Friday, February 03, 2006

Music, Noise, Acoustics, Electronics, and the Future II

In the previous post I outlined the definitions for music and noise I'll be using tonight. Scroll down and read them, or this could get confusing. I'll bracket in little reminders here and there, though.

In a discussion with some friends on these subjects, the idea came up that composers in the early part of the last century felt that they had "hit the wall" with music (With the definition I use, the term "tonal music" is from The Department of Redundancy Department). The decision may not have been to consciously go outside of music per se - in fact all of the evidence I'm aware of all points to the conclusion that Schoenberg and his disciples considered their work to be music - but the end result was that music was in essence abandoned, and noise was embraced, when you go by my definitions. And I believe my definitions are, well, definitive. ;^) Call it accidental, nieve, or whatever, that was just how it went down.

Looking for sonically expressive or evocative sounds outside of music is far from a bad thing in and of itself, but to call it music creates some intuitive cognitive dissonance among audience members who instinctively understand what music is and isn't, and who are expecting to hear music. Another part of the problem was that, instead of simply adding noise to music as an additional expressive resource, music was entirely eschewed and replaced by noise. Additionally, some of these early attempts at The Art of Noise were deliberately and agressively dissonant to the point of striking many listeners as esthetically ugly. Some were not, however: I recently listened to some of Webern's orchestral noise-art that was posted at another blog - the first time in over fifteen years I had attempted such a thing - and I found some of it to be quite charming, and the sound effects (And that is really what they are) achieved with the orchestra were quite compellingly sophisticated. Pretty, even. It helped a lot that the pieces were startlingly brief, though.

The medium of conveyance for these early noise-art attempts was also from a world that had always been the exclusive domain of music: The traditional orchestra and it's various instruments in smaller derivative combinations, plus voice. This also caused some cognitive dissonance among audience members, but also among the performers, many of whom found these new noise-art experiments dissapointing and unfulfilling from a performer's point of view: No emotional paycheck similar to what music gives was forthcoming for them. Admittedly, there were performers who took to the new genera, but I don't care how you slice it, dice it, or cut it into julienne fries, they were in a distinct minority outside of the norms.

Of course, these early noise experiments were also written in standard notation, though that broadened over time to include more graphic indicators than there are characters in the Chinese/Japanese Kanji writing system. This trend was indicative of one of the underlying problems with acoustic instrument-based noise-art: Some of the best noise will forever lie outside of the human ability to produce sound with traditional acoustic instruments, as well as outside of the ability of traditional notation - no matter how much it is expanded - to describe.

I take the view that something good comes out of everything, and I believe the noise-art that was an outgrowth of music has certainly added many fine effects to film scores. However, those effects practically vanish into meaninglessness without the associated video, so it comes as no surprise to me that noise-art using traditional instruments never caught on as a stand-alone replacement for music.

But there is more to it, of course. Many fine sound effects that came of the orchestral noise-art experiments have been appropritaed by composers who use them intermingled with music to produce an expanded art form that combines both music and noise. I happen to absolutely adore (Let me grab the CD, because I can never spell his name right) Krzysztof Penderecki's St Luke Passion for this very reason: Music, noise, song, and spoken word are combined into a highly effective and highly charged art form that is what I think the original noise-art pioneers should have had as a goal. History is history, of course, but I think this amalgam of music and noise-art is where the future of purely orchestral and orchestral/choral writing lies (Have you seen that brilliant Honda commercial with all of the noise-art for the soundtrack produced by a choir? God, that's cool!). All it would take would be for a person with the talent and disposition of a Beethoven to come along and a whole new universe of expressive "tone poetry" would open up. That seems like an inevitability to me.


While this noise-art which was an outgrowth of music was developing, there was a parallel and initially unrelated series of experiments going on in the field of electronics: The synthesis of sound. Some of the groundwork for this was laid as far back as Brahm's lifetime by Hermann von Helmholtz, but I don't want to get too bogged down with that tangent. It is important to note that the first fully electronic instrument to appear was the Theramin, created by Leon Theremin in 1919. Though it seemed to be merely a novelty at the time, visionaries like Joseph Schillinger saw the potential of the electronic medium, albeit a bit dimly. Schillinger did, however, forsee our current situation in which we, as composers, are no longer slaves to performers, and that we can now experience all manner of music and noise-art which would be impossible for acoustic instruments to produce, or for human performers to execute.

As far as the actual effective synthesis of sound, however, it took until 1964 for Bob Moog to release his Moog Synthesizer to the world. This ponderous early analog synthesizer was very tedious to work with, as patch chords (hence the term "patches" for sound programs, still used in some quarters today) were required to route oscillators to envelopes and LFO's and noise generators and filters &c. However, entirely novel and previously unheard of classes of sounds were created by it, and so the first purely electronic noise-art began to appear.

Unlike the situation with the noise-art which was an outgrowth of music, the electronic noise-art pioneers were of a more populist nature. Moog's synths rapidly appeared in everything from TV and radio adds, to B-movie soundtracks, to rock and roll music, to artsy-fartsy stuff (Though not always with the approval of the establishment). As a result, electronic noise-art became a part of popular culture and connected with the public in a way that, nearly half-a-century later, the noise-art which was an outgrowth of music never has managed to do.

