International Academy of Electroacoustic Music / Bourges
2001: “Composition and technology in E.M.”

From "techno" to M.I.T.

Techno music and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have the same Greek root "tekhne". It is not surprising as both use the same "invention" that, in the century we live in, is a paradigm of validity and modernity.

The "invention" is none other than the term technology, which at the same time is no more than the "technique of a specific activity", and so (and let it be clearly understood that I am aware that the elision was of a practical nature) we should start by substituting this term in the title for the more precise "musical electronic technology".

I am of course grateful that "music and technology" has been avoided (I always think, "What technology?" or, "Technical in what?") that we come across everywhere. I like "composition and technology" (what technology?) better, although as composition is a technique (how well Messiaen expressed it with: "Technique of my musical language"!), perhaps "Technique of composition with electronic tools or instruments" would be a better fit.

It just so happens that the term "technology" presupposes the use of a machine, whilst "technique" (with the exception of highly complex questions) uses pencil and brains.

In everyday life we are not so arrogant. We use the vacuum cleaner or washing machine, but we don't boast of applying technologies to housework. Obviously, we could make do with a brush and washing board and a good pair of hands and so the criteria of "necessariness" or "unavoidability" don't exist. It maybe because there is also a hidden or implicit technology, that already forms part of our lives, and which we therefore do not pay much attention to.

Therefore, even though electro-acoustic music is not possible without 'musical electronic technology', I do not see why we have to put so much far-reaching importance onto the fact of unleashing a wild dance of electrons in our synthesizer's circuits, or generating hundreds of instructions in our computer with a simple click of the mouse.

Unrepentant worshippers of 'explicit technology" forget that when we entered our studio a while ago and turned on the light, we set off a technological process that was projected to the nearest transformer, from there to the power station, and from then onwards to the fossil or radioactive innards of the earth.

Therefore, as the need for some kind of technology to make our transit through life bearable is so obvious, and given that therefore it is equally obvious that for electro-acoustic composition we also use it, I infer that the title could be changed for one of the followings:

· As an electro-acoustic composer, which technology do I use: "High technology", (who can afford it!), "medium technology" (that of our personal studies) or "low technology" (lovers of "arte povera")?

· How does this influence my musical thought.

· Can music made with little (or poor) technology enjoy high aesthetic values, or is there a threshold that marks a minimum of technological conditioning to reach those levels?

· What can we ask of technology that it doesn't have now.

· It seems that time does not pass by for historical instrumental musical pieces. It is even considered an added attraction to interpret them with instruments of the period. Does the same thing happen to pieces subject to the deficiencies and limitations of each moment in the short history of electro-acoustic music?

Protools or not Protools

During a "head to head" recently celebrated in Madrid between two members of this Academy, I tossed the following question into the air: Is Protools a script or an interface? A question that was left unanswered, not for being complicated but because the conversation adopted another course.

It is obvious that two E.M. composers talking about composing unavoidably end up talking about technology, and, whilst dealing with technology, unavoidably drift onto the topic of Protools.

I remembered, and the memory was revived, the last meeting of this Academy, where the term was used so many times that it was on the verge of becoming the "leitmotiv" of the session.

Such protagonism, which makes a software "the mother of all software", is explained by the position of this tool in the core of the join between the analogical and the digital.

This possibility of moving within the digital world with analogical philosophy offered to the musician, could well take the form of the following "slogans": "How to be digital without giving up the analogical!" or, "Make good use of the advantages of the digital without losing those of the analogical!"

It is obvious that there is a certain awareness that (in spite of some) digital has won.

It has won due to its versatility, something that is no more than the consequence of the taming of those powerful stupid machines that only understand two things in life. Converting reality into kilometres of strings of numbers, that some patient slaves write and process, is without doubt one of the delights of the digital era that we live in. And even more so when we don't have to dirty our hands in the kitchen, but rather skilful interfaces take charge of codifying our intentions and dictate them to some hidden scribes.

And here a reflection about writing arises.

