Photo: Veronika Mayer + Christine Schörkhuber: der kleine schubladenkasten (the little drawer box). Installation, 2012
“I decided to call my music 'organized sound' and myself, not a musician, but 'a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities'.” (Varèse, 1966)
“If the word 'music' is sacred and reserved for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.” (Cage, 1937)
Both John Cage and Edgard Varèse – two of the most important and innovative composers of the last century – agree on a strong aesthetic premise for new music, defining it as "organization of sound”. But what is “sound” and how “organization” has to be intended in the context of music creation? Starting from these two words – and from my personal perspective as a composer – this paper aims to consider the act of composing from the perspective of storing, archiving and organizing sound material on multiple levels of time. The text is structured on a double level: theoretical reflections are accompanied by specific examples from my personal practice.
The paper starts by considering some interesting takes by Joanna Demers on the term “sound”, which is very general, as well as controversial. In her book Listening through the noise, she structures a vast discourse about genres in electronic music since 1980, considering how electronic music has changed the way we listen not only to music, but to sound itself, outlining her perspective on "sound" as material. Other considerations by important practitioners as Helmut Lachenmann, Denis Smalley, Trevor Wishart and Curtis Roads, are then compared, in order to frame the discourse about sound in the context of music-making, starting from basic questions such as:
- How does the composer choose the sound material to work with?
- How does she understand and define it? And, consequently, how does she organize it?
The notion of “organization of sound” then, has to be considered at least from two different perspectives. In a first understanding, it refers to the final formal structure of the composition – i.e. the shape that the sound material assumes inside the time of the music experience. But the concept of “organization of sound” can also be considered as referring to the actual work of the composer, that takes place outside the time of the musical experience. In order to find a personal way to work with her own material during the whole compositional process, the composer needs, in fact, to understand and define it. In my personal experience, the understanding and the definition of the sound material usually relies on the possibility of creating a strong memory of it, which often means creating multiple ways to get continued access to its empirical experience. In this sense, the notion of “organization” is associated with the idea of archiving. The compositional process can benefit from the composer's work of creating a personal archive of sounds, which has to be intended not only as a physical or digital space to store and get continued access to the material, but also – as Laura Zattra proposes – as a process of self-knowledge and awareness.
1. Storing Sound as Material of the compositional work
“What I mean by material here amounts to the objectified, audible phenomena in electronic music, from notes and rhythms to sound grains, clicks, timbres, even silence; it is, as Adorno puts it, 'what artists work with' (1997, 147).” (Demers, 2010, p.43).
In structuring a vast discourse about genres in electronic music since 1980, Joanna Demers, in her book Listening through the noise, refers to the heterogeneous material of the composer's work, pointing out how any kind of “objectified, audible phenomena”, from pre-existing to newly created sounds, could be intended as material. In fact, if the act of composing can be seen as the practice of organizing sound, the sound itself can be intended as the raw material the composer chooses to work with. But how does the composer choose her own sound material? How does she understand its properties? And how do these properties lend themselves to different kinds of manipulation, transformation and organization?
Nowadays composers tend to deal with a wide range of sound possibilities, since any sound can gain the status of musical material. As Curtis Roads observes, again referring to Varèse, “the philosophy of organized sound extended the boundaries of accepted musical material, and hence the scope of composition, to a wider range of acoustic phenomena.” (Roads, 2004, p.327). Consequently, the composer needs to find strategies to adapt her own work to this wide range of heterogeneous acoustic phenomena, that present different temporalities, different morphologies and different properties. Demers observes that most of the time the discourse about material needs to converge to the activities – construction, reproduction, or deconstruction – that generate it: “As a concept material may encapsulate the dual concerns of sound itself and sound generation, concerns that […] are traits held in common among many electronica genres.” (Demers, 2010, p.43).
