I recently had the privilege of assisting Mike Pounds teach a course on the history of electronic music. While I’m no stranger to the history of this art, it was a fantastic and eye-opening experience to trace advancements in sonic technology over the past century. As the course progressed, I began to experiment with analog tape, modular synthesizers, and other (relatively) rudimentary techniques for electronically generating sound. Near the end of the course, I finally solidified a thought that had been floating around in my head the entire semester: electroacoustic composers have it easy today.
Before I get too far into anything, I should make an important clarifying point: I don’t believe in differentiating between ‘composers’ and ‘electroacoustic composers’. We all make music. Electroacoustic composition is a technique, not a cult. If you’ve never studied with Jonty Harrison, never heard the complete works of Denis Smalley, never spent weeks mastering a single soundfile, it’s irrelevant. If you compose music that involves electronics, then you’re an electroacoustic composer. You might be a terrible one, and studying with Jonty Harrison and listening to a fair amount of Denis Smalley might help you out a little, but I digress. I use the term in this post merely to address those who make use of technology when composing.
Mike and I taught the course using Thom Holmes’ Electronic And Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture (Fourth Edition). For those who haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. Not only does it provide a nice survey of electronic music which can refresh you on many important names ranging from Cahill to Oram, it also introduces you to electroacoustic composers from South America, East Asia, and the Middle East (many of whom I had never encountered before this course). It also provides a surprising amount of succinctly presented technological information which can function to remind you of basic principles, or teach them in the first place.
It was around the time we were lecturing on the RCA Mark II synthesizer that I truly began to understand and appreciate the technology available at my fingertips. My own home-studio has a pair of low-end monitors, an 88-key midi controller, two condenser microphones, a two-channel audio interface, and Logic Pro X running on my 4-year old Macbook Pro.
By today’s standard’s this is nothing fancy to create music with, yet compared to the technology of even 10 years ago it looks pretty nice. Compare it to the technology of 20 years ago and my little studio outdoes just about anything available to a non-professional consumer. Go back 30 years and I’m a God. I’m no shill for Apple, but Logic Pro X alone dwarves everything that Ligeti, Stockhausen, Ussachevsky, and Babbitt had available to them in their lifetimes to create electronic sound. I can open even the most basic softsynth and create complex gestures, but more importantly I can layer, copy, splice, reverse, and EQ them to my heart’s content. I can also apply a vast gambit of plugins and effects with virtually no limitation.
Limitation is the key word here. Electroacoustic composers in decades prior were exploring new means of generating sound, often just as they were becoming available (in fact, they were often the ones inventing them). They, just as we do today, were working within the confines of the technology currently available. The difference today is that we already have it all. We have virtually no limitations to hold us back. The sonic capabilities of Garageband alone are theoretically unlimited. If you look back at the various releases, upgrades, and re-brandings of audio software from the past decade you’ll note that almost nothing has changed. The means of generating sound remain grounded in the same principles.
Composing could be considered the art of setting self-limitations. Each piece of music behaves by its own set of rules once completed. When composing with electronics in mind, the choices one must make along the way to narrow down the end result are like composing for a Mahler-sized symphony times a thousand. In addition, there seems to be such a bizarre sense of loyalty and competition amongst various pieces of software these days. I can’t go five minutes at a conference without someone telling me that PD is better than Max and vice versa. In the end, all that matters are the sonic results that one achieves. Even better is when those sonic results culminate in an engaging and meaningful piece of music. If SuperCollider helps you achieve those results, great! If you’re using Audacity and getting the same results, keep it up.
As I’ve thought more and more about this, I’ve decided to try composing pieces with extremely rigid limitations. For example, I was just communicating on facebook with my friend Jason about composing a piece in Logic using only a built-in organ synth and the arpeggiator plugin. Why not try this? Why not limit myself to these few tools and challenge myself to create something interesting? Of course, as with any self-imposed limitations, it’s of the utmost importance to know when to break them, but I find adhering to them as long as possible can yield tremendous results.
The take home message of all this? There is no excuse to not be constantly creating electronic music these days. The means are right under our fingertips every single day, and the results are immediate. You could create the musical masterpiece of the century on an iPhone with some patience and a little ingenuity. So go compose some music, and share it with me once you do!