Piero Scaruffi's
History of Avantgarde Music

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Collage and Field recordings in the electronic age

The early musique concrete of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry expressed a futuristic ideology. The following generation of concrete musicians instead became fascinated with "field recordings", with the sounds of ordinary lives or environments. A field recording could be used as a background for electronic or acoustic music, or could be "reorganized" (via electronic equipment or computers) in an electronic poem.

Unlike poetry or the visual arts, that can incorporate explicit references to their object, music is not a representational art. For centuries it was not possible to incorporate or simulate everyday's sounds, only to simulate them with the instruments of the orchestra. The recording technology made it possible, but it took decades for an aesthetic of music as a representational art to emerge.

Alvin Curran (USA, 1938), a co-founder of Musica Elettronica Viva in Rome, crafted intensely-spiritual works that mixed natural sounds, live electronics, improvised voice and keyboard patterns: Canti E Vedute Del Giardino Magnetico (1974), his most lyrical collage, scored for for tape, voice, flugelhorn, synthesizer and tape of natural sounds (wind, high-tension wires, frogs, beach waves, etc); Fiori Chiari Fiori Oscuri (1975) for or ocarina, voice, piano, toy piano, synthesizer, and tape; Libri D'armonia (1976) for conch shell, zither, voice, piano, synthi, and tape; and especially Canti Illuminati (1977), a vast sonic montage based on the human voice. Inner Cities (2003) was, instead, a colossal piano piece (more than four hours long) that related to the minimalist and ambient schools.

In 1963, Czech artist Milan Knizak (Czech, 1940) began to create music (the so-called "Destroyed Music" series) out of scratched, warped, defective and damaged records. The idea of playing "glitches" was going to remain confined to the realm of pure folly until the end of the century.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the urban sound documentaries of Philip Perkins, barely processed electronically, provided vast frescoes of modern life such as Apartment Life (1980).

The collage of sounds World Rhythms (1975), devised by Annea Lockwood (New Zealand, 1939), spanned the dimensions of the human experience, from volcanic eruptions to human breathing. Her "deep-listening" aesthetic was stated by Thousand Year Dreaming (1991) for conch shell, trombone, multiple didjeridus, oboe, English horn, vocals, clarinet and percussion, an exercise in slo-motion subliminal glissandi and microtones bordering on both post-classical chamber music and creative jazz music.

Qubais Reed Ghazala (USA, 1953), who specialized in self-built "musical instruments" (mostly electronic devices conceived for audio exploration), recorded Requiem For A Radio (1985), constructed out of the sounds made by a transistor radio while it was being methodically destroyed, and the Threnody To The New Victims Of Hiroshima (1995) for "insect voice synthesizer".

British improviser Peter Cusack mixed abstract soundscapes of four kinds (instrumental, electronic, vocal and field recordings), as demonstrated for example on Where is the Green Parrot? (2000).

Noah Creshevsky (USA, 1945) used collage as the fundamental medium for pieces, such as the "hyperdrama" Ossi di Morte (1997), that are rapid-fire assemblies of snippets of (human and instrumental) sounds, with an emphasis on maintaining the "musical" quality of the collage. He also specialized in the creation of "hypervirtuoso" music, music performed by electronic instruments simulating acoustic instruments played in a way that no human virtuoso could possibly match: Memento Mori (1989) focused on the dialogue between live human performers and electronic "superhuman" performers.

Innovative concepts in the arts of field recording and of collage were introduced during the 1990s.

Sam Auinger (Austria, 1956) in collaboration with Bruce Odland made music out of city noise with installations in several countries since 1990, partially documented on Resonance (1995), with the goal of sculpting and transforming the environment to reveal hidden meanings.

Heir to the glorious French traditions of musique concrete and sound collage, French sound-sculptor Christian Renou, aka Brume, specialized in the dense, rapid-fire sonic montage that culminated with the concrete symphony Fragments and Articulations (2002).

Stefan Weisser (USA, 1951), aka Z'ev created brutal and barbaric music for found percussion, such as on Elemental Music (1984), that was reminiscent of the aesthetic of punk and industrial music.

