How we describe what we experience in electroacoustic music

Professor of Music, Technology and Innovation
Leicester Media School
Clephan Building
De Montfort University
Leicester LE1 9BH

In a recent chapter (entitled `Feeling Sound') for a volume for the Peeters/Leuven Studies in Musicology (Music Analysis and the Body: Experiments, Explorations and Embodiments — forthcoming 2015) the aim was in the first instance to suggest a discourse of experience of electroacoustic sound from the listener's point of view. I decided to confine this initial exploration to the strong role that memory has in influencing our listening habits. In that chapter I have attempted to describe from memory some of my earliest experiences of electroacoustic sound in performance. Amongst others I examined there my reactions to performances of Roger Smalley's Pulses (brass, percussion, live electronics), performed by the London Sinfonietta in 1968, the Stockhausen ensemble concerts at St. Johns, Smith Square, London in 1972, and a private and first UK public performance of Denis Smalley's Pentes, in York in 1974-76. Using an autoethnographic approach does not suggest (I hope) a purely personal language, isolated and unshared. We seem to lack a desire to discuss the essentially personal experiences of such music (and sound) — but this may be because we have no given vocabulary and have gained a self-conscious desire not to commit (either way!). This project aims first to allow metaphorical descriptions that may liberate this discourse — what does it sound like? (The English language is ambiguous here — I do not just mean responses such as `it sounds like a helicopter' but further descriptions of behaviour and change.) And what does this make you feel? Tonal music (both classical and popular) has developed vocabularies that are rarely applied in this field and seem not to be entirely appropriate.

This paper will need to summarise very briefly this chapter (not yet available) but will rapidly move on to a `mirror' discussion. I would suggest these first experiences described above lie within about a 20-30 year period of electroacoustic music and sound performance (ca. 1950-1970s) where the loudspeaker remained a more or less `special' object — fixed usually to a specific location and specially installed in studios and concert halls for performance. With the `invasion' of the transistor radio from the late 1960s and the launch of the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s we have had the steady establishment of the `ubiquitous loudspeaker', capable of being continuously with us wherever and whenever we want (and often when we do not). The emergence of integrated smart technologies in the years since 2000 has completed this first phase of ubiquitous sound.

In parallel the kind of sound we hear around us has changed: films, computer games, advertising, and feedback from music and sound art itself, have all had a profound effect on everyday listening. The sounds used in today's `alerts' - sound semiotics at its simplest and most effective - are now clearly and (in the proper sense of the term) indiscriminately electro-acoustic - with the hyphen. In public transport today, I may hear a pseudo-marimba (probably synthesized — but I'll never know), an unbelievable realistic ringtone of the 1970s, an electronic bleep that reminds me (though probably not its owner) of R2D2 in Star Wars (itself a reference to such as Ligeti's Artikulation). Thus source/cause chains — a staple of much discussion on liveness in our field over the years — are decisively problematized (perhaps made irrelevant in their original form). So a new approach to describing our responses to electroacoustic sound may need to be found — I have written previously on how electronic sound may articulate new areas of `indicative field' (after Smalley). These will be multidimensional and importantly refer to other electroacoustic sources (we have tended to stick to rather simple live/synthesized dualities to date). Thus references and potential meanings are generated through a genealogy of origins, maybe over several generations. (Ethnomusicologists and some historical musicologists are well used to this way of linking evidence together.)

But that was a necessary digression from the main thrust of this proposal: the need to encourage, refine and develop shared languages of response to the music and sound art heard through loudspeakers. Without this, meaning in electroacoustic music will be confined to a kind of one-dimensional black and white description of shape and tone, where we crave the additional dimensions of depth, dynamic and colour. Worse still we would be in danger of declining to the monosyllabic responses of the social media (`like').

There is an assumption in my idealized view that needs discussion. Different listeners have sometimes very different views on how `experience' and `reflection' are best related - that is if we are truly `into' the music we are (perhaps) in a non-verbal place that should not be invaded! Academics too easily fail this test and forget this possibility. This is non-trivial — `reflection during' and `reflection after' the musical experience engage different orders of memory, and the fleeting may have evaporated. A repeated listening may be in a different social situation and profoundly change the response. While fashionable in so many fields at the time of writing, `mindful' listening has always been what many musicians practice! What is the balance of this `transcendental' suspension and the world of the tweet while listening?

Such issues are true for all kinds of musical experience, but for this paper I shall compare a range of key listening environments with respect to our relationship to the loudspeaker and the specifically electroacoustic experience: [1] concert hall (a) acousmatic sound alone, (b) audio-visual work; [2] installation (a) fixed media, (b) interactive; [3] outdoor presentation; [4] personal focused listening (a) public space, (b) private space. Using specific examples and sites, I shall explore the value of reflection and the need to develop further vocabularies of reflection. Languages are in continuous evolution as technology and society change — as reflected in the 45 years referred to in this paper. We need to move from the special to the general theory of loudspeaker listening.

adrian 2015-06-03