article is reprinted from CONTACT!. the journal of the
Canadian Electroacoustic Community. It was originally
written in response to a request to Francis Dhomont
to provide an article on acousmatic art which would
be relevant to both "beginners" and "experts". The editor
is most grateful to Francis Dhomont and to Ian Chuprun
of the CEC for giving permission to reproduce this article.
announced by several precursors in the first decades
of this century (Russolo, Cahill, Trautwein, Martenot,
Theremin, Cage, Varèse, etc), electroacoustic
music (not named as such at the time) was born in the
sound studios of the RTF [French National Radio] in
1948, in Paris, with musique concrète. Its inventor,
Pierre Schaeffer, had the considerable merit of formulating
the practical and theoretical notions for a music that
required a new way of thinking about composition, and
created a new sound world through the use of equally
original production techniques. Indeed, in musique concrète,
materials are selected from our sound environment, without
sounds, regardless of their origin, are of equal value
and can be musically organized. These elements, sound
objects (1), originally of an acoustic or electronic
nature, are recorded, then processed, edited, mixed
(note the analogy to techniques used in cinema) and
orchestrated in the studio, through the
use of an ever-evolving technology. Finally, and
this is the most important point the organization
of complex "spectromorphologies" (Denis Smalley),
far removed from the musical note, cannot
be fully realized with traditional conceptual tools;
a change of such profundity requires new compositional
strategies, and very different aesthetic and formal
preoccupations than those found in instrumental music
original compositional method begins with the concrete
(pure sound matter) and proceeds towards the abstract
(musical structures) hence the name musique concrète
in reverse of what takes place in instrumental
writing, where one starts with concepts (abstract) and
ends with a performance (concrete). Consequently, musique
concrète pieces asks of its listeners that they
un-program their hearing (accustomed to the matrix of
pitch, scales, harmonic relations, instrumental timbres,
etc) and develop an attitude of active listening based
on new criteria of perception. This music is also called
concrète because it is fixed on tape through
the recording process ("sono-fixation", M Chion),
in the same way that an image is fixed on a canvas or
a film. François Bayle refers to sound images.
years later (1950), electronic music, realized through
sound synthesis, emerged from the WDR Studios (West
German Radio) in Cologne. Antagonistic at first, the
schools of musique concrète and electronic music
finally shared their sources and techniques, and were
globally identified as electroacoustic music.
then, this single term has come to designate an infinite
number of sound realizations with little in common,
aside from their reliance on electricity; it refers
to popular music (electronic instruments, synthesizers,
samplers), serious research institutes (CCRMA, GRM,
), works on tape, instruments and tape,
live electronic music, interactive works, etc. "The
term Electroacoustic Music has expanded to such a degree
that it has become a meaningless catch-all ", wrote
Michel Chion in 1982. (2) Today, this expression reveals
little of what we may expect to hear, and its use is
analogous to applying the term acoustic music to define
the entire instrumental repertoire. For these reasons,
a group of composers, descendants of the school of musique
concrète, found it necessary to find a term that
clearly designates the genre (3) in which they work,
and which calls for a particular reflection, a methodology,
a craft, a syntax, and specific tools.
term is acousmatic (4). It refers to a theoretical and
practical compositional approach, to particular listening
and realization conditions, and to sound projection
strategies. Its origin is attributed to Pythagoras (6th
C. BC) who, rumour has it, taught his classes only
verbally from behind a partition, in order
to force his students to focus all their attention on
his message. In 1955, during the early stages of musique
concrète, the writer Jérôme Peignot
used the adjective acousmatic to define a sound which
is heard and whose source is hidden. By shrouding behind
the speaker (a modern Pythagorean partition) any visual
elements (such as instrumental performers on stage)
that could be linked to perceived sound events, acousmatic
art presents sound on its own, devoid of causal identity,
thereby generating a flow of images in the psyche of
order to avoid any confusion with performance-oriented
electroacoustic music, or music using new instruments
(Ondes Martenot, electric guitars, synthesizers, real-time
digital audio processors, etc), François Bayle
introduce the term acousmatic music in 1974. This term
designates a music of images that is "shot and
developed in the studio, and projected in a hall, like
a film", and is presented at a subsequent date.
(5) Bayle has stated that, "With time, this term
both criticized and adopted, and which at first
may strike one as severe has softened through
repeated use within the community of composers, and
now serves to demarcate music on a fixed medium (musique
de support) representing a wide aesthetic spectrum
from all other contemporary music." (6)
the act of hearing a sound without seeing the object
from which it originates is a daily occurrence. This
happens when we listen to an orchestral symphony on
our home sound system, when we listen to the radio,
or when we communicate by phone, etc. In fact, we are
unsuspecting acousmatic artists. But in these examples,
it is not the message that is acousmatic but rather
the listening conditions for the communication of that
message. Mozart, as he wrote the symphonies which we
now hear in our living rooms, was not thinking of the
CD but rather of live performances by an orchestra.
In order to be designated as acousmatic, a composition
should be conceived for an acousmatic listening environment,
giving priority to the ears. This fundamental distinction
is not always clearly understood by neophyte listeners.
Art of Time Occupying Space
term Acousmatic Music (or Art) designates works that
have been composed for loudspeakers, to be heard in
the home on radio or on CD/tape or in concert,
through the use of equipment (digital or analog) that
allows the projection of sound in 3-dimensional space.
