Expanding Frames of Reference: Teaching the History of Electro-Acoustic Music
Published online: 1 October 2006
Brian Mann once stated in these pages1 that competence in music appreciation is, among other things, a matter of continually expanding frames of reference. He stated, as an example, that one appreciates Beethoven's Eroica to a certain extent on becoming familiar with it, to a greater extent when one becomes familiar with Beethoven's preceding and subsequent works, and to a still greater extent when one becomes familiar with Beethoven's musical precedents as well as his successors. The idea of expanding frames of reference applies aptly to Penn State's INART 55: History of Electro-Acoustic Music, a class that surveys the interactions among audio and computer technologies, cultural movements, and music composition from the invention of the phonograph to the present day.
Although the impetus to create the course in 2002 came from the Director of the School of Music, the course's administrative home is the Department of Integrative Arts, a program where students tailor an individualized arts-based curriculum, often blurring traditional disciplinary boundaries. The Integrative Arts designation fits this course, since electro-acoustic music, with its interdisciplinary blend of the technical and the aesthetic, is among the most integrated of all art forms.
As is the case at many schools, all Penn State students must complete a body of General Education courses, with a requisite number of credits in a series of subcategories. INART 55 satisfies 3 out of 9 required credits in the Arts category. Thus, it draws students from all the university's colleges and degree programs. Its topics complement many of the university's diverse majors, with compelling nuggets for a variety of fields. For example:
- Those in International Studies can add to their body of knowledge the theremin, the popular and ethereal sounding instrument, originally brought to the USA as part of a Kremlin espionage assignment. Its inventor, Lev Termen, was associated with Soviet covert operations (often reluctantly) for most of his long and eventful life.2 Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the late 1950s the RCA Music Synthesizer was touted by RCA chairman David Sarnoff (quoted in Robert K. Plumb's New York Times article of February 1, 1955) as being able to create any sound or speech conceivable, with possible applications in psychological warfare.
- Students interested in sociology have a case study in William Shockley, the lead inventor of the transistor, which completely revolutionized technology. Shockley was to channel his acclaim into a puzzling and horrific vocation of advocating racial cleansing and ensuring greater propagation of "superior" races than "inferior" races. Though few took his eugenic theories seriously, he was to go to his grave feeling that this "research" was far more significant than his innovations in solid state technology.3
- Students coming to the course with technical backgrounds can appreciate the differences between amplitude modulation and frequency modulation broadcasting. Stockhausen appropriated the former in the 1960s,4 while the latter became the basis of digital sound synthesis' great breakthrough in the 1970s and 1980s.5
The course treats electro-acoustic music as something arising from a "maverick" tradition described by many writers.6 In all these examples above, mavericks mingled music and technology, often misapplying electronics constructively. The underlying philosophy has been described as one of "Anything goesor at least anything might go, and we won't know until we try."7 I like to think this resourcefulness is a healthy example for students who will graduate into an uncertain marketplace where they can expect to change jobs several times over the course of their lifetimes. If the artists studied in this class have been able to forge their own individual paths, so can they.
These historical topics ultimately converge with the classroom of the "wired" educational environment, where students commonly arrive at college with laptops in hand, and where information not found online seems to lack validity. Thus the course's topics eventually become self-referential. Just as the historical subject matter forms a nexus of musical, cultural, and technological developments, the nexus' technological arm becomes itself a nexus for pedagogical issues involving musical literacy and the role of digital course delivery, as the roles of the teacher and the traditional classroom lecture format shift from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side."
This article will discuss how presenting information about music technology within a technologically-evolving environment brings about expanding frames of reference in music, history, and pedagogy.
"Online" = "Nonlinear"
The text for INART 55 was created as a Web-based resource. The timeline is located at: http://www.music.psu.edu/Faculty%20Pages/Ballora/INART55/timeline.html.
The course makes every effort to emphasize overriding contexts surrounding the musical material. A list of primary sources follows this article. The course text covers an eclectic set of historical progressions, including:
- Vacuum tubes, transistors, microchips;
- Edison disc, vinyl, DVD;
- Theremin, Moog Synthesizer, software synthesizers;
- Varèse, Stockhausen, Cage, Schaeffer, DJ Spooky;
- Modernism, postmodernism, and the various "sub-isms" each encompasses.
