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Christoph von Blumröder
Musique Concrète - Electronic Music - Acousmatics
Conceptions of Electroacoustic Music


In view of the evolutionary process over the past 6 decades of historically relevant music, Electroacoustic Music has undeniably gained a firm place in music history, despite appearing inessential and unnecessary to reconstruct the key moments of its emergence or, at least, remain faithful to the most recent historical account deemed authoritative by contemporary musicologists. This usually commences in 1948 with the establishment of Musique Concrète by Pierre Schaeffer, with whom Pierre Henry would (in 1949) soon join forces; what usually follows is the establishment of Electronic Music at Cologne between 1951 and 1953, the leading figures being Herbert Eimert and Werner Meyer-Eppler, in addition to Gottfried Michael Koenig and Karlheinz Stockhausen (as the first ever Studio assistants). Mostly disregarded still is the New York Music for Tape movement, which represented a further position and even managed to generate its own public at the time. However, this whole movement has not only disappeared from the maelstrom of history, it has been completely ignored. In contradiction to our initial perusal, it remains to be seen that, fundamentally, the early development of Electroacoustic Music has not yet been as meticulously researched as one may previously have assumed. As a consequence, recognised chronologies remain incomplete and, effectively, not authoritative. An example of a composer who navigated his own parallel course to Musique Concrète is Francis Dhomont, whose compositional experiments in 1947/48 were made on a Webster tape machine (the Webster used a steel cable to magnetically preserve sound that, like with a Magnetophone, could playback normally, backwards, or at different speeds). Despite such innovations, one would be hard pressed to find this documented in any standard encyclopaedia or historical representation, a fact that didn't arise out of bad will, nor has it been completely forgotten: this has more to do with a simple lack of knowledge on the part of those who have previously dealt with chronicling music history. It is also very difficult to ascertain how much artistic documentation and therefore degree of music-historical fact has gone missing. This point becomes even more alarming when one regards the relation between the music-technological horizon of Electroacoustic Music during the first half of the twentieth century and the potential innovation in and for composition, set against a landscape of barbarism and catastrophe, culminating in two world wars, that not only cost countless lives but destroyed much artistic documentation and, hence, a large amount of music-historical fact.

Over and above this, it appears to be impossible to reflect on contemporary musical Acousmatics without ones thinking being founded upon a far-reaching theoretical background, the scope of which promises, thorough analysis and conclusion, to further illuminate its subject. One aspect, that must under no circumstances remain silent, is the fact that the electroacoustic terminology often used in such discussion is not at all free of doubt or ambiguity (unlike the assumed understanding the usage regularly implies). For example, Schaeffer's notion of Musique Concrète, which he used to consciously distance himself from conventional abstract compositional practise (typically progressing from a musical concept, to a score to eventually serve and enable instrumental performance), inverts the traditional process by developing his music from the sound itself, this sonic material undergoing many experimental stages before combining towards the finished work. A piece of concrete music can be characterised as such if it is perceived as an immediate sonic reality within the context of the electroacoustic medium without recourse to written notation (as in a musical score). In Germany, during the 1950's, reception and interpretation of Musique Concrète, (dominated by the accepted 'experts' in Cologne) became (- one is very tempted to add "on purpose") abbreviated to the usage of concrete sound bracketed off from its originally empirical roots. In an article written in 1953, Eimert states, exemplarily: "In contradiction to 'Musique Concrète', which operates with microphone recordings of real sound events, Electronic Music restricts itself to sound of purely electroacoustic origins." Interestingly enough, the epithet 'Electroacoustic Music' is no longer put in question. However, the obviously very real sound recordings used as sound material, and not the serial technique hinted at in the subtitle, "Electronic and Concrete Music" (used for HYMNEN and MITTWOCHS-ABSCHIED) betray the fact that this same approach and understanding has persisted to the present day.

