The Musical Significance of Electronic Music

by Hubert S. Howe, Jr.

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today. I am going to discuss the question of the musical significance of electronic music. I think that this is already a rather loaded question, since electronic music is a means of producing music as well as an already rather large body of works, and the topic I will be discussing is like "the musical significance of cello music". If you pose it that way, I think you can see the dilemma: even if we were unhappy with most of the cello music that had been written of which we knew, I doubt if you would be willing to dismiss the entire concept as cavalierly as many people dismiss electronic music, about which they know even less.

One of the problems that we have to acknowledge at the outset is that there is no perfect way for you to go out and learn much about electronic music. Rarely are there concerts of electronic music, and what you do find is largely limited to a single work accompanied by instruments on a concert of contemporary music. Broadcasts, with some exceptions, have for the most part ignored this literature. The main bright light at present is the expanding CD market, which is beginning to make up for a dearth of what was available only a few years ago.

When concerts of electronic music are presented, you hear much grumbling about having to sit in a concert hall staring at loudspeakers, and how this is an affront to the music-loving public. This experience forces you to reconsider what concerts are for in the first place. When you have instrumentalists getting together to play music, there is some justification for sitting together with all the seats facing in one direction and acoustic conditions optimized for concentration. I am bothered by people who don't pay attention, especially when they talk or do other distracting things when I am trying to listen to the music. You realize, however, that concerts are also largely social occasions, that many of the people there don't care for some or all of the music, and maybe concerts aren't the ideal way for learning and enjoying music. In fact, most of the real learning about and enjoying music that we do is done with electronic recording and playback devices in settings other than concerts.

I find the complaint that people make about electronic music concerts to be completely bogus. We have all had < >more experience with this kind of listening at this point in the twentieth century than we have had with live music, no matter how many hours a day you practice. If we are bothered by the lack of performers on stage, we can close our eyes, or the lights in the hall could be dimmed. Concerts can also be presented in other settings like art galleries, as long as they aren't situations that encourage people to talk.

To return to the question posed at the outset about the musical significance of electronic music, let me say that the main purpose of electronic music is now and has always been that it is a medium for exploring "new" and unusual sounds, for discovering the musical qualities of "non-musical" sounds, and ultimately new musical concepts and structures. It is a medium where composers have to be their own performers, where they have to work with the materials themselves more in the manner of a sculptor or graphic artist. A composer who writes for musical instruments has to work from imagined recollections of sounds, accepting the fact that there may be different performances of his music that will sound completely different. Electronic music often depends on specific qualities that cannot withstand the changing of the most minute aspect.

What I am going to do for the rest of this talk is to further expand on this idea and demonstrate how it occurs in many specific works, which I will discuss in detail. While I am doing this, I think that you should pose for yourselves the basic question that has been asked about electronic music since it was first created following the second world war: is it music? Can you learn to adjust your internal definition of what constitutes music to accept the assumptions that lie behind these works?

Let me also state that I think the question of whether or not it is music is ultimately a personal statement about the listener rather than an aesthetic fact that can be demonstrated objectively. Since for the most part I will be playing works that I truly know and love, you already know my answer; but posing the question in this way forces you to ask yourself about those assumptions, and to discover the ways in which electronic music deals with basic musical materials differently from instrumental music. Some works we may imagine could be performed by a highly-trained ensemble of skilled musicians; but in most cases, performing these works by other means would be impossible and unimaginable. That is the significance of the fact that they were <>conceived electronically.

One of the main differences between electronic and instrumental music is the fact that there is no notation for electronic music, and composers only rarely create scores of their works. This is mainly because the purpose of the score is to give to a performer to create the music, even though most of you in undergraduate or graduate school study scores to learn about the musical structure. Examining musical notation teaches you to appreciate the qualities that are exemplified there and those that are not, and it also poses many of the questions that composers of electronic music must answer for themselves: what are the physical properties of sound, and how are they structured? In western musical notation, there is, first of all, an excellent method for notating pitch, provided that you understand and accept the 12-tone division of the octave into equally-tempered steps. Notation gives you multiple ways of denoting each pitch, which can be advantageous in certain kinds of music. We also have the assumption about the division of rhythmic values into units of two, three and four, with others requiring more complex methods. We have rather cruder methods of notating dynamics, and really no method at all of notating timbre: the method we have is simply to identify the notes played by a certain instrument as having a certain timbre. One of the consequences of the notation is that we learn to think quite specifically about pitch and rhythm and less specifically about the other qualities. (Ethnomusicologists will note that other non-western notations may emphasize different qualities, but cross-cultural dialectic is not my purpose here.)

