Vol. 25 Issue 3 Reviews
Jörg Stelkens and Hans G. Tillmann, editors: KlangForschung ´98, Symposium zur elektronischen Musik
PFAU-Verlag, 1999, softcover, ISBN 3-89727-086-2; 201 pages; illustrated, index; PFAU-Verlag, Postfach 102314, 66023 Saarbrücken, Germany; World Wide Web www.stelkens.de/

Reviewed by Anna Sofie Christiansen
Copenhagen, Denmark

KlangForschung '98 is the first issue of proceedings from a series of yearly symposia called KlangForschung, which in 1998 had the special theme, “Symposia for Electronic Music.” The symposia are held at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany. They are described in an exemplary Web site (www.stelkens.de/bs/klforsch98/index.html), and are simultaneously broadcast on the World Wide Web. Unfortunately the Web site, and presumably the broadcasts, are only available in German.

The title “KlangForschung” reflects the multifarious topics presented at the symposium. Literally, the term can be translated as Timbral Research. The German word “Klang” (timbre), however, also refers to the perception of sound rather than to timbre as a solely acoustical phenomenon. Hence, the title opens up an interesting debate in the field of computer and electroacoustic music. This debate, which is also reflected in the proceedings, concerns the question of how the infinite palette of sound synthesis, the hybridization of visual and aural art forms in multimedia, relates to the physiological and cultural boundaries of human perception.

The curator of KlangForschung, Jörg Stelkens, is an engineer whose diverse interests encompass music technology, multimedia, and the distant and recent history of electronic music. Mr. Stelkens’ personal interests are strongly reflected in the program, which spans “underground” concerts with DJs, multimedia events related to sound synthesis, and studio reports. The Web site also contains links to Mr. Stelkens’ own Web site, which, among other things, offers downloads of home-cooked audio shareware.

In his introductory speech, Mr. Stelkens praises the symposia as the first of their kind to explore the interdependence between art and science. However, already in the 1950s and 1960s, symposia held by the conductor Hermann Scherchen at his residence in Gravesano, Switzerland, attempted to investigate similar issues. In the same breath one could mention several German events during the Weimar Republic that similarly explored the coalescence of music and technology. Nevertheless, these events do not belie the significance of KlangForschung, which in this first proceedings publication takes on the difficult challenge of grasping the new manifestations of sound in the digital age.

Another focal point for the contents of the symposia reflects the interests of Mr. Stelkens’ collaborator, Hans G. Tillmann, professor in phonetics at the LMUniversität, and a student of the phonologist Werner Meyer-Eppler. Despite their different topics, many of the contributions to Klangforschung ’98 are concerned with the perception of sound and thus relate to the pioneering work of Mr. Tillmann’s mentor: a concern with music as language.

The contributions to KlangForschung ’98 reflect the fact that the symposia are mainly directed to laypersons and are therefore valuable to the academic reader merely as overviews rather than actual research papers. Nevertheless, the topics discussed make the proceedings an excellent opportunity to expand one's horizon beyond mainstream topics. Furthermore, most of the contributions derive from the German academic tradition and, as such, offer to many non-German readers a new and refreshing approach to the understanding of sound as an aesthetic phenomenon in the modern era.

KlangForschung 1998 featured talks on an interesting array of topics grouped into History of Electronic Music, Sound Synthesis and Processing, 3D Music and Sound Sculptures, Sound and Data Spaces, and Soundscapes and Sound Design. Although the topics themselves do not always fall neatly into their assigned groupings, most papers are concerned with issues relating to the possibilities offered by electronic means to create the perception of sound independently of the acoustic reality.

In his historical studio report, “The Siemens Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne,” Hansjörg Wisha sketches the early activities of the Munich studio, most importantly the possibilities for programming consecutive events onto paper tape. Another article, Hans Ulrich Humpert’s “Electronic Music in the Conservatory Curruculum: Electronic Music at the Cologne Conservatory (1965-1998),” presents an interesting view of a lesser-known studio. The studio was led by Herbert Eimert after his retirement from WestDeutscherRundfunk (WDR). Mr. Humpert describes the significance for the Cologne Conservatory of its WDR heritage, manifest mainly in the three approaches to sound synthesis found at the studio: electronic sounds, composition with phonemes, and finally, compositions combining live performance with electronic sounds. The second of these approaches was of course inspired by Mr. Meyer-Eppler, whose spirit, according to Mr. Humpert, remained present in Cologne after his death in 1960.

