Sound and Society: An Essay on Electronic Music


A first response to the playing of Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner in a Philosophy course came from a man of conviction, who later admitted that he tended to talk first and think later. His reaction to the noise he had just suffered through was to denounce it as the dissonant sacrilege it was intended to be. When the piece was replayed at semester's end, he felt himself differently affected. Although still opposed to the unpatriotic thrust of Hendrix's biting interpretation, he now conceded that everyone was entitled to hold and express his own opinions. The threatening consciousness of Hendrix's iconoclastic stance toward music and fatherland was thereby more subtly rendered harmless by a subjectivism not so different from the enthusiastic spirit of the Woodstock generation: if it feels good, do it.

In the pop music world, both artist and audience are assumed to be free. Criteria are forbidden. Either I dig Hendrix and buy his hits, or I don't and he must return to normal productive life, safe from destruction at the hands of a public which demands more of what it has been trained to "like." The musician's freedom from the demands of his medium is defended in the name of personal taste, as though this were not the result of a long socialization process, systematically restricted exposure and a real need for passive relaxation. The standards of composition developed in classical music are deemed inappropriate where the task is no longer to provide an aesthetic experience but to entertain without involving, stimulate by distracting, provide a dance beat or disguise silence.

Hendrix's piece resists such attempts to limit its significance to arbitrary preferences. When notes explode into the screams of napalm spiraling downward toward its victims and the shudder of the earth under bombardment by heavy artillery, social and musical questions necessarily complicate the act of listening: What is America doing in Vietnam? How can a man with a skinny guitar produce such complex, sliding, noisy, vibrating sounds? Where has our beloved national anthem gone? You call that music?

Hendrix's offering is no sedative to rest weary minds for the next day's routine; nor can you dance to it. It provides an occasion for reflection and compels the development of new perspectives. It states truth. This capacity of music is clearly demonstrated by the closing scene of the Woodstock movie. The camera surveys the littered remains of an historical moment already passed and Hendrix's guitar accentuates the desolation. Nothing remains but the music. If any truth is to be preserved, it will have to be within the medium around which a generation rallied: music which rebels against its social confines.

The notion that music comments on society, let alone procures truth, is, however, stubbornly resisted. Conventional wisdom, which attributes the forming of propositions to people, can at most view works of art as messages which transmit opinions from the musician to his audience, As long as the political content of music is reduced to an expression of the musician's personal belief, music is equated with propaganda, and its form, once the essence, becomes a pragmatic vehicle for presenting what everyone already knows, Even should the message be articulated in musical terms, as when Hendrix dispenses with words and bends the inspirational tones of patriotism into the noisy clamor of war, the realm of arbitrary opinion is not permitted to transcend itself in the direction of binding truth. What was once praised as the universality of music is restricted to being just one man's opinion after all, in a typical case of self-fulfilling Philistinism.

But conventional wisdom is only half truth. Functioning as the contemporary ideology, it fits the definition of socially necessary illusion: the power of its insights serves only to obscure. Skepticism, learned too late from pop tunes which inculcate accepted values with seeming innocence, turns against creative works which would raise questions. Only that which reinforces the stereotypes used to hide the failures of capitalist society is acceptable; all else is banned from consciousness.

In fact, Hendrix's piece exercises an autonomy from its creator's personal opinions in a way that few pop songs do. Precisely therefore it inspires fear. Hendrix threatens because he actually says something in an arena where most products are devoid of truth-content, and he thereby challenges an empty but comfortable status-quo. The standard tune selects its verse structure, harmonic relations, instrumentation, beat and style from a body of trustworthy clichés. Even the deviations, almost always eventually resolved in favor of normality, are standardized. Themes are chosen to make the humdrum seem exciting and eternal Only the shadow of innovation is left in this preserve supposedly set aside for creativity by our social division of labor into specialties. The resultant music is so harmless that one can scarcely object, and boredom allows the very shallowest musical forms, not so different from advertising jingles, to settle among our most inconspicuous habits. This life of our cultural subconscious provides Hendrix's target.

