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Awkward Ecologies: Sound-based music

This essay is a critique of the dominant hermeneutic approach to sound-based music — formalism — followed by an argument for the potential of such music to foster engagement with the so-called “extramusical’, which will be posited as a vital regression in the evolution of new music. This is an agenda that requires some preparatory work and thus the bulk of the essay is concerned with examining a particular genealogy in the ideological lineage of sound-based music, one that as far as I can ascertain has never been traced. I conclude by outlining my core point and this comes in a form that could easily be co-opted into a manifesto; as such it reflects my interest in establishing a conceptual position that might underwrite my own creative practice. It should also be said that the essay began life as a talk given to an audience largely unfamiliar with the arcane cultures of new music, hence the initial recounting of a history and its associated concepts which will most likely be very familiar to readers of eContact!

I’ll begin with the phrase “sound-based music”, which seems to be, but is not, tautologous; it is a term adopted by Leigh Landy as a neutral, which is to say less baggage-laden, alternative to descriptors such as musique concrète, electronic music, electroacoustic music and even sonic art. It is intended to denote a creative practice which takes sound itself, particularly the sound object and its multiplicity of qualities, as the material to be worked with by composers and attended to by listeners; in this Landy builds on the work of various theorists including Trevor Wishart, whose On Sonic Art (1996) presented the influential argument that sonic art is to be differentiated from traditional musical practices in that it subsumes rhythm, dynamics and pitch into the broader parameters of time, amplitude and timbre; the latter are conceived of as continua, within which discrete units such as metric values, well-tempered pitch, and instrumental timbre can be isolated; through this, Wishart inverts the hierarchy found in Western art music which has long held pitch, for example, to be a — if not the — primary musical parameter while timbre is a secondary feature, manifest as timbral difference, which allows the articulation and perceptual segregation of pitch-based discourse (the apotheosis of which is of course counterpoint). Wishart’s argument is in itself not entirely original, as it bears close relation to the seminal work of Pierre Schaeffer, founder of the musique concrète movement. Schaeffer’s Traité des objets musicaux was published in 1966, and given an influential exposition in Michel Chion’s Guide des objets sonores (1983), which in its recent English translation (Guide to Sound Objects, trans. John Dack and Christine North, 2009) has been the main avenue for English-speakers — such as myself — to come to an understanding of Schaeffer’s work. 1[1. At the writing of this article, the English translations of two works by Schaeffer are being completed by John Dack and Christine North: À la recherche d’une musique concrète (University of California Press, forthcoming); Traité des objets musicaux (forthcoming [2012]).]

My reasons for outlining this lineage are that it leads to a particular historical dispute which will now be outlined as a means lay the ground for the specific points which I intend to argue.

  1. Schaeffer’s work has an aspect not central to Wishart’s text in that it considers both intrinsic and the extrinsic dimensions of sound-based music, and is thus productive of an understanding of sound-based music which serves to theoretically accommodate the heterogeneous and manifold nature of sonic experience — something which I will expand upon later.
  2. Yet, Schaeffer was at pains to find a means to eliminate the extrinsic from sound-based music as he maintained that the referential and semantic qualities of sound significantly diminished its formal potential. This he argued could only be developed at an intrinsic level, that is through the perception of similarities and differences in purely sonorous qualities which, as he put it, would in turn “weaken the interest which could be taken in identifying objects which would otherwise present as a series of heterogeneous events” (Schaeffer, in Chion, 32).
  3. This effort to “purify” sound was largely addressed through the practice of reduced listening [écoute reduite], an æsthetic-cognitive practice derived by Schaeffer from the phenomenological reduction or bracketing [epoché] developed by Edmund Husserl; more importantly, it should pointed out that this development was spurred in part by Pierre Boulez’s scathing critique of musique concrète in his short essay “Music (Concrete)” (1966), a title that plays sardonically upon the meanings of the word concrete, settling heavily on the noun as an appropriate descriptor:

The word concrete reveals how [electroacoustic technology] was misled and the gross way in which the problem [of using this technology] was envisaged; it was aimed at defining a material manipulation of sonority, that sonority itself not responding to any definition or being subject to any restriction. The question of the material, though primordial in such an adventure, was not taken care of there, where it was supplied by a sort of poetic display that prolonged the surrealistic display of collage — painting or words… That lack of directing thought resulted in total insolvency of the exploration that had to be made very rigorously in the bosom of the new electroacoustic domain… If that domain does become important one day, it will be thanks to the efforts of the Cologne and Milan Studios, not to the derisory, outdated magic of the amateurs… who operate under the tattered flag of concrete music.

