The Rambler :: blog

Thursday, October 02, 2003

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Angus has written a fabulous post on electronic music, loops, synchronicity, and, well, loads of stuff - go and read it.

Despite his self-deprecations, Angus is pretty much on the money - what follows is a footnote, I suppose. Certainly, in my experience anyway, Angus isn't reinventing the wheel - the whole issue of electronic vs acoustic vs all-the-grey-areas-in-between is still pretty thorny, and it's rare to hear anyone talk about it intelligently (so don't expect anything from me!).

There are some occasions when contemporary composers have used literal clockwork mechanisms in their work. Rebecca Saunders is one who habitually uses wind up music boxes in her work (which I believe is all acoustic). The result is an extension of Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes - you get an apparently repetitive system set up, but in fact it changes continually as the spring mechanisms unwind, and the music boxes/metronomes slow down. And of course, being analogue and not digital mechanisms, the rates of change are subtly different, so you get a constantly changing field of sound. Moving away from literal clockwork to the more metaphorical kind, Steve Reich obviously springs to mind, but again, his music actually sets up mechanical processes in order to watch them fall apart at the seams. In the two early tape pieces It's Gonna Rain and Come Out identical tape loops are played simultaneously on two different machines - what Reich realised and worked with was the fact that no two machines are identical, so very quickly the loops shift out of phase with one another, again creating more-or-less unpredictable patterns of sound. In the pieces for solo instrument and tape - Vermont Counterpoint (flute), New York Counterpoint (clarinet) and Electric Counterpoint (electric guitar) - a live performer is playing along to multiple recordings of themselves. Although you'd expect this to be metronomically precise music, in reality the live performer is constantly struggling against the prerecorded rhythmic nuances on the tape. Six Pianos, the result of Reich's ambition to write a work for a whole piano shop is another precise piece of clockworkesque minimalism, but this time the analogue imprecision comes in the tuning of the instruments. In practice it is nigh-on impossible to precisely tune two pianos to each other, so six is out of the question. Thus, Reich's precisely written music is blurred around the edges once more, this time by unexpectedly complex microtonal variations.

What all these examples have in common is that in using analogue/acoustic mechanisms they actually highlight the imprecision and fallability of the mechanical life. What's more, they are practically impossible to reproduce digitally (apart from the Ligeti, which was recently realised digitally at the South Bank, but this is probably mathematically the simplest of the examples I've given).

Details on the Sounth Bank thing may be found here (it was also reviewed in The Wire and elsewhere). What I thought of all that is another post, but relevant here was the attempt to draw a parallel between the digital loops of Aphex, Squarepusher, et al, and the acoustic mechanisms of Ligeti and Nancarrow (Nancarrow always knew his piano rolls were a compromise). And I think it failed pretty badly because of this misunderstanding about digital and acoustic musical production. In Angus's taxonomy, acoustic music (including metronomes and music boxes) scrolls, not loops. The point being, I think, that with scrolling music you can never be absolutely sure what you'll get next, even if you set the system up in the first place. With a loop, you know, exactly. So unless you want zero variation or interest (a state I believe is psychologically impossible anyway*), you have to change other parameters in your music - layer your loops, fade/phase things in and out, add a vocal line, whatever.

In actual fact, in almost all cases of digital looping, the composer/artist is adding almost constantly making decisions, changes, adding input (ie 'humanity'). Of the most 'inhuman' mechanistic works I can think of, the Ligeti sets up a situation that demonstrates the actual non-repetitiveness of machinery (it was also a joke, which makes it pretty human, I guess), and the Reich tape pieces use human voices (a preacher and a victim of racial violence) as its loops making the humanity impossible to avoid.

So much for the naysayers, then.

What this all adds up to musicologically I'm not yet sure - certainly some sort of improved taxonomy like Angus is suggesting is helpful, and better than the sort of 'them and us' kind of divides (and equally lazy attemps to cross those divides) musicology lapses into these days. I'll be watching Angus's space with interest...

*Cage again: If you find something boring the first time, try it a second. If you still find it boring, try it four times, then eight, then 16. Pretty soon you find it's not boring at all.

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