A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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An inordinant number of words have been virtualized here on the nature of chamber and orchestral music. It's true that acoustic music is thrilling for its personal interaction and human expressiveness, social engagement and just plain contact with the human history of our art and our physical culture, with our heritage as bags of water. But the truth of our times is that we listen almost entirely to music that is not acoustic. Some of it is disguised as acoustic music, but the masquerade is given up the moment the listener acknowledges that no human musician is in the room, but merely a vibrating membrane pushed back and forth by electric current.

Let's not argue about this. If it comes through a speaker, you may believe you hear 'through' to the artist on the other side of time and circuitry, and to the composer before, but that is the gentle fiction of the recorded art. Those who heard early acoustic shellac discs heard 'through' as well, and even believed that the real artist and the reproduced one were indistinguishable. It is a kind fiction that each succeeding generation of technology and listeners makes acceptable in a way that suggests self-delusion is genetically transmissible. There's a similar fiction in film. The montage means nothing to the experienced eye. But when the dishwasher first smashed the captain's plate in Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin, audiences ran screaming from the theater. How could it be that the dishwasher was there, and then his face filled the screen, and then the captain's plate -- "Give us this day our daily bread" now clearly visible -- was raised up, and then there was the giant face again, and then the plate smashed to bits in a motion that felt like it was reaching out to smash the theater itself? It is nothing to us now. We understand these gestures, these fictions, as if they were how our actual lives were lived.

Accepting the electroacoustic nature of the music we hear suggests possibilities only hinted at in the last century. Consider the computer printout KNOBS. This sheet of paper was packed with the original LP release of the John Cage-Lejaren Hiller HPSCHD, and it asked listeners to adjust volume, tone and balance controls every few seconds according to the KNOBS program list. Each sheet was a unique printout, so every home performance of HPSCHD was also unique. It was interactive -- and brilliant. It revealed the future that has not yet arrived in 1969.

Here's what I mean. Despite computer and playback advances, most of us simply buy recordings or downloads. These stereophonic recordings drop into CD players or iPods, and we listen to them from end to end. There is almost no adjustment beyond volume. A little remixing goes on, mostly crossfading from tune to tune. But what comes out of those speakers or through those earbuds is the end of the process. Certainly studios have regrouped around 5.1 surround sound to deepen the immersion, and audiophiles fuss with ambisonics or ambiphonics or a dozen other ways of recreating a concert hall experience.

But what is the listener's interaction? Near zero.

It's an odd thing, this lack of interaction. Composers, particularly electroacoustic composers, are divided on the concept. Some are precise to the point of compulsiveness with the consequences of "diffusion" -- how playback occurs and the psychoacoustic effects of it, and how each element, from speaker placement to spatial modeling, contributes to the acoustic illusion. Others provide manipulation environments, where listeners, whether in a physical space or across the web, can change the parameters of what they hear -- not only how the source materials are heard, but how they are developed, and even which materials are chosen.

Acoustic producers (the composers are generally absent from this stage) are also concerned with the diffusion, but in a different way. They want to make sure everything is heard cleanly, and that the illusion of an original (even if imaginary) acoustic space is presented. To feel at one with the musicians and music it the goal, to accept the fiction, and to believe that the Budapest Quartet or the dead Jeff Buckley are right there with you, touching you, moving you. Fiction.

Stay with me. Think about what is missing. We have the control of the filmmaker, the acoustic producer, the electroacoustician. But where are Cage and Hiller in this? What do we get to do? Once upon a time, we got a shellac 78 or a piano roll, and then jumped in to buy some sheet music and, as was printed above the samples on the back cover, "try it over on your piano." And now? We what, remix? Crossfade? Do little more than choose from a menu and never mix our own ingredients?

The technology is more advanced than that already. Consider the acoustic circumstances of something dense, like Rite of Spring or, much better, György Ligeti's Atmospheres. The latter piece is so dense that a massive orchestra is sometimes playing one on a part. And we have left it to the players, the conductor, the stage crew, the recording engineer, the remixer, the producer, and the pressing plant to provide us with the acoustic image of this music -- music almost none of the world's music listeners have ever heard live. The listener's part in this process is no more than to start it playing on whatever stereo we have at hand, and run it from end to end.

What we hear on recording is economically dependent. But composers, at least, know that there is more to be heard, and technology affords the possibility even if not the likelihood of creating our own performances. Now, today, the speed of the music can be changed slightly without damaging its sound quality. In a surround recording, the balance of channels and phases can be adjusted to increase or decrease the room size or give a greater or lesser sense of envelopment and distance from the stage. These are improvements on the producer's fictions, but they barely touch on the possibilities.

The true differences come with the mutability of data. Given enough information about the performing circumstances, right down to the individual seating of the musicians and the scope of their instrumental timbre, it is possible to rebalance the entire ensemble. To bring out a few lines of upper strings, to widen the brass for clarity, to shift the color of the woodwinds, to change the rubato, the alter the accents. How I wished that the thrilling timpani in one otherwise dull and long-forgotten recording of Rite conducted by Karel Ancerl could have been combined with more brilliant versions. Now could I not twist the virtual knob and have the timpani play louder? Or more staccato?

Of course, the purity police are waiting in the wings. It is the conductor's interpretation, the producer's mix. We have not purchased a box of Legos or a few pounds of modeling clay, but a work of art. Hogwash, but artistic hogwash. The recording is merely a starting point, the beginning of nearly infinite mutability, of the intelligent remix ... not just a volume or balance remix, but a ground-up re-presentation to our own individual tastes.

The raw computing power is available, but the economics are not. On the other hand, the mixing console and high-quality samples are here. Tomorrow, I'll suggest ways of putting them to work so that a performance / production / listening loop can be created.

Smashing the plate from Battleship Potemkin

Smashing the plate from Battleship Potemkin
Part of the montage from the scene of smashing the captain's plate from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). The chapter is entitled "Men and Maggots."

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