However, though the concert may provide the ideal presentation
for an acousmatic work, it is not a sine qua non criteria
for its existence; like books collected for our home
libraries, the quality of todays commercial recordings
allows us to have at our disposal a wide repertoire
of pieces. Moreover, and in contrast to recorded instrumental
performances, an acousmatic work on CD is an exact replica
of the composers master. While the CD may serve
only as a (good) reduction of an instrumental concert,
the acousmatic concert serves as an impressive enlargement
of a work composed on a fixed medium. One who has not
experienced in the dark the sensation of hearing points
of infinite distance, trajectories and waves, sudden
whispers, so near, moving sound matter, in relief and
in color, cannot imagine the invisible spectacle for
the ears. Imagination gives wings to intangible sound.
Acousmatic art is the art of mental representations
triggered by sound. (7)
people complain that there is nothing to see at acousmatic
concerts. That may be because theres much to hear,
often unheard-of sounds. Our focus is limited; if our
senses are reacting to a strong stimulus, our attention
to other stimuli will diminish. Given the priority of
the visual in our present society, at a time when it
is no longer certain that music is created for
the purpose of listening, the publics need
for the spectacular does not leave room for the kind
of concentration that befits a good audition: the
eyes block the ears (is it really coincidence
that a blind persons hearing is often very good?).
It is for this reason that acousmatic composers, inspired
by Pythagoras, limit the amount of stimuli at their
concerts. Instead of offering us glimpses of its existence,
the act of hearing without seeing (Bayle) allows our
mind to concentrate on the music itself.
critique that is often leveled at this rebellious sonic
art: where are the instruments and the performers? If
there are no performers, can we still call this music?
As an example, allow me to quote Nil Parent, from an
article in a recent issue of Contact! [Fall, 1994]:
"Music is an art of performance, that is to say,
by definition, an art in the image of time, unstorable."
(8) This statement is questionable, and I have often
discussed it. What has become of this supposed intangible
credo? Have we ever questioned the inevitability of
the fact that music, since the beginning of time, has
only come to us by way of generations of performers?
Instead of accepting that it is so by definition
(a concept yet to be proven), should we not instead
question history itself?
course, music originates from oral expression and instrumental
gestures. But, soon after its birth, man needed to find
ways of reproducing it, of storing it; laborious efforts
where made at developing notation. In order to save
this ephemeral art form, this volatile phenomenon from
extinction, man had no other solution than to turn to
performance or, in other words, to a musicians
translation of conventional symbols. Today, in fact,
we confuse the end with what was once the means: because
throughout history, music has had only one way to exist
through performance it has come to be identified
with performance. Though it is obvious that this situation
is what has allowed music to become an accomplished
art form, the idea that this fact is unchangeable is
a limitation imposed by prejudice and force of habit.
We must at least admit that an invention that allows
us, after several millennium, to capture, store, and
reproduce sound phenomena (like what film allows us
to do to movement), has truly changed our relation with
time. By allowing composers to stop sound,
by giving them the possibility of getting back sound
organizations in their precise original state, in precise
detail, and exactly where they left off, recording techniques
offer music new areas to investigate, as well as new
ways of realization. What will reach the listener is
not a music that approximates the intentions of the
composer, but rather, exactly what he intended, with
all its material characteristics. This music no longer
depends on performance, nor does it act as its substitute.
passing, I would like to reply to Nil Parent, in regards
to the supposed devastating progress through accumulation
that he makes reference to in his article, which, though
not lacking in quality, ties nevertheless too many problems
to a single cause. While he calls for the "urgent
revaluation of the performer (9) that the return to
(10), I would like to remind him that recording must
not be such a terrible medium, if Glenn Gould, not what
one would call your average performer, chose
it over live performance.
music, considered for many years an art of performance,
can now also be presented in the form of a fixed medium,
like cinema, why should we not investigate this new
creative space? Lets stop comparing it to a performing
art. It is not the sheer physical presence of performers
that guarantees the authenticity of a work, but rather
what is transmitted in the act of hearing; in that sense,
live music is no more or less alive than music on a
fixed medium; both can take on meaning if their message
reaches us. In fact, though McLuhan may disagree, the
message is not the medium, but rather the message.
will soon celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of musique
concrète. The evolution of this art is measured
by the abundance of the repertoire that is now available.
But theories concerning this art change quickly and
we are only now beginning to explore its resources.
Here and there one can find conferences, concert series
and festivals dedicated to this art, particularly in
Europe; more and more articles and books are appearing
and helping to shape new approaches to composition.
This is undoubtedly a new artistic path for the upcoming
century; it can no longer not be taken into consideration.
It is important to make the distinction between sound
object (perceived sound) and material object (resonating
Chion, M., 1982, La musique électroacoustique,
PUF, Paris, P.9
As many others have done in other genres: serial, minimalist,
spectral, rock, country, etc.
Michel Chion would rather keep the term musique concrète,
since it is well entrenched. The main objection that
he has faced is that it refers to a historical period.
Although musique concrète is still alive in its
contemporary form, it is likely that a renewal of terminology
may trigger a similar renewal of its theory.
Sometimes referred to as cinema for the ears (this analogy
should not be taken literally).
Bayle, F., 1993, Musique acousmatique, propositions
positions, Buchet/ChastelINA-GRM ed., Paris, P.
For more information, please refer to Bayles previously
cited work, as well as the following: Chion, M., Lart
des sons fixés ou la musique concrètement
(1991), Fontaine, France, Éditions Métamkine/Nota-Bene/Sono-Concept;
and, Vande Gorne, A., Vous avez dit acousmatique? (1991),
Ohain, Belgium, Éditions Musiques et Recherches.
Parent, N., 1994, Contact! 8.1: Play. The Decline of
a Musical Culture, CEC, Montréal, P. 50.
Is there really such a need for revaluation of the performer
in our media-star epoch?
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