Perfect Sound Forever

OHM- The Early Gurus of Electronic Music

Kyle Gann interview
by Jason Gross
(April 2000)

Q: Why is electronic music important outside of its own genre?  What is its larger cultural importance?

Ultimately it's going to have more importance than we can have any control over because the boundaries between acoustic and electronic sound are about to dissolve.  We're already at the point where when you hear a movie score, you don't know whether it's electronically produced or whether they used acoustic instruments.  It's about to become a moot point.  Ultimately, the development of what we think of as electronic music may not have all that much to do with that.  It was certainly how some of the technology got developed.  If it hadn't been for Ussachevsky, Luening and Varese doing early electronic music, a lot of these developments would have happened anyway.  I think in a way, the concept of electronic music is running outside of the control of what we think of as serious composers.

Q: Do you think these composers had any effect at all outside their own realm?

Well, sure.  It's hard to say what.  I find so many young musicians these days listening to avant garde music from the fifties and the sixties in ways that seem totally unrelated to the way that the music was originally written.  You hear DJ's listening to Stockhausen, Boulez, and Reich and using them in their mixes.  Especially, everyone's really into Xenakis now, like "Bohor 1."  Those pieces don't seem the least bit attracted to the mathematical aspects of that music.  They seem to take it as some kind of expressionist thing, which I think would have surprised the composers of the fifties if they had seen that coming.

It's part of a larger phenomenon- the music is going to continue to have an impact but you don't know what kind of impact it's going to have.  We're getting into a situation in which more and more is taken out of context.

Q: What are the important sensibilities or philosophies that have run through the history of electronic music?

One that interests me is the use of electronics to transform sounds that we're used to.  I think of Luc Ferrari's "Presque Rien" in which a day at the beach becomes a surreal collage.  I think there's a lot of room for creating a new fantasy world out of the elements of sound we already know.  This has always been opposed to the idea of creating new sounds through electronics that don't have any relation to the sounds we know.  That has been frequently the dichotomy that everything gets crystallized around.  It's a little difficult to sustain sometimes because you can't tell the difference between samplers and synthesizers anymore.  That becomes a kind of an academic distinction as well.

As a composer, I stopped telling people that I write electronic music because it creates expectations that I never quite fulfill.  Instead, I tell them that I write music for acoustic instruments that haven't been invented yet.  Until we can play the kind of pitch distinctions on acoustic instruments that I can do on synthesizers, I going to have to always generate my music electronically.  I'm very heavily involved in doing things with 31 pitches to the octave and 24 pitches to the octave and all these non-equal pitches- there's no other way to do it.  There's also rhythms that I'm extremely interested in hearing that I can't do any other way.  For me, it's merely an extension of what I would like to be doing with acoustic instruments but can't.

Q: So it extends your vocabulary?

It's the way I can think about music.  If I can't go as far out into those other areas as I want, I can't even think the music I want to think.  My music is now so generated by the possibilities that it offers that if you suddenly take that away (like if I suddenly have to write a piano piece), I basically have to change musical languages.

Q: Before you were saying that telling people you were an 'electronic composer' sets up certain expectations.

I shouldn't say 'people' in general- I'm thinking specifically of electronic composers.  They think you mean something very fluid and gritty and musically unconventional and very concerned with software manipulation.  I don't do that at all.  My music has rhythm, melody and harmony.  I write it out in a conventional score.  I think there's a lot of electronic music purists who use the medium to get away from any kind of conventional musical syntax and elements.  They get really annoyed with people that use it to go back to that.  I specifically feel that electronic composers who are working with Macs and the C language- they think I'm doing something very backward that I should be doing with acoustic instruments.  I've quit even trying to get my music into those kinds of venues.

There are just milieus that you get into.  Electronic composers are very proud of the fact that there's no stylistic consistency and yet there is kind of an electronic style.  It did bring about certain possibilities that some people thought you should be doing if you're doing electronic music.  These are the people that didn't like MIDI- the electronics freed them of the concept of a note that stays on a specific pitch.  It allowed them to manipulate sound much more fluidly, algorithmically.  You can create sound complexes where you're not controlling every detail but you've got certain control over all the general possibilities that can happen.

Q: What kind of legacy did these composers leave for later artists?

It's like the classical tradition itself.  These people achieved a strangeness and complexity in the analog of electronic music that they were doing that more recent composers have to come up to on some level.  If somebody had just given us MIDI in the beginning and we hadn't gone through all these other stages, God knows what we'd end up with.  It might be all musical pabulum or it might be more sophisticated Switched-On Bach-type music.  But the fact that they created a sound world that did have a certain momentum to it that peoples' ears weren't used to means that we started off from a certain level of complexity of electronic music and we can't forever go back beneath that because it's always there to remind us- what the electronic medium could have become and did.

Q: What do you think are some misconceptions and overlooked aspects of electronic music?

The idea of giving composers total control over the sounds in their piece was a more radical one than most people admitted.  Especially, it had a bled over into instrumental performances where an awful lot of uptown composers now assume that to compose is to imagine exactly how everything in a piece should sound.  It was never really acknowledged that this is a very radical redefinition of music, when music was something that composers did that could be performed in any number of manners.  For instance, Chopin would play his "Nocturnes" differently each time he played them.  Notation did not really capture entirely capture entirely what the piece was.

It was fine to experiment with that level of control but I wish people had been a little more upfront about how much that changed the way composers think.  For one thing, it made the composer into the performer because you were not only composing the piece; you had to sculpt every little detailed aspect of the piece.  So it really required you to do two jobs at once.  It has made a big change in the way people think about composing in general, that I wish had been more consciously addressed and not so easily assumed.  It made it as though that's what composers had always done.  When Beethoven wrote a sonata, people think that he had exact ideas about the tempo and dynamics, which I don't think is at all true.

This happened because of a paradigm that grew up in the early 20th century that saw the composer as some kind of absolute genius capable imaging a perfect performance of a piece.  I think most earlier centuries would have considered that a ridiculous paradigm.  I consider it a ridiculous paradigm myself.  It's especially ridiculous to enforce this on an entire culture, which is what a lot of people who inherited that paradigm tried to do.  It was an inevitable feature of electronic music that got a little too easily absorbed into the general mainstream.

The idea of interpretation became very distrusted as a result of that.  When you put a dynamic or slur or articulation in every note in a piece, that leaves nothing for the performer to decide.  In electronic music, you have to do that and in instrumental music, people began doing that, partly as a result of that paradigm.

I think it became a big problem with acoustic music because people forgot that it's a separate tradition. People forgot that electronic music HAS to be that way but that other music doesn't.  They forgot that there are older traditions that could have easily been kept separate.

In relation to that, (Conlon) Nancarrow used to get real impatient with musicians who were saying that a piece should be different every time.  He said that you read a Shakespeare sonnet and it's not different every time and you look at a painting and it's not different every time so why should music be different all the time?  So he was struggling against the opposite conception, that pieces should always have to be interpreted.  Now, I think we have to struggle against the other conception, that they should NEVER have to be interpreted.

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