Acousmatic Composition: the Atomisation of Performance as Technological Consequence

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Acousmatic Composition:

The Atomisation of Performance as Technological Consequence

Introduction

The mechanical capture and reproduction of sound first became achievable with the advent of the phonograph, and technology has progressed at an impressive rate since. The 100 years of the 20th century saw more technological advancement than in the thousand years that preceded it (the new century, a decade old, eclipsing the last). Recording of sound has been achieved in more and more ways; not just through the use of new technology but through the approaches employed by innovative practitioners and composers that have since informed common practices (a topic which I will revisit later).

It is my impression that evolving technology has informed the compositional process, but to what extent? Aspects of instrumental performance such as violin vibrato have arguably arisen out of recording's unforgiving influence (Katz, 2004; Pp. 4), but as music can be captured mechanically, its reproduction is of similar process – that is to say that music may now be touched, and changed. Katz (2004; Pp. 4) supports this: “Once music is reified...it becomes...manipulable in ways that had never before been possible.” The physical manifestation of music has spawned numerous practices and disciplines involving the manipulation and subsequent re-recording of sound, and it is the impact therein that I intend to discuss.

The term acousmatic will doubtless bear a degree of relation to the works of Pierre Schaeffer and that of musique concrète practitioners. Certainly, acousmatic listening itself refers to aural consumption rather than performance. Schaeffer (2004; Pp. 77) himself describes it as “a reversal of the usual procedure...It is the listening itself that becomes the origin of the phenomenon to be studied.” However, acousmatic composition is not described in this paper in relation to the use of acousmatic sound within works. This may appear slightly misleading. With a great deal of humility, I propose redefining the phrase acousmatic composition in recognition of a need for an antonymic expression; a counterpart to acousmatic listening. Just as acousmatic listening dictates a separation of the sound from its source, so it follows that acousmatic composition indicates a degree of dislocation between artist and art work. The term, therefore, is coined by way of illustrating my argument.

Just as I have defined a compositional parallel within the acousmatic situation, so too will I for the trope of atomised listening. Adorno's (2002; Pp 303-305.) assertion that atomised listening – as Katz (2004; Pp. 32) summarises – “privileges the perception of works as collections of seemingly disconnected moments rather than unified compositions” is central to my debate. The physical limitations of recording media have not only manifested themselves in consumption, but they have been embraced within production also. The tape splicing techniques popularised by practitioners within the BBC Radiophonic Workshop exemplify the molecular level at which reified sound is now treated and manipulated. This provides the basis for my term atomised performance.

The terminology clarified herein is what will inform this essay. As an electronic music composer, the nature of my working practice is to arrange found and synthesised sounds into some sort of a structure. Although the parameters of the arrangements and compositions themselves can vary in a multitude of ways (structure, time, length, dynamic range, key etc.) the tendency to focus on performances at a macro level is a phenomenon that I find intriguing, and something altogether as artificial as the source material.

Recording

“This evolution of music is comparable to the multiplication of machines, which everywhere collaborate with man.” – Russolo, 2004; Pp. 11

In the interests of brevity I will not embark on a blow-by-blow historical account of recording technology. It would not be...
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