Risk and Electroacoustic Music

Dr Robert Dow
University of Edinburgh
School of Biological Sciences, Darwin Building, The King's Buildings
Max Born Crescent, Edinburgh EH9 3BF
Certainly since the end of the Second World War and increasingly during the 1980s (and onwards), the concept of risk has gained a great deal of general significance. There has been a growing awareness of potential risk within our society—the `risk society'—ultimately leading to the proliferation of procedures for both risk assessment and management. This has necessitated the creation of a such things as mechanisms for determining risk liabilities and for calculating concomitant levels of compensation in situations where risk has not been mitigated against adequately.

Contemporary society, faced with the ambiguity and insecurity of its self-created future, has reacted by endeavouring to gain increasing control over its perceived risks. Indeed, by replacing the more open notions of, for example, danger or threat with the concept of risk, there has been a shift in emphasis from the incalculable to the (seemingly) calculable and thus from something which appears uncontrolled, to that which appears to be controllable. Preventative measures are being put in place by society to curb anticipated risks even where the existence of such risks cannot be properly demonstrated. Thus increasingly, a general attitude of precaution is being assumed in response to apparent risks. Both the increasing number of institutional safe-guards acting to control risk and the general precautionary milieu, unsurprisingly affect most areas of society, including the arts.

Music's creative risk is controlled in a number of ways. From a commercial perspective, there are naturally the financial risks associated with the performance and distribution (radio, television, Internet, recordings) of the music `package': the concerns of commercial music are those of any business, and market trends shape creative outputs, limiting the scope of any experimentation.

The institutionalisation of non-commercial music in various ways, through, for example, public funding by arts councils or charities and its movement into the academy (particularly relevant to electroacoustic music) also controls creative risk. The institutional mechanisms of accountability not only endeavour to constrain creative projects to specific goals (themes) and pre-planned intentions, they are designed to mitigate the risk of failure generally.

In the context of such controlling environments, music can no longer be allowed to fail: it is either subjected to protective constraints or is encapsulated within a `conceptual contact', the concept taking the place of, as it were, the music proper, dissipating its creative risk. In this case, we need no longer assess a piece of music on its own musical merits, but on how well it meets is conceptual obligations, allowing creative risk to be more easily mitigated.

Furthermore, the development of electronic mass storage devices, in conjunction with the easy search and retrieval mechanisms which in particular networked technologies provide, has led to a wide-spread access to a glut of information. The prevalent use of the Internet has changed the way in which information is gleaned and both our contact with and understanding of creative material. The Internet has become a single point of trusted information: we both trust that the information may be found within the archive and we increasingly trust its provenance. Additionally, the Internet has the potential to provide familiarity with a cornucopia of unrestricted material. Much which was once easily censored by the state, is now essentially openly available, even despite recent state interventions.

The electronic archive provides another mechanism for the reduction of perceived risk, both by creating a trust in its content, and by familiarising its users with a diverse range of uncensored material, providing them with immunity from the `toxic shock' (the risk) of the novel. Creative material need no longer be anchored to a particular cultural context and the associated risks of its being culturally misunderstood, but can instead be mashed up, risk free.

This paper will explore the effect that our increasing awareness of and response to risk has on the composition of experimental music in general, and on electroacoustic music in particular. It is the aim of this initial exploration to examine two broad but interconnected questions: how the composition of experimental music may be influenced by an environment in which society wishes to control risk so carefully, and how it may be affected by an progressively more straightforward access to an ever increasing electronic archive. These investigations will be carried out while taking into consideration the concept of risk in the wider context of the arts in general, for example within film.

adrian 2015-06-03