Familiarity in Electroacoustic Music: A Comparative Analysis of Two Approaches
You may wish to listen to the covered pieces before reading this article:
Electroacoustic music is a compositional practice using technology to supplement or replace traditional compositional methods. It can be dated back to the 1940s when musique concrète, pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in Paris, first used recorded audio as a resource to create contemporary music compositions. French composers experimented with shellac discs, and later with magnetic tape in the 1950s, manipulating the support medium physically (e.g. changing playback speed, physically cutting and gluing tape) to edit and arrange sound into new figures and textures. In parallel, the practice of using purely electronic methods rather than organic sources or traditional instruments to generate sound was developing in Germany.
This initially strong aesthetic division between the French and German schools soon gave way to a plethora of compositions blending both recorded and purely electronic sounds. From pop music one might hear on the radio to blockbuster movie soundtracks to the most niche contemporary compositions, the power and flexibility of electronics would come to dominate most musical fields by the 21st century.
Innovations in the field of electroacoustic music quickly progressed in the 1970s, enabling increasingly complex sound processing and effects capabilities. As composers continued to push boundaries, the advent of sufficiently advanced innovations in digital computation birthed the field of computer music: using software to allow advanced techniques and more precise manipulation not previously possible with physical and analog techniques. By comparing two different compositional approaches to contemporary electroacoustic music, I hope to highlight the diversity of possibilities in the field today.
The first piece, a glass is not a glass (2010) by the Israeli composer Adam Basanta, starts with the recording of a simple hit on a wine glass. Throughout the course of the piece, Basanta develops this recording into complex musical material while retaining the referential qualities of the original sound source.
In contrast, Phonurgie (1998) by Francis Dhomont utilizes a wide variety of sound sources throughout, organizing them into novel sound families. The piece is a meticulously planned architecture, constructing relationships between these sounds over time. Composed by a French artist of the first generation of contemporary electroacoustic music, the work encompasses many references to the genre’s history.
a glass is not a glass
The composition by Basanta uses the striking of a wine glass as the singular basis of its sound palette. This simplicity allows ample room for creativity through amplifying details of the recorded sound and utilizing a variety of modifications and arrangements. The flexibility of electronics expands the limited soundscape while retaining its identifying properties.
The extraordinary experimentalism of a glass is not a glass emerges from a commonplace experience: hearing glass ringing. The listener’s ability to relate everything back to this single familiar sound unifies all the tumultuous elements of this piece.
At the beginning of the composition, we are immediately introduced to a recording of a wine glass being hit. This is followed by a variation in the time domain: the same recording in reverse, where we hear the tail of the glass ringing unnaturally returning to the initiation of the sound. The first few minutes play with pitch as well as time as we hear lower long resonant tones overlapping with short phrases of high-pitched rapid impacts. This structure develops and the temporal relationship between faster- and slower-paced figures shifts, leading to overlapping pitched ringing tones creating varied densities of polyphony.
When the high-pitched impacts return with sharper transients (the attack or initiation of a sound), they create a new soundscape primarily characterized by the juxtaposition between longer decays and quick bursts of many sounds in succession. This section accentuates volume swells, building a sense of anticipation. The interrupting attacks become more violent and frequent until we hear a buzzing, drone-like sound that complements a recurrence of the low-pitched glass resonances from earlier in the piece.
Especially in the middle, Basanta plays with the dichotomy between concrete sounds and more ethereal-sounding processed versions. These ethereal sounds create suspense, which is resolved by a return to familiar material at the end. The composer holds our attention throughout the composition by constantly exploring rhythm, pitch, placement in the stereo field, percussiveness, and polyphony.
Three-quarters into a glass is not a glass we are introduced to material that is, for the first time, unconnected to the original glass hit. As listeners, this artificial-sounding beeping catches our attention. Basanta uses it as a transition to the piece’s ending, returning to the simplicity of the beginning with an added extension of reality: long ringing tones last longer than they would in the real world, and rhythmic glass hits are too regular to be entirely natural.
Francis Dhomont’s Phonurgie uses sounds collected over a span of five decades with many cultural references to medieval music, musique concrète, excerpts of his own prior works (e.g. Novars ), and city soundscapes recorded in Montreal.
