Sound in Continual Composition :
Soundscapes, Indeterminacy and Ambient and Generative Music.
In his 1973 pamphlet The Music
of The Environment, Canadian composer and theorist R.Murray Schafer
states; 'In various parts of the world important research is being undertaken
in many areas of sonic studies.These researches are related; each is
dealing with aspects of the world soundscape, the vast musical composition
which is unfolding around us ceaselessly.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:29)
If an environmental 'world soundscape'
is 'unfolding around us ceaselessly', then by its nature this 'vast
musical composition', must be indeterminate, and to some degree generative.
That is unless we had the ability to structure every last bird song,
motor engine or gust of wind through a tree, that fills this 'Music
of the Environment'. Though stated by Schafer, this philosophical outlook
has it's roots in the earlier pronouncements of his predecessor John
Cage. Indeed in this same pamphlet Schafer quotes Cage: ''Music is sounds,
sounds heard around us, whether we are in or out of the concert halls.'
(Cox and Warner, 2004:30)
I would like to highlight the parallels
between an evolving environmental soundscape, indeterminate music, and
its contemporary equivalents in generative and ambient music. I would
argue that indeterminate music is not just a composed structure of chance
operations, but that its roots lie in the supposition of an evolving
'world soundscape'. That is of itself non intentional, and that it is
only the way we listen to it, that gives it form. ' Wherever we are,
what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When
we listen to it, we find it fascinating.' - John Cage, (Cox and Warner,
'This blurring of the edges between
music and environmental sounds may eventually prove to be the most striking
feature of all twentieth century music'. (Schafer 1977:111)
Thus spoke R. Murray Schafer in his legendary 1977 book The Tuning Of The World, now entitled The Soundscape (1993) and despite his many detractors, his prediction makes this book one of the most significant canons in the theory of sound culture today. Soundscape as a word has now found its way into the lexicon of the Oxford English Dictionary, and as a concept has found its way into the imaginations of artists and theoreticians alike. As a study of the relationships between people and their sonic environments, it initiated the World Soundscape Project (WSP), created by Schafer and a small team of students and composers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. The first sound study created by WSP was entitled 'Vancouver Soundscape', and as interest in the WSP increased, it has now become the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, which now boasts numerous affiliated international groups.
Vancouver Soundmarks - Claude Schryer 1973
Schafer suggests that 'we try to hear the acoustic
environment as a musical composition and, further, that we own responsibility
for its composition' (Schafer 1977a, 205). This is analogous to Cage's
idea of sound or noise as musical source, although whether he would
agree that we own responsibility for it's composition is another question.
In his later years Cage became influenced by Zen Buddhism and reflecting
on the effect this had on his work, Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner
state in their introduction to his lecture, Composition as process:
Indeterminacy - Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. (Cox and Warner,
2004:29) 'His Zen practice sparked a philosophical commitment to 'non
intention,' the affirmation of life as it is rather than the desire
to improve upon it. In the wake of this realisation, Cage developed
a range of techniques that would allow him to relinquish control over
his compositions and to place himself in the role of listener rather
than that of creator'. As he states in a lecture on September 8, 1958
in Darmstadt. 'It is high time to let sounds issue in time independent
of a beat in order to show a musical recognition of the necessity of
time.' (Cox and Warner,2004:176)
Pioneered by Cage, Indeterminacy
in music is created by some or all of a composition and/or performance
being left to chance operations or the will of the performer. Much has
been written on the subject and as such, this short definition will
suffice for our purposes. As Cage himself states again: 'Bringing about
indeterminacy is bringing about a situation in which things would happen
that are not under my control. Chance operations can guide me to a specific
result, like the 'Music of Changes'. An example of indeterminacy
is any one of the pieces in a series called 'Variations', which
resemble cameras that don't tell you what picture to take but enable
you to take a picture.' (Campana,1985:109)
One of the main tenets of indeterminate
music is process, or the manner in which the elements of a composition
or performance is created. This can entail any number of choice or chance
operations of behalf of the composer, performer or audience. According
to Michael Nyman, they can be 'split up into five areas' (Nyman, 1974:06)
and summarized as.