It is interesting to stress this double perspective on sound material. On one hand, Demers takes into consideration the sound material as the “sound itself”, the “objectified, audible phenomenon”, detached from any external semantic content – as in the most significant case of microsound music, addressed in her fourth chapter, in which she observes how the use of minimal particles of material tends to nullify any “external referentiality, converting sound into raw objects.” (Demers, 2010 p.70). On the other hand, she considers the sound material from the perspective of its mode of generation, as the product of construction, reproduction, or destruction. She sees it as a malleable material that, in opposition to Schaffer's formulation of the sound-object, can hardly be separated from its modes of production or from the media on which it is affixed: “material necessarily refers back to its own generation, and so, any discussion of material must include actions and devices involved in its creation.” (Demers, 2010, p.43). Any information about the source, actions and devices involved in the mode of production of a specific sound provides knowledge about its potentialities and about the different possibilities to work on it, also in relationship with other sounds.
Referring to my practice, I extend Demers' discourse beyond electronic music, with an example taken from Prossimo (2017), a piece for violin and electronics. At the time of composing the piece, among a vast array of material I collected a specific sound: a fast repeated sound on the first string (see ex.1). In order to identify it as part of my material and to define it, I have to indicate the devices and the actions involved in its production. The action consists of a continuous and fast ribattuto, and the same repeated gesture involves at least two devices: the violin as the resonator and the bow as the exciter. The mode of production includes different information: it is played with legno, on a specific string, in correspondence to a certain harmonic node, with a defined energy level, i.e. dynamics. At the same time, as I will explain later, this sound has been stored as a “sound itself”, as a raw object, suitable for further manipulations.
In the Italian translation of Helmut Lachenmann's essays, there is an interview by Enzo Restagno, in which the composer tells a brief story. When he was a student in Köln, attending Stockhausen's lessons, Henry Pousseur was there to teach, and he asked him to say the first sound that came to his mind. Lachenmann replied: “the barking of a dog”. Pousseur posed the same question to another student, who replied “the sound of a harp”. Then, he asked the twelve students present to develop a scale, that from the sound of a barking dog proceeds to the sound of a harp (see Lachenmann, 2010, p.26-27). Of course, each student came up with a different way to connect these two sounds. Besides observing the evident heterogeneity of these two sounds and how, nevertheless, each student found out her own way to create with them a musical moment, the interesting aspect of this short story lies in Pousseur's request to develop a scale, as the strategy to connect two distant sound-events. The notion of scale implies the notion of direction and movement. Therefore, in my opinion, Pousseur's request assumes that the creation of a structural relationship between two sounds implies the understanding of their potential possibilities of movement, which in turn is linked to the recognition of the development of the internal trajectory of the sound-event itself. Andrea Valle addresses this issue as a matter of internal and external temporality:
“In order to be recognized, audible figures require a nested temporality. On the one hand, the identification of a figure supposes that the figure itself is placed in a context of a temporality that is“external” to the figure. But on the other side, the figure itself is still an object to be appreciated “in real-time”, an intrinsically temporal figure which reveals (or at least can reveal) an “internal” temporality. This aspect has been discussed in Schaeffer in the form of a recursive relationship between a sound object and a structure to which the former refers”. (Valle, 2015, pp.76-77).
The work of the composer can be seen as a continuous negotiation within this recursive relationship between the internal temporality of the audible figure or sound-object, and the external one, i.e. the structure to which the former refers. The question of temporality is related to the issue of the time scales inhabited by the sound material. In his famous book Microsounds, Curtis Roads (2004) outlines nine different time scales, specifying for each of them also a chronological range. For example, the “sound object time scale” goes from a fraction of a second to several seconds, the “meso time scale” is usually measured in minutes or seconds, while the “macro time scale” is measured in minutes, or hours, or, in really extreme cases, days. Both the “meso” and the“macro” time scales refer to what before has been described as the external temporality: the “meso time scale” represents the local time in which musical ideas unfold, and processes of development, progression, juxtaposition of different sound objects take place; while the “macro time scale” concerns the notion of form, the architecture of the composition. From the composer's perspective, both these time scales are related to what concerns the organization of the sound material. The “sound-object time scale” is instead the time scale of the material itself. In fact, Roads compares the sound object with the note, as the elementary unit of composition in the score, even if he distinguishes the former as heterogeneous and the latter as homogeneous. The heterogeneity of a sound object derives from the fact that two sound objects may not share common properties: they could present different temporalities, different morphologies and different properties. Instead, the homogeneity of a note derives from its static set of properties (pitch, timbre, dynamic, duration) that allows abstraction and efficiency in the musical language. A similar comparison with the note is made also by Denis Smalley, who compares it with the notion of gesture:
“The basic gesture of traditional instrumental music produces the note. In tonal music, notes form a consistent low-level unit, and are grouped into higher levelled gestural contours, into phraseological styles, which traditionally have been based on breath groups. Singers and wind-players, after all, have to breathe. In electroacoustic music the scale of gestural impetus is also variable, from the smallest attack to the broad sweep of a much longer gesture, continuous in its motion and flexible in its pacing. The notion of gesture as a forming principle is concerned with propelling time forwards, with moving away from one goal towards the next goal in the structure – the energy of motion expressed through spectral and morphological change”. (Smalley, 1997, p.113).
