading device that would not have looked out of place in a mass-production factory. Our kind of music had to be made on analogue tape-recorders, which would run at two or three speeds, and possibly have varispeed control, and sound could be fed from several of these to a mixing desk, where some kind of EQ control was possible. The major tool was the razor blade and splicing block, and the fight against analogue noise (or distortion) when making or mixing recordings was perpetual. So the available apparatus for sound-manipulation was minimal and you had to rely very much on your own ingenuity, and lots of time-consuming and tedious work, as well as your sonic imagination. After working in this kind of studio for four years, at York University in the UK, I began work on Red Bird where I first achieved the kind of sound-transformation (or morphing) I would later perfect through the use of computers. Achieving these effects in the analogue domain was extremely difficult and I had to abandon 90% of my wishlist. But some of the transformations made, many by sleight of hand, still seem effective. Here are three examples.

Sound Example 1
Sound Example 2
Sound Example 3

Today desktop computers and laptops are almost universal (at least in the developed world) and have much greater power and speed than even the biggest of the computing machines that were around when I began studio work. High quality digital recording is easy and cheap and there’s access to an inexhaustible stream of source-sounds via the media and the web. There’s also powerful free software available on the internet — at the click of a mouse you can produce an endless stream of continually novel sound events. But I would argue that the challenge is still to make something which leaves a trace for the listener, after the initial rush of excitement, something that makes them want to return to the work to, hopefully, hear in more detail what it may contain.

Also, in the late 60s, musique concrète and experimentalism swam in a context of high modernism where tones had to be atonal, rhythms arhythmic, counterpoint or texture dense and hypercomplex, and forms non-redundantly impenetrable (the theoretical notion of maximising information through non-repetition) or enigmatic. And, because of the costs of the equipment involved, production was confined to University studios or special national centres (Radio Warsaw, the GRM…). The audience was miniscule, a tiny element of the already tiny audience for contemporary music in general, and confined to specialist venues where the necessary hardware for performance could be assembled. Now production is completely decentralised — anyone can make electro-acoustic music on a home desktop computer. In fact The Composers’ Desktop Project was a key pioneer in this field, liberating the public domain software in use in big institutions like IRCAM, Stanford and San Diego and going on to develop hundreds of new signal processing tools, making them available cheaply to the new constituency of non-institutional producers of Sonic Art.

This new ease of access to sound materials and tools has also ushered in the vast growth of Electronica and experimental DJing out of the world of popular music, and artists like Square Pusher, Aphex Twin or Richard Devine help blur the boundaries between art-music and popular entertainment, re-establishing a link lost towards the end of the 19th century. Before that time, the piano in the living room was a place where the “Classics” could be played alongside the latest music hall songs. (And there were still easy-to-play classics). The computer as a sound recorder and manipulator has re-established the link between popular and art-music applications of this technology, and with amateur involvement in “sonic play”.

There are also the new fields of soundscape art (where the focus is on the authenticity of what is recorded) and installation art using sound (also known as Sonic Art, but coming out of the Art world, rather than from the Music tradition) where sound can be an adjunct to a visual exhibit, or an exhibit in itself, and where the listener experiences sound in his/her own time-sequence, in a gallery space, rather than following a clear start-to-end time-line defined by a composer. Also, because of the ease of assembling sound materials and the simplicity of processing, one can knock together a sound piece of some kind in a short time, and its now commonplace to give the drummer a break and put together a quick electro-acoustic atmospheric track amongst an album otherwise of three-minute songs. This is what I’d like to call “Light Electro-Acoustic Music” — without denigrating it in any way” —, the modern equivalent of those wind-band pieces written to be played in the park in Old Vienna when one wasn’t writing the next Symphony.

I welcome all these new developments as the normalisation of electro-acoustic art. The sophisticated large-scale structuring of sound I’m interested in takes its place in a continuum of possibilities from musical Kunst, through popular culture to pure amateur messing about with sound. What’s more problematical is the spread of a so-called post-modern social philosophy that blames “modernism” (and often, by implication, the Enlightenment) for the horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag, and fully embraces “The Market” as the domain of human freedom. In doing so it undermines many other humanistic disciplines. How can there be a place for musicology or æsthetics if artistic value is merely market value? More importantly for me, how can we justify spending large amounts of time crafting sound materials or developing new software instruments if all we really need to do is stick to available clichés but improve our marketing skills?

