Classical Electroacoustic Performance Practice

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More “Upbeat” Musical Examples

Since Fresh Minds Season 4 has a lot of pieces that focus on immersive and persistent textures and slow progressions, here are some finalists from previous seasons that use more active and expressive foreground elements with more traditional phrasing for contrast. You might find these to be helpful references as you’re working on your own composition project.


Notes on the Golden Ratio

In today’s MUSC 316 class, Sam and Randall presented their analyses of Joo Won Park’s Elegy. They varied in significant ways but weren’t incompatible. I want to use this opportunity to show how a mathematical model found frequently in nature illuminates and connects points Sam and Randall made today.

I may have mentioned the Golden Ratio in this class briefly when we were discussing form. If you dig maths but haven’t heard of this before: sorry, there goes your evening, along with some of your friends if you can’t stop talking about it. If you need to create a final composition project with a fixed length and have no idea for a formal structure: you’re welcome.

What It Is

You might have heard of the Rule of Thirds in visual arts, the notion that images seem to be more interesting when key foreground objects and backgrounds (like the horizon or treeline) coincide with lines dividing the image into a 3×3 grid. In nature, mathematicians have found that divisions at 62% are more natural and common than 50% or 2/3, but 62% is close to 2/3. This may explain why the Rule of Thirds is readily taken with some liberties leaning toward the center.

Here is an article by Icon Photography School with examples of the Golden Ratio in imagery, including a video by DNews which is also helpful:

In Music

Anyway, it works in time-based works as well, and Park’s Elegy is a great example. The golden ratio point (about 62% from the beginning) is about 2’ 44”, where Sam heard the “balloon of serenity” burst and return to “rough” pitch clusters; Randall described this point as being where the only sustained single pitch ends and the two-pitch clusters return. If you’re keeping track of exact pitches, you’d notice that this returning cluster is the same as the opening and closing motive, just up an octave (D–E-flat), and the melodica simply ruminates on that dyad for the rest of the piece (motivic development has concluded and waits for the other parameters to reach their closure—parameters like pitch range, loudness, and visual clarity/blur). This 62% point is a common place to find climaxes, recapitulations, or other significant moments.

It is sometimes useful to look at 62% from the ending as well, in this case about 1’ 38”. It’s around that point that Sam noted a distinct change in attitude and Randall noted that the two-pitch clash returns after the motives have change from ascending to descending. If you were keeping track of pitches, you would further notice that the music had only used a C Dorian scale so far (C minor, except with A-natural instead of A-flat). The first descending motive introduces an A-flat, which, you might argue, opens a middle section that disrupts what had been established in the opening. That A-flat “disruption” is set aright in the accompaniment with an A-natural that happens to be right about the 50% point in the piece. 50% divisions are uncommon and rarely effective, but its precision makes me wonder if it was an intentional design.

Visually, the double image fades in leading up to this point and moves around the most turbulently after the descending clash. The video returns to the single image as the melodica plays the single sustained C.

These divisions portion the piece nicely into three sections (and I can see them being divided into smaller sections too, so Randall’s slightly different 3-section model and Sam’s 5-section model are still valid): I see an opening in which a rough clashing half-step pitch cluster expands into wider, more consonant intervals (divided into ascending and descending halves, as Randall noted), a middle section that goes back to the half-step cluster and reaches its widest point at the 50% mark and then settles on a single sustained pitch (which happens to be C) (which could be two distinct smaller sections, as Sam saw it), and a closing section that ruminates on the opening D-E-flat half step cluster. You also might find that this closing section consists of four motives in the melodica: 1. the opening dyad an octave higher, 2. the opening of the middle section but upside down (descending turned into ascending, and still echoing the D–E-flat dyad), 3. a sustained C (like the end of the middle section) but thwarted at the end by becoming an ascending cluster (the first descending motive backwards?), and 4. the opening motive repeated, more closely, as Randall noted.

Golden Subdivisions

Taking my first section alone, the Golden Ratio point is at 1:00 where both students show the change from ascending to descending motives. Taking the last section alone, the Golden Ratio point is where the last melodica motive enters, where Randall notes the return of the opening motive and Sam notes arrival at acceptance.

So What’s the Right Answer?

This is a great example of what I mean when I say, “There are few wrong answers; mostly poorly-supported answers.” Sam and Randall presented valid and supported models that were different in significant ways. They each work well, and they each highlight different aspects of the work. Their differences don’t make them wrong; their consideredness and supporting points make them each strong.

NOTE 1: DON’T take the Golden Ratio as an absolute rule or requirement! However, do feel free to use it as an often-effective rule of thumb whenever you can’t make up your mind on the proportions among things.

