NMC Archive - Reflections on Sounds
19 September 2019
In this article written for our Friends Newsletter in 2012, composer Jonty Harrison reflects on sounds, what we call them, and how we perceive them.
‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’
Thus wrote Magritte in his painting of 1928-29 La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images). ‘Could you stuff my pipe?’ he later asked. ‘No, it’s just a representation, is it not?’ Images are so much a part of our lives that reality and representation blur and we use shorthand (‘that’s a ––’) when discussing images, rather than more correctly reserving the phrase for the actual objects the images represent. The issue appears in music too. ‘That’s a cuckoo’ we say, just before the end of the second movement of Beethoven 6, even though we know it’s not. How much more confusing when, instead of asking a clarinettist to imitate the sound of a cuckoo, a composer in the studio uses a recording of a cuckoo. ‘Ah’ we say, ‘now that is a cuckoo!’ Wrong again! It’s a recording (of the sound (of a cuckoo)); the cuckoo itself is not there at all.
The rich ambiguity released by these layers of meaning is precisely what attracts me to the field of acousmatic electroacoustic composition (‘tape’ music, in old money). But we may need to recapitulate a bit of history here, as Pierre Schaeffer was rather keen on our detaching ourselves (through a process he called écoute réduite – reduced listening) from the cause or physical source of a sound, and focusing purely on the sound as sound. For the purposes of understanding its role in a piece of musique concrète, a sound from, say, a violin, should ideally not be classified by what we might call its ‘violin-ness’, but through more abstracted aspects of the sound itself: colour, grain, (in)stability, spectral variation, intensity, etc. Through these qualitative comparisons we might link a sound to others completely unconnected by source or origin – indeed, the origin may lie completely outside the realm of what we might have previously considered ‘musical’ at all. In his 1948 Étude aux chemins de fer, Schaeffer announced unequivocally that any sound was potential material for composition and, interestingly, whilst we may find it difficult to ‘reduce’ our listening enough to get the image or the notion of railway locomotives out of our minds, a musical listening to the piece soon reveals other, more abstract concerns and constructions which go beyond mere collage or documentary sound, and truly into the domain of music. Moreover, the word ‘image’ implies a specific locomotive, whereas ‘notion’ is more fluid, more open to individual interpretation. It even permits the idea of a locomotive to transcend its physical reality – after all, no actual visual images are involved to pin down or otherwise limit our flights of fancy!
Similarly, at the start of my work Klang (1982), the listener has little difficulty in recognising the sounds of some kind of crockery being struck and made to resonate (though it is not Le Creuset, as the NMC cover art implies; I had discovered two New Zealand pottery casserole dishes in Denis Smalley’s kitchen while staying in his flat in Norwich in 1981). But Klang is not a piece about pottery or casserole dishes, even less a narrative detailing the adventures of Cassie the casserole dish; it is, I humbly submit, a purely musical discourse, based essentially on the characteristics of the sound materials. If it is ‘about’ anything, it is about sound and sound behaviours or, to be even more pedantic, about these specific sounds and their behaviours. To that extent, despite the inclusion of electronic sounds and without wishing to be presumptuous, it is a piece of ‘pure’ musique concrète.
Of course, the flaw in Schaeffer’s own approach with the Étude aux chemins de fer concerns the very obvious origin of the sounds used, which guarantees that they are already ‘loaded’ with meaning of their own (and thus, according to Boulez, unsuitable for composition). But can we not bring the sounds’ additional ‘baggage’ into compositional play as well? Can we not conceive of a musical situation where structure emerges from the interplay of recognisable, everyday sounds and more abstract ones? Is it impossible that a known, everyday sound, progressively transformed (as in Klang) out of all recognition is part of the musical argument? Conversely, highly transformed sounds suddenly revealing their origin can be very dramatic and powerful, evoking a sense in the listener of somehow having known all along…
Since 1995 my work has been less ‘pure’ (in Schaefferian terms) and more concerned with exploring the musical space at the intersections of reality, unreality and surreality, invoking the listener’s memory of human situations, places, experiences, etc. The fuzzy boundary between recognisability and unknown sounds play an important role, and I revel in setting up apparently ‘real’ scenes, then subverting them by insinuating a plausible element that is, in reality, completely alien. Alternatively, a real-world sound can appear, quite believably, in an abstract environment because of its spectromorphological connections (Smalley) to other sonic elements. In both cases, the alien sound becomes the catalyst, the agent of change – literally, at the speed of sound – from one musical space to another.
NMC Archive blogs are all articles written for our Friends Newsletter over the years. If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!
All entries in chronological order
16 August 2017
10 August 2017
16 June 2017
24 May 2017
12 May 2017
19 April 2017
3 April 2017
24 March 2017
10 March 2017
8 December 2016