An 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).

Having 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.

After 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.

Of 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 Schaeffer’s 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 real-world associations.

The students had begun instinctively to conform to Schaeffer’s five "rules" for the practice of musique concrète as outlined on pages 29-30 of Musique Concrète. These are:

1) 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.

2) To create sound objects by practical exercises, deliberately disregarding the potential distraction of representing and organising sounds by written notation.

3) To promote these sound objects to musical objects. "Raw" sounds can be shaped by means of equipment without confusing the apparatus as an "instrument".

4) 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.

5) Work and time. Schaeffer’s 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!

Even 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 elaboration.

In the latter half of the module a further passage of Schaeffer’s 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:

traditional disciplines: lutherie, acoustics, solfège, music theory, harmony/counterpoint, criticism

new objects of study: sound sources, physical object, sound object, musical object, structures, composition works, musical communication

Thus 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.

Naturally 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… all attributes 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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