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On Stage

A special report on one of Britain's premier avant garde music festivals, Musica Nova.

An introduction to the world of Electro-Acoustic Music and a review of a concert festival devoted entirely to it - Musica Nova.

One of the luxuries of attending music festivals - as opposed to one-off gigs - is the chance to observe, at the seminars and discussions that accompany the concerts, the reaction to new and perhaps controversial ideas from a variety of differing viewpoints. And at the sixth international festival of contemporary music, Musica Nova in Glasgow, these reactions were sparked off by a Yamaha DX7 demonstration given by Dave Bristow. Dave expressed an interest in introducing a cheaper means of sound synthesis as an alternative to the wildly expensive equipment so often used in 'serious' music studios.

The festival, held at the University of Glasgow in September, was organised jointly by the Scottish National Orchestra and the London-based Society for the Promotion of New Music. Around 70 pieces were performed, and amongst the 14 concerts were two which concentrated on electronic or 'electro-acoustic' music. As some readers may not have come across this term, E-A (as it is commonly abbreviated) is a relatively new musical phenomenon developed in the late forties and early fifties by avant garde composers such as Stockhausen and Pousseur. E-A Studios are now based mainly in universities around the world and the music usually exists solely on tape, though pieces may include live performers, dancers, films, and so on. What makes it unique is that it deals in timbre, motion and space. You don't just listen to the sound, you can watch it travel around the hall.

All this probably sounds very pretentious and, I admit, some E-A works are very pretentious. Trying to describe any music in words is at best a compromise (you really have to hear it for yourself) but unfortunately, E-A performances aren't exactly two-a-penny, and many parts of the country don't have the facilities (or enough interested parties) to arrange one.

Anyway, back at the festival...

Dave Bristow began his demonstration by deliberately adopting a generally anti-electronic studio (and particularly anti-IRCAM) stance. His argument went something like this. Why invest in expensive equipment and limit production of E-A music to those places that can afford it (ie. universities and other academic establishments), when FM synthesis provides an opportunity for composers to work creatively (and at a relatively low financial outlay) outside ivory towers?

Well, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Mr Bristow spent a fair portion of his session demonstrating how good the DX7 is at reproducing live instruments, but the E-A composers present weren't particularly interested in 'acoustic' synthesis. What's more important to them is the creation of entirely new previously unheard sounds and their subsequent control, either through tape manipulations or via digital transformations.

The Synthi 100. Out of date, out of mind, and out of reach.

In the event, I decided I needed to find someone involved with E-A who had used FM equipment. Fortunately, nestling among the tape compositions was a work by a young Scotsman, Charles Lyall, written using a DX7 and a multitrack recorder. He had worked with the standard university analogue synthesiser, the Synthi 100, and was able to compare the two systems: with a few reservations, the DX7 came out favourably, and what's more, unlike the Synthi 100, it doesn't make an enormous hole in your pocket or the living room ceiling!

Even if FM synthesis does limit your creative urges (many would argue that limitation is the most creative thing of all - Ed), it's nothing compared to the restrictions the present academic set-up induces. At the moment, if you want to make avant garde tape music in this country, you need either a first-class degree to get the grant, or excellent contacts. Perhaps a benevolent sugar parent might come in handy, but all the same, this still excludes rather a lot of potentially good composers. It seems obvious to me that the greater the variety of people involved, the more E-A music will flourish: confining it to those within academic circles will only result in the electro-acoustic medium throttling itself.

Charles Lyall at the 'sound diffusion' console.

Mind you, composition is only half the battle. E-A music is obviously at its best when performed over an excellent, multistereo or ambisonic speaker system. In fact, one of the key words in tape music is 'diffusion'. This requires a performer (preferably the composer) positioning sounds via a multi-channel mixing desk appropriately around the concert hall: relating the position of sound to musical meaning is one of the most fascinating aspects of the electronic medium.

Unfortunately, there are few venues in the UK that can provide both sympathetic acoustics and an adequate sound system. The facilities at Glasgow were limited. Only six speakers were available, offering little scope to the diffuser, though all the works in the second concert combined tape with live performance and this reduced the need for a good diffusion system. Particularly impressive - from my point of view - was Paul Lansky's 'As If...', which explored the relationship between 'performed' and 'synthesised' sound, with the tape acting as an acoustic backdrop to three string players.

In the first concert, which featured tape-only pieces, the limited speaker arrangement could only approximate the excitement that comprehensive facilities would have created...

The problems that beset Musica Nova as a rewarding occasion can be traced to the perennial problem suffered by the E-A movement as a whole. Lack of money. Personally, I think Dave Bristow's interest is to be commended, and any dialogue between the 'rock' and 'classical' worlds is bound to be healthy in the long run. It might even coax the latter genre out of its cloisters, though time alone will tell.

Who knows? Maybe rock groups will soon take on E-A composers and their music, in addition to the more conventional support groups.

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Dec 1984

Music Review by Adrian Jones

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