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What I did on my holidays: The concrete and the ephemeral in acousmatic composition

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Listening to acousmatic music can be oddly like being on holiday. One is temporarily dislocated from one’s normal environment and mysteriously transported to ‘other’ worlds, where (especially in later recollection, for memory is certainly at work here) the normal rules of physics can be transcended: events and locations are superimposed, one can leap instantaneously from place to place and the logic of cause and effect is malleable. This strange domain, this foreign aural land, nevertheless remains sufficiently related to our everyday experience for us to make sense of it and get our bearings: we seem to recognize places and scenes, events and occurrences we have never personally experienced first-hand; we ‘know’ – though we can never entirely know how we know – that these things are ‘true’.

Acousmatic music is thus a hugely rich field of expression, and one as yet relatively unfettered by conventions and rules that dictate how it should be made, delivered and understood (in my view, the rules change, depending on the material involved). But this situation of artistic and material flexibility evidently makes some people very nervous, especially those in academic circles who would like to bring this upstart music to heel through codification. Starting out as an honourable and innocent attempt to describe, to help commit to memory the new soundscape for which no map exists, codification nevertheless has implicit within it the common ‘guide-book’ problem of implying that only those things noted in its pages are deemed worthy of engagement; it becomes, all too easily, a dogmatic statement of value, a rule book for future visits – and, in the case of composition, for future creation. Creating a formalized or systematized language to allow articulation (in prose) of what is being created (in sound) tends towards a situation in which, eventually, only such formulations are conceivable and permitted. It is, therefore, problematic for me that acousmatic music is often characterized as ‘academic’, for – through artistic practice and arguably by its very nature – acousmatic music is actually rather resistant to simplistic analysis, codification and reduction to repeatable compositional formulae.

Acousmatic music presents us with yet another problem, however. The experience of music – all music – sounding in time is both concrete and ephemeral: it exists in the moment, and afterwards relies on memory. In acousmatic music, this problem is compounded for, in place of the codified systems with which we are familiar, it is based on unique sound materials that give rise to unique musical structures. Its very basis is thus, simultaneously and paradoxically, both more concrete (to invoke Schaeffer’s objet sonore) and more fleeting and ephemeral than the established building blocks of stable, repeatable, easily quantifiable measurements of frequency, duration, timbre ….

We are organic beings inhabiting an organic world, a world that is constantly in flux; whatever the speed of our assimilation of technologies that permit our deconstruction of that world into strings of zeroes and ones, our organs of perception and the cerebral machinery we employ to gain an understanding of what we perceive, are also organic. So, whilst concepts, schemata and pre-compositional strategies may contribute to the creative process, the final arbiters of success in our creative endeavours remain our perception and our ability to relate what we hear to what we understand ourselves to be.

Taking a camera – or recording equipment – on holiday enables us to capture the unique, fleeting moment, in an attempt to fix the ephemeral experience of being ‘elsewhere’. For me, composition (and the teaching of composition) is the process of enabling such moments to evolve into larger musical expressions of human experience – a process that seems not only fittingly natural and organic, but also gives us something to celebrate. Like a holiday, life is fleeting enough.
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Keywords: acousmatic music; composition/analysis; intention/reception; listening; teaching/academia

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Birmingham

Publication date: December 1, 2013

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  • The Journal of Music, Technology and Education (JMTE) explores the issues concerning the use of technology in music education. It examines pedagogy at all levels and across genres such as composition, musicology, performance and music production. It is the only journal specifically dedicated to the educational aspects of music technology and the technological aspects of music. Peer-reviewed, with an international editorial board, JMTE aims to draw its contributions from a broad community of educators, researchers and practitioners who are working closely with new technologies in the fields of music education and music technology education.
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