Our musical reflexes correspond to a political faith. The Star-Spangled Banner was one of the first songs most of us learned, We sang it in our elementary school classrooms, eyes focused on the flag. Later, we were lectured on the drama behind the music's creation and how it represented the courage and victory of our nation in an era when God, truth and justice were unquestionably on our side.

It is scarcely coincidental that Hendrix chose this tune to interpret for his audience at Woodstock. No imported rhetoric, revolutionary slogans or faddish symbols are necessary By simply exploring this anthem with its historical implications, Hendrix's guitar makes it clear that Vietnam was no accident. This message does not originate in Jimi's brain, but is already present in the song as part of America's heritage. Hendrix is merely the mediator, interpreting an historical text in a manner suited to a contemporary audience.

The interpretation is appropriate musically as well as historically. In translating from piano to electric guitar, Hendrix does not press the simple, most ordinary elements into the handy mold of established guitar techniques and ignore what was originally unique and significant, the way much adaptation and improvisation proceeds. He uses the occasion to explore the qualities peculiar to his own instrument. He constantly moves from the clear, melodic notes of the piano original to the distortion, vibration, noise and feed-back characteristic of the electric guitar. Rather than suppressing these effects, he encourages them to develop to the point at which they completely annihilate the pitched tones. Yet they are never uncontrolled. They unfold in precise patterns of rhythmic complexity and coloristic variety.

The most traditional music is here transformed into a vibrant electronic composition. The rhythm and intensity which often serve an ideological function in hard rock, making thought impossible under the guise of excluding parents and other outsiders, functions critically instead. The violence which melody struggles to confine and conceal is now released.

The listener is grasped through his familiar childhood music, shaken by elements of adolescent rock and confronted with the difficult reality of maturity Paralleling this, the patriotic citizen faced with the draft and Vietnam gradually begins to recognize American imperialism. It is not easy to part with long-standing, widely-shared and cherished rationalizations. Harder still to deal with what remains.


Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner attempts to make the transition from traditional, through rock to electronic music. This music, performed on a souped-up electric guitar, does not quite meet the definition of electronic music. Nor is Hendrix part of the group of composers referred to by this category. Rather, Hendrix's accomplishments represent a drive within popular music, which already incorporates non-acoustic means of production, to move further in the direction of electronic music.

Whereas most instruments produce their sounds through direct mechanical vibration of strings, surfaces and air columns, electrified instruments like Hendrix's introduce a technical intermediary step into the process. A microphone built into the instrument transforms the mechanical vibrations initiated by the performer into electrical impulses, which are in the end converted to sound waves by a loudspeaker.

Truly electronic music, by definition, explores this technical mediation of music which has become all-pervasive. It eliminates the initial, mechanical stage altogether. Electronic components controlled by levers, dials and switches generate the electrical impulses directly. Sound only exists as such at the very end. Tapes can be made , records pressed, radio programs prepared without any sound occurring until the speakers in your living room vibrate.

The advantage of producing music electronically is complete freedom from the restrictions of conventional instruments, or so it seemed to Edgar Varese and others who first envisioned the possibility Because essentially all music today, including singing, travels down speaker wires, it must be possible to describe it in terms of electronic operations, The know-how for this, once acquired, would also enable a composer to create sounds and acoustic patterns unlike anything previously heard.

This potential seemed to answer the aspirations of composers who felt hemmed in by the limited tonal and coloristic palette of conventional instruments and by restrictions imposed by the need for human performers After all, the average composer or music student cannot always engage an orchestra willing to struggle with innovative techniques; and even if he could, performers are hardly able to follow scores which call for speeds and rhythmic complexities at the periphery of human aural perception.

Electronic music was a response to the situation of the composer of instrumental works at a time when the electronic media -- records, radio, tapes -- were just appearing. Some composers chose to remain in the orchestral realm, yet developed techniques first suggested by electronic works. Although it is risky to single out representatives because contemporary music explores so many directions, drawing upon the most varied traditions and opening new possibilities in every conceivable way, Karlheinz Stockhausen is widely recognized as a leading composer of electronic works while Iannis Xenaxis can be taken as a defender of the continued use of the orchestra. It is interesting that Xenaxis' composing techniques even surpass Stockhausen's in use of mathematical theory, computerized calculation and non-determinacy of individual sounds, although the results are annotated and performed in the usual manner.

