Monday, 2 November 2015

The contest between live and synthetic sounds.

This blog may be read as an introduction to the 10 pieces of popular music which feature contemporary techniques.  Its focus is mainly on serious contemporary composers who pioneered many of the uses of sound manipulation adopted by recording engineers from the mid 1960’s onwards.

There is a continual process of leapfrogging played between developments in instrumental and electronic sounds, before the 1950’s the orchestra had enriched its palette of sounds through the introduction of exotic instruments, particularly percussion.  Composers like Varese extended the range further, no one will forget the first time they experience the lion’s roar in “Ionisation” or his use of sirens.  Today we can incorporate any natural sound into the theatre or concert hall to enrich a performance, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 has benefitted from sampled cannon sounds. The use of electronic instruments as in MIDI harpsichords or harps creates more controversy at this time and would be regarded as “poor form” by some musicians and audiences.

It can be delightful to play chicken and the egg games with the whole issue of orchestral textures emulating electronically generated sounds and naturally produced sonorities aping synthesized sounds in the concert hall.  Rather than list works that show these trends this blog intends to show why some of the developments came about and provide some examples which may stimulate thinking about “new” textures and their place in our toolbox of composing resources.

Why did we expand the sound palette to include machine sounds and “noise”?

From the period of the First World War artists were abandoning 19th century values turning instead to the development of technology and industry rather than nature for their inspiration.  If we need a reminder of 19th century values there is a lengthy PDF available here from Naturopa “The Representation of Nature in Art”:

Two short quotations give us a sense of the document:

There is perhaps just one common feature, and this is the need felt in every age for reference to and sustained dialogue with nature….

Primitive man made use of the natural elements; Baroque artists perceived a harmonious ideal in nature…whereas the Romantics passionately yearned to capture a nature that eluded their grasp.

The role of futurism in the promotion of industrial sounds has been well documented, here is another link  which outlines its early history, and again a single quotation will suffice to offer a flavour of the document.
F. T. Marinetti. “Manifeste du futurisme” [Manifesto of Futurism]. February 20, 1909
One of the most well-known and representative declarations of this manifesto, first published on February 20, 1909, in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, is a cornerstone of Futurist thought: “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.”
The inclusion of noise in music was in its infancy but the introduction of machines into the concert hall was underway (e.g. Satie and his typewriters).  Included in the concept of machine sounds are those instruments which generate sounds by electrical means and the 1920’s saw the introduction of several electronic instruments of which the theremin and ondes martenot are still familiar to us today. We may be familiar with the ondes martenot  in the TurangalĂ®la symphony but may less aware of its later use in popular music, e.g.  Radiohead have used the ondes martenot on the Kid A album, (the title track has a wonderful array of electronic manipulations and deserves study). For those composers who use Kontakt software there is a fully sampled version of the ondes martenot,
and for less wealthy readers it is possible to use FM sounds to recreate some of its timbres (I have used FM8 for this purpose).
Popular musicians have always been willing to explore such unconventional instruments as often one novel sound will provide the ear-candy that makes their music stand out from the rest.  As an example of this consider the use of the mellotron from the 1960’s by such groups as King Crimson.  The mellotron used audio tape which had a pre recorded sound pressed against a playback head such as found in a tape recorder. Anybody who has worked with audio tape will be aware of the difficulties that performance areas produce (heat, portability and at that time smoke) and it is remarkable that performers persisted and worked around these hitches.
Though tape was a difficult medium to manipulate (splicing etc.) it held the possibility of examining sounds in detail; composers could isolate particular moments of interest. It may be argued that this was possible since the first primitive cylinder recordings, but it is with tape that the period of experimentation comes to fruition.

The pioneering years in Europe were the 1950’s and one of the great masterpieces of taped sound Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge” came from the work done in Cologne.  Such is the vision of this work that it remains fresh despite the huge number of technical advancements made in sound production, (many composers of the period recognised that limitations with electronic music resulted in banal outcomes, readers can judge for themselves the truth of this statement).

The main centres of work were Cologne, Paris and Milan, in the UK we had the BBC radiophonic workshop, which played a significant part in bringing new sonorities to the general public.

The Workshop was set up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for "radiophonic" sounds from a group of producers and studio managers at the BBC, including Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram. For some time there had been much interest in producing innovative music and sounds to go with the pioneering programming of the era, in particular the dramatic output of the BBC Third Programme. Often the sounds required for the atmosphere that programme makers wished to create were unavailable or non-existent through traditional sources and so some, such as the musically trained Oram, would look to new techniques to produce effects and music for their pieces. Much of this interest drew them to musique concrète and tape manipulation techniques, since using these methods could allow them to create soundscapes suitable for the growing range of unconventional programming.
As stated above tape offered the opportunity to isolate a moment of sound and Berio and Maderna used this technique with recorded speech. This was regularly achieved by deconstructing a recorded text into a series of phonemes. Examples include Berio’s Thema: Omaggio a Joyce (1958) and Visage, composed in 1961.  The techniques used by Berio included filtering, fragmenting, and multi-tracking Cathy Berberian’s voice. If the phrase “deconstructing a recorded text into a series of phonemes” suggests a dry scholastic approach the results in Visage are far from academic.
When I was composing “Visage” what attracted me was….a way to expand the chances of bringing nearer musical and acoustic processes.  This is why the experience of electronic music is so important:  it enables the composer to assimilate into the musical process a vast area of sound phenomena that do not fit pre-established codes.
Towards the end of the 1950’s a new trend emerged in electronic music, the combination of electronic sounds with live performance, moving the focus to the USA  Milton Babbitt’s “Vision and Prayer for soprano and synthesized tape”  was written in  1961 and it is a valuable experience to follow this with the later “Reflections” .
It has been said that Babbitt was less interested in producing new timbres than in utilising synthesisers for their rhythmic precision unobtainable through live performance.
During the 1960’s the use of electronic sounds in popular composition became extensive, this interest was generated in the first place by the popularity of the electric guitar which had access to altering bass and treble, reverb, echo, delay, tremolo, wah-wah pedal, phasing and flanging. All of these were eventually used on the voice and then extended to acoustic instruments. Once again Stockhausen is at the forefront his Mikrophonie II written in 1965 uses four ring modulators to alter the source material (a choir).
Gradually the reduction in the size of synthesizers made concert performances possible, though recordings of synthesized sounds were also used. By the 1980s synthesizers had became commercially available and the next stage was the development of software which in turn brought about the growth of music produced in home studios.
When we switch on our computers today to prepare our next composition it is worth considering the evolution of the sounds that we use.  In some cases we fall back on sampled instruments without any further manipulation or use a small range of pre-programmed effects, it depends very much on our purpose and the speed at which we want a result.  There are some who enjoy the challenge of pioneering, and despite the fact that the 50’s is long in the past some of the concerns are still valid to explore today.