This is not just a theoretical issue. Departments of Music increasingly have to justify themselves in either market-serving terms — their turnout of record-producers, Foley sound experts for the film-industry and so on, making a visible contribution to the economy — or in technological terms — music (and particularly music using technology) has to be cast in a Science/|Technology mould, with research projects having technological (and therefore marketable) outputs. At the very least, research projects must be portrayed as if they are tackling technological or practical problems and hence potentially generating industrially useful output. In this atmosphere, musical outputs tend to be downplayed and can come to look like demo material for the technology.

But if we really follow the post-modern market-oriented theory of value we are forced to some absurd conclusions e.g. in December 1997 Teletubbies say Eh! Oh! was top of the singles charts in the UK for some weeks. As most of you probably won’t recall, the Teletubbies were one of the ongoing sequence of puppets or mannequins invented for the televisual entertainment of very small children. “Eh!” and “Oh!” were a pretty good sample of their conversational sophistication. In the Christmas period of 1997, the BBC released a single “sung by” these mannequins to capitalise on the Christmas consumer surge, and the music was pitched at the same level as the lyrics. As intended, many doting parents of tiny tots bought the record for their offspring. By the logic of exchange value, this was the most valuable music available in the UK over this period in the UK.

But the market ranking doesn’t take any account of the sophistication of the audience (are they aged 2 or 42 for example); the influence of topical but transient events (the popularity of what’s on the telly, the Christmas shopping spree); socio-economic trends (the need for both parents to go out to work due to the dictates of the consumer economy, forced to keep their kids amused in front of the TV); the originality, craft, or even the duration, of the merchandise. So how, in this atmosphere, can we categorise “Art-music” and at the same time escape the stigma of being “elitist”?

Elitism for All

I think we need to differentiate between elitism and exclusivity. For me, electro-acoustic music has already breached the exclusivity barrier. The tools for making it are accessible, through powerful free or cheap software, ease of high quality digital recording or easy access to media or web sound streams — compare writing for an orchestra. The means of distribution are easily accessible through independent CD publishing and web-distribution — compare this with the historical problems of getting musical scores type-set, printed and distributed, and obtaining the backing of a major publishing house to promote performances of the work. And the work is easily accessible to potential listeners through CDs, or the web, not confined to some specialist venue in a distant metropolis. Furthermore, in my own musical practice I run workshops for both professionals and non-specialists, school-children, the elderly and so on, helping to develop people’s own creative abilities.

But accessibility must mean elitism for all, not just anything goes. The two elements of “high art” I want to stand up for are, firstly, detailed craftsmanship or craftswomanship coupled with the ability to build large-scale formal structures, and secondly, an engagement with ideas, and as a consequence, hopefully, the durability of the work. My skills or intellectual emphases may be different from others, so I’m not foregrounding my own particular skills or intellectual concerns in opposition to the skills and ideas of others. I want to stand up for all those who value craft and ideas in the Arts. For example, soundscape art involves great skill in both selecting and recording its material. It also carries an implicit critique of some dominant ideas in our culture, particular the notion that we are masters of nature and have the right to exploit it and mould it in any way we want. I agree with this critique and its seriousness even if my musical practice is very different. I don’t think what I do contradicts a soundscape perspective, even if it is very different. And I choose to express my environmental concerns by other means, e.g. not owning a car.

In my own work, my concerns are more with the way industrial/consumer culture impinges on human values and how we might maintain a humanistic perspective despite the market, a concern for what we do and how we treat each other rather than what we own. My stress on the importance of craft and form-building, and making a durable product, springs from this idea. Also, coming from a family of manual workers, I admire the way carpenters, plumbers or plasterers work skilfully with physical materials, whereas hedge-fund managers are no more interesting to me than bookmakers. And I’m also very aware of the tradition of free-thinking labourers in the area where I was brought up, and I started my University career as a scientist — so I’m very much in favour of the Enlightenment.