In his theoretical statements, as in his own compositional practice, Stockhausen stresses the unity encompassing today's alternative:

The language of new instrumental music and that of electronic music are the same (so far, but it will be difficult to prevent electronic music form becoming vulgarized in the long run). When visitors come to the Cologne studio to hear electronic music, they quickly get over the first shock caused by the unusual sounds; and they ask why there is no rhythm (perhaps they mean regular meters of 3/4 and 4/4), why no melody, no repetitions, etc. Thus the discussion is usually not at all about electronic music as such, but about the way in which it is composed, about language. We then play recordings of works by Anton Webern, written, for example, in 1910. Then we play newer instrumental compositions by Edgar Varese, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur.

In some instrumental works which I had written shortly before beginning to compose electronic music, I attempted to integrate all the characteristics of the material in one uniform musical organization -- instrumental timbres excepted. l had to accept these timbres as given, and it was not possible to set up a relationship or even a continuum between the sound of a clarinet and the sound of a piano.

To suggest why Stockhausen wanted to organize timbres and how electronics made that possible, requires mention of Arnold Schoenberg and some familiarity with acoustic science, A comprehension of the historical developments which took place in twentieth-century music and their relation to technical progress is necessary for a social analysis of electronic music. It can provide insight into the language which, in Heidegger's image, provides a dwelling place for contemporary Being. Only once we have entered the new home knowingly will the prison house of popular music's uncritical adaptation of traditional musical forms appear to us as that which it "is."

Schoenberg found it necessary to reject the tyranny of the major and minor keys in determining which tones could be selected for a given composition from the twelve tones into which an octave is divided in Western music. In abolishing key signatures, Schoenberg felt obliged to insure that each of the twelve tones be given exactly equal weight in a piece. Then accidental appeals to the unwanted patterns of pitch preferences would not occur. This uniform balance was achieved, in his most influential works, by a complex system of constructing and manipulating a series of the twelve tones in such a manner that each tone would sound once before any repeated.

Schoenberg's serial organization, through which the whole range is scanned without stressing any one value as primary or any group of values as natural, was later extended to other parameters of sound. Intensity, for instance, can vary from silence to maximum volume, assuming several relatively well-defined values in between. Duration, too, can be organized and annotated (in terms of sixteenth and whole notes, tied and dotted notes, metronome markings and rests). Each aspect of sound can be taken as a continuum, divided into intervals, and systematically structured within a composition. This is not so easy with the timbral component of sound, as Stockhausen realized.

The timbre of a sound is characteristic of the instrument which produced it. A flute sounds purer than cymbals. A violin cannot be mistaken for a trumpet. The physical characteristics of an instrument determine the overtones which accompany any fundamental pitch played, adding color and richness. By jumping from string section to brass, from percussion to woodwind, or from one instrument to the next, one could juggle a number of distinct timbres. This would, however, be far from segmenting a continuity between timbral simplicity and utter chaos into equally spaced values. Because instruments cannot alter their timbres as they can their pitch, the composer is limited to a small number of fixed values.

The ability to mediate between tonal purity and noise is as important as doing the same with sound and silence. Stockhausen sees the limitation as a technical problem. He credits Anton Webern, who is famed for thoroughly integrating silence into his works as a means of stressing individual sounds, with going as far as instrumental music can in organizing the parameters of sound. However, the exclusion of noise from music has its historical and social as well as technical sources. The continued resistance of popular music and its public to anything approaching noise, even the dissonances of twelve-tone works, confirms this.

Chaos in sound is disturbing; we must either struggle to discover meaning or flip off the switch. Fortunately, the Renaissance craft of ordering tonal compositions has sufficiently refined itself and educated us to the point where we can enjoy a complex orchestral symphony without a twitch. The techniques of control over the organization of sound, originally promoted by the royalty, long preserved in the conservatory and now categorized but scarcely comprehended, are, unfortunately, today used by rote.