The hypertext environment suits the presentation of historical material well. Since the material is virtual rather than paper, new chapters can easily be added: recent additions include Plunderphonics and further examples of Electronica. Updates are also easy to make (a sometimes sad task when this means entering death dates). But more importantly, the hypertext environment expands the one-dimensional ordering that is inherent in the book format. The two-dimensional timeline table of contents allows users to click on any entry to open chapters in a new browser window. Thus simultaneities can be observed through the timeline's vertical correspondences. Associations amongst different items may be cross-referenced within the chapter texts through hyperlinks. Whenever a term reappears, it is linked to earlier references. Readers may easily step back through all entries on a given term or historical figure. In the same way, sub-chapters may be easily created. For example, a good number of composers, architects, and artists (not to mention Nature itself!) have explored the Golden Ratio. Throughout the text, background on this mathematical relationship is immediately availableevery instance of the term is linked to a background page.
Through hyperlinks, any given reading of the material may contain background on topics or terms that can be as prominent or invisible as the reader likes.8 Hopefully, readers are able to form their own associative strands as they connect related elements of the material. To borrow a concept from John Cage, the goal is to remove intention on the part of the instructor, providing sufficient flexibility so that each student may assemble the facts differently.
Poetry in Motion
Besides hyperlinked cross-references, the Web's multi-media capabilities are invaluable for illustrating time-based, abstract, or invisible topics. For example, one course page provides a brief summary of common practice musical styles. Aural examples of scales and cadences culminate in a QuickTime movie playing the exposition of the first movement from Mozart's piano sonata in C major, K. 330, while displaying identifications of the formal components (primary theme, cadence, transition, secondary theme, etc.).
The invisible topics include basic electronics, which are shown with interactive Flash animations that illustrate electrical current flow (courtesy of Penn State's Education Technology Services). The animations trace three developments:
- Basic current flow in a light bulb: how and why the "Edison effect" takes place. How this effect was behind the diode and triode vacuum tubes that made radio technology possible.
- Electromagnetic induction, a simple buzzer: how this type of interrupter circuit can generate alternating current in a secondary coil, and how adding capacitor plates creates a spark gap oscillator (a primordial form of radio broadcast).
- Crystal molecular structure and how current may flow through a "doped" crystal (the basis of the transistor).
These Flash animations were incorporated for the Spring 2006 term. Educational Technologies funded their development in order to create applets that would be available to any course that covers electronics fundamentals.
Penn State's music library also has online resources, as recordings of compositions are available for online streamed listening. Should copyright restrictions be eased in the future, courses like this are prime candidates for podcasts, in which audio files may be uploaded to a Web server that students may "subscribe" to. New entries to this server would be downloaded automatically onto their computers and portable music devices.
Lend Me Your Ears
With objective material presented online, it is redundant to focus class sessions on identifying every essential name and date (these are colored red in the Web text, and appear in weekly crossword puzzle assignments). Thus, the instructor's role shifts to one of curator and discussion facilitatorboth in-class and online.
For electro-acoustic music, different instructors are likely to emphasize different compositions due to the fact that the canon of electro-acoustic works is not as firmly codified as it is for common practice works. For example, many electro-acoustic history courses and texts cover popular artists, but INART 55 gives particular focus to the collaborations between the group Talking Heads and producer Brian Eno in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their studio production work involved a variety of electro-acoustic tape loop techniques, plus lyrics with a distinctly postmodern streak. While their significance is easy to justify, I would not assume that every teacher of this subject focuses on their work.
The class's discussions are meant to help students understand how they perceive music. Since even music majors often have difficulty describing the basic components of compositions, a primary aim of the course is to stimulate active listening and discussion that do not rely on terminology that is vague or fanciful.
