Fire and Ice: A Query

by Priscilla McLean

Perspectives of New Music, Fall-Winter 1977

A new auditory phenomenon has emerged with the birth of music produced by the tape recorder and synthesizer (electronic, musique concrete). It could be described as a sonic experience that is neither a continuation of the traditional abstractions (melodic-rhythmic groupings with timbres and textures as primary or secondary considerations) nor "kidnapped" environmental aura, but a sonorous occurrence somewhere in between. For example, much electronic music seeks to imitate various musical instruments via the synthesizer, or uses recognizable sounds from the environment (bird calls, whale songs, radio communiqué, etc.). These sounds are then altered, but the actual source of intended imitation is still clearly perceptible. Also recently explored is a sound which is removed several degrees from any obvious source onto a more abstract level, either by altering the original drastically as to obliterate any direct reference to it or by synthesizing a musical event reminiscent of an environmental sonority but on its own level of abstraction. This imago-abstract sound, often gestural in nature, evokes duel sets of realities and is often misinterpreted by listeners and composers, who tend to react with suspicion and hostility toward electronic music of this kind.

In an article entitled "Toward Good Vibrations," Charles Wuorinen draws the basic premise that the imprecisions and generalities of exactly notated music, which implicitly demand the "performers interpretation and projection" present problems for electronic realization, and that many composers in the electronic medium, instead of creating a more precise, clear unfolding of the structures, confuse and blur the network of relations by using more generalized noise-oriented (not pitch-rhythmic) sounds and concentrating on the sound-events themselves (called "things" by Wuorinen) rather than their interrelations. He states that the relations "enable us to identify the things" and then explains that the sounds themselves are "just arrays of vibratory relations". Many composers of electronic music, according to Wuorinen, are unaware of the over- generality of their musical structures and hence the great variety of meanings inherent in them. These "failures" have resulted in "gross structural defects" and, Wuorinen states, formally unsatisfactory electronic music.

The opinion that workable ideas be abstract pitch-rhythmic manipulative entities in electronic music and that less malleable sonorities, either locked into a sound- event coalescence of pitch-rhythm-texture-timbre, as in the "Wild Bull" sound of Morton Subotnick"s The Wild Bull or derived or influenced by programmatic, environmental experiences, are "inferior" because of their suspected inability to form diverse and complex relationships, is held by not a few composers, critics, and (usually instrument-oriented) listeners. If the ability to form complex varied relationships is the pinnacle of
music achievement, are imago-abstract sounds valid as workable sources, or are they to be restricted to dramatic gestural, usually superficial effects, used sparingly, if at all?

A contrasting stance to the view expressed by Charles Wuorinen is found in the music and writings of Jon Appleton. The sound sources of several of his works have come from the urban environment, generally derived from different communicative situations among people. The sound materials, whose origins remain recognizable, are then put through several formal variations, repetitions additions, and alterations via tape and synthesizer manipulation to produce a completed work of musique concrete. For example, one work entitled Chef d'Oeuvre is a kaleidoscope of electronic manipulations of a singing commercial for frozen pizza, with the "pizza" still intact.

Appleton is concerned with a somewhat different aesthetic than has been heretofore presented: the use of sound objects as recognizable referents and as musical gestures invoking other levels of meaning, attributable to the previous information the sounds contained (the singing commercial), in combination with the new meanings created by the electronic and formal alterations. Appleton states: "consequently one idea, the most obvious example being the human voice, can express either level or both simultaneously. The ambiguity that results from this use of sound produces a tension which is resolved by our aesthetic comprehension or our sense of humor."  The balancing of interrelations of the musical ideas involves a basic compositional skill; the connotations of the non-abstractiveness of the sounds involve more varied responses. When the original information is still clearly recognizable, the listener's responses are perhaps not so different from responses toward program music. Reactions to Appleton's approach have not all been positive. One critic summed up his world Music as "a mish-mashed melange of travelog sounds."

