Elements 12: Magnesium
On listening to electronic music today
The meaning of the term electronic music has changed dramatically since modern composers started to work with electronic equipment in radio studios after the second world war. In the 50’s and 60’s of the 20th century it meant mostly avant-garde esthetics by an elite group of mostly male composers making the headlines for this at the time niche medium. Today the term changed meaning but at the same time its history is in the process of being rewritten as more and more female composers are being credited for having played a defining role in the development of the medium. In 2021 the acclaimed documentary film called Sisters with Transistors was released, it demonstrated this process for a larger than specialist audience. One can also conclude that on the whole and over time the term electronic music defines a medium rather than a style.
Compositional ideologies played a major role in the times of avant-garde aesthetics, and they still do for many contemporary composers today. In more popular genres this aesthetics has been transformed to a more practical approach to the instruments actually used, with more musicianship involved in the creation of works, and less cold quasi scientific laboratory-like calculations to justify the results (a major consequence and certainly a hobby of the avant-garde ideologues). Today the first thing a young listener will think of when expecting to hear electronic music will be known as EDM, or Electronic Dance Music. Music to party, to dance, to have fun. A starker contrast to the early composed electronic music, say to the times of a Stockhausen and his Etudes I and II and Kontakte can hardly be imagined. Meanwhile the innovative pioneering work of Eliane Radigue was almost completely ignored. What the early electronic composers shared was a very elaborate working process: to create a single minute of music took days/weeks to produce. With the rapid and drastic advances of technology in our times with regards to sound generation and recording this changed completely. What used to take a large studio with very expensive hardware to produce can today be done on a good laptop with professional software, much of it affordable or even free and open source.
When listening to electronic music, one misses the musical instruments such as strings and winds, yet on careful listening there may be sounds referring to these, but more flexible and moving in sound than the physical instrument could ever practically realize. Moreover, with electronic music one misses a musician for every single sound, there may be just one person performing on a laptop, or just a recording, and one stares at loudspeakers (never stare at loudspeakers btw, rather try to locate the sounds instead, as they are not in the speaker but resonating in the room). Most electronic music is however still made by humans and by composers’ choices, the path from human action and sound creation is just somewhat different than playing an instrument, a mouse or a button or a wheel is moved, a bit more technically indirect perhaps, but at the same time producing an audible sound not significantly less instantaneous than playing a live piano would. Moving the mouse, the wheel or the button are of course less visible on stage than a performance on a piano or wind instrument, where an informed viewer can read the keys.
The truly informed listeners to electronic music will be able to recognize historical instruments when used, such as the ARP 2500 or 2600, or the Buchla 200, or the Moog Modular, in case these are used. Each of these iconic and historical instruments can be found again today, mostly in the form of software versions, but now and then in hardware form, all newly made, sometimes with new, sometimes even with “vintage” components. Most modern synthesizer clones reliably reproduce the iconic sound and usage, and sound but slightly different. Hearing the differences between old hardware and modern hard- or software can be similarly a specialist skill as in being able to hear the differences between a Steinway, a Bösendorfer, a Yamaha, a Fazioli, or a Schimmel grand piano – on a recording. Not obvious, not obvious at all, as music is about music first of all and not about musical instruments at all. Still, diehard electronic composers may swear by certain hardware: Moog, Buchla or ARP synths. Likewise acoustic instrumentalists swear by instrument brands and types, Muramatsu or Haynes flutes, Selmer vs Yanagisawa saxophones, Stradivari vs Guarneri or Amati violins, etc.
Specific instruments matter more to performers and should not be made into criteria for listeners. Nevertheless, being able to hear types of instruments is just as important in acoustic as in electronic music. Can one recognize the sound of a clarinet and distinguish it from the oboe, from the soprano saxophone, or the flute? Can one pick up the melody of the bassoon, the French horn, the trombone? Similarly with electronic music: can one hear the wave form types, the sine, the modulated sine, the square and mixed triangle waves in slightly detuned unisons, the types of noise, white, pink, brown? Can one hear certain brands of hardware being used, type of filters or a ring modulator, or the synthesizer itself in case of an iconic known sound?
Most difficult of all: can one hear how a music was made, composed, and produced? Most important of all: can one actually enjoy this music, both with and without all this knowledge and ability to recognize specifics?
And lastly: can we actually let go of the illusion of being in control of that pet we call our mind and let the music and musical perception simply take over and surprise us?
The challenge with innovative contemporary music made for listening per se such as this album, lies in a challenge to connect in a free way, and go through the steps of open perception and appreciation individually, without recipe, without a priori dos and don’ts, without expectations but with memories, with a sense of exploration as in starting a new novel or unknown movie without spoilers:
- Observe – hear everything, don’t be distracted, be aware of what happens in the various registers of time, tone, timbre, space, and volume (the range of each is much larger than with instrumental music): try to imprint what you hear into memory, ask yourself what is it objectively that I heard?
- Evaluate – can you perceive every form distinctly enough, some things may be harder to hear, or are sounds that affect you emotionally or even physically: observe and evaluate the effect of it.
- Interpret – observe your mind creating associations of its own: they are yours and not in the music itself yet are created by the music in you personally.
Music of Magnesium
To create the music of Magnesium, no instrument was used, nor a simulation of one: spectral editing software at the start. Similar to the composition of its lower neighbor Calcium, a procedure starting from the designing of noisy melodic counterpoint led to the layering of this in various tempos and on various pitches to construct the raw fabric of this music: starting from silence and sculpting noise. Harmonic resonance plays an important part, creating coherent timbres within the basic polyphonic germ cell…
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