Saturday, June 20, 2009

Plastic canons

One of the most thorough electronic music packages I've ever seen is the boxed set of "The Complete Tape Music of Dick Raaijmakers," which includes three CDs and a 200-page hardbound book of bi-lingual (English and Dutch) notes explaining the pieces. The pieces date from 1959 to 1996, and although a lot of analog electronic music sounds a bit dated, I find Raaijmakers' work not only listenable, but very prescient. In particular, I am fascinated by a series of five canons from the mid-1960s, all of which sound much more like static or noise than any of their contemporaries. The canons are artifacts from some fairly intense research that Raaijmakers performed on sound morphology. While the research and its results are explained reasonably well in the book accompanying the CDs, I stumbled across a publication Cahier M from the Orpheus Institute seminars in Belgium, where he goes into much more detail in a series of four lectures subtitled "A Brief Morphology of Electric Sound."

Raaijmakers had two major guiding lights for this research, the artist Piet Mondrian and the pioneering photographer Étienne-Jules Marey. In the 1880s, Marey developed a photographic gun that planted consecutive actions in a single image, which he used to show real-world actions, such as birds in flight and a man jumping off a chair. Forty years later, as a major theorist for the Dutch artistic movement Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian advocated an electronic music structured into sequences of primary tones (characteristically identified as red, yellow and blue) and non-tones (chromatic, atonal noises, black, grey and white), devoid of harmony or any sort of romantic characteristics. From Marey, Raaijmakers took the idea of presenting a single object from multiple perspectives. From Mondrian, he not only took the tonal concept, but Mondrian's spatialization of sound, not merely the horizontal and vertical but a diagonal approach. Raaijmakers wanted to construct pillars of sound that could be viewed from any angle and whose characteristics would change accordingly. Mondrian's work fits into a long history of mixing sonic, visual and architectural metaphors. The 1960s were a fertile time for spatialization as well — think of the work of Stockhausen and Xenakis from this period.

Of course, canonic procedures were nothing new to the 1960s, having a long history back before Bach. But Raaijmakers started from a single point of sound, so short that no specific pitch could be perceived. He strung multiple points together to create larger sound structures, which he then overlaid with each other at different time scales, creating larger and larger blocks. Despite the increased complexity and the archaic titles in Latin, any canonic procedures he uses are largely inaudible, and the raw material sounds like static. Taking inspiration from Mondrian's severe restrictions, Raaijmakers' canons sound like the absence of music. The closest sonic resemblance is the crunchy parts of William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, harvesting the sound from old, decaying tapes. Raaijmakers's first canon serves as a model: spiky sonic aggregates alternating between two channels, without pitch, harmony or any discernable rhythm. Raaijmakers calls the second one a black-and-white copy of the first (it's a canon about printing, a copy of the first with reduced information). The third is accelerated, with the sounds overlaid to create timbral differences, but it is still an extremely restricted sound palette. The fourth is a subtraction canon, where increasingly large holes appear in the original material, again recalling Basinski. The fifth is based on an old LP of Edith Piaf, emphasizing the surface noise at the expense of the underlying sounds — it could easily pass for turntablist/looper Philip Jeck.

Starting from Mondrian's neo-plasticism, Raaijmakers ends up with a different view of sound than the moving horizontal and vertical waveforms that we see in most audio editors. Mondrian's sound had depth, a third dimension whose appearance (and audibility) altered depending on the perspective of the composer and/or listener. Repetition patterns which may appear orderly and periodic when viewed from one angle may be completely invisible or barely recogizable when perceived from elsewhere. The pattern may be altered, translated ("the shift of a given quality in a straight line with respect to other qualities"), until the pattern morphs into a new shape, a new pattern to be used for the next round of changes. Sound artist Ralf Wehowsky translated a single set of parameters for his album When Freezing Air Stings Like Ice, exemplifying Raaijmakers' deep morphological connections. Neoplasticism combined with Marey's superimpositions, and the resulting abstract, liquid forms anticipated Xenakis' architectural sound sketches and countless graphic scores.

Raaijmakers' work is available digitally, without the explanatory notes, from iTunes and emusic, but the book is a huge asset to understanding this pioneering work. Despite the collection's title, many of the more recent works are recordings of fairly theatrical productions, so enough is lost already without missing the explanations for the absent visuals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am working on a project about Mondrian's "neoplastic music" and its influences, and I found your piece very helpful. I will look further into the Mondrian/Raaijmakers connection. Thank you!