EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Temporal Forces in Electroacoustic Music

Pablo Garcia-Valenzuela

Postdoctoral researcher
Creative Multi-channel audio and Electroacoustic Composition
Laboratory of Acoustics and Vibrations


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This paper addresses the issue of discourse in electroacoustic music based on the idea of temporal forces of organization. It suggests therefore that the way in which we organize the material in order to create a temporal experience cannot be ignored as an element of analysis. Because the most powerful temporal force in music perception is rhythm, or more precisely temporal grouping, the paper proposes that it is possible and even necessary to take advantage of methods of analysis conceived for other musics. However, it also proposes that there are specific aesthetic questions to electroacoustic music and delves in this way into the nature of some of these, including what is perhaps the most ‘sonorous’ contribution of electroacoustic music: sonic surrealism.

Jonathan D. Kramer (Kramer, 1988) has done extensive research on the idea of musical time, but mainly within instrumental music. In electroacoustic music we use new material to compose, that of a whole new world of amplified and transformed sound. But does this mean we use different temporal forces of organization as well? Certainly we do not often find rhythmic and/or melodic structures as such, but we do find emphasis on durational proportions in order to create low level structures that can progress into other low level structures, and which as a whole can produce an overall gesture or form called high level structure (Smalley, 1986). Therefore there are no obvious novelties in temporal organization in electroacoustic music, except what I call non-pulse-based grouping (Garcia-Valenzuela, 2003). This is not unique to electroacoustic music but it can exist as a more prominent force than in instrumental music and can be particularly effective. Non-pulse-based grouping is based on the fact that rhythm without pulse exists (Meyer/Cooper, 1960), and plays with the ability of the mind to group and ungroup events within a short scale temporal span without generating pulse. An electroacoustic composition is presented here based entirely on this concept (Gutura, Pablo Gav, 1999).

There are other levels of temporal organization that relate to the concept of rhythm that can be relevant to electroacoustic music discourse. A second one, with respect to non-pulse based grouping, is the aesthetic strategy of using extremely irregular rhythms. This allows rhythmic structures to become quasi-environmental sound, which is that of a loose and random temporal structure, while still being recognized and perceived as rhythm. A different composition will illustrate this level (Emulse, Pablo Gav, 2002).

A third level of temporal organization is that where no reference to any kind of rhythmic organization whatsoever is perceived. This is called the contemplative experience because there is no immediate reference to bodily gestures. Most electroacoustic music lies within this level of temporal organization.

Finally, as an issue not divorced form musical time but that relates to a non-linear force of organization in the sense of Jonathan D. Kramer, that is, forces that organize an experience but that they are not a process that starts and finishes (Kramer, 1988), we find the idea of sonic surrealism. This is an open field of discussion because it is perhaps difficult to define, as it can exist in many different forms and from many different points of view and can certainly be produced in instrumental music as well. But the possibility offered by the studio to juxtapose unrelated ‘visual’ sounds, such as everyday sounds, with aesthetic and sonic sensibility is unique to the medium and specially powerful. Examples are given here which include juxtaposition of acoustic spaces, juxtaposition of everyday sounds, the perception of environmental and/or everyday sounds when in spatial motion, the culture of ‘big’ voice in pop recordings, and more.


- Garcia-Valenzuela, Pablo (2003) ‘Aesthetic in Temporal Forces and Electroacoustic Composition’. PhD Thesis: City University, London, Department of Music.

- Kramer, Jonathan (1988) The time of music: new meanings, new temporalities, new listening strategies. London: Collier Macmillan.

- Meyer, Leonard and Cooper, Grosvenor (1960) The rhythmic structure of music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

- Smalley, Denis (1986) ‘Spectro-morphology and structuring processes’ in The language of electroacoustic music (Ed. Simon Emmerson). Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd, pp. 61-93.