John Dack, Computer Music Journal, no 26:3, 1 septembre 2002

There can be little doubt that the electroacoustic medium makes a major contribution to the range of styles and genres of British contemporary music. British-based electroacoustic composers enjoy considerable success in international competitions and regularly receive both commissions as well as invitations to work in foreign studios. Unlike our European neighbors, there are no major centers comparable to the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), the Institute of Sonology, or the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM). However, this is not necessarily a disadvantage, as several excellent universities provide both the musical and intellectual environments in which electroacoustic music can be studied at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It is particularly encouraging to note the many young composers who choose to travel to Britain specifically for this purpose. Britain, therefore, has a rich tradition (insofar as a new medium can have a “tradition”) of electroacoustic music. Pioneers such as Tristram Cary, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, or Maddalena Fagandini have often been overshadowed by their more illustrious counterparts in France and Germany; their activities are only now being given the serious attention they truly deserve. Despite this level of activity there is little evidence of a “school” of British electroacoustic music, and most composers can be situated without undue difficulty within the various strands of European music. Consequently, while it would be simplistic to claim that Denis Smalley, Jonty Harrison, and Adrian Moore constitute a British “school,” they do, nevertheless, accurately represent many of the preoccupations of electroacoustic composers in this country. For example, all three are committed to the public presentation of electroacoustic music — the composition of acousmatic music is central to each composer’s output. Mr. Smalley has championed the practice of diffusion as a vital aspect of electroacoustic music performance since 1976, thereby re-introducing aspects of performance practice to acousmatic concerts. Similarly, as director of BEAST (the Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre), Mr. Harrison has been involved in the development of a fiexible system for sound diffusion unrivalled in Britain. Mr. Moore is also actively involved in many areas of performance with technology. Lastly, each is an academic which, although not a prerequisite for electroacoustic composers, does emphasize the role played by higher education in disseminating acousmatic music in Britain.

The compositions on Denis Smalley’s Sources/scènes span 26 years (a remarkable feat in itself). His work and aesthetic falls within a broadly Schaefferian tradition and his own extensive writings deal with the materials, techniques, and aesthetics of electroacoustic music. The Schaefferian framework has been extensively elaborated and Mr. Smalley’s own concepts such as “surrogacy” and “indicative fields and networks” now provide composers, analysts, and musicologists with terminology inherently derived from the medium. This has facilitated both an understanding not only of electroacoustic music but also of its relationship to music in general. In other words: a true electroacoustic musicology. Pierre Schaeffer wrote: “It is the object which has something to say to us, if we know how to make it speak and to assemble it according to the kinship of its families and the similarity of its characteristics” (Chion/Reibel 1976, 57). I believe there are connections between French symbolism and many of Schaeffer’s theories; in Mr. Smalley’s works the sounds (whether recognizable or not) suggest correspondences as “things begin to talk amongst themselves” (Ibid., 47). The first track, Base Metals (2000), exhibits the hallmarks of Mr. Smalley’s language. His affection for attack-resonance sounds is evident (all the source sounds derive from recordings of metal sculptures by Derek Shiel) as is his ability to intervene in their resonances, to extend and develop them into objects of dynamic and spectral interest. Individual nodal components are isolated and given momentum and the energetic processes of sounds are delicately uncovered to reveal hidden textures and transformations. Initially, I found Empty Vessels (1997) the greatest challenge to my expectations. I first heard it during a concert at City University and the real-world sounds recorded from within large earthenware pots in the composer’s North London garden seemed a relatively unmediated documentation of an urban soundscape. However, thanks to this recording, I have heard the work many times and now can begin to appreciate the different acoustic environments through which the listener is taken. The subtle characteristics of the natural sounds are placed in carefully created acoustic spaces thus encouraging an interaction between the confined space of the vessels, the spaciousness of the outside environment, and large but enclosed reverberant spaces. This “play” of acoustic environments inhabited by intimate sounds produced by insects and rain, or smooth and distant ones like airplanes, is possible, of course, only in the electroacoustic medium. I hope to hear Empty Vessels again in the context of a diffused performance where the space of the venue can also participate in these relationships. It is difficult to remain oblivious to the manner in which space is articulated by sound in the real world after having heard it used in this way. This is a composition which transforms how we hear. For many enthusiasts of electroacoustic music, neither Pentes (1974) nor Tides (1984), the remaining tracks on the CD, need any introduction. Mr. Smalley’s control of fine detail and his unerring ear for directing both spectral and dynamic movement ensure that each work engages the listener. The behavior of water — both visual and aural — has long fascinated composers. There is consistency and yet constant variation. According to the composer’s liner notes, Tides was his first work in which source material was transformed by computer. There are two sections, each with distinct characteristics. The “pools” of Pools and Currents, for example, suggest connected sonic areas with individual characteristics of textural play. The water sounds acquire harmonic and gritty characteristicswhich are contrasted with “currents” propelling the music forward in fiuctuating waves of movement and rest. The final track, Pentes, is without doubt a classic of acousmatic music. The source material is mainly transformed instrumental sounds. After some minutes, the significance of the underlying drone becomes clear as a traditional melody, played on beautiful, reedy Northumbrian Pipes, makes a brief and unforgettable appearance.