There is a third viewpoint which lies somewhere between those expressed by Wuorinen and Appleton, a viewpoint which takes advantage of the characteristics of each. The imago-abstract sound, if created with consideration of its manipulativeness, can be capable of many levels of interrelation, according to its abstract qualities and also connotative meanings evoked by the degree of allusion to other sound images. the important thing here is that this kind of sound is unique in its own sense, and not a direct recognizable referent-- it has a characteristic quality not unlike a motive or theme (and in fact may use these) with only vague reference to alluded sonic events. One has only to listen to Visage by Luciano Berio to hear how this works. In this landmark imago-abstract composition using the voice of Cathy Berberian with electronic sounds, these is only one actual work spoken :"parole". the basic components of speech- syllables of vowel and consonant combinations, extracted from several languages and recombined into non-sense sounds, are joined with a great variety of dramatic vocal gestures, alternating and mixing with electronic materials. The effect of these vocal gestures is quite provocative: the non-words expressed with such strong inflections first stimulate the listener into imagining an intelligible dramatic monologue, and later into perceiving the sounds for what they are: an artwork of interweaving complex vocal abstractions. The listener's focus fluctuates between these levels of comprehension, invoking the tension that Appleton suggested, without being able to evoke an actual verbal or programmatic image, since only one real word is used, and this word conveys little imagery in itself. This powerful dramatic work of Luciano Berio seems to be refutation of Wuorinen's argument that non-pitched material cannot form strong syntactical relationships. And yet the implied or imagined origin is also there in strong measure. It is the combination of these supposedly opposing forces that gives the work its unique power. The imago-abstract sound works well in combination with more abstract ideas, as boundaries between the two are broken, and at times the allusions or suggestiveness of the sounds seem to leap out in bold relief, playing with one's cognitive abilities. Since 1971, when I started working in the electronic medium, I have become intrigued and fascinated with this multi-role of imago-abstract sounds, and in Dance of Dawn have used them in dramatic gestural and structural ways interwoven with abstract ideas. In spite of the title, the work is not programmatic (the title and poem came after the composition was finished) and none of the sonorities are meant to be programmatic
To illustrate how one of the principle imago-abstract ideas-- a non-tempered melodic counter that is ululatory in timbre and character- functions in Dance of Dawn, I have prepared a diagram of its appearance and development throughout the twenty-two minute work. (see fig. 1.)


Explanation of Symbols in Figure 1

A1: Imago-abstract sound (functioning here as introductory, gestural). A2: Variation and extension in two voices, enhancing the progression of the pitch- rhythmic abstract ideas occurring at this time.
A3: Slight variation of A1 sound, introducing new section after earlier climax.
A4: Repetition of A1
A5: Duet of A1 variations (high and low pitch levels) occurring during a new melodic section, promoting continuity, unity.
B1: Strongly dramatic, gestural (similar in dramatic upsweep to A1), heralding climax and long pause at first half of work.
B2: Repetition of B1 with A variation, beginning second half.
B3: Extension of B1, in duet with A6 (high variation and extension of A1), beginning a section that is recapitulatory..
C: Similar to B3 in timbre and dramatic intent, climaxing this section. A7: Return of the original imago-abstract sound in multiple variations polyphonically (in its most intricate form), closing the work.

As the diagram illustrates, the sound-event is as much a part of the intrinsic structure of the work and as complex interrelationally as are the totally abstract sounds (if there is such a thing as "totally abstract"); it also serves the important function of delineating sections. I did not notate specific pitches in the diagram since the pitches are a mixture of tempered and untempered (microtonal) tones; in this piece, the contour and shape of the melodic line is more important than its exact pitch content. Because this sound- event is basically an evocative, dramatic gesture, and hence quite memorable, caution was needed not to overuse but to take advantage of its character by placing it in structurally strategic locations. In this way the imago-abstract sound was able to create unity and coherence while evoking several simultaneous auditory responses, Although only one sound-event has been isolated for analysis, there are other imago-abstract events throughout Dance of Dawn that often evolve to and from completely abstract sound patterns.

This way of imagining and treating musical ideas seems to be a direct consequence of the development of electronic equipment and technique. Early musique concretists often manipulated pre-existing sounds via tape recorder and record player. When synthesizers became available, concrete sounds were (and are) altered in various ways electronically; and thus emerged the phenomenon of "distorted" sounds as found in the music of Jon Appleton. Whether the new way of hearing and examining existing sonorities and altering them or creating new ones directly influenced the sonic extensions presently available on conventional (and unconventional) instruments, or whether this creative expansion began on its own is not clear, but there seems to have been mutual interest and development in all areas of musical expression. This is of course understandable, since many composers are writing both in electronic as well as vocal and instrumental media, and most composers have at least studied or tried the different combinations.
The development of the electronic devices-- tape recorders, synthesizers, sequencers, and recently computers-- has become more and more sophisticated and has given the composer the ability to create the imago-abstract sound. As the concept began and was integral to concrete music, so it has matured in its capacity to work at both the abstract level as well as its intrinsic derived level.

Perhaps Charles Wuorinen and others in agreement with him could benefit by this quotation from Henri Pousseur, who, in discussing the evolution of order in music, had this to say about the present developments of order in music, had this to say about the present developments, as well
as the future: "I would even hazard the prediction that evolution in the near future will be in a direction such that all types of musical expression known up to the present will be made usable again (along with other, entirely unknown types relating to other domains of our auditive experience)... The most probable and legitimate natural consequence of such a widening of expression would be the ability of new music to reach vaster auditive capacity; and the possibility of its finally achieving the major mutation in collective sensibility which it carries within it in embryonic form....(From) is not called on to explain the whole of reality once and for all, but to make as vast a space as possible inhabitable for us-- the largest of which we are capable. It is not enough for us to alter the exterior' world in order to accomplish this, but also-- above all, perhaps-- ourselves, our attitude, and our resonance' (like a violin's,
a filter's, an antenna's)."

Permission for copying and use in normal educational class work granted.