Accordingly, the dictates of purity expounded by the Cologne studios exclusively reduced the term Electronic Music to refer to synthetic sound production. Together with this definition of material, conservation on tape and the use of the loudspeaker during playback were elsewhere seen as constitutive for a definition of this term; while at the same time and sometimes independently if the former, the compositional methods used were rooted in serial theory and serial thinking.
Yannis Xenakis formulated maybe provocatively, but nevertheless strikingly that Electronic Music is merely a "further branch of instrumental music.
With this, he accentuated a situation where, on the basis of parametric calculation of details and serially predetermined structural designs, the studio equipment was employed as a musical instrument would be, to produce sound with. Significant for the authorial discourse of Electronic Music are phenomenological questions regarding the morphology of the sounds, whose psycho-acoustically observed and perceived qualities, the aesthetic effects and affects of which remain (contrary to Pierre Schaeffer's empirical research) almost completely ignored. The explanation Stockhausen gave in 1964, during a radio broadcast, to the status the collective expression Electronic Music had acquired, instructively illuminates the object of our discussion so far: "Do you know of a music that one can only hear from a loudspeaker? We call it Electronic Music: sounds produced using tone generators, electric filters and other electric apparatus, are recorded onto tape and mounted together. A complementary type of production and transformation of sounds is called 'Concrete Music'... With Concrete Music, all possible sounds are recorded onto tape using microphones which are then developed using electroacoustic machines. However, in recent years, one uses the term "Concrete Music" less and less, and all music existing only on tape, heard only with the aid of electronic sound production, involving sonic transformation, that can only be heard with the aid of a loudspeaker, is termed Electronic Music."

Aside from the claims of pre-eminence Stockhausen's terminological bias partly reflects, the subjugation to an " complementary type" of concrete sound production and transformation (-even this formulation doesn't disguise qualitative value judgement-) clearly implies, read between the lines, capitulation on the part of Musique Concrète. On the other hand, using mainly technical argumentation to unveil a dearth of ideas in Music Concrete, has effectively led to a certain oblique vagueness in the term itself; it comes as no surprise, for the average public consciousness, that this term should have become so hi-jacked by practitioners of popular music. For a concert, in 2005, advertised in Cologne, as "Electronic Music of the 1960's", which featured works by Johannes Fritsch, Mesias Maiguashca, Michael von Biel and David Johnson (all realised in the former WDR Studio), the heading under which this concert ran wasn't placed under "Classical/New Music" (as one may have expected), but appeared under a more general "Music". The concert appeared alongside acts like "Kolja Simon & blotch. ‘there where’, a Musical Project Including Rock Music, Electronics and Throat Singing", "Vendas Novas, French Dub-Tech-Electro Followed by Party with DJ's Vilas, Tao and Rossfader", or "High Voltage Club, Electro-pop with the 'Soho Dolls', Followed by Party, Featuring Highcat-DJ-Team." One could welcome this as symptomatic of a general opening up of the once specialist cultural domain called Electronic Music towards a young audience as a fairly positive development, but, on the contrary, one could also consider flattening out a serious music aesthetic to fit neatly alongside a form of popular pluralism as suspicious to say the least. In kindness to the public, a further event was advertised within the same column "Polish Titbits, Music and the Joys of the Palate, in Housewife Style. Entrance Free."

The term Electroacoustic Music could have been a more favourable choice considering the fact that it had to stand for the construction of a collective notion which, during the progressive course of its compositional development, various aesthetic differentiation and institutionalisation of new branches of discipline, finally proved itself inaccessible. Responsibility for its coinage certainly didn't come from Iannis Xenakis (as falsely stated in the 1995 edition of "Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart" - a prominent German music encyclopaedia) who, from the outset never considered "his tape works to be labelled as such", preferring a name that directly referred to its status as a carrier medium: "Musique Électro-magnetique". In the article "Musique Concrète", taken from his music encyclopaedia (1956), André Cœuroy presents the more plausible argument, that Pierre Henry used to discuss the issue using the phrase "Musique Électro-acoustique", despite the non-existence of a single written document from the time to support this. The indubitable advantage of this newer term is in its complete bypassing any material privilege regarding the ideologically burdened sphere of compositional activity, instead, accentuating the use of specialised apparatus to create music, and, in so doing, invented a word for general use. In view of the fact that Henry's term addresses the sonic-transformational nature of specialised electric equipment, in particular the Phonogen and the Morphophone, and in a description, that may sound somewhat 'grand-fatherly' in tone today yet is quintessentially accurate, Cœuroy argues that for him the "sounds become... thoroughly kneaded out by the apparatus", - a working method that legitimates "the term 'Electroacoustic' Music".

At the beginning of the 1960's, when Antoine Golea stated that the vocabulary of Musique Électro-acoustique had peaceably married Musique Concrète with Electronic Music (during an interview with Olivier Messiaen), it emerged that although a description of "peacetime" may have been somewhat hastily diagnosed, at least its conceptual range and limits of validity had been precisely defined; since then the collective term Electroacoustic Music (in French publications, it is significant that this term is also often written in the plural form) has come into general use. Simultaneous to this kind of generalisation, a dilemma within the notion of Electroacoustic Music itself began to unfold; in the face of new and varied materialisation and directions, the role of containment and appropriation this role assumed, tended to become threatened by a strong lack of theoretical obligation. With regard to Live-Electronic Music, Michel Chion (in 1974) analytically commented on this situation with incorruptible discernment: "Are we still discussing ‘Electroacoustic Music’? Yes, because it is a music whose methods and procedures are served by electronic sound production. No, because it is no longer a music put together, and composed in a studio to eventually end up on tape, upon which the work remains and is preserved. This duplicity gives a clear indication of a general state of fission dominant in Electroacoustic Music over the previous several years. It has become impossible to tell what belongs to it and what doesn't. One goes so far as to use the same term 'Electroacoustic Music' for musical techniques that quite obviously have nothing to do with each other, other than the fact that they use electronic machines."

