Electroacoustic Music is Not About Sound

Narrative structure and pitch specificity are now rarely considered in electroacoustic music. To claim that pitch specificity is important is to risk being labeled a reactionary or, worse yet, conventional. An even more profound change has taken place in our discourse regarding time. There is the strong suggestion that it is quaint to think of music as a narrative form, unfolding in time.

Written By

Eric Chasalow

Yes, I do mean this title to be provocative, but my intention is to question some of our priorities and assumptions about composing, not to be polemical or suggest some correct way of composing. Rather, I am sharing some thinking that I have found serves my students and me well. The main thing I want to explore is my own attitude about musical time. Admittedly, this is a huge topic, with whole books and dissertations rightly devoted to it. I can only scratch the surface in a blog post so will just try to (re-)start a conversation about something which seems, strangely, to have become accepted as settled business. While I am at it, I am wondering too about our seeming complacence at having given up control of pitch.

There are basic aspects of compositional thinking that seem to have become almost extinct—particularly, but not exclusively, in the realm of electroacoustic music.   To put it plainly, the ideas of narrative structure and of pitch specificity are now rarely considered. To claim that pitch specificity is important is to risk being labeled a reactionary or, worse yet, conventional. An even more profound change has taken place in our discourse regarding time—the most salient feature of music.  There is the strong suggestion that it is quaint to think of music as a narrative form, unfolding in time. The notion seems so old fashioned that the use of time-denying alternative terminology, adapted from the non-time-based arts, has become accepted practice. (The term sound-object comes to mind.) But, there is still a lot to be gained by an awareness of and the ability to control pitch, no matter how abstract and seemingly “unpitched” musical materials may be. And the unfolding of structure moment by moment is still what music is about—that is, it is about time. I love inventing sounds as much as anyone, but without attention to time we just have sounds. Sound unfolding in time, on the other hand, produces musical thought.  I write this while fully realizing that some readers will find this statement obvious, while others will find it either shortsighted or just plain wrong.

Scrutiny of the nature of sound itself has intensified over the years, especially in the context of electroacoustic music, where the possibilities for the creation and manipulation of sound are truly endless. In fact, the very experience of composing in the studio encourages this focus.  It is an incredibly gratifying experience to work directly with sound, listening to and changing material in real time.  The immediacy of this experience is one of the things that sets work in the studio apart from instrumental writing. This change in our way of making music convinced many composers that a fundamental change was also at hand in the very way in which a piece could embody meaning. The de-emphasis of pitch as the main carrier of an idea, in favor of a more foreground function for timbre, was already well underway in the early 20th century. (The Farben movement in Schoenberg’s Opus 16 is one of the usual examples, while Scelsi demonstrates a further development.) From the 1950s on, the development of technology to capture and manipulate sound accelerated this conceptual transformation.

A mixing console, processor, speaker, video screen and other equipment in Eric Chasalow's music studio.

New materials do demand new approaches, but this does not erase the necessity of paying attention to shaping the narrative. On the contrary, distinctive sounds, each potential in its own perceived space, allow for a new narrative clarity. Just as in film, our more famous time-based cousin, music can have multiple narratives intertwining and adding complexity to the flow of ideas. With crosscutting, flashback, and the like, one can create powerful illusions of nonlinearity, but in no case are we able to escape the reality that time only moves forward.  When we acknowledge this fact, we face the necessity of structuring musical time with great care.  If we do, it is more likely that the music will require and reward an intensified engagement by the listener. This allows us to invoke memory in subtle and powerful ways.

I am very well aware of philosophies that propose to disrupt older notions about musical time, deriving from work that goes back at least to the mid 20th century.  There are tropes on the static as “the eternal” (Messiaen), “moment form” (Stockhausen), and “discontinuity” (my old friend, Jonathan Kramer). It’s just that no matter how many alternative philosophies I encounter, I am always led back to the fact that there is still power in the flow of one moment of experience to the next. It is true that our brains can hold multiple impressions at once, and reorder and reconsider them fluidly. Still, we experience a piece as a succession of elements, and the ordering of these drives the overall experience. If I can get you to care about how time increments in my piece, you will become an engaged listener. Conversely, if I cannot convince you to follow the narrative journey, you will not hear what I have to say. If I only convince you to listen some of the time—to drop in and out of awareness—I have provided, at best, an assemblage of moments rather than a cohesive argument. Another way of thinking about this is in relation to aleatoric relationships we encounter everyday. We may be surrounded by objects, and it is possible that by being awake to our surroundings we will become aware of inherent, even beautiful structures, but it is more likely that the chance experience will not rise above the mundane. (Apologies to John Cage, whom I heard express otherwise many times.) The artist is able to create and reveal meaningful connections where we may not otherwise find them, and for composers, time is the most powerful domain with which to achieve this.

