Electronics are a Musical Fact (Part 2)

In my first post on this blog, back in July, I put forward the idea that friendship and human intimacy lie at the heart of classical music. To its devotees it matters that there is a real person or people on stage who understand and personally create every sound we listen to. It is culture in the sense it is about people. Electronic sound, when used in this setting, seems to compromise this in some way. Certainly not in all cases, but it is common enough for many composers and performers of art-music to feel uneasy about making use of electronics in performance, even as if they were somehow compromising the very essence of their craft.

For all the clever and sophisticated sounds being created by electronic composers it is the absence of a human being in the immediate production of these sounds that often means their pieces are more difficult to embrace and revel in than their wholly live counterparts.  Even the fact that we say one kind of music is ‘live’ has a curiously deadening effect on ‘non-live’ music. ‘Un-dead’ music perhaps? Yet, as I indicated in my previous post on this subject (Part 1), electronics have become all but unavoidable. To ignore them is to shut oneself off from the culture as it is actually experienced.

How then does one reconcile electronics in classical music with a tradition so firmly rooted in live performance? One possible way seems to lie in creating electronic sounds that are consistent with or support the intimacy of live pieces; electronics, that somehow acknowledge that communication in music is more than seductive sound-effects.

Two of the best examples of this are, to my mind Zerstören by the German composer Iris ter Schiphorst and Let’s Start Recording by the Irish composer Rúaidhrí Ó Mainnín.

Ter Schiphorst’s work, available to stream from the London Sinfonietta’s website, incorporates an electronic track with the word ‘listen’ occasionally whispered (and also amplified). The effect is extraordinary and one can feel the change in the way one attends to the music, as if willed by the composer to listen harder to the music in the ensemble. The overall effect is to wholly integrate the other electronic sounds with those coming from the live ensemble without any compromise in the musical intimacy of the music.

Mainnín’s piece is a delightful electronic miniature. At only 2 minutes long it is already a piece well disposed to being an intimate snapshot of sounds from a recording session. It is almost nostalgic in the way a voice with a distinctive French accent exclaims the words ‘let’s start recording’ and more emphatically ‘let’s use it’, the speaker’s emphasis acknowledging the seriousness of the work at hand. Occasionally Rúaidhrí himself is heard saying ‘recording’ and we are reminded of the context for all these sounds with a chord from a solo ‘cello whose sound is the very reason d’etre of the session. The nostalgia of Let’s Start Recording is made all the more poignant by the fact that these ‘secret’ words are only preserved on a sanitised, virtually inhumane microchip.

The above argument, combined with the fact that both examples stress the significance of human speech as a means to evoking a sense of human relationship via electronic media may lead the reader to believe this blogger really thinks that the most ‘intimate’ electronic sounds, and so those best suited to concert performances, would come from an episode of The Archers. In fact this isn’t too wide of the mark, but it isn’t a complete account of how electronic sounds are better when they demonstrate a more intimate character.

Indeed, Larry Goves’ ‘romantic piano concerto’ Things that are blue… manages to put a big 30-minute spanner in the works incorporating a range of electronic sounds and techniques without making any recourse to human speech. It is both abrasive and poignant. In fact here it is the ‘dehumanising’ effect of the electronic sounds that throws the intimacy of the live instruments into sharp relief, accentuating their most important feature; human identity and individuality. The result is a piece that comes across as wholly natural and strikingly modern but without failing to be thoroughly intelligible.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive account of how electronics ought to become more of a staple in art-music concerts, but following on from part 1 I hope that it does provide a way forward for use of electronics in concert performances much more widely and point to a coherent way in which electronic sounds might become a little less alien to classical musicians.

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