Vol. 26 Issue 3 Reviews
Electroacoustic Music: The Continuing Tradition
Electroacoustic Music Festival at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA, 20-22 February 2002

Reviewed by Benjamin R. Levy
College Park, Maryland, USA

The recent conference on electroacoustic music was the second such event held at the University of Maryland in the last decade. The first, which took place in 1994, was co-sponsored with Clark University’s European Center at Luxembourg. The present conference was organized by Professor Thomas DeLio and was sponsored both by the University of Maryland Division of Theory and Composition, Professor Mark Wilson, Chair, and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center of the University of Maryland, Susan Farr, Director.

The new Performing Arts Center on the College Park Campus provided an excellent setting for the event, with lecture spaces and a performance venue in the same building. The festival’s three concerts were held in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall, an intimate, comfortable space which accommodated electroacoustic music quite well, while mitigating some of the stodgy atmosphere a concert hall sometimes exudes. In fact, one of the participant composers, Michael Hamman, noted that Gildenhorn was nearly ideal for the performance of electroacoustic music, a sentiment echoed by many participants.

Wednesday, February 20, 2002
First Concert—Made in Italy: recent electronic and electroacoustic music from Italy
The festival began Wednesday evening with a concert of recent quadraphonic music from Italy, presented by the composer James Dashow. The first piece, Michelangelo Lupone’s Controfiato (Exhale) for electronically processed dancer’s sigh, derived from a live performance by Massimo Moricone, and thus reflects some aspects of the work’s choreography. It presents three layers of sound which are built up gradually as the piece moves from high pitched filtered noise to more evident aspirations which are extended and transformed into more continuous layers, steadily building in complexity. Emanuele Casale’s Studio n. 2a for processed bass recorder is a short but charming piece that proceeds at a frenetic tempo. Mr. Casale refers to the “dry, almost ‘plastic’ sound quality” obtained by a mini-disc recorder’s compression process, and indeed this piece was marked by an abundance of short, dry, percussive sounds, like the key-clicks of a flute. These formed an almost steady (at times regularly metric) accompaniment to the variety of more pitch-based sounds, also derived from the recorder. Giuseppe Gavazza’s Natura Morta con Specchio (Still Life with Mirror) brought the program to its intermission on a more subdued note. It is an almost minimal work, built from a single motive, and it stands out for its subtle use of electronic processing. The source sound of a piano is clearly recognizable throughout the piece. However, the use of decay and sustain envelopes as well as the variety of microphone placements alter the piano sound, and it is through these transformations that the piece begins to take shape.

After the intermission there were two selections, Silvia Lanzalone’s Intersezioni and James Dashow’s …at other times the distances. Ms. Lanzalone’s composition is based on Edoardo Sanguineti’s novel Capriccio Italiano, although not in a truly programmatic way. There are clear sectional divisions at the beginning, each emanating, initially, from a different channel. Many of the sounds are drawn from the words of the novel, and although these text segments are clearly recognizable as language, the individual words are kept just below the threshold of comprehension. Mr. Dashow’s piece, which ended the concert, is a “re-composing of the electronic materials from FAR SOUNDS, BROKEN CRIES,” a piece which combines traditional instruments with electronic sounds. In this reworking, only one pre-recorded cello tone is heard, the other sounds being digitally produced. The piece uses the composer’s “Dyad System” which he has discussed extensively in this and other journals (a full bibliography is available at www.jamesdashow.net); it is also full of contrasts in timbre, register, spatial motion, and level of rhythmic activity, moving from a number of generally dense moments toward an increasingly sparse final section.

Thursday, February 21, 2002
Paper Session—The History and Aesthetics of Electroacoustic Music
The first paper session was devoted to topics in history and aesthetics, and while Milton Babbitt and others have expressed a deep suspicion of the sort of non-theoretically grounded musings which the term “aesthetics” often entails, this session featured papers by distinguished composers, Wesley Fuller, Agostino Di Scipio, and Michael Hamman, who offered philosophical insights based on both practical and theoretical experience.

