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Contact! 10.2

Spring 1997

On acoustic ecology and integral art: Outlining a concept of today's music
by Thomas Gerwin

We are living in a symphony. We are surrounded by sounds, rhythms and melodies. A leaf rustling in the wind, a step on the street, the barking of a dog, a laugh from the room next door, the clapping of a door, but also the noise of an engine, of a pneumatic hammer, a car, a circular-saw, even the noise of our neighbour's portable is part of the one big, never-ending musical piece we are living in. And we are listening to this piece - that is: all the time. We cannot close our ears the way we close our eyes. Before we were able to think, we did already hear.

First and most of all we hear noises, "every-day sounds", sounds which have a warning, calming, stimulating or relaxing effect, or else sounds telling us entire stories - sounds by which we feel either pleased or bothered. Each of these environmental sounds relates to a certain event or circumstance, and as we do in the case of events and circumstances, we distinguish between different characters of noises: we may regard them as either pleasant or troublesome, useful or useless, constructive or destructive, interesting or boring.

It is to Pierre Schaeffers credit to have discovered the incredible variety of everyday sounds in terms of a "pure" sound event. His work provided the ground all further developments of electroacoustic music were based on. However, today we have to contradict him in two major points. First, he makes an effort to consider and categorize all the noises he had recorded on a completely neutral basis, "objectively" as it were. Secondly, Schaeffer started from the idea - maybe this was due to his education in romantic times - that a given noise had to be freed of its concrete meaning in order to be usable for "purely musical" purposes - that is, Schaeffer had a concept of what really is meant by the term "music"

It was John Cage who released us from this historical burden and from other conventions, even from the dependece on one's own narrow-minded taste. Thanks to him, the musician's work is now less narrow and foreseeable. This is not only a consequence of the novelty of Cage's works, but also of his philosophical starting point - he allowed things to happen, he showed respect for a free world with free sounds - and, last but not least, of his idea of "silence".

Cage's work in combination with Joseph Beuys' concept of a "social sculpture" and with the positively ecological aspect contributed by R Murray Schafer's "soundscape" had a major influence on the artistic concept presented here. By now, I feel that my work consists of further elaborating these different aspects and integrating them in an artistic manner.

According to my respective ideas and intentions, I create equivalent concertante works, that is: structures evolving principally within the time parameter ("space in time") as well as sound sculptures evolving both in time and space or else sounding spaces ("time in space"). In doing so, I am interested, above all, in the noise's/sounds' inherent musicality and esthetics and their correlations within the sound of the world (let me call the latter freely happening music), with its nonintentional, irregular, wide-cycled, natural rhythms, sound organisms and developments. These parameters are perceived by me, that is, their essence, their intrinsic character are exposed through modulation, emphasized, made audible by composition and/or decomposition respectively (the latter a concept brought up by Karlheinz Stockhausen). In this sense, nothing must (or can?) be newly invented - you just have to discover what is already there. The artist's actual work consists of this discovery.

In musical terms, this means to integrate by revealing, while at the same time showing respect for (both concrete and artificial) sounds. Following Pierre Henry I believe that a sound is like a being: it is brought into this world, it lives and dies. There is really no reason, on principle, to restrict our work to concrete sounds in music, even less so with regard to the fact that "purely" artificial sounds are, mostly, much more pervious ("permeable" is the term Gottfried Michael Koenig employs); therefore they are more easily woven into an abstract composition. Furthermore, they are not as obstinate, at times stubborn, as concrete sounds. But the fact is that natural musical SUBJECTS (not only objects, as Schaeffer calls them) which have to be dealt and managed with, are just often much more interesting - on an acoustic as well as on a personal level.

On the one hand, concrete sounds have a "signification", that is, they refer to real circumstances and are therefore able to tell a story; on the other hand they may be completely deprived of their concrete signification and be turned into pure sound events. For instance, by way of repetition, rhythmization or other, electroacoustic manipulations such as filtering, turning, modulating the enveloping curve etc. (but also depending on the hearing angle - in this context, the microphone to me constitutes an instrument rather than an ear). Of course, the intermediate area, the ambivalence between sound and noise - that is between signification and "pure" sounds - is of special attraction to the composer.