i. Chance Determination Processes
Originally employed by Cage, examples
are the consultation of the I Ching (The ancient Chinese Book of Oracles)
to answer questions regarding the direction a composition should take
(Music of Changes,1951) and identification of imperfections on paper
(Music for Piano,1952-6).
ii. Contextual Processes
Created by variable unpredictable
conditions from within the composition. Christian Wolff's (Burdocks,
1970) is for an ensemble of up to fifteen players who can choose any
one of three sounds, playing as simultaneously as possible with the
sound they hear played by the player next to them. The process continues,
as they then play another sound, with the next sound of the next nearest
player,and so on until they have played with all players in the ensemble.
iii. Electronic Processes
Cages (Cartridge Music,1960) is again
an example of this, where the score consists of transparent sheets,
which are overlaid with various printed shapes. Readings are then taken
from these shapes indicating to the players when to activate 'generally
by percussive or fricative means'. (Cage:1960) 'objects, such as tooth
picks, matches, pianio wires that have been put into a gramophone cartridge
in place of a needle and amplified by means of contact microphones.'
iv. People Processes
This is best described as a process
that allows performers to play through a composition at their own speed.
As Michael Nyman states: 'Differences in ability account for the possible
eventuality of players getting lost in Fredric Rzewski's 'Les Mouton
de Panurge' (1969), once your lost you are encouraged to stay lost.'
He also picks up on Michael Parsons comment that 'it is an example of
making use of 'hidden resources' in the sense of natural individual
differences, rather than talents or abilities.'
v. Repetition Processes
Repetition creates a means of progression and movement through a composition. Steve Reich uses this in a very gradual way with his early tape pieces It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) which both traverse a spoken statement into a myriad of different speech combinations. In his 1969 manifesto Reich announces his belief in repetition and audible process in music: 'I do not mean the process of composition, but rather the pieces of music that are literally processes.'
Ryoanji (Tribute to John Cage) - Roger Mills 2004
My own work, Ryoanji (tribute
to John Cage) produced for 'Rocks Role, After Ryoanji" exhibition,
Art in General, New York 2004, was inspired by John Cages composition Ryoanji, which he created by making tracings of the fifteen stones
in the Ryoanji Temple stone garden, Kyoto, Japan. The resulting sketches
became the chance notation for double bass, oboe and percussion, and
he later added parts for trombone and flute and finally cello in 1992,
and was never finished due to his death later that year. As a meditation,
the Ryoanji temple monks rake the sand around the garden stones on a
daily basis, and inspired by this, I designed and built a 'sonic rake',
which had five pins inserted along its base. Attaching contact microphones
to the pins from a mini disc recorder on the handle, I was then able
to record the texture of any surface the rake could trail through.
Installation - Sand Bay, Western Supermare, United Kingdom.
The installation of the composition
on the beachfront at Sand Bay measured an area thirty metres by ten
metres (the size of Rioanji Temple garden). As the pins of the rake
trailed through the sand, they left an indentation of five lines as
an abstract musical stave. As a parallel to the fifteen stones of the
stone garden, fifteen rocks of various sizes were sourced from the surrounding
area, and passers by were asked to randomly cast the rocks onto the
demarcated staved area of sand. Interpretation of the score follows
this simple equation:
size of rock = length of note
space between rocks = duration between notes
After the last stone was thrown,
I had a selection of rocks scattered on the stave, indicating a tonal
and rhythmic composition. 'For it is the space and emptiness that is
finally urgently necessary at this point in history (not the sounds
that happen in it-or their relationships) (not the stones-thinking of
a japanese stone garden-or their relationships but the emptiness of
the sand which needs the stones anywhere in the space in order to be
That Cage influenced Schafer is without question and there was undoubtedly a great mutual respect between the two men, even if there were disagreements at the margins. In stating that we 'own responsibility' for what we hear as an acoustic environment or composition, Schafer was clearly referring to a more general responsibility for the sounds of an industrialised society. In an interview with Petra Kern of 'Music Therapy Today' he describes the works in the original Vancouver Soundscape as 'phenomenological recordings' rather than 'mediated recordings', in that they were recordings of sound over time, to show the evolution of a particular sound environment. This starts to appear similar to Cage's 'musical recognition of the necessity of time' and in elucidating the process Schafer says. (Kern, 2007:294-300)
An afternoon talk with R.Murray Schafer - Petra Kern 2007
'We did twenty four hour recordings
and then out of those twenty four hour recordings we would take maybe
two minutes out of each, so that in forty eight minutes you get the
whole circadian rhythm of a particular soundscape'.