Mr. Fuller (Clark University, Emeritus) began with his paper “The Event is in the Air: An Introductory Presentation on Electroacoustic Music,” which was a concise history of the medium. He began by saying, “I love words, but I love sounds and utterances even more,” making this statement both to express his pleasure that the conference had begun with a concert, and also to set the stage for the form of his paper, which used copious illustrative musical examples. He began by following the practice of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert by playing the music of Anton Webern, a figure whom the heads of the Cologne studio considered groundbreaking for his use of noise as a fundamental element of music. Mr. Fuller, who attended the American premiere of Déserts, also cited Edgard Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer, and John Cage as pioneering figures in the expansion of musical material into the electroacoustic idiom.

From this point Mr. Fuller went through a brief history of the early studios—the ORTF in Paris, WDR in Cologne, and RAI in Milan—giving details on the equipment and techniques used in each and on some of the key figures and landmark compositions, including Mr. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge and Bruno Maderna’s Serenata3. Not going into great detail on the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio, Mr. Fuller preferred to focus on the activities of Bell Labs in the 1960s, and in particular on the work of James Tenney, whose Analog #1: Noise Study had fortuitously been programmed for that evening’s concert. Although discussing largely the earlier developments in electroacoustic music, Mr. Fuller’s history set up a lively discussion about more contemporary concerns and issues facing many of the composers gathered in the audience. The question and answer session carried over more informally and conversationally through the coffee break, an occurrence common to this remarkably congenial conference.

Due to an unfortunate accident Mr. Di Scipio (Conservatory of Bari) was unable to make the trip from Italy to attend the conference, and his paper, “An Eco-Systemic View of Music Composition,” was read by Mr. DeLio. This uniquely personal reflection began with the consideration of the author’s current situation. He pointed out several ways in which he had to alter his paper in light of both his present circumstances and also the paper's ultimate performance space, and went on to connect this process to one of his ongoing compositional concerns. In fact his dilemma is one facing composers all the time, however consciously. His solution, as he worked it out in 3 Untitled (sound synthesis, October 2001), which was premiered on the following night’s concert, involves the acceptance of three related “nodes” of the music-making process, a “triangular interaction schema, ‘man-machine-environment.’” Mr. Di Scipio’s music seeks to overcome the sense, which he finds in many compositions for tape, that “the musical text is conceived… independently of the actual circumstances of its manifestation.” Through this conception, cognizant of these interrelations, he wants his music to be a part of the present, of the “here and now” rather than an expression of something that was in the past and is merely being reproduced. Shunning virtual reality as a modern form of schizophrenia or as escapism, the composer’s vision for 3 Untitled is one of true austerity where one is forced to deal with what is present in a way which is inescapable—his view of the “tragic.”

Mr. Hamman (University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign) delivered the final lecture entitled, “music \\ TECHNIQUE.” While he described his talk as spiraling around a central theme, when unfurled it addressed some of the deep connections between technology and aesthetics. Quoting Martin Heidegger in his etymological connection between the Greek techne (art or skill) and its derivatives in “technique” and ultimately “technology,” Mr. Hamman pointed out some of the problems which arise from a concept of technology as being something divorced from social context. As he put it, “the reification of ends over means” often leads to a view of technology as something immutable and external, to be applied from outside. He reached this from his perspective as a composer of electronic music and a research scientist interested in interfaces; he clearly views a “problematized” interface as a stimulus to creativity rather than an obstacle, even, as an aside, attributing the aesthetic richness of many early electroacoustic classics to their success at turning technical problems into musical problems which the piece could, in turn, address. For him, interface design is a part of the pre-compositional decision making process, and a large part of his lecture was devoted to more recent examples of such pre-compositional designs: Herbert Brün’s Sawdust, described as a “system for designing systems,” and Kirk Corey’s Ivory Tower, which idiosyncratically uses different voltage inputs into the pins of a printer port to create sonic events. Brün has said that his Sawdust “does not want to speak for itself lest it discourage someone from speaking for it,” which is a part of what Mr. Hamman’s lecture did. Explaining some of its conception and putting it in a larger context of works, both past and present, which challenge the available technology, he enriched the experience of that evening’s concert.

