What's really going on here?

Coventry University
INTIME research group
Flat 2, 2 Ardbeg Road
SE24 9JL

The title of this paper is borrowed by the homonymous chapter of Christopher Small's book Musicking. In this book the renowned musicologist describes, criticizes and analyses the classical music concert and uses the term musicking to introduce his theory that music is an ongoing process, gaining meaning in a live performance, rather than a static object. In our case, ``here'' refers to electroacoustic music concerts. If Small investigates and questions something so established and standardized as a typical classical music concert, I suggest that it is fruitful, if not essential, to examine the electroacoustic music concert not with the intention of devaluing it but to review the practice and re-evaluate its purpose. I believe we need to constantly challenge, explore and creatively doubt the traditions and settings of electroacoustic music and thus bring them into the present day.

It is not my intention to propose a strict definition of electroacoustic music. The term is broad, sweeping between acousmatic multi-channel concerts to harsh noise performances. It is used to describe purely electronic works of academic composers as well as improvised performances with laptops or field recordings. Nonetheless there are two main features of certain interest that I would like to focus on. Both are examining the concert, as a social activity that aims to create aesthetic pleasure.

No audience underground is the term used by musician and blogger Rob Hayler to describe the global underground experimental music scene. He emphasizes the fact that the participants of the scene (composers, label curators, concert organizers, radio producers etc.) make up the majority of the audience at almost every concert. In other words, the audience consists of people who are actively involved with the music and the presence of ``outsiders'' is usually an exception. If we examine the constituent of concerts at symposiums or conferences, and despite any differences that arguably exist between the so-called underground/post-punk/DIY music and academic electroacoustic composition, we will observe that similarly the audience consists mainly of active participants (fellow composers, scholars and researchers). The general public is not even expected to attend as the event is organized by and addressed to specialists from the academic world.

I am not implying any positive or negative opinion about this point as I think there are several, even conflicting, ways of approaching this. One could argue that it is pure elitism and music is isolated in its own micro-cosmos, disconnected from the rest of the society. On the other hand, the involvement of the audience shows dedication and commitment. We are part of a small ``community of interest'', as Leigh Landy puts it, where its active members try to contribute towards its development. Through the members' work, research and writings, the community evolves and, hopefully, progresses. Therefore, I cannot claim that being our own audience is necessarily problematic, however I would strongly suggest to reflect on what this means and how, and if, it affects our individual experiences in relation to our work.

The second feature of interest is also related to the notion of participation but now my hypothesis is concerned with the actual listening experience. If we examine the typical setting of an electroacoustic concert, and more particularly the surround sound system with the mixing desk in the middle and the audience sitting around it, we notice that the concept of a stage is negated. The performer, who usually is also the composer of the work, is sitting among the audience and there is no physical separation between the two. Furthermore, any technical skills are not visually exposed to connect the production or manipulation of sound with any specific gesture made by the performer. The lights are dimmed and often listeners close their eyes as well ; the attention is solely focused on sound. Naturally, this has been explored and highlighted before but realizing it is not a sufficient precondition for a successful concert. An additional action is vital for transforming the concert into a significant and profound experience. What is furthermore required, and evident in this setting, is active participation through listening. It is the audience's attention and focus that ultimately elevates the work. Listening is a task, a challenge that can provide a way of creating meaning. The audience, through listening, becomes an additional, perhaps equally important performer. The value shifts from what we hear, or how we generate and organize sound, to how we listen. Active listening is a tool for transformation, of exploring the unseen, it is a way of expanding consciousness to a higher state in which we can encounter the divine.

Consequently, the completion of studio work is not the final destination but the beginning of a journey that takes place in a concert. The concert itself is a tool for intellectual exploration and not simply a platform to present works. We should always remember that a concert is ritualistic in design. In ours, as in every other community, it is a ritual with certain settings and models which derive from a common understanding and language, and symbolize ideal relationships with each other and with the rest of the world. These ritualistic events provide access to a sound-mediated hyper-reality that exists beyond the ordinary. Its social and technical settings suggest that we are all partly responsible for its success, not only as composers or as members of the audience but moreover as permanent participants in a musical community.

With this paper my goal is to find the right questions but not necessarily with the intention of getting concrete answers. Hopefully a set of intriguing questions will generate more original thoughts than any answer. Moreover, I would suggest we consider the EMS, and any other symposium or conference, as an occasion to be doubtful rather than express certainties. If we work towards understanding the set or relationships, the values and meaning that exist within our practice then, if indeed it is our aim, we will be able to spread the interest in electroacoustic music to other communities. Of course we should also think about what these other communities are (online, physical, social etc.) but this is a whole new set of questions to be raised and explored.

adrian 2015-06-03