Laziness reigns over producer and consumer, who are, after all, only out to make and spend money. Comfort require that only the easiest reflexes be trained, that nothing demanding be ventured, that the unknown be kept out of knowledge's reach. Order, balance and clarity appear to reign naturally in the kingdom of sound, as on earth.

Mastery over the musical material has been transformed into the pretense that there is no noise. The vulnerability of such an illusion in a world of machinery, advertising, radio and tv makes the gullible victim that much more defensive when ruling dissonance out of the definition of music. Only those who intuitively rebel against sweet commercialism, consciously break the bonds of convention and forcefully overcome the dominant alchemy of sound can move freely between harmony and noise, demonstrating that freedom from the fear of noise is possible on the basis of a new and renewed approach to aural Being. Electronic music makes a science of this struggle to come to terms with noise

Rebellion against accepted forms took place throughout musical history, often leaving shocked, indignant, offended audiences behind. In America the blues, jazz, rock and avant garde music -- all of which figure among Hendrix's roots -- have shown this tendency. The history of American music appreciation could, no doubt, be written in terms of the taming of criticism through the popularizing of its spokesmen. Co-optation works through such strong mechanisms that no individual can withstand them, The contrast of the popular hits of any rebellious performer or group to their most original works reveals this enormous power. The paradoxes which confront the musician who strives to be both critical and popular strangled much of what Hendrix had to offer. The price he had to pay to offer us anything was to have his music systematically misunderstood. Electronic music is likewise seriously threatened.

If our culture permitted us to pronounce only vowels, insisting that consonants offended the ear, were irritating and unnatural, then it would be necessary to overthrow convention for the sake of communication. Such a situation would be more than just vaguely analogous to commercial music's relation to noise. The soothing vowel sounds of sweet melody may be capable of expressing in stereotypical manner certain non-disruptive emotions, but they scarcely encourage thoughtful creativity, let alone justifiable rebellion,

It is no more accidental that we are taught to sing with the vowel-dominated syllables do, re, mi than that the gruff curses of the working class are suppressed in favor of the romance tones so dear to aristocracies. Curt four-letter words, culminating in hard consonants, articulate too much of the anger which stems from exploitation -- both material and spiritual. Popular music today teaches harmony and restraint, at most permitting a cathartic release of violent feelings.

While it may be that the ever-popular love song has always spoken more of the nightingale's melodic warbling than of crude physical urges, it is also true that the recent mass character of culture has ultimately failed to change this. The spread of culture from the leisure class to the leisure time of all has scarcely democratized the values and interests incorporated. They have only been further imposed on those who have less to gain from the social arrangement which mass culture buttresses. Abhorrence of noise, an anachronism in industrial society, remains with us as a social phobia indicative of our subservience to economic shackles.

In a technical sense, pure sound is pure noise. White noise consists of the whole spectrum of possible pitches simultaneously sounding, and that excludes all melodic or harmonic relations. Scientifically speaking, noise is unorganized sound, that is, strictly random changes in air pressure. Consonants, dissonant chords and over-loaded timbres approach this in their relative lack of sustained acoustical structure. They are primarily recognized by shifts, and changing patterns of emphasis, pitch and overtones.

The simplest tone, next to the motionlessness of silence, is the steady, single-frequency pitch, graphed (air pressure with respect to time) as a sine wave smoothly altering between the two limits whose difference defines loudness or amplitude. Such clear pitches are the easiest sounds for people to distinguish among and to note relationships between.

It turns out, furthermore, that the simpler the mathematical ratio between their frequencies the easier the relationships between successive pitches are to hear. The standard -- over-used -- chord in Western music, the triad, consists of virtually any three notes whose frequencies stand in the ratio 4:5:6 The simple relation of the high to low note here (4:6 = 2:3) is that of a perfect fifth. The octave, our basic interval defined by the fraction 1:2, is so clearly perceived that the two widely-separated notes sound almost identical.

