On timbre

Xenakis is broadly recognised as being one of the most important figures in the development of electronic music. So why is it that out of the 150 works he composed, only a handful are electronic works? (James Harley, “The Electroacoustic Music of Xenakis”, 2002).

I think there is a significant difficulty, even if a greater possibility, that comes with working electronically. The building block of signal processing techniques is the sine wave. It is a timbre-less block. To build a certain textural complexity in sound, you need an awful lot of these building blocks. And you need to manipulate them, with great detail, in the domain of time … small time, milliseconds. It takes huge amounts of work, and the results are often not as rich and complex as a natural sound.

Ligeti markedly did not persist with electronic techniques:

It turned out that whilst in theory you can synthesise sine waves into any kind of sound and produce any timbre or complex chord, time is a limiting factor. When you sound an oboe you have the whole spectrum of sound straight away. You can piece together such a sound by recording each element, all the harmonics on tape and then splice the synchronised sound together. But it is such a laborious process that a few seconds of the entire complex range of harmonics of the oboe sound take a year or two to produce — well I exagerate a little. So think of the real synthetic sound, the creation of a completely new sound texture that you want to bring forth, that is a much more difficult task; and it is not just a question of time. It takes a year before you actually hear what you have imagined and by then your ideas will almost certainly have changed quite radically.

‘Ligeti in Conversation’ p. 35

Maybe not a year, with modern computing power, but still a lot of effort. And the results are not always good. Its one thing being technically able to do it, its an other making it sound good. In fact I would go so far as to state that one of the principle challenges I have had in working with the electroacoustic or electronic medium is achieving a balanced, rich textured sound. When I say balanced, I mean spectrally balanced. A sound which has the right combination and spread of frequencies that evolve in time.

Xenakis also expressed the difficulty of producing rich sounds synthetically:

Now, the more the music moves toward complex sonorities close to “noise”, the more numerous and complicated the transients become, and the more their synthesis from trigonometric functions becomes a mountain of difficulties, even more unacceptable to a computer than the permanent states. It is as though we wanted to express a sinuous mountain silhouette by using portions of circles.

Xenakis, Formalised Music 1992, p. 244

This is what led Xenakis to explore audio synthesis methods that could achieve complexity in sound. His stochastic synthesis is exactly that, a simple algorithm to generate complex sounds without needing to consider sound as thousands of sine waves of different frequencies with minutely changing volumes.

The epiphany is that when working in electroacoustics, one is almost forced to become an instrument builder. One is forced to consider sound as, undoubtedly, Antonio Stradivari did. It is a consideration of the minutiae of sound, of timbre.

Attempting to compose works whilst designing sound at this level is difficult. One is constantly diving from the macro-time scale to the micro-time scale.  If one is principally interested in composition, it makes sense to compose for orchestra. The instruments already have exquisitely designed minutiae.

And then! Not only are orchestral instruments’ timbres already exquisitely designed, but there is also an added level of human emotional intelligence, imbued by the performer. The electroacoustic composer must not only design the sounds, but he/she must also attempt to imbue them with human meaning. The orchestral composer need not do this, it is done by the performer.

This video is a demonstration of the gap between an instrument’s exquisitely designed timbre, and the missing emotional intelligence usually brought by a human performer. The violin sounds rich and complex … which is hard enough to do with electroacoustic sounds, but the human performer brings even *more* complexity and emotion … which is even harder to achieve with electroacoustic sounds.

I think this explains the cultural alienation of classical music composers when faced with electroacoustic music. Working with electroacoustic music forces the composer to consider timbre. Orchestral composers need not do so (as much). And so, in the light of classical composition, electroacoustic works might seem poor in macro-composition … and well they might be, but that is not where the creative acts lie … it is more in the timbre.

I wonder if Stradivari would more easily appreciate electroacoustic music.

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2 Responses to On timbre

  1. rukidnaomerchant says:

    how much of that bloody control design went into getting the robot to sway?!?

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