Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sound art at the academy

Leigh Landy is a composer and scholar interested in the accessibility, or rather its lack, of electroacoustic music. Several years of performing and study have led him to the creation of an all-encompassing web site, EARS (the ElectroAcoustic Resource Site), and the publication of a recent book, Understanding the Art of Sound Organization, that introduces the site. Landy believes that electroacoustic music (the term he prefers is sound-based music) would be much more accepted among a serious listening audience if there was more agreement among its devotees on categorization and terminology, as well as a more common foundation among its scholarly advocates. To this end, Landy has written a short but comprehensive overview of the state of sound-based music studies.

Landy has been concerned about accessibility for several years, and in the early 1990s he investigated the "something to hold on to" factor before launching a more thorough investigation in the Intention/Reception project. Here, he played sound-based music three times in a laboratory setting, providing a little bit more information for each subsequent listening, and followed by various questions for the listeners. The book goes into considerable detail about these topics, including a complete set of questionnaires for the project.

The real meat of the book is the long second chapter, where Landy tackles the current state of theory of sound-based music. Occupying almost half of the book, the survey is a more comprehensive overview of scholarly literature than anything else I've found. In nearly every section, I found myself flipping back and forth between the text, the end notes and the bibliography, trying to follow references for more information. It's a staggering amount of food for thought, and summarization is impossible. Highlights include:
  • Musique concrète and the solfege of sounds originating with Pierre Schaeffer and continuing through Michel Chion, François Bayle, and Denis Smalley. This is an extremely well developed body of theory, but little of it has been translated into English. Canadian Denis Smalley has continued work in this vein, and fortunately he writes in English (even if it's published in obscure journals and academic books). Schaeffer created a detailed taxonomy of sound objects that I've always found tantalizing, although I've never actually tried to apply it.

  • Soundscape composition, originating with R. Murray Schafer and continuing with Barry Truax. In his accessibility studies, Landy found that the presence of recognizable real-world sounds created a focus for listeners. Similarly to the musique concrète composers, soundscapers work from the material up, but the soundscapers attention to ecology and the environment is a substantial difference between the two groups.

  • The search for new sounds, including microsound and noise. Microsound's primary theoretician is Curtis Roads, but the examination of different timescales in music is very broad. New sound discovery also leads to a brief discussion of noise (mostly because of Paul Hegerty's work) and lowercase artists.

  • Formalist approaches, where the composer has a preexisting model for the music, which can range from a strict serial approach (early Stockhausen, for example) through Xenakis' mathematical models to spectralist and algorithmic models.
Landy acknowledges two different origins for sound-based music when he follows German critics with E-Musik (Ernst, or serious music, i.e., high art) and U-Musik (Unterhaltung, or entertainment, i.e., popular music). But even though he admits the lines between the two have become blurred, since few U-musicians write scholarly articles, the emphasis here is clearly on E-musik. Performers and composers outside the academy are relegated to short blurbs or the end notes. Similar concerns arise for electroacoustic improvisation (EAI), to my mind a substantial and important genre, but completely overlooked here. Landy's only source for improvisation is John Bowers, an academic associated with the Sonic Arts Network, primarily because he published an ethnograpic of his own performance experience. As one example, Keith Rowe has written very perceptively on his improvisations, and certainly EAI has provided several examples that will rank with the best sound-based art. Finally, Landy alludes briefly to valorization, how to decide whether a piece is "good" or not. He doesn't cite any relevant work, and indeed, the term doesn't even appear at the EARS site. Although people bandy about the quality of various works, I'm unconvinced that these discussions reflect anything more than the taste of the viewer. As Landy points out, even in traditional classical music, a violin interpretation can be a delight to one person and irritating to another.

From a primary goal of setting out firm theoretical foundations, Landy's oversight of non-academic sound-art practitioners is understandable. Academia takes a long time to digest current practice, given an unremitting lack of resources for theory and analysis and a burgeoning set of new approaches to sound-based music. Landy's book contains a wealth of information and is a superb resource and incitement for further study. But active musicians, unconcerned with the articulation of their psychologies in favor of creating the next musical piece, progress much faster than careful and methodical professors, leading to an inevitable and widening gap between the two.


robin said...

"Sound-based music"? As opposed to what, exactly? You'd think with acousmatic, electroacoustic, loudspeaker music, musique concrete, computer music and on and on, we'd have enough labels without another one coming along!

Caleb Deupree said...

I had to chuckle at that too, but Landy goes into some detail as to why all those terms are inadequate, and by creating a new one, he gets to define its meaning.