The invisible reaches of acousmatic music form a special place in contemporary music, blending technological innovation with the capacity for poetic insight into the sounds around us. The potential to capture and work directly with sounds of the natural world gives acousmatic composers a very special opportunity to embrace and embellish the acoustic signs and symbols of everyday experience. The depth to which this aspect of acousmatic music has been explored in the UK continues to be one of its most impressive features. In fact the stylistic variation within British acousmatic music provides a summary of many of the strengths of this medium—material sourced directly from environment, culture, vocalisation (textual and non-textual), and an enormous range of hybridisations of ‘realism’ and ‘abstraction’.

This is by no means an attempt to fully document the history of British acousmatics, but to highlight some of the features of work going on in the UK that I appreciate in a scene of great strength and diversity. Acousmatic music in the UK has established a strong sense of identity—without seeming self-conscious—and projecting the confidence of musicians deeply committed to exploration of sound and its meaning. Denis Smalley has brought to the English-speaking world at large an understanding of the sensibility and sensitivity of the musique concrète tradition (namely the work of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales), as well as integrating spectromorphological aspects of sound design with indicative connections between sound and wider aspects of human experience. Trevor Wishart’s pragmatic and politicised view of the significance of habitual modes of listening (and the musical significance of recognising sound sources) has had similarly important impact on the wider world of electroacoustic music. His 1986 book On Sonic Art sets out ideas on many aspects of musical thought and the computer’s shaping influence on music—especially in relation to source recognition and the special potentials of the voice—in frequently provocative but wonderfully coherent terms. Others such as Simon Emmerson, John Dack, Luke Windsor and Peter Manning have also added significantly to the electroacoustic music literature. But theoretical insight is, I think, only one element of the present musical successes found in British acousmatic music. Technical research and innovation has considerable profile, with ventures like the Composers’ Desktop Project and Michael Clarke’s contribution to FOF synthesis being notable contributions. Performance of acousmatic music has also remained an imperative, especially through the efforts of Smalley and Jonty Harrison, both of whom grasped early on the importance of three-dimensional articulation of stereo acousmatic pieces when projecting them in public spaces. Harrison’s BEAST system now benefits from the distillation of many years of practice in multi-loudspeaker sound diffusion and is admired internationally as a model for electroacoustic sound projection. Of course, electroacoustic concerts require an enormous amount of combined energy and co-operation (at least just because loudspeakers, amplifiers and mixers are heavy!), and in that respect the existence of the Sonic Arts Network is surely a major factor in the strength of the UK scene, forming a platform for advocacy, consultancy, publication and education in electroacoustic music. The Universities have had a central role as a training ground for composers in acousmatic music in the UK and these, as is obvious even to a casual observer, are enriched by the presence of research students from abroad. Julio D'Escrivan, Joseph L. Anderson, Rodrigo Velloso, Akemi Ishijima and many others have done significant work in the UK and, in some cases, continued to work and live there.

A striking feature of much recent British acousmatic music is the bold use of environmental sound. By that I mean not just the use of sampled natural sounds as digital raw material, but the use of the acousmatic medium to offer interpretative insight to the experience of sound and its meanings. In this respect alone, the breadth of approaches to ‘real world’ material amongst British acousmatic composers forms a significant microcosm of the range of possibilities that the medium seems to hold. Trevor Wishart's Red Bird (1973-77) remains, for me, one of the great landmarks in electroacoustic composition, and a great achievement in the understanding of sound as a medium of artistic expression. In this piece the multi-layered exploration of the interdependent meanings of source recognition and the behavioural aspects of sound articulate parallel worlds of ‘closedness and openness’—through sound-images of confinement versus liberation, repression versus imagination. In Red Bird transformation functions not just as a processes of developing sound morphologies, but as the vehicle for transfiguration of one recognisable sound into another (generally relying on the ‘morphing’ of shared spectromorphological features of two sounds). This becomes the platform for powerfully controlled sonic metaphors which enhance the basic underlying open/closed political ‘theme’, as oppressive words find release in bird song, a book which attempts to swat a fly becomes a door (and a means of escape), and words, animals and body sounds become trapped in the endlessly repetitious cycles of a surreal machine. Red Bird continues to be of importance because of the way Wishart has embodied his own concern for becoming ‘both sonically and metaphorically articulate’.

Vox-5 (1979-86) is the sole acousmatic work in the series of six comprising Wishart’s Vox cycle (which otherwise mix electroacoustics with amplified voices), and marks Wishart’s extension of figurative transformation into digital technology. The use of vocal sound sources and the idea of fluidity in sound transformation are continued in Tongues of Fire (1994). This work presents stunning articulation of a wide variety of sound shapes, though the metaphorical meanings central to Red Bird and Vox-5 have been replaced by an intensified focus on plasticity of sound and a greater openness in the paths taken by transformations.

