Alvin Lucier and Music as Exploration. Read, listen, and comment by 3pm Wednesday, April 3rd.
We’re very much accustomed to music being a polished ‘product.’ Particularly with recorded music, we tend to accept the act of recording and editing audio as a process with a specific goal: the creation of a refined audio product that is then distributed and (hopefully) sold to buyers in a given market. To get one hit song, the process can be extremely time consuming and expensive, going through countless hours in recording sessions, edits, revisions, and tweaks, all for the hope of being able to underwrite the cost and effort through revenue.
This type of music–music as commodity–is the central idea from which the music industry has been built. Over the course of the last century, as this industry has matured, aged, decayed (with the landscape changing depending on the emergence of various technologies and markets), and reinvented itself, there have been concurrent trends in music that have had nothing to do with trying to make money.
Most music not associated with commerce is lumped into the umbrella term experimentalism. As you might already know, experimentalism in music is meant not to have a fixed goal at the end of the music making process, but to make music with an unknown outcome. There are actually two sides of experimentalism, one geared toward indeterminacy and one based on process (see this if you’re curious).
I’d like for us to take a look at one experimental composer, Alvin Lucier. Let’s start by taking a look at a reproduction of one of his pieces, Music on a Long Thin Wire (composed in 1977) in the video below, then reading the link here.
Then, for a real trip, check this out. Be sure to read the description provided below the video.
How is Lucier using technology to explore natural acoustics? From what you can gather, is his music indeterminate or process-oriented (or both)?
This article is by Nicolas Collins, the current editor of the Leonardo Music Journal, is a fantastic overview of many of the main movements in music technology over the last 100+ years. Read the article in its entirety, then comment below by 3pm Wednesday, March 27th.
I’m anticipating that some of you never will have heard of some of the people/terms Collins references. For some quick helps, I’m just going to post links to wikis, though of course it’s much better to really get to know them (and you will eventually in music history classes): Tin Pan Alley; Phil Spector; Anton Webern (you can hear one of his string quartets here); Glenn Gould; IRCAM; Alvin Lucier (Collins took composition lessons from him).
Here’s a Youtube link to the first part of a video documentary of Glenn Gould, if you’re interested.
Max Mathews was an electrical engineer and a hobby musician. While he wanted to become good at playing the violin, he realized that there wasn’t enough time in the day to become really great. So as a gifted engineer, he realized that for musicians, there probably wasn’t enough time in the day to understand computer programming to be able to use computers for musical purposes. So he went about trying to create a bunch of programs or modules that could be easy enough for musicians to use without them having to know how he made those programs. (Similar to driving a car, you don’t need to know what a head gasket does in order to drive. You do need to know some important things, but not everything)
Mathews’ work with Music V attracted other composers to start messing with computers, some of whom made their own significant contributions to computer music research in their own right (perhaps most notably, John Chowning, who was the driving force behind the Yamaha DX7).
Can you think of other synthesizers or computer applications that are modular in nature?
Listen to John Chowning’s Stria (1977).
Listen to Charles Dodge’s A Man Sitting in the Cafeteria.
Listen to Milton Babbitt’s Philomel.
Listen to Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967)
All of these pieces explore very different things musically. Subotnick’s piece, for instance, was significant because it was the first piece composed with a step sequencer (using a Buchla synthesizer). What do you think is being explored? What are these composers trying to do?
Comment by 3pm Wednesday, February 20th.
Before we launch into a discussion on piracy (which you can read an excellent article on here), let’s take a look at the compositional possibilities of sampling. Be sure to listen to all the listed music, watch all videos, and read all materials. I promise, it’s fun.
Below I’ve listed a couple of pieces that are, in my opinion, sample pieces. Some old, some new.
Holger Czukay – Boat Woman Song (listen to a part of it here). This piece features sound sources that have drastically different historical and geographical origins – Renaissance choral music and samples of two anonymous Vietnamese peasant women. Different times and spaces juxtaposed.
Says Paul Lansky: ‘Anyone who has tried to create art that exists primarily in recorded form recognizes the potential for recorded images to dull with repeated listening–recordings age.’
(see full article here). Do these pieces you’ve listened to sound ‘dated’? Or do these pieces sound fresh to you? And why?
Of course, you all probably have your own ideas of what you can do with sampling, loops, multiplicity of copies, etc., and it’s not limited to audio only. Here’s a clever video of adding layers visually, done by Spike Jonze (the music is really forgettable, in my opnion). Check out this video of The White Stripes using a similar technique, filmed in New York in the Morningside Heights area and directed by Michel Gondry.
