6 representative works and links for contemporary composers.
Tuesday, 3 November 2015
Jack of all trades? The synthesiser
As the synthesiser became available to the masses descriptions of its abilities became exaggerated, it was going to make performers redundant, replace whole orchestras in film music, and cupboards were going to be full of traditional instruments and children given keyboards as their introduction to music making.
As with all fears an element of truth existed in this view. In certain circumstances the synth could be used in place of (or in addition to) a traditional instrument, certainly not as a second violin in a string quartet, but possibly as e.g. a contrasting texture to a bass guitar. The role of the synthesiser in film has several interesting features, it was fortunate that the sounds produced most easily on the synth invoked associations with mechanical sounds, weapons, flight, wind sounds etc. all ideal for sci-fi and combat movies. The extension into video games was a natural progression. Far from reducing the employment of musicians the opportunities for making capital expanded enormously. As for our children many have learnt the basics of music making on relatively cheap keyboards. The quality of teaching and the development of technique depend a great deal on the educator but considering the numbers of children involved one has to accept that there are advantages to learning how to perform on any instrument over no instrument.
The primary concern of these blogs is to consider composing techniques, but before moving away from performing with a synth it may be useful to consider the work of a jazz keyboard player who has explored the world of synthetic sounds, Joe Zawinul. He gave an interview to the music engineering magazine Sound on Sound and his insights make fascinating reading, two short extracts provide an oversight which may encourage reading the whole article.
I can play with a drum machine, and I can make a drum machine sound like a real drummer because of how I play around it. It's an art. You cannot be a slave... It's an art to play to sequencers or drum machines, and even some of the really famous guys can't do it.
And on composing:
(Its) about sound. And synthesizers are even more difficult, because there's a greater menu. It's much easier to choose the best dish out of five ... than out of 400."
Understanding the basics of synthetically produced sounds will illustrate why the synth has been largely employed in a relatively limited way when its potential is enormous. The rate of change in sound production is such that composers often move onto new ideas before exploring fully the possibilities of “older” technology. The summary is deliberately short and may be skipped by those with even a basic knowledge of the synth.
Synthesisers start with the production of a tone produced by a sine wave generator, combining several sine waves with pitch control produces more musical tones. Tone generation is produced by an oscillator which may select a variety of waveforms such as sawtooth, triangle, square or pulse.
The filter removes parts of the frequencies generated, after filtering, a bright sawtooth wave can be altered to a warmer sound with reduced treble. Resonance and drive may also be used to alter the tone to replicate instrumental sounds.
The module known as an envelope controls the levels for the beginning, middle, and end portions of the sound.
The signal may require a modulator, the LFO (low frequency oscillator) is frequently employed to affect the main signal to add vibrato or create filter sweeps. Selecting the LFO waveform dramatically affects the range of vibrato etc.
In addition to the sound production there are global controls for overall loudness, glide or portamento and the bend range particularly useful for emulating small pitch fluctuations.
Noise can be added to produce percussive sounds and replicate natural sounds.
That is sufficient detail for the moment, varieties and developments will be considered in conjunction with particular pieces of music.
The use of sine waves alone is not going to produce particularly pleasing results, Stockhausen worked with combinations of sine waves processing them with reverberation in his desire to create new sonorities
the following link provides a wealth of information about the technical aspects of sine wave manipulation in the Stockhausen Studies (and some of the human responses to the work carried out).
On a personal level I find the music compelling, it is never predictable and demonstrates what many musicians understand, working within constraints assists the composing process.
Early pioneers of the synthesiser also included jazz musicians, Herb Deutsch worked alongside Bob Moog and his account of developing the attack on a tone via a door bell makes a wonderful story:
There are video clips on YouTube concerning Herb Deutsch which demonstrate the pitfalls of the instrument, particularly with tuning, but which pioneer ever expected an easy ride?
The two approaches (Stockhausen and Deutsch) take us into interesting territory, was the synth going to be used as an instrument with certain acceptable sounds appropriate for melody or bass or as a source of new material to open up extensive possibilities for contemporary serious music?
The MIDI table offers an insight of one solution to being faced with a near infinite number of possible choices. Various companies developed the sounds in these categories; I used a Roland Sound Canvas for many years and learnt a great deal even from applying basic alterations to the sounds. Before selected banks were provided a great deal of donkey work was required, and saving sounds required careful planning. The EMS VCS 3 belongs to this pre-table period, though similar synths are now available as software versions which make recalling patches easy. This account from the Vinyl factory of the VCS 3 is entertaining:
It was so quirky that most musicians couldn’t even fathom how to coax actual melodies out of it, prompting some to label it as a bulky, expensive effects unit. Those that persevered were rewarded, and the bizarre-sounding synthesizer was a bottomless treasure trove of peculiar pops, clangs and whines. The fact that you could play it with a joystick, a la Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones (the keyboard was sold separately), only added to its charm.
