Coping With Shattered Illusions   Problems and solutions concerning live-plus-tape composition.

By Bart McLean Director, Electronic Music Center  University of Texas, Austin

From "Polyphony" magazine (later to morph into "Electronic Musician."), Jan/Feb. 1980, pp. 9-11, 20.

The age of reconciling acoustic instruments with electronic tape in the same composition has plagued composers since the electronic medium began in the early 1950s. A multitude of interesting works have been created since then, a testament to the continuing need for interpretive renewal,
for the performance ritual to be maintained, and as insurance that the composers' work will not fade away (as in a strictly tape composition)
for lack of performers or publishers to champion it. However telling these reasons may be, many of us have, at one time or
other, come to an impasse in dealing with the coexistence of "live" and "canned" materials in one composition. This article will be confined to abstract non- commercial live-plus-tape composition, since it is here that the issues about to be raised are most clearly focused. The basic problem as I see it is in the realm of "illusion."  What is illusion and how does it operate in musical composition? Its essence can be found in the atmosphere surrounding the work as well as in the soul of the work itself. By atmosphere I mean (for example) the concert hall setting, musicians' seating and tuning ritual, entrance of
the conductor, as well as the acoustic ambiance of the hall itself as it reinforces and resonates. The second aspect of illusion is what the

composer creates uniquely and strongly to project a specific image in the listener's mental realization of the work. All art is involved with illusion in that it transports the receptor's mind to a specific and defined universe within its own laws. Illusion creates the framework, provides the listener expectation, and is the unique image of a work of art. Why the term "illusion?" Because the art work can be said to exist in the receptor's mind even without reference to performance, recording, or score. Thus, a physical act of performance can be transferred later into a mental image of that performance. Take recordings for example, and consider the tremendous amount of research allocated toward the elimination of tape noises, pops, clicks and distortion to ensure that

the illusion projected is one of a real live performance.

A considerable number of acoustic instrument-plus-tape works have personally disappointed me in that they utilize tape sounds different from acoustic sounds accompanying them (often purely synthesized tape material presiding). Unfortunately in this case the acoustic instrument
or voice creates by its mere presence a powerful illusion of its own which conflicts with that of the tape. What are some of these
conflicting aspects? An important part of the acoustic illusion finds
the performer overcoming odds before the eyes of the audience (for example in projecting his sound against a large empty hall space or in the technical prowess of the performer). Also crucial is human gesture, spontaneity, and the assumption by the audience that anything can go wrong at any time (a string can break, etc.). The electronic tape composer, on the other hand, has none of these built-in factors to work with. Technical prowess, hall ambiance, lack of performance accidents and the rest are all guaranteed by the act of tape composition, thereby eliminating the possibility of transferring the illusional characteristics of acoustic performance to tape. The problem surfaces when, as stated above, the two media are mixed. It seems that illusions are delicate to handle and easily shattered, as when that previously mentioned orchestral recording is subjected to a gash in the record surface, immediately projecting the listener out of the orchestral-performance illusion into the "canned" sound system illusion. And in its doing so we become aware that it is easily possible to project a live performance illusion through a recorded medium provided that the latter does not intrude. It follows, therefore, that the
biggest danger in the composition and performance of acoustic instrument-plus-tape is the intrusion of the sound system illusion upon the live-acoustic or vice versa.

