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Stop, Look, and Listen

We may seem to be burrowing through an unprecedented period in music history, navigating the dark ages of technological music-making equipped with only our wits and some electronic gear. Without question, the dizzying pace of new products arriving on the marketplace is staggering. We live in a culture that values incessant innovation that borders on indomitable distraction. Take for instance my iPod. Its warranty is still valid and the device is already three generations out-of-date. This article draws parallels between our past in relation to the present explosion of technologies and explores ways of how composers of electroacoustic music and intermedia may remain true to their art.

Let’s start with the piano. The history of the piano traces its roots all the way back to the monochord of Greek antiquity. Eventually, an instrument with fixed-length strings that were plucked named the psaltery was developed in the fourteenth century. The psaltery is the ancestor of the harpsichord which is believed to have been developed in the early fifteenth century by the Flemish. The harpsichord reigned for several centuries and was the instrument of choice for composers such as Byrd, Couperin, J.S. Bach, Handel, and Haydn. When John Broadwood introduced the piano in the early eighteenth century, it was considered a bit of a novelty. But eventually the piano captured the attention of Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was composers like Ludwig van Beethoven who wrote music that caused the piano to advance to a technology comparable to what we know today.

Let’s continue with Max/MSP. The history of Max/MSP traces its roots all the way back to the Patcher of IRCAM antiquity. Eventually, an application with an enhanced GUI that supported externals named Max/Opcode was developed in the early1980s. Max/Opcode is the ancestor of Max/ISPW that was developed in the late 1980s by IRCAM. Max/ISPW reigned for several years and was the instrument of choice for composers such as Manoury, Malt, and Lippe. When Miller Puckette introduced PD around 1995, it was considered a bit of a novelty. But eventually PD captured the attention of David Zicarelli. It was a multitude of contemporary composers who wrote music that caused Max/MSP to advance to a technology comparable to what we know today.

Swap out the nouns of the previous two paragraphs and we could easily juxtapose the developmental trajectory of the violin with near-field monitors, sonata-allegro form with audio compression algorithms, and the development of the modern orchestra with wavetable synthesis. Despite these analogous trajectories, the indisputable fact is that it took the piano, the violin, sonata-allegro form, and the modern orchestra centuries to develop whereas Max/MSP, near-field monitors, compression algorithms, and wavetable synthesis has taken decades. Simply put, the rate of change is exponential.

The laws of physics rigidly bind the construction of the piano and piano performance is constrained by the anatomy of the human body. The string tension of the piano cannot exceed the resistance of its cast iron frame. And woe to the composer who writes the interval of a twelfth that is to be played by the right hand alone. The development of Max/MSP is not limited by the same set of real-world constraints. Instead, its constraints include processor speed, data structures, graphic user interface, and audio drivers. Processor speed has increased by a factor of nearly 5,000 since 1971 and the advent of object-oriented programming has nearly eclipsed the procedural languages of the last three decades. Such a rate of change clearly does not typify the laws of physics nor the evolution of homo sapiens. Instead, the present rate of technological innovation is a moving target with a regrettable preponderance of compositional activity left chasing in its wake.

We must not let the tail wag the dog. We must preserve the artistic integrity of our contributions to contemporary culture through music composition. How might we arrest this whirlwind of change and keep artistic integrity firmly grounded? We can insist upon product reviews that are genuinely based on an accurate evaluation of creative function rather than technological specifications and we can resolve that new works will be guided by aesthetic principles rather than an exotic étude of the latest product features.

But these recommendations only nick away at what I view as the symptoms of a bigger problem. The fundamental issue is that the set of constraints that inform the creative process are not the technology itself but instead human perception. Although we know that the average range of human hearing is 20Hz–20kHz and understand that perception of frequency is logarithmic, we know very little about how humans perceive sophisticated mapping algorithms in the time domain. We know even less about the number and type of concurrent sonic events that a human can assimilate and derive aesthetic gratification. Yet these are the dominant strategies that characterize a host of contemporary compositions.

During the classical era, composers developed orchestration techniques that intuitively compensated for non-linearities in human perception long before the codification of equal-loudness contours. Today, composers are juggling a multitude of variables that are inextricably tied to human perception: auditory localization in multi-channel systems, integrating the perceptual modalities of audio and video, and complex interaction between human performers and real-time processing. Quite honestly, it’s hard to believe that such an explosion of compositional variables will be efficiently resolved by intuition alone.

We need to develop ways to better understand human perception and the experience of electroacoustic music and intermedia. We need to foster avenues of literary criticism, theoretical analysis, and musicological research that inform composition. In short, composers of electroacoustic music and intermedia should partner with pyschoacousticians, theorists, and musicologists if we ever hope to pinpoint an aesthetic sensibility on the infinite continua that entwine contemporary composition. We can do this. We can solve this problem. Our field of electroacoustic music and intermedia is inherently interdisciplinary and is characterized by an international community of sharing colleagues. We need to broaden the circle and intensify the discourse to advance the art.


Francois. “Free Software at IRCAM.” (9 December 2005).

Howard, Roy E. “Technical History of the Piano.” (9 December 2005).

Polsson, Ken. “Chronology of Personal Computers.” (9 December 2005).

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