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Observation at the Into the Soundscape III concert

Introduction by Dr Chin-Chin Chen

While I was communicating with Kevin Austin in the summer of 2003 regarding his Acoustic Mapping Project (AMP), he suggested, in preparation of the AMP, "Why don't you do a multi-channel sound projection concert series this coming year?  It doesn't need to be big. Once a month will do it."  Kevin was also a guest artist at Grand Valley in April 2003 when he was on sabbatical at the time.  He installed a 16 speakers system in two of our halls and projected two concerts.  I literally learned how to do this type of concert from him during his three-day residency here.

That's all Into the Soundscape concert series started.  The idea was in place.  The next was to reserve the hall, and to have a "theme" for the series.  Immediately I thought it may be fun to have each concert feature works from one country or one geographical area.  The next principle would be to have a gender balance among curators.  Kevin also suggested that I should curate a concert myself.

Therefore Laurie Radford represents Canada, Adrian Moore, UK, Lydia Ayers, Hong Kong, Anna Rubin, USA, and Julia Dmitrioukova, east European countries.  The theme for the concert I curated was "international." Due to the lack of works from women composers in the first two concerts, the concert I curated also featured many works by women composers.

Diversity and internationalization are the focuses in many universities and business companies.  I was hoping to bring in the ideas into Grand Valley.

Will Gay Bottje founded the Electronic Music Studio at Grand Valley after he retired from the Southern Illinois University.  After he retired from Grand Valley, he is still very active in composing, promoting his own music, and attending concerts, etc.  He once joked with me at a student composers' concert, "I need to know what my competitors are writing!"  His research interest is in "alternate tuning," and that's how we got to know each other better.

He would like to archive his alternate tuning music on cassettes to CDs, and I invited him to my theory class for lectures on alternate tuning.  He knew I am having a concert series, but he could not make the first two.  Finally he came to the third concert.  After the concert, he told me, "See, you've got me to think it all over again.  I'd better not start it now.  I'll go home and write it down.  Then I'll send it to you."  And he did!  What you will be reading below is a letter he wrote me based upon his observation at the Into the Soundscape III concert on November 18, 2003.  I have received his permission to put his letter on the CEC site.

Visit for detailed information regarding the Into the Soundscape concert series.

Dr Chin-Chin Chen


First --- thanks for the effort you put into assembling a program like that of last night.  It is an opportunity to "keep up" for me and is appreciated. 

Second -- your piece seemed to me the most "accessible," enjoyable, etc of the program.  It had some sort of perceptible structure and the sounds were "clean" and not dependent primarily on those in the noise spectrum (that is only identified by pitch register not by any type of "sound" per se.

Why does so much of this leave me disappointed?  And pardon me if I ramble--I'm only trying to formulate some ideas in a rather off-hand way.

SAMENESS -- There seems to be such similarity in approach for much of this.  The quiet, almost imperceptible beginning, the bleeding in and out of sounds and sound streams but rarely anything with a clear-cut definition of its own.  Come forward, advance, fade out.  I can just see the scene---streams of things already developed, then with the magic of mixing-by hand or automated-shifting, moving.  But the materials themselves do not seem very interesting in many cases, the sonic structures while often complex, are not very compelling.  An almost complete eschewing of felt pulse does happen, but occasionally at least (and it did happen two or three times) it does provide welcome contrast.

It is, after all, one of the primary means by which the mind organizes sound materials. If it is deliberately desired to put use in an uncertain and unfamiliar territory then of course lack of any perceived beat is one of the ways to do it.

Multichannels are an added dimension but cannot make up for lack of "significant" sounds or interesting relationships.

Incidentally is there any intended/planned desire to put the listener into some other state of perception---alpha to beta, (minimalism?) etc. or do these composers just go at it by the seat of their pants, so to speak.  I've been there myself and have tried to ask some of the samequestions.

I think of some of the often deeply resonant, "beautiful" sounds from some of the IRCAM composers like Risset, for instance.  The pleasure of specific pitch arrangements in a work like Beauty in the Beast, of Wendy Carlos.  The careful discretion of someone like Davidovsky--even, going way back- the Omaggio a Joyce of Berio-the "beauty" of the human voice in a different context.  It would seem that the manipulation of "interesting" acoustic sounds is mostly avoided in favor of the electronic.  Is that part of the aesthetic or just coincidence?

COMMENT  -- How unusual it would be for someone to START with something startling.  Rather than wait minutes to arrive at.

It seems to be in the nature of the machines to spin out extended streams of sounds rather than to deal, easily, with individual sounds and envelope shapes of subtlety.  The envelope of a single string tone- each harmonic having a shape and amplitude of its own-provides us with an acoustic event of subtlety and it is that sort of thing I feel I am missing.  Surely these are things that the newer technology is capable of providing, but not so easily, I guess.  It is sounds of that sort of sophistication which enable us to listen to conventional music for extended periods, while, for me the usual electronic pieces (such as a good deal of last night's program) are essentially, acoustically boring, (dare I say rather primitive) after a very short time.

DIRECTION -- A good deal of the time I feel as if the music is rudderless. Things happen, more things happen, but I guess I am conventional enough to want to be taken from one place to another, some sense, perhaps, of the inevitable or whatever.  I find it difficult, at least for a whole concert, to become fully existentional and just let it happen.  Maybe part of that is age! The short section with a definite beat (can't remember which piece-a sort of drumming etc) came as a real relief since almost all the rest had rarely or not at all any kind of felt pulse. That may be part of what contributes to the sense of sameness.  While contents were different I kept having the feeling of Deja Vu with each additional piece.

LENGTH -- longer isn't necessarily better.  A danger of letting piece run on because the machines can run on, or so it seems to me.

I know that there are other things which came to mind and will come back again, but this gives you something to mell over about my ruminations.  It is not so hard to manipulate in the studio (as your students have shown) but to say something compelling, something that pulls you in, that grabs a listener -"Ay! there's thme rub" (for a composer in any media) so much for my rambles.

Will Gay Bottje - Born in 1925 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Will Gay Bottje received his bachelor's degree in flute and his master's degree in composition at the Juilliard School before coming to Eastman, where he was the first person to receive the degree Doctor of Musical Arts from any institution. Before retiring to Grand Rapids, Dr. Bottje taught at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from 1957 to 1981, where he founded and directed an electonic music studio. He has studied with Nadia Boulanger, with Henk Badings, at the University of Utrecht's electonic music studio, and at the Stiftlesen in Stockholm.

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