The need to fathom the parameters of sound and to follow the mathematics of harmony led musicians to study acoustical physics, which meant greatly expanding the primitive theories available. Timbre could then be analyzed in terms of wave functions and harmonics. The overtones of a clarinet, for example, tend to have frequencies in the ratio 1:3:5:7:9 with relative intensities decreasing in the same proportion. A violin sound might have its third overtone rise more quickly than the fundamental at first but then diminish, while the first overtone predominates during a middle stage and the fourth becomes significant only somewhat later

Once such analyses had been made, it was possible to synthesize comparable sounds by combining electronically generated sine-waves of controlled frequencies. Laborious though this procedure may be, it enabled the composer and his technicians to realize any timbral structure. Through the careful design of new equipment, it became possible to control the various parameters of sound at will, either continuously along their entire continuum or in discreet intervals.

Thus, the analysis of instrumental sounds facilitated the synthesis or composing of new tonal structures. Schoenberg's use the entire twelve-tone scale was followed by the construction of new scales and even the elimination of fixed pitches. The nature of the individual note, the atom of traditional music, was explored and transformed. Sliding (glissandi) pitches came into their own in opposition to stasis. Intensities altered continuously and the techniques of amplitude and frequency modulation, familiar from AM/FM radio electronics, were enlisted to produce qualitatively new harmonics and timbres The individual note, all but inaudible in the cheap grandeur of easy-listening music, was demystified in line with modern statistical mechanics and replaced by groups of pitches randomly scattered about an average frequency creating walls of sound in place of pinpoints and gossamer.

Through the influence of concrete music (compositions of tape-recorded everyday sounds) and the experiments of Edgar Varese with percussive effects, noise was introduced into electronic music, filtered into defined frequency bands and mixed in controlled proportions with other sounds. Human speech, too, was acoustically analyzed, manipulated, synthesized and composed in unity with electronic constructs.

With the rejection of traditional forms, the definition of music was broadened to the abstraction: structured sound. This notion logically entails its negation, unordered or random noise. Chance music and indeterminate processes begin to incorporate this excluded realm musically. When noise itself is integrated into the compositional process, the significance of structure in sound is made explicit and audible.

In a piece which moves through varying degrees of disorder, the requirements of intelligibility can assert themselves forcefully and freshly, rather than being imposed in their traditional, petrified form of harmonic, melodic, rhythmic laws. The composer would then be free -- or even compelled -- to create structures appropriate to twentieth-century ears and to the new means of technical production. Ordering of sound could be done on the basis of knowledge and sensibility, rather than fear of the unknown and reliance on convention.

Stockhausen's Hymnen for instance, moves from the noise of short-wave radio distortion and a jumble of international broadcasts to a utopian peace by means of electronic control and transformation. The work uses spIicing and synthesizing techniques to handle and imitate national music, characteristic sounds and various noises from around the world. Not only are the musical qualities of familiar national anthems presented with unaccustomed force, but the flavor of their local performances is also clearly articulated. References to The Star-Spangled Banner conjure up the exaggerated pomp and pompous chauvinism of American sports events, political rallies and elementary school assemblies.

Within the symphonic structure of the whole, snatches of immediately recognizable anthems function in place of melodic theme, shifting register, intensity and timbre from point to point. Pitch sequences may be taken from the original score and used to determine relative amplitudes or durations instead. Purely electronic passages found material, poetic vocal structures, silences and the controlled noise of wind, waves, crowds and peaceful breathing are interwoven in a manner reminiscent of Webern's instrumental compositions.

Perhaps most intriguing in Stockhausen's transformation of The Star-Spangled Banner is his use of well-known music as raw material for electronic creation. Rather than selecting pure sine-waves at given frequencies, adding overtone structures and arranging them in temporal sequences, Stockhausen works from complex but easily recognizable acoustic sources, adjusting their pitch and volume according to need.

This manipulation of familiar material, not so different from Hendrix's approach, seems to provide a natural way of appealing to a broad audience and introducing a twentieth-century sensibility. Further, it demonstrates the power of the media technologies to restructure perception. Here, as in general, the electronic means of production encourage radically new ways of working with sound, different conceptions of music and a broader perspective on the tradition.


In his day Bach was admired as a craftsman. The contrapuntal intricacies which now earn him an exalted position as compositional genius were then primarily means for producing lively, graceful, coherent music. Subsequently, a stage of self-reflection transformed music; the craft became an art; supporting structure assumed thematic priority. The past was thereby subjected to reinterpretation.

