Electronic music and the idea of Performance

by mjkmercer

Something that always bothered me about performances of electronic music was the lack of a human touch. It might be that this was a desired outcome – certainly some composers would agree  that the mechanical nature of the sound is within the aesthetic realm they wish to explore.  It was whilst working with CSound [1]  the other day that got me thinking. I had earlier spend quite some time working on the performance of a guitar piece,  fiddling with  slurs and fingerings until it sounded right, then trying out a different plucking position to see if the sounds might blend a little better and it struck me that there is no equivalent refining process in electronic music.  (I am sure I am wrong about this so please flood me with counter ideas – a conservatoire of electronic performance maybe?)

There might be a number a number of reasons for this.

Firstly,  in the early days there were few musicians working the field – it was lab coats and degrees in physics and maths and it showed. Much of the output was clever but  didn’t move anybody- it seas not an emotional experience and this is still true to some extent today. We are fascinated by what we hear but not moved.

Then,  there is usually one and one only performance that may become a CD that is never recorded again. Some of the recording artefacts are arbitrary and  unrepeatable, often the composer (who is also the performer) has moved on to new ideas, perhaps the set-up (swing microphones) will always produce something so different through the  mechanical set up that the human touch is not relevant to the realisation.  (Institute for excellence in microphone swinging?)

Nobody gets the chance to go back and re-look at how the piece might be better realised.  Some of the great electro-acoustic pieces are fixed in that what was done, was done and is complete – sealed in its time capsule recording forever. Whether we are discussing the  “Etude de Chemins de Fer” of Pierre Schaeffer or  a more recent work such as ‘Mutations’ by Jean Claude Risset or  even more recently, the wonderful work of Robert Normandeau (google and enjoy) we are talking about works whose realisation  is also a closed door on its future. I’m  sure not many scores exist for future generations and fewer instructions  other than the CD itself.

The other reason that little is said about performance is that there is not much ‘hands on’ work (except where processing live acoustic instruments). Working in Csound or in an electronic sound lab processing a recording, you get the feeling of something much more like either computer programming or hand- knitting an item of winter wear.  There is little or no discussion over the expression of a particular sequence  (melodic) or the balancing of a chord (Harmonic). Perhaps this is also because it takes months to programme something in Csound  that the idea of  slightingly stressing and sharpening a leading note in a violin line  is from other world. In the electronic work the composer is more likely to  require that a filter be opened in the last  five second of the piece.

Where I am going with this is that they are different worlds. Performance of acoustic instruments is  to some extent a black art; some never get it right, some train for twenty years to become the great performer we hear but in electronic music, excellence is more  concerned with mathematical  innovation and sound mixing  than with the idea of performance itself.  And I mean to include live performance in this. Performances I have been involved with were more concerned with just getting the technology to work as specified , but no musician had rehearsed the piece, nobody has worked out a series of options that would serve the sound better, nobody was interested in the man/machine interface.

There has been a lot of work on midi interfaces for performances fro address this lack of human touch, but there is no literature on how to realise any particular piece and what refinements might be available and so on.  There is little in the way of musicological analysis that might be the starting point for interpretive discourse. Perhaps it is time I wrote one.

Maybe this situation comes about because of the fundamental unrepeatability of the event.  There is no wrong reading of the score, no better interpretation, no comparative score from a similar composer  that would inform its realisation.  For this reason it is to me a different world. But this is not to denigrate it – I love the things it offers and I am listening to Robert Normandeau as I write.  But it is with very different ears that I will later assay the new recording of the  Britten Cello suites I have just bought.

I dont think I have said all I want to on this topic yet…. keep an eye out for a sequel.

[1] Csound is the lowest level  sound programming language for electronic music – it’s free software but a ten year study to master and each composition takes an eternity to realise simply because every event has to be specified – in incredible detail to get it right. Its a bit like writing down everything involved in making a cup of tea – down to the three dimensional mathematical trajectory of your hand as it lifts the kettle – an exercise in  Zen mastery. (www.csound.com)