I originally wrote this several months ago to post after coming back from the Huddersfield New Music Festival, intending to post it to the blog for my post-tonal analysis class. For some reason that didn’t happen, and having just recently ran into a friend of mine who also terms himself an acousmatic musician I figured it would be interesting to post here. Also, Go Packers.
Huddersfield is an unassuming market town in the north of England between Manchester and Leeds that for most of the year is most famous for being the filming location of the interminable BBC show Last of the Summer Wine, if you’re into weepy British television. However for two weeks in the fall it is the home of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the largest new music festival in Europe. There have been a cavalcade of excellent performances throughout the festival: notably extended performances of John Cage’s aleatoric work in the midst of an exhibition of Cage’s visual art and the Arditti Quartet performing a new quartet by Brian Ferneyhough.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about the festival from an American perspective is what an entirely different ecosystem the European new music scene is. While I recognized some of the more eminent European composers, such as Michael Nyman and Magnus Lindberg, and American composers Cage and Ferneyhough were perhaps the two tent poles of this year’s festival, on the whole composers and musical traditions from France, Norway, and Denmark hailed as seminal were completely foreign to me. For the xenophile inherent in every new music performer and enthusiast, this was like opening the trunk of a Fiat to find it filled with gold doubloons.
The most striking example of this was a concert of electronic music I attended on Wednesday night. I went to the second of a two-part series commemorating the 20th anniversary of French acousmatic label empreintes DIGITALes, the first acting as a retrospective and the later show as the potential directions towards the future. The actual musical material of the works was diverse, ranging from an unabashed programmatic musique concrete work about setting up a sound system to Feldman-esque strictly electronic textures. If any tropes did emerge, it was that a number of the composers would sample at length something unabashed tonal, such as sea shanties or house music breakbeats, before proceeding to musically desconstruct them. I suspect these quotations would seem pedantic or hopelessly backwards, to this crowd anyway, if they weren’t immediately followed by these manipulations.
Acousmatic music is not a term that is used with great frequency in American electronic music communitites, being a largely Continental phenomenon. Rather than defining a particular musical style, acousmatic music is an attempt to answer two major questions that electronic music has had to tackle with great frequency: the highly idiosyncratic nature of individual sound systems and the lack of a performance practice. Acousmatic pieces are produced with relatively few tracks, often times just in stereo, which are then “diffused” in real time to however many speakers that particular system has. The Huddersfield Immersive Sound System (amusingly acronymed to HISS) that this concert employed consists of 44 speakers placed around the concert hall, but the nearby Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theater (more amusingly shortened to BEAST) has in excess of 100.
Unfortunately, my limited experience with the idiom doesn’t really let me answer whether the practice of “diffusion” is really effective. The pieces sounded much more spatially immersive than other electronic concerts I’ve attended and spying on the monitor proved that the gent at the mixer clearly had something to do with it. However, all sort of analogies I want to try and make with acoustic performance seem to fall flat. Can there really be a personal style of diffusion that could be recognized across a couple different works? Additionally, the bordering on ludicrous infrastructure needed means that you can’t really record and examine a particular diffusion of a work without also owning a ridiculous sound system. Nonetheless, it turned my understanding of electronic music on its head, and why travel if you’re not going to have something like that happen?