Now electronic music takes a further step, exploring the universe within a single note, rather than stressing relationships between notes as much as in traditional harmonic analysis. This is a move beyond modernity. It departs from the mechanical or industrial niveau of form and function.

In addition to the internal construction of individual sounds, other aspects formerly taken for granted or left to the composer's instinct and intuition have been subjected to systematic inquiry. Melody is now frequently eliminated in order to focus attention on the background: gradual shifts of feel, rhythmic support, relatively unarticulated textural richness, the incidental or the accidental, silence and noise. The technical frame on which melody was formerly draped is now unveiled.

Such shifts in focus imply an altered relation to musical form, not just new forms. Whereas classical concerns with form had to be translated into techniques, technical interests now tend to determine form. The unity of an electronic work and its mode of elaboration must meet dual criteria: they must be appropriate to the technical equipment and procedures, while also resulting in a musically aesthetic piece. Form follows.

The complexities of intonation which come naturally to the skilled performer cannot be duplicated electronically, nor is the spontaneity or inspiration of a live performance likely to be matched in the more conceptual new medium. Conversely, acoustic automata could spare the instrumentalist repetitive motions and rote procedures where they no longer serve a creative function. Particularly serialized compositions in the Schoenberg style (where a system of values for each parameter of a note is defined and the values are realized in turn) or stochastic works (in which values are selected by strictly random procedures) are often most sensibly accomplished electronically or with the aid of a computer. The concept underlying a piece, its form of expression and the manner of its performance are intimately related.

Those who wonder if electronic works are still music should recalls the many different roles music has historically filled. Music may have originated in religious ritual long before the ballad served purposes of communication and moral instruction. Folk songs, nursery rhymes and popular ditties are often structurally related to instrumental dance music. Mood music and contemplative compositions meet different needs. Electronic music should be seen as the introduction of further variety and choice. This requires that electronic music not be forced to conform to the same criteria as other music.

Just because instrumental music was not as directly tied to the human body as singing did not mean that either one or the other was not music. Rather, the extended possibilities of the instrument probably high-lighted the emotive power of the more personal performance. Similarly, anyone who has been involved with electronic music will relate differently to instrumental and vocal productions than before. More advanced technologies always provide a broader perspective on their forerunners.

The confrontation of instrumental with electronic music redefines the realm of the distinctively human for the present age and argues for relieving human activity of all that has become inhumanly repetitive. Ideally, the separation of the human from the technical may coalesce in a new unity in which people are no longer mere adjuncts to machinery. In polar opposition to industrial application, the thoughtful and appropriate adaptation of electronics to musical endeavors, free of profit restrictions, might suggest how technology can foster Marx's goal of a humanized nature and a naturalized humanity or Heidegger's vision of a unity of the mortal and the holy, nature and the heavens.

At the same time that music draws social consequences, it becomes freed of subservience to human needs. The process of abstraction from structures imposed on music as a result of its social origins clarifies the essential elements of sound. No longer restricted to the pitch and interval ranges of the human voice, the rhythm and meter of dance or the practicalities of live performance, the new music takes on qualities strange enough to present old sounds as strikingly fresh experiences -- provided, of course, that the barriers to listening are overcome in the individual, the culture industry and the composition in a way which does not reduce all to familiarity.

The electronic transformation of everyday sounds, common musical elements and background tonal webs has an educative effect. It reawakens the ear from an overly literal, visual world. Electronic music has an experimental élan about it, not just because we are in a transitional period and electronics is a new medium, but because these works lead the listener on an exploratory path through the universe of sound around him. Intimations of warfare, space-age movement and motoric rhythm in electronic pieces are only the most obvious Instances of this. Stockhausen stresses that electronic music should sound electronic, and it is largely electronic technology which gives us our world, particularly its noisy acoustic dimension.

Two reasons for electronic music's experimental quality can be given in terms of the social context. Recent composers reject the props to listening exploited by commercial music, arrangements of romantic music, movie sound-tracks, television backgrounds and advertising jingles. They are thereby forced to search for new approaches, less manipulative of their material and their audience, Techniques suggested by the medium are tried out, judged by the ear, varied, explored. Encouragement of the unanticipated becomes the paradoxical goal. The listener, too, must remain open to the unknown, struggle with a work's meaning and draw conclusions.