By now, 'Electroacoustic Music' had come to be labelled as a "lenient neutrality" (coined by Chion, - later, not without a certain irony) and the expression 'Musique Concrète' - essentially associated with Pierre Schaeffer himself - had, by 1970, already become a part of music history, placing it way beyond any significant terminological renewal. Against this background, one can understand the motivation to bring a new category into play, as François Bayle did when conjuring up the notion of Acousmatics. In 1972 he recounted (in one of his earliest theoretical admissions) Schaeffer mentioning an "acousmatic effect". In 1974, Bayle presented his notorious and elaborate plea for the notion of "Musique Acousmatiques", the constitutive condition for listening being to pay less attention to sonic evidence or instrumental causes, in preference for active listening, open and awake to the effect and sense of the music. The situation appears to be particularly noticeable that on using the plural form of his neologism "Musique Acousmatiques", Bayle offers this term not only for his own music, but also for similarly conceived Electroacoustic Music by other composers. Furthermore it wouldn't be necessary, within the current context, to elucidate exactly how Bayle's theory of Acousmatic Music unfolded, a theory that, over subsequent decades, he was to pursue tirelessly and stubbornly. Neither would it be relevant to relate the originally and individually evolved vision, which arose amidst a particular electroacoustic circle (which may certainly be considered as part of a collected body of thought), about whom we will, in due course, be turning our attention to.

At this point the historic-philosophical horizon inspiring the idea of musical Acousmatics, is worth examining more intensively, a compositional theory of which is, as yet, drawn mainly from a collection of quotes, published and often reiterated by Bayle himself. One such story derives from the 1st volume of the 1751 Encyclopaedia: "Pythagoras' disciples were divided by a curtain into two different classes; the 1st class, the advanced, had remained silent for five years without ever having experienced their teacher in person due to being separated by a curtain the whole time. On completing their five year initiation they were eventually allowed access to the sacred temple-room. Here, they not only heard their teacher, but could meet him face-to-face. The advanced class of disciples were known as the 'esoterics'; those who remained behind the curtain were designated as either the 'exoterics' or as 'acousmatics'". Additional clues are provided by the poet Jérôme Peignot whose laudatio, written in 1955, describes that "acousmatic noise" as a "sound which doesn't betray the origins that caused it", as well as a comment Schaefer made in 1966 regarding the generation of new perceptual conditions via the Magnetophone, conditions comparable to those set up by Pythagoras. The comment Schaeffer had made six years prior, pinpointed the lack of perceiving the origins of a sound as acousmatic.

Before engaging in a closer inspection, it would be fundamentally helpful, to recall that acousmatic recourse to Pythagoras is, certainly for recent music, not unprecedented. This tends to be supported by a mass of veneration lauded upon this largely unknown figure, about whose life in Kroton and Metapont in southern Italy (in 6BC), we have "not one fact... that wasn't contradicted". Since he limited himself to aural teaching, there are no surviving written documents, his ideas were indirectly passed on; the hierarchical order he built and established was dominated by strict rule and discipline. What previous music theory primarily owes to Pythagoras is the mathematical foundations behind antique musical thinking, handed down to us from the middle ages, mainly influenced: the theory of intervals, the constitution of the pitch system and the idea of the harmony of the spheres. This last fact opened up a cosmic dimension for musical thinking; implications arising from speculation on harmony and number address the relation between music and the soul upon which man is determined physically and psychically and, furthermore, the healing function music can be seen to have. Given this conglomerate of ideas, it becomes very difficult to differentiate between poetry and truth since Pythagoras' personality rapidly became stylised to a legendary existence by his disciples (even in his lifetime): "in fusing Religion, Mysticism and Philosophy, existed, at least, the seed of an exact science." This mythical status commanded a sheer inexhaustible philosophical and musical fascination stretching to the present day. Myths, in comparison with real historical facts, can, as has obviously been the case, exercise great influence and effect over a duration of historical dimensions.