Music is largely non-representational. While there are exceptions, as in the cases of vocal or programmatic music, music's intangible elements often seem to defy language-based descriptions, raising problems of how best to discuss them. Many have noted that music can only be described by adopting metaphors.9 Composer Morton Subotnick has explored how commonly used musical metaphors have become internalized and accepted as concrete.10 The concept of pitch being "high" or "low," for example, is an imposed description, as there is no intrinsically vertical difference between pitches in different registers. It would be more accurate to call pitches "long" or "short" (describing relative wavelength) or "quick" vs. "slow" (describing frequency). But these more accurate descriptions, besides being simply counterintuitive, would easily be confused for note durations. Subotnick reported that when young children who had no musical training or vocabulary hear pitches at varying frequencies, they describe higher pitches as sounding "smaller." Yet somehow musicians have found the descriptors "high" and "low," and these terms suit our perceptual sensibilities to the degree that once we learn them, it becomes difficult to imagine any other way of describing them. Incidentally, Subotnick's observations ally well with psychoacoustic research that reveals all hearing to be selective and edited, with auditory perception based on interpretations of acoustic information rather than objective representations.11
As electro-acoustic pieces tend to be explorations into uncharted sonic territory, listeners are often placed in the role of children with no meaningful assumptions or internalized metaphors, struggling to describe the invisible. But it can be a healthy experience to try to reduce listening to its fundamentals and chart new descriptive territory. Robert J. Gluck of the University at Albany has also addressed this necessary re-evaluation of listening.12 He cites spiritual figure Jiddu Krishnamurti,13 pointing out that it is rare that we truly perceive anything as it is, but rather our memories and assumptions cause us to categorize phenomena into categories that we already know. For instructors of electro-acoustic music, the job is to bring students outside of their preconceptions about music, and to help students appreciate pieces for their own merits rather than according to comparisons of other music with which they are familiar. The analytical listening tools required for electro-acoustic compositions apply to music from any period.
"Talking about Music Is like Dancing about Architecture"14
For many students, this class requires them to make their first attempts at discussing music beyond initial gut reactions. Guiding students constructively through this challenge is a humbling process of continuous improvement. Much of what is described here is in hindsight of the Spring 2006 semester, and will be implemented when the course is next offered (when need for further refinement will doubtlessly become evident).
The course has always placed a premium on students producing written work, maintaining a conservative hard line that the ability to write clearly and persuasively is a keystone to success in life. In the past, all students have been required to write a term paper that examines a particular composition (each examining a different composition, chosen by lottery). However, Spring 2007 will reflect a regrettable concession: that many students coming to the course lack the skills necessary to write a term paper of this kind, and despite the best of intentions and principles, it is doubtful that this assignment is actually a constructive introduction to writing for them. Thus, in future there will be two "tracks" available to students. One will involve an extensive term paper and minimal memorization, the other will require extensive memorization, minimal writing, and a final exam.
Those choosing the term paper option will complete it in three discrete sections, spaced throughout the semester. This is a similar multi-stage analysis used commonly for both classical and popular music, with each stage representing a new frame of reference. This particular model is a variation of Ferrara's eclectic analysis,15 which I have attempted to adapt for undergraduate students being introduced to electro-acoustic music. Guidelines supplied for the paper also build on listening techniques taken from handouts for a UCLA course in Middle Eastern and African Musics taught by A. Jihad Racy in the early 1980s. They also borrow from listening guidelines collegially shared by Dennis Miller from Northeastern University in Boston and Kevin Austin from Concordia University in Montreal.
As with any artistic criticism, the goal is to evaluate the artwork, not simply report a subjective response to it. That is, the writing should be about the art itself, not about the person doing the writing. For students unaccustomed to critical writing, this process of looking beyond oneself may be approached in a number of ways. One method is to ascertain the intent of the composer and determine whether it was successfully realized. This process, however, has the potential pitfall of the intentional fallacy and all of its limitations. Another helpful starting point may be to view pieces as problems or puzzles that composers conceive and then set out to solve. However, this approach can also become trivializing if it is regarded as the be-all and end-all of analysis. Since all methodologies have their advantages and limitations, the multi-stage analysis is meant to draw on the best of all methodologies employed.
