Academy of Electroacoustic Music / Bourges
1999 / 2000: Time in Electroacoustic Music
As time passes
by, I mean my lifetime, that is as I grow older and older, I observe
a tendency in me to compose shorter pieces. This is the first reflection
that comes to mind as I deal with the subject of time in electro-acoustic
music, or rather time in my own productions.
Of course it would
be very simple to turn around the antecedent without changing the consequent,
for example: "Bad things (being that they are bad) are better if
they are brief", or "If the perfume is bad, a little is better
than a lot".
With such a large volume of information before us the fast interface of the remote control is indispensable (a chip installed in the brain has yet to be invented!), and the remote control inevitably leads us to zapping.
In many cases zapping is referred to in a pejorative tone. I defend zapping. I defend it as a system of acceleration in perception based on scanning, and against perception based on compression.
I prefer it as
a fragmented perception of totality in opposition to the systematic
suppression of the expendable. I prefer it because I find it difficult
to accept that something that is not essential exists, an affirmation
that is difficult to sustain under certain circumstances, but which
is at least founded on a certain philosophical or, why not, ecological
Nevertheless, apart from this necessary pre-compression, it cannot be said that the text suffers the same compression as the image, even though both continue to be on the border of, but within, the bounds of intelligibility.
When dealing with musical language, it's another story. Even though music and image in movement participate in the same temporal parameter, there is a notable difference with respect to the perspective on temporality.
In short, we are dealing with the subject of depth of field. When a high-speed train penetrates a tunnel at 300 km per hour, the graffiti painted on the inside of the tunnel, even if it were illuminated, would become blurred coloured lines. At the same speed on the outside, the countryside passes by without losing comprehensibility. The depth of field nullifies, or rather softens, the tyranny of time.
In music there is no depth of field. No escape here. In music the cinephile behaviour of the geeks is not possible. In music we cannot squeeze the container without losing content. And even less so in electro-acoustic music. I have seen that fast-forwarding tapes, all electro-acoustic music sounds the same. I will be told that I am not playing fairly, as it is not just a question of time but also a question of the pitch which has been affected. In any case, the result would be similar if we squeezed the music accordion-style, without catapulting it to the tenth floor, i.e. compressing time and respecting pitch.
The same phenomenon is produced when instead of compression we talk about expansion (in both cases I am referring to high doses). Some years ago I performed a literal version of the first movement of Beethovens sonata «Moonlight» for a video installation. The peculiarity consisted in that the tempo was crotchet equals four, that is ten times slower than the original speed. The pitch was that of the sonata but the music was not, it had stopped being thanks to the solely temporal manipulation.
Speaking of container and content leads unavoidably to the concept of density, which I referred to at the beginning.
In the field of physics it is very easy to understand the relation between the weight of a substance and its volume. A cubic centimetre of lead weighs much more than a cubic centimetre of cork; a kilo of cork takes up much more space than a kilo of lead. Either of the comparisons clearly demonstrates that lead is much denser than cork.
In physics density is the relation between container and content, the first being the volume and the second the weight. In music, if the container is time, what are weight and density?
There are longer pieces of music and shorter pieces of music, this is easy to appreciate. We also understand more or less dense music. The really difficult thing to define is the concept of "heaviness".
Sometimes I wonder what it is that makes us decide the duration of a composition when we are planning it. Certainly this has to be considered abstractly, that is abstracting all conditioning factors, such as limitations imposed by a commission, the duration of a concert, record production, etc.
I am referring to determining 'a priori', despite the fact that there are always variations during the process, that the piece will have a duration of eight or twenty minutes for example.
From a mechanical point of view, it would be logical if we chose a longer duration according to "the weight we want to rid ourselves of" - and I am deliberately continuing to use the term weight without knowing for sure what it is. Nevertheless, as density comes into play here, there does not have to be a directly proportional relationship between the quantity of things we have to say and the amount of time we employ in saying them.
However quantity immediately evokes, by terminological similarity, quality, and it is here that the key to approximation probably lies. Quantity relates to absolute weight, whereas quality to specific weight.
In any case, although the concept of "ridding yourself of weight" may be metaphorically correct when applied to the act of creation in general, the concept of developing an idea is more "artistically correct".