With his theory of spectromorphology Smalley introduces the notion of gesture as a forming principle, considering its conditions of motion. Spectral and morphological changes over time are the consequences of the activity that generates the sound material:
“Sound-making gesture is concerned with human, physical activity which has spectromorphological consequences: a chain of activity links a cause to a source. A human agent produces spectromorphologies via the motion of gesture, using the sense of touch or an implement to apply energy to a sound body. A gesture is therefore an energy-motion trajectory which excites the sounding body, creating spectromorphological life” (Smalley, 1997, p.113).
Similarly, the notion of gesture linked to the aspect of energy is relevant also to Trevor Wishart who makes a clear distinction between the“intrinsic” and the “imposed” morphology of sound (Wishart 1986). The intrinsic morphology concerns the properties of the sounding system, while the imposed morphology relates to the energy input into the system. In order to make this distinction clearer he proposes three sound examples from the category of continuous sounds: a sustained sound of a violin, of a synthesiser, and the one of a bell. According to their physical properties the first two sounding systems – the violin and the synthesiser – require a constant input of energy in order to produce a long sound, whether the bell needs just a single input of energy to resonate for a long time. So, considering any sounding system as gesturally responsive, the definition of the sound material depends not only on the physical properties of the system, but also on the definition of the gesture that shapes its imposed morphology.
During the compositional work, the composer shapes her own raw material through a clearer definition of the gesture, choosing for a certain imposed morphology. Going back to the first example of the ribattuto sound of the violin, we can observe how it has been shaped throughout the piece. In the first line, it has simply assumed different rhythmical contours. (see ex.2)
Through simple subtraction operations, the sense of continuity that the material presents at its first stage results somehow broken. The same feature of continuity is instead reinforced when, at the end of the first line, the ribattuto sound is recorded to be electronically processed through a granulator (see ex.3); while, approaching the end of the first part (bb.13-14), the ribattuto sound is altered in its pitch through a glissando movement – also in the electronics. (see ex.4). Lastly, during the final part of the piece (from b.130), the same sound material appears again, but this time it is played with the piezoelectric microphone and no more with the legno of the bow – i.e. one aspect of its mode of production is changed. Therefore, the timbre is affected, even if the material is still very well recognizable. (see ex.5). This opens up a space for at least two different questions: Which kind of manipulation, intervention, transformation does the material afford? How far could a sound material be manipulated while preserving its original “identity”?
It is worth noting that the compositional process includes different moments in which the composer defines the imposed morphology of the sound material she is working on, taking into account which kinds of manipulation, intervention or transformation the intrinsic properties of the material afford or suggest. Within these moments the material is shaped in different gestures, that become more recognizable as specific sound-events also because of the temporal dimension they acquire. This temporal dimension will be important to provide information about how sound events will be then organized at a structural level, contributing to the creation of a certain sense of motion. As Smalley indicates:
“Gestural music, then, is governed by a sense of forward motion, of linearity, of narrativity. The energy–motion trajectory of gesture is therefore not only the history of an individual event, but can also be an approach to the psychology of time.” (Smalley, 1997, p.113).