Step One: The Piece's Language
The first step is a technical description. For a Classical sonata, this would involve identifying sections, themes, transitions, and so on. For electro-acoustic works, it is not always clear when to apply familiar terms or create new ones. The concept of "cadence" can be understood meaningfully as a structural pillar of a piece, traditionally based in V7-I functional harmony, or based on something else, depending on how the composer delineates structural elements. Pierre Schaeffer's Étude aux chemins de fer (1948), the first piece written entirely for electronic reproduction, is created from recordings taken at a railway yard. The high sound of a whistle burst occurs intermittently throughout, signaling the end of one section of activity and the beginning of another. It may be helpful to consider the whistle as something akin to a cadence in this particular sound world.
This first stage will involve listening only. As the piece's language elements become apparent through repeated listenings (including, but not limited to, repeating motifs, clear structural points, alternations in instrument type, or many other ways that features may be articulated in music), they are described in concrete acoustic terms and given names or terms. With language elements identified, students should be able to make observations about the overall design of the piece, and how these elements hold the design together. Many times, a technical understanding of a piece is exactly that. Terminology must often be learned from technical fields such as radio communications. Heterodyning, amplitude modulation, and filter sweeps are all well-defined techniques that may be described with as much accuracy as functional harmony.
Some compositions may generate material algorithmically in ways that are entirely foreign to common practice craft. For example, it is certainly possible to quantify the musical language of Eonta (1964) and other stochastic works by Xenakis, which evolve according to a logical, statistically-defined system of theme and development. Once some understanding of the precise underlying formulae is gained, it becomes all the more remarkable how Xenakis manages to transcend the mathematics to achieve a sublime, almost prayerful quality.
While a traditional formalist analysis relies heavily on the piece's score as the material for examination, this is often not possible with electro-acoustic pieces. Mann's article16 contests the notion that music appreciation can only be taught to students possessing musical literacy (the ability to read a score). Adding to this: if electro-acoustic music has any legitimacy, this notion must be discarded, as many electro-acoustic pieces with established musical merit have no scores available (Edgard Varèse's Poème Electronique  and Paul Lansky's Idle Chatter  being just two examples out of a myriad). Listening to pieces without scores forces listeners to develop an aural literacy, re-examining listening and understanding through sound.
The identification of language and formal elements relies on a student's resourcefulness, as two examples will demonstrate. One student observed in Raymond Scott's Pygmy Taxi Corporation (1969) three clear sections. Timing them, he found that the Pythagorean Theorem could be applied to their lengths, which turned out to be closely related to three sides of a right triangle. While such an observation may not be exactly earth-shattering, it is still a compelling piece of information about the piece's structure, as is the case with observations others have made of subdivisions according to the Golden Ratio or the Fibonacci series in common practice music.
Another thoughtful observation concerned Paul Lansky's use of register in Idle Chatter. The vibrant, chattering foreground is created by overlapping spoken phrases. The phrases are never quite intelligible due to a number of factors, one of which is their registral proximity, which causes separate recordings to blur together. The speech fragments are superimposed over extended electronic sounds, which form an ever-shifting background. While there is certainly more to be said about the piece, this initial overview of the piece's construction and layering is a good starting foundation. Different pieces manifest their meanings in unique ways. As is the case with J.S. Bach's harmonic sophistication, learning to understand the language of the composer leads to a deeper appreciation of the piece's affectiveness.
Stage Two: The Composition's History
This stage involves reading as much relevant history as possible. A biographical survey of the composer, a study of her works, and the contexts in which she was working add another layer of vital information about the piece. For electro-acoustic music, technology is a significant part of the relevant culture. Two examples are the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Chowning.
Stockhausen's magnum opuses of the 1960s such as Telemusik (1966) and Hymnen (1967) used techniques of "intermodulation," the combination of two waves in the same way that the carrier and modulator signals are combined for AM broadcasting. A radio receiver is sensitive to frequencies well above the audible range, and demodulates the signal on reception in order to broadcast the program material (the modulating signal). In contrast, Stockhausen used much lower-frequency audible signals instead of a super-high frequency carrier, and did not demodulate the combination of signals. Today, virtually all sound synthesis textbooks describe these techniques of "amplitude modulation" and "ring modulation." While others may have used similar techniques at this time, Stockhausen's pieces carry special distinction due to his philosophical context, which sought to create sonic visions of international harmony. By coming up with new combinations and hybrids of musics from different ethnic and cultural traditions, Stockhausen was attempting to integrate isolated times and places and fabricate global portraits of humanity and culture. In the 1960s this idea was prevalent in many countries, with America's Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and the flower movement. It is little wonder that Stockhausen was lauded by popular music figures such as the Beatles, who included his photograph in their famous Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover collage.