This often feels like swimming against the tide for various reasons. The market stresses built-in obsolescence, making things which look good but have a limited shelf-life, as turnover is paramount, transience essential. The market also tends to privilege horizontal diversity over vertical complexity — it makes it easy to move one’s focus sideways, to Polynesian folk-music or Burmese hip-hop, whatever takes your fancy in the everything-is-available superstore of world culture, rather than pursuing some particular area in increasing depth. There’s also a prevalent notion that spontaneity or improvisation of any kind is somehow morally superior to spending lots of time slaving over the details — it seems to encapsulate the notion that we’re all free, unconstrained individuals, not hemmed in by any rules or obligations. But, in our society, the “outlaw” is a standard folk anti-hero — there’s nothing remotely anti-establishment about being anti-establishment; trashing the hotel room for the 100th time gets a bit predictable. And good improvisation, from Bach to Coltrane, is founded on years of hard work and experience. Furthermore, good electro-acoustic composition can be viewed partly as a kind of slowed-down improvisational process, as new sounds and new software instruments throw up unexpected possibilities that we must play around with before we can find their most effective musical use. And, at my age, I can admit that even tradition can be useful. At the very least it provides a handy checklist to test whether our “spontaneity” is merely a cliché, our “originality” just a self-delusion. It’s also a treasure house of good ideas that can be re-interpreted or further developed rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel on every occasion. We don’t need to pretend to be entirely unique to be fully human. The unique individual is merely a marketing construct.

Furthermore, easy access to an over-abundance of sound materials from the media and the web, and free, powerful software tools make the idea of slow, painstaking studio work even more unglamorous. If we relax our criteria of what is a successful musical form it would seem we can generate significant artworks instantaneously, or at least make a successful career as a sound artist without a great deal of sweat. In fact, the ease of sampling other people’s material has meant professionals such as Scanner have been able to turn theft into an art form, leaving the hard bits to others. It’s flattering to have your work widely quoted, but the perpetrators are unlikely to give you any credit for your effort. And in this context it’s only the formal coherence of a work which will set it apart from an elegant collage of chunks of it and other people’s materials picked-and-mixed by one of these fly-by-night superstars.

Red Bird

So, having done the controversial stuff, I can now say one or two things about some of my own works, in terms of their ideas, craft and form, starting with Red Bird. This work attempts to deal with the relationship between industrialism and economic rationality, and ideas of human “freedom” and our relationship to the natural world. The form is conceived in the manner of myth-telling suggested by analogy with Levi-Strauss’ structural analysis of myths, itself suggested by musical formal structures, but this intellectual overview is combined with a musical sense of large-scale form-building and small-scale gesture and timing. For example the penultimate section I refer to as the Universal Factory imitates machinery, but uses the sounds of birds, animals and human cries to construct the sonic-landscape of machines — and each of these sound-elements carries a symbolic weight established in the unfolding of the whole piece. But, in purely musical terms, it’s also a condensed recapitulation of earlier material in the piece, often with that recapitulated material trapped within, or absorbed into the mechanical soundscape. The sound example leads from the end of the “cadenza” derived from bird-songs into the start of the Universal Factory.

Sound Example 4

Being old enough to have experienced the so-called bipolar world and lived through the “End of History” (Fukuyama’s book illustrates the triumph of marketing over substance, published, as it was, after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the so-called War on Terror) I have to confess to being slightly less optimistic about politics, and more optimistic about art and politics. As a young composer I had a stronger belief that Art could somehow help change the world, especially living in an era when it seemed that political action could change things (like the persistence of the Vietnam war). I now have a more world-weary view of political action. All societies seem to me to be an arrangement for the smooth transfer of resources from the powerless to the powerful, and these arrangements can be more or less unpleasant. What the 20th century seemed to teach us was that struggling for a better world, whether socially or ecologically, is a permanent affair, and not something with a definite outcome at a specific historic moment. Changing social structure seems merely to change the form of domination, party apparatchiks or priests and mullahs, rather than international corporations, (or vice versa) that are ripping you off, compromising your children’s future, or simply having you killed. The current struggle over global warming illustrates this well. The powerful are not suddenly going to see the light and sign up to some agreement that stops them continuing to turn a profit or live in the style to which they’re accustomed. The struggle will be an ongoing task. But given this, even though Art itself can’t effect change, it can perhaps animate these issues in public consciousness, and keep these struggles alive.