Thus runs our inherited history, upon which acousmatic theory is founded, a history marked by ambiguity and partly diametrically contradictory source texts. It is, however, difficult to consider Pythagoras as the originator of the word "Acousmatician"; it appears with the emergence of Neo-Platonism and always together with its definitive opposite: "Mathematician". According to Porphirios (in 3AD) the acousmatician was someone "instructed merely in the general principles and teachings of Pythagoras", whereas "the mathematician had... enjoyed a detailed, complete and thorough teaching". Hence, we have two different types of Pythagorean, defined according to the level attained: the acousmatician, whose knowledge was merely fleeting, fed by rumour and superstition, and the mathematician whose qualification as theoretician was founded upon experiential learning. Iamblichos, a student of Porphyrios, noted contradictory statements when referring to the mutual acceptance of both groups. In one paper it was the acousmatician who recognised the mathematicians as true Pythagorean, the mathematicians, on the other hand, did not recognise the acousmaticians as such. However, in another paper, the exact opposite scenario is related. An attempt at unravelling these complications would overstep the limits of our current enquiry. The same applies to the shift of meaning that later developed, which needn't be more than mentioned here, the consequences being that the acousmatician came to be known as "anxiously and conservatively" faithful to the Acousmata (the catechism of proverbs and general moral code taught by Pythagoras), "whereas the term 'mathematician' came to resemble the same specialised meaning we have for it today." Indeed, an anonymous report, recorded by Iamblichos and which should be mentioned here, in which acousmaticians are not mentioned explicitly, but which nevertheless documents the situation of listening without visual contact.
According to him, "Pythagoras didn't take ... the young people who crowded around him indiscriminately, he didn't even admit them into his classes without them undergoing long and difficult tests." After the initial "physiognomic test", there followed "a three year period of probation, ... during which it would become clear whether or not a student had the necessary stamina for philosophical study and ... if the student pursued philosophy purely for its own sake. Once this examination had been passed, the student had to give all his belongings to the community, and listen to the teachings of the master for five years without speaking or seeing his face." This needed to happen in order to be successfully accepted into the circle of esoterics, who were "allowed to see the master personally, and to speak to him."

From this sketched out Pythagorean history, itself saturated by reconstruction and yet further interpretation, it should be clear enough by now how much terminological confusion exists within the extraordinarily muddled evidence handed down to us. It remains a task for the science of humanities to clear up, and can thankfully be neglected by music theory, as well as the further dreadful consequence, recorded by Iamblichos that, of the students who had failed during the five year probation period. These students would receive their belongings back twofold, "however, one built grave stones for them, as if the ex-students had died," and "if they should happen to meet these people again, they would be treated as if their acquaintance were being made for the first time, since for the school, these failed students were considered dead." In spite of this, one hopes that concerts of Acousmatic Music furthermore can take place without such sanctions. This fleeting retrospective in the historic philosophical tradition will ensure that philological over-exactitude on the one hand, and artistic reception on the other hand neither completely converge, nor do they necessarily cancel each other out. Instead, a composer is free to contrast the supposedly objective science, which at some times even fails such ambitions, in accessing an originally inventive perspective.
Pythagoras’ curtain has proved undoubtedly to have been inspiring both theory as well as in praxis of musical acousmatics, thus lending an uncertain compositional direction (uncertain, as far as the history of the idea is concerned) authority and respect. This was clearly recognised in Bayle's remark (formulated as a conventionally fitting veneration, behind a smokescreen of pragmatic reasoning) that: "if we found it necessary to revive the acousmatic perspective, then surely not out of mere homage to the legacy of historically significant predecessors. In the foreground, we have the sheer use-value of this term, since, the development of musical technique has reduced Electroacoustic Music to an instrumental aspect and, in so doing, has tended to hide the acousmatic emphasis."

The productive moment of a musical and perceptual listening, the fact that the range of priorities and interests shifted from acousmatic theorising (in opposition to Electroacoustic technique), as well as the long obsolete material problematic, to becoming itself, the centre of compositional reflection, could account for the interest shown by none too few composers. Then, independent of Bayle's complex and elaborate theorising, every composer devoted to working with electroacoustic sounds empirically has, on their own, gathered comparable musical experiences, to such an extent, that one would rather be inclined to differentiate between, on the one hand, the acousmatic problem per se, and on the other hand, building a theory to explain it. In order to go further and make a coherent differentiation, one would need only to go so far, so that the notion of the Acousmatic itself, remains insoluble, without negating the interdependence between theory, terminology and praxis. In any case, in this respect one can understand Francis Dhomont's statement on this, that Acousmatic Music "was initially conceived in order to be heard without any visual distraction"; Dhomont emphasises it's most important characteristic, the admittance of which would forfeit its identity. Acousmatic performance and the visibility of sonic (re-) production cancel each other out (an issue that shouldn't present any major obstacles when integrating an acousmatic performance of isolated visual elements - i.e., light-effects, or film sequences - which would enable a wider sense of a multi-media event, instead of in a purely narrow musical sense).