Additionally, Smalley observes that if the temporal dimension of a gesture is too loose and stretched in time, the perception of forward motion and linearity gets lost. When the gesture loses its human physicality, the perception of its spectromorphological life will move on the inner details of the sound event; the human scale becomes an environmental one, turning the gestural structure to a textural one. As Smalley again points out, most music shifts between texture and gestures.
“Individual gestures can have textured interiors, in which case gestural motion frames the texture – we are conscious of both gesture and texture, although the gestural contour dominates, an example of gesture-framing. On the other hand, texture-carried structures are not always environments with democratic interiors where every (micro-) event is equal and individuals are subsumed in collective activity. Gestures can stand out in foreground relief from the texture. This is an example of texture-setting – texture provides a basic framework within which individual gestures act.” (Smalley, 1997, p.114).
From this perspective, both gesture and texture are considered as forming principles, but the dominance of one above the other will depend not only on the compositional choices but also on the understanding of the sound material. The heterogeneity of sound material can suggest different degrees of segmentation or malleability. It is a composer's task to understand the possible behaviours of the musical material, considering its properties and its affordances.
2. Archiving and organizing sound material: inside and outside the time of the work itself
The notion of “organization”, as intended by Varèse and Cage, refers to the way different sounds are combined within the formal structure of the piece, so within what has been previously defined as the “meso” and the “macro” time scale of music. From the listener's perspective the perception of how the sounds are organized in these time scales happens while the piece is played, so inside the time of the piece itself, or in retrospect, moment after moment during the listening process. Instead, the composer has to work in prospect, outside the real-time of the composition, imagining sounds, their succession and combination. Thus it is worth noting how the compositional work happens in another temporal dimension, called the “supra” time scale by Road:
“Composition is itself a supratemporal activity. Its results last only a fraction of the time required for its creation. A composer may spend a year to complete a ten-minute piece. […] The electronic music composer may spend considerable time in creating the sound material of the work. Virtually all composers spend time in experimenting, playing with the material in different combinations. Some of these experiments may result in fragments that are edited or discarded, to be replaced with new fragments. Thus it is inevitable that composers invest time pursuing dead ends, composing fragments that no one else will hear. This backtracking is not necessarily time wasted; it is part of an important feedback loop in which composers refine the work” (Roads, 2004, p.10).
The “supra” time scale of the compositional process is, therefore, a time outside the real one of the musical composition, and Roads refers here to the non-linearity of the whole process. In my opinion, this non-linearity is not only represented by the time spent in experimenting, going back and forward, but also by the way the composer is constantly shifting between different temporal dimensions, zooming in and out within the different time scales inhabited by the sound material. This recursive work on sound, that lies at the core of the compositional process, triggers a feedback loop between the aural memory and imagination: the composer tends to imagine and anticipate the structural relationships between different sound objects that she keeps in memory while rethinking on their definition. This mechanism relies strongly on the possibility of creating a consistent memory of the sound material.
In my personal experience, this means to create multiple ways to get continued access to its empirical experience and to the different ideas about its definition, transformation and manipulation. The possibility to go back as many times as needed to the empirical experience of sound allows for a better understanding of the acoustic features of the sound material that I am working on, and for a constant redefinition of its aural memory. Thus, I have developed a practice of recording moments of improvisation and exploration, as well as rehearsals at different stages of the process. For each different project or piece, I tend to store and catalogue materials in digital folders and subfolders: different recordings, text files with their description, patches for the processing of sounds, notes, sketches, etc. This becomes a sort of personal archive in which I organize the material that I am working with. In this sense, the term “organization” assumes a different connotation referring to the idea of classification and archive. In this larger meaning, "organization" is no more just a matter of combining the material inside the formal structure of the piece itself, but it refers to the organization of the material outside the piece, within the composer's work environment.
During the compositional work, the creation and the organization of a personal archive of information is constantly reshaped and updated, so that this act of cataloguing the sound material supports the non-linear approach to the compositional process, providing the possibility to access and navigate through different information at various stages of the process. Furthermore, the existence of such archives allows for the occasional reconsideration and reuse of a certain stored material, providing for multiple outcomes.
