EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Composer as Curator: Uncreativity in recent electroacoustic music

Aaron Einbond

Aaron Einbond, Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Composition (HUSEAC)


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Touching upon the history and aesthetics of 20th century recorded media and digital information, and using 21st-century music information retrieval (MIR) as an analytical resource, I argue for curation as artistic process in examples drawn from recent electroacoustic music.
Over the last century, electronic culture has increasingly acknowledged curation as a creative act. Not only is the curator more visible in visual arts, but authorship is increasingly attributed to the “DJ,” “remix,” and “mashup.” The visual arts and writing have embraced digital curation, including prominent figures like Christian Marclay, Ai Weiwei, Jonathan Lethem, and Kenneth Goldsmith. In Uncreative Writing Goldsmith critiques recent poetry for its resistance to these new sites of invention: “From the looks of it, most writing proceeds as if the Internet had never happened.” However the same could be said of much music, even electroacoustic music.
One explanation is technological: while search engines have made unprecedented quantities of digital text immediately accessible, the transition of sound from analog to digital was at first not accompanied by a similar revolution in searchability. Audio can be searched through textual metadata, especially using the Internet, but only recently have MIR techniques become available for searching sound itself. Since the late 1990s, the growing field of MIR has explored the uses of audio feature extraction to summarize information about digital sound. An audio feature, or descriptor, is any characteristic attributed to audio such as pitch, loudness, brilliance, or higher-level metadata. MIR is changing the way music is categorized, marketed, and recommended through companies like Pandora and The Echo Nest. It also has applications for creation.
A recent generation of electroacoustic artists have embraced MIR to curate large databases of audio recording, going far beyond traditional sampling techniques. They include composers and improvisers Johannes Kreidler, Maximilian Marcoll, Matthew Schlomowitz, Alec Hall, Bryan Jacobs, William Brent, Ben Hackbarth, and Diemo Schwarz, many of whom program their own computer tools as an extension of the curatorial process for gathering and filtering material. For example in Kreidler’s work product placements 70,200 sources are sampled in a 33-second electroacoustic piece. The impact of the work goes beyond a concert realization: as Kreidler writes, “the work is a network” (“Das Werk ist ein Netzwerk”).
In my own work Without Words for soprano, ensemble, and electronics, databases of texts, field recording, vocal, and instrumental samples are combined using MIR techniques into multilayered audio mosaics, each of the sources activating a different time and place in the work’s genesis. These examples challenge the concert work as a unique site of creativity: instead, archive-like totalities and multiple temporalities become equally important in a distributed process involving many creative voices in dialogue.

EMS14 Proceedings