John Chowning was an American contemporary of Stockhausen at Stanford University. His most lasting and widespread innovation was synthesizing timbres with techniques based in frequency modulation broadcasting. Like Stockhausen, Chowning applied modulation techniques to audible signals and explored the effects of the modulation. (One difference between the two was that Stockhausen was working in a radio broadcast facility and finding new uses for its equipment. Chowning was using the precision of computers to study the effects of vibrato, and later learned that his work was related to FM broadcasting.) As with Stockhausen, Chowning's compositions were significant for a number of extra-musical reasons. Chowning had set up the first integrated computer music facility in Stanford in the late 1960s. With FM, Chowning was able to go in new directions, creating works such as Stria (1977), which explored the Golden Ratio as completely as possible, from the macroscopic levels of the piece's overall structure, to the tonality of its pitch language, to the microscopic level of applying the ratio to the FM specifications.17 At a time when the term "computer music" typically implied "research in total serialism" and synthesized sounds were either created by filtering complex waves (subtractive synthesis, which was effective but crude), or by combining simple waves (additive synthesis, which was precise but expensive, requiring dozens of oscillators), the discovery of FM synthesis was like musical cold fusion. Stanford teamed up with the Yamaha Corporation to produce commercial instruments, and theirs was to become one of the most successful academic-industry partnerships ever to grace the field of music. Their instruments generated unprecedented sales and made the "FM sound" a staple of popular music throughout the 1980s.
In addition to the music-historical contexts, composers' writings are often revealing. Program notes, correspondence, and, of course, the piece's title all may bring about added layers of meaning. In one particularly successful paper, a student's first draft on Kaija Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens (1993) demonstrated a solid understanding of the composer's language. For the final draft, I suggested that she find images of the gardens named for each of the piece's six movements. The student found a wealth of new meanings when she learned about the symbolism in the arrangement of the gardens, and how these arrangements were mapped to the musical material. The knowledge gained with this step is vital and is not something that is gained exclusively through listening. It relies on the insights gained at the first step, adding an essential frame of reference.
Stage Three: Listening Guide
The final stage is somewhat speculative. It involves creating a guide for listeners, discussing how someone should approach listening to this piece, given its methodology and historical context. If steps one and two have been thorough, students will be less vulnerable to subjective flights of fancy at this point. While visceral responses are encouraged ("Wow! Things just explode here!"), students should also be able to explain what causes the reaction ("Suddenly a loud chord is played by all the instruments, encompassing the entire pitch range . . . ").
Many of the best descriptions come from non-music students. An observation such as "The tempo doesn't change, but perceptually the music appears to go faster when the composer writes notes with shorter and shorter durations" may be rudimentary. On the other hand, musical devices are not always described with such concise clarity. A series of observations such as these leads to a solid understanding of how compositions affect the attentive listener.
One student found that Barry Truax's use of volume in Riverrun (1986) corresponded to a visual panorama, as though the portrayal of a river consisted of shifts from close-ups to distant, wide shots. Whether or not Truax intended this cinematic effect, this is a useful observation, particularly coming from a non-musician, about how changes in dynamics suit the material of the piece.
Another student compared the echo effects in Luigi Nono's Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz (1965) to descriptions of the "wandering sound" in Nono's later works, as described by his publisher, Schott Music (www.schott-music.com/index.html). For this piece, the wandering quality emerges due to a sense of vastness, the combination of echoes and long reverberation times, which effectively portray Nono's illustration of the constant recurring nightmare that haunts Holocaust survivors.