Prossimo, mentioned above, belongs to the cycle Sistema di Prossimità, which consists of four pieces: Prossimo, for violin and electronics, Prossimo II for double bass and electronics, Prossimo III, for cello and electronics, and Sistema di Prossimità, for violin, cello, double bass and electronics. Each piece of this cycle can be played separately, or one after each other, seamlessly. In the latter case the reuse of the ribattuto sound of the violin, mentioned in the previous examples, is clearly recognizable. At the beginning of Sistema di Prossimità (bb. 1-13) the same sound material appears in a specific rhythmical version (see ex.6), which is the result of a process of subtraction from the original material. A similar version is assigned to the cello, in the last part of Prossimo III (from b.133 to the end of the piece – see ex.7); here the mode of production – with legno battuto – is similar, and the derivation from the violin's material is evident, even if the timbre and the dynamics are different due to its transposition on another instrument. This sound in the piece for cello also assumes a structural value: it recalls the one already played in the violin piece and, at the same times, it foreshadows the beginning of the trio. Finally, the ribattuto sound comes back at the very end of the cycle, played at the same time by the violin and the cello (from b.134 to the end of Sistema di Prossimità – see ex.8), but here it appears in its continuous form, and, because it is played by both instruments, the sense of texture implied in its original form is reinforced.
A methodological way of collecting sound materials, such as the one described, brings the notion of archiving and cataloguing at the core of the “organization” of the whole compositional process. Source of inspiration for this way of working has been the methodological use of archives and catalogues in the work Systema Naturae (2013-2017) of Mauro Lanza and Andrea Valle a cycle of co-composed four works. (> see the Appendix)
Setting up her own archive, the composer creates a personal database, a physical and digital space where she stores and redefines sound materials while building and enriching her own aural memory of them. Keeping available access to this database provides a clearer way of developing ideas during the compositional process. Moreover, access to her own personal archive allows for reconsidering from new perspectives already exploited sound materials. For the composer, this is a way of getting deeper knowledge about her own work, and it can also be a convenient and creative way of producing new outcomes.
A declared exploitation of my personal archive is my recent electroacoustic multichannel piece Tickling Forest (2020). I deliberately composed this piece choosing material just from my personal archive of instrumental pieces: all the sounds I worked with, belong to recordings of instrumental sounds from different previous pieces. Among the sound material I chose to work with, there is also the same ribattuto sound of the violin, that for this piece has been processed in various ways, using different granulators and filters (see ex.9 – excerpt from Tickling Forest).
I tried to keep track of the compositional process that can be summarized as follows:
- All material comes from recordings of sounds used or collected for previous pieces. I chose 19 samples among various recordings made for the following pieces: et-ego (for guitar and electronics, 2017), Prossimo (for violin and electronics, 2017), Prossimo II, (for double-bass and electronics, 2018), Residual (for ensemble and electronics, 2019), PianoMusicBox_1 (for piano and electronics). Each selected sample - from 2'' to 30'' – was stored in a folder named “original Buffers”.
- All samples in “original Buffers” were edited and stored in a new folder as “rendered Buffers”. The editing consisted of selecting the most interesting parts and levelling off the amplitude. [software used: Reaper]
- A few spectral analysis were done while checking some possible filterings. [software used: Adobe Audition]
- According to their acoustic features, sounds were grouped together in 8 main groups.
- Sound samples were processed through different granulators and filters. [software used: SuperCollider]
- Working within different groups of sounds, a trial track (from 1' to 3') was created for each group. [software used: Reaper]
- Trial tracks were rehearsed on an 8-channels system in two different sessions (27-28/01/20, 11/02/20) at the Orpheus Instituut, thanks to the precious collaboration with Juan Parra Cancino, responsible for the configuration of the 8-channel system. [software used: Digital Performer].
- A few trial tracks and a few samples were chosen to become the actual material used during the final composition of Tickling Forest [software used: Reaper/Illustrator -for the score].
The decision of starting from already used material has been influenced at a first stage by my theoretical reflection on the notion of archive. Then, during the compositional process, I slowly realized the actual importance, from the creative perspective, of going back on certain sound materials, taking the chance of better focusing on their nature.
