International Academy of Electro-acoustic Music / Bourges
1995: "Aesthetics and Electro-acoustic Music"


About the ephemeral and a little less


When it was believed that the earth was six thousand years old, a millennium more or a millennium less, although not something serious, could certainly be important; ultimately it meant one-sixth of its life, approximately equivalent to an adolescence. Now that we know more, or at least we "believe" that we know more, one thousand or five thousand million years more or less since the hypothetical "Big Bang" till the not less hypothetical "Big Crunch" do not seem relevant.

Nevertheless we live in the Era of precision. A second ceased to be exact a long time ago -and now not even the millisecond is.

The central point of a control that modulates precision should be placed just above the decimal point. As we move away to the left, it seems as if the need for precision fades away; as we move away to the right, that need becomes more and more pressing.

In our "small" planetary context, a few light-seconds less in distance would turn the moon into an enormous spot or excrescence on our planet; a couple of light-minutes less in distance from the sun would cause a roasting. But how important is a light-week, a light-month, or a light-year in stellar distances, how important are a couple of million of kilometres per hour in galactic movements?

In our reduced living space, taking a day longer travelling on horseback from Paris to Alexandria would not matter, but a millisecond delay in our neuro-transmitters could be highly dangerous. Killing several thousand neurons in a drinking binge is a triviality, but if the distance between them were reduced by only a few hundred millionths of a meter, it would be a catastrophe.

Today, thousands of people are worried about the remote possibility that they will not receive their pension when they are 65, but I have not met anyone yet who has the slightest concern about the fact that the earth will end up crashing fatally into the sun one thousand billion billion of years from now.

Everything I have just written is a fraud. While I have allowed myself foolishly to become entangled in the absolute side of the concept of precision -in the sense of the quality of precise, that is, correct and not approximate, exact, punctual, tight, and rigorous- Mr. Giga and Mr. Nano, closing the loop -on the other side of the barrier of the seventeen zeros that separate them, and probably riding a black spaghetti- are having a beer in the bar on the corner of Infinity Boulevard and Eternity Avenue.

From a more relativist position, we could make do with taking the lift from the ground floor
-Ground floor: "Decimal point"- and pressing the corresponding button to the positive or negative power of ten, in order to, once we have ascended or descended to the necessary number of zeros, be able to cry out from the new perspective: "Everything's OK!"

Everything then depends on the scale applied, and the fraud is partly covered over due to the absence of a "zoom" in our limited sensory perception. For the equilibrium of the universe, that is for its existence, the synapses of neurons and the red shifts of the galaxies are equally important, and the smallest deviation may lead to disaster.

As I said at the beginning, precision is a symbol of our times, and the paradigm of this is progress. We can understand our era as being the one of the conquest of speed and space (as much at a macro as well as a micro level). Calculation speeds are always increasing, for example, and in computing more speed necessarily implies a reduction in space, and together this means further precision. A Cray, with 1.000.000.000 operations per second, is more precise -and certainly takes up less space- than an E.N.I.A.C. which only achieved five thousand. The voltage control to reach the crest of the envelope of the sound of a kettledrum in a few milliseconds is more precise than a hand controlling a fader button.

From Porrectus, Torculus, Franculus, and Oriscus to Guido, precision in musical writing increased considerably; from Guido to Bach, there was a flying leap.

The Second Sonata of Boulez, however, reduces the Goldberg Variations to a mere indication of MIDI note values; the score for Stockhausen's Study II reduces all music prior to Webern to an almost Renaissance stage.

Since the Renaissance, when we began to transcribe vocal music for instruments (this entails a certain dilemma: Why play what had always been sung? The consequence: an instrumental awareness does not arise until all indications of "sing" and "play" have been suppressed. Not to mention timbre awareness which continued to be absent during the baroque period), until the well into the middle of this century -when we were on the point of serialising even the pianist's nose- we have slowly gained in precision, something which obviously means progress.


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However, art does not progress, what progresses is the technology that is at its service. The Ladies of Avignon of Picasso is not more advanced than the Last Supper of Leonardo, the Marteau sans Maître of Boulez is not more advanced than an Organum of Perotinus.

The pan-digitalisation of everything that can be measured, undeniably a practical achievement of our time, makes the tools which give shape to our ideas more precise each day, but the artist is careful to manipulate these tools without smearing his fingers with bytes.

Music, as is the sea, as is life, is subject to ebb and flow; it continues to drink as much from the spring of precision as from the spring of imprecision. The longing for indetermination surged like a breath of fresh air from the century of the most ferocious structuralism.

Free jazz abolished the already thin degree of predetermination in improvisation. The introduction of randomness, weak or strong, unsteadied the concept of composition, which was still excessively tied to closed works. The increase of improvisation on graphics, on texts (why not call it "pure improvisation") unburdens (or overburdens?) the composer from parenthood, or at least turns the interpreter or interpreters into accomplices.

Nevertheless, electricity does not forgive. I am referring to one of its consequences: the technology that has enabled us to convert music, from the voice of Caruso to the most recent recording of the Philharmonic orchestra of Berlin, into electronic sound. Since it became possible to freeze and can air vibrations, war on the ephemeral was declared.

Sprawled out on the sofa, we can reproduce a thousand times on our super hi-fi system the compact disc on which that historic version of the Ninth Symphony has been precisely fixed for centuries, but none of these cloned auditions will be the same as a live performance.

The civilization of writing is coming to such an extreme that it is difficult for something to avoid the fate of being suddenly frozen onto another medium of any kind.

Electro-acoustic music, regretful of its electric character, ashamed of its canned past, has always wanted to fight in favour of oral transmission over writing; in favour of the fleeting and against the imperishable, although, who can assure us that the media on which we write so scrupulously our ones and zeros will be as indelible as the ink on the parchment of Perotinus?

From the beginning it was already open, mixed, improvised, "live", stochastic, but none of this brought any radical change from a philosophical point of view.

Technology has reached a point that allows the concept of "real time" to be more and more "real", but this is not, as some believe, the panacea that heals the supposed ills of music on tape, but rather a new chapter in the philosophy of music. The postulates of strong artificial intelligence, cousins of those of real time, carry within them a return to Cartesian dualism.

The philosophy of "real time" (with or without instruments, with or without canned parts) is essentially dualist. It wants to make the ephemeral ride on the precise: the tremendously precise machine and algorithm ("matter" and "mental substance" according to Descartes), the resulting sound is as ephemeral as the bard's song.

Ephemeral also is the fast evolution of the hardware and software, which, in the blink of an eye, renders illegible all algorithms, unless we assure their perpetuation through translators -which would have to be eternal and universal. It would be another way of falling into the temptation of writing. Of course, there will always be some kind of trick to re-establish the balance.