Although I do not claim to have found a solution that will work for everyone, I would like to describe a series or works written by me for single instrument and tape entitled "Dimensions" in the hope that they may shed light of the reconciliation of "acoustic" with the "tape" illusion in one piece. The term "illusion" implies, in addition to the above mentioned criteria, fooling the listener into perceiving an image that is greater than the constituent parts (the Oxford Dictionary defines illusion as "sensuous perception of an external object, involving a false belief or conception...") A good example of this is the transition of a late classical symphony, where its motivic identification with the "A" theme combined with the blurring of the cadence between the "A" theme and the transition often creates in the listener's mind an illusion of no transition at all. It is all handled so naturally that we are at the "B" theme without perceiving the processor arrival, the trick being to hide the seams. A recurring illusion-creating device in a considerable amount of 20th
century electronic tape (only) music is the setting up of sound events which are drawn from recorded "live" sounds (music concrete) and then the creation of a synthetic analog to that event, blurring the distinction between the two so that they may appear as an organic whole.
One only needs to hear the terror and beauty with which the synthesized sounds surround and merge with the female voice in Berio's "Visage," or the way the taxi horns overlap and merge with their electronic equivalent in Appleton's Times Square Times Ten to appreciate this statement. In both instances the exact moment at which one can distinguish between the acoustic and the synthesized counterpart can not be known. It is this blurring of the distinction between the two that creates the illusion of one unified concept. Instead of our being conscious of two separate illusional forces competing with weakening each other, we are fascinated by how they merge and interact. The live sound becomes its electronic equivalent and vice versa. As this use of metaphor (that is-- the idea of one event becoming another) has been employed effectively to reconcile synthesized and concrete sounds in purely tape composition, so it has also been used by myself and others in acoustic instrument-plus-tape works. In Ex. 1, from my Dimensions I for violin and tape (ed note--these examples can be obtained by contacting the author), the solo violin exists in the center box, the two tape channels appearing in smaller notation in the outer boxes.


Every note you see represents a violin sound (although, since this is a performance and not a representational score, some synthesizer material exists also but is not indicated). Many of the tape sounds are somewhat modified (tape echo, equalization, etc.). The solid lines between the boxes represent solo violin start cues, and the broken lines, stop cues. It could be argued that the mere saturation of the work with violin material in itself does not guarantee a unified
concept, since the performers will still sound "live" and the tape "canned". This is true, and so I have only considered this saturation as a first and necessary step. The second phase consists, in this page at least, of setting up interplay between the two forces so complex in its coordination that it is often impossible for the ear to separate the two. Thus, the illusion is created of one "super-instrument". The ear is tricked into disregarding the differences between tape and live performance because of the creation of a more powerful illusion through metaphor.

In my Dimensions II for piano and tape a more complex situation exists. Although every single tape sound is derived from the piano, several are unrecognizable as such, particularly the "ethereal choir" idea which permeates the whole work. This sound event, produced by sustained stroking of low piano strings close-miked and highly processed with variable tape speed, some tape echo and modulation, acts as the "bed" over and through which the piano soloist emerges, fades and interacts. Since there is such disparity between the acoustical qualities of solo piano and this main type of event, quite unlike my Dimensions I, I had to find a means of reconciling the two forces. At the first solo entrance this is done by implanting similar material in tape and solo piano, and by bonding them together spatially in a panning situation. This is done over the basic "ethereal choir" sounds. As can be seen by Example 2 the close interaction between tape and piano created the illusion of a unified concept.





Since this, the very first piano entrance, appears as bound to the tape, the illusion continues and projects itself throughout the work, allowing the piano to depart significantly from the tape material later on without breaking the illusion.

A second characteristic employed later on to bind the two forces together is the organic quality of the piano-tape interaction. In Example 3 (not shown) the piano solo is constantly emerging from and receding back into the tape material. This creates the illusion of the solo part growing organically from the electronic material, thereby bound to the latter, a characteristic found throughout the work. This can be quite striking in performance, as when pianists such as David Burge, to whom the work is dedicated and who has performed it throughout the U.S., completes the illusion by actually "becoming" the piece through gesture and performance presence, thereby completing the metaphor.

Thus, we have come full circle, beginning with explorations of how the performance illusion can be projected through the recording medium (as in orchestral recording), to the projection of the tape illusion through acoustical material (by employing similar material in both), through the composer's reconciliation of the two by techniques explained in Examples 1-2, and finally to the performer's reconciling the live-acoustic with the tape illusion by his attention to the sonorous and organic qualities inherent in the work and by his performance-gestural attitude.