Elena Ungeheuer’s paper, “Musical Experiments in Musicological Research: Werner Meyer-Eppler and Electronic Music,” emanates from her detailed studies of Mr. Meyer-Eppler (see Computer Music Journal Volume 22:2, Summer 1998, p. 66). Taking as her point of departure the electronic composer’s understanding of the sine wave as the Urgestalt, i.e., as the fundamental unit from which an infinite continuum of sound can be synthesized, she describes Mr. Meyer-Eppler's efforts to explore scientifically, by means of communication theory, the constraints of human perception assuming that music and language had homologous structures.

Ms. Ungeheuer's conclusion compares Mr. Meyer-Eppler’s statistical approach to more absolutist processes such as those of the rigid serialists or the empirically-based compositions of Pierre Schaeffer. She also compares his ideas to the rejection of absolutism in contemporaneous science. Although such an approach was a considerable accomplishment during Mr. Meyer-Eppler’s time, Ms. Ungeheuer avoids addressing an important problem in the current situation, in which composers are still struggling with the idiosyncrasies of sound synthesis and algorithmic composition and their apparently empirically-conditioned counterpart, human perception.

The problems suggested by Ms. Ungeheuer’s paper are exemplified by Klarenz Barlow’s description of his pieces in “Methods of Algorithmic Composition in My Own Works: Klangglomeration of Timbre and Soundsurfing to Synthrumentation and Spektastics.” In Klangglomeration, the rigid execution of the algorithm creates a score that is only partly audible: the parts heard depend on the listener, so—as Mr. Barlow concludes—the piece would sound different to a whale! Thus, the discussion of the interdependence of time and space discussed in the papers above puts the problem of audience interest in computer music in an entirely new perspective: perhaps some pieces are simply meant for other species…

Stefan Fricke's survey, “Sound in Unmapped Spaces: Some Aspects of Electro-acoustic Music Today,” describes the origin of the “objet trouvé” aesthetics in the writings of John Cage and developed further by the sonic happenings of the Fluxus artists. Mr. Fricke argues that these experiments constituted a point of departure for practices of integrating noise and everyday sounds that were successively adopted by popular and serious music as well as in installations.

Despite their confinement to different sections of the Proceedings, the aesthetics described in Mr. Fricke’s paper constitute a perfect introduction to Barbara Barthelmes’ interesting speculations on “Klangkunst” (sound art): “Klangkunst—a new Style or an Interdisciplinary Field?” Ms. Barthelmes examines whether Klangkunst is an autonomous art form in which sound and visual arts are merged to constitute a new entity. She takes her point of departure by questioning the validity of an historically conditioned separation of music and the visual arts. By doing so, Ms. Barthelmes raises issues of importance to the institutional separation of art forms that to this day impedes the education and support of artists working in a polyglot domain. She challenges the conventions by which the semantics of music and visual arts are submitted to the boundaries of human perception and, hence, the individual experience of sound and space, rather than to the conventions of the individual art forms.

The emergence of synaesthetic art forms is exemplified further by Ulrich Müller’s paper, “Soundbodies.” Mr. Müller interestingly argues that during the 20th century, composers and sound artists strove to make sound alter the experience of space in order to alter or even transcend the causal experience of sound in space. This is also illustrated in Sabine Schäfer’s installation cycle, “TopoPhonien,” a series of different configurations of loudspeakers or mechanical pianos, tailored for different locations and occasions, that constitute “instruments” for which she can “compose” by taking advantage of the spatial properties of sound in each configuration. For similar reasons, Ms. Schäfer explores the consequences of separating sound and space through computer control in order to convey to the audience the relationship between time and space.

The artistically created interdependence of time and space is developed further in Walter Siegfried’s contribution, “same time—same place, space and time dependent art forms.” However, Mr. Siegfried’s undeniable aesthetic heritage from the Situationists causes him to consider sound as a temporal attribute of space serving to distinguish the past from the present. The emphasis on space is furthermore apparent in his discussion of the art work, which he considers solely as the physical boundaries between the work of art and its surroundings. Meanwhile it is puzzling that he ignores the parallel distinction between sound and background noise—as explored by John Cage, for example—in musical works or sound art.

