Does a strict adherence to reduced listening limit the true potential of electroacoustic music?
The first half of the twentieth century revolutionised how people listen to music. Existing only as live performance, music was transient until the introduction and development of recording technologies that allowed the re-listening and analysis of sound. Electroacousitc music started to emerge as electronic equipment was invented that could generate synthetic sound or affect existing sounds. From tape machines, theremins and to the latest digital audio workstations, there has been a vast array of approaches to electroacoustic composition and performance that have challenged how we perceive music. Reduced listening, a term first used by Pierre Schaeffer, means to thoroughly analyse the sound source and its traits without getting distracted by context or meaning. Music is an artistic form of expression through sound and the introduction of acousmatic music, designed to be heard ‘without cause,’ is arguably a very different approach to this expression. If acousmatic music is meant to have no context in order for the listener to properly explore each sound object, this could be interpreted as a limiting factor for electroacoustic music.
Electroacoustic music is a broad term that covers any composition that uses electronic equipment such as radios, tape machines, synthesizers and samplers to generate sound. It emerged during the middle of the twentieth century as composers gained access to early recording equipment and were able to create works of music concrete and tape music. An early example is John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No.1 (Cage, 1939) - a performance that includes piano, cymbals and amplified phonographs. Using reduced listening we can determine the frequencies played by the phonographs and appreciate the textures created by the instruments. The piano is muted, perhaps to hide its identity as a piano so the listener can concentrate on the sonic form instead. A famous and later example of electroacoustic music is I am sitting in a room by Alvin Lucier (Lucier, 1969) that over a recurring process breaks down recognisable speech into a seemingly ambient pattern of harmonics by duplicating the tape recording until it degrades entirely.
How we begin to perceive to Lucier’s voice at the start of I am sitting in a room could be defined as ‘casual listening’ if we are to understand the three ‘listening modes’ that Michel Chion defines (HACU, 2012) because we focus on the information contained within his speech rather than the sound of his speech itself. After Lucier’s words cease to be recognisable the listener is left with a new sound to explore and this is where reduced listening becomes much easier. It is a good example of why experimental electoacoustic music and the practice of reduced listening can work well together.
Reduced listening is a relatively new way of hearing sound and is not regarded as natural. (Chion, 1994.) For example, under normal circumstances hearing the sound of thunder will immediately alert us that there is a storm passing overhead. Recognisable sounds like this make it difficult to concentrate on reduced listening so acousmatic music is often comprised of unusual and unidentifiable sound objects. A piece that demonstrates this well is Spatiodynamisme composed by Pierre Henry in 1954. The acousmatic sound is meant to remain unseen from behind a ‘veil’ of loudspeakers, the original source hidden to remove context and the potential for any visual link. This adherence to reduced listening could be seen as limiting the true potential of electroacoustic music because it prevents the use of recognisable sounds or conventional musical instruments.
Reduced listening can still apply to electroacoustic performances in front of a live audience. Of course, a strict adherence to reduced listening means no sound sources should be visible except for the loudspeakers. Even a visible theremin player would be unsuitable for reduced listening because the audience would be able to form a visual link between the movement of the player’s arms and the frequency of the sound. This is certainly a limiting factor for electroacoustic music in front of an audience but there is another factor that should be taken into consideration which is the qualities of the venue. To hear recorded sound that is played through loudspeakers in a cave will provide a thoroughly different experience to listening to the same sound played back in a concert hall. Unique spaces are sought by artists for their ‘novel spatial acoustics’ (Blesser, 2006) and it is also possible to explore different sound by placing the loudspeakers in different or unusual positions, perhaps even facing away from the audience. Providing that the audience is not distracted away from the qualities of the sound they are hearing, these techniques still adhere to reduced listening and could be considered a valuable asset to electroacoustic music.
It is apparent that reduced listening is observed best with abstract styles of music without identifiable sound sources such as an orchestra or comprehensible speech. For electroacoustic music this encourages the exploration of new sounds that can be generated using recording technology. The ‘true potential’ of electroacoustic music could be defined as the infinite possibilities of different sounds and how they can be organised by the composer.
The seemingly infinite sonic possibilities of electroacoustic music must first be created from an identifiable sound source, human or instrument and a strict adherence to reduced listening may encourage the artist to find creative ways to affect and distort the original signal using technology. One of the possibilities is to morph multiple signals together with relationships between the sounds and develop them over the piece’s passage. This spectromorphilogical (Smalley, 1997) approach can still adhere to Shaeffer’s original idea of reduced listening and evoke strong interest in the listener as there are many ways a sonic texture can ‘grow’ and ‘move’ rather than grounding itself to a fixed tempo and using beats and rhythms. We can generate all kinds of sound objects by affecting existing sounds or using synthesis and then combine them to construct ‘textural motions’ that can be enjoyed by reduced listening.
Strictly adhering to reduced listening can certainly be a daunting prospect for the electroacoustic artist and can seemingly limit a lot of the genre’s potential through the disallowance of any visually recognisable sound sources. However, every listener will perceive a piece of music differently and even when describing a sound after reduced listening can give different information. Perhaps it is the listener that should be strictly adhering to reduced listening rather than the electroacoustic composer designing their pieces to be analysed in that way. In the meantime, electroacoustic music is a style of performance that continues to be explored as there are still so many approaches to its composition even with a dedication to the means of reduced listening. True true potential of electroacoustic music is yet to be realised.
HACU 246 - Michel Chion "The Three Listening Modes" . 2012. HACU 246 - Michel Chion "The Three Listening Modes" . [ONLINE] Available at: http://helios.hampshire.edu/~hacu123/papers/chion.html. [Accessed 01 May 2012].
Christoph Cox, 2004. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Edition. Continuum.
Fernand Ouellette, 1973. Edgard Varese. Edition. Marion Boyars Publishers.
Media Art Net | Cage, John: Imaginary Landscape No. 1. 2012. Media Art Net | Cage, John: Imaginary Landscape No. 1. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/imaginary-landscape-1/. [Accessed 03 May 2012].
UbuWeb Sound - Alvin Lucier. 2012. UbuWeb Sound - Alvin Lucier. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ubu.com/sound/lucier.html. [Accessed 07 May 2012].
Barry Blesser, 2006. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture. Edition. The MIT Press.
Smalley, D. (1997), Spectromorphology: Explaining sound-shapes, Organised Sound: Vol. 2, no. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pierre Henry – Spatiodynamisme, 1963. [7” Vinyl] Editions Du Griffon