Development (temporality) is in accordance to the quality (specific weight) of the idea.
This explains the
phenomenon that the use of a small amount of elements leads to the occupation
of large temporal extensions, albeit through various mechanisms and
As we are delegating
responsibility of temporal extension in the quality of the idea, we
are presented with a question of limits.
It was not an imposed limit but a suggested one, nevertheless accepted. And accepted under what criteria? For example: after one thousand compasses, three compasses more were not going to make the piece more complete or perfect. Nevertheless, having to relinquish those three compasses makes us feel that they were necessary, although at the same time superfluous.
And, while we're on the subject, why weren't they the thirty (or three hundred) previous ones?
The problem of limits is truly complex, as it forces us to juggle with what is possible and what is reasonable.
I was always attracted to the idea of music-fiction, and in this sense I have asked myself on more than one occasion if a theme "resists" a limited number of variations, or could be varied indefinitely.
Or a fugue. Imagine that the countersubject becomes the subject which generates another countersubject, which at the same time sets itself up as subject, and so on.
It is obvious that (as in the famous tale of Borges where the map of the country took up the whole country) there is at least a vital limit. No piece may be so long that we take longer to compose it than our life lasts.
There are other types of non-temporal limitations. Ravel's 'Bolero' finishes simply because the repertory of instruments in the composer's orchestra ran out.. But what if we gradually added all the orchestras in the country one by one? And then the whole planet?The limit is now territorial. The planetary 'tutti' would inevitably mark the end of the piece.
Leaving 'music-fiction' and moving onto reality, it is common that for creation to be understandable, it must be subject to limits, even though they may be unusual, but in any case reasonable.
Satie limited with a number his 'Vexations' (albeit on the limits of reasonable).
Even within purely conceptual territory it is necessary to establish limits. I remember a piece for piano, one of the 'dangerous musical pieces' of one of the members of the group 'Fluxus', whose score said: "Push a piano against the wall until it goes through it or until you drop down exhausted.»
The limits may be debatable, but they are within the limits of reasonable. Moreover, the limits lend musical entity. Simply «push a piano against the wall», is not a musical piece (even though what is 'interpreted' is a musical instrument). This is because the "temporality" imposed by limits is missing.
One day by chance I heard a perfect piece on the radio with reference to establishing intrinsic limits.
The content: a chromatic scale from the lowest note to the highest of a piano. Each key was pressed until the note died out completely, at which point the next note was played.
The limits (the physical nature of the sound and the topography of the instrument) are an example of absolute coherence between content and container that is difficult to surpass.
Of course, an excess of coherence can be dangerous (but not as in 'Fluxus' music!). Dangerous, because it leads to closed dwellings, with no way out, when it has seemed to us since Guillaume de Machault that it is opening doors and windows that has ruled.
I have always thought that the perfect dodecaphonic piece would consist of the mere exhibition of the series of pitches (coupled if desired to the series of durations, timbres and intensities).
The problem is that after having carried out this piece of twelve notes it would not be necessary to do another.
This is like the case of Cage. After 4.33 it is no longer possible to do 2.24, 8.17 or 14.56.
I don't know if anyone asked Cage why 4.33 and not any other combination of minutes and seconds. I have the impression that the limit was established arbitrarily.
It may be that in arbitrariness -that is, the condition of doing something voluntarily, for pleasure or whim, without subjection to rules, laws or reason- we find the justification of limits.
The creator uses arbitration, whim, as both -as creation- are synonyms of freedom. The thing is that freedom does not always lead to balance.
As musicians we are sensitive to the fine tuning of notes. Balance, the fine tuning, between matter and time leads us to rightness.
Does a piece have the 'right' duration when the 'substance' is equally distributed between matter and time?
To question rightness means questioning whim, and as this is unquestionable I'm afraid that we would find ourselves in a vicious circle.
I haven't come to this point to enter a room with no way out, but rather to open doors and windows, that is questions. And between questions I want to introduce debate:
Why do some pieces seem to have the right duration?
Why do some long pieces seem short, and vice versa?
Why in some pieces do we have the feeling that the composer has not taken advantage of, one after the other, the optimal opportunities to finish?