Fabulous Paris

Fabulous Paris — A virtual oratorio deals with similar concerns, and in particular the gradual gravitation of humanity towards huge mega-cities, and the attempt to find meaning in this mass-society world. I was triggered to begin the last movement (the first to be written) on reading a statistic that suggested 50% of the world’s population would be living in cities of over a million people by 2010. It’s now 2007 and we’ve reached that threshold ahead of schedule.

The first movement, The Division of Labour, deals with the basis of this new order, the increasing specialisation of work tasks that makes human material productivity rise enormously. It takes the text from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations which describes how the making of an apparently simple object like a pin in an Edinburgh pin factory is divided into 18 separate tasks, and how this division of labour increases productivity more than a thousand-fold. However, we can also see that it destroys the notion of meaningful work and leads to human time being treated as a commodity. Here is the text, spoken in a Glaswegian accent: Adam Smith, a Scot, was professor of logic at the University of Glasgow.

Sound Example 5

The piece explores this contradiction by making a set of variations, or dividing the labour, on the spoken text, vastly extending its possibilities. For example, here the material is expanded into a chorus-like variation.

Sound Example 6

However, in the penultimate variation, we hear a recurrence of the original text, but now scrambled in a way which destroys its meaning.

Sound Example 7

And the piece ends with the voice as a mere trace, hidden in the shudderings of the sound’s tail.

The second and third movements of this piece contrast the individual and the collective experience of this new society. Angel (movement two), which I made last year in Toronto through a commission from the Deep Wireless Festival, uses the voice of my aunt, in her late 70s, reminiscing about her childhood and young adult experience, about those insignificant yet personally meaningful experiences which she treasures. The overall form is roughly a rondo using the phrase “And this is me when I was six” as the framing theme.

Sound Example 8

The sound craft focuses on the individuality of the speaking voice, extracting its particular melodic and motivic characteristics and using these, and derived harmonic fields, to control synthetic instruments, or voice-like backdrops to accompany the voice, which is also spectrally ornamented in other ways. Here are two examples.

Sound Examples 9 & 10

In contrast, the final movement, also called Fabulous Paris, tries to deal with the overwhelming flood of information we experience in the modern mega-city. It uses dense, often almost impenetrable, textures of voices from TV advertisements, game-shows, traffic and traffic announcements, funfares and other sources, many collected from the US media and second-hand record stores in the early 80s, when I was a composer-in-residence at San Jose State University. The piece opens with a mass of traffic announcements on the California freeways, collected for me by the sound poet Larry Wendt. I had been intrigued by the specialised vocabulary that has been developed in the USA for describing different kinds of car accidents, and coincidentally, Larry’s recordings coincided with unseasonal flooding in Southern California. Here the spoken voices are filtered to lie in different frequency bands so that they are still individually comprehensible when layered together.

Sound Example 11

Formally the piece falls into three long sections, the last being a telescoped and transformed recapitulation of the opening, in which the massed voice slowly transform into the voices of frogs and insects as the other sounds of the city float off into the aether, Ur dissolving into dust, poetically speaking. The piece also employs several other transformational devices. In particular, the sounds of traffic sirens you hear at the end of the opening, passing across the stereo stage with Doppler shift, are derived from the voice of Hitler, but this is only revealed at a much later stage of the piece, where we hear the demagogic ranting through the cityscape.

