Social top


Composition vs. Documentation

This paper was originally presented at the Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium 2008 (7–9 August 2008).

This paper addresses the fine line that exists between musical composition and documentation. In two of my compositions, Aboji and 48 14 N, 16 20 O, the negotiation between wearing the hat of the composer vs. the hat of the reporter was of primary importance, and may be regarded as a source of friction driving the creative process. In both compositions, an underlying narrative is implicitly and explicitly presented. Narrative and musical dimensions are intertwined and interlaced via a number of different compositional techniques, including referencing, presentation of idiosyncratic/abstract/fragmented materials, manipulation of the relationship between background and foreground issues, and enharmonic timbral transformation techniques.


Composing music is a complex process that is by no means fully understood, regardless of musical genre or style. Furthermore, the composer often finds himself or herself in difficult positions in creating a work of art, whether it is being stuck without a satisfactory solution to close a movement, trying to find the best instrumentation and texture for a particular section, or trying to deal with frictional elements that announce themselves, whether expectedly or unexpectedly. The many instances of friction during the crafting of a musical piece could be regarded as an important dimension of that crafting, at times becoming an integral part of the overall development of a section or even an entire piece. In electroacoustic music, especially those works that fall into the category of tape music, musique concrète, or acousmatic music, a unique type of friction is that due to “found sounds” — sound objects that have identity, meaning, timbral idiosyncrasies, musicality, informational dimensions, and memory encoded into them (among other attributes).

From a technical point of view, the general procedure in composing a musique concrète piece is straightforward — (a) collect sound objects using, say, a DAT player; (b) bring the samples to the studio and transfer them to the computer; and (c) do something with the samples (prior to step (a) there is often a pre-compositional step). Especially during stage (c), one is inevitably put in a situation where one has to negotiate between what to completely leave alone (preservation), what to change while keeping a residual part of its original make-up (modulation/intervention), and what to totally destroy, creating something entirely new in the process. In this last and extreme case, traces of the original sound objects completely disappear. There are literally an infinite number of possible modulation levels between the two extremes — preservation and destruction. Thus, the issue of when, how, and how much to change the original found sounds becomes an interesting source of friction.

When one is deciding what to do with the samples, whether it is simple juxtaposition, layering, sequencing, fragmentation, modulation via signal processing, or destruction of their identity, one is often called upon to wear different hats — the hat of the musician and the hat of the reporter. It might be seen as a situation that demands a meticulous balancing between composing and documenting.

The role of the composer thus changes. On one hand, the composer takes on the traditional role of the musician, trying to make sense of the “musical” material at hand and find its potential application and place within a musical framework that includes local/global formal issues, intrinsic musical qualities, and temporal characteristics such as rhythm, pulse, sequencing, timbre, and temporal patterns. On the other hand, the composer also wears the hat of the reporter and documenter who tries to look for and provide information for the listener, preserving the sound object’s origins and fundamentally presenting the material in an informational context. Throughout the engagement with a musical piece, there are a plethora of occasions where the creator toggles back and forth between these essentially distinct roles, causing friction and perhaps even a conflict of interest.

Applying no modulation to the sound materials is simple, from a technical point of view, but what is simple is often not interesting, and doing something simple while keeping it interesting is extremely difficult to achieve. At the same time, modulating a sample to such a degree that it is unrecognizable is also quite “simple,” especially given the abundance of software and hardware tools that we have at our disposal at home or in the studio. But here also, modulating a sample and keeping it interesting is very difficult to achieve, especially if this is to be done in line with the concept, idea, coherency, and theme of the composition — making something sound “cool” does not necessarily produce a well-composed work of art. In the next section, I will discuss some of the strategies applied in composing two works of musique concrète — Aboji (2001) and 48 13 N, 16 20 O (2003).

Compositional Strategies: Composition and Documentation


The first piece I will discuss is Aboji, an eight-channel tape piece completed in 2001 at Princeton University.