Second Concert—Henry, Tenney, Hamman, Tabor, Brün, Maderna, Yuasa
Thursday evening’s concert provided as great a variety of music as the morning’s lectures. Pierre Henry’s Voile d’Orphée, one of the earliest large-scale works of musique concrète, presents a variety of different sources including sirens and voices speaking Greek which, along with sounds distinctly recalling a heart beat, give an intensely human sense of drama to the piece. This was followed by Mr. Tenney’s Analog #1, a performance which vivified many of the points Mr. Fuller made about the piece in the morning’s talk. Mr. Hamman’s discourse/current (2000) was a stark contrast to these earlier pieces. The composer treats poet Chris Mann’s text, In representing, quite elegantly, incorporating a few fragments of this poem and “the barest of sonic materials—sine tones, filtered noise, and silence,” into his sparse aesthetic of quiet sounds and extended silences. The ten sections of the piece, each separated by a dual-tone-multi-frequency (DTMF) tone, can be grouped into four series, which Mr. Hamman says “may suggest a gradual decay of the projective power of the spoken text and of the articulative quality of acoustical materials more generally.”

Jerry Tabor, another of the composers present at the conference, began the second half of the program with the premiere of his lemon; birch. He composed a number of “intersections” using the PC version of the UPIC—a computer music system designed by Iannis Xenakis—to achieve a volatile surface of sounds. Fast juxtapositions create marvelously gritty sounds, which give way to sounds with smoother transitions and interactions. Mr. Tabor’s composition strikes one as a fascinating investigation into the ways we are able to create meaningful connections. The next piece, Brün’s A Mere Ripple, is the fourth piece from the Sawdust project, described by Mr. Hamman earlier that day. Maderna’s Syntaxis, composed in 1957, represented the early Milan studio but reflects some of the electronic music techniques of the Cologne studio as well, using only sine waves and white noise as the basic materials. The final piece of the concert, Joji Yuasa’s Eye on Genesis for UPIC, was also composed the UPIC. The title’s “genesis” refers to the composer’s attempt to create a “pure” music, truly non-instrumental in its conception and thus “unhampered by today’s cultural limitations.” Whether an expression of this universality or of other influences relating to his Japanese heritage, Mr. Yuasa’s composition moves in a spacious and open sound world, which was enthralling as it materialized in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall.

Friday, February 22, 2002
Paper Session—The Analysis of Electroacoustic Music
The second paper session was one entirely devoted to the analysis of electroacoustic music. The mainstream of music theory has, to a large extent, neglected this body of music, and many of those attending remarked on the rarity of such a session. As the analysis for music for which there is no score is generally thought to be an imposing task, the analyst must often enlist approaches outside the canon. The presenters at this session all employed spectrographs in their analyses; these graphic representations display, quite precisely, the entire spectrum of sounds with frequency being represented along the vertical axis, time along the horizontal, and intensity represented by the darkness of a given image. The influence of Robert Cogan, and in particular his New Images of Musical Sound, which makes pioneering use of the spectrograph, was evident in all the analyses.

The first half-session was devoted to newer music—that of Wesley Fuller (who was present in the audience) and Joji Yuasa. Kristian Twombly presented an analysis of Mr. Yuasa’s The Sea Darkens (1984), demonstrating the occurrence of distinct section changes and structural events at the Golden Section and Inverse Golden Section points of the piece. Mr. Twombly went on to point out the way in which the piece ultimately resolves a dialogue between oppositional sonic elements which derive from the text (a Basho haiku and its English translation) and in particular from the words “shiroshi” and “white.” Stephen Lilly’s analysis of Mr. Fuller’s Sherds of Five also paid close attention to structure and proportions in his discussion of the rhythmic design of the piece, and when comparing this to various timbral groupings present, discovered a beautiful asymmetry around which the piece evolves.