Schaeffer was compelled to develop a theoretical means to cleanse sound of its picaresque impurities so as to allow musique concrète to function in the same abstract and formal ways deemed essential by the Boulez and post-war avant-garde for which he was a powerful figurehead. It was this direction that Schaeffer followed, rather than embracing the heterogeneity of sound, particularly its semantic and referential qualities, and the resultant problematisation or complexification of musical discourse — which I regard as perhaps the most interesting and challenging aspect of sound-based music. A comparison of the following statements from Boulez and Schaeffer reveals symmetry in what are otherwise usually understood to be opposed positions:

The absence of direction in the determination of sound material [in musique concrète] fatally brings on an anarchy prejudicious to the composition, however pleasant it may be. The musical material, if it is to lend itself to composition, must be sufficiently malleable, susceptible to transformations, capable of giving birth to a dialectic and supporting it. (Boulez 1966, 290)

Musique concrète in its work of assembling sound, produces sound-works, sound-structures, but not music. We have to not call music things which are simply sound-structures… The whole problem of the sound-work is distancing oneself from the dramatic. I hear a bird sing, I hear a door creak, I hear the sounds of battle; you start to get away from that. You find a neutral zone. Just as a painter or sculptor moves away from a model, stops representing a horse, or a wounded warrior, and arrives at the abstract… And if you continue this abstracting movement, you get to the graphics of the forms of letters in written language. And in music you get to music. (Schaeffer, in Hodgkinson 1987)

In short, Schaeffer aligned himself with Boulez’s argument even as he was its intended victim; thus according to both Boulez and Schaeffer, music cannot be made with sound unless it is significantly abstracted so as to be malleable as sound matter that can be subject to formal organisation. In other words, the extrinsic must be eliminated from music so as to allow the creation of formal discourse. If this purge is not made there can be no such thing as sound-based music, even as music is most often realized through sound.

These extraordinary statements and the position they represent have, as far as I can ascertain, never been discussed in the literature generated by the musical communities — those productive of acousmatic and electroacoustic music — that are the heirs to musique concrète. Indeed, Boulez’ “Music (Concrete)” does not appear in the comprehensive bibliography of the Electroacoustic Music Resource site. It is as if this small but unpalatably bitter moment in the history of sound-based music has been erased altogether. Furthermore, and as the following statement from the present director of Groupe de Recherche Musicale suggests, there remains a tendency to insist on the primacy of sound itself at the expense of the exploration of the full manifold of auditory experience, leaving unaddressed the question of how to deal with the extrinsic dimension of sound.

Even if the operational rules disappeared quite early in the history of GRM and of musique concrète, their influence has continued through time as an important reference thus generating a kind of universal rule: do not forget that a sound, before signifying something, is a sound, and has to be mainly considered as that. This idea permits any sound to be considered as a possible sound for music. We should always look for the sound “itself”! (Teruggi 2007, 215)

Yet clearly the unruly nature of sound, its power “to fatally bring on an anarchy prejudicious to the composition” (Boulez 1966, 290), its undisciplined multiplicities that are productive of a “series of heterogeneous events” (Schaeffer, in Hodgkinson 1987) rather than music, is a long-standing æsthetic problematic if not to say an unchartable abyss for sound-based music. For this reason alone it certainly warrants analysis. From a more personal perspective, it is precisely the manifold nature of sound and auditory experience, and the awkward, which is to say problematic and thus deeply interesting, sonic ecologies engendered by these, that I am interested in deepening engagement with in my own creative practice. In order to come to a proper conceptual understanding of what this practice is and might become, I feel compelled to understand those forces which inhibit its development, and certainly the statement that “Musique concrète in its work of assembling sound, produces sound-works, sound-structures, but not music” (ibid.) is one of these dark gravities. The short way out of this, of course, would be to abruptly shift territory, to adopt the term sound-based art rather than sound-based music; this however, aside from presenting its own set of problems, would simply be a means to let the elephant out of the room.

In working towards an understanding of the heterogeneity of sound-based music, I should make clear that I am not embarking on a defense of Schaefferian theory, as a means to wrest it back from the hands of its dead author. There are of course numerous defences of Schaefferian theory and musique concrète, but these tend towards impartiality, as we might gather from Pierre Schaeffer’s former student Michel Chion, in the admittedly tongue-in-cheek preface to his Guide to Sound Objects:

Peter spake unto them this parable: “A man went forth to plough a closed groove. At the tenth turn his neighbours and his friends mocked him. But at the thirtieth turn there was more music than in all the fields around. Verily, verily I say unto you, cultivate your Perceptual Field, and the Kingdom of Music shall be yours.”

