highlights

I’ve just finished reading Curtis Roads’ Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic.

Roads has some pet techniques and technologies he is fond of (having developed some of them) as well as some pet compositional concepts, and tries to shoehorn mentions of them in everywhere. Granular synthesis is a big one. “Multiscale” anything is another (along with macroscale, mesoscale and microscale). “Dictionary-based pursuit” is one I’ve never heard of before and can’t actually find much about.

Roads comes from the more academic side of electronic music, as opposed to the more “street” end of things, or the artist-hobbyist sphere where I would say I am. But he recognizes that music is very much a human, emotional, irrational, even magical endeavor and that prescriptive theory, formalism, etc. have their limits.

The book was primarily about composition — and by the author’s own admission, his own views of composition. He gives improvisation credit for validity but says it’s outside his sphere. Still, I found some of the thinking relevant to my partially composed, partially improvised style.

At times he pushes a little too much at the idea that electronic music is radically different that everything that came before. For instance, this idea that a note is an atomic, indivisible and homogenous unit, defined only by a pitch and a volume, easily captured in all its completeness in musical notation — it completely flies in the face of pretty much any vocal performance ever, as well as many other instruments. Certainly there have been a handful of composers who believed that the written composition is the real music and it need not actually be heard or performed. But while clearly not agreeing with them, he still claims that it was electronic music that freed composers from the tyranny of the note, and introduced timbre as a compositional element (somebody please show him a pipe organ, or perhaps any orchestral score).

He has something of a point, but he takes it too far. Meanwhile a lot of electronic musicians don’t take advantage of that freedom — especially in popular genres there’s still a fixation on notes and scales and chords as distinct events — that’s why we have MIDI and why it mostly works — and a tendency to treat the timbre of a part as a mostly static thing, like choosing which instrument in the orchestra gets which lines.

And I’m also being picky — it was a thoughtful and thought-provoking book overall. I awkwardly highlighted a few passages on my Kindle, though in some cases I’m not sure why:

  • “There is no such thing as an avant-garde artist. This is an idea fabricated by a lazy public and by the critics that hold them on a leash. The artist is always part of his epoch, because his mission is to create this epoch. It is the public that trails behind, forming an
    arrièregarde.(this is an Edgard Varèse quote.)
  • “Music” (well, I can’t argue with that.)
  • “We experience music in real time as a flux of energetic forces. The instantaneous experience of music leaves behind a wake of memories in the face of a fog of anticipation.”
  • “stationary processes”
  • “spatial patterns by subtraction. Algorithmic cavitation”
  • “cavitation”
  • “apophenia”
  • “Computer programs are nothing more than human decisions in coded form. Why should a decision that is coded in a program be more important than a decision that is not coded?”
  • “Most compositional decisions are loosely constrained. That is, there is no unique solution to a given problem; several outcomes are possible. For example, I have often composed several possible alternative solutions to a compositional problem and then had to choose one for the final piece. In some cases, the functional differences between the alternatives are minimal; any one would work as well as another, with only slightly different implications.

    In other circumstances, however, making the inspired choice is absolutely critical. Narrative structures like beginnings, endings, and points of transition and morphosis (on multiple timescales) are especially critical junctures. These points of inflection — the articulators of form — are precisely where algorithmic methods tend to be particularly weak.”

On that last point: form, in my music, tends to be mostly in the domains of improvisation and post-production. The melody lines, rhythmic patterns and so on might be algorithmic or generative, or I might have codified them into a sequence intentionally, or in some cases they might be improvised too. On a broad level, the sounds are designed with a mix of intention and serendipity, while individual events are often a coincidence of various interactions — to which I react while improvising. I think it’s a neat system and it’s a lot of fun to work with.

The algorithmic stuff varies. Some of it’s simply “I want this particular rhythm and I can achieve that with three lines of code”, which is hardly algorithmic at all. Sometimes it’s an interaction of multiple patterns, yielding a result I didn’t “write” in order to get a sort of intentionally inhuman groove. Sometimes it includes behavioral rules that someone else wrote (as when I use Marbles) and/or which has random or chaotic elements, or interactions of analog electronics. And usually as I’m assembling these things it’s in an improvisational, iterative way. It’s certainly not a formal process where I declare a bunch of rules and then that’s the composition I will accept.


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