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What's that sound?

February 18, 2009


Image from the Spark festival promotion.

Part of the U's Art to Z seasonal events program, the Spark festival highlights the quirky yet increasingly common world of electronic music

The U's annual Spark festival showcases electronic music

By Matt Sumera

Much of what we hear nowadays is a form of electronic music, from cell phone ring tones to the latest film soundtrack, from the sound of Xboxes and Wiis to the tunes at the top of the Billboard Hot 10.

And yet, for many listeners, the idea of electronic music seems impossibly abstract and obscure. The Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts, scheduled from February 17-22, aims to change that. Now in its seventh year, the festival, as co-artistic director and Associate Professor of Music Composition Douglas Geers notes, is meant to "open the door and invite people in."

Spark is a world-class music festival, a training ground for composers, and a "community engagement tool putting creators and audiences together," according to Geers. "It's R & D for things that might appear in popular music, musical theater, science fiction movies, and so on in the future."

A brief history of electronic music
In 1626, Francis Bacon wrote about "sound-houses" in his utopian tale, The New Atlantis: "We have also sound-houses, where we practise [sic] and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmony which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds . . . we make divers [sic] tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire."

Such dreams of expanding the limits of known sounds have long interested composers and musicians alike. It is this yearning—to create something that has never before been heard—that has driven the development of electronic, computer, and other forms of experimental musics. Lamenting the limits of the orchestra in 1916, Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo wrote in his manifesto, The Art of Noise, "we must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds."

By mid-century composers, scientists, radio engineers and a host of others began to make the early dreams of unlimited sound creation a reality.

Pierre Schaeffer, a French radio technician, created one of the most famous early tape collages, "Ètude aux chemins de fer" (1948), entirely out of train sounds, in the process defining a whole new musical genre, musique concrète. The American composer John Cage's early composition, "Williams Mix" (1952), is made up of five hundred sounds, including city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, and small sounds requiring amplification to be heard at all. And as an early realization of Bacon's "sound-houses," French composer Edgar Varèse developed his famous piece, "Poème électronique," for the 1958 World's Fair, a sound installation using four hundred loudspeakers to create a fully immersed, walk-through listening experience, effectively mixing the worlds of sound, music, art, and sculpture.

Creative collaboration
While interdisciplinary research is a common academic catch phrase these days, electronic and computer music has always functioned across disciplinary lines. Without the collaboration of composers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, computer programmers, acousticians, artists, and others, the soundscapes of electronic music would sound very different today.

Some of the most famous composers of electronic music, in fact, have come from a variety of professions outside of music. The celebrated Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, for example, was originally trained as an architect, later employing the laws of statistics and calculus as forms of compositional practice.

The "father of computer music," Max Mathews, developed his groundbreaking theories while he was the director of the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Telephone Laboratories, the research base of AT&T. Bell Labs, itself, was an important center in the history of computer music, representative of the tie-ins between such music and industrial uses. As Paul Théberge notes in his book Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology, the later development of synthesizer and digital keyboards for home use resulted in "an interdependence between various industrial sectors, including the microprocessor, computer, digital audio, and musical instrument industries."

The merger of high and low
While all of these developments may sound rather arcane, they influenced a variety of broad trends in popular music. Varèse, for example, was a favorite of Frank Zappa. Perhaps more noteworthy, The Beatles were greatly influenced by the sounds of electronic and computer music, producing their most notable experiments as early as 1966, ending their album, Revolver, with the heavily manipulated song, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Indeed, their debt to electronic music was so great that they even included an image of one of the most important electronic composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen, in the famed montage on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In a reverse of these influences, popular music trends are now having an impact on current electronic compositions.

While Varèse, Stockhausen, Xenakis, and others may define one path into electronic music, the sounds of reggae, dub, hip hop, and countless dance forms are another path. For composers of electronic music, acknowledging the influences of popular music has been a slow generational change. But as Geers notes, younger composers are realizing "there’s something beautiful about both Johnny Cash and Xenakis." And at the Spark festival, one has the chance to hear it all.

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