Just Press Play: Challenges of Performing Electronic Music in Singapore (page 2 of 9)

Why the Darkened Room? The Acousmatic Justification
Interestingly, the darkened room has been cited as an integral part of performing electronic music, and not just a necessity driven by the fact the music cannot be reproduced by human beings. Some writers in this field believe that depriving the audience of visual stimulation enhances their ability to appreciate electronic music, because they are forced to imagine what they are hearing.

“Music and all other listening activities do not need so much light, as it seems that the favoured way for listening to any sounding signal is in obscurity … The acousmatic darkness is only the necessary condition to present a music where connections of sounds cannot be decided instrumentally…The performance of electroacoustic music is optimized when pieces are played in an 'acousmatic' situation: when nothing relevant is exposed to the eyes, leaving the ears the complete freedom of personal imagination.” [1]

Even if you do not subscribe to the acousmatic theory, the fact remains that electronic compositions are often recordings. The electronic musician will compose by electronically creating and/or transforming sounds in the studio, before recording them to tape (or DAT or CD). From as early as October 1948, when Pierre Schaeffer first performed musique concrete in Paris, these transformations “included editing out portions of the sound, varying the playback speed, playing the sounds backward (tape reversal), and combining different sounds (overdubbing).” [2]

The present day electronic musician is likely to carry out these transformations on a computer, but the end result is still a recording that he or she will play back to the audience. Only recently have advances in technology made it possible to carry out these transformations in real time as part of a live performance.

Why can’t the Audience get it? The Principle of Hidden Causality
Unfortunately, general audiences, who are not devoted enthusiasts of electronic music, can find it difficult to appreciate acousmatic electronic music performances. Composers may wish their audiences to use their imagination, but it may be too much to ask of the audience.

'Identifying actual, possible and imagined sources, and creating personalised, imaginative metaphors in response to sounds is an inherent part of our relationship with electroacoustic music.'[3]

Watching an orchestra, quartet, band or soloist, one can readily see the causality between the performers’ actions (bowing, plucking, striking, blowing) and the musical effect. Accomplished performers – whether they are concert pianists or jazz guitarists – may embellish or exaggerate their gestures to highlight the dynamics of the music. This enhances the audience’s appreciation of the performers and the performance.

In electronic music, the causality between what the audience sees and hears is hidden – the audience cannot see the waveforms that are producing the electronic sound, or witness the transformations changing the sound. In cases where there is no human intervention occurring on stage, the audience will have difficulty in identifying with the composition.

Some artists who manipulate the electronic sound ‘live’ have used surveillance cameras to magnify their instrumental actions on a screen, but found this to be “not totally satisfying” because the visuals draw attention away from the music.[4]

This contrast is highlighted in electroacoustic ‘mixed’ works where a live musician (e.g. violinist, pianist) performs with pre-recorded electronic music. Often, the audience ends up focusing on the live musician, because they can see what he/she is doing. Electronic music purists worry that this ‘dilutes’ the electronic music’s impact.

“Even though they can present an interest of their own, mixed pieces stage a conflict that is 'won' by the instrumental part… Listeners are asked to decode which sounds are instrumentally made in real time and which sounds were pre-recorded or result from electroacoustic 'live' transformations. It becomes a very busy and digressive activity…” [5]

[1] Rodolfo Caesar, The Composition Of Electroacoustic Music, UEA 1992 http://www.cmu.eca.usp.br/lami/sbcm2000/programa/papers.html
[2] Eric Stephen Kuehnl, cSounds.com A Brief History of Computer Music http://music.calarts.edu/~eric/ Visited Wednesday, September 03, 2003
[3] Denis Smalley, "Composer Intention and Listener Reception: Can They Be Reconciled?" paper for Nordic Computer Music Days, (Stockholm, 1991)
[4] Russian electronic musician Felix Kubin, interviewed by Guillermo Villas on 15 July 2002.
[5] Rodolfo Caesar, The Composition Of Electroacoustic Music, UEA 1992 http://www.cmu.eca.usp.br/lami/sbcm2000/programa/papers.html