The papers on installations and sound art raise the question whether all sounds are perceived in relation to a physical reality based on cause and effect and to what extent human perception assigns incidental causes to electronically generated sound.

To the reader familiar with the American scene, Ludger Brümmer’s suggestive combination of granular synthesis and physical modeling, “Physical Models in the Context of Music,” is perhaps of less interest. However, Jörg Stelkens’ interview with Christoph Kemper, “Development and Concepts of Modern Synthesizers: the Access Virus,” a digital synthesizer performing subtractive synthesis, offers many interesting insights into design concerns for adapting digitized analog techniques to the demands of the 1998 user. Mr. Kemper states that his interest in subtractive synthesis was spurred by the recent renaissance of this technique in Techno and Dance-Floor music. The revival of analog techniques within these genres also determined the “retro” construction of the device as a box with control knobs rather than a computer program, although Access Virus incorporates certain features from the digital age, such as MIDI control signals.

Hartmut R. Pfitzinger’s “Language on the Synthesizer,” applies Access Virus to language synthesis, employing MIDI control parameters to regulate the filters. The synthesizer appears to have certain limitations, however, especially in modeling the always-problematic concatenation of successive phonemes as well as the transitions, something the author does not address in much detail in this publication.

In “The Invisible Interpreter,” Wolfgang Heiniger discusses issues that pertain to the composition and performance of electronic music. In particular, he addresses the increasing role of the recording engineer, not only in the production of electronic pieces, but also in the process of studio recording. This trend challenges the artistic integrity of the composer as well as the interpreter as autonomous creative artists. Mr. Heiniger further opposes the hybridization of music and visual arts, supported in the above-mentioned papers, by arguing that musical education pertains solely to the domain of music.

In “Musical Systems on the Net—a Survey,” Golo Föllmer raises some crucial issues concerning the social and artistic reality behind the understanding of the computer as a medium that offers universal appropriation and distribution of musics (to use the plural form commonly employed in ethnomusicology to embrace the music of all cultures). Despite the fact that formats such as MP3 and MPEG, real-time applications, and other possibilities for webcasting such as Real Audio have facilitated the distribution of music, Mr. Föllmer argues that reality still needs to catch up with the utopian ideals.

The author points to one important distinction between the mechanical distribution of music and music consumption patterns of the past: the physical absence of other people. He argues that a Web-based music will make extinct the communal elements of musical culture that hitherto have been imperative for music in human society. However, the mechanical piano and, later on, audio recordings already eliminated the active participation of the listener as well as the presence of other people from the consumption of music. As such, although Mr. Föllmer raises some important issues, his pessimism belies the fact that despite the physical absence of other people, computer-mediated communication and earlier technologies have already proven their potential to form new communities.

Communication is also the topic of Werner Jauk’s “Organization through Communicative Relations: Music.” The author contemplates the importance of music in assessing the work concept in the digital era. In European musicology in particular, the work concept in the context of the immaterial nature of music has perpetually puzzled music thinkers. According to the author, any digital medium poses similar problems, because its main substance is constituted by its ability to communicate. Music, however, communicates emotion rather than actual information. In contrast to Mr. Föllmer’s ideas described above, Mr. Jauk makes a cardinal point in emphasizing the significance of web-based mediation in transcending physical and geographical separation. He emphasizes that the function of music within certain communities is more important than the communicative character of the music per se.

For the sheltered reader (and reviewer), examples of Web-based art are described in Miriam Stumpfe’s brief portrait of Austrian artist, Rupert Huber. Examples of his projects are currently available on the World Wide Web (http://www.kunstradio.at/BIOS/rupertbio.html). As such, Klangforschung ’98 offers an interesting peek into the European scene of electronic and computer music as well as multimedia art. At first, the diversity of topics, especially the relative absence of music, might appear strange, but the issues discussed by the contributors serve to question the traditional boundaries between music, sound, and space. They challenge the understanding of art in the 21st century in their attempt to explore and redefine past aesthetic principles in recent as well as yet unanticipated artistic domains.