Vol. 28 Issue 2 Reviews
Elena Ungeheuer, editor: Elektroakustische Musik

Laaber-Verlag Handbuch der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert 5, 2002, ISBN 3-89007-425-1, hardcover, 336 pages, Euro 98, illustrated, index of terms, persons, studios, and labels, bibliography; Laaber-Verlag, Regensburger Strasse 19, D-93164 Laaber, Germany; telephone (+ ) 9498-2307; fax (+ ) 9498-2543; electronic mail info@laaber-verlag.de; World Wide Web www.laaber-verlag.de

Reviewed by M. J. Grant
Berlin, Germany

Book CoverWas 20th-century music more diverse than ever before? It is certainly true that scholarly reflection on music diversified, not least because of the caution now exercised in the face of historical metanarratives. This is both a timely development and a source of recurrent headaches. Even given the scope of a multi-volume project such as the Handbuch der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert (Handbooks of 20th-century Music), some selection has to be made, and some coherence drawn through the diverse strands left.

Elena Ungeheuer has written widely on the early years of electronic composition at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Cologne, and thus has extensive experience in rooting out historical and technical facts from the rhetoric which suffuses much debate on electroacoustic music. She is also keenly aware of the dual necessities of questioning received authority and not succumbing to a pluralist jungle where the woods cannot be seen for the trees. Her introduction to this volume lists some members of the large but generally stable set of polarizations which have shaped discussion on electroacoustic music through the years: "imitation versus innovation, object versus process, analog versus digital, sound meaning versus sound structure" (pp. 11-12).

It is an indication of the reflective approach taken in this volume that these polarizations, however open to debate, do not immediately fall into the usual, self-perpetuating mythologies of elektronische Musik vs. musique concrète, or Europe vs. America. Nor is there any immediate mention of the German-language polarization between "E-" and "U-Musik," i.e., "high" and "pop" musical cultures. On the other hand, the polarizations Ms. Ungeheur lists reflect debates within the compositional tradition rather than within other forms, such as electronic dance music and industrial rock, the subject of essays by Roger Hoffmann and Frédéric Claisse, respectively. In an introduction to the chapter containing these essays, Ms. Ungeheuer discusses François Lyotard's definitions of Modernism and Postmodernism as a means of finding common discursive ground, but this attempt at integration is not followed through elsewhere.

However, Mr. Claisse's discussion of industrial rock certainly alerts us early on to the mass production and marketing of music made possible by new technology. The group Throbbing Gristle, his main subject, critically challenged these developments by playing the music industry at its own game, with its own technologies. Elsewhere in this book, tensions related to the impact of standardization and shifts in institutional structures come repeatedly to the surface. Electroacoustic music, its production facilities, its discourses, and above all its practitioners, are not immune to the market forces and accompanying political ideologies currently banging on the doors of ivory towers worldwide. But the "value" of institutionalized electroacoustic music lies not merely in the technological advances which it has initiated—the kind of hard products which economists require and which might justify the survival of university studios. (Like some of the contributors to this volume, I write this from a city particularly intent on shooting itself in the foot in this regard. According to current policy in Berlin, any university discipline which does not translate into hard cash can expect to have its funding withdrawn.) So what are these other benefits, apart, of course, from the music itself? For one thing, electroacoustic music has contributed enormously to our understanding of the nature of sound and our perception of it. But it has also led to other insights: reflections on the relationships between partners in a musical communication (one of these partners might be technical), and on the new social situations necessitated by the complex technology associated with creating electroacoustic music.

This is the main thrust of the fourth chapter of this book, which by itself would vindicate the volume as a whole. Folkmar Hein, Thomas Kessler, Thomas Neuhaus, and Paulo C. Chagas, all expert practitioners, variously reflect on the status of sound engineers (unjustifiably low, according to Mr. Hein), training programs for audio designers and composers, and the merits and demerits of recent developments. On this last point, there is something like a consensus: automation, digitalization, and Internet communication call into question the very existence of studios as centralized locations; the particular skills of sound engineers and studio technicians are also overlooked as composers increasingly rely on advanced software operated on their personal computers. But the results can never be the same, for two main reasons. Firstly, as Mr. Neuhaus points out, few if any home studios can reproduce sound of the quality possible at larger institutions, and this high quality helps promote a culture of precise hearing and thus greater understanding of sound. Secondly, it is not the technology that makes the studio, it is the people who gather there. In an age where "interdisciplinarity" is the soundbite of choice in academic circles, it is highly ironic that the studio, for decades a fusion point for art, technology, and the history of ideas, should be under threat. Like much in the history of electroacoustic music, this is an unexpected side-effect, but that doesn't make it any less important.

Indeed, the real value of this book as a whole is that it reflects empirical realities rather than the utopian aesthetics of the founding era, although there are some exceptions to this, as I shall discuss later. A recurrent theme is the practical and aesthetic consequences of interaction with the tools of sound production and manipulation. In his essay "Komponieren im analogen Studio," Pascal Decroupet points out that early techniques often required virtuosic abilities comparable to those of an instrumental soloist; he also shows how technical errors often became a source of creative potential. Joachim Stange-Elbe traces the history of electronic musical instruments through Leo Theremin's Aetherophon, Jörg Mager's Sphärophon, and Friedrich Trautwein and Oskar Sala's Trautoniums, up to the contemporary synthesizer. In doing so, he focuses on these instruments as things to be played and not just creators of outlandish noises: the sound of the Aetherophon may not have been particularly original, but the spectacle of the performer teasing sounds out of the air ensures its continuing fascination.

