Vol. 33 Issue 3 Reviews

Nick Collins and Julio d’Escriván, editors: The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music

Hardcover/softcover, 2007, ISBN 978-0-521-86861-7/978-0-521-68865-9, 312 pages, illustrated, chronology, notes, references, index; Cambridge University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK; telephone in USA (+1) 800-872-7423; electronic mail orders@cambridge.org; World Wide Web www.cambridge.org/.

Reviewed by Michael Robert Barnhart
Portsmouth, Ohio, USA

This book is a recent addition to the popular and extensive Cambridge Companion series. In the introduction the editors propose to “deliver access to a powerful territory of inspiration and excitement” (p. 2), and deliver it they do. This survey deftly escapes the common pitfall of some similarly aimed works which, though bursting with fascinating facts about historical electronic music, ultimately fail to illustrate the aims that inspired such efforts in a way that meaningfully connects them to areas of current creative effort. Rather than simply serving up the history, this book invites and assumes participation and offers a diverse range of perspectives for consideration. Restating content found in other familiar works is largely avoided in a favor of presenting new ways of thinking about both past and present endeavor and “less widely represented themes from the research front” (p. 2)

The structure of The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music consists of an Introduction followed by thirteen chapters grouped around three major thematic areas. Part One, Electronic Music in Context, contains four chapters. In the first, entitled “The origins of electronic music,” Andrew Hugill finds the nascent stirrings of desire for sound technology in passages of visionary fiction from the 17th through 19th centuries. It is a refreshing vantage point from which to begin. Taken together with his discussion of early inventions and their transformation into new expressive media, he illustrates the emergence of real sonic art from the collective imagination.

In chapter two, “Electronic music and the studio,” Margaret Schedel looks at the importance of the early studio to aesthetic development and the changing definition of the studio concept. “The studio is no longer defined by its contents; rather it has become a context created by the user” (p. 37).

Nicolas Collins examines the development of “Live Electronic Music” in the third chapter, acknowledging the important experiments of 20th century composer-performers and smartly including often-neglected subjects such as turntablism and circuit bending.

Ge Wang’s “A history of programming and music” concludes Part One. He addresses pre-computer mechanical automation, the development of early computer music languages, contemporary real-time systems and future directions, looking at how “the programming language acts as a mediator between human intention and the corresponding bits and instructions that make sense to a computer” (p. 55).

Interleaved with the three major subject areas are two engaging collections of artists’ statements following chapters four and ten that together offer a sampling of the creative perspectives of 30 electronic musicians from across a wide array of experiences.
This excerpt by Alejandro Viñao offers a glimpse:

Our serious music world has disowned one of its greatest traditions: that of being at the forefront of technological transformation in music. Far from inspiring change and invention like composers of the past, most composers of the last sixty or seventy years have attempted to create the music of today with the technology of another time. (p. 187)

As does this one by Seong-Ah Shin:

Most students called the studio the “ghost room” because of the strange sounds that emanated from that dark corner of the building. However, for me it was the most interesting room in the department, with new sounds and fascinating equipment. (p. 82)

Part Two, Electronic Music in Practice, is comprised of six chapters (chapters 5-10) each dipping into a different conceptual stream of contemporary work. “Interactivity and live computer music” by Sergi Jordà covers the computer as instrument, the composer as instrument builder, and catalogs various means of performance interface and their inherent possibilities/limitations.

Karlheinz Essl’s “Algorithmic composition” presents a useful overview of the field linking pre-computer process musics that involved style rules, serialism, and chance operations to ongoing real-time experimentation. Chapter 7, “Live audiovisuals,” co-authored by Amy Alexander and Nick Collins, examines the complex history of multimedia performance.

Julian Rohruber’s chapter on “Network music” “covers a broad range from collaborative composition environments to sound installations and improvised music ensembles” (p. 140), giving special attention to the history and significance of communications technology in art.

Julio d’Escriván’s chapter, “Sound and the moving image,” addresses electronic music for film, television and video games. Among other points of interest it contains a favorable reappraisal of the importance of Raymond Scott’s innovative commercial music and studio techniques during the 1950s and 1960s and closes with a provocative section entitled “Future media?” The final chapter of Part Two is Nick Collins’ “Musical robots and listening machines.”A subsection entitled “Four interactive improvisation systems”gives detailed profiles of selected composers’ strategies. Other subsections include material on machine listening and accompaniment.

Part Three, Analysis and Synthesis, contains three chapters. In the first, “Computer generation and manipulation of sounds,”Stefania Serafin provides a well-organized overview of the categories of synthesis techniques and their origins ending with an exploration of future possibilities. In the second, Petri Toiviainen reviews “The psychology of electronic music,”explaining “some of the important aspects of perception and cognition that can be regarded as useful for gaining better understanding of the perception of electronic music” (p. 231).

Natasha Barrett’s substantial finale entitled “Trends in electroacoustic music,” “identifies these trends and their compositional and aesthetic circumstances, forming a springboard for a new composer to the genre” (p. 232).

The main body of text of Electronic Music is preceded by a detailed timeline (beginning with Pythagoras and ending with contemporary video games) that highlights many foundational contributions to and developments in electronic music. Curious readers will welcome the selected discographies and suggestions for further reading that follow many of the chapters, as well as additional notes and a lengthy reference list at the end of the book.

The diversity of topics, accessible format, careful referencing, and the high quality of the contributions to The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music guarantee that it will be of some interest to nearly every reader of Computer Music Journal.