EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Mediated Mimesis: Transcription as Processing

James O’Callaghan

James O’Callaghan, Schulich School of Music, McGill University, 555 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal, Canada


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The electronic medium has opened the doors for a host of new possibilities in musical discourse: significantly, the ability to use recordings of the environment and ‘found sounds’ as materials may afford a referential, narrative or mimetic discourse familiar to other artistic disciplines, but rare in the history of music. While it is perhaps uncontroversial that unprocessed field recordings can be recognised as referential, those manipulated through processing or transcription may be able to retain their referential quality and afford new semantic and musical possibilities. This paper will focus specifically on the computer-assisted transcription of field recordings into material reproducible by acoustic instruments, interrogating this process as a potential means of conveying mimetic information.
The goals of this paper are to provide background on the use of mimetic material in instrumental and mixed music, an overview of some of the techniques that have been developed as a means of computer-assisted transcription of field recordings, a basic framework for assessing the verisimilitude of transcriptions and assignment into different perceptual categories according to degree of recognisability and semiotic distinctions, and finally, a discussion of the compositional applications of this material. I will be referencing several pieces of music in order to illustrate the proposed framework, as well as some of my own compositional work in order to describe compositional strategies and challenges related to the transcription of field recordings. Motivating this research are the questions: ‘Can recognition of sound-source and other basic referential properties be preserved through the transcription process?’ and ‘What kinds of contexts and strategies make this more likely?’. While I am interested in the preservation of semantic information through the transcription process, what changes as a result and why are equally important avenues of inquiry.

EMS12 Proceedings