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"We Are All Mozart"
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If you still care about Mozart by July, then read Alex Ross's latest hagiography in the New Yorker. In tearing down the mythology, he creates his own. His big conclusion: Mozart's Don Giovanni represents a transition to the Romantic era. Definitely another cup of coffee for me now...
Okay, that's out of my system.
For some time I've wondered about the extreme disaffection some nonpop acoustic composers have for electroacoustics. It goes both ways, yes, for many electroacoustic composers ignore the acoustic realm. But it seems more significant that a generation or more of acoustic composers who have grown up surrounded by electroacoustic music (where the converse is no longer true) choose to reject it. Is it simple choice, or élitist rejection? Lack of attention from academia, or selective ignorance? It's true that academia continues to put music in silos -- performance majors, theory, composition, acoustic here, electronic there, jazz there, studio techniques in another discipline entirely.
But it can't be that alone, and today's commentary isn't concerned so much with causality, but rather a kind of invitation to acoustic composers.
In my concern as a composer with public awareness, I date electroacoustics to its presence in Bernard Herrmann's accomplished score for the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. Together with excellent performances by Michael Rennie and in particular the matter-of-fact normalcy of Patricia Neal in what would otherwise have been a B film, Herrmann's ensemble that included two theremin soloists was a manifesto that electronic music had arrived. Although it's true that Switched-On Bach would make that impact in the classical realm, the marker year was 1951 -- which means every composer working today is part of the electroacoustic era. (A consequence of Day was, however, that electronic music would be stamped with the science-fiction genre, and all the implicit nichiness.)
The classical realm had by no means ignored electroacoustics -- its history is replete with compositions from the bird records played in Ottorino Respighi's Pines of Rome to Percy Grainger's Free Music to Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla through Kaija Saariaho's Nymphéa. Yet classical music is also a great iceberg, impossible to add to, and crashing into and demolishing anything that would approach it. Despite its exquisite and irreplaceable use in, for example, Shostakovich's The Age of Gold, even the marvelously textured saxophone family has not achieved a place in the standard orchestra. And with electronic devices more likely to disappear than remain one family of instruments with circumscribed stability, the standard symphony orchestra has made no place for them.
(Because electroacoustic music depends on the diffusion of sound electronically, any classical recording is in truth electroacoustic. And even though one might consider that an artistic stretch, the preparation of the mind and ear for the delayed or selective or colored listening is a significant psychological and artistic shift.)
Among the reasons that electroacoustic music might be rejected by acoustic composers:
These complaints are relatively easy to dismiss: The era of requisite fixedness is over, sound effects have been done since Monteverdi first tremoloed tension in Il Combattimendo di Tancredi e Clorinda, emulation of acoustic instruments is of minor importance in the creative realm, and no one ever rejected a piano because it could be also used to play Heart and Soul. Also dismissable are complaints about unlistenability, audience hostility and noisiness, or that electroacoustics really just has refugees from 'real' classical music or orchestral ignominy. Everybody don't like something, and speaking of non-refugees, I've yet to hear Lowell Liebermann write a really catchy pop tune.
But not so easy to dismiss is the idea of expectations. Those who work in electroacoustics arrive either via the Stockhausen/Schaeffer/Columbia-Princeton stream or from the hiphop/Dr.Who/dance/Kraftwerk stream. The former suffers as badly from theoritis as the latter does from the curse of whateverness, and participants in both streams lob genre-bombs at each other. (Read all about them in Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music.) The expectations on the dance floor and in the concert hall are as different as DMX, DJ Spooky, Aphex Twin and Jon Appleton. They don't mix well, and that might be the complaint of acoustic nonpop composers with electroacoustics.
This is the long way round to say that a psychological wall doesn't have to exist, and nonpop acousticians could grow significantly by learning and using electroacoustics -- and so could their audiences.
While acoustic composers deal mainly with pitches, rhythms, verticalities (harmony/counterpoint) and textures whose compositional interest arises from changing the relationships among them, electroacoustics provides both an expanded palette and an alternate acoustic reality. Just some of the expanded palette includes, for example, electronically originated sounds, transformations of acoustic and electronic sounds, placement and movement sound in space (spatialization and diffusion), sounds as themselves (sound objects), psychoacoustics, customized tunings, formulaic generation (beyond the canonical form), and formulaic transformation.
It sounds off-putting, but it isn't. Like that plaintive saxophone, the electronically generated sounds make a fine orchestral or chamber fit (as with the Messiaen, Saariaho and Gerber mentioned above) and are part of the everyday vocabulary of film scoring.
Acoustic composers can learn these techniques with a small investment, and as a result enrich their acoustic work. (Unfortunately, a recent diversion has been software like Finale and Sibelius, which introduced audio demo creation using samples -- bypassing the entire learning process and replacing it with mechanical mouse-clicking.) Lifting acoustic music out of its traditional melody-harmony-rhythm framework can breathe new and different life into its future history.
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