Wishart’s most recent works set out to embrace more specific programmatic content. Fabulous Paris (1997) deals with the human drift to large cities. The topic of this work reminded me of an ICMC panel discussion in which Wishart was a compelling advocate for the role of the specialist composer/artist amidst the trend towards increasingly similar and ‘(inter)networked’ lifestyles across cultures worldwide. In Fabulous Paris there is gentle satire in the veiled reference to a game show’s prize of a holiday in ‘fabulous Paris, France’, and the final recession of sizzling traffic against nocturnal ‘environment. But the focus of the work overall revolves more around transformational processes per se rather than the creation of images which invite interpretation of the programmatic idea. By contrast, the material of Two Women (1998) offers more content-centred structure, presenting recorded statements by Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana with the inclusion of Ian Paisley’s derision of Thatcher providing ironic comment on the relative fates of these two very different women. Yet the actual transformations of the vocal sources in this work do not have the same essential structural quality as those in Red Bird, where the nature of the transformational process itself provides a key to the layers of meaning present in the network of sounds used.

A growing concern for reference to the environment is an important dimension in the way Denis Smalley’s music has developed. His ‘classic’ early work Pentes (1974) is largely concerned with gestural energy and morphological contours without direct environmental reference, but recognisable natural sound events and models have since tended to become a more pivotal part of his work. In Tides (1984), for instance, he deals with water/sound analogies, including some strikingly surreal modelling of vast spaces in the work’s second movement ‘Sea Flight’, while in Névé (1994) he builds on sound-images derived from glacial formations. The sound of ceramic chimes is the basis of Smalley’s Wind Chimes (1987) where, despite being presented quite directly at times, the source object inhabits a closed sonorous world of timbral refinement and virtuosic gestural play. The acoustic signature of physical objects is also explored in Empty Vessels (1997), but this time within their everyday context, as a world of dark sonority emerges from the natural resonance of clay pots recorded in the composer’s own garden, maintaining the ambience and time scale of the surrounding environment.

The tendency towards source recognition as a structural device is an international phenomenon, but has been consolidated by many of the UK’s younger composers. Mathew Adkins’s work is consistently distinguished by structural poise and beautifully crafted sound design, frequently mixed with environmental elements. Clothed in the Soft Horizon (1994) presents water active in different contexts: rain, ocean, bubbles, as moments of intimacy with the natural environment are encountered in a framework of dramatically articulated resonance. I hear similar qualities in the work of Andrew Lewis, whose Ascent (1994) presents often-veiled reference to environmental materials and forces, within assuredly-sculpted abstract granular and resonant clouds of sound. In Little Animals (1997) by Natasha Barrett, the composer entertains the idea of sound fragments which in her words ‘lose their source-bond to reveal bare expressive content and unfold an abstract musical discourse’. Transformation and spatialisation serve to articulate the occupancy of spectral and gestural space, evoking the idea of the niche hypothesis: the natural ‘registration’ of the animal world. A feeling of sustained motion through the work is created by the perception of sound events revisited as though in an electroacoustic ecosystem, such as the recurring breath-like noise bands, while also leading us into an appreciation of the vibrant energy characterising sounds of many other ‘animated’ objects as they rattle, chirp and flutter.

Music in the environment ('music out of music') was the starting point for Alistair MacDonald and Nicholas Virgo's joint work Busk (1988), where traces of instrumental and vocal sounds (Birmingham buskers), and the backdrop of their urban context, are framed and transformed within a freely-evolving soundscape. A roughness and sense of gestural exaggeration in many of the sounds makes for strong emotional impact. Music and environment exist in parallel in the cinematically inspired Season of Mists (1996) by Robert Dow. Here environmental sounds, electroacoustic sounds and musical quotations maintain an illusory narrative of cinematic ‘realism’ mixed with electroacoustic ‘abstraction’. In listening to this work I find I am drawn into following and interpreting the content of realistic sound events in order to try and comprehend them, while an emotional colouration is imposed by the composer’s shaping of the ‘abstract’ sounds … cinema reinventing itself in sound.

Direct interaction of the recognisable and the abstract are a feature of Pete Stollery’s work. In ABZ/A (1998), a short sound portrait of Aberdeen, he presents distinctive ambiences keyed in with striking sound transformations. The articulation of recorded scenes with exaggerated attacks and interjections here creates listening contexts where what is ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ can be difficult to disentangle. This is a reminder that abstraction can be a question of context and focus, and a function of the way listening itself is directed, as I form mental images seeking to reconcile all the sounds heard within the physicality of the underlying scenarios. In Onset/Offset (1996) Stollery holds sound frequently at the cusp of recognition presenting tactile manipulation of physical objects and the convincing co-existence of environmental scenarios and more abstract sound shapes.