The overarching structure is made by blending concrete and electronic sounds through complex layered textures. These textures are punctuated by elements such as short metal impacts and accelerating and decelerating rhythmic figures. Recurring sounds and their variations within the context of the piece help the listener form a mental temporal structure.
The piece begins with a chord bending upward as it fades out. A rattling sound swells and transitions into a high resonant attack which speeds up and decreases in volume. We are already hearing a fundamental element of the work: highly processed sounds arranged densely and eschewing any deep association to familiar real-world sounds.
An overpowering ringing effect fades in and climaxes, introducing a high-pitched attack with a ringing resonant tail. Another tonal chord similar to the beginning starts a new section, exemplifying how the piece uses variations on previous sounds to tie everything together. This next section features noise with rapidly fluctuating volume, layered with a cacophony of various other samples. These include electronic beeping shifting left to right in the stereo field and additional iterations of the now-familiar tonal chord.
This frenetic texture continues and more layers of complexity are added, including an alarm similar to a ringing phone and processed audio based on the bending chord heard previously. Electronically produced fluctuations in pitch, volume, and tonality are examples of how Dhomont develops simple ideas into more complex sonic environments.
The next section, an extended ambient passage, contrasts with the event-filled introduction. Punctuating rhythmic elements, including further development of the bending chord, are only introduced slowly. These elements increase in density, eventually reaching a peak of chaotic vigor. Dhomont continues introducing new motifs and fading out old ones as we move towards the final section of the piece.
Similar to many works of music where the conclusion recapitulates material from the beginning, Phonurgie ends with a rapid succession of sounds: the familiar upward bending chord, a low-pitched rumble, and a high-pitched resonant attack. The tail from this attack fades out over a long period of time, finally reaching silence.
Comparison and Application
The distinction between external and internal familiarity is very important for understanding the differences between these two compositions. In a glass is not a glass we experience the piece through the gradual defamiliarization of a sound that all audience members already know outside the context of the work. Phonurgie launches us into an environment of unfamiliar sounds, which only become familiar within the progression of the piece. Dhomont unified the auditory world by manufacturing connections throughout the composition process.
A glass is not a glass develops by exploring a large palette of modifications. Alongside everything mentioned earlier, it utilizes textural variation such as vibrato and distortion, creates rhythm through the “beating” interference between sounds with slight pitch offsets, and varies polyphonic layering and amounts of pitch definition. In comparison, Dhomont develops Phonurgie through repetition, aggressive layering and amalgamation, and organization into climaxes throughout the piece. Examples of common repeated elements include sporadic rhythmic segments, long sounds moving within the stereo field, and variations on the upward bending chord.
Even though electroacoustic works typically do not strictly follow the canon of classical musical forms, composers have developed their own methods of guiding the listener through their compositions. The works by Basant and Dhomont presented in this essay go about this differently, yet each comes to a solution that ensures it is not perceived merely as a disorganized collection of sounds.
Understanding the techniques Basanta and Dhomont utilize to create new works can inform our ability to analyze and appreciate other new music compositions. Studying works from the electroacoustic repertoire also help us better grasp practices that can be applied to our own compositional work.
Compositional principles fundamentally tied to human perception are too rarely considered, but are important for composers to develop a multifaceted toolkit of musical expression. In particular, it can be helpful to think about the ways listeners process associations between sounds, whether those associations are external or internal to the composition.
Electroacoustic and computer music is omnipresent in the modern environment. Knowledge of historical context and past aesthetic approaches, of course, is important for composers working in the present moment; that knowledge can also deepen even the casual listener’s experience of music.
Inside Computer Music (Oxford University Press, 2020)
By Michael Clark, Frédéric Dufeu, Peter Manning
Companion website: https://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780190659653/
Electroacoustic music label with information on over 150 artists, including Francis Dhomont: https://empreintesdigitales.com/en/accueil
Adam Basanta’s personal website detailing many of his works: https://adambasanta.com/
Groupe de Recherches Musicales has a lot of information on electroacoustic composition: https://inagrm.com/en