5 years ago

Volume 9 Issue 2 - October 2003

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to electroacoustic music

to electroacoustic music remains. · With electroacoustics, I could access a syamless convergence of the energy and speed of the pun!{ music, . the synthesizers of electronic and extended pop music, and the structures of the European music I knew. I could pass through sounds, implied environments, and mindspaces so much more quickly than with acoustic instruments. I loved the idea of making something faster than we could play, something that would require a machine to do -even taking those to the breaking point. We experience that extreme mechanical speed on a daily basis, and I was constantly aware of giving control to machines and media that we had made, yet that moved or calculated faster than we coulq. We'dbuiltsomethingsoutof our own reach, and I wanted to highlight that. I was also attracted to the idea of using electronics to imply the most primitive form of the media behind it. For example, speakers are wire, paper and magnets. As. well, my interest in making fast electroacoustic music derived from the observation that all electroacoustic music is slow. With few exceptions, it corresponded relatively closely with the speed of either .acoustic music, or the original speed of the sound so~ referred to in the work. This would have been around the late 1980s, early 1990s. I was using "obsolete" equipment (in the old Studio 1 at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague), and in order to achleve the desired velocity, was cutting audio tape on old Studer reel-toreel decks and a 1" 8-track into the smallest segments possible. Not just speeding up sound, but qajckening the interpolation of sounds. Concurrently, the pace of editing in commercial media was quickening. Not like now, when Juicy Fruit gum commercials are cut the same as fight scenes in The Matrix. At that time, I felt like I was staying a step a,head of media in terms of velocity, maybe presupposing its direction (not that anyone was watching). It had value for me then, but a focus like that can't last, it's of its moment. Having tested my personal limits in that regard and recognizing that I probably had none, the impossible speed and velocity of the electronic parts became one possible option among many. I still highlight the technology and editor behind the sound, by harsh cuts and juxtapositions, and with the addition of glitches and record/turntable noise to recordings, but now they're as much nostal­ &ia and textural hiccoughs as they are commercial media references or velocity. As well, I spent some time writing things like orchestra pieces that had no electronics at all, so the concentration changed. The music was more about other music, rather than electricity. LINDA C. SMITH: So whbt are your though!s on electronics integrating with acoustic sollnds? STEENHUISEN: Idon'tthinkthey really can. The only exception would be real-time processing of acoustic sounds. Acoustic sound is precious aild permeating, while electronically diffused sound is wildly different. Instrumental illllPlification is often quite disturbing - the distance between the source and the loudspeaker creates a · falsity that can't be equated in concert. Composers often use amplification of acoustic instruments to cover their orchestration mistakes, and the sonic reality is almost unbearable to me. I will at times amplify an instrument, but it's more about bridging the perceptual gap between electroacoustics projected from loudspeakers and material from the acoustic source. I Suppose that's recognition of the problem of integration ... Instead of emulating acoustic sounds, or true integration of electroacoustics with instruments, through practical experience in the field I became interested in the prospect of making illusions and allusions through computer generated parts. I find it interesting to have moments when I would' not be able to identify the specific contributions of either the instruments or the electronics - you eould recognize the sounds, you could see the actions, but you weren't quite sure of the relations between them. It'sakindofvoodoo. Sometimesthe electronics take flight from the instruments, and vice-versa. You hear the violin play, and the material spinning off it is like a hyper-violin, or an un• · realistic sonic possibility commenced by the acoustic instrument. It's not natural, and it can't be. Usually, nature rules, but this is an exception. The overall mind and soundscape can then be broadened and magnified significantly. The result is often the unconventional animation of the concert space. Soundprojectsunexpectedly. , When you walk into a hall and see four chairs and a certain configura- 1 tion of music stands, you know you are at a string quartet concert. If you see loudspeakers, it's a different-scenario altogether - the combined possibilities are boundless. There's still _plenty of terrain to be traversed with acoustic instruments and materials alone, but the addipon ofloudspeakers broadens it. It's also about scale. In our culture, scale is a source of confusion - everything is manipulated in isolation so as to ap!Je¥ large and necessary. Electroacoustics afford the composer the opportunity to work with scale as a compositional parameter - we can work with the implied size and proximity to musical objects, and renegotiate scale on our own terms. This is more of an issue in Now is a Creature and Recipes for the Common Man, however. In Pensacola, the computer part is more ' conservative and representational. It's more documentary than electroa~ coustic. , I'm feeling a need to turn away from fleeting elements like quotation. Pieces like Pensacola and Recipes were a deliberate attempt to connect with musical and current orchestral and popular culture from inside itself, to relate directly through the surface network and screw with the "rules". I sense the surface network referencing receding for awhile, and reaching frOIJl an opposite, more personal side. As much as I think you become what you reference, there's a distance in the process that today doesn't interest me. I also sometimes consider what I would do if there were a blackout that remained. No electrici- - ty. piat mak~ me want to further diversify things. JAMES ROLFE: You mentioned only two "classical" composers as · influences, Xenakis and Varese. "1hat. specifically is appealing about them - for example, their pioneering electroacoustic work, their ways of combining it with live sound, their aesthetics, their stances as outsiders? yond that, listing a catalogue of influences would only be useful as a bibliography of great contemporary and classical music to listen to, not as a collection of identifiable traits and parallels. Plus, it fluctuates so much that it would be useless by the time the ink dries on this page. I go through phases of mass listening and internalizing. I'm currently listening to a lot of music, by Murai!, Furrer, Nono, and many others. JAMES ROLFE: twzy are Xenakis and Varese still so rarely peifo17T1£d by orchestras? Are they just too loud? STEENHUISEN: Your sentence should really be alteted to read "by orchestras in North America", to which the orchestras should answer, not me. There are many recordings available of these pieces, and the majority are by European groups. Pitts- . burgh made a good recording cif , Dammerschein, though. I do feel a bit bothered by the fact that Xenakis is almost never play~ in Canada. Why not? A live performance of Xenakis' orchestra! work Terretektorrh convinced a teenaged Irvine Arditti that he would play new music on his violin, and listen to his results. How rriariy similar opportunities are rriissed here, by the absence of performances of significant contemporary pieces like that one? I tend to agree with John Rea's idea that in Europe, which is a highly structured and bureaueratic society, people look to art for an expression of individual freedom. In North America, a iess structured and rigid society, perhaps more "free", people want limitations on their art. Art should be ... (compile a personal list of expectations and demands). As a culture, North Americans insist on freedom - not regiStering guns, etc. - but when it comes to art, we don't want our freedom to be too free. It's bizarre. Xenakis' electroacoustic music was often played oppressively loud, but his orchestra pieces are relatively quiet compared to what is implied by the awesome frequency spectrum of sound. It's a massive timbre, but'IlOt a massive amplitude. IfI listen to Metastasis, etc. I turn the volume up very high, but the sonic reality of it in a concert hall is quite different. Perhaps the aesthetics were louder than the actual pieces - maybe that's what the timid duck away from. I wouldn't krnw. JULIET PALMER: I love the image, earlieron, ofwritinginchalkon the brick sidewalk in Amsterdam - it seems thoJ the source of a sound is 24 STEENHUISEN: I mentioned Xenakis and Varese in order to illustrate a path from commercial music to contemporary music, or from rock to electroacoustics. That could just as easily have included Pierre Boulez, Sonic Youth, Black Aag, Philip Glass, or John Cage. But that doesn't mean all of these were influences. Though I appreciate what he did, Frank Zappa was not a musical influence for me. Varese is included because of his influence on Zappa, not specifically me. While Xenakis affected me greatly, it's currently more the residue of his. work than the music itself that has a lasting influence. Musically, I'm alternately repelled and attracted by the same crudeness I hear in his music. Meanwhile, his fundamental application o( computing to music has affected much of what has happened in the field since. October 1 - November 7 2003