The period of Jonty Harrison’s work is only slightly shorter than Mr. Smalley’s, stretching over 17 years. Mr. Harrison’s musical languages range from one based on abstracting features from sound objects to the use of sounds whose origins are often obvious and which inevitably imply cultural (and personal) meanings. As he remarks in the liner notes, his work includes the approaches of (Pierre) Schaeffer and (R Murray) Schafer. Klang (1982), like Pentes, has justifiably acquired the status of a classic acousmatic work. The discovery of the resonant properties of two earthenware casserole dishes owned by Mr. Smalley is the point of departure for the work (a detailed knowledge of a fellow composer’s kitchen-ware is one advantage of living in a relatively small country!). As the composer writes, “Klang… is the German for ‘sound’.” In addition to the onomatopoeic characteristics of the word in English it is worth adding that “Klang” in the original German usually implies some harmonic content and musical intention. It was also one of the basic elements of the Cologne studio and can be translated as “note” to differentiate it from the word “Ton.” (Along with “Schall” and “Geraüsch,” German seems to have a richer vocabulary in its number of words relating to “sound” than English does.) However, harmonic qualities are not the only ones exploited by Mr. Harrison. There are also brittle, fricative sound objects which possess their own energetic momentum. As a result, the resonant characteristics of an apparently mundane utensil are promoted to elements of a musical composition. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that poetry “strips the veil of familiarity from the world.” In a similar way, Klang alerts us to the fragile beauty of everyday sounds and their transformations. A common, and natural, progression for electroacoustic composers is to provide sound for installations. Track 3, Sorties (1995), originates in such a work. It contains abstract sounds as well as those heard in urban environments. Footsteps or the sounds of modes of transport such as trains and traffic suggest movement from one place to another but with little sense of arrival or repose. The action of travel is chronicled but we are left as temporary visitors to these sonic landscapes. The occasional presence of more abstract sounds, which are not developed for their own intrinsic properties, does little to stabilize the sense of unease. We hear rain and storms, footsteps on loose gravel (hardly a material for surreptitious arrival or departure), and despite a calming “pastoral” interlude with buzzing insects, birds, and what sounds like children playing, a feeling of gloomy restlessness prevails. Surface Tension (1996) exploits a dry, fricative sound vocabulary. The sources are sounds from packing materials, and in such unprepossessing physical objects Mr. Harrison once again encourages us to listen so that his sound objects “reveal ‘beauty’ in what is normally thrown away.” Often monophonic and sparsely textured, the fractured energies burst into individual trajectories. The sounds seem to express the frantic behavior of capitalist frenzy: buy a product, tear away the packing, and don’t consider where it came from or where it goes. Like the constant deferral of arrival in Sorties, it is in the process of unpacking and manipulating material that music is discovered. (This is, of course, a personal and highly speculative, if not fanciful, interpretation!) The fourth track, Splintering (1997), also reveals an equally carefully constructed series of transparent textures. However, the source materials in this track are the more resonant sounds of wood. As Mr. Harrison asserts, wood is “organic, ” and the sounds often retain that quality. The composer also plays on the concept of the “wood” as the place deep in our imagination where mysterious things can happen. Thus, he uses the sound metonymically to represent and evoke a whole range of connections — mythical, social, and environmental — with this one sonic symbol. The final work on this CD, Streams (1999), is a stereo version of a composition originally in 8-channel format. Once again, the vocabulary extends beyond the immediate musical contexts and natural processes of “evaporation, clouds and rainfall.” Individual lines merge and divide and water becomes inseparable from its spatial setting—enclosed and resonant, or open with spacious acoustic properties.

Adrian Moore’s works stem from 1994 to 1997. He is the youngest of the three and generously acknowledges his debt to the preceding composers. His first encounter with electroacoustic music was at a concert given by Mr. Smalley and as a postgraduate student he studied with Mr. Harrison and also worked with BEAST. Junky (1996), is described by the composer in the liner notes as “electroacoustic ambient,” although I feel the description of the work as “ambient” is somewhat disingenuous. The opening and closing sections contain slowly evolving harmonies but the variety of interjecting sound objects ensure the piece never descends into New Age navel-gazing. The second track, Dreamarena (1996), makes use of similar sound material, but the rhythmic patterns of Junky are replaced by a more amorphous structure punctuated by gestures which are either dry or reverberant. The third composition is, for me, the most successful. Study in Ink (1997) is a virtuosic demonstration of a sound whose potential is discovered by accident but is then exploited by a carefully controlled series of gestures and juxtapositions. This aesthetic is, of course, a recognizably French attitude toward acousmatic music (in the early 1990s Mr. Moore spent time in Lyon, France). The squeaking of a marker pen on a white board (the sole source for the composition) is extended and magnified with arching melodic profiles to build a repository of sound objects. Short sections of erratic movements trace complex trajectories through pitch-space. With track 4 we move from the single sound source to multiple sources (though precise identification is neither needed nor intended). Foil-Counterfoil (1997) employs closely recorded tin foil, bottles, and balloons. As in the previous work these source sounds are transformed into restless chains of objects, harmonic in content, grainy, fractured—they ensure we are rarely left in repose as our ears constantly seek for connections. The final work is Sieve (1994– 1995), the earliest on the CD. Sieve (a “radiogenic” work, according to the composer) uses electronically manipulated natural sounds. Mr. Moore asserts that by removing certain sections of the sound precise identification can be compromised. The listener begins actively to seek for recognition and occasionally realizes that only when sufficient time is allowed can any accurate recognition be attempted. Even then security is not assured and the sound object slips from our mental grasp and veers off to assume a new identity.

These three discs are excellent examples of the current state of electroacoustic composition in Great Britain and are welcome additions to the catalog of the empreintes DIGITALes label. The variety of tracks on each CD reflect the diversity of the composers’ languages and the consistent quality of their output. I recommend them highly.

The variety of tracks on each CD reflect the diversity of the composers’ languages and the consistent quality of their output.