One could find it almost impossible to separate the music of Jonty Harrison from the personality of this acousmatic dynamo. This is not to suggest that the music does not stand by itself, which it does superbly, but that the vitality and energy of his sounds speaks of an ear revelling in the sheer sensual impact of the material. The dramatic sound shapes and punchy presence of Harrison's work relate naturally to the surround-sound diffusion he champions with BEAST since the strong way in which sounds frequently announce themselves readily allows them to be convincingly moved around a space articulated by loudspeakers. Harrison’s early work Klang (1981) takes the outwardly prosaic starting point of resonating pot lids on a journey of developing resonance, and many of his more recent works include direct reference to everyday sounds. Unsound Objects (1995) integrates richly textured sections of sonic abstraction with some daringly exposed realistic sound fragments, with a strong emphasis on associations between sound and its material origins, especially through scintillatingly recorded samples. There are also some poetically tenuous strings of sonic causality, such as the sequence from 6’55" where intimate fractures act as catalysts for complex and far more visceral sonic gestures. More recently Streams (1998), based on water sounds, marks Harrison’s first foray into the area of 8-channel composition—though maintaining connection with the established pattern of the BEAST system, by utilising the ‘main 8’ core of that diffusion system (centre front, wide front, distant front and rear pairs of louspeakers).

In multi-loudspeaker concert environments, works using instrumental sources can create surreal exaggerations of the scale of the instrument, as well as subversions of its identity, as demonstrated in the use of cello sounds in Tom Williams's Interference (1998), a piece which can have explosive impact in the composer's own live diffusion. Adrian Moore’s work generally presents less than overt relationships to the outside world but is charged with robust and vigorous gestures, frequently underpinned by slow moving harmonic fields—such as in Junky (1996) and Dreamarena (1996). But the imaginary power of acousmatic music is demonstrated in the opening of Moore's Superstrings (1998-99), where quivering strings consort with bubbling liquids and later surface as a virtual piano.

Katharine Norman’s ‘documentary’ approach in several acousmatic pieces makes a strong contribution at what might be termed the less ‘interventionist’ end of the acousmatic spectrum. The emotional depth in a work such as In Her Own Time (1992) springs from the specific content of her mother’s spoken recollections of wartime London. Here, the extensive use of resonant filters, a device which can easily lapse into cliché, is consistently used as a means of merging different threads of memory, without really generating its own musical momentum. Though Norman uses signal processing to decorate and gently link material rather than to make ‘comment’, there are still elements of poetic interplay, such as the slow transition from the rattle of a jackhammer to the patter of rain (hinting also at the distant murmur of a tube train) in London E17 (1993). The idea here of a broad ‘theme’ illuminated through field recording and recontextualisation is a powerful arm of the acousmatic medium. In another of Norman’s works Hard Cash (and small dreams of change) (1997) her use of off-the-cuff street interviews sketches, with touching candour, the familiar dream of money’s ability to transform our lot.

The ability of the acousmatic medium to touch personal themes is also highlighted in Rajmil Fischman’s Kol HaTorr (1999) Pete Stollery’s Peel (1997) and Andrew Lewis’s Scherzo (1992) where the innocence and, at times, even the sheer acoustic fragility of children's utterance is a source of powerful imagery. Although linked by similar source material, these works nevertheless show considerably different uses of it. Out of baby babble Fischman extrapolates some extraordinary sonic ‘éclats’, while Andrew Lewis melds voices and musical toys in and out of the electroacoustic fabric and Stollery offers the field recording as a window on the child’s world of illogical logic. The utterance of a child is also central to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco (1980). This piece brings to British acousmatic music a dual connection with ‘spectralist’ thinking and the legacy (or at least the spirit) of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, as a detached voice floats within a world of malleable and carefully evolving spectra derived from a cathedral bell. The idea of the voice consistently placed within an electroacoustic soundscape is heard in Matthew Adkins’s Pagan Circus (1996/97), based on the poem by Rose Dodd. Here, the voice is an initiator of sound (the work appears to ‘exist’ because of the presence of the virtual ‘persona’) as well as a recognisable point of reference within the electroacoustic abstractions around it. The voice sits in a structure in a different way in Andrew Lewis’s môr(G)wyn (1996), where it is no less pivotal but appears more as a result of releases of tension within the material itself.

There is simply no question that the UK is seen as an acousmatic powerhouse of innovation and quality. This is not to detract from the fact that there are great strengths in other forms of computer/electroacoustic music in the UK, such as real-time and mixed acoustic/instrumental work—but one simply cannot ignore the strength and diversity of acousmatic music in the UK. The fact that such a range of aesthetic directions can be expressed through acousmatic music is one of its great strengths, emphasising the depth and power of concentrated listening experience.

John Young is a composer and writer on electroacoustic music based at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, where he is Director of the Electroacoustic Music Studios.

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