Electronic music composers have had to grapple with these issues since the beginning of the medium, and in fact they have grappled with an even more basic issue: the identification of non-musical qualities in sounds. When a sound is produced in some way in nature -- by water, trees, an animal, or a machine -- what qualities are essential to preserving the identification of the object that produced it? How far can you change the sound before it loses that basic quality? The earliest forms of electronic music, musique concrète and tape music, were all based on transforming natural sounds (mainly because no other methods yet existed for producing sounds electronically). This question loomed large in the minds of the composers at a very basic level, and I note that it is a question that would never occur to composers of instrumental music.

Electronic music has always been a medium of experimentation -- with sounds, with musical textures and combinations, and with forms and structures. This is partly because the composer is able to work alone in creating the music, and because the means are right at hand for doing so. What this means is that you, as a listener, may be forced to confront issues that you weren't prepared for by the composer's past work, or by your previous exposure to works like this. The second consequence of this fact is that you will be forced to confront sounds you have not heard before, at least in musical works: some may be ugly, some may sound like pain is being produced, some may sound like screeching or screaming -- and yet, in all of these cases, the composer may be asking you to seek beauty in them. (Even in works designed to challenge or jar the listener, beautiful sounds may be used.)

The increasing desire of composers to be able to control their sounds more led to the design of a machine specifically created to allow the production of electronic music, and the synthesizer was born. As people worked with these machines, they increasingly attempted to bring a new consideration to the evaluation of sounds it produced: how well did they reproduce the qualities of musical instruments? The history of the development of synthesizers has been increasingly corrupted by that consideration, and now that there exist machines called <>samplers which explicitly duplicate the sounds of instruments, merely by recording them and playing them back, many people have come to feel that there is no further need for new musical instruments, the ultimate has been achieved. The manufacturers, however, have gotten increasingly sophisticated, and they are continuing to develop new methods; the problem is that, if they don't find a market large enough to encourage further development, this kind of work will dry up: witness Yamaha's retreat from synthesizers into electronic pianos after the successors to their DX-7 didn't do as well in the market. Let me make my own prejudice entirely clear: I believe that electronic music machines should not be designed to facilitate the duplication of acoustic instruments, but to create the new and unusual sounds that are so significant in this type of music. Instrumental sounds should be studied mainly to increase our own understanding of them and their significant properties; they should not become paradigms that limit the future creation of new sounds, or models for new sounds.

Finally, before turning to actual works from the musical literature, let me describe for you one further problem that has been created by the development of our new musical culture and its methods: this is the requirement that composers must become much more sophisticated in their ability to work with these new methods and to describe their own needs and desires in such a way that they can take advantage of the new technology. In many cases, schools and colleges are failing to prepare them adequately. A traditional curriculum will not be adequate for this type of work. Furthermore, much of the curriculum that does exist is at a very low level and does not even address the questions that have to be posed. Some of the best schools don't really have courses that present this material; they simply let the composers work it out for themselves on their own. Materials are inadequate; have you ever tried to study the manuals that come with new synthesizers or computers? Even the after-market books leave much to be desired.

Let me now begin to demonstrate the central tenets of my thesis by exploring some works of the literature of electronic music. The works I will play are as follows:

(1) Edgard Varèse, Poème électronique (1958, 8 minutes): a collage of short, unrelated events. Some are environmental (church bells, voices, a jet plane); some are instrumental, mainly percussion (rattles, chains, pops, various drums) but also things like bassoon, harpsichord, and organ; and some are neither but rather abstract, "electronic" sounds. Some suggest mysterious, multiple meanings (viz. the upward whole step). The long silence towards the end also suggests something mysterious. Much of the piece is shrouded in obfuscation created by the reverberation and distortion, prominent mainly in the middle. None of these extra-musical sounds goes so far as to suggest a complete phrase or even word (unless "ugah" is a word), but rather they suggest a context for the sound. The complete image is a juxtaposition of contexts. Some sounds, by occurring in different contexts within the piece, suggest different meanings.

(2) Mauricio Kagel, Transition I (1958-60, 12 minutes 58 seconds): consists of completely raw, electronically generated sounds with no extra-musical connotations. The sounds explore non-harmonic tones and non-instrumental qualities. Almost nothing reminds you of any particular instrument, voice, or musical passage from another work. The piece is a study in different kinds of transitions (of course!). There are overlaps, gradual and sudden changes. The foreground consists of a texture of sometimes related, sometimes unrelated musical events. The character is that of the totality of what is happening. The background suggests the surface on which the transitions move. Sometimes different textures occur simultaneously as a transition from one passage to another occurs through a fade-in, fade-out process. I don't need to remind you that the technique needed to create this work was extremely tedious. The procedure did not encourage introspection or subtlety on the part of the composer, and yet you cannot discern any problem of this kind in the result.