Dhomont, himself mostly responsible for the wide-spread of Acousmatic Music in Canada (he astutely noted on Pythagoras’ ideas that "one says" that his teaching took place from behind a curtain), and self-consciously denoting Acousmatic Music as an art of the century, which evades disappearance of sounds and in that sense becomes "a new and autonomous art"), has, with that, summed up its singular, original and immediate musical principle in the formula "art of sounds".
Then, nothing less than a qualitative leap can characterise the persistently underestimated essence of the acousmatic; for the first time in music history, the composer is no longer obliged to notate his music with a more or less precise symbolic notation in a score serving as the basis for sonic realisation, however the new technology of the twentieth century enables him to fix and conserve his musical works directly and definitely in auctorial sound realisation on a recording medium. Complex discussions about whether the score or the sounding execution (historically variable depending on which performance) represents the musical opus have, with regard to Acousmatic Music, become completely superfluous; Acousmatic Music, per definition, allows both acoustic phenomena and the composer's intention to conform to each other more clearly. Dhomont underlines how irrelevant these discussions (related to score-based music) are, in describing the CD primarily as a "veritable book of sounds" arising from one of the most convincing mediums. For Dhomont, the advantages of the CD are that it immediately presents a unique version of the composition; it conserves and reproduces sound phenomena without the intervention of retrospective interpretation. Unfortunately, the studios established in Cologne cannot boast the same degree of success; during the the pioneering phase in Electronic Music, Meyer-Eppler reflected (using his favourite phrase, "authentic composition") remarkably, that it wasn't the guarantee of the conservation of sound but rather an emphasis on terminology regarding pure electronic material production, that was sought after.

Theory and praxis of Acousmatic Music today is practised with comparable intensity in France as well as Canada (this favourable alignment has occurred due to much cultural exchange and affinity between both countries), and has already been exported to England. While experiences gained in the studios in Paris travelled back across the Channel, in the suitcases of a composer like Denis Smalley, in Germany the concept has hardly established itself in musical consciousness at all. In the previously mentioned German encyclopaedia "Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart", claiming to be the most up-to-date music encyclopaedia in the German language, one searches in vain for a key-word, a caption with referential character or an independent article. An opposite state of affairs can be discovered in the "New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" in which the chief editor Stanley Sadie felt the necessity to include an article on the subject. The corresponding main article "Electroacoustic Music" was written by Denis Smalley, together with Simon Emmerson. If one were to question this German ignorance, one might assume that, on the one hand, the person responsible for an exchange of ideas related to Acousmatics in Paris, a figure who might well have played a key role, simply went missing. On the other hand it must not left unmentioned, that after two World Wars (and even due to earlier military conflicts dating back to the Nineteenth Century) eventually the open wounds between Germany and France bore a much deeper influence than one would have thought, hoped or even wished for, particularly at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century. Apart from this, there also appear to be decisive musical reasons for the relatively limited acceptance of Acousmatics in Germany, which only recently gained its due attention. The effects of the openly war-like confrontation between the studios in Paris and Cologne, were obviously too strong, the claims to universal superiority in Electronic Music, and its instrumental procedures, far too loaded. Whoever realised predominantly structural Electroacoustic Music, based upon predetermined compositional designs, would find it difficult to immediately accept the Acousmatic perspective. This being a perspective that only those true to the tradition of Musique Concrète could experience first hand, especially in its leaning towards unique sonic experiences composed with sounds discovered via empirical means.

In the end, these sketchy reflections don't say anything about what the future holds for Acousmatic Music, not that this is a job for the musicologist, it is rather an issue today's composers must decide. One can only definitely conclude that for a globally valid, all-inclusive term, covering all electroacoustic activities the world over, the acousmatic idea (as far as it wasn't elementarily anchored in a specifically dated work conception) would have much difficulty in making itself known. Over and above this, it has certainly retained a neutral charm, qualified by its pluralistic significance for Electroacoustic Music. And, in as far as the term Acousmatic Music can be judged (as in Michel Chion's not completely inaccurate observation) as "welcome, if a somewhat esoteric" moment (which a more lenient Neo-Platonic Pythagorean viewpoint would describe as an 'exoteric' moment), then it might not be too impossible for the term, and the phenomenon itself (different than in the case of Electronic Music) to prove itself highly immune to the constant threat of culture industry appropriation, aesthetic flattening and musical banality.

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