Vol. 31 Issue 2 Reviews

Mary Simoni, editor: Analytical Methods of Electroacoustic Music

Hardcover, 2006, Studies in New Music Research, Volume  8, ISBN 0-415-97629-4, 301 pages, illustrated, annotated bibliography, glossary, index, with accompanying DVD,  US$ 95; available from Taylor & Francis Group/Routledge, 270 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016-0602, USA;  telephone (+1) 800-634-7064, international (+1) 859-525-2230; fax (+1)  800-248-4724, international (+1) 859-647-5027; electronic mail info@taylorandfrancis.com;  Web www.routledge-ny.com/.

Reviewed by James Harley
Guelph, Ontario, Canada

According to editor Mary Simoni, the impetus for this book, Analytical Methods of Electroacoustic Music (Routledge, 2006), “came from listening to numerous concerts of electroacoustic music… as well as a wide variety of recordings… I was intrigued by the fact that the depth of analysis and critical essay enjoyed by classical music did not accompany electroacoustic music” (p. vii). This sense of intrigue led to the decision, taken, apparently, during the International Computer Music Conference 2002, “to document this vibrant genre of music-making through analysis in direct consultation with the composers” (p. vii). This volume, collecting nine articles representing different approaches to the analysis of electroacoustic music, is a welcome addition to the small, but thankfully growing, body of work on this important topic.

Ms. Simoni, professor at University of Michigan and a past president of the International Computer Music Association, contributes two articles to this collection. Her “Introduction” leads the reader toward concepts of musical abstraction, moving from a discussion of the basic elements of music to various representations of those elements through history: traditional notation, spectrogram, amplitude-time graph, computer code. Her main focus is on “timbre,” given this element’s importance for electroacoustic composition, and given the advances computer technology has brought to bear on the exploration of timbre. As Ms. Simoni succinctly states: “Analysis and synthesis, with the support of computer technology, advance our knowledge and understanding of timbre. Technology thrusts us into new modes of representation with increasingly sophisticated musical abstractions, which challenge not only human perception but also aesthetic sensibilities” (p. 10).

Norman Adams, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan at the time of publication, contributes what is essentially a tutorial on the spectrogram, “Visualization of Musical Signals.” I say “tutorial” because he does not otherwise present analytical work. Considering how important the spectrogram is as an analytical tool throughout the rest of the book, it makes sense to have this chapter near the beginning. As Mr. Adams correctly notes: “time-domain representation does not effectively portray timbre. The frequency-domain representation is an effective visualization of timbre but does not represent time-varying timbres. Spectrograms depict rich and evolving timbres that are characteristic of electroacoustic music” (p. 27).

The next chapter, however, leaves issues of timbral-musical representation and related analysis aside completely. Leigh Landy, Director of the Music, Technology, and Innovation Research Centre at De Montfort University in the UK, instead adopts a more sociological approach in “The Intention/Reception Project.” This is a fascinating study, part of a larger research project, in which subjects are invited to engage in repeat listenings of selected electroacoustic works, guided by focus questions and discussion. The aim is to discern how listeners may be affected by knowing something of the composer’s intention. The two pieces reported on are Prochaine Station by Christian Calon and Claude Schryer, and Valley Flow by Denis Smalley. Subjects listened once to the pieces with no information given, once again after learning the titles, and once again after learning something of the composer’s intention. Each time, subjects were asked to keep notes while listening and then to answer questions about their listening experiences and related thoughts. Mr. Landy concludes that “presentation” is an important element of an electroacoustic composition, that “dramaturgy, that is, intentional information, music be considered” (p. 50). He also notes that music analysis can take both the composer and the listener into account. He might have said ought to take both into account.

Ms. Simoni makes another contribution to this volume with a detailed analysis of Paul Lansky’s As If, a mixed work for string trio and synthesized tape from 1982. She presents a very thorough analysis primarily of the pitch organization of this substantial piece. For a reader with no familiarity with pitch-set nomenclature, parts of her discussion would be difficult to appreciate, but with any background using this technique, her analysis will be valuable. We are given to understand that the tape part was created from a recording of a violin performing an existing Lansky composition, encoded then analyzed using linear predictive coding (LPC), with the fourth movement being based on processed samples of jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. We are not given information about what LPC is, or how it is used in any detail. The discussion of the saxophone-based tape part focuses primarily on the pitch organization. There are numerous spectrogram images to support the discussion. For the most part, I do not find these particularly useful, as timbre is little discussed. I surmise that this analysis has been included in the collection in order to argue for the usefulness of pitch-set-based analysis in studying note-oriented electroacoustic music, given its near-ubiquitous use in the music theory community for analyzing music of the twentieth century and beyond.