(3) Vladimir Ussachevsky, Of Wood and Brass (1965, 5 minutes 30 seconds): the entire piece is based on four short passages played on trumpet, trombone, xylophone and a wooden drum. These materials are extended wildly. The piece dwells on noisy, inharmonic sounds, many of which were created through the use of the klangumwandler (a kind of frequency shifter), modulation, filtering and reverberation. The composer believed that the original character was always discernible no matter how far afield he went with these transformations.

(4) Jean-Claude Risset, Mutations I (1968, 10 minutes 30 seconds): one of the first computer pieces ever, created from instrument-like sounds (including drums, bells, and the clarinet), transformations and restructurings of the same sounds, to fantasy-like creations exploring endless glissando, non-harmonic clusters, and noise glissandos. The harmony created by the opening tones permeates much of the music. The piece explores glissandos, non-harmonic tones, and combinations in ingenious ways. As one of the first significant pieces of computer music, everything had to be conceived and specified before the sound could be created. There is no use of recorded or modified material; the clarinet-like and gong-like passages are all created through synthesis based on an analysis and manipulation of the properties of the sounds. Note that he plays with the idea of the clarinet in some passages, such as the one where the changes of pitch get out of synchronization with attacks of new tones. The piece is full of real subtleties.

(5) John Chowning, Stria (1977, 16 minutes 57 seconds): a computer piece based upon a sound conceived as embodying the golden mean: the ratio of 1 to 1.618. The golden mean was described and used in antiquity and throughout history, but never like this. The composer uses this ratio as a basis for overtones, and he creates what he calls "pseudo-octaves". It is also used for durational relationships and rhythmic proportions. The overall structure of the piece is much like the golden mean itself, with the proportions of sections and rhythmic events using that basis.

(6) Michael McNabb, Dreamsong (1977-78, 9 minutes 10 seconds): This piece bears a direct relation to John Chowning and was composed immediately after he finished Stria, so it is appropriate to play it in this juxtaposition. The work plays with real sounds and their establishment and dissolution, including the subtle concept of spectral fusion, through which one sound "becomes" a different one not through a fading process but through the actual gradual transformation of its spectral components. It begins and ends with crowd noises, ending with the fusion of the crowd into the voice of the poet Dylan Thomas reading from a poem of the same name. There is a real and synthesized soprano, who is transformed from one to many and into other things. Like some of the other works, the piece is mainly homophonic, relying on the qualities of the sounds themselves to sustain your interest. Many sounds have vocal-like qualities. The composer skillfully uses reverberation, echo, chorus effect, and other changes.

(7) Paul Lansky, <>Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion (1978-79, 22 minutes 25 seconds): the entire piece is based on a single reading of a poem by Thomas Campion. Each successive fantasy explores the qualities of the voice embodied in the original reading. Sections based on vocal resonances, noise properties, interactions with comb filters, etc. This work is much more like musique concrète than other computer music: everything is derived from the sonic properties of the original. If we listen carefully and cogitate, we can concentrate on these properties of the original as we hear it at the ending.

(8) Hubert Howe, Timbre Study No. 5 (1993, 16 minutes 57 seconds): a piece of my own based on overtones treated individually. Passages present them fading in and out from the entire sound, attacked individually, isolated in specific octaves, etc. In the piece, the overtones of each tone are generated and controlled individually in order to create complex timbre changes. For each tone, a series of overtones is stated at the beginning of the sound that reflects the harmony of the surrounding passage. Tones are stated in basically three ways: (1) a cyclic pattern that states the overtone series at least twice over the course of the duration, (2) a complex envelope that states the series once with a changing timbre, and (3) a pattern that states each overtone individually, as a separate tone. Most sections use the first 16 or 24 partials to create the complete sound. Near the end, there is a passage that uses only high overtones, with no energy at the fundamental frequency and all the overtones concentrated in the same frequency area, as the fundamental frequencies reach into lower and lower octaves, until the entire series is introduced once again. Throughout the piece, there is a fascinating interplay and tension between the overtones and the fundamental frequencies or pitches produced by the series.

To summarize, electronic music methods allowed composers to use these ideas, and that alone has been its true significance. It has extended music in different directions from the theoretical ideas that have given rise to instrumental music -- ideas based on harmony, note series, etc.