But the crowd reviled him saying: “Thou that sayest thou canst change the sonorous into the musical, change it!” And they stoned him with great words.

Peter said: “Father, forgive them, for they hear not what they do.” (Chion 2009)

Rather than taking sides, I am interested on the one hand in those ways in which the scope of music was significantly enlarged by musique concrète, particularly into the domain of the “poetic” and “dramatic” (the extrinsic or extramusical). On the other hand, I am equally interested in understanding the tenacious vigour with which this enlargement was resisted if not to say fought against. To explore this, I must first backtrack a little further before going on to suggest a conceptual apparatus which might allow for the coexistence of the concrete and abstract, materialist and formalist positions, without requiring that they be reconciled and this without sinking into the mire of the postmodern “anything goes”.

It should be clear enough from the preceding discussion that both Boulez and Schaeffer adhere to the position that music is only truly musical as an abstract formal entity. This remains true to the historical tendency within Western art music, if not to say Western art generally, to valorize the abstract over the concrete. There are many explanations for this, not least of all Christian discomfort with the corrupt finitude of the mundane as opposed to the eternal purity of heaven. This in itself might be regarded as a sacralization of the Platonic theory of forms, in which truth is not to be found in the earthly and material, nor in sensory experience, but in the transcendent realm of “forms” or “ideas” which are “eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of our world” (Kraut 2009). This realm can be grasped at, though obviously not grasped, through the soul or what we would now call the mind. In contemporary æsthetic terms, such a view could be applied to music as follows:

The notes in music float free from their causes… What we understand, in understanding music, is not the material world, but the intentional object: the organisation that can be heard in the music. (Roger Scruton, in Hamilton 2007, 96)

Music, on this view, is abstract and strives to transcend the mundane, the material, the concrete. Though conceived rather narrowly in this present context, such an understanding is certainly endemic to Western culture and can be traced through, for example, Walter Pater’s formulation that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music” (1910) which strongly influenced the development of the autonomy æsthetic in the nineteenth century. The passage that follows the previous one highlights the transcendental direction of Pater’s thought: “For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.” Here the transcendental takes a violently anti-materialist turn, made plain through the exhortation that the obliteration of matter is a necessary act if non-musical arts are to achieve the same exalted status as music. Finally, in the influential “Art as Technique” essay of the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, which demands an almost phenomenological attention to things in themselves — to material qualities in other words — there is a clear valorization of the mental, the act of cognition itself, over the objects that are thus engaged, a view which seems thus no less anti-materialist than Pater’s.

The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make focus difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an æsthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (Shklovsky 1917, 778)

Musique concrète can be readily linked to this formalist view, in its emphasis on the act of perception, the cognition of qualitative features of sound in the abstract, detached technologically from material sources:

I obtained, while making a 78 rpm recorded record, turning at the speed of 33 rpm, completely remarkable transformations. Bringing the record to a speed a little bit lower than half the speed, frequencies go down more than an octave and the tempo is slowed down at the same rate. This change, apparently a quantitative one, is accompanied by qualitative phenomenon: The “train” element, slowed down twice, is no more a train. It becomes a foundry or a furnace. I say furnace to make myself understood and because always a small bit of “signification” remains attached to the fragment. However very quickly I perceive it as an original rhythmical pattern, and I deeply admire its profoundness, the richness of the details, the obscure colour. (Schaeffer [1952], in Teruggi 2007, 213)

The sound of a train, “slowed down twice is no more a train.” And yet the material origins of sound, and the traces thereof that remain after a sound has been estranged from its source through the electroacoustic processes of recording and transformation, remained the most troublesome aspect of musique concrète for many of its practitioners and opponents. Boulez makes reference to the musique concrète studio as a “flea-market of sounds; the bric-à-brac, alas! revealed no hidden treasures” (1966, 290); Luc Ferrari, a composer associated with musique concrète tellingly contrasts the position of the genre in relation to the dominant — which is to say abstract and perhaps even transcendental — æsthetic of the post-war musical avant-garde:

Cologne, the studio where all sounds were clean and pure. This avant-garde was not rejected, because it could follow a theory; one could establish in an absolutely scientific manner the exact pitch, dynamic, and duration of a tone. It was marvellous. The first studies of Karlheinz Stockhausen demonstrate this. In comparison, musique concrète was a collection of dust: the sound objects were dirty, the source material was found in any old corner. It was literally made of dusty old bric-à-brac, like coils, sheet metal, and broken pianos. So vis-à-vis the slowly mounting institutionalization of contemporary music, Stockhausen was respectable, as well as Boulez and the Domaine Musical… (Robindoré 1998, 10)

