Vol. 24 Issue 3 Reviews
Elektroakustische Musik und Computermusik: Geschichte, Ästhetik, Methoden, Systeme
Softcover, 1997, 208 pages, ISBN 3-923-99777-9, Wolke Verlag, Hofheim, Germany

Reviewed by Anna Sofie Christiansen (New York, NY USA)

As suggested by its title, Electroacoustic and Computer Music: History, Aesthetics, Methods, and Systems, Martin Supper's book takes as its point of departure a historical survey of electroacoustic and computer music garnished with information on methods and systems that have been used in sound synthesis and computer music composition. Unfortunately, this orientation seems to have overshadowed his discussion of aesthetic issues, leaving us with yet another book on electronic and computer music, that—despite an enticing title—does not leave space for discussion of the aesthetic implications of the medium.

The book reads almost like an encyclopedia entry on electronic and computer music. The introduction presents a classification of electroacoustic music into live electronics, tape music, musique concrète, and electronic music. These categories can be exemplified by Edgard Varèse's Déserts, John Cage's William's Mix, Pierre Schaeffer's Cinq études des bruits, and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Studien I and Studien II. Despite its obvious pedagogical virtues and historical value, Mr. Supper's classification has two problems. The first of these arises from examples given in each category that are ambiguous or erroneous.
The mention of the Studio di fonologia in Milan as being founded on the approach taken by the Cologne studio requires further explanation in order to convince me. The author correctly mentions that the Cologne aesthetic was oriented toward the synthesis of new electronic sounds. However, the placement of Luciano Berio's pieces, Tema-Omaggio a Joyce (1958) and Visage (1960-1) in this category seems problematic. In Visage, the vocal sounds are split into phonemes or non-speech sounds such as snorts and moans, which led to a ban of the piece before it was even broadcast on Italian radio (Nicola Scaldaferri has humorously characterized these sounds as "pornophony."). Both compositions consist of editing and otherwise manipulating recordings of the human voice into a montage. The pieces more properly belong in the category of musique concrète or tape music, or should perhaps constitute a category of their own.

Despite Mr. Berio's inevitable knowledge of Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), in which vocal sounds are interspersed with synthetic sounds, he consciously chose to use vocal sounds exclusively in order to explore their expressive capabilities. One could argue, as does Mr. Supper (p. 25), that the Milan studio was inspired by the work taking place in Cologne. It is true that they shared an interest in exploring the tape medium as a way to explore the boundaries of human communication. In Cologne, however, this was exemplified by interest in the work of Werner Meyer-Eppler, in Milan by the collaboration between Umberto Eco (and other Italian writers) and Mr. Berio. Hence, the approaches were quite different.

Another unfortunate imprecision is found in the listing of Mr. Cage's Williams Mix (1952) and Fontana Mix (1956) both as live-electronic pieces, i.e., pieces that have an obligatory live control of the mixing board during performance (Supper, p. 15) and tape music pieces as well (p. 17). According to James Pritchett (who presents sketch material in his book, The Music of John Cage) Williams Mix does not call for any live intervention in performance. Neither does the 1956 version of Fontana Mix (the one explicitly mentioned by Mr. Supper), or subsequent versions. This piece is simply an open score that serves as instructions for how to record a tape piece, without indicating anything about the actual execution of the piece during performance. Live mixing is, on the other hand, crucial in the series of Imaginary Landscape pieces (which are correctly classified as live-electronic pieces).

Rather than merely presenting this contradictory information, the above-mentioned ambiguities could have spurred an important discussion of an oft-ignored issue in writings about electronic music: performance. Despite the aesthetic intentions of most of the early electronic composers to eliminate the performer, most of the early pieces were performed in places that could not provide proper equipment, thereby submitting the music to the uncertain destiny of live mixing. Furthermore, many of these pieces were intended for four tracks, a fact that often required live mixing because of the high technical demands on quadraphonic systems. Hence, the constraints on performance often required compromises with respect to equipment as well as the inevitable variations due to concert presentation. Performance, therefore, is an important issue.

The second problem in Mr. Supper's classification arises from the overlapping functions of the computer. He correctly mentions that the computer to a large extent has been employed in order to facilitate and extend sound synthesis, whereas he claims that the term "computer music" adds to the previous categories through its ability to formalize composition (i.e., algorithmic composition). It seems as though the author has forgotten that, among others, both Olivier Messiaen (Mode des valeurs et d'intensités) and Mr. Stockhausen (Studien I and II) had already attempted to formalize the compositional process without the aid of the computer. The computer thus contributes but a facilitation of this process rather than the creation of a separate new category.