Secondly, the use of generalized technical equipment for synthesizing sound structures creates its own world of possibilities, circumscribed by the use of one or more loudspeakers. This largely unexplored realm calls for new emphases and for divergences from practices appropriate to instrumental music. Traditional instruments were developed with the triadic chord in mind and expressive interpretation as a primary goal. Now, with synthesis by means of scientifically standardized circuits, the elements into which the technician can analyze all acoustic phenomena assume major significance.

Theory of sound emerges in the practice of electronic music with thematic prominence. Because everything must be built up from scratch -- from abstract temporal orderings, that is -- certain effects unrealizable with an orchestra can be achieved more easily than can simple harmonies. Previously unimaginable sonorities and the whole range of temporal intervals are readily available. Through careful splicing of tape or with the aid of electronic control, the most intricate rhythms can be produced.

One possible formal approach to an electronic composition is to select a potential of the medium and to explore it systematically, cycling through the various possibilities under a series of conditions. The varying parameters can, as in several works by Stockhausen, mediate between polar extremes of some compositional factor like interpretational determinacy or timbral complexity. The piece produced by such a more or less autonomous system could be considered an experiment or investigation. Both the formal structure and the sensuous experience resulting would derive from the acoustic material and the choice of system for articulating it. The ring of objectivity would most likely be present, for emotional manipulation would have been fairly thoroughly excluded.

The compositional form which results from such an investigatory approach, assuming no traditional form were imposed, would be that of interrogation or dialogue. From this orientation, the history of electronic music appears as a series of question-and-answer interchanges between the human ear and physical sound, where both participants essentially belong to the technological age. The work as magnum opus dissolves into a halting step within a continuing social process. This change in artistic form agrees with changes in social production and political relations: individual objects, machines, personalities and institutions merge into all-encompassing processes. This processual character of the larger compositional form reflects back on the elements in terms of an emphasis on acoustic patterns as distinguished from atomistic notes.

The particular form suggested for an electronic piece is only meant to be illustrative. To demand that all works adhere to one pattern would be to imitate the mass media, rendering rebellion harmless by freezing potential into law and advertising it as the avant garde, which all who wish to be timely must obey. But the true avant garde is united only in its rejection of the commercially codified; it seeks alternatives everywhere. Each of Stockhausen's pieces, for instance, pursues a different idea: rhythmic permutation, timbral variety, spatial movement, changing essential parameters, total system, human improvisation, pure chance, degrees of determination, vocal, orchestral, electronic, mixed sources. Each idea could become a school, but he prefers to use each as a base for further innovation.

Differing directions within the avant garde are related primarily by mutual recognition throughout the art world. They do not ignore or fall behind the insights of one another. Musically, each can stand on its own, although some may be inherently more interesting and others will appeal more to certain tastes. Their historical significance for future composing and listening is fundamentally critical, not dogmatic. As long as the avant garde is seen as demanding that all music henceforth be just so, it only serves to create fashion trends which reinforce the exclusion of alternatives. The point is not that all music after Schoenberg must be based on his twelve-tone system, but that it can no longer be like before without sounding false and anachronistic, without taking the side of reaction and bowing to commercial interests.

Schoenberg and Stockhausen preserved purely musical qualities of the tradition -- aural delight, expressivity, mood, serenity, excitement, contemplation, sensuality -- by rejecting schemes which had lost their value. Certainly, these innovators must have opened potentials whose consequences they could not themselves draw. Their work requires that future composers explore where they left off, rather than imitating recently devised systems. Perhaps it is not as important to create electronic music as to create something with it. This could possibly entail transforming it from a plaything of the privileged into a model source of creativity, enlightenment, liberation and joy for all, preferably not just on the weekends. In the present situation this may be the appropriate interpretation of art's imperative: Be absolutely modern!

-- Written as a handout for a course on "Introduction to Philosophy", using Adorno's Prisms, Northwestern University, 1974.

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