Whether deconstructing a twenty four
hour recording into sequenced two minute sections isn't mediated is
another question, but I suggest that what you would actually hear, is
just an aural snapshot in time. It is only 'the whole circadian rhythm
of a particular soundscape' as it was in that twenty four hour period.
As with his generalization of us owning responsibility of acoustic environmental
composition, again he appears to be making his point in much the same
way. Indeterminacy therefore, is much a part of 'acoustic environment
as a musical composition' as the throwing of stones to make compositional
If the 'acoustic environment' is
a 'musical composition', is it Ambient Music ?
Ambient Music and the Sonic Environment
On a rainy day in 1975, whilst confined
to his bed, convalescing after being immobilized by an accident, musician
and music producer Brian Eno had a profound realization which would
indelibly influence his own music and how we consider environmental
music. A visitor who when leaving, put a vinyl record of seventeenth
century harp music on the hi-fi and it wasn't until she had gone that
he realized that the music was too quiet. 'I could hardly hear the music
above the rain-just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs
rising out of the storm. I couldn't get up to change it, so I just lay
there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually
I was seduced by this listening experience. I realized this is what
I wanted my music to be - a place, a feeling, an all round tint to my
sonic environment' (Cox and Warner, 2004:94)
What Eno was articulating is a sense,
not of environmental sound as music, but music as environment sound.
He had identified that low level spacious music could create a subtle
yet immersive experience, which could 'accommodate many levels of listening
attention without enforcing one in particular: it must be as ignorable
as it is interesting.' (Ambient Manifesto - inner sleeve of Music
for Airports 1978). Though not entirely new, the concept of music
designed to be heard as background environmental sound was first pioneered
in the nineteen fifties by the American corporation Muzac Inc. It was
designed to be a non intrusive, environment regulating music, used by
retailers and companies to produce a psychological 'lift' in people
inhabiting their environments. Eno's concept of Ambient Music differs
from this, and he makes the distinction, 'Whereas extant canned music
companies proceed on the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing
their acoustic and atmospheric idio-syncracies, Ambient Music is intended
to enhance these.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:97).
Working with Obscure Records in 1975,
he began producing not only his own releases but others from artists
such as Gavin Bryars, Christopher Hobbs as well as a rare collaboration
between John Cage and Jan Steele, on Voices and Instruments, 1976
- Obscure No. 6. But it wasn't until 1978 while standing in Cologne
airport, that he had the idea of an environmental music that would enhance
the experience of being in a building like that. 'It had to be interruptible
(because there'll be announcements), it has to work outside the frequencies
at which people speak and at different speeds and speech patterns (so
as not to confuse communication) and it has to be able to accommodate
all the noises that airports produce.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:96) Inspired
by this he recorded the legendary Music for Airports, and the
first Ambient Music record was produced and released on his own label
Ambient Records. In Music for Airports, he was envisioning music
that could incorporate an environmental soundscape, not only in frequencies
and pattern, but to underscore their indeterminacy as well. 'They're
theoretically endless, generating new stuff as they go, new combinations.
I always wanted that kind of music - Music for Airports to be
endless pieces.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:97)
Brian Eno produced further Ambient records with artists such as Harold Budd and Laraaji, and in 1982 he would produce another ground breaking record On Land, where he integrated environmental field recordings into his compositions. In the sleeve notes of On Land, he explains the nature of some of the albums sound sources from Ghana : 'What I sometimes found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the evenings with a microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to tthe results on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame: they became music'. (Cox and Warner, 2004:96)
Shadow (On land) - Brian Eno 1982
It is here that clear conceptual
links emerge between Eno's ethos of Ambient Music as a 'place, a feeling,
an all round tint', R.Murray Schafer's 'acoustic environment' as a musical
composition' and John Cage's 'Music is sounds, sounds heard around us'.