This categorization therefore seems to founder on a confusion between technique and the nature of the medium itself. The computer offered a vast increase in the ability to explore ideas that had already been developed. Hence, rather than constituting an epistemological shift in compositional approach, the computer could better be characterized as a tool that challenges the above-mentioned classification solely through its capacity to handle an immense and complex set of data, whether control parameters or generative algorithms. One could argue that the computer constitutes a new category through its ability to interact with a live performer, but the author does not make this connection.
In the main part of the book, Mr. Supper focuses on the historical emergence of sound synthesis and then carries on to algorithmic composition. He ends with brief introductions to, among other things, interactive composition and linguistics. His exemplification of the different stages in sound synthesis is thorough and makes the book a good source of information on this subject. These encyclopedic qualities are reinforced by the inclusion of an impressive and comprehensive bibliography organized by topic, and a detailed index. Unfortunately, the interpretation of the facts listed often seem scattered and arbitrary because of the failure to relate them to a larger context.

In the section on sound synthesis, I find the point of departure in the perception of sound crucial for writing about this topic. The author's point that in electronic music the listener does not discover sound but constructs it is important, but, as I will show later on, problematic. This point helps us to understand why the development of electronic music was such an important event: suddenly music could be disembodied from the performer and hence from the aesthetic reins of the concert hall repertoire. It seems, however, that Mr. Supper's description gravitates toward models of sound rather than how those models were employed by composers. He describes Dennis Gabor's idea of sonic quantum and Albert Einstein's "phonon," as well as Norbert Wiener's cybernetic theories. Unfortunately, these explanations are not linked to case composition studies, even though it is commonly known, for example, that Mr. Wiener's ideas had a strong influence on two pioneers in American electronic music, Louis and Bebe Barron (e.g. For an Electronic Nervous System No. 1).

The presentation of sound synthesis could benefit from a contextualization of the techniques described. A brief discussion of why vertical synthesis (Mr. Supper's expression for additive and subtractive synthesis) appears to have become the prime directive for many early experiments, for example, would have been welcome. This trend occurred not only because of the technologies available, but also because it provided a conceptual framework presumably derived from composers' knowledge of Helmholtz's theories, which linked directly into the paradigm of constructivist thought. On the other hand, FM (frequency modulation) synthesis, the third technique placed under the rubric of vertical synthesis, was a means to enrich the otherwise terse sounds generated by the other two techniques. The author points this out, but again, it would have been appropriate to point to the shortcomings of FM synthesis rather than merely list facts about the Yamaha patent. (The sounds generated by this process often resembled each other so much that, thanks to repeated exposure to them in Yamaha's products, they became identified as stereotypical "synthetic" sounds.)

A concluding section on "aesthetic consequences" does not go much beyond the previous sections. Mr. Supper lists compositions as examples of different sound-generating techniques, but again, any discussion of the pieces as music is unfortunately omitted. The last part of the book is concerned with algorithmic composition and generative processes. Here again, the author displays an impressive knowledge of the historical facts that he sees as predecessors for the automation of musical composition. We find explanations of voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs) and analog sequencers as well as hybrid systems offering both sound synthesis and control; from there the discussion moves to punch-card-controlled synthesizers and, finally, the development of MIDI.
The subsequent discussion of algorithmic composition has similar strengths but suffers from some of the same drawbacks as the previous sections. Here again we find a listing of techniques presented historically but without any critical commentary. One might want to ask a basic question such as why, for example, the incorporation of random elements became such a prominent paradigm for music composition. In the case of Lejaren Hiller, random processes were used to generate a prolific compositional material which was then submitted to the rules of species counterpoint and other compositional processes. In his subsequent mention of Iannis Xenakis's stochastic music, the author neglects to point out obvious differences between the two composers' work. In the latter's pieces, randomnicity (here in the guise of probability functions) became a means to transcend the rigid manipulation of musical parameters in serialism. As a true twentieth-century scientist, Mr. Xenakis implemented stochastic features, derived from the innovations of quantum mechanics, to transcend the deterministic conception of serialism.

In his discussion of linguistic approaches to composition, Mr. Supper touches upon some important issues, one of which is the attempt to find a "universal grammar" for music. Despite the computer's presumed potential to spawn grammatical structures, the examples provided do not offer any insight to the musical implementation of such structures, merely offering a description of particular cases. For example, the Lindenmaier system, used by several composers and musicologists, was an attempt to generate or reveal structures from which all layers in the composition could be derived. The lengthy discussion of the musical implementation of Noam Chomsky's theories is interesting, but (again) a critical discussion of this approach is missing. The sole critical note is the mention of Irène Deliège, who rejected the musical grammar developed by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff as being inherently different from a linguistic grammatical system (p. 100). Again, the artistic attributes of these theories and their respective critiques are not evaluated but listed passively as facts unrelated to music aesthetics and music as a sounding phenomenon. Unfortunately, the author neglects to conflate his previous thesis that the listener constructs the sound perceptually, which inevitably raises the question as to whether it would even make sense to look for universal principles or formula.

This book, then, contains an interesting list of facts but a poor presentation of issues of importance to the application of electronics and computers to music composition. Rather than taking us "where no electronic music author has gone before," the book simply takes the reader down the beaten path of dates and descriptions; it is left to the reader to construct an interpretation from the facts provided. Often, though, Mr. Supper's juxtaposition of items seems to imply that the author sees some interesting connections between facts. I would have preferred that his opinions be voiced explicitly rather than implicitly.