Sound Example 12

The principal formal or craft device used to corral the mass of materials was a bank of filters tuneable to any specified harmony (and the harmonics of those pitches) which could itself change over time. The filter bank also has time-variable Q allowing the cityscape to be slightly or strongly harmonically coloured. In this example, the end of section two, the first pitches you hear are derived from the stacking of pitched materials like the screech of wheels on rails in the Paris metro, but the section ends with the harmonic filtering of the noise mass, and a harmonic shift which brings the piece back to the pitch-field of its opening (for the recapitulation).

Sound Example 13


Globalalia was a conscious attempt to make a more affirmative piece. (Perhaps, as I get older, I’m tiring of my own critical orientation to the world). The idea was to work with human language and to emphasize what unites us as human beings, rather than what divides us. Although human spoken languages, being largely mutually incomprehensible, can exacerbate divisions between people in different cultures, at the same time they are all constructed from of a remarkably small set of syllable sounds, human universals of a kind. So the piece takes recordings from local radio stations in different countries (collected by friends and colleagues at my request) or from digital TV channels broadcast from around the world, collecting material in 26 different languages, and then separates them into syllables (there were over 8300 syllabic sound sources once the editing was complete), then presents a series of small musical studies each investigating one or two syllables or syllable-types in sonic detail.

The formal structure is taken from a literary device, the frame tail, the best example of which is the story of Scheherezade, also known as the 1001 nights or the Arabian nights. Scheherezade’s husband, the sultan, who has a large harem, likes to take one wife per night, have his way with her and then have her executed the next morning. In order to avoid this fate, Scheherezade hits upon the idea of telling stories to the Sultan each night, which entertains him sufficiently to want to hear more the following night. So a frame tale is a story that allows us to tell other stories. I needed a more abstract formalisation of this for it to work musically. So in Globalalia the “frame tale” is a theme consisting of several different types of syllables, all of which will be developed in the inner ‘stories’ as the piece progresses. Here is the theme

Sound Example 14

And this recurs, with variations at intervals throughout the piece, and at the end. Here are two examples of variations, the first highly compressed:

Sound Example 15

and the second with internal imitation.

Sound Example 16

These then frame the series of studies that form the rest of the material of the piece. For example, the following phrase develops the rasping ends of utterances in the highly stylised voices of Japanese TV actors playing samurai warriors. (These voices were sent to me by a Japanese friend who found them very funny, the Japanese equivalent of hyper-macho).

Sound Example 17

The particular craft here consisted in devising a signal processing process that would naturalistically (or plausibly) extend the vocal grit, a much more difficult problem than it may appear superficially (looping is an absolute non-starter to time-stretch such natural iterative sounds). Here is an original source followed by two time-stretched versions:

Sound Example 18

And this is another example.

Sound Example 19

As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, I’m currently composer-in-residence in the North East of England. I applied for this post as, following on from Globalalia, I wanted to make a piece that used the characteristics of speech across a whole community, from the very young to the very old, from received pronunciation and articulation to almost impenetrable dialect and everyday vocal dramaturgy, and the position seemed to offer the opportunity to make such a piece, like Globalalia, an affirmative piece about human community. Fortunately I got the job and I’m now working on this project.

I can’t say a great deal about form or craft in the new work as I’ve spent the whole of the first year just collecting materials, but one technical possibility that interests me is to map the timbral qualities of individual human voices onto synthetic instruments which no longer speak but still carry the character of the original voices. This may not be technically possible, but I’m excited by trying to solve the problem.

Apart from the technical and formal aspects of the project, it has been particularly interesting in other ways. In particular, in order to make recordings I have had to go to the community and seek out people in ordinary day-to-day situations: I’ve visited schoolchildren in remote rural communities, adults gathered in amateur choirs, elderly people meeting together in a local community club to talk about the past, people at work, and folk musicians and dialect poets with an interest in preserving very local culture. In the latter case, human speech has been a catalyst to bring together what are usually two opposite ends of the musical spectrum. I’m hoping all these people will come to hear the piece when it is finally completed, and this may affect in some way how the piece is formed. For example, some of the very young children I’ve recorded will not sit through an hour long sound piece, so I may have to think of a structure which is digestible by them, but equally valid for a serious-listening audience in, say, Tokyo. This could be a real test of my notion of “elitism for all”.

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