Another example of combining insights gained in the first two stages was the paper on Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens mentioned earlier. The student cited the fast tempo of the second movement, Many Pleasures (Garden of Kinkaku-Ji) as creating a more "forceful" sound than the first movement. The student then learned that this garden featured a number of waterfalls, and connected their presence to fish in Japanese mythology that swim up waterfalls to be transformed into dragons. The student correlated this mythical transmogrification with the change in tempo, as the more powerful quality of the movement represented the much stronger creature following the transformation. Again, this observation enriches a hearing of the piece and is based on concrete observations of the piece and its cultural references; whether or not Saariaho intended this particular imagery is immaterial.
My goal is for students to learn to approach their assigned composition with an appropriate level of respect, to discover why the piece is considered a masterwork. Achieving this level of respect is by no means a task unique to electro-acoustic music. The same need for educated listening has been required for decades to appreciate various forms of jazz and concert music, from Charles Ives to Milton Babbitt to Cecil Taylor and beyond. As do all forms of art and music, electro-acoustic music has its own tension between "high art" and "popular art," between pieces that are easily accessible and pieces that require some effort on the part of the listener to appreciate.
Concluding Thoughts on Electro-Acoustic Music in the Curriculum
This concluding section examines not just the history class, but also a group of electro-acoustic music class offerings. Mann suggests that the current decline in musical literacy among college students is exacerbated by the rise of synthesized music.18 I suspect he is not the only qualified authority to hold this opinion. This point may be argued, as "synthesized music" may mean many things to many people. But serious debate over a few versions of the term would compel both sides to acknowledge that contemporary culture is rife with advertised shortcuts and quick fixes: ads for miracle diets, drugs, or ear training courses can be found in virtually every magazine and newspaper. Software programs such as Fruity Loops (http://www.fruityloops.com/) and GarageBand (http://www.apple.com/ilife/garageband/) make it a simple matter to assemble catchy dance tracks in minutes. Certainly, it does the world no harm if those who wish to dabble in music production can easily dip their toes in the water. But the ubiquity of music that is quickly produced with beat-oriented audio software merits some aesthetic caution. It has been noted19 that pioneering recordings by artists such as Stockhausen or Wendy Carlos were the result of hundreds of hours of painstaking, obsessive attention to detail; and that most music created in "paint by numbers" programs simply doesn't embody the passion found in these early pieces.
A recurring theme of class discussions is that artworks that pushed the envelope of their time maintain their edge, even after their innovations have been imitated and/or refined by others. The innovative works from the 1950s, including those by Luening, Ussachevsky, and Berio, retain an intangible element of power, even though audio production equipment has advanced considerably since that time, and what used to take hours or days with splicing tape and a razor blade can now be accomplished in minutes with a mouse. Somehow innovation leaves an imprint. Even after other innovations have succeeded it, the piece's intangible power remains evident to listeners in a way that imitations of the form often lack.
The nature of innovation is certainly open to re-examination due to the advent of samplers. Historian/composer Kyle Gann claims that sampling has redefined the nature of how music may be conceived and created: "The musical atom is no longer the note, but the sample, a sonic entity that can just as easily be a sound complex or quotation as a single tone from a musical instrument."20 Sampling allows an element of "photo" reality to be added easily to music. And, while the two examples may not be exactly parallel, sampling does raise some of the same questions of legitimacy for musicians that the camera raised for visual artists in the late 19th century.
