EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Electroacoustic Music of Extended Duration: A Question of Format

Barry Truax

Barry Truax, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, Canada


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Although popular music has a well-established connection to specific recording formats, most obviously in terms of duration, number of channels, available frequency and dynamic range, and currently, levels of data compression, electroacoustic music has generally tended to ignore these format restrictions at the level of composition and performance, and made appropriate compromises in the context of distribution. Some historical exceptions with instrumental classical music may be noted where pieces were composed for the commercial recording format of the day, but the Nonesuch label’s commissions for Morton Subotnick in the late 1960s are regarded as the first electroacoustic pieces composed specifically for the LP format, a tradition that the author continued for his 1985 release of the Sequence of Earlier Heaven LP, and the later release of 8 solo CD’s after 1987. The crucial distinction is whether the CD format during recent decades has been regarded as a purely distribution medium for an arbitrary grouping of works designed for individual concert performance, or as a compositional format for creating works, or sets of works of extended duration, something seldom encouraged by those programming electroacoustic music concerts. This tendency towards standardized durations raises the question as to the type of compositional thinking involved in the extremes of work duration – the miniature and the large-scale work, the latter influenced by the value placed on it in 19th century classical music, particularly with the symphony and opera.
Jonathan Sterne has recently proposed “format theory” for the analysis of the cultural phenomenon of the mp3 format to account for the dynamic relationship between industrially engineered audio formats and listener practice. The individual downloadable file, having superseded the CD as the format of choice for most younger listeners, as well as the 5.1 multi-channel format for commercial entertainment, create serious limitations for the future of electroacoustic works of extended duration and multi-channel formats of 8 or more channels, risking further marginalization of the artform. The challenges are not only the limitations of format, but following Sterne, their relation to the listening stance and cultural appropriation of the user. The paper will summarize the author’s compositional strategies for thematizing his LP and CD publications, and discuss the contemporary challenges and alternatives for today’s electroacoustic composer, with particular attention to the practices of soundscape composition. The flexibility of the electroacoustic medium, existing as it can, independent of live performance, may offer possible answers to the dilemma of whether to adapt the music to existing formats created and controlled by industry, or whether to offer creative alternatives within and outside of those formats.

EMS14 Proceedings