Clearly there is a political point being made here — abstraction and formalism equate with institutional respectability; but what I am chiefly interested in, having given numerous musical and non-music examples of the cultural primacy of abstraction in Western art of the last 200 or so years, are the curious symmetries that exist between instrumental music and musique concrète. I just outlined one of these ad nauseum; the musical denial of the material, the concrete in favour of the abstract, the ideational, the transcendental. This points towards a second symmetry; the extent to which the material in fact permeates all music, hence the purgative practice of cognitively denying the material substrate of music. In Schaefferian terms, this is called reduced listening. The difference between instrumental and concrete musical practices might be in part understood not by the fact that reduced listening is practiced by the one and not the other, but rather by the longevity of the practice of reduced listening in instrumental music, to the extent that it has become habitual, which is to say invisible and as such ideological. This practice becomes consciously manifest in musique concrète only because the materials themselves are unfamiliar as musical matter. Thus, following Shklovsky, æsthetic cognition must work harder to achieve what “comes naturally”, or rather is most habitual, in instrumental listening. Indeed much contemporary musical æsthetics confirms this. We already heard Scruton’s opinion that what we understand in music “is not the material world but the intentional object,” and equally there is Edward Lippman’s assertion that “Hearing is satisfied with its own objects, and has no need to relate them to further objects and events of the outside world” (in Hamilton 2007, 97).

What I will now attend to is a second explanation for the denial of the material in both concrete and instrumental music. This concerns a correlate of transcendence: the application of mind as reason to the domination, the mastery, of the material world. In a thesis advanced by Jacques Attali in his Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1985), music represents humanity’s dominion over noise, that is, over an unruly and destructive nature that is not readily ordered. By extension, the development of instrumental virtuosity represents an effort to transcend the limitations of flesh, the thorough disciplining of bodily gesture as a means to in turn discipline noise, to turn the raw matter of sound into a higher and more valuable form — music. Musique concrète has most certainly been a part of this struggle, and in the post-WWII period high hopes were placed on technological developments as a means to extend control over the domain of noise. Such a utopian view remains in force, as a recent statement from Boulez evidences: “With electronic media, one cannot only create new sounds and timbres, but one is free to fulfil all wishes, limited only by the imagination itself” (Polkow 2010). This remains a point to be disputed, but in the 1950s and 60s, due to technological limitations of the electroacoustic technology, it was certainly the case that noise — the raw sounds of the world — could be captured but not tamed. It could thus be said that Boulez’ objections to musique concrète are in part due to the failure of musique concrète to master its materials at a technological level, while his favouring of the elektronische Musik of the Cologne studios, which deployed early sound synthesis technology, was due to the fact that it allowed total control over sound, albeit a limited range of sounds. As Ferrari puts it, through the technology of elektronische Musik “one could establish in an absolutely scientific manner the exact pitch, dynamic, and duration of a tone” (Robindoré 1998, 10). This was an essential act within the formalist world of integral serialism, a compositional system championed by Boulez, where absolute determination of all music parameters was the starting point for the creation of music.

From the preceding discussion, and from the viewpoint of the dominant instrumental æsthetic that Boulez is emblematic of, it could be argued the musique concrète was an art of failure in two senses: firstly, it represented a failure of mind to master its own nature; that is, it simply proved impossible for reduced listening to be practiced so thoroughly that sound could be cognitively stripped of its “dramatic” aspects, of the so-called extramusical dimension of sound; secondly, it failed technologically as a means to master sound matter, the material stuff out which musique concrète was created. From the contemporary perspective of the electroacoustic and acousmatic music communities, these observations are perhaps of little value. Reduced listening, it is presumed, has simply become one of a number of listening strategies that can be deployed by the composer or listener, while contemporary technology has become powerful enough to allow quite extensive control over sonic materials, pace those recent comments of Boulez’ cited above. However, I would assert that there is something else to be discerned here. As the power of technology to manipulate and transform sound has increased, the ability of the composer to abstract and transform sound has become an everyday fact, one which has now so thoroughly permeated what we might call the mind of sound-based music that the predominant mode of understanding sound-based music is now technological, which is to say instrumental, which is to say abstract and formalist.