Leaving copyright issues to legal professionals, it cannot be ignored that the use of quotation has become a vital component of the popular music forming the listening vocabulary of many students. Some dance forms consist primarily of such quotations, and are sometimes termed "collage music." Just as there is creative merit in the photo collage, so too may significant works be created in the realm of aural collage, where the strongest work will likely come from those with strong musical sensibilities. In his inspirational manifesto of the DJ culture,21 DJ Spooky, informed by his education in philosophy and French literature, explores what he calls "a terrain described by many maps."22 The aim of the DJ artist, according to Miller, is to mix media categories, and in so doing create a "database aesthetics" and an "art from the information economy." With the volume of material globally available from the realms of art, news, and advertising, DJ mixes represent the culture of the information age. Media is decoded (or "recoded") and rearranged, similar to the way the mind remembers events. Just as nonlinear dreams give insight into the nature of personality (recalling Dr. Freud), so too can nonlinear mixed media sequences give insight into a cultural subconsciousness. Miller is not alone in defending the integrity of pre-recorded materials. Other musicologists have explored the use of quotation in rap and hip hop music as a form of a cultural memory, creating an important oral history and cultural self-examination.23
At their worst, collage media works are simply derivative, disposable products of an instant gratification, postmodern society. But the work of artists like Miller needs to be acknowledged not only as a popular force, but also as a well-refined practice. In a consciously crafted collage, carefully chosen cultural references (sounds from a city street, or from a familiar political figure) can deliver powerful intuitive meanings. The DJ's goal is to tap into resonances lurking within content that is shared, decomposed, recombined, and redistributed. (Of course, each listener must make a subjective judgment as to whether or not the DJ is successful, just as we may argue whether Beethoven was successful at tapping into underlying, fundamentally human resonances.)
Bearing all this in mind, what kind of literacy should be expected of those students who are hoping to excel in the creation of electro-acoustic music, particularly those whose listening repertoire consists primarily of DJ mixes? At Penn State, notational literacy is not expected in appreciation courses. Neither the History of Electro-Acoustic Music course nor the Introduction to Western Music, another general education course, requires students to be able to read music. But in the digital music production course (INART 258: Fundamentals of MIDI and Digital Audio) rudimentary musical literacy is prerequired24 while audio production literacy is enforced as students learn to use audio/MIDI sequencing and notation software.
For INART 258 class assignments, students may use audio from any source, but the maximum length of any clip is two seconds. This counteracts tendencies to create projects consisting simply of extended excerpts from their favorite CDs. Rather, students create their own sound world based on the inherent rhythms and sound qualities of audio clips they include. A limited number of longer clips may be used with the stipulation that these should be recognizable as quotations. One example of effective quotation was a project addressing issues of consumerism and mass marketing. It featured a children's chorus from a 1970s advertising jingle of a well-known fast food chain. Two copies of the jingle played simultaneously: one remained unaltered, the other's pitch gradually dropped, creating a monstrous sounding metamorphosis of the innocent, happy sounding voices.
Thus, as with the history class, the philosophical task (for those students willing to accept it) is one of learning to listen, of taking even a short recording of a familiar sound and hearing it in new ways. And, as with the history class, it is not always the music majors who produce the most compelling work. Another goal for Spring 2007 is to make podcasts of the audio/MIDI students' work available to students in the history class. History students may earn extra credit for submitting constructive responses to their colleagues' class projects.
Coda: But Is It Music?
Along with death and taxes, instructors of digital or electro-acoustic music live with the certainty that they will be called on at some point to defend the legitimacy of the works they cover; to address doubts as to whether a digital music production course should be considered a course in music at all; whether any course requiring only the rudiments of notational literacy should be included in a serious music curriculum, especially if non-majors are allowed to take it.
A simple response is to point out that definitions of "rudiments of literacy" may vary. For example, students wishing to pursue a minor in music technology at Penn State must enroll in INART 50: Science of Music, a general education course covering musical acoustics (which satisfies 3 credits in the category of natural sciences). While it is easy to argue that basic acoustics represents a rudimentary level of literacy for musicians, this course is not required at Penn State for music majors (although it is soon to be required of Music Education majors). It is likely that many other music degree granting institutions also do not require such a course.
But there is a broader point to be made: misgivings over mixing students of varied, non-standard backgrounds tend not to reflect issues of competence, but rather the means of access, by which I mean a rigid sequence in which skills should be learned. There are numerous artists who have successfully "crossed over" to achieve popularity with rudimentary literacy, but over time created works of ever-greater sophistication. Frank Zappa's music is now performed by major orchestras and discussed by leading theorists, yet Zappa had not had extensive formal musical training when he began performing and recording.25 Thus there are those who lack musical literacy but who possess musical competence. Surely it is not over optimistic to expect that students who are encouraged to pursue their competence will shoulder the task of adding literacy to their frame of reference once it becomes essential for further artistic growth. There need not be only one door through which students must pass in order to earn the right to call themselves musicians. The frames of reference may develop in different orders for different students, and even the most unlikely-seeming candidates may be diamonds in the rough.26
Principal References for the course text of INART 55 History of Electro-Acoustic Music
Amdahl, Kenn. There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings. Broomfield, CO: Clearwater Publishing, 1991.