Brandon LaBelle distills this further when referring to how 'source
underscores sound' as 'The direct correlation of music as a culture
of listening, and sound as an indicator of everyday life'. (LaBelle,
Generative music is often discussed
in different ways and as different things by theorists, mathematicians
and composers. What is common to most interpretations is process. This
is illustrated by four examples given by Wooler, R and A.R. Brown, et
1. Linguistic/Structural: Music created
using analytic theoretical constructs that are explicit enough to generate
music (Loy and Abbott 1985; Cope 1991); inspired by generative grammars
in language and music, where generative instead refers to mathematical
recursion (Chomsky 1956; Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983).
2. Interactive/Behavioral: Music
resulting from a process with no discernable musical inputs, i.e., not
transformational (Rowe 1991; Lippe 1997, p 34; Winkler 1998).
3. Creative/Procedural: Music resulting
from processes set in motion by the composer, such as “In C” by
Terry Riley and Its gonna rain by Steve Reich (Eno 1996).
4. Biological/Emergent: Non-repeatable
music (Biles 2002a) or non-deterministic music, such as or wind
chimes (Dorin 2001), as a sub-set of 'Generative Art'.
As highlighted above, a primitive
example of generative music is the wind chime. We can control how many
tones it has, but not the order, velocity or how frequently they are
played. Is music generated from the wind chime then indeterminate ?
I argue that the answer to this lies in what we have previously discussed
as Process. An interesting analogy here is Christian Wolff's indeterminate
composition Burdocks (1970), where the piece was performed through
the process fifteen instrumentalists choosing any one of three notes
and randomly playing them as synchronously as possible with the nearest
player. In an interview with David Toop, Brian Eno says 'What
I think is interesting about generative music is that instead of giving
a set of detailed instructions about how to make something, what you
do instead is give a set of conditions by which something will come
into existence.' (Cox and Warner, 2004:241-242)
In contrast John Cage sates, 'An
example of indeterminacy is any one of the pieces in a series called
'Variations', which resemble cameras that don't tell you what
picture to take but enable you to take a picture.' (Campana,1985:109).
To which Eno adds, 'All of my ambient music I should say, really was
based on that kind of principle, on the idea that it's possible to think
of a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music
for you.' (Eno, 1996)
As we seek to understand sound and
it's place in the world around us, it is clear that it is a multi faceted
phenomena with many paradigms of meaning. What emerges in the composition
or organisation of sound, is that it is, its own entity, and tied into
the very fabric of life. Serving our creative instincts we give give
it form, tonality and structure, but it will continue to fill our environment
regardless of our artistry, for it is continually renewing and regenerating
Cox, C, Warner, D, (2004) Audio Culture:
Readings in Modern Music. Continuum.
Schafer,R, Murray, (1977) The Tuning
of the World. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Schafer,R, Murray, (1993) The Soundscape.
D. Campana, (1985) "Interview
with Cage," Form and Structure in the Music of John Cage, Ph.D.
Northwestern University, Evanston. U.S.A.
Nyman, M, (1974) Experimental Music:
Cage and Beyond.Cambridge.
Cage, J, (1961) Silence: Lectures
and Writings. Middletown, CT.Wesleyan University Press.
Kern, P, (2007) Surrounded by Soundscapes:
An Afternoon Talk with R. Murray Schafer. Music Therapy Today. Vol.VIII
(2) 294-300. <available at http://www.musictherapyworld.de/modules/mmmagazine/showarticle.php?articletoshow=206 >
Wooler, R, A.R. Brown, et al. (2005)
A Framework for Comparison of Processes in algorithmic music systems.
Generative Arts Practice, Sydney, Creative and Cognition Studios Press.
Eno,B, (1996) Generative Music: Evolving
metaphors, in my opinion, is what artists do. - Motion Magazine, July
7. <available at http://www.inmotionmagazine.
LaBelle, B, (2006) Background Noise:
Perspectives in Sound Art, New York, Continuum.