Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience

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Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience
Theory Out of Bounds, Volume 27
University of Minnesota Press, © 2005
220 pages, about 18 illustrations

  1. Preface
  2. Acknowledgments
  3. Chapter 1. Sound and Noise
  4. Chapter 2. Sound and Time
  5. Chapter 3. Sound and Digits
  6. Chapter 4. Making Music
  7. Notes
  8. Index

Sound Ideas discusses the various ways in which technologies shape our experiences of music. Though the book traverses extensive territory, crossing many intellectual disciplines, its unifying theme is the persistent attempt to address an aesthetic question: What is musical? Each of the four chapters asks this question in a different context, drawing on a different musical perspective.

Chapter One considers the experience of listening to music, comparing live to recorded music, and comparing the sound of compact discs to that of LP records. These comparisons yield the provocative proposition that noise, far from destroying the ideal purity of musical engagement, actually provides an essential reservoir of sense, from which the music draws its coherence and momentum. Without noise, or with an inappropriate noise, recorded music sounds lifeless and sterile.

Chapter Two takes in compositional techniques of twentieth-century composers, who incorporate into their work an explicit manipulation of timbre, which sometimes takes precedence over rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic components. Investigation of their methods reveals that the emphasis on timbre often derives from an attempt to compose time, turning time itself into a compositional technology. This chapter examines many composers and their works, including Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and others.

Chapter Three regards music from the perspective of the engineer, asking how computers capture and manipulate sound. The first half of the chapter sets aside specifically sonic considerations to examine the nature of the binary code in general, which reduces everything it touches to pure formality. This analysis proposes that there is a grave danger in the uncritical adoption of digital technologies, as an essential creativity gets left behind in any digital representation. The second half of the chapter challenges the conclusions of the first half, looking at three innovative methods of digital signal processing to discover how they become creative in spite of the inherent limitations of the digital code. Wavelet analysis, granular synthesis, and cellular automata each overcome the limitations of the digital from within, providing a model for the possibilities of creativity in digital music-making and analysis.

Chapter Four watches the performer at work, offering a theory of musical genius. Perpetuating some of the questions raised in earlier chapters, this chapter compares digital instruments such as synthesizers to their acoustic counterparts, and thus investigates what part the instrument itself contributes to the performance. The surprising conclusion is that the instrument must not so much yield to the performer as offer an ever surprising resistance, demanding something new of the performer that she might discover something new in the music. This chapter especially considers improvisation, noting its differences and its similarities with the performance of composed music.