The second half of the session moved backwards, chronologically, examining works from the earliest period of electronic music. This reviewer presented an analysis of György Ligeti’s Artikulation, one of the composer’s two completed tape pieces. This analysis identifies the dialectic nature of the piece and, using Mr. Cogan’s oppositional approach to analysis, worked to define and elucidate elements of the evolving dialogue more precisely. Thomas Licata, of Hartwick College, ended the session with a discussion of Luigi Nono’s first tape piece (his only purely electronic, that is to say, non-concret work), Ommagio a Vedova. Mr. Licata discussed the relationship between the visual artist Emilio Vedova, who collaborated with Nono on the opera Intolleranza, pointing out some preliminary parallels in their aesthetic positions before going on to an in-depth analysis of the piece looking at the flow of dynamics, sustained versus shorter sounds, and noise-based to pitch-based sounds. Both analyses by Mr. Licata and Mr. Twombly are forthcoming in Electroacoustic Music: Analytical Perspectives (Thomas Licata, editor) from Greenwood Press.

Third Concert—Xenakis, Dusman, Koenig, Fuller, Licata, and Di Scipio
The final event of the festival began with Iannis Xenakis’s masterpiece, Orient-Occident, a piece of musique concrète meshing together a variety of sounds from household objects to an altered excerpt from his orchestral work, Pithoprakta. In contrast to this, Linda Dusman’s Becoming Becoming Gertrude uses only the human voice—readings from Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans—as source material. As the composer notes: “While the resonances [of the initial reading] expand and contract, the voices of performers Susan McCully and Philip Maki remain unaltered as they embark on a series of repetitive and asymmetric undulations, cresting ultimately in the original text.” Gottfried Michael Koenig’s Function Grau followed. It is one of the first pieces to use a voltage control system, dating from 1969, after his years at the Cologne studio.

After intermission there were three pieces dating from the current century, including two world premieres. The first, Wesley Fuller’s vers, presents beautifully constructed sounds—often subtly detuned, beating sonorities—which he uses sparsely to punctuate a texture of readings taken from the poetry of Jorie Graham. Following this was the premiere of Thomas Licata’s (re)made. Like Mr. Tabor’s piece the previous night, Mr. Licata presents a series of elements in which the swift flow of short events becomes quite fluid, yet never completely losing the particularity of each individual moment. The rhythmic events and their spatial distribution (rapidly jumping back and forth between channels) gave the composition a quality resembling quicksilver, both flowing smoothly and bouncing sharply and unpredictably.

The conference ended with Agostino Di Scipio’s 3 Untitled (sound synthesis, October 2001). As the piece begins with the fuzzy, crackling sounds similar to those which often emanate, unwanted, from a sound system, one was reminded of a statement the composer made in his paper to the effect that the meaning of the piece “if any meaning may be assigned to it, is not captured in its objectivity, and will not be preserved or vehicled by a faithful, hi-fi, replica of the recorded stream of samples.” As the piece unfolds, these crackling sounds recur often, though they remain relatively undeveloped. Throughout, the work keeps hinting, subtly, at the presence of other worlds of sound—worlds mostly hidden from us—and, as such, one feels quite vividly the sense of the “tragic” pathos to which his lecture alluded. The piece also conveys an awareness of that “hitherto unrealized lack of knowledge that leaves us uprooted,” which leaves us inescapably in the present. As such, 3 Untitled (sound synthesis, October 2001) was a very appropriate ending to the conference.

The University of Maryland’s Electroacoustic Music Festival was not only a celebration of the continuing tradition of music on tape but, through premieres of new works, became part of that same continuation. The interconnections encountered throughout this conference—between presenters and composers, between pieces talked about and pieces heard—provided a remarkable focus to the event. Examining this music in different contexts led to revelations, reconsiderations, and discussions which continue even today over email, as many participants ultimately realized that the driving forces behind the development of electroacoustic music are exactly those characteristics of enthusiasm and vitality which made this conference a success.