A sound bible

Keith Gallasch

Some books are educational. Others are an education. Richard Vella’s Musical Environments is one of the latter. So many of our experiences of music and especially sound events now fall outside the concert hall, and even there we can encounter miked chamber orchestras, electro-acoustic ensembles, djs and new hybrids. Conventional musical notation has been inadequate for at least half a century for describing or recording the new sound worlds we increasingly encounter on CD, in clubs, galleries, sculpture parks and in live dance and theatre. In performance, composition and sound design are no longer mere mood-setting accompaniment but an integral and often visual component of the live performance, the actors or dancers miked and often accompanied by a through-composed score. But what are we hearing and how do we describe it? Writing on music, as in most artforms, has long been a mix of the technically precise and the evocatively impressionistic. However, as new experiences, new instruments and new forms emerge, a fresh look at our vocabulary is called for so that we can share and understand our responses.

Vella’s book was published in 2000, but it’s never too late to alert those who might have missed it, and especially in the context of an ever-strengthening sound culture in Australia. Witness the articles and reviews in this edition on the Totally Huge music festival, Make It Up Club, impermanent.audio, Machine for Making Sense and Stevie Wishart, and keeping in mind the REV new music event in early April at Brisbane’s Powerhouse (RT 47 p31). Melbourne sound artist Garth Paine has been snapped up by De Montfort University (UK), sound writer Douglas Kahn by an American university, and sound sculptor Nigel Helyer recently won the $105,000 Helen Lempriere Sculpture Prize. In the next edition of RealTime, John Potts will review sound artist Ros Bandt’s impressive large format 2001 book (with CD) on Australian sound sculpture—along with the Vella it’s another must-have.

Musical Environments is subtitled “A Manual for Listening, Improvising and Composing.” For me it’s primarily a valuable book about listening, “tuning the ears” as Vella calls it, turning constantly to the companion CD with its dozens of brief, incisively selected examples. Occasionally though I found myself tapping my way through an improvisatory task until a point hit home, or rearranging the room. Not being formally educated in music or sound, I can’t offer an acutely serious critique of Musical Environments but I can say what it continues to offer me after several readings and many a dip into it: a great introduction to many aspects of sound production and reception I’d never thought about or hadn’t entered my experience, let alone my vocabulary. It is an educational book, consequently the layout is formal and possibly off-putting for the curious general reader. However, the same layout in fact makes it an easy book in which to find your way about. Alongside careful, concise non-technical explanations of topics (integrated by the author’s pervasive focus on time and space), Vella’s collaborator, Andy Arthurs, has provided many of the excellent Special Topics—brief introductions to music history, cultures, inventors, machines and the musicians who have expanded our sonic awareness. And there are extensive reading and listening lists appended to every chapter, that like the CD can take you off in new directions or, as I often found, jolted the memory and situated, for example, a popular song in a larger cultural map. The formality is more apparent, and convenient, than real. The tone is relaxed, the writing pithy (given the constant need to define) and often anecdotal.

If you write about music and sound, then Musical Environments is a handy manual for checking the accuracy of your vocabulary or even its foundations. The chapter on texture (and “blendings”) is a very good discussion of the role of metaphor as a way of describing what you’re hearing or making. Once you begin to get the terminology under your belt, there’s pleasure to be had in the author’s brisk elucidations: “Prominent characteristics of [traditional harpsichord] music are rapid note movements as exemplified in the ornamentation of melody, and the vertical collision of notes to form particular harmonic relationships.” As well as focussing on various minutiae, larger views are established and illustrated: “The history of instrumental practice is essentially the history of instruments extended beyond their normal practice.”

The unleashing of instrumental timbral qualities to explore and liberate sound is the predominant feature of music in the second half of the 20th century. Sound shapes and particular types of timbral articulations become motivic units; and development is achieved by the juxtaposition and variation of sonic shapes. Often the traditional concept of melody is gone completely. The instrument becomes the source of an outpouring of new sound. This is what made Jimi Hendrix a unique guitar player in the 60s.

This passage is accompanied on CD by an excerpt from Vella’s Tango (1990): “the clarinet plays glissandi, multiphonics (2 or more notes at the same time) and extreme register leaps.” The next example is from Jim Denley (“he explores different types of blowing sounds and accents, multiphonics, and the instrument’s harmonic series by whistling into it”) and there’s a great discussion of saxophonist Albert Ayler’s remarkable technique: “(he) incorporates pitch blends, pure timbral eruptions of colour, register leaps, squeaks and textural bursts. The instrument moans and wails like an animal.” Precise terminology and evocative metaphor merge.

You can find your way carefully through a rich vocabulary that includes the familar: timbre (“The timbre of a gong…is a rich soup harmonic and non-harmonic tones, noises and other elements”), register, dynamic, frequency, pitch, resonance, amplification, overtones, staccato, legato, tenuto, glissando, portmanento; and many less so: flanging, blending (“where individual components lose their identity in unified sound”—the unison playing in Thelonius Monk’s Criss-Cross, or the “vertical blending” in Elena Kats-Chernin’s Deviations and Scarlatti). Articulation “gives the musical surface a sense of physicality and shape”: the various symbols used to convey it on the score are detailed and Miles Davis is the exemplar. There’s a brief section on the microphone (“a controller”) and what kind of “transients” it produces and how it shapes space. Cut up, textural and rhythmic cells, montage, sound mass, stratification and simultaneity are all there reflecting the impact of sound and avant-garde cultures on music, performance and multimedia.

On the CD and the reference lists, Vella and Arthurs cast their cultural net wide catching folk, pop, avant-garde, electronica, liturgical and many other idioms. Australian composers and sound artists are particularly well represented: Kats-Chernin, Bandt, Rik Rue, Robert Iolini, Alan Dargin, Greg White, Alistair Riddell, Linsey Pollak, Liza Lim, David Chesworth, Amanda Stewart, Greg Schiemer (and his “improvising machine”—an interactive computer instrument that “entices performer response to a constantly changing musical situation”) and many others.

As the book progresses, the discussion of the impact of new technologies becomes central. Arthurs writes: “The expanding opportunities for interaction between real-time performance, improvisation and electronic music have allowed us to throw away the strict division between pre-programmed and pre-recorded, and spontaneous performance. Techno has broadened the appeal of acousmatic music, creating a new, widespread listening paradigm shift.” There’s also a valuable 8 page history of electroacoustic music from 1877 to rave, techno rap and multimedia: “(Rave) was in many ways a popular embodiment of the musical philosophies of the avant-garde movement, and John Cage in particular, where music ceased to be harmonically based, being more defined in terms of organised sounds….this music was preoccupied with sound and texture…”

As a young school teacher in the 60s desperate to find a way to poetry for my students I encountered R Murray Schafer’s When Words Sing, a simple introduction to sound poetry and related material. Around the same time there was the chance purchase of Stockhausen’s remarkable Gesang der Jünglinge, a bit later The Beatles A Day in the Life and Number 9 had their impact, and Stockhausen in Australia demonstrated his work to a grumpy, tweed-jacketed Adelaide male audience. Something had begun, and it’s good to find an accessible book that puts one’s own listening history into the perspective of a very large cultural map. And there’s something distinctively pleasurable about the way that Vella and Arthurs so economically, sometimes wittily, describe the world and the machines of sound: “The sound sampler is a hybrid gestural instrument which plays the ‘voice’ of another musical instrument with the gestural characteristics of the keyboard.”

Richard Vella, with additional topics by Andy Arthurs, Musical Environments, A Manual for Listening, Improvising and Composing, Currency Press, Sydney, 2000. ISBN 0 86819 544 8

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 37

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002