Appignanesi, Richard and Chris Garratt. Introducing Postmodernism. London, England: Icon Books UK, 1995.
Appleton, Jon and Ronald C. Perera, eds. Development and Practice of Electronic Music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975.
Arts Council of Great Britain. Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century. Arts Council of Great Britain, 1987.
Ballora, Mark. History and Current Developments in Stereophonic Audio. Master's thesis in Music Technology, New York University, 1995.
Becker, Carol and Ann Wiens, eds. The Artist in Society: Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities. Chicago, IL: New Art Examiner Press, 1995.
Borio, Gianmario. "Nono, Luigi." The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online. Ed. L. Macy. http://www.grovemusic.com.
Carlos, Wendy. www.wendycarlos.com.
Chadabe, Joel. Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.
Darter, Tom and Greg Armbruster. The Art of Electronic Music. New York, NY: GPI Books, 1984.
Doczi, Gyorgi. The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art, and Architecture. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1994.
Dodge, Charles and Thomas Jerse. Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance. New York, NY: Schirmer Books, 1997.
Doornbusch, Paul. The Music of CSIRAC: Australia's First Computer Music. Australia: Common Ground Publishing, 2005.
Electronica primer. http://phobos.plato.nl/e-primer/.
"The Evolution of Recordings . . . From Cylinder to Video Disc." Pamphlet published by the Audio Engineering Society, 1977.
Gann, Kyle. American Music in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Schirmer Books, 1997.
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1Mann, "A Response to Kivy: Music and 'Music Appreciation' in the Undergraduate Liberal Arts Tradition," 92.
2Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage.
3Moore, "Time 100: William Shockley."
4Chadabe, Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music.
5Chowning, "The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation."
6See in particular Broyles, Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music.
7Leider, "Observations Re: Jon Appleton."
8This utilization of hypertext is in no way unique to this course. Online resources such as http://www.wikipedia.org use this same type of cross-referencing.
9Miles, "The Limits of Metaphorical Interpretation," 9-26.
10Lecture delivered at the University of Florida at Gainesville April 8, 2005, as part of the Florida Electroacoustic Music Festival.
11Much fundamental research into auditory perception and music may be found in Bregman, Auditory Scene Analysis, and Deutsch, The Psychology of Music.
12Gluck, "Addressing Resistance to New Sounds: Teaching Electro-Acoustic Music in a Liberal Arts Setting," 22-26.
13Krishnamurti, Total Freedom: The Essential Krishnamurti.
14While the source of this oft-quoted comparison is uncertain, it is often attributed to Elvis Costello in White, "A Man out of Time Beats the Clock," 52.
15Ferrara, Philosophy and the Analysis of Music.
16Mann, "A Response to Kivy: Music and 'Music Appreciation' in the Undergraduate Liberal Arts Tradition."
17Dodge and Jerse, Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance.
18Mann, "A Response to Kivy: Music and 'Music Appreciation' in the Undergraduate Liberal Arts Tradition," 99.
19Larry the O, "Building Character," 154.
20Gann, American Music in the Twentieth Century, 354.
21Miller, Rhythm Science.
22Much of this material was also taken from a lecture presentation given by Miller at Penn State as part of the Anderson Lecture Series on September 26, 2005.
23For two examples, see Kathy Acker, "Gangsta Rap: Representation, Transgression, and the Race Artist" and Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom.
24Anecdotally speaking, this prerequisite seems the norm, at least for courses taught by acquaintances at other schools.
25According to Kernfeld, he played rock guitar, drums, and sang while in high school, then studied theory for six months at Chaffey College, Alta Loma, California.
26I am grateful to colleagues Charles Youmans and Eric McKee for their feedback while this article was in preparation.
Last modified on Tuesday, 07/05/2013