Aboji is a companion piece to an earlier piece, Omoni (1999), which began as an exercise in addressing emotion through musical composition (in a seminar led by Jon Appleton at Dartmouth College). The main concept of the earlier piece was to choose a theme with which every person would have some sort of emotional experience. This led me to choose the topic of omoni, the Korean word for mother. The next step was to determine a suitable strategy in approaching and dealing with the theme. After much contemplation, the decision was made to conduct interviews, asking interviewees about their experience, memories, and dealings with their mothers and friends' mothers, or any other topic relevant to motherhood. This resulted in a narrative approach for the piece.Following a pre-compositional stage where conceptual plans were laid, the three-stage composition process for both pieces was (a) collecting samples, (b) transfer of samples to computer, and (c) organizing/manipulating the samples.

Omoni starts out with the word mother being recited in various languages, including English, Korean, French, and Italian. This immediately provides the listener with a clear idea of the theme of the piece. This strategy of clarity is employed throughout the piece.

Aboji followed the same approach as Omoni, but the theme of the piece was fathers (aboji is father in Korean) and a strategy of ambiguity (as opposed to clarity) was chosen. The piece opens with a soft solo piano motif which then is followed by a number of persons of diverse cultures and backgrounds talking about their father’s professions. The word father is not uttered until the very end of the piece (at least not in English), and an environment of thematic vagueness is sustained throughout the greater part of the piece.

The introduction to the piece consists essentially of windowed portions of speech samples extracted from the stories of interviewees. The ambiguity factor is further strengthened by the lack of immediate context. Larger and more complete fragments of the stories ensue after the introduction and only at the end is the word father disclosed for the first time, following a gradual unveiling of the subject. The global form thus follows a disambiguating trajectory, beginning with uncertainty of content and ending with clarity of theme within a narrative construct.

Throughout the piece, informative and musical aspects of sound objects are dealt with and presented to the listener in numerous ways. For example, the piano motif in the beginning mirrors the rhythmic and melodic contour of an interviewee saying “… don’t pretend you’re not with me …” around two thirds of the way into the piece. This motif also occurs in other parts of the piece, although it is masked by various sound events including an excerpt of a performance by Count Basie’s band. This strategy strengthened structural coherency, and was also applied as a referential tool — addressing memory and the relation between sound events. The repetition of the piano motif, albeit subtly modulated and in different sonic surroundings, indirectly situates the listener to evaluate and re-evaluate the motif in a “cumulative” fashion — the presentation of materials at various points of the piece augments the experience of the work somewhat in the way that continually providing clues to a riddle does. The cumulative reception of recurring sound gestures provides a means not only to encourage the remembering of past events but also to promote the linking, referencing, and making sense of what has been heard, is currently being heard, and will be heard.

By the end of the piece, an atmosphere of closure and clarity is established by repeating some parts of the fragmented sounds of interviews first heard in the introduction — by this time, context and content help the main idea to be discerned and the piece brought to completion.

The fragmentation of speech samples was only one of the many types of modulation techniques employed to achieve ambiguity. Another strategy involved the use of different languages. Right at the beginning of the piece there is a part where a Japanese-Korean person says “… he was a ash-leet …”, followed by a brief rest and then “… he was a hhhockey player.” In another section, a Chinese woman “speaks” to her father in Chinese, and this is layered on top of an English translation, providing an interesting counterpoint between foreground and background. The English language at times squeezes past the thick foreground curtain, but not enough to render a complete picture (in English) of what is being said.

Other modulation techniques applied to sound objects throughout the piece include pitch modulation, comb-filtering, and other DSP processes. In many cases, these techniques highlighted portions of an interview by careful “selection and reinforcement”, so as to help the narrative dimension of the piece. For example, in one section an interviewee talks about his great uncle, Meyer Lansky, recounting that his father was offered a ride and that it took them “… twenty blocks to go two blocks.” This portion of the story was highlighted and reinforced through simple techniques such as Doppler effects, time-stretching the word “twenty blocks”, and time-compressing the word “two blocks.”