Benjamin Broening, former Univerity of Michigan student and present professor at the University of Richmond, contributes a spectrogram-based analysis of Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, a seminal tape composition from 1969. Mr. Broening presents an admirable discussion of the background to this composition, including technical description and an introduction to “process” music, of which this piece is a stellar example. The main focus of his analysis is to examine the evolution of the spectrum of the recording as the clear spoken voice of the opening is gradually obliterated through accumulating feedback and other artifacts as the text is re-recorded over and over. The spectrogram images are in this case very helpful as an aid in grasping the details of how the sonic material changes.

Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980) has been studied perhaps as much as any piece of electroacoustic music. What Michael Clarke, of Huddersfield University in the UK, offers here is an interactive approach to the piece, organized as a series of “modules” built using Max/MSP and incorporating his SYBIL software (SYnthesis By Interactive Learning). While the article introduces the piece and its organization, incorporating composer sketches and details (Mr. Harvey himself published an article on this piece in CMJ 5:4), the software on the DVD enables the reader to explore specific synthesis techniques used in the piece. SYBIL contains a patch that enables a CD recording of this composition to be loaded and accessed from within the Max/MSP environment. (I should note that I had trouble getting Mr. Clarke’s patch to run correctly using the version of MaxMSP Runtime that comes with it, but there was no problem running it with my full version of Max/MSP.) If the point of analysis is to facilitate the reader-listener’s understanding of a musical composition and related organizational or synthesis techniques, then this interactive approach is right on the mark.

Andrew May, currently Director of the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia at the University of North Texas, is a specialist in interactive music. In this study of Philippe Manoury’s Jupiter (1987), Mr. May rightly acknowledges that this piece pioneered “real-time pitch tracking and score following to correlate computer-generated sound with a live performer” (p. 145). Having worked extensively both with Miller Puckette, the designer of the software used for this piece from its earlier manifestation, and with Elizabeth McNutt, the flutist who has most performed this piece in North America (and recorded it for CD release—Pipe Wrench, EMF 025), Mr. May has intimate experience with this piece. His article provides historical background to the technology of Jupiter, an outline of the formal design, and in-depth description of the signal processing and “digital orchestra,” and the strategies for interaction utilized for this piece. Much of the discussion details how the orchestration and interaction between the solo flute and the computer animate the musical form. Given that the composition Jupiter in 1987 was to a great extent the impetus for the development of the language that has become Max/MSP (and pd), and given its substantial scope (the piece lasts in the order of half an hour), the exposition here of the various tactics for presenting a range of relationships between a live performer and a responsive computer is of great value.

Mara Helmuth, Director of the Center for Computer Music at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinatti, is a composer who has long had an interest in granular synthesis, and has developed related software. For this volume, Ms. Helmuth contributes an analysis of Riverrun, an electroacoustic composition by Barry Truax, one of the main pioneers and proponents of granular synthesis. As the author notes, Riverrun (1986) “is a slowly transforming sonic environment. It does not have the concise phrases and active harmonic rhythm of classical music, or even the sculptured quickly unfolding gestures of much recent electroacoustic music… Densities, timbral qualities, and stochastic layerings make up a fluid, transforming entity… in which intense microlevel activity reflects complex natural processes” (p. 187). After providing a description of the composer’s real-time composition software used to create this piece (and most of his other works), some details on the program for this piece, and background on granular synthesis, Ms. Helmuth discusses the specific synthesis settings the composer used in the context of the formal outline of the work. In this case, input from Mr. Truax was clearly of enormous value for the author’s study. From there, she goes on to present a five-level analytical description of Riverrun, using the following scheme, organized vertically: 1) text description; 2) event groupings (graphic indications showing essentially sections, phrases, sub-phrases); 3) pitch (useful in this piece for specifying drones); 4) amplitude; and 5) sonogram images. This is a very thorough presentation, combining technical description of the synthesis processes with composer specification and listener perception.

