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Assessment is a tricky aspect when applied to innovative practices. Evaluation of a new age cannot be accurately done with the tools of past generations. As is the case with drawing a cube on a piece of paper, you can get a general idea of the object being represented. However, the third dimension is only an illusion, because you cannot get beyond the the two-dimensions of the image. This yields a rough facsimile of the new style by ignoring that which was not conceived when focusing the scope of the analytical approach. As Laura Zattra explains,

“The very existence of an observer — the analyst — pre-empts the possibility of total objectivity. No single method or approach reveals the truth about music above all others.” Any analytical method must start with the declaration of the dimension to analyse: the microstructure or the macrostructure, the medium level, the timbre, etc.

There have been several of these approaches developed to analyze electroacoustic music. Like most tools, each excels in some areas, whether broad or highly focused, and fails in others. 

Dissecting the umbrella

When it comes to electroacoustic music, the application of analytical models is all the more troublesome. The difficulty in analysis stems from the complexity and heterogeneous nature of the genre, an umbrella over which several different subgenres are encapsulated. The concepts of melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation, which are used to define the form in previous analytical models, are not sufficient for assessing all of these works. Electroacoustic works often do not contain elements that can be defined in the traditional senses of melody, harmony, or rhythm. In terms of sound sources, samples are used in place of instruments, and can be manipulated in such a way that the same source can be utilized as a single voice or many different voices.

There are three categories of analyses that aim to describe electroacoustic music. First, there are systems that come from a purely perceptive method, based on listening. Next, there are those approaches that look at a piece in the context of the methods used in its creation. Finally, there are those approaches that remove the human element and analyze works with computational algorithms.

These first models, founded purely in the realm of perception, can be viewed at as being "for listening and by listening." Included in this category are the systems of Pierre Schaeffer, François Delalande, Denis Smalley, Simon Emmerson, and Stéphane Roy. Among these approaches, the work of Denis Smalley stands out. His system, "spectromorphology," can be perceived as an offshoot of Schaeffer's acousmatics. It was developed as a set of tools to describe and analyze the listening experience of electroacoustic music, where sounds can cover everything from the real to the surreal and beyond. Spectromorphology is concerned with perception, in terms of spectral energies and shapes, as well as their behavior, motion and growth, and the relative functions in the musical context.

Technology aiding and impeding acousmatics

Remember that acousmatics is based on perceiving sonic events in and of itself and disregarding the source. The primary obstacle to an acousmatic or spectromorphological approach is that of a listener trying to ignore the technology that was employed to create the sounds. When listeners perceive the technology or techniques behind the music, rather than the music itself, they are stuck in technological listening. The developments in recording have made it possible to blur the line on what is and is not acousmatic to the point of near invisibility. This invisibility is ideal for taking listeners from technological listening to acousmatic or spectromorphological perception.

Technology also creates the trouble with listeners being able to fall into a perception of reduced listening. This occurs through concentrated and repeated listenings of sonic events. During this investigative process, made possible by recordings, attributes and relationships are uncovered. What would have once been but a fleeting moment can now be scrutinized through looping a small section of a recording. These attributes and relationships are used to bond sounds to their perceived, or believed, source. This is directly contrary to the acousmatic approach.

At its core, spectromorphology regards the balance of textural and gestural figures of sound elements as they progress through the timeline of the piece. Gestural activity is the humanity detected in a work as it refers to the proprioceptive and psychological experience in general. When gestures are weakly realized or stretched out too far through time, they slip into a more textural basis. Most music consists of and strives to find the proper balance between these gestural and textural elements.

Four degrees of separation

Detaching gestures from humanity, Smalley has detailed several layers of surrogacy. In first-order surrogacy, sonic objects, not originally intended as music sources, are engaged.These objets sonore, as Schaeffer would have referred to them, have only become a viable option due to the advances in the realm of recording. First-order surrogacy does not typically fall under most people's definition of music. As was previously examined, Schaeffer's "Étude aux chemins de fer" would fall under this category. The listener must be able to maintain a connection between the sound and it's original source.

Second-order surrogacy recognizes both the instrumental source and the gesture simultaneously. Even if the sound is derived from a synthesizer, it can be viewed as second-order if, in conjunction with recognizing the gesture, it is perceived as the equivalent of the 'real' source. Tod Dockstader's piece "Water Music" can be deemed as second-order surrogacy. Another example would be the cat keyboard used in this humorous video. Along with being able to identify the original sound source, albeit a little synthetic in the case of that cat keyboard, along with the musician's gestures.

Third-order surrogacy moves on to the insecurity of listeners, in discerning what is real, inferred, or imagined. This apprehension can derive from being unsure of the reality of the source, cause, or both. Take for example Matmos's newest album Ultimate Care II. They fully embraced this notion and created the entire album using only samples derived from a washing machine. Listening to a track like this or this disguises the original material to such an extent that one may not believe any, let alone every, sound is derived from a natural source. It is arguably close to being part of the final category, remote surrogacy. In remote surrogacy the source and cause are not only unknown, but unknowable, as any human action behind the sound disappears. Some algorithmic compositions may venture into this realm if too much control is relinquished to randomly generated variables.

Perceptual Fluidity

The primary concepts of structure are concerned with the perceived functions of elements. This does not yield a permanent hierarchical organization for all electroacoustic music, or even a set structure for an entire work. This thought-process, which is normally not conscious, regards how elements function, which is itself based on the expectations of the listener. Considering that musical works are a time-based art form, it is appropriate view the form in terms of the motion and growth of its elements through the course of the piece.

The motions of sound elements can have directional tendencies which lead the listener to have a set of expectations regarding possible outcomes. This perceived foresight can be further enhanced through the distribution of sound in space. The types of motion are: unidirectional, reciprocal, centric/cyclic, and bi/multidirectional. Unidirectional motion is the most straight-forward emphasis of the gestural nature in a single direction. Reciprocal motion balances one directional motion with a return motion. This is similar to Newton's third law, where for every action there is an equal and opposite motion. The return motion does not have to return the listener to the starting point, but only draw contrast from the original motion. Centric/cyclic motion is frequently aided by spatial motion. It is like a vortex, with motion whirling around an eye. This eye can be static or dynamic, giving the overall vortex a directional nature along with its own cycling. The vortex can be static or develop towards or away from the eye. Bi/multidirectional motion creates expectations of the other motions, but it is defined by the layering of more than one directional motions occuring in contrast. The motion as a whole is the most significant perceptual unit.


Further Reading

Denis, Smalley. "Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes." Organized Sound 2, no. 2 (August 1, 1997): 107.

Zattra, Laura. "Analysis and Analyses of Electroacoustic Music." Remarks for Sound and Music Computing 2005.