Practicality, phenomenology & adaptability

Chris Reid: Sonic Arts, University of Adelaide, ENO Plays Eno

Laptop Orchestra, Electronic Music Unit, Elder Conservatorium of Music, Adelaide

Laptop Orchestra, Electronic Music Unit, Elder Conservatorium of Music, Adelaide

Laptop Orchestra, Electronic Music Unit, Elder Conservatorium of Music, Adelaide

The 65-member Electronic Noise Orchestra (ENO) is the brainchild of the University of Adelaide’s Electronic Music Unit director, pianist and composer Stephen Whittington together with the students in the Bachelor of Music Sonic Arts program. Their inaugural concert not only paid homage to Brian Eno, it was an exercise that tested whether such a large ensemble of laptop musicians could produce a coherent and persuasive musical performance. They succeeded admirably.

The Sonic Arts students were not entirely new to text-inspired performance, many having participated in the 2014 performance of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (see RT122, p50) and of work by Pauline Oliveros.

In the first half of ENO plays Eno, the musicians drew for their inspiration on Oblique Strategies (1975) by Eno and Peter Schmidt, a series of short texts, printed on cards. The second half comprised an orchestral tribute to Eno designed by Whittington, inspired by a combination of Cornelius Cardew’s Great Learning Pt.2 (structurally) and Eno’s various ambient recordings (for the material). The resulting sound was characterised by dense musical layering that made full use of the eight loudspeakers placed around the perimeter of the auditorium to create a sense of swirling movement. Hearing it was an incredible experience as the complex sound patterns developed and intersected in kaleidoscopically fascinating ways. In an email exchange I asked Whittington about the significance of the concert.

Describe the background to the concert—the establishment of the laptop orchestra, the intended outcomes and the criteria for a successful musical event.
The 2014 performances involved all of the students in the class playing separately in small groups (three to six players). This (past) semester we began working on a project based on Brian Eno and it gradually grew as we developed the idea of an orchestra that involved all of the students in one ensemble. The plan involved dividing the orchestra into groups and sub-groups similar to a classical orchestra with its division into strings, woodwind, brass, percussion etc. Except, clearly, the division would be based on different principles appropriate to the medium, as it wasn’t our intention to imitate the sound of a classical orchestra—which would be pointless. Each section had its own mixer, each mixer sending signals to two master-mixers (L and R) and from there to an eight-channel speaker array. Each section was allocated a specific spatial placement in the sound system. Two students operated the master-mixers and a third person (Dan Pitman) was the conductor, responsible for conveying cues to sections (including cues about volume) as well as monitoring the master-mix and giving instructions to the two master-mixers.

So the minimum criterion for a successful performance was that it should all work and work well. For the students the outcome was an experience of working in a large group—something that classical orchestral musicians take for granted, but is very unusual in electronic music where a lot of musicians spend most of their time alone in front of a computer. The criteria for a successful musical performance are the same for this as for any other musical performance—it should be interesting to listen to, it should stimulate thoughts, ideas, emotions etc. The model for this in a musical sense is in the experimental music tradition, and in particular the Scratch Orchestra.

What instructions were given to the performers about the use of the Oblique Strategy cards? What were the guidelines for the mixers and conductor?
Each group chose two cards and worked on developing their approach to the performance around them. There was a time-bracket score for the conductor, with dynamic indications and cues. The conductor was responsible for determining the overall balance and giving instructions to the master-mixers, and if necessary making adjustments to the mix directly.

How is sonic art taught? What are the skills acquired and what are the intended outcomes? What is the relationship with conventional composition and instrumental training?
To answer a question with a question, what is ‘sonic art,’ or what are the ‘sonic arts’? The name suggests art or arts made using sound—in which case music in the usual sense is a sonic art. In the plural, it suggests that there are other arts in which sound is used which are not music (although they may involve ‘music’). Let me mention, without dwelling on it too much, that ‘using sound’ is not synonymous with making sound, or being audible.

There are works that reference sound, or the idea of sound, which do not ‘use’ sound—they perhaps belong in the realms of ‘conceptual sonic art’ (and I’m not just meaning 4’33” here). I see sonic art as a category that is larger than music—though music is a part of it—a category that embraces every kind of art activity that uses or references sound. To study sonic arts is therefore to learn about these different activities and contexts and how to create within them. Obviously a lot of those contexts today involve digital technology, although my definition of sonic arts does not require them.

Our course used to be called Music Technology but we moved away from that quite deliberately, to state a position that technology is an enabler, but the objective is ‘art’…Students are involved in studying programming in specific contexts—algorithmic computer music composition, sound design/composition for film, video, computer games. Programming is essential as a tool because it breaks dependence on commercial software, which has its uses of course, but is also limiting to the imagination. [They also study] electronics—through the medium of circuit bending and hardware hacking—studio recording and production and interactive design for sound and performance, through projects like the laptop orchestra. Every part of the course also emphasises theoretical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural and social aspects of sound as being as important as practical skills. I could summarise the ethos of the course as one that places a high value on openness, curiosity, experimentation, inclusion, [and on] education as the development of the individual intellectually, emotionally, imaginatively.

The biggest difference between our program and ‘conventional music training’ is in the kind of student we get. A fair proportion do not have much formal musical education in playing an instrument or theory, but have been making music themselves for a number of years. So what we do has to take that into account. But having said that, we also get a significant number of students with a strong traditional music background who want to explore music in a different way, either as performers or composers or both. In other respects though it is not that different to other kinds of music education; it takes dedication and a lot of hard work to get there, with no guarantee of big rewards at the end.

What are the criteria for good sound art? What are the aesthetics?
Very tough questions. I don’t quite know where to start. For me, at least, it has to start from the raw material and our perception of it. My approach is phenomenological—my students are forced to come to grips with ideas from Husserl and Merleau-Ponty at some time or other (even though they often don’t realise that it’s happening). Webern’s definition of music as “the science of sound as it applies to human hearing” captures it to some degree. I suppose the basic criterion is the level to which these two things (sound and perception) are integrated. But that rather abstract criterion is just the beginning, as so many other factors of culture, ideas, history and emotions then come into play. I’ll have to leave it there!

The sonic arts course appears to be very popular. What is the attraction? Where do the graduates go? What is the future for electronic music and how are students being prepared for it?
We have experienced strong growth in the past three years at undergraduate and postgraduate levels (Sonic Arts can be pursued to PhD level). I’d like to think it’s because it’s such a great course, but more likely it has to do with the increased presence of sonic arts in the music and entertainment industries, the increasingly high profile of DJs and producers and other broader cultural factors. The graduates go in many different directions: as creators of music, sound artists, performers, producers, sound engineers, software and hardware developers, teachers, sound designers in the media. The field is changing very rapidly, so preparation for the future is based on adaptability, which requires understanding of principles that can be applied in changing circumstances rather than, say, learning how to use a specific software package or piece of hardware. Quite a lot of education available in this field is tied to specifics—eg learning to use ‘industry standard’ software…but we believe that approach is inherently limiting, and we want students to be free to explore the limitless realms of their sonic imagination in whatever way they choose.

ENO plays Eno, the Electronic Noise Orchestra, director Stephen Whittington, conductor Daniel Pitman, Scott Theatre, University of Adelaide, 11 June

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 6

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 August 2015