NOTE 2: Yes, I did mention pitch here, because it’s important to certain readings of the piece. Notice that Sam and Randall got there quite well without referring to pitch. Talking about pitch is not off limits when it’s playing a significant role. If you were focused too much on pitch, you might get stuck on the C minor (C Dorian) modality of the piece, which isn’t a dynamic element—it’s just wallpaper, and you might miss many significant points instead. For your analysis, talk about whatever you find contributes to a model that explains how most elements within the piece work together. For your composition project, be careful that it relies on course concepts for its substance, not relying on melody, key/modality, or constant metric structure for its substance.

A couple other observations:

  • Those wind and wave sounds are surprisingly harsh, but they’re kept at a striking “distance” from us. It’s not a dynamic element in the piece, but it does help set the stage for the thoughts that occurred to us during the piece by separating our emotions from physical presence so starkly.
  • As I said in class, this is a good example of the subtle detail required to make a “one concept / one moment” piece successful. We might describe it as “just sad melodica sighs and waves…,” but if it didn’t have all these other details we noticed, then we would follow our statement with “…and it was dumb/worthless” instead of being able to appreciate its well-crafted focus. Keep this in mind as you conceive your final compositions: it takes many subtle details to make “simplicity” not “suck” (so to say).

Publishing Your Composition and Slideshow Documentation

The final destination for your composition project and documentation is a publicly published video slideshow, playing your composition in full, with onscreen annotations highlighting the pertinent points of your documentation, along with your full prose documentation included in the notes on the video page. YouTube is recommended; other sites like Vimeo may also be acceptable, but get approval from your instructor in advance before using a different service. Also consult your instructor in advance if you are uncomfortable making your project fully public. Continue reading

Analysis Notes

1. These aren’t songs

Songs are specific forms of music that are sung or have a singable tune. You might describe moments or elements in your assigned composition as “song-like,” but you will have a hard time justifying calling them songs outright. Instead, try using one of the following ways to refer to the work:

  • “composition”
  • “piece”
  • “work”
  • “movement” in the case of a multi-movement piece like Sud
  • simply by the title of the  composition

Songs aren’t bad things, but these compositions aren’t songs. Refer to the songs & sandwiches discussion in class.

2. Avoid asserting how a sound was made

While it’s a great exercise to guess how you might go about making the sounds you hear, and it’s a worthy endeavor in some other class to figure out how a composer achieved specific sounds, those aren’t the point of this project, so avoid doing it even by accident. You most likely don’t know for sure how the composer made the sounds you hear, so avoid terms that suggest that you do, like “random” (try busy, hectic, complex, complicated, sporadic) or “synthesized” (try synthetic or synthetic-sounding).

3. A play-by-play is not an analysis

…although it is often the first step toward one. Think of a football game. Don’t tell me what happened each down when I ask what the game was like.  Tell me what happened in the game that made it exciting and different from other games. You do need to think about everything that happens in your composition before you can say anything meaningful about it as a whole, but a play-by-play does not make an analysis of how the piece works as a whole.

more Analysis Advice

1. Don’t tell me you like it

Because (for the purposes of this course) I don’t care. The purpose of the analysis isn’t to prove to me that you like this stuff now. It’s difficult listening, and it was chosen for a pedagogical purpose (refer to discussions on the first day). Your analysis should show the reader how the piece works, how to make sense of it, get something meaningful from it.

2. “No wrong answers” doesn’t mean everything is right.

I’ve said before that in this project, there are few wrong answers, but many unsupported ones. It’s okay if this makes you uneasy, because it may be new for you. However, don’t let yourself think that means your work won’t be evaluated seriously. In recent teaching workshops, I’ve been shown research on different stages of learning that all basically boil down to four stages:

  1. Teacher is right—trust an authority figure absolutely. But eventually you’ll come across a teacher who is wrong, and your world is shattered.
  2. Procedure is right—the ability to determine right from wrong is in your hands (e.g., If ____ and ____ then definitely _____), but procedures can’t universally fit all cases, and procedures can be improperly applied (e.g., this dog only has two legs, therefore dogs are bipeds).
  3. Everything is right (in its own special way, la la la la)—also called relativism. It recognizes that there can me many right answers, but shies away from admitting that things can still be wrong.
  4. Constructed knowledge—at this stage, you recognize that there can be many valid answers, that some may be generated by procedures or consulting experts, but you also recognize that any of those things can also be wrong or at least used improperly. With this knowledge, you take in theses and evidence, evaluate them in context and form your own informed answer.

So, if our approach to evaluating analyses in class has been uncomfortable for you. Be heartened—you’re growing!