Again, there is more to it, of course. Though these early sounds may strike our ears today as beeps and squawks - and lacking in sophistication - they were a sensation when they were first heard. Beyond that, there was no preconceived notion among audiences about what to expect from electronic instruments, as there was with acoustic instruments and voices. This compound novelty of sonic timbre and instrument made the electronic medium naturally more suited to the pure Art of Noise creations: The electronic medium started off with advantages over the acoustic medium, despite the primitive nature of early electronic instruments.

The limitations of subtractive analog synthesis were many, and entire classes of sounds were out of the reach of it. Around 1970, John Chowning discovered a new synthesis technique called Frequency Modulation, or FM. Believe it or not, the first FM synth, contrary to the belief of many, was an analog synthesizer, and not a digital one. Though the Yamaha GS1 was ponderous and expensive, much like the original Moog model, by 1983 the DX7 appeared, and it changed, literally, everything (Just as the Mini Moog had earlier). Cheap enough for a reasonably successful gigging musician to own, it was capable of a wild variety of bell-like and glassy sounds that no analog synth could ever match.

While that populist revolution in digital noise-art was going on, an instrument was created at Dartmouth College called the Synclavier. The Synclavier actually beat Yamaha to the digital version of the FM synthesizer, but ironically had to license the FM tech from Yamaha to access Chowning's work. What was so special about the Synclavier though, was that it not only used a combination of additive and FM synthesis (The Yamaha DX series used an arcane FM-only algorhythm setup which was far less intuitive to work with), but it also married the digital synthesizer to a computer. So, not only could you create numerous classes of sounds, but you could also create musical or noise-art melodies or pitch-strings which would be impossible for a human performer to execute: Music notation was no longer a limiting factor.

With the advent of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard, or MIDI in 1983-84, Joe six-pack was given the ability to connect a computer to his synthesizer: Music and noise-art for the masses.

As an aside, I bought a Synclavier in 1983 and owned it right up until last year. I was working in the music industry during those years (I worked at E.U. Wurlitzer in Boston and at Manny's Music in Manhattan from 1984 to 1986 as a side job to my gigging (Or the other way around, depending)), and they were heady times. Serious glory days.

I programmed many sound effects on the Synclavier, and many of those timbre programs were distributed by New England Digital with the Synclavier. Since I was a pioneer of electronic noise-art, samples of which you can download as MP3's here, if you are so inclined, I ran into some problems with that medium which are "the same difference" as those experienced in the area of musically-derived noise-art.

While synthesizing timbre programs was very exciting for me - some days I would spend over eight hours on that task - and creating noise-art or music with them was also very exciting from a compositional standpoint, there was no excitement, or tension, or drama, or symbiosis... there was nothing much interesting about sharing the results with an audience. There remained a void inside of me where the performer used to be that could not be filled by pressing "play" on the Synclavier's Digital Memory Recorder, and then sitting back with the audience to listen. While there is no doubt but that this electronic noise-art was more interesting for the audiences than the acoustically-derived forms of noise art generally are - I got some awesome compliments from people who I happen to know absolutely detest "atonal music" - there was still something missing from this medium, and that was the human-to-human communicative element that only live performances can convey.


There was a third path that noise-art followed, and it began with recorded sound. This path actually originates earlier than any of the others, as Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 (There is a great recording of Edison and Brahms (!) which I have heard, and every musician who loves Brahms should hear it: Brahms' voice sounds exactly as I would expect after hearing his music. It's quite fascinating).

Nearly forty years later, after many innovations which included wire recorders and steel tape recorders, magnetic tape recording appeared in Germany in 1935. In the post-war years this technology developed, became less expensive (cheap, actually), and filtered into everyday life. It was during this time that artists started experimenting with recorded sounds to create noise-art. By the middle of the 60's, artists like Steve Reich were producing pure recorded noise-art like It's Gonna Rain and Come Out.

Just as synthesis went through an analog stage, so did recording. When the digital age dawned for recording, the results were disasterous for synthesis. It was a case where the lowest common denominator ruined everything for the illuminati, as far as I'm concerned. I'm referring to digital samplers, of course.

Back in my snottier-than-thou Synclavier programmer days, I used to berate programmers who tried to replicate acoustic instruments or natural sounds. The point of synthesis for me was that I could create things that had never been heard before. Alas, I was in the (intelligent) minority: Most were after the Holy Grail of "the perfect string pad" or some such nonesense.

The main competitor for the Syncalvier was the Fairlight, which was a sampler with a computer (And which sucked compared to the Synclavier for just that reason), but when NED came out with Poly Sampling, it was over: No sysnthesis abilities were ever enabled on the 16-bit voice cards, and owners like myself stopped upgrading.

That was circa 1987, and synthesis has yet to make any more significant strides. But enough of this rant.


So, today we have music of all kinds to draw from as a resource, noise-art which evolved from music and which uses acoustic instruments as a resource, synthesis-based timbral noise-art as a resource, and sample-based sound noise-art as a resource; the latter two of which can be combined with computers individually or together.

Next time, we'll explore the possibilities for today and tomorrow.

Of course: I forgot "feather-plucking-related noise-art."


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