48 13 N, 16 20 O

A second piece that deals with composition vs. documentation is 48 13 N, 16 20 O, an eight-channel tape work completed in 2003. The piece is fundamentally a soundscape composition and the title refers to the geographic coordinates of Vienna, Austria. The core idea for this piece was quite simple — an attempt to capture the sonic character of a city through the medium of electroacoustic music. The basic compositional procedure was similar to that of Aboji and Omoni, consisting of a pre-compositional step and subsequent collection, transfer, and manipulation stages. As most of the samples were non-speech-based, rendering a clear sonic picture was one of the main strategies employed. Ideally, the listener would perceive 48 13 N, 16 20 O not only as a “musical work” but also like a documentary, bringing to light the place from whence the sound objects had originated.

The sample acquisition phase took approximately one month and consisted of collecting samples from various sites and locations of the city, on foot and via public transportation. The sample collection phase primarily focused on striving to capture salient sonic features of Vienna, including idiosyncratic city sounds such as streetcars, subways, police sirens, diesel-powered Benz taxis, horse carriages, street musicians, random voices, Austrian dialects, outdoor musical gatherings on a hot summer’s night at the Rathaus, and sounds from the Stephansdom area.

The overall architecture of the piece is one of “information unfolding” — gaining a better grasp of the soundscape as one goes deeper into the piece. In this work, the issue of preservation (keeping as much of the original sonic identity of the sound objects) versus intervention (modulation or transformation of the samples) was especially important.

One technique that was used was enharmonic timbral change: finding common, salient timbral dimensions of sound objects and then sequentially stringing together consecutive samples, rendering a smooth and continuous change in timbre while preserving much of the inherent sonic attributes of the found sounds. For example, in one part of the piece one comes across street musicians playing the cello and electronic piano. The cello plays the lead voice and towards the end of the duo performance, the cello’s note extends and stretches itself reaching, transforming, and morphing into a human voice and pipe organ timbre. At this point, the listener is guided from an airy outdoor environment just outside the Stephansdom, to the inside of the cathedral with its enormously lush, vast, reflective sonic geometries. One then lingers a while in this dreamlike state, with the reflection-drenched sounds of two vocalists engulfed by a pipe organ, then modulated to mimic high-velocity sound objects. As before, the voice extends and smoothly entangles itself timbrally with a rapidly incoming screeching train — the listener is effortlessly shifted from the cathedral to the U-Bahn (subway) station at the closing stages of this portion of the soundwalk, and the sonic journey subsequently continues towards the Rathaus.

Like in Aboji, in this Vienna soundscape piece the unveiling of the city in question takes place only at the end of the sonic trip. To help bring to light the location of the title, language is used, as it is useful for conveying clues regarding the language’s culture, its origin, and even regional locality. This strategy of exploiting language to help reveal the location of the soundscape is first employed in an extremely fragmented presentation of the title of the piece — the coordinates of Vienna in German. The sequencing of the fragmented voice samples is initially primarily musical in nature, manifesting itself as the ambience of the summer festivities at the Rathaus (City Hall). This musicality then gradually and smoothly makes way for the documentary dimension of the voice samples. The background ambience recedes, unmasking the synthetically sequenced voices and stripping them of their musicality. At the very end of the piece, the geographic coordinates are spoken in plain German with a “radio loudspeaker” voice, underlining the documentary aspect of this piece.


The issue of composition and documentation is a very important dimension in the compositional process of electroacoustic music works for the tape medium, where the materials that the composer works with combine inherent qualities such as musicality, identity, and informational dimensions. The issue of preserving, modulating, and destroying these found sounds becomes one of the central issues during the creative compositional process.

Constructing a piece with non-speech samples is possibly more challenging than a piece like Omoni or Aboji where speech samples were primarily used, at least from the standpoint of the communication of information. Hence, clarity was a primary goal for 48 13 N, 16 20 O while for Aboji, ambiguity was the predominant strategy of the piece.

At the end of the day, what makes a successful composition really lies in how all these processes, strategies, concepts, and techniques come together meaningfully as a whole, creating a musical piece where the “transparency of the machine” in the ears and mind of the listener is perhaps one of the most important ingredients.

Social bottom