The mastery of sound matter, of nature, the disciplining of noise, is now extensive enough that the modes of listening that are said to underpin the hermeneutics of sound-based music are secondary to technological listening. Electroacoustic technologies are sufficiently advanced to be considered musical tools, or rather instruments, through which virtuoso composers can master the sound world and it is to this mastery and the complex formal schemata it imposes upon sound itself which is predominantly attended to in sound-based music. Causal listening, the cognitive phenomenon that was the undoing of musique concrète from the perspective of both Schaeffer and Boulez, is now of negligible interest to practitioners of electroacoustic and acousmatic music — except when it concerns technological causality. Any moment in which the composer-listener pays attention to the appearance of traces of the “real,” the material world which is approached through the framing and filtering devices of recording technology, is but a fleeting one, a moment of hesitation in the gap between compositional decisions as to how material will be transformed and ordered. In other words, there is no substantive difference anymore between concrete and instrumental music. Indeed, it could be said that electroacoustic technologies have achieved in practice what Schaeffer and Wishart proposed as theory: the subsuming of the traditional instrumental domain into the infinitely manipulable manifold of sound.

In my view, however, this is not a cause for celebration. For this achievement is but an increase in the scope of an extant paradigm: transcendence through techno-rational mastery, but now with greater technological resources which, in a digital age, means that we are much less reliant on fragile, fallible and stubborn corporeality, if not also increasingly disinterested in the materiality of existence. This excess of technology, which allows an excess of technique, allows a Paterian “obliteration” of the material, reducing material difference to the sameness of techné and logos (the root terms for technology). In a sense this recalls the Adorno’s objection to 12-tone technique; that this musical system’s emphasis on difference at the level of pitch, a the maximal deployment of musical materials at a micro-level, results in minimal diversity at a macro-level, a critique which composers Ligeti and Xenakis were later to apply to integral serialism:

[In 12-tone music] it is true enough that even though the different voices are heard simultaneously, their tones and rhythms never coincide, and hence they are absolutely to be distinguished from one another. But this very absoluteness makes the differences between them problematic… distinctions collapse into sameness… the antithetical nature of counterpoint, the representative of freedom, is submerged in synthesis without retaining its identity. (Adorno 1999)

How then does this relate to musique concrète and the notion of awkward ecology that I used to title this essay? I can answer this by returning to that moment at which electroacoustic technology and the æsthetic developed alongside it was deemed to have failed. This failure, an abject event in the minds of Schaeffer and Boulez, an event now long forgotten in an era in which the technological has triumphed, I would suggest is in fact a moment of profound importance. It represents a moment at which the material world reasserted itself and refused to be disciplined, a moment at which technology was revealed as a fallible object and æsthetic attention was thus drawn to it, a moment at which the biological substrate of the human mind was found to be inescapable. The source material, the attempt to transform it technologically, the psychological effort to efface the source and to imagine something else into being, the failure of the electroacoustic assemblage create a moment of synthesis or transcendence out of these, represents a milieu in which these elements coexisted but, through their intransigent singularities, also pulled away from each other in a process of heterogenesis through which we are acutely aware of the differences between them, of their irreconcilable individuality, the fact that they occupy distinct strata, of their resistance to synthesis, as well as the potential of their assemblage to disperse back into constituent elements. This is an awkward ecology, involving as ecology does, “processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter” (Cary Institute 2010). This ecology is to be understood as a heterogeneous phenomenon, in which the notion of parts forming a cohesive and harmonious whole, is recognised as imaginary, a transcendent ideal. In ecology such ideals are largely outmoded, replaced by a conceptual understanding that deals with “multidirectional interconnectedness between… heterogeneous constituents” (Haferkamp 2008).

Similarly in music these ideals of organic unity, of dialectic synthesis, represent the æsthetic ideology of an era that is passing away. And of the emerging ecology it could be said that it is awkward only in the light of these ideals. This “new” ecology is a radical counterpoint, of parts within and upon parts that refuse to make a whole even as they are found to be folded and intercorded in complex non-linear ways. As Michel Serres puts it: “The bond runs from place to place but also, at every point, expresses the totality of sites. It goes, to be sure, from the local to the local, but above all from the local to the global and the global to the local” (in Haferkamp 2008). This is a new baroque, in the French sense of the word as “roughly put together” (Schaeffer, in Hodgkinson 1987), which also appears baroque in the English understanding of baroque as grotesque, though only because it is new and unfamiliar, being a baroque in which sound matter, the body, the mind and its technologies, form a musical ecology which is as awkward as the ecological milieu we presently inhabit. This is the direction to which Schaeffer orientated himself towards the end of his life:

[Bach] made a music which was so clearly made up of bits and pieces that it called itself baroque… It will be when our contemporary researchers abandon their ludicrous technologies and systems and “new” musical languages and realise that there’s no way out of traditional music, that we can get down to a baroque music for the 21st century. (Schaeffer, in Hodgkinson 1987)

The question that remains is this: which aspects of tradition will serve or hinder this process? To my ears a sound-based music that is musical in its obsessional concern for “sound itself” is too dominant a tradition to be resolved in new ways.


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