November 1998

Bridging the gap: to plug in or not to plug in?

Is there a future for pure acoustic music?
Is there a future for pure electroacoustic music?
If they happen together what's the most satisfactory mixture?
Three representatives of opposing schools engage in a heated discussion, refereed by Christopher Fox.

We live in a world of loudspeaker-borne sounds where for most people the exotic rarity is a musical sound heard straight from its acoustic source. As a result there's been a sort of inversion of the musical universe of the first half of this century: then the wireless, the Theremin, magnetic tape and the loudspeaker diaphragms through which they spoke were magical harbingers of modernity; now music from speakers is a commonplace and acoustic music is an increasingly scarce, precious commodity. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is, predominantly, a haven for this latter rare breed; indeed, 'classical' music is the one musical domain where new technology is still held at armÕs length. Like many 'contemporary classical' promoters, Huddersfield in November also favours the separation of 'acoustic' and 'electroacoustic' (I'm sorry about this proliferation of inverted commas, but like everyone else I don't know what to call this stuff...) music. So spnm's invitation to four composers to write short pieces for four of the 'acoustic' instruments of the Martland Band as companion pieces for tape-only works from the spnm shortlist and then to programme them side by side in the Huddersfield Festival seems like an interesting, bridge-building initiative.

As a trailer for this meeting of 'electroacoustic' and 'acoustic' (that's enough 'Ź' Š Ed.) music, spnm asked me to hold the ring in an exchange of related ideas. The protagonists were Philip Clark, a composer but a vehement opponent of electroacoustic composition, Andrew Lewis, one of the stars in the Sonic Arts firmament, and the Gaudeamus prizewinning guitarist, Alan Thomas, whose concerts regularly mix the old technology of wood and string with the new technology of wire and transistors. They debated three questions, 'is there a future for pure acoustic music?', 'is there a future for pure electroacostic music?' and 'if they happen together what's the most satisfactory mixture?'

Philip Clark struck first. For him the attraction of live acoustic performance over tape music is that it 'mirrors the insecurities of the human condition... the very act of composing for instrumentalists and singers implies a faith in humanity'. Andrew Lewis countered that 'technology is a product of humanity... a symphony orchestra is a supreme example of human technological achievement'. Besides 'most people listen to their Beethoven via an invisible laser beam and a handful of computer chips'. For Alan Thomas this was one of the exciting features of the 'new (especially digital) technologies': they had had such an impact on 'the creation and dissemination of music today that it would seem foolhardy for composers and performers to ignore them. As the technology becomes increasingly portable and easy to use, hopefully we will see less segregation of acoustic and electroacoustic musics, and pieces involving electronic elements will be programmed by performers more and more as a matter of course.'

This 'segregation' was part of the problem for Philip Clark. The support of universities for electroacoustic music had led to a 'dry, futile and nerdy academicism'. Andrew Lewis agreed that 'much of what passes for electroacoustic music is actually computer research pretending to be art'. (Unable to resist the temptation to chip in myself, I have to say that I wish more acoustic music would aspire to the condition of art, rather than being the sort of 'music-lite' ('I can't believe it's not music') that British concert promoters pass off as new music.) Alan Thomas acknowledged that there were 'difficulties in combining live instruments and electronics... a live instrument plus a collection of unrelated blips on tape does not necessarily make a good piece of music'. But these could be overcome: 'we must seek a situation in which the electronic acts as an extension of the instrumental, and vice versa'. Andrew Lewis offered Denis Smalley's Piano Nets as an example of a work that does just this; Alan Thomas proposed Ferneyhough's Time and Motion Study No 2 and Murail's Desintegrations as music whose 'ideas ...can only be expressed through electroacoustic media'. As far I am concerned music like this also seems to answer Philip ClarkÕs charge that if it is not possible to achieve 'things acoustically... is there any point in achieving them at all?' Try telling that to composers as different as Laurie Anderson, Nono and Alvin Lucier whose work with live electronics has opened up whole new expressive territories! But Clark was hard to convince; for him 'electronic music... is simply banal and synthetically bland, lacking any power to move'. He went further: 'Early electronic works (Pierre Henry, early Xenakis and Stockhausen) have a wonderful pioneering quality about them - the equipment was rough and this is reflected in the music. Today the slickness of the equipment means that these rough corners and adventurous spirit have been lost and we have been left with a sort of music pornography'. So electroacoustic composition is a sort of musical voyeurism? This was too much for Lewis. He compared the working experience of composers: 'The acoustic composer is imagining what might happen in performance, given his or her experience of past performances... the electroacoustic composer is working directly with the sonic material in a very immediate and tactile way. It is a different way of working, not an inferior one.'

Can these different worlds co-exist? Not for Philip Clark, who wants to write for instruments like the piano 'in the knowledge of extensive previous... contradictory styles and repertoires... where do you start if Schubert and Count BasieÕs piano styles are equally important to you?'. But Andrew Lewis was struck by the success of mixed programmes like 'Yoshikazu Iwamoto's captivating mix of traditional shakuhachi music and modern works for shakuhachi and tape'. And Alan Thomas put in a plug for the electric guitar, extolling the virtues of 'electronic instruments capable of real-time timbral modification... in which physical gesture is clearly related to sonic result'.

How will the new pieces for four members of the Martland Band match up to their tape companions? Come to Huddersfield on 21 November and find out!

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Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
Gavin Bryars – new music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester