International Academy of Electroacoustic Music / Bourges
1997: “Composition / Diffusion in Electroacoustic Music”

Some brief epigrammatic meditations


Could anything be more lacerating than a loudspeaker version of Cage’s 4’33?

The loudspeaker creates, by its very presence, an expectation of sound, the absence of which can only mean there has been a technical breakdown, or that some perfectly anonymous person has been neglectful or incompetent and has forgotten to push the right button. Although it may be said that a grand piano also creates expectation, it does so only under certain conditions: it has to be placed centre stage, must have the right lighting and a stool in front of the keyboard. Nobody takes any notice of a piano parked in a corner. Emotional temperature rises when the pianist appears, takes a bow (he has to be dressed appropriately), draws near the piano, seats himself and opens the lid (as­suming the latter is closed). Tension is at its height. Such tension could never be created by the piano-tuner coming to retrieve a lost tool, or stagehands taking the piano away or pushing it against the wall (unless one of Dick Higgins’ Dangerous Music is on the program). The piano, of course, has an enormous advantage over a group of loudspeakers: its highly decorative form has proved itself over many years. It is a complete work of art. Its very existence has inspired the most diverse poetry and has instigated the weirdest atrocities. A catalogue of actions having the piano as pro­tagonist would be interminable.

Any concert, although many deny it, is a show. Electroacoustic music, which leaves even the most delicate “expectation barometer” indifferent, not only gives up all claim to being a show, but im­poses the contemplation of massive objects whose ugliness generally offends the eye. Converting the spectator to a simple listener, it abandons him, like some acousmatic Pythagorean deprived of any visual support, entirely at the mercy of his ears. Yet, can there be better conditions for listening to music? We are invited to close all superfluous windows and sharpen the pleasure faculty. Canned music, since it gives up the visual spectacle, has to invent the auditory one.

Canned music

Any music that requires the use of a loudspeaker is canned music. This concept refers to a recording of Maria Callas as much as to as electroacoustic piece, to radio, or to instrumental music whether acoustic, electric or electronic (for the last two, the loudspeaker is absolutely indispensable). We put things in cans in order to preserve or transport them (baked beans, Coca Cola). In the case of li­quids, canning is an alternative to bottling. (Perhaps this metaphor is particularly appropriate to mu­sic, which is more of a fluid than of a solid nature). Being canned is also a symbol of that which is not fresh, i.e. not consumed immediately after production. This concept does not apply to amplifi­cation, but does apply to pre-recording, although, paradoxically, at the moment of being taken out of the can or the bottle, the music is just as fresh as when it was produced.

As an alternative, we could propose the term “virtual” or “potential” music, which as a definition is not much better, given that all music is potential, whether it is in a score or contained in neurons until the moment of concretion by means of muscular action. In this sense, the term “freezing” would be more adequate, even if there is a risk as regards the date of expiration: the music is thawed -unfrozen- by electronic or muscular action. However, the catch in this analogy lies in the fact that the nature of music allows us to reverse processes that are not normally reversible. You take it out of the can, you put it back in the can, you unfreeze, you refreeze, you pour it out of the bottle, you pour it back in (just like the genie in Aladdin’s Lamp), and none of this has the slightest adverse effect on the freshness of the product. Obviously, the metaphor cannot be carried very far. Worse: just as in religious mysteries, that which one unfreezes continues to be frozen, that which you pour out stays in the bottle, and what you take out of the can stays in the can. It’s like being in Seville and opening one of those cans of The air of Seville (except that they are made in Hong-Kong…). By way of bringing this hotchpotch to a close, perhaps the most appropriate would be to talk about “music translated by loudspeaker” -at least until the latter is definitively replaced by the wall of sound.

The wall of sound

The loudspeaker is always at the end of a chain. The chain might be: microphone / electrophone - amplifier - loudspeaker in the case of megaphony (canning and consuming in real time); or it might be: tape or CD - amplifier - loudspeaker in the case of “reprophony” (canning for latter consump­tion); in the case of radiophony (megaphony and reprophony at a distance), the sub-chain: trans­mitter - waves - receiver is inserted into the chain. The loudspeaker serves the ephemeral as well as the durable. The durable is that which is recorded. To record is to conserve, to perpetuate, to store.