The final article, by Momilani Ramstrum, doctoral student at the University of Calfornia, San Diego, returns to composer Philippe Manoury, here focusing on his 2000 opera K…, for singers, electronics, and orchestra. Without a doubt, this is the most complex work discussed in this collection, with its Kafka-based libretto (based on The Trial), large performance forces, staging, and complex real-time electronics (including a 16-channel, 30-loudspeaker projection system). As the author notes, the software used to administer the electronics for the opera executes approximately 2,000 events, ranging from triggering sampled sounds, synthesis (using techniques developed at IRCAM to generate sounds that evolve on the basis of time-varying formants), transformation, amplification, and spatialization. The author presents examples of all of these types of electronic events or interventions, but obviously, it isn’t possible to discuss, or even categorize, them all in a brief article. She goes on to discuss the serial bases for the opera, and ties this to the formal outline and the dramaturgy. Foremost in the article is the use of electronics as an important, critical, agent in the work, and it’s no doubt a useful strategy for the author to follow, given the complexity and scope of the opera. More detailed analysis is provided for the Prologue and Scene XII, the author making use of the Music Structure Discovery (MSD) software developed at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). The program “creates a visual rendering of an audio recording by searching for acoustic self-similarity over time” (p. 263). She fills this out with description of the staging, lighting, and drama. While Ms. Ramstrum’s work is descriptive much more than analytical, it is nonetheless useful preliminary work on this complex, large-scale, polyvalent composition. The DVD contains some video excerpts from the opera, which helps to give the reader who would otherwise have no chance to experience it a taste of its presentation.

Analytical Methods of Electroacoustic Music is completed by a short annotated bibliography, a glossary of terms, biographies of the contributors, and an index. It is not clear, at least to this reader, why particular entries are included in the bibliography. Why two books on atonal theory—by Allen Forte and John Rahn—in addition to George Perle’s Twelve-tone Tonality? Why the extremely dated On Music Today by Pierre Boulez, hardly generalizable to electroacoustic composition/analysis, and why the quite dated The New Music by Reginald Brindle Smith when there are alternative, more up-to-date sources now available? Why no reference to the useful analytical approaches to electroacoustic music developed by Pierre Couprie, Stéphane Roy, or Denis Smalley? It should nonetheless be noted that each chapter includes its own bibliography, and these contain useful additional references.

The included disc includes a DVD-Video section, containing sound examples for several of the articles and additional spectrograms, and a DVD-ROM section, containing even more spectrograms, text files, video excerpts, and the interactive software for studying Mortuos plango, vivos voco. It’s not clear why some of these materials are presented in one place rather than another; the video excerpts of the Manoury opera, for example, can only be viewed on a computer rather than through a DVD player, which seems an unnecessary limitation (that the original video files existed in PAL format ought not be an insurmountable technical problem).

Altogether, this is a well-written, useful contribution to the exegesis of electroacoustic music. A few final quibbles, though. Why include two major analyses on the music of Philippe Manoury? Both pieces are undoubtedly worthy of discussion, but in a book of “analytical methods” a wider representation of composers would be more appropriate. Has no one done any work on other important interactive or multimedia works? I also wonder whether a more representative work by Paul Lansky could have been chosen. The pitch-set analysis presented here could easily be read as an analysis of an acoustic string trio; I would have been very interested to learn more about the computer music techniques Mr. Lansky has become known for: LPC analysis/resynthesis, stochastic mixing, granular sampling. Finally, I find the case for using spectrograms in analysis rather weak. The importance of this tool is made amply clear, but for the most part, the spectrograms used in these articles serve as illustrations, not as sources of analytical information. Other tools for graphic representation of electroacoustic music have been developed and would be in many cases more useful. Interested readers are advised to consult the online presentations of music by selected electroacoustic composers produced by the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in Paris (www.ina.fr/grm/acousmaline/polychromes/index.fr.html). The analyses presented there also serve as quite successful examples of how to tie audio to text and symbolic analysis (also possible with a DVD, but not utilized in the volume under review here).

Analytical Methods of Electroacoustic Music is meticulously edited, and the numerous images are carefully reproduced (where images are too small to see clearly on the page, they are reproduced on the disc for easier viewing). As an additional resource, Ms. Simoni has created a related Web site, intended for updates and additional information not contained in the book or on the disc (www-personal.umich.edu/~msimoni/analytical-methods/).