French vocalist and electronic musician Ghedalia Tazartes assembled Diasporas (1979) and Transports (1980), collages of layers of vocals (often lifted from ethnic folk music) and musique concrete ordeals.

Gen Ken Montgomery (USA, 1957) assembled the environmental noise symphony Father Demo Swears (1989), a terror-inducing wall of noise for amplified violin, voice, street noise and (massive) feedback.

By electronically and digitally processing the sounds of objects and places, Steve Roden (USA, 1964) created "possible landscapes", such as Humming Endlessly in the Hush (1996), credited to In Be Tween Noise, that require "deep listening" to appreciate the subtlety of slight variations in the mostly silent wasteland; while Four Possible Landscapes (1999) bordered on the glitch aesthetic of Bernhard Guenter.

Marc Behrens (Germany) used a computer and feedback-based devices to organize the collage of field recordings of Elapsed Time (2001).

The early recordings of Janek Schaefer (Britain, 1970) focused on two elements: studio manipulation of field recordings, and his self-built twin and triple armed varispeed turntables. The resulting collage is unusually dense and dynamic, culminating with the concrete symphony Cold Storage (2004), Songs For Europe (2004), a collaboration with Philip Jeck that builds ambient soundscapes from old Greek and Turkish records as well as radio broadcasts, the dance soundtrack Migration (2006), concocted out of manipulated field recordings, and In The Last Hour (2006), a piece in four movements that leveraged the combination of live instrumentation and turntable-derived textures to create an electronic poem that was both lugubrious and romantic.

One of the most diligent disciples of musique concrete at the turn of the millenium was Aube, i.e. Japanese electronic composer Akifumi Nakajima, an extremely prolific maniac of studio manipulation of field recordings (water, light bulbs, stones, brain waves, steel wires, heartbeats, book pages, etc). Metal de Metal (1997) was perhaps his main work for metal.

Francisco Lopez (Spain, 1962) was representative of the trend of collage music away from (noisy) concrete music and towards subsonic ambient music, or at least towards the coexistence of the two, as in Untitled Music For Geography (1997), that cycles from silence to extreme loudness and back.

John Duncan (USA, 1953) specialized in electronic meditations for shortwave radio signals such as River in Flames (1994), Nav-Flex (2001) and Phantom Broadcast (2002), but also in turbulent evocative "symphonies" such as The Crackling (1996) for digital manipulation of the noise of elementary particles speeding through the Stanford Linear Accelerator and The Nazca Transmissions (2009), inspired by the "sounds" emitted by the Nazca lines in Peru.

Ellen Band (Canada, 1952) bridged musique concrete and deep-listening music with collages such as Radiatore (1998) in which apparently harmless (and lifeless) sounds collected in the streets are scrutinized, repeated, amplified, deformed, enhanced until they become very much alive. The mundane becomes extraordinary: "no sound is ordinary".

Scott Johnson (USA, 1952) not only bridged rock music and chamber music with John Somebody (1983) for electric guitar, woodwinds, percussion, and tape, but, more importantly, used speech patterns as building blocks of the composition.

The electronic processing of microscopic bodily noises by Daniel Menche (USA, 1969) yielded the monstrous intensity of Screaming Caress (1997).

The compositions of John Hudak (USA, 1958) employ minimalist and subsonic repetition of electronically-processed found sounds, as in Pond (1998), that uses underwater insects as its main source.

The hyper-realistic field recordings of Toshiya Tsunoda (Japan, 1964) consist in capturing the sound of inert matter. Each object has a "sound": it is just a matter of finding a way to render that sound so that it can be appreciated by the human ear. The music of Pieces Of Air (2001), literally recordings of air vibrations, is thus one of minimal subsonic vibrations.

More traditional collages of field recordings survived in the work of composers such as Eric La Casa (France), whose L'Empreinte de L'Ivresse (1999) is an ambitious fresco of human life. La Casa was also a member of the musique concrete ensemble Afflux with Jean-Luc Guionnet and Eric Cordier: they recorded improvisations with environmental sounds as they occurred in an open landscape.

