initial encounter with any unfamiliar medium can be
problematic. Students who want to learn about electroacoustic
music need careful guidance when confronted with the
numerous technical and aesthetic challenges of the studio.
In Great Britain the electroacoustic community is fortunate
in having several outstanding centres in higher education
such as City University, Birmingham University, University
of East Anglia and York University. Such institutions
prove that good composers can develop into excellent
teachers (not, I regret to say, an inevitable progression).
researched various aspects of electroacoustic music
for many years I have developed an increasing interest
in the pedagogy of the studio: how beginners study a
musical genre without the security of physical instruments
or established performance practices. My own experiences
as a part-time teacher in higher education stems from
a twelve week introductory module with a strong practical
bias taught at Middlesex University. In a typical group
of students some have experience of four-track cassette
recorders, sequencing software and MIDI. The majority,
however, neither practice nor listen regularly to electroacoustic
music. In such a course, therefore, fundamental issues
of teaching methods must be addressed. How, for example,
does a teacher introduce equipment whose musical function
is not immediately apparent? Furthermore, when contact
time is limited, how can subtle interactions of technical
and musical skills be identified? When formulating my
own teaching plans, I referred constantly to my researches
in electroacoustic music (albeit as a musicologist rather
than as a composer) and I realised, perhaps inevitably,
that my pedagogical approach revealed an underlying
ideology about how I relate to, and think about, sound.
In fact, I was forced to consider what it means to be
a musician working with technology. The following article
is the first tentative summary of these ongoing experiences.
discussing the most effective strategies with colleagues,
an approach was adopted whereby historical and aesthetic
issues could be presented and investigated. Each week
a listening session was incorporated in the lectures
during which selected electroacoustic works were played.
These were followed by discussions concentrating on
aspects of techniques, materials, structures and form.
Such sessions were necessary to introduce the range
of languages used by electroacoustic composers in the
last fifty years. The intention was to stimulate the
students in their practical work by providing a basic
awareness of the medium. The principle means of assessment
was the production of a short tape composition or "study".
Consequently, basic points of reference had to be established.
The decision had already been taken to recreate a "classic"
tape studio. A sampler allowed sounds to be looped and
reversed and basic treatments such as filtering, reverberation
and delay were available by means of digital effects
units. A four-track cassette tape recorder was the principle
means of recording and mixing. Finally, the compositions
were mastered onto another two-track cassette tape recorder.
This restriction to such apparently unsophisticated
technology was, in my view, entirely sensible given
the constraints on time and the introductory nature
of the course. Furthermore, it was felt that the students
should remain in close contact with the physical nature
of sound and its manipulations, thus deferring the effect
of distance so often created by the premature introduction
of software and MIDI. During practical sessions I immediately
adopted what I consider to be the most intrinsically
musical approach to studio practice for the beginner:
the experimental method initiated by Pierre Schaeffer.
the many writings by Schaeffer, several sections of
his book Musique Concrète (published in 1967)
were particularly applicable. These passages deal specifically
with the experiences of musicians new to the studio
environment. They analyse in an intelligent, humane
manner the interaction between the musician and technology.
The texts did not constitute a primer in electroacoustic
techniques, rather they underlined the connections between
traditional and studio skills. This emphasis on the
interdisciplinary nature of music was extremely helpful
to students. As a result, they were encouraged to make
sound objects from recorded sounds, regardless of the
source, before (or at least simultaneously with) theorising.
Faced with the daunting task of coercing unfamiliar
equipment to produce musically useful sounds such pragmatism
was reassuring. The most frequently used quotation of
Schaeffers was: "An experimental method in
music should mean to listen". Relying on their
ears as part of an intuitive, exploratory approach is
usually attractive to most musicians. The technology,
naturally, imposed certain restrictions. Cassette tapes
are inherently noisy and I remember wistfully recollecting
the joys of tape splicing and real tape loops. Nevertheless,
students gradually acquired greater sensitivity to aspects
such as energy profile, harmonic content and spatial
distribution. Even when students felt drawn towards
explicitly anecdotal sounds (and there was no prohibition
on their use) they were analysed for potential exploitation
of their more abstract qualities in addition to any
students had begun instinctively to conform to Schaeffers
five "rules" for the practice of musique concrète
as outlined on pages 29-30 of Musique Concrète.