significanJ to you, its semnntic weight as much as its sonic texture. How do you believe this netwo~k of unse~n connections translates znto m£(]JUng for the listener? STEENlflJISEN: In that particular case, it was significant that the chalk writing was combined with the Ravel Pantomime, since both examples contain a form of absence. From the chalk writing file, you couldn't read what r wrote, only hear it being done, and from pantomime, it's action and scene-painting without words or dialogue. In other areas of Recipes, the yodels and chants, were calls from one person or group to anothe~, attempts to communicate. If~ tnnbr: is to be recognizable, the weight of its source is difficult to ignore, and offers great potential for suggestio? beyond melodic contour, etc. Recipes is virtually out of control in that r.egard, but when intentionally placmg unprocessed, source-reco~?le timbres in an electroacousnc piece, I enjoy the opportunity to layer and bind the spectrum of associations the material carries. I can't say that the meanings have precision from listener to listener. Depending upon your .perspective, these representational elements broaden the work, or close it in by directing it away from a~ straction. The layers are suggestions, rather than dictations of how thir)gs must be heard, or how connections must be made:· I feel no pressing need to telegraph singular control over what you accurately describe as the network of unseen connections. I have a best choice, but not a single choice. They're full of codes, present in. my pieces as they are everyw~ere m the world. Just as performers mterpret the musical materials ~ith subtle or great variation, listeners mterpre~ possible meanings with degrees of, 1f not more variation. It's done whether a connection is intended or not. Since it's not language, and is riddled with ambiguity and filtered by individual experience, "translati~n" can't~ the appropriate term. Besides, I don ~ want a piece of mine to reveal all its secrets at once - I treasure the polyvalence of music. LINDA SMITH: How has doing interviews with composers influenced you? STEENlflJISEN: I wish I had asked that. Since r started doing these interviews in the summer of2001, I've learned s0mething new about each camposer. I didn't really expect to, and much less did I expect to somehow agree witb so many completely different composers. In some ways I find that disconcerting - I don't ~ant to agree that much. The interviews have also deepened my perspectives of other composers work. For example, despite the musical fireballs regularly hurled at Pierre Boulez, it was important to hear him openly recognize the failure of his extreme approach in the 1950's, and hear him talk about other solutions that developed. I loved hearing George . Crumb iaJk about the influence of his childhood landscape on his approach t~ sound ~d echo .. The interview with Alexma Louie gave a context to her opera and demonstrated commitment to a work that was shortly thereafter mistreated by the coc. pbrary books are either too old or too absent for those revelations to be present. The interviews are immediate, part of right now like the music. I've also had the op~rtunity to hear diame~call~ op- · posed people state overlappmg ideas, and provide convincing a_rgume~ts on troublesome musical topics. Domg the interviews has made available important first-hand information.from composers, but it's also made things less clear, and more layered. It's been both humbling and fascinating.

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