Simon Wickham-Smith (Britain, 1968) used the computer on Extreme Bukake (2002) to create a collage inspired by Buddhist and Catholic religious music.

Seth Nehil (USA, 1973) sculpted the quiet blurred pieces of Tracing the Skins of Clouds (1998) for found objects and instruments.

Compositional rigor highlighted the fusion of acoustic chamber music, droning minimalism, glitch music, electronic soundscaping and computer-manipulated field recordings propounded by Olivia Block (USA, 1970) in her trilogy of Pure Gaze (1998), Mobius Fuse (2001) and Change Ringing (2005). All three constructed dramatic symphonies of reverbs, pulses, drones and glitches.

The idea of "the microphone as an extended ear" propounded by Loren Chasse (USA) was best expressed in ambient minimalist works that manipulated field recordings: albums such as Siphon Glimmers (1997) and Hedge Of Nerves (2002) they basically documented sound sculptures of musique concrete and interactive electronic/digital music. Coelacanth, a collaboartion with Jim Haynes, manipulated and layered sounds of rocks, sand, leaves, electrical devices and waves to obtain a viscous tapestry of ambient music, as on Mud Wall (2004).

Thuja's discs documented the collective improvisations of guitarists Steven Smith and Glenn Donaldson (both of psychedelic-rock band Mirza), sound sculptor Loren Chasse and pianist Rob Reger. They devoted the ambient vignettes of Suns (2002) and the abstract frescoes of Pine Cone Temples (2005) to a study on the psychological properties of natural sounds, exorcizing urban life and trying to recapture the essence of the human condition on Planet Earth while retaining the high-tech world that humans have erected. Ultimately, all Thuja albums were duets between the human brain and the human environment.

Under the moniker Crawling with Tarts, the San Francisco-based duo of composer Michael Gendreau (1961) and Suzanne Dycus have concocted Operas (1993), or, better, "surface noise operas" (operas composed out of field recordings and studio manipulations) via "transcription discs", a program refined on Grand Surface Noise Opera Nrs 3 (Indian Ocean Ship) and 4 (Drum Totem) (Realization, 1994), the former scored for four turntables and the latter scored for turntables and percussion. Michael Gendreau's 55 Pas de la Ligne au nÝ3 (2002) was devoted to the excruciating sound of a rotating disk on a modified turntable. Grand Surface Noise Opera Nr 7 - The Decadent Opera - Rococo (1995) first assembled voices (taken from various sources) and then injected all sorts of musical snippets into the process, each grotesquely deformed, as in a collaboration between Frank Zappa and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Fueled by Dadaistic eccentricity, the Argentinean trio Reynols (drummer Miguel Tomasin and guitarists Roberto Conlazo and Anla Courtis) released all sorts of sarcastic musique-concrete symphonies, from Gordura Vegetal Hidrogenada (1995) to 10.000 Chickens Symphony (1999) for chicken sounds ("the only record in the world where all the participants were killed and eaten afterwards") to Blank Tapes (Trente Oiseaux, 2000) for amplified blank tapes. In parallel, Anla Courtis continued to use the tape as his main instrument in a series of extremely chaotic works, especially the 16-minute expressionist nightmare of Enc°as de Viento (1996).

Canadian electroacoustic composer Paul Dolden (2) specialized in "maximalist" music for a computer-generated orchestra of instrumental and vocal snippets, a technique that yielded the monumental collages of Below The Walls Of Jericho, off The Threshold Of Deafening Silence (1990), and L'Ivresse De La Vitesse, off L'Ivresse de la Vitesse (1999), whose chamber cacophonies rise to hurricane dimension with industrial/punk ferocity, as well as Entropic Twilights (2002), off Delires De Plaisirs (2005). His "cut and paste" audio art diverged significantly from traditional musique concrete because it embraces the whole instead of dissecting the parts. Where early scholars of sound manipulation favored an agonizing analysis of sound properties, Dolden did the exact opposite creating catastrophic hyper-percussive hyper-kinetic music according to a principle of endless apotheosis.


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TM, ®, Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.