AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research

Some initial thoughts... on composition

​In the composing worlds of electronic, electro-acoustic and popular music, the composer is controlling the final sound precisely. On the other hand though, that implies that concert presentations of these types of piece should attempt to emulate that fixed, recorded sound. Composers working with a score can't have the same level of control of the final sound but they have the pleasure of hearing their 'instructions' interpreted by different people in different places. Does this have to be an 'either-or' choice though? In the world of popular music there are often two approaches to this divide. One is to try to reproduce the sound of the recording in a live event but the other is to explore the creative possibilities of these two different art forms. What are the possibilities in the world of classical composition?

  • As I see it, if a composer is interested in using electronics/electro-acoustics in his piece, he should assume another role than the traditional composer. I've personally named this the producer/composer as I'm writing a graduate paper on the issue. The composer has a responsability to know how things should sound, and to get the most positive results the composer should also be one of the people programming/producing the piece.

    An insight into the world one wants to write with is considered as crucial for composers. A composer should understand how string instruments work to write for a string orchestra, yet this idea doesn't seem to be as widespread when it comes to electronics. I see it as the one and the same. Electronics should be properly studied and understood by a composer before writing for it. This will also give the composer a better idea of what is possible, what isn't possible and how difficult it is. I do understand that many composers do not have the programming skills needed to do everything themselves, and then they should definitely team up with someone that will have the needed insight into programming but also music. I find that IRCAM has done a fantastic job at bringing the two worlds together for example.

    Your other question about whether one is to reproduce the sound of the recording in a live event or approach completely different is an interesting question. I do think it comes down to artistic vision, as in much of popular music. Sometimes technical issues can also limit what is possible in the recording versus live. For example with works that can use multi-channel set-ups. An artist is much more free to play with sptialization and multi-channel set-up at a concert than on a recording where multi-channel set-ups are rather precise and even then, perhaps not as widespread as one could wish.

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  • I suppose that my comment really touches most on the responsibilities of composers, although arrangers/orchestrators have their great role to play (Ferdy Grofé for George Gershwin). And, of course soloists who wrote their own cadenza or variations.

    I am afraid that classical music as we know it will disappear into a phenomenon reserved for a small and decreasing congregation. Its demise as a general respect-builder will be somewhat delayed by repurposing -- the present conference shows some examples. It is, possibly, not really fair to call transcriptions for other instruments or for admixtures with novel instruments 'repurposing'; after all it has always been done: piano reductions (Liszt, for instance), arrangements for saxophone ensembles (Marcel Mule in the 1930s in order to promote Selmer), accordeon, or even orchestrations or 'symphony expansions' (in opposition to 'piano reductions): Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier" by Felix Weingartner. Many similar examples exist and have been enjoyed over the years.

    But also James Last, the German dance orchestra leader, did some re-purposing of classical music in the 1980s. With added bass and drum kit several iconic pieces of classical music were used as dance music, obviously with the James Last 'magic taste enhancer': the sound of people enjoying themselves.

    In the name of equality we cannot scorn those whose taste goes to that kind of music. For me it took more than 40 years to discover for myself that Moonlight Serenade (Glenn Miller) was in effect built on chords from Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2. The Danish Broadcasting authority knew better: along with several other (and more blatantly) "jazzified" classics it was banned from being broadcast in the 1950s, and a scull-and-bones sticker was put on the labels of these low-brow offerings.

    An indication that we are straying from the straight and narrow may be found in the plans of making a film about Florence Foster Jenkins. She was considered a "freak show" in her lifetime and was not nearly as accepted by the cognoscenti as Victor Borge, Anna Russell or even Spike Jones who all contributed good-humouredly to spreading knowledge about classical music ('Rimsky?' 'Of course, of course!'). Films were made about great classical composers and musicians, such as "Amadeus", "The Great Caruso". Even David Gotthelf was given a film portrait, in which traditional classical music was the essence.

    I am afraid that the future of classical music is largely visual, like it always was for those who could afford it, before recording took upon itself to provide democratic access. A naked shoulder and blonde hair no shorter than 60 cm tossed around to music is what sells today -- at least in violin (well, and 30 years ago it was a hippie look!). But what is there to scorn: antics during performance have always been the trademark of the virtuosi. Although I am perfectly correct in stating that I concentrate better on the sound if I am not disturbed by visuals, the total spectacle is what impresses and sells.

    I am sounding like Henry Pleasants or Norman Lebrecht, however devoid of their credentials and possibly lacking their penmanship. But I am expressing no regrets: we live in exciting times and may be much inspired! So many more possibilities.

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  • I'm going to posit an optimistic contribution based upon my own experience as both a classical composer and a record producer: The possibilities are vast and it doesn't need to be an 'either-or' choice. Where the composer is (alive and) prepared to take an active role in production, or where production is viewed as a genuine contribution to the compositional outcomes of a work, then there is a lot of flexibility to employ electronic, sampled and processed textures to different degrees, and have multiple versions of works based upon where/how it is going to be performed/experienced.

    I wrote an opera called The Pomegranate Cycle which has been staged three times and released as a recording. Each staging involved working with the production team to make new arrangements of the work based upon the staging context. There is a "fixed" version of the work documented on a recording and through vocal scores, but because I'm happy to rework the composition, it has included at different points: live processing, improvised sections, and playable sound sculptures triggered by the performers and audience members during the staging. What is interesting and challenging about this process of "versioning" an operatic composition is that I can experiment with the amount of authorship I transfer to singers, the audience, producers etc. The work still needs to maintain its integrity as an opera. My feeling on this is that that occurs by writing music which foregrounds the integrity and texture of operatic singing, and has a continuing narrative which structures the work.

    One recurring issue for classical composers who experiment with electronic textures and variable/hyper-real production aesthetics in their composition is that it is easy to get into trouble with the "genre police". I.e. where the production aesthetics become marked and re-focus the use/implementation of acoustic instruments in the final sound of a recording or a performance it becomes very easy for traditionalists to start calling the work by other labels, regardless of the compositional devices employed, or the intention and alignment of the authors. Perhaps this wouldn't be such an issue if there wasn't already a problematic divide between the presentation of contemporary work and the presentation of canonic compositions. In Australia, the tendency is to separate traditional audiences patronising the major companies from new work, and theses audiences find it increasingly difficult to interpret electronic and experimental textures when they encounter them. This then reinforces very conservative programming and a tendency to classify new sonic textures as something different or other than classical music.

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Eve Klein
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