Music and Life
by Joel Chadabe
History is written backwards from the present to the past. It is our perception of what is important now that guides our search for historical roots. We note something special and we ask: How did it develop?
So what is important now? Electronic technology has made it possible for music to reflect more of the world around us, integrating the rhythms, activities, and experiences of everyday life. This integration begins with the use of sounds and words that evoke thoughts and feelings relating to place, personality, and events. The structure of music as an ongoing dynamic process therefore allows for an interactive role to be played by the public so that music can be experienced and understood.
The relevant histories of the expanded uses of sounds in music and of music as a dynamic system are short but often confusing because of different motivations and contexts. What about the expanded use of sounds? Did Luigi Russolo, Futurist and inventor of the Intonarumori, really mean to open up music to all sounds in 1914, or was his goal merely the "industrialization" of chamber music? Did John Cage's Imaginary Landscape #1, with its inclusion of non-musical sounds, bring music closer to life in 1939? One could certainly argue in favor of Pierre Schaeffer's intentions in 1948 when he composed his Etude aux Chemins de Fer, his first essay in musique concrete. Yet years later, in the Traité des Objets Musicaux, he confused the situation by talking about identifying sounds not by their roles in life but by their morphologies.
The first distinctive moment of conceptual clarity in connecting sound to life was in R. Murray Schafer's World Soundscape Project in the 1960s. Schafer's goal was to understand how we interact individually and collectively with the sounds around us. The World Soundscape Project later led to a school of musical composition and a multitude of soundscape compositions. Hildegard Westerkamp's India Sound Journal (1993), for example, which grew out of her work with Schafer, is a narrative and audio-sonic journey into various aspects of India's culture, composed from soundwalks that she recorded in India.
Yet Schafer's project can also be seen as part of a larger movement from which we can extract a diversity of sound-and-life connections. John Cage's approach to sound composition, for example, was to define a territory, record all of the sounds within that territory, and then randomize the juxtapositions of the sounds to create an anarchistic world in which everything simply happens simultaneously in a cheerful, symbiotic whole. His Birdcage (1972) is a complex, exuberant, and joyful fabric of juxtapositions centered around birds recorded in aviaries, with Cage's voice and the sounds of the birds creating an atmosphere that is both good humored and ridiculous.
Representing a completely different perspective, personality, and mood, Cecile Le Prado's Le Triangle d'Incertitude (1996) is an evocative and haunting tapestry of sounds from the coasts of Belgium, France, and Spain. There are hints of ship-to-shore talk in various languages, nature sounds, and the sea, where the listener is placed in a world defined entirely by sound. And Jean-Claude Risset's Sud (1985), based on recordings of the sea near Marseilles, portrays the power of a nature that is shaped, filtered, and civilized by both technology and human creativity, bringing various rhythms into play, relating different emotions and forms, and creating an energy that bonds us to the sea.
Words are special sounds. An important aspect of sound-and-life connections in music is the use of words in a musical context. In Fugitives Voix (1997), Daniel Teruggi creates a quasi-abstract drama of vocal sounds in which familiar voices are taken from the real world and woven into an imaginary fabric. In Two Women (1998), Trevor Wishart provides an example of extended documentary art in which the portrayal of a real world personality is transformed to extend its meaning and express deeper and more universal values. He uses the voice of Margaret Thatcher to create a political cartoon and the voice of Princess Diana to create a touching personal portrait.
In 1994, Joan La Barbara composed a musical setting of Kenneth Goldsmith's 73 Poems by recording his poems and then using electronics to transform the sounds of the words. She created shadings and distance by varying the extent of transformation, and the result was that the sounds of the words conveyed a non-verbal communication of simple human feelings. But those feelings, as expressed in each poem, were discrete moments that could be heard in any order. It was a natural step for La Barbara to allow a listener to determine the order. 73 Poems is now presented in the form of an interactive installation, where members of the public can choose what sound comes next. The musical structure therefore becomes interactive and flexible.
The paradigm shift from a musical object to a dynamic system occurred in the last years of the 20th century. An object, in general terms, is something that is defined and separated from the rest of the world by its physical boundaries. A musical composition as an object is defined and separated from the rest of the world by the boundaries of time. The specific structures of musical objects have changed from the synchronous and symmetrical structures of the 19th century to the simultaneities and juxtapositions of the early 20th century. And while the structures of the 1950s were characterized by an underlying complexity and unpredictability, the 1960s concentrated mostly on system models. But however these structures have changed, they represent a traditional view of musical composition, not completely consonant with the interactivity of electronic systems.
A dynamic system, unlike a musical object, has no time boundaries because it functions as an ongoing process. It may start or stop, but it has no beginning and no end and it operates according to its own rules. Joan La Barbara's 73 Poems functions as a dynamic system. Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky the Subliminal Kid, created Saturation Station (2001) as a multimedia performance of emotionally loaded images and sounds based on current events. The images and sounds are mixed live in a multi-media collage, where the listener is put in the middle of an uncontrollable and violent world. In Morton Subotnick's Gestures (2000), members of the public perform by moving a mouse over a surface "map" to control sounds. And Garth Paine's Gestation (2000) uses a video camera to sense and map the public's movements and gestures as they move through space, and then utilizes such information to control a music and image process.
A dynamic system, in short, responds to the participant's environment. It can be interactive and performed by the public. It can be experienced by each person in an individual time frame. It can become part of our lives.