please briefly describe the future of electronic music

I’ve been asked to perform at a “Non-academic Style Electroacoustic Music” concert at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as part of The 2009 Shanghai International Electroacoustic Music Week. The concert’s being put together by Zhao Junyuan 昭骏园, also featuring Wang Changcun 王长存, Torturing Nurse, Mai Mai, and Junyuan’s band Power Wood Quality 木电质. Our concert occurs on the afternoon of October 21 from 2pm-5pm (discussion included) in the Conservatory’s Reporting Hall, 20 Fenyang Lu (near Fuxing Lu). I plan to present a concert version of Kaleidoscope Music.

The festival runs October 19-23 (plus workshops extending on either side), and the whole week should be fun. There’s lots of other good stuff on the program, including another visit to Shanghai from Neil Rolnick, and a performance by Bang on a Can All-Stars of works by Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, Tan Dun 谭盾, and others. Check out the complete schedule.

I’m looking forward to seeing Neil Rolnick again. He’s a computer music pioneer, and I remember listening to his A Robert Johnson Sampler as an undergrad at St. Olaf in the mid-90’s. He was in China last year for a show at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and he stopped by Shanghai to play at a NOIShanghai event at Live Bar. We had a fascinating chat over Hunan food; he’s got interesting stories about everyone in music. (You can download A Robert Johnson Sampler and other works on his music page.)

I got to say, I’ve criticized the Shanghai Conservatory in the past for being insular and not taking a leading role in the city’s cultural life, but I have to publicly eat my words. It’s a really great gesture for them to invite other parts of Shanghai’s active new music community to come participate in this event. Good on ya, Shanghai Conservatory!

In preparation for the concert, I was asked to respond to the following questions.

1. your definition to electronic music?

I don’t know if electronic music has a useful definition anymore. Everything we listen to now is electronic. Most music is produced on a computer, even if it starts off as an acoustic recording. And almost all music we listen to is coming from an electronic device, a CD player, an iPod, a television, etc. Even most acoustic performances, other than strictly traditional classical performances, are usually amplified, with sound coming from speakers that are plugged in.

2. your opinion on “electronic music and noise; sound equipment, multimedia, new media”?

Probably the most worthless of those terms is “new media.” To me that just means, “We’ll think of a better term for this later.” All media was new at some point. Even so, I find myself using this term as an umbrella term out of convenience sometimes, to indicate recent art involving electricity that doesn’t fall into a clearer category.

“Noise” isn’t very useful either. The most useful definition of noise is something unpredictable, a series in which there’s no relationship between what’s happening now and what’s come before. In a computer, a stream of random numbers sent to the sound card is a literal definition of white noise. “Noise” has come to mean something harsh and anarchic and aggressive, but in fact, noise is a component of almost all sound. The lulling sound of waves on the shore or wind in the trees is noise, but it doesn’t come across as angry; it’s just nature.

I usually use “digital art” to describe my work, since a lot of it can only be done in the digital domain, using a computer. But I suppose if you really wanted, you could find analog ways to do a lot of what I’m doing.

3. please briefly describe the future of electronic music

Coming from a background in videogames, I fervently believe that interactivity and real-time algorithmic procedures are going to play an increasing role in how we experience music. People like me have been talking about this for a long time, but I don’t think it’s a failed vision of utopia; it’s just that there’s a lot of work left to do. On one hand, it’s the future of the CD, not as a physical medium, but a digital format. It’s also the proliferation of sound installation-like artworks in virtual spaces. Some things will be interactive, some things will non-interactive but ever-changing, and some things will continue to be linear experiences; it depends on what’s right for the idea the artist is trying to convey. We need to devise new formats and new experiences for these formats, rather than to try to retrofit existing, linear music into non-linear formats.

I’d like to think multi-channel sound will play a prominent role in the future of music, but I’m somewhat less optimistic on this front, given that most people can’t properly set up a 5.1 system in their living rooms. But we can hope. And of course, there needs to be compelling content authored for multi-channel formats to encourage people to configure their systems properly. When we finally get to the point where we can beam music directly into peoples’ brains, then this problem will finally go away.

4. please recommend a electronic music work, and your comment on it?

A piece I’ve been talking about a lot lately is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (2006). It comes very close to the idea of a virtual, portable audiovisual installation. It’s not a CD or DVD, but a program you install on your computer, and every time you run it, it generates a new version of the piece; hence the 77 million paintings of the title. The audio and visual components are not synthesized, but prepared in advance, which gives them a rough, natural, hand-manipulated quality. But the juxtapositions are determined in real-time by the program, so that you never see and hear the same thing twice. The images change very slowly, to the point that you’re not sure if the images are changing or if your eyes are simply adjusting to the color. I think that’s part of the genius of Brian Eno, a quality shared by his iPhone application Bloom, operating on the edge of perception.

I think the piece is almost perfect, but it’s still got a problem regarding the forum in which it is appreciated. Since you’ve got to install the program on your computer, you’re probably experiencing it on a computer monitor, sitting in an office chair, with your face several inches from the screen, alone, listening to the sound on poor quality computer monitors. It lacks a sense of space. The ideal forum for a piece like this is a living room. If the program could be run on a game console such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, you could watch it on your HDTV, listen to it in 5.1 on high quality speakers, while lounging on your couch with friends. The game console is the closest thing we have to a distribution platform for sound installations.

5. what’s the foundation to learn electronic music? is it necessary to learn classic music first?

If classical music is well taught, there is no difference. Music is sound organized in time. Digital sound synthesis is music theory. Composers have always tried to organize sound with the tools at their disposal. In order to create more sophisticated structures, systems were created, rules were established. Rules and systems must serve the music. Common Practice Era harmony is one possible outcome of this line of thinking, but there are others, and thinking evolves over time. In music, as with the other arts, we are in a continual conversation with history, as artists have always been, and a responsible artist questions what is received from history before putting it to use.

I have very little patience for arguments that there’s some inherent difference between music and sound. This usually stems from some poor or incomplete musical training; people think that if something can’t be played on a piano or written on a five-line staff, it can’t be music.

6. please talk about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception

One observation I’d make is that all music is indeterminate in some regard (and no music is indeterminate in every regard). A group of musicians performing a piece of acoustic music will play it slightly differently each time, with subtle inconsistencies in phrasing, volume, articulation, intonation, etc. In fact, these inconsistencies are often desirable, resulting in what we call “warmth” or “richness” in a performance. Even purely electronic pieces vary from performance to performance, depending on the playback equipment, the acoustical environment, and the audience’s position in it. And even if every other parameter could be fixed, the listener’s psychological state would be different at each listening, if for no other reason than the very fact of having heard the piece one more time.

Having acknowledged this, I find it useful to explore indeterminacy as an overt parameter of my music, to write music that encompasses all possible permutations, and to try to quantify what these permutations might mean.

7. please let us know your personal understanding of electronic music.

I’m interested in using electronics exploring non-linear structures. If you define a structure that has some variability built into it, a computer is the most efficient tool to quickly examine and evaluate all possible permutations of that structure. I think this is a unique aspect of modern existence, with which everyone must grapple, consciously or not. So much of what we encounter everyday is non-linear, web pages for example, and mediated by technology. The sheer volume of information coming at us is so much greater than any previous generation has encountered, and we need tools to navigate it. Our lives have become tangled up in technology, which creates new challenges, but in understanding technology we can find new perspectives on the world around us.

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