The phrase “how to coax actual melodies out of it” speaks volumes about the way certain musicians approached this synthesiser.
As companies developed their own particular synthesiser sounds individual musicians became associated with those textures, e.g. Herbie Hancock made use of the ARP Odyssey on “Chameleon”.
Keyboard players would find the limits imposed with monophonic synthesisers troubling but synths like the CS-80 opened up polyphonic play. In terms of composition polyphony cuts both ways. There is always the temptation with a polyphonic presentation of being lazy, and the repeated use of a lush texture can ruin a good idea. Similarly the stacking of several voices (possibly through a chain of instruments) can make an immediate impact but fail to sustain interest. We are back to the old repetition and variation problem.
With the advent of the Fairlight CMI sampling became a source of new sounds, however the range of sounds was limited by the length of the samples taken. As PCM synthesis became a new standard in sound production, it tackled, but did not overcome the problem of authenticity with instrumental sounds.
Another development which was to stimulate the imagination of serious contemporary composers was FM synthesis. This method modulates the frequencies of combinations of sound waves to create a new wave rich in harmonic content. For performers one great advantage was that the digital nature of the instrument ensured that tuning was no longer a problem. The main challenge for musicians was in the programming, and once again engineers produced banks of sounds that were a mixed blessing to the world of music.
Thankfully now there is a software version of the DX keyboard, FM8 in which one can either alter sounds on a basic level (Easy/Morph) or at a more complex level (Master), or of course one can open a ‘new sound’ which is a single sine wave and explore at one’s pleasure.
Having put in place some of the basics of the synthesiser and mentioned some of its exponents I will conclude this blog with a hint of some of the uses in contemporary music using Jonathan Harvey’s own notes on “Inner Light 3”
One of the tapes other roles is to transform one instrument's waveform into another's, often in the course of a journey round the concert hall. For instance, a trumpet sound leaves the orchestra, changes progressively into a clarinet in mid-flight, so to speak, and returns to the stage area where the orchestral clarinet takes it up. The spatial engulfment of quadraphony and the dreamlike reverberation of orchestral events are, together with the alpha wave treatment, further aspects of the 'superhuman' role of the tape. There is nothing new in regarding the mechanical as superhuman; everyone in Western tradition who has ever thought of the organ as a bearer of sacred meaning, or in the East of the gong in such a light has done the same.
Monday, 2 November 2015
The contest between live and synthetic sounds.
This blog may be read as an introduction to the 10 pieces of popular music which feature contemporary techniques. Its focus is mainly on serious contemporary composers who pioneered many of the uses of sound manipulation adopted by recording engineers from the mid 1960’s onwards.
There is a continual process of leapfrogging played between developments in instrumental and electronic sounds, before the 1950’s the orchestra had enriched its palette of sounds through the introduction of exotic instruments, particularly percussion. Composers like Varese extended the range further, no one will forget the first time they experience the lion’s roar in “Ionisation” or his use of sirens. Today we can incorporate any natural sound into the theatre or concert hall to enrich a performance, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 has benefitted from sampled cannon sounds. The use of electronic instruments as in MIDI harpsichords or harps creates more controversy at this time and would be regarded as “poor form” by some musicians and audiences.
It can be delightful to play chicken and the egg games with the whole issue of orchestral textures emulating electronically generated sounds and naturally produced sonorities aping synthesized sounds in the concert hall. Rather than list works that show these trends this blog intends to show why some of the developments came about and provide some examples which may stimulate thinking about “new” textures and their place in our toolbox of composing resources.
Why did we expand the sound palette to include machine sounds and “noise”?
From the period of the First World War artists were abandoning 19th century values turning instead to the development of technology and industry rather than nature for their inspiration. If we need a reminder of 19th century values there is a lengthy PDF available here from Naturopa “The Representation of Nature in Art”:
Two short quotations give us a sense of the document:
There is perhaps just one common feature, and this is the need felt in every age for reference to and sustained dialogue with nature….
Primitive man made use of the natural elements; Baroque artists perceived a harmonious ideal in nature…whereas the Romantics passionately yearned to capture a nature that eluded their grasp.
The role of futurism in the promotion of industrial sounds has been well documented, here is another link http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/futurism which outlines its early history, and again a single quotation will suffice to offer a flavour of the document.F. T. Marinetti. “Manifeste du futurisme” [Manifesto of Futurism]. February 20, 1909
One of the most well-known and representative declarations of this manifesto, first published on February 20, 1909, in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, is a cornerstone of Futurist thought: “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.”
