EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Standing on the river bank: Electroacoustic music between tradition and innovation

Martin Flašar

Martin Flašar, Department of Musicology
Masaryk University


Past decades of electroacoustic music development have shown that a certain degree of ‘liquidity’ (using Zygmunt Bauman’s concept) has been manifested in the technology underlying musical creativity. For the sake of its radical innovativeness, electroacoustic music initially attracted massive attention among both creators and listeners. For a few decades this innovativeness remained the crucial attribute of this musical genre. Gradually the sequence of innovations became fixed as a standard, or even a tradition – specifically, a tradition of innovations.

Returning to Bauman’s concept, which is a topical update of Heraclitus‘s notion of universal flux, we find ourselves standing on a river bank, watching the flow of electroacoustic music history bearing along things of surprising value amongst the detritus. There are two main ways of approaching the river: either through jumping into the stream and becoming part of it, or through watching it as a relatively stable flow though with constantly changing content.

To become a part of the river means to swim either downstream or upstream. Swimming downstream, in interpreting the history of electroacoustic music, obliges one to follow innovations in technology and also shifts in aesthetics, and to suggest and work out individual lines of development. Swimming upstream brings many inconveniences. Such a swimmer is constantly confronted with the power of the current and those who are swimming downstream. This strategy can lead to increasing visibility for the individual in the stream, but at the cost of high losses of energy and shorter life. Standing on the river bank removes an individual from the direct action, enabling him to adopt the stance of an independent observer. In fact, all theoretical and historical discourses emerge out of the time that is determinative for their subjects, including music theory, history and aesthetics. Here we are standing on the river bank seventy years after Pierre Schaeffer’s experimental challenge to the exhaustion of European post-war music. Although some of his achievements have been carried away by the river of time, many still remain: the will to carry out experiments, to play with sounds and not to be afraid of amateurism or even of failure. To experiment means to start always again ex nihilo despite the fact that these repetitions establish tradition.

The questions posed by my paper are as follows: how have creators/composers perceived the constant changes in technology? Has there been any place for virtuosity in the perpetually changing range of musical instruments and creative means? What have been the values of electroacoustic music that disregards experiment and innovation? And what have been the needs that have led composers, musicians and designers to innovate?


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EMS18 Proceedings