The interaction of the visible and the audible is, of course, a central topic, and a chapter with four essays is dedicated to it. Not surprisingly, Pierre Schaeffer's program for acousmatic music receives particular attention, discussed in passing in Rudolf Frisius's article "Das andere Hören," and in depth in John Dack's "Instrument und Pseudoinstrument. Akusmatische Konzeptionen." This latter essay clearly indicates both the value and the complexity of Schaeffer's investigations, and concludes with a discussion of their development in the work of Denis Smalley and others. The former essay starts with great promise, but fails in large part to deliver discussion of the philosophical implications of terms such as "invisible music" or "acoustic art," supported by a brief excursus on changing definitions of "music" through the ages, is not followed through sufficiently in the latter part of the essay, which presents analytical discussion of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Studie I, Studie II, and Hymnen, and Walter Ruttmann's Weekend from 1930, the "acoustic film" which first applied techniques of cut and montage to recorded sound. The remaining contributions to this chapter discuss the problems of analyzing electroacoustic music, with perhaps too much concentration on the nature of the analytical endeavour itself. Ms. Ungeheuer refers to Jean-Jacques Nattiez's tripartite model of analysis at the poietic, esthesic, and neutral levels, but does not mention Mr. Nattiez's own suspicions regarding the analytical status of electroacoustic works. Martha Brech's discussion of the pros and cons of analysis using sonagrams continues in this general line by exploring the subjectivity of auditory analysis, particularly compared to what we may learn from the composer's intentions and method, but I am not entirely convinced as to why electroacoustic music should be so different in this regard to composition mediated through a score. The fruits of such endeavors are better demonstrated in Nicola Scaldaferri's earlier essay on compositions by Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna. This includes a graphic recreation of the production processes for a single segment of Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) that is both easy to follow and enlightening.

There is a great deal of stimulating material in this book. The quality of the individual essays is generally high, often very high. Regarded as a handbook, however, there are some glaring holes. In particular, despite the introduction's challenge to the accepted history or histories of electronic music, there is frequent, almost incessant recourse to central Europe in the 1950s—partly, I suspect, because this is where the editor's expertise lies. There can be no question of the quality and importance of the discussions of this period, but repeated references to the same composers and theorists (primarily Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer) start to jar in other contexts. This is most obvious in the article "Komponieren mit dem Computer." It takes the form of a montage-style "discussion" between the late Herbert Brün, Marco Stroppa, and Pascal Decroupet, moderated by Ms. Ungeheuer. Brün's contributions are taken from an essay published in 1971, Marco Stroppa's are authorized excerpts from a text published in 1988. Pascal Decroupet's comments are meant to offer historical contextualization, but this context turns out to be, for the most part, a comparison with the early analog years in Cologne and Paris, the exact value of which escapes me.

There are, of course, points to be made in favor of such comparisons. Mr. Chagas points out that the two basic devices of analog electronic music—tape and oscillator, representing sound recording on the one hand and sound generation on the other—are comparable in function to the two basic devices of the digital era, the sampler and the sequencer. Elsewhere, Martin Supper's essay, "Das andere Denken: Fourier versus Gábor," views these theorists as representing two basic approaches to sound synthesis which are as valid in the digital as in the analog era. He also discusses the aesthetic consequences of particular methods of synthesis: thus we read that pieces based on FM synthesis often sound like a showcase for the technique, making full and very obvious use of the possibilities of slow, constant transformation of timbre (particularly, for some reason, at the beginning of pieces). Insights of this kind are still rare in general literature on electroacoustic music.

But how general is the book as a whole? A glance through the index of names reveals some significant oversights. Developments in North America are radically underrepresented: a student relying on this book would be none the wiser regarding the historical development of computer music and the role of a composer like Milton Babbitt, who is never mentioned. There is also little sense of chronology. What happened, say, in the 1970s? Did electroacoustic music just trundle along, waiting for the Internet to stir things up again? It is tempting to suggest that the discussion of Internet music in the concluding chapter, another constructed discussion, this time between Ms. Ungeheuer and Golo Föllmer, could have been condensed in order to make way for a broader picture of the previous quarter-century.

On the whole, the picture of the present which emerges in this book is itself polarized. One the one hand, there are practitioners who are cautious of the claims made for the most widely-used technology. Folkmar Hein, for example, expresses reservations about MIDI, not least because of its keyboard-derived definition of discrete notes. Martin Supper notes that widely-available sequencing software has often led to compositions with a standardized, indeed formulaic, sound. On the other hand, there are practitioners who see standardization and commercial availability as the first step to a brave new world. This new world sounds strangely familiar to anyone who has delved into writings from the 1920s: new technology will democratize music; new technology will encourage amateur music-making; and so on. Christoph Reuter and Bernd Enders's discussion of data transfer technology falls into this trap, and the lack of hindsight is coupled with a curious myopia regarding the library shelf-life of the exhaustive list of current formats, tools, and Internet addresses which they provide. Of the first five Internet addresses quoted in this essay which I tried to reach, one could not be found, one required me to enter a password which I did not have, and one redirected me to a site telling me that the domain name I had entered is for sale. And then my browser crashed. Out of frustration, perhaps.