Thus, all my latest compositions are, on principle, artefacts, while at the same time they document (more ore less paradigmatically) a defined time period, defined situations and a defined place. They are intended to make the listener relish the sounds, while at the same time they are meant to sensitize, to call attention to the problems of the world, including acoustic pollution, and thus to the way we are dealing with the world and with each other.

Let me call this concept of approaching the world by integration integral art. Moreover, it is an art which is trying to find its place in human life: an artistic/artificial construction and at the same time a reflexion of everyday life, an esthetical pleasure as well as an alternative draft to a long established concept of reality, all in one.

Today, we know that "the ten thousand things" are related cybernetically, that all forces influence each other. In the "global village" which is, among others, connected by communication technology, independent solutions are, on principle, no longer feasible. Any activity has to be considered as a movement in a multidimensional network, where one movement is the result or the cause of several other movements. Thus, I consider myself a part of community, and I am trying to contribute with my artistic work to social life.

It is not necessary to erase borderlines between art and life; art is already an integral part of the world. Realizing this is only a matter of perception. I believe that artists have never been able to do anything else but describe their view of the world and contribute their concepts of a possibly different reality. Artists change the world by reflecting it. As today ecological problems (that is, the necessity to strike a balance between different, interrelating parameters) are part of practically all sectors of life, they must obviously influence any art which is to reflect reality. This is why today's music is related with acoustic ecology and, generally, takes it into account. Artistic creation may thus be considered a pleasureful form of assuming social responsibility.

But it is not only on the background of social and ecological politics that I consider the development of integral art a consistent matter; also, compositions on the basis of environmental sounds are justifiable from an historical point of view.

We know that a natural "tone" (in physical terms this refers, of course, to sound, but here we use the term "tone" as opposed to "noise") consists of a variety of partial tones. To start with, these tones constitute in the lower, easily audible sector exactly those simple proportions of integers to the fundamental notes, which in the beginnings of polyphonic music were considered "concordances" etc. The higher we rise in the overtone spectrum of a "tone", the narrower and more irregular the partial tones follow each other, until in the uppermost region we come upon the "noisy part". This "noisy part" constitutes the imponderable, but eminently important part of the tone which reveals to us, for instance, whether we are listening to a Stradivari or just to some nondescript violin. Now it is possible to contemplate the history of music with regard to the progressive exploration of sound and, as a consequence, to our ear's growing ability to differentiate. And as a logical consequence we now have "noise music", that is: today we compose with "tones", harmonies and noises and, respectively, their simple, more complicated or even irregular overtone spectra as well as (in analogy) with very simple or more complex, metric, or even absolutely free rhythmical structures.

The part our advanced technology plays in the matter is not to be underestimated. It is technology which allows for most of the outlined investigations and experiments to be realized in the first place. This is why naïve hostility towards any technological progress will not get us any further. But on the other hand we should not erroneously rate this technology higher than the artistic statement or, which may be worse, mistake one for the other. Today, modern technologies for recording, processing and synthesizing put a "continuum of all possible sounds" at our disposal. That is fine. But it is not what counts most in our present historical situation. Composing with sounds is no longer just a matter of finding ever new ways of tickling and stimulating the ear. Just the opposite is the case: we are constantly flooded by stimulations; much rather, we have to protect us against the stupefication of our senses. (I understand that a certain euphoria is produced by the abundance of possibilities, but on the other hand, technology should remain a means, not an end. Virtuosity reveals itself in the domination of this means, not in being dominated by it. The more advanced technology is, the more carefully it has to be controlled). No, there are more important aspects in art today: a statement, a meaning, perception, the offering of new solutions, and (this is where the word "concrete" reappears in the game) respect. A really advanced technology will vanish behind the human being.

This is why I call for an integral art which neither shuts out nor idolizes, but instead utilizes all aspects in a reasonable combination. An art which on the one hand strives for intellectual and emotional profoundness and pleasure (as well as for the tickling of the senses, of course), which on the other hand - and this is of more importance - regards itself a social contribution. Its function is to promote responsable treatment of a fragile world made of vibration and sound, to offer an artistic and creative counterproject to a reality dominated by careless destruction, profit thinking and so-called "imperative" decisions.

So that we really may live in a symphony.

- Thomas Gerwin

Translation into English by Bettina Obrecht

© CEC 1997

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