The inclusion of noise in music was in its infancy but the introduction of machines into the concert hall was underway (e.g. Satie and his typewriters). Included in the concept of machine sounds are those instruments which generate sounds by electrical means and the 1920’s saw the introduction of several electronic instruments of which the theremin and ondes martenot are still familiar to us today. We may be familiar with the ondes martenot in the Turangalîla symphony but may less aware of its later use in popular music, e.g. Radiohead have used the ondes martenot on the Kid A album, (the title track has a wonderful array of electronic manipulations and deserves study). For those composers who use Kontakt software there is a fully sampled version of the ondes martenot, http://www.soniccouture.com/en/products/24-vintage/g27-ondes/
and for less wealthy readers it is possible to use FM sounds to recreate some of its timbres (I have used FM8 for this purpose).
Popular musicians have always been willing to explore such unconventional instruments as often one novel sound will provide the ear-candy that makes their music stand out from the rest. As an example of this consider the use of the mellotron from the 1960’s by such groups as King Crimson. The mellotron used audio tape which had a pre recorded sound pressed against a playback head such as found in a tape recorder. Anybody who has worked with audio tape will be aware of the difficulties that performance areas produce (heat, portability and at that time smoke) and it is remarkable that performers persisted and worked around these hitches.
Though tape was a difficult medium to manipulate (splicing etc.) it held the possibility of examining sounds in detail; composers could isolate particular moments of interest. It may be argued that this was possible since the first primitive cylinder recordings, but it is with tape that the period of experimentation comes to fruition.
The pioneering years in Europe were the 1950’s and one of the great masterpieces of taped sound Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge” came from the work done in Cologne. Such is the vision of this work that it remains fresh despite the huge number of technical advancements made in sound production, (many composers of the period recognised that limitations with electronic music resulted in banal outcomes, readers can judge for themselves the truth of this statement).
The main centres of work were Cologne, Paris and Milan, in the UK we had the BBC radiophonic workshop, which played a significant part in bringing new sonorities to the general public.
The Workshop was set up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for "radiophonic" sounds from a group of producers and studio managers at the BBC, including Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram. For some time there had been much interest in producing innovative music and sounds to go with the pioneering programming of the era, in particular the dramatic output of the BBC Third Programme. Often the sounds required for the atmosphere that programme makers wished to create were unavailable or non-existent through traditional sources and so some, such as the musically trained Oram, would look to new techniques to produce effects and music for their pieces. Much of this interest drew them to musique concrète and tape manipulation techniques, since using these methods could allow them to create soundscapes suitable for the growing range of unconventional programming.
As stated above tape offered the opportunity to isolate a moment of sound and Berio and Maderna used this technique with recorded speech. This was regularly achieved by deconstructing a recorded text into a series of phonemes. Examples include Berio’s Thema: Omaggio a Joyce (1958) and Visage, composed in 1961. The techniques used by Berio included filtering, fragmenting, and multi-tracking Cathy Berberian’s voice. If the phrase “deconstructing a recorded text into a series of phonemes” suggests a dry scholastic approach the results in Visage are far from academic.
When I was composing “Visage” what attracted me was….a way to expand the chances of bringing nearer musical and acoustic processes. This is why the experience of electronic music is so important: it enables the composer to assimilate into the musical process a vast area of sound phenomena that do not fit pre-established codes.
Towards the end of the 1950’s a new trend emerged in electronic music, the combination of electronic sounds with live performance, moving the focus to the USA Milton Babbitt’s “Vision and Prayer for soprano and synthesized tape” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3UoYBe30-M was written in 1961 and it is a valuable experience to follow this with the later “Reflections” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d01fwczBHp0 .
It has been said that Babbitt was less interested in producing new timbres than in utilising synthesisers for their rhythmic precision unobtainable through live performance.
During the 1960’s the use of electronic sounds in popular composition became extensive, this interest was generated in the first place by the popularity of the electric guitar which had access to altering bass and treble, reverb, echo, delay, tremolo, wah-wah pedal, phasing and flanging. All of these were eventually used on the voice and then extended to acoustic instruments. Once again Stockhausen is at the forefront his Mikrophonie II written in 1965 uses four ring modulators to alter the source material (a choir).
Gradually the reduction in the size of synthesizers made concert performances possible, though recordings of synthesized sounds were also used. By the 1980s synthesizers had became commercially available and the next stage was the development of software which in turn brought about the growth of music produced in home studios.
When we switch on our computers today to prepare our next composition it is worth considering the evolution of the sounds that we use. In some cases we fall back on sampled instruments without any further manipulation or use a small range of pre-programmed effects, it depends very much on our purpose and the speed at which we want a result. There are some who enjoy the challenge of pioneering, and despite the fact that the 50’s is long in the past some of the concerns are still valid to explore today.