It’s funny stuff sound. Here one moment, gone the next. It unfolds in its own time and then disappears. Gone. Forever. Never to return. Every sound is a unique event. In fact, it’s not stuff at all, it’s a process, a very complex process. We have a tendency to give names to complex processes; names that make us perceive the processes as objects or things. Rain is a good example. Rain is a very complex process but by calling it ‘rain’ we turn it into a thing. We do the same with sound. Most of the sound we hear comes through the air. A sound is fast moving air; it’s a rich, complex phenomenon but we give it a simple name – trumpet, violin, voice, crash, door slam etc – and turn it into a thing. Quite often the name we give the sound is the same as the name of the object that made the sound. So ‘trumpet’ refers to that musical instrument made of brass with three valves etc etc and also to the sound that instrument makes. Naming sounds in this way links the sound with the object that made the sound. We don’t have a separate word for the sound of a trumpet, we don’t have a word that means ‘trumpetness’ or ‘violinness’ or ‘drumness’ etc. Even when we cannot clearly identify a sound we tend to say “It sounds like …..” a trumpet, a helicopter, a frog, a scene from a horror film or whatever. We rarely talk about sounds, rather we talk about things that make sounds.

All of this becomes apparent when sound is recorded. Sound recording has only been around since the end of the last century and sound recording using electricity since the second world war. There are perhaps two reasons why anyone would want to record a sound: 1) to document something 2) to capture the sound so that it can be manipulated and combined with other sounds. Most people are familiar with sound recording as documentation, although it’s not often thought about in this way. A recording of say Mahler’s 2nd Symphony or The Count Basie Orchestra is documentation. It’s a ‘postcard’ of an event, a kind of ‘wish-you-were-here-sorry-you-can’t-be’ sort of thing. At some time prior to your listening to the recording some musicians gathered in a particular place and performed a piece of music; the sounds of this performance were recorded (captured and stored) and you are recovering them from the storage medium. When you listen to a recording of Mahler’s 2nd symphony, or whatever, you are listening to electronic music – the sounds you are hearing are coming from loudspeakers! No matter how good your hi-fi is it’s not the same as being in the same place as the instruments at the same time as they were played. Hi-fi is representation, it’s imitation.

Recording sound for composition involves a completely different approach. The notion of sound coming out of loudspeakers is paramount and the fact that a recorded sound is not the same as its acoustic equivalent is to be celebrated. Once recorded the sound becomes separated from the thing that originally made it, it takes on a life of its own and floats gloriously free.

All of this was observed by the composer Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s. Early in his career he used wax discs for recording because this was some time before it was possible to record sound using electricity. Playing the discs at different speeds transformed the sounds radically, often beyond recognition. Playing them in reverse and at different speeds and mixing several discs at once created a whole new world, a world that we still haven’t really come to terms with – and we are now half a century on! Schaeffer was the first hardcore, techo DJ and, ironically, he was free of the tyranny of the beat – the regular pulse that forces time into savage, regular, chunks.

Schaeffer had most of the top brass of European 20th century music through his studio including Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen; all of them keen to explore the fabulous new medium of recorded sound. His influence far exceeds his fame and without him a vast areas of music of this century would be missing.

Shortly after Schaeffer established the GRM Studio in Paris a group of composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen began experimenting with electronic equipment at WDR, a radio station in Cologne. They made recordings of instruments, analysed the results and attempted to recreate these recorded sounds using sine wave generators, filters and amplifiers. Whereas the French recorded existing, everyday, concrete sounds and transformed them to produce something new the Germans were approaching electroacoustic music from the ground upwards, creating material from scratch by combining simple, electronically produced tones in an attempt to make new, complex, previously unheard sounds. Meanwhile at the same time in America, John Cage was using disc recordings of sine waves combined with the more familiar sounds of piano and percussion. He also used ensembles of radios, realizing very early on that they produced all kinds of out-of-this-world sounds. This was the start of the electronic/information age. After the 2nd World War had taken humanity to the brink, civilization was rebuilding itself using the glamourous, new technologies of the era and composers discovered that it was possible to compose with sounds not just notes.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this history of recorded sound is that it all happened a long time ago – over half a century! – yet the results of these early experiments still feel wildly exciting, like some kind of dangerous, unexplored land. We have three years left to get used to the ideas of 20th century music yet one very important area, that’s been around for over half of the century, is still relatively undiscovered.

Fortunately British composers lead the world in the production of electroacoustic music and there is also a thriving scene in France and Canada. At contemporary music festivals everywhere but here, British composers attract large audiences and win prizes for their works. Trevor Wishart is one such composer and his ‘Vox 5’ is a classic piece. It is the fifth movement of a six movement work, entitled ‘The Vox Cycle’, composed for voices and tape. The voices, which are amplified and magically transformed with electronics, inhabit fabulous imaginary worlds that unfold from the tape. ‘Vox 5’ presents a monologue delivered by a supervoice whose speech swoops out of a windy, rural landscape to become bees and bells and crowds and a whole host of surreal visions glimpsed at the end of the world. Bizzare and compelling.

‘Meeting Point’ by Alistair MacDonald also uses voices as source material but this time it’s a text from James Joyce’s ‘Ulyses’. The spoken words are fractured and shuffled as if they’d been somehow recorded onto a set of windchimes and then gently activated. The result is a shifting kaleidoscope of sonic shape and colour that occasionally melds back into recognisable words and voices. Intriguing and beautiful.

Having been one of the founding figures of electroacoustic music the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is still composing. Possibly his greatest works for this medium are ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’ (Song of the Youths) and ‘Kontakte’ (Contacts), both composed in the 1950s. Both of these works shift and slide around between recorded, recognisable sounds and (at the time of composition) previously unheard sounds, made electronically. There’s a fabulous, sticky tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar as the sound worlds glue together and then peel apart.

His pieces were some of the first to exploit the obvious fact that sounds are located in space, that they can move in space and that particular spaces colour sounds differently. (Think about how the ordinary speaking voice changes in different places: indoors, outdoors, in the car, in the sitting room, in the bathroom.) The creative potential of the location and movement of sound became a practical possibility with the introduction of the loudspeaker. Although, using ordinary stereo hi-fi, we still cannot hear Stockhausen’s music exactly as he intended. His early electroacoustic works were composed for groups of four and five loudspeakers, that surrounded the audience in the concert hall, and the music swerves and glides and bounces and floods, filling the space in a most spectacular way.

Sonic Arts Network, the organization that speaks for electroacoustic music in this country, have recently released a number of CDs by British composers. And not before time! They all make compelling listening. Katherine Norman’s ‘London’ was composed in the late 90s. Listen to it and inhabit London. Walk the streets, meet the people and experience everything articulated as shimmering melody. A computer transforms speaking voices into exotic tunes. Documentation, location, place, space and history expressed in a way never heard before. Unique.

Electroacoustic music is not a style it’s a medium. Recorded sound is modern magic and the music is a manifestation of the power of that magic.

©1997 Robert Worby

A version of this article originally appeared in the Gramophone magazine.