Earlier this summer I participated in a weeks workshop at Musiques et Recherches in Belgium, the course : Acousmatic composition, taught by Annette Vande Gorne, one of Europe's leading Electro-Acoustic, and more importantly, Acousmatic composers. Unless you're a member of the small group - worldwide - of musicians, or electro-acousticians, who are interested by the possibilities of reorganisation of sound into music, this might be an unknown word. However it is probably one of the most interesting areas of music I've become involved with since a long, long time. If you've seen my blog articles concerning my project with Roald Baudoux (Kurt Schwitters - The Man with the Glass Nose) you'll have already seen or heard some of my experiments with sound away from the traditional directions. It also seems (to me) a very exciting area of music which completely re-defines our perception of what is music.
Acousmatic music, in a brief explanation, is music made up of sounds, either real or electronically produced, transformed into soundscapes which are interpreted into musical (a bad word in this case) compositions. Probably an easier way to perceive the idea is to think of it as a film sound-track without pictures. Another image used to describe acousmatic composition/music/sound is like an illusionist - the composer - which has the ability to stimulate the imagination into hearing things that may not be there.
Sounds are often constructed (to be used) in a composition, and that means they can be produced/generated in many different ways - one example could be :
Taking two sounds, joining them together, such as the sound of hitting a cushion (a) added onto a bell sound (b). Sound 'a' can be edited and added onto sound 'b' producing a new sound, often unavailable in the real world. The above example would thus be the 'hit' of a cushion and the reverberation of the bell, and thus clearly two opposing, or contradictory sounds, which come together as a completely new sound. The new sound may not have any reference point for the listener, almost like imagining salty sugar! Of course you could also just use one (1) sound source, altering it to create a new sound, as an example by reversing or altering it in various ways.
As you can surely imagine there are many techniques and ideas which can be used to form new sounds in fact far too many to discuss here. However if one is interested you can find several bits of information here (pdf text) about Pierre Schaeffer and his ideas on Solfège de l'Objet Sonore (*) an interesting interview with Schaeffer transcribed into English (in pdf form). Of course Wiki's take on the subject of electro acoustic music is probably interesting to look at, but more importantly acousmatic sound, which is something different again, may give you some fresh ideas.
To move back to the weeks workshop I should add that five pupils took part all of us new to the subject, and all curious to discover more about ways of opening up our minds and ears to musical sound possibilities offered by acousmatic composition. One of the main obstacles is to overcome preconceived ideas of composition, such as melody, rhythm and harmony. One has to learn to hear sound as images that can be linked together, and hopefully lead the listener from one idea to another. This might seem (at first look) as very easy to do .... but not so. To a certain extent free improvisation also has some of these problems. How to play without using preconceived musical language or structures, and yet continue to play for (in a concert) up to 1h30 at a time! All five pupils listened intently to a morning class given by Annette Vande Gorne who talked us through ideas and examples from the vast catalogue of her past experience. As an ex-pupil of Pierre Schaeffer and Guy Reibel, she had the chance to meet and work with such greats as Francois Bayle, Bernard Parmegiani, Pierre Henri and a lot more. She talked about ideas for creating sounds from singular or multiple sources, using techniques such as I described above. Also how to use sound to attract, or hold the listeners attention using such ideas as insertions or silence. There was so much to discuss and digest as it really is an intensive course (which normally takes up the first year of the BA Hons course that she teaches). However, I think we all came away with a lot of material to work on, and with. The afternoons were workshops with Loup Mormont another professor at Mons Conservatory. He worked us through recording techniques and also sound manipulation on our computers. Every afternoon we worked, listened, discussed ideas, heard suggestions and so gradually developed over the 6 days a composition. The final afternoon we all listened to each others works and commented in a mini concert.
I hope to be able to present my colleagues compositions from that week at the workshop a little later on. However, for the moment I'm placing my short piece (03m07sec) from that week, which I really enjoyed working on. To give you a quick idea of how the piece was built up I should say each one of us spent time wandering round the area (of the workshop) recording sounds from : the garden, roads, studio doors, gates, water taps etc. It is from these sources that all the sounds (on my piece) were built. You'll probably (certainly) be able to recognise some of these, others I hope will be a little more camouflaged! I should add that to get the best from the piece you should either a) listen through headphones. b) plug your computer into the hi-fi.
I'll certainly be continuing with this style of music/sound, I was very inspired by the whole week and now wonder how to develop the material learned, either in live situations (combined with an instrument), or as pure compositional work. Of course if you have any questions, don't hesitate to leave a comment or contact me.
*= It's easier to read about this theory - Solfège de l'Objet Sonore - rather than explain it on a blog.