Feel free to add to the list of art pieces where sampling is used cleverly. Post your comments about what you can do with sampling (or what has been done in these works well) by 3pm Wednesday, February 13th
The topic this time around: physical performance with electronic music. Prior to recorded music, in order to hear a composition that was considered extremely difficult to execute, a virtuoso with extensive training could attempt to pull off a mistake-free performance, and one would flock to a concert hall to hear/watch the drama unfold. Once recordings started to change the way music was consumed, a flawless performance could be captured and then played over and over again faithfully (not taking into account the warping of the medium over time, such as a vinyl record not staying perfectly flat, or a magnetic tape not corrupting). In fact one famous pianist named Glenn Gould believed that recordings spelled the twilight of the concert era. No one would go to concerts anymore, he thought, if you can just hear a perfect recording in the comfort of your own living room. (We’ll look at his thoughts and predictions from 1966 in a future assignment.)
As you know, Glenn Gould was wrong: we still do live music, even with electronic instruments. But in some cases, what exactly is live vs. prefabricated can be rather ambiguous, and there is quite a spectrum of options. One the one hand, you could have a fixed piece for playback where a computer executes rhythms impossible for a human to execute physically (e.g. bpm = 470, or computer music by Milton Babbitt). On the other hand, consider a completely improvised electric guitar solo by Jimi Hendrix, where the aesthetic is deeply tied to impulse and the moment. Between these two extremes, there are all kinds of interesting scenarios. (Lip syncing…?)
Have you ever gone to a concert where live electronics are happening, and you wondered what the performer was actually doing? Watch this video of electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick to see what I mean. Morton is the guy with the white beard on the left.
Were you able to see times where his movement corresponded to a change in the sound? It’s subtle, but if you missed it, you’re not alone.
A lot of types of electronic music have been problematic in terms of performance. If so much is automated, precomposed, and done ‘under the hood’, what room is left for physical execution in the moment? Various approaches have been adopted to deal with this dilemma.
How do these videos relate to what Ostertag is saying? More importantly, how do these artists make a connection between physical gesture and sound? Or is what they are doing simply dramatizing basic gestures? Post your comments by 3pm Wednesday, February 6th. (Remember, poor spelling, punctuation, and grammar adversely affect your grade)
The laptop ensemble Experimental performs ‘Cop de Cap’ at the 2010 Stanford Laptop Orchestra Spring Concert:
For the interested student, there is an excellent Leonardo Music Journal issue entitled ‘Why Live? Performance in the Age of Digital Reproduction.’ You can read an excellent introduction by Editor Nicolas Collins here, but as a Moorpark Student you can also access the entire journal online via jSTOR, available through the library resources link when you log in to the MyVCCCD portal.
Now let’s shift focus to magnetic tape. First, watch this introduction to an explanation of musique concrète.
Back then the people making this music were on the fringe of pop culture. Is the concept/technique of musique concrète still on the fringe today, a quaint but dated concept, or is it being used in popular forms of music today?
To get an idea of the music being created, check out the following:
What do you think about this music? Is it music? Also, just as a warning, though Gesang der Jünglinge may sound random, it’s actually the opposite – it’s highly ordered (read this). Comment on Desire2Learn by 3pm Wednesday, January 30th.
Let’s start by taking a look back at the origins of electronic music and trace how we have gotten to our current state. Read this articleby Joel Chadabe* and comment by 3pm Wednesday January 16th. Your assignment will be complete when you comment on Desire2Learn in ‘OA #1 Discussion.’**
In this article innovation and vision are especially valued. But interestingly some inventions were spectacular failures despite being based on great ideas. Were any of these concepts or innovations ahead of their time?
Also, are any of these instruments new breeds of extant instruments, or are they entirely new musical inventions (or a little of both)? What improvements did these instruments offer? For whom were these innovations intended?
Be sure to check out http://120years.net
*This article is an abbreviated version of a book called Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music, which is a great read.
**A word about commenting protocol: what I am looking for are thoughtful remarks about the assignment, with careful attention paid to writing clearly. Correct punctuation and spelling also matter.
You may choose to engage in a discussion by continuing someone else’s post, but be sure not to simply rephrase the same thing that has already been said.
This assignment (as well as all Online Assignments) is worth 5 points. If you post your well-organized thoughts within the time deadline, 5 points for you. If you don’t meet the deadline or you post something lame, 0 points for you. If you are lazy with punctuation, spelling, etc., then you’ll get 3 points.
If you’re interested in this topic further, I suggest reading this chapter by the now legendary Max Mathews in Perry Cook (Ed.), Music, Cognition, And Computerized Sound: An Introduction to Psychoacoustics, MIT Press (2001).