3. Narratives are natural (but not always sufficient)

If you catch yourself thinking, “This sounds like an alien invasion; the aliens are attacked with cannons, and… eventually one side wins,” that’s okay as a start—it’s very natural to use narratives (stories) to make sense of things. E.M. Forster reflected on this in Howard’s End:

“It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come– of course, not so as to disturb the others–or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee…”‘

So, don’t be afraid of using narratives, but heed these warnings:

  • Remember that models/narratives/metaphors always fail us at some point. The show us certain things about a subject, but not every conclusion made from the narrative will be true for the subject (e.g., Africa doesn’t really have a stain where you dripped coffee on your map). Find the right scale, context, and limits of your narrative’s applicability. In most cases, your narrative will best serve you as a parallel path to discovering a way to describe the interrelationships you see, in more abstract terms.
  • Sticking with a narrative means you’ll probably need to spend most of your essay connecting sonic elements and events with characters and events in your narrative, which brings you dangerously close to giving a play-by-play account without any larger view of the whole. Always make sure you’re connecting your conclusions back to the sounds in the music and to the big picture.
  • Don’t force a narrative on the piece. It just might not fit, or in might only be helpful to a certain level of detail. Once you find a narrative that fits in certain ways, it’s great if you look closer and find sonic details that fit details of your narrative, but if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.
  • Back to the example at the start of this section: if you use a narrative, check to see what that narrative may reveal about you. If you say, “This sounds like an alien invasion…,” what is it that makes it sound alien? Is it just because you’ve never heard anything like it before? It’s probably not a useful analysis if you’re only comparing it to your own life experience or subjective tastes. Why an invasion? It’s not just because this unfamiliar (to you) is simply persisting in its presence, its own right to exist, is it? Be very careful when using terms that suggest value statements, intentions, or motivations like this: Find the underlying reasoning leading to these conclusions, and if you find they have emerged from your own bias, discard them. They’re preventing you from finding an objective model to understand the work.


The Football Analogy

1. Someone’s trying to tell you something

When approaching unfamiliar art, my best advice to an audience is to imagine that it’s a message from an alien: you know someone is trying to tell you something, and you know your usual tricks for making sense of it may not be helpful.

2. Stick with it

The longer version of this considers the alternative. Imagine an alien were watching a game of football. He might be inclined to say “it’s just a bunch of humans running all over,” and ignore it. He’d be missing a lot of understanding about humans and maybe missing out on an enjoyable experience. If the alien decided to stick with it longer, he might notice that certain things are predictable, other things are not predictable, and that sometimes would-be predictable moments have thrilling surprises.

(This concept is adapted from Richard Taruskin’s evocations of a “Martian musicologist,” speculating on what would appear to be most important in our music, from the perspective of an extreme outsider to our culture. Richard Taruskin, “Reply to van den Toorn,” In Theory Only 10, no. 3 [October 1987].)

3. Where’s the playing field? Who are they players? Where are their goals? (How) do they get there?

The alien might notice things gradually about the football game, and gradually begin to make sense of it, then compare it to other football games, and maybe enjoy it. These are some gradual realizations the alien might have.

  1. It’s just a bunch of humans running all over.
  2. Well, they run around inside this green rectangle.
  3. Actually, half of the people run in one direction, and half face the other way.
  4. Oh, there’s a ball, too.
  5. They all seem to be following the ball around, with half of them moving the ball, and the others trying to stop it.
  6. The people stop running when one person moves the ball to one end of the green rectangle.
  7. They actually run and then stop, then start again.
  8. They usually do that four times, and if the ball hasn’t reached the end yet, the other people try to move it to the opposite end.

and so on.

Try this process when you encounter new art. You might not find meaning in the usual places. If you’re used to listening to melodies and beats, but a piece has a constant pitch and a steady pulse with no pattern to it, then there’s no meaning there: that’s just the playing field. Instead, listen for meaningful patterns and developments in timbre or loudness or space (e.g., left/right): they may be the players. Next, figure out their goals, how they try to get there, whether they ever get there, etc.

For further reading on this approach, look at Richard Schechner’s “Seven Ways to Approach Play” from Performance Studies: An Introduction (Routledge) on eCampus.

Graphic Score Notes

1. You can’t show it all

…so figure out what’s most important and find a way to demonstrate that. It will be different for every piece. DO NOT give a play-by-play account in your analysis. The inventory of events that happen is one step on the way to understanding how the piece works, but in itself, it is not an analysis.

2. Mixed approaches to notation

Stockhausen, Study II (1954) was completely scientific in its approach, but you miss the musical relationships.

Stockhausen, Kontakte (1960; excerpt) uses a combination of multiple staves, shapes suggestive of scientific parameters, shapes suggestive of traditional music notation, and plain words (which are in his native language, German):

Luening/Ussachevsky, Incantation (1953) was an early composition made by editing sounds recorded on tape. Modern scholar Brian Evans made a graphic score of it using only a few symbols, and marking its sections. He clearly didn’t notate every single sound.

3. Relationships, not just a list of sounds

Harvey, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980) only has two sound sources in it, so Dr. Evans had to focus on how the sounds were transformed, more than an inventory of which sound happened when.

See more examples and discussion on graphic scores here.