All of the proceeding, however, cannot exist unless listeners allow for the time necessary to experience a piece of music. This has certainly become more and more rare in lives mediated by devices and experienced in five-second chunks. My most naïve idea may be that anyone is willing to concentrate and truly listen through a piece of music at all. If we cannot make this assumption however, we lose musical experience, so to abandon this hope is to abandon music. There is a larger topic here about where we are when we hear music—a concert hall (or alternative formal space) or online, on the subway, in a variety of other informal contexts.

Let’s turn then to the matter of pitch. Why does an increased interest in sound, or the foregrounding of one of its elements, timbre, mean that now pitch is an unimportant element? Am I the only one who finds it ironic that, as we pay such close attention to sound, so little attention is given to pitch specificity? Pitch is such an important part of the complex we call “sound.” Yes, timbre and pitch are not independent in the physical embodiment of a sound, but we can and do think of controlling them independently, and there are many computer tools for doing so. Isn’t ignoring pitch structure a kind of dumbing down? Aren’t we asking listeners to stop paying attention to important details when we fail to make choices regarding pitch? Are we perhaps giving up the precise control of pitch because new technologies make other things easier? Do the newer contexts and new technologies distract us? Perhaps some of us have emerged from the highly politicized prominence of serialism with such distaste for pitch that we feel relief in its seeming erasure.  Perhaps it is just the pendulum swinging from one extreme to the polar opposite. Whatever the reason, I find the lack of attention to pitch impoverishing.  We need every detail, every nuance at our disposal as musicians. Performers know the importance of nuance very well, while composers sometimes are too willing to let some things slide. What is especially great about electroacoustic music though is that it adds to what can make up the layers of meaning in music. Sound of any source and quality can be brought into dialog with any other, creating layers of meaning.  Spoken texts can collide with environmental sounds, familiar instruments, or synthesized sounds that seem completely nonreferential.  Even with these diverse and complex sources, pitch is still very much present and need not be ignored.

While many of my electroacoustic pieces provide good examples of what I am discussing, the beginning of one older piece, Crossing Boundaries (2000), is particularly clear.  The piece layers sounds from many sources, including recordings of spoken text from archives and answering machines, and bits extracted from historical recordings.  It starts with a quick succession of pitched sources that combine into a complex that we can hear as mostly an Eb chord, oscillating between minor and major. The sounds are more fluid and ever-changing than one would get in an instrumental piece, yet the Eb moving to D, then elsewhere (one can follow very specifically) creates a harmonic framework that provides a feeling of upbeat, focusing attention on the entrance of speaking voices.  The whole middle of the piece lingers around G, but as this starts to move, it changes the sense of time passing dramatically. For much of the piece, our attention is on the voices as they speak various short phrases, many of which refer to the concept of time. The piece is, then, an expansion of word-painting technique, and the underpinning for this “metamusical narrative” is a framework of sonorities that is always kaleidoscopic and never imitative of traditional instruments, but where the pitch choices matter a great deal. It is an example of pitch structure shaping the larger musical trajectory of an electroacoustic piece.  I must add too that, in spite of this example, I do not mean to suggest that tempered pitches are necessary. The entire universe of microtonal tunings is wide open, especially with tools that allow our precise control of frequency.

What is true of composing is also true in analysis. One may discover meaningful relationships within a piece by considering the dimension of pitch where one might not expect. My former student, John Mallia, did his dissertation on Varèse’s Poème électronique, a piece most often discussed in terms of the wide array of sound sources it employs. John discussed these too, but much of his work looked at aspects of the structure where harmonic relationships were clearly very important, particularly in shaping phrases.  The analysis even finds precedence for these structures in Varèse’s instrumental pieces. It should not be so surprising that composers carry what they know about music from working with instruments into their studio work. The trick is to use the new context to spawn new musical possibilities, but figuring these out does not require throwing out old concerns as much as we might imagine. There have been numerous examples throughout history of new forms developing through a tension between evolutionary and revolutionary thinking, and there is no reason to think we have somehow recently escaped the value of historical precedents.