We record a popular melody while the little old lady who sings it is still alive, because following generations will not have taken the trouble to learn it. We record such-and-such an interpretation or such-and-such a concert, being compulsive documenters. Above all, the recording industry records in order that the music lover, seated in his armchair and having turned on his hi-fi stereo, may close his eyes and imagine that he is right there in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna. We record elec­troacoustic music because there really is no other way to do it. What do these two nearly synony­mous terms hi-fi and stereo describe exactly? The former describes a result, i.e. high fidelity, whereas the latter describes a procedure. High fidelity is the faithful reconstitution of reality partly thanks to stereophony, which is a sort of stereoscopy for the ear. The sound spectrum ceases to be “pure” (with its abstractions of pitch, timbre, intensity and duration) and becomes contaminated by volumetric concretion. Here is the first timid love affair between sound and image. The way is open for the show. Since we make do with a partial three-dimensional appreciation of the world (if we want more, we would need a third eye -and I wonder what we would do with a third ear?), let us at least do it in the most incredible way possible. There are recording tricks that allow us to situate the double basses “front right” to within a millimetre and the timpani “centre back”. If, in the process of reconstruction, we happen to switch cables, then we merely have to imagine that we are looking at the orchestra in a mirror. This is a case of applying two-eyed imagination to two-eared perception. High fidelity reproduction of the sound spectrum with all the various parameters will always take a back seat to high-fidelity stereoscopic reproduction. The latter functions just as well, better even, with a Walkman that with the best loudspeakers. We should bear in mind that early attempts at stereophonic reproduction (Ader’s Theatrephone) made use of earphones. Could it be that simple stereo, with two earphones, or two speakers, for two ears, is the reigning listening standard? Could it be that stereo is to the sophisticated universe of spatialization devices what the vocal quartet is to polyphony and all the excesses thereof? Will our aural perception be more perfect, more real when the walls of our houses are constructed of acoustic bricks made of “sound pixels”?

This solution is rather attractive to me. I’m not really at ease in those high-fidelity cinemas where some train mercilessly goes through me via 14 tracks while a frog croaks down the back of my neck.

However, if we are talking of electroacoustic music, then diffusion is another matter.


Lacking any referential localization, electronic sounds are placed by wielding the mouse. Therefore, we cheat, especially when good old prosaic stereo is replaced by clever spatialization systems that can put the number three double bass in the cloakroom and hang the second trumpet from the chan­delier. It is true that this is not exactly a new trick: one of the successes of music in the second half of the twentieth century has been the three-dimensional conquest of space as against the frontal lay­out of traditional music ensembles. The electroacoustic composer, obliged to invent his instruments and to create his sound objects, has more right than anybody else to such license in the inventing of space. The latter must be created, not reconstituted. A good tool makes it possible to create that space, but more than that, it introduces an aspect lacking in stereo: interpretation, which may be viewed as an extension to the act of composition. For this, the composer has to abandon the solitude of his laboratory for the concert platform, and be like the orchestra conductor. Failing this -for rea­sons of physical absence, or the refusal to take a risk, or not accepting the necessary training- he will have to consent to somebody else’s fiddling with his timbres, meddling with his intensities and even poking around his pitches and durations.

This new personage (diffuser? loudspeaker conductor?) will interpret brilliantly, well enough, in mediocre or cacophonous fashion.

The composer who decided after a strenuous effort to fix his sounds, “freeze” his particular interpre­tation of them, could feel terribly frustrated when what should sound in one place sounds in another, when what he wanted to hide is emphasised, or what he wanted to highlight is disguised.

For our peace of mind, those “fixed” sounds do not exist. There are various loudspeakers that trans­late under various circumstances, and in various environments.

Without diffusion, there is no final link, but far from being a bed of roses, it is a minefield for “fi­delity”.

The only thing that is truly faithful is that which is playing 4’33, that speaker that is at the end of a chain of nothing.