The Music of Loudspeakers (notes from CyberMusic event)

Having organised the three-day symposium for Cybersonica ’03 and edited the proceedings, it was a more relaxing experience to attend today’s event as a punter. (Apparently Cybersonica ’05, scheduled for late April, will return to full-length format.)

My notes from the event focus mainly on Robert Worby’s talk on “The Music of Loudspeakers” and Jon Cambeul’s Wacom tablet guitar.

Robert Worby is a composer and sound artist working directly with sound, and a regular presenter of Hear and Now on BBC Radio 3. His talk started with the observation that loudspeakers are so everyday we don’t think about them. Yet, notwithstanding the physics, there’s something amazing that sound comes out of them — a kind of alchemy. Sound recording completely changed the way music is made and heard. It used to be an exclusively social experience, with performers and listeners in the same room.

Loudspeakers are a very recent development in terms of the broad sweep of history. Recording and playback change sound into electricity and back again. But why bother? Why not skip the bit in the middle? That intervening process changes the nature of the sound. It also creates the possibility of new kinds of sound. Imagine if you could create a colour that no-one had ever seen before. What would you do with it? Paint a dog or other familiar scene in the new colour? Present the new colour in the context of familiar colours? This, argued Worby, is analogous to the circumstance of a composer faced with the potential to create electronic sounds.

There are five characteristics that all sounds have (and all of them are measurable in some way).

  1. They exist on a continuum from clear pitch to noise. (vowel sounds are typically pitched; consonants are more noisy).
  2. They have a finite duration. This is what articulates rhythm.
  3. They have volume/amplitude.
  4. They have timbre/colour/identity: as Fourier first realised, any sound can be analyseh as the fusion of sine waves.
  5. Sounds exist in space. Your voice sounds different in the bathroom from how it sounds in Waterloo Station.

In the past, pitch was the most important characteristic: the sequence of different pitches makes constitutes a tune. Rhythm was next most important, and so on, in the sequence given above. Around the end of the First World War, with the new technologies of recording and amplification, this hierarchy became open to challenge. What would happen if it was turned inside out? Worby presented a series of examples.

  • With Webern you hear timbre rather than melody, even though the pitches were carefully considered.
  • Loudspeakers allowed singers like Crosby and Sinatra to croon over loud backing, which altered perception of space: the singer could sound intimate even with a full orchestra behind him.
  • In Elvis’s Presley’s Hound Dog, the loudest sound is the handclap. Rock’n’roll depended on recording technology for its invention.
  • Pierre Schaeffer’s focus was on timbre. No-one had heard backward voices before.
  • Stockhausen used close analysis of sound to compose with sine waves to create timbres. Kontakte integrates pitch and rhythm in one continuum, with sounds moving round the space via loudspeakers. With Gesang der Jünglinge, Worby argued, Stockhausen achieved a complete levelling of the hierarchy of measures listed above (see his essay, Listening to Stockhausen for more details).

Jon Cambeul and his Wacom GuitarJon Cambeul’s demonstration of his Wacom tablet guitar (pictured, with apologies for the poor photograph) bore a family resemblance to Michel Waisvisz’s performance with “the Hands” last year. There is more artifice involved in the theatre of Cambeul’s creation, however, in that the form of his instrument is not tied so directly to its function and the gestures involved in playing it. Cambeul’s agenda is to bring electronic musicians out from behind their laptops, and emulate the performances of ZZ Top and Status Quo (I am not caricaturing here: these are the acts he cited).

Following on from his MA course at Ravensbourne College, Cambeul tied a Wacom tablet to a sculptured guitar body, and put a dismantled joypad where the machine head would be. Then he links this to a Mac Powerbook, using speech synthesiser in OS9 and Max/MSP to generate the sounds. There was a short drum track as well, but I’m not sure how that was produced.

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