According to my personal experience, providing the composer with the possibility to have continuous access to her own classified and catalogued sound material, represents a possible model to work on sound. The setting-up of a work environment based on personal archiving methods contribute to enhance the organization within the compositional process.
Furthermore, the composer can benefit from her own archiving environment, especially when this is in constant evolution, reflecting the depth of her own personal thoughts and research. Hence, the notion of the archive should be intended not only as a physical or digital space to store and get continued access to the sound material, but also – as Laura Zattra proposes – as a process of self-knowledge and awareness.
“I believe that this awareness, for electroacoustic composers and musicians, may only generate from the concept of archive, an aspect inherent in the very notion of research. Archiving – by artists, composers, musicians, performers, and scholars – is crucial for several reasons. […] I intend archiving not only as a separate entity (one artist’s physical archive), but also as a process of self-knowledge, of studying and revealing personal lacks and indicating new possibilities for innovation and experimentation; as an action to find the way through what has been already done. […] Archiving means the necessity for the artist/composer/researcher to maintain his/her own materials (that is their own knowledge, culture and practice), in order to become responsible for their own choices, to conduct themselves consciously as artists, to assess their understanding of their own practice, which is the real way to originality and individuality” (Zattra, 2018).
The concept of the archive is therefore to be intended as a dynamic process, which provides composers and artists with a deeper awareness of their own work. Working within this mindset can fruitfully enhance originality and support creativity.
In Systema Naturae the idea of the catalogue was primarily used to structure the general form. Systema Naturae is in fact inspired by the eponymous work of the botanist, physician and zoologist Carl Linnaeus, and, similarly to its source of inspiration, is made up of four pieces, each one dedicated to a different natural kingdom: Regnum Animale, Regnum Vegetabile, Regnum Lapideum and Fossilia. Beyond Linnaeus' system a further reference is made to the medieval catalogues of bestiaria, herbaria and lapidaria: multifaceted catalogues of miscellaneous animals, plants and stones, highly heterogeneous in the way they collect names and descriptions of both existing and fantastic creatures, without a specific order. Hence, each Regnum is structured as a catalogue, made of a heterogeneous succession of short pieces, each one dedicated to an imaginary animal, plant or stone. In each of the four Regna, traditional ensemble instruments are integrated with a different set of electro-mechanical devices, made of what might be called “hacked objects”. After their creation, all these electro-mechanical devices have been named, classified and grouped in different families, partly following the existing taxonomy defined by Hornbostel and Sachs – which classifies instruments as idiophones, chordophones, aerophones, and electrophones – and partly following other criteria such as time responsivity (which is related to the temporal behaviour of the object and to its capacity to provide a fast attack and a fast delay, to allow complex rhythmical organization), control behaviour (distinction between objects with a discrete behaviour - on/off - or continuous one), presence or absence of pitch, and so on. This classification represents another aspect related to the idea of cataloguing. Moreover, at an early stage of the compositional process, the two composers worked on the creation of a database, in which they collected a large number of recordings of every single electromechanical device and recordings of instrumental sounds – including sounds produced with particular extended techniques –. All recordings have been analysed and catalogued on the basis of their possible dynamics, spectral contents, rhythmic behaviours, and so on. During the compositional process, this database has been exploited to pursue a smart use of the spectral contents of sound in building and combining different sound events. The two composers have systematically used simulations to provide a testing environment, supplying constant feedback on the compositional process. Their shared database has been constantly updated with spectral information, gathered from audio analysis tools, and used to feed algorithmic compositional environments - such as SuperCollider on Andrea Valle's side, and OpenMusic, on Mauro Lanza's side - in which accurate simulations of the pieces were created. In this way, the two composers maintained thorough control over the richness and the complexity of the sound material they were working with. (>go back)
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Zattra Laura (2018), Is Originality Undetected Plagiarism? Text of the keynote presentation at the EMS 2018 (Electroacoustic Music Studies Conference), Florence (Italy), 20 June - 18:30 - Richelieu Hall
Audio and video of Prossimo, Sistema di Prossimità (last part – trio), Tickling Forest (binaural track):