To learn a new solfège by means of directed
listening. In this way students will become increasingly
aware of sound characteristics other than those of
traditional theory such as tempered pitches and rhythmic
values - the usual elements of solfège. The
traditional hierarchy might then be rebalanced in
favour of aspects such as complex pitch, spectral
constitution or sound behaviour.
To create sound objects by practical exercises, deliberately
disregarding the potential distraction of representing
and organising sounds by written notation.
To promote these sound objects to musical objects.
"Raw" sounds can be shaped by means of equipment
without confusing the apparatus as an "instrument".
To compose "studies" by which musical values
could be identified and exploited. It is during this
stage that a student might group sounds together in
related families or create scale-like structures.
Such "instrumental" thinking would, of course,
be a result of the intrinsic properties of the sounds
rather than the equipment with which they were fashioned
or the original sources.
Work and time. Schaeffers uncompromising opinion
about the length of time needed by composers to become
accustomed to the new environment clearly had to be
modified. Ten years earlier in La Revue Musicale he
suggested a year for solfège, a year for creating
sound objects and another year for practising manipulation;
this programme had to be compressed into twelve weeks!
though these "rules" were never presented
explicitly in this way they emerged as a natural consequence
of the students studio practice. They were able
to refer to a series of steps directing and systematising
their efforts. In addition, there was sufficient flexibility
for a certain amount of meandering back and forth as
short structures and studies needed modification or
the latter half of the module a further passage of Schaeffers
book was used to demonstrate the relationship between
new skills and established musical practices. This appears
in the form of a table on page 54 of Musique Concrète,
where traditional disciplines and their new counterparts
are listed below:
acoustics, solfège, music theory,
objects of study: sound
the new category of sound sources is more general and
includes all sources, not simply the instruments of
traditional music. In addition, one can compare the
progressions of the middle three items in each column.
In traditional music the basic notes, intervals and
durations of solfège are organised according
to standard music theory into categories of harmonic
description and rhythmic systems. Rules of harmony and
counterpoint are then applied to this pitch-duration
framework resulting in musically meaningful structures
- composition. The same progression can be identified
as the experimental musician examines, describes and
classifies the raw material of the sound object. Its
musical potential is evaluated in terms of perceived
pitch content, behaviour, vibrato, dynamic evolution
and so on. Now it is a musical object and can be placed
in context with other objects to exploit common characteristics.
The result once again is the musical work, though now
the language develops from the sounds intrinsic
characteristics. It was also beneficial to discuss five
new interdisciplinary skills identified by Schaeffer.
These were listed in five additional columns across
the page and comprised what he called an interdisciplinary
musicology. They are: psychoacoustics, a generalised
solfège, instrumental technology, musical composition,
psychosociology of communication. By means of this expanded
diagram students could see how each participated to
a greater or lesser extent in the activities of traditional
disciplines and new objects of study.
I am not suggesting that only these texts were suitable.
Additional works by Schaeffer were consulted as were
several books in English. (The latter, naturally, had
the undeniable advantage of being more easily available).
However, I am convinced that a broadly "Schaefferian"
approach had numerous benefits for students inexperienced
in electroacoustic music. By emphasising making and
listening, rather than specific pieces of apparatus
or software packages the students developed the ability
to think critically and, hopefully, intelligently about
sound. The ethos of the course - already established
before my arrival - encouraged them to be fascinated,
irritated, perplexed, curious, excited
the modern student requires. I would deny my adaptation
of "classic" tape techniques is a nostalgic
retreat into obscurantism. Students who continue to
compose electroacoustic music will inevitably progress
to environments where the digital equivalents of many
techniques exist in a less conspicuous form. However
they will have had the opportunity to acquire a basic
repertory of musical skills developed from the earliest
experiments of musique concrète through to the
present day. This represents a cultural heritage in
the best sense of the term and it is as relevant now
as in the past.
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