I have heard it been said many times that electro-acoustic musicians "write on our hard disk" (I have always smiled to myself before this image of "doodling" on the hidden surface mentioned). We write something in order to fix it and make its posterior reading possible. And, naturally, in order to be able to go over what has been written, correcting it, modifying it, developing it, synthesizing it or, as a last resort, erasing it.

In this way I do not see the difference between writing notes on a stave, except for one determinant detail: we are writing the "sound itself", not the symbols of the sound.

The symbolic belongs to the analogical universe, whilst the material belongs to the digital.
Digital "matter" remains hidden and inscrutable, only accessible thanks to the analogical symbology (we return to Protools) displayed on the screen / interface of the computer: the scissors that cut or the hand that moves "patterns" up and down, forwards or backwards.

Hidden and inscrutable, like the grey matter of our brain that interprets the world thanks to the analogical interface of our senses.

Buttons

One of the characteristics of the electro-acoustic musician is swimming in a sea of buttons; one of his attributes, the proper operation of them.

Among the distinctive factors of this age of "musical electronic technology", the creation and development of control systems applied to musical audition occupy a primordial place. Control which affects precisely the products that are a consequence of that technology like, for example, the reproduction of a previously stored sound. Stored and set free as electric "flow" whose stream can be controlled at will.

The listener becomes active, in contrast to the passivity of the concert listener who has no more control over the sound flow than changing position (it is curious to make a comparison with the first gramophones at the end of the 19th century, whose only possible control consisted of turning the horn, thus making the sound reach us more or less directly).

When electricity came into use, the first buttons were soon to appear: buttons for volume, bass and treble and, in the 1930s (with the invention of stereo), the panoramic button that allows us to "balance" the flow between left and right.

Buttons are no more than circular "faders", and as such attenuate, silence, squeeze the sound flow and, although they belong to the analogical world, they continue to be the preferred symbol in the design of digital virtual interfaces.

The analogy is related to that of a clock face: it advances towards the right, moves backwards towards the left. It is the prevailing symbology of the prevailing western civilization.

Conventionally one moves from left to right, as in the majority of writing systems (or upwards, if we add the y axis to the x axis). Perhaps this "positivation" of the right is because there is an overwhelming number of righthanded over lefthanded people, valuing that which is more comfortable.

Comfort is a human parameter but it doesn't exist in Cosmos. As do neither the concepts of left and right. They are recurrent concepts, that break the elementary rule that states that what is being defined should not be found in the definition: "The right hand is the one on the right" or, "The right side is the opposite of the left side, which is where the left hand is, whose thumb points to the right," etc. Therefore it would be impossible to explain on the radio to an inhabitant of another galaxy what is left and what is right.

However, this is not the subject I wanted to touch, but rather the notion of comfort sketched out above (be it on the right or the left!).

Comfort is a legitimate human desire and technology makes work more comfortable, thanks precisely to the development of controlling devices that began with buttons.

Those "potentiometers" of primitive amplifiers quickly evolved into switches, pushbuttons, faders, and their proliferation led us to the situation that, as Horacio Vaggione expressed, as accurately as allegorically, in the last session of this Academy: "Electro-acoustic composers in the 60s and 70s were like monkeys jumping from one button to another". (Personally, I sometimes regret that we have lost the "gymnastic" air that our work had formerly).

Technology creates work prospects that are increasingly complex and these, at the same time, lead to the creation of new technologies, with which the number of events to be controlled grows in geometrical progression.

The arrival of the digital era made the modification of a maximum number of parameters possible with a minimum number of buttons. The minimum expression of the button culture is the joy pad, that device with four directions that allows us to navigate at will through the Cartesian axes. With a central button of acquiescence, it is all that is needed to control the most complex machine in the world (all the same it is curious that every time we formulate a hyper simplification we end up with Turing machines).

I would like to sit down to compose and not have to manipulate more than a superbutton of this type, which would even manage my ideas. But, what a fool! Now I come to think of it, that button is the mouse (right, left, up, down, click), thanks to which I move around my Protools screen.