You are on page 1of 4



Miguel Álvarez Fernández

Universidad de Oviedo
Departamento de Historia del Arte y Musicología

ABSTRACT Werner Meyer-Eppler or Karlheinz Stockhausen appear

at the beginning of this history. Of course we could
This article presents a reflection on some ideological
track at least part of its origins in Paris during the
problems that surround the creation of a history of
previous years, but that period can be also thought of as
electroacoustic music. The analysis of the role and
only the preparation of what was going to be born in
evolution of a musical concept through the history of a
Germany some time later.
musical tradition can show the strategies used in the
creation of a historical narration. As an example of
Part of this history of electroacoustic music, as
these rhetorical devices, the article briefly tracks the
it was explained before, is constituted by the history of
presence of dissonance and noise in diverse musical
the aesthetical approach to music present in the work of
traditions through the last century. Thus, two parallel
the aforementioned. This particular approach is strongly
historical narrations are presented. Some apparent
associated to serialism, and we can find a very good
differences between them are questioned when the
testimony of the close relationship between serialist
concepts of dissonance and noise are regarded as ‘the
thought and these early electroacoustic practices in the
other’ for each respective musical tradition. An analogy
first number of die Reihe journal [10].
connecting music and sex (as different ways for
contacting ‘the other’) is also discussed. The concept of
Serialism was not only an aesthetical approach
‘the other’, standing for what is and must be usually
to electroacoustic music. It had begun in the domain of
hidden and repressed, works as a limit for the identity
what we could name today as composition with
of any ideological construction, including the Western
‘traditional’ instruments. Since 1948, it had its center at
subject. The analysis of ‘the other’ and how it is
the Summer Courses of Darmstadt (where most of the
repressed or emancipated can therefore reveal important
authors mentioned before met each other), and it
aspects of the identity of a musical tradition.
nurtured many instrumental pieces and musical
Thinking about the history of electroacoustic music There is one aspect of the serialist approach to
demands the definitions of the concepts of history and composition, and to music in general, that gains special
electroacoustic music. The former would exceed the importance for the purposes of this article. It has to do
purposes of this article, but some reflections on this with the relationship between new music and history.
issue will be pointed out. Regarding the latter, such a For the most representative composers of this
definition involves not only an idea of technology but movement, new music was somehow detached from
also (and as far as we do not include this into the history. The serial procedures permitted one to compose
concept of technology) an aesthetical approach to following completely different rules than the ones that
music. Then by analysing the history of each of these constituted tonality (which, by the way, could only be
ideas about technology1, or the history of each of these considered as a system after the appearance of
aesthetical approaches to music, we can find different serialism). And tonality was, according to this history,
histories of electroacoustic music. the core of the Western classical tradition. From this
point of view, serial music could be easily seen as
It is possible to trace one history of something “out of history” or, if we prefer, a new “zero
electroacoustic music through the analysis of the role point” in history.
played by dissonance in its development. We can also
use the concept of noise as a guide through the From our growing historical perspective we
evolution of the music that makes use of electroacoustic cannot avoid questioning these ideas. Strong
technologies. Two different histories may appear, with connections bind the serial approach to music with
their own different pasts. And from each of these pasts, previous musical practices. Serialism, through its
we may be able to foresee even more diverse futures. extreme interpretation of some aspects of Webern’s
work, not only inherited many ideas about music from
2. DISSONANCE the Second Viennese School, but also many elements
that Webern, Berg and Schoenberg themselves had
One of these histories roots itself in the middle of the received from their tradition. Between these
last century, with its center at the WDR studios in assumptions we can underline, for example, a strong
Cologne. Names such as Robert Beyer, Herbert Eimert, influence of the idea of absolute music [9], or a
As Jonathan Sterne does in [16].
characteristic understanding of the idea of progress in 3. SEX
Music (and art in general) can be regarded as a medium
between ourselves and ‘the other’ (or, if we prefer, ‘our
The idea of progress involved in the notion of
other’). Sex can also be considered, in a similar way, as
music that these first electroacoustic composers took
another access to ‘the other’ or ‘our other’. This ‘other’
over was closely associated with the concept of
perhaps has found its best conceptualization through the
dissonance, as it has been developed by Adorno1.
Freudian notions of unconscious and subconscious, and
According to him, what modern music offers is not
it is remarkable that these ideas were born in the same
sensuous pleasure but dissonance, caused by the
Vienna-fin-de-siècle where Schoenberg radically
convergence of the immanent dynamic of art and the
transformed the concept of dissonance.
external reality, or by the inclusion of the non-
integratable in the process of artistic integration. For
Following this conception, both in sex and
Adorno and for his musical tradition, dissonance, as an
music ‘the other’ would represent what is and must
expression of negativity, plays the role of ‘the other’. It
remain hidden, unknown and alien to our world, to
represents the empirical ‘other’, strange to the concept
ourselves. And in both cases our different ways to
of (absolute) music. Modern music, to avoid being
approach to ‘the other’ evoke words like repression,
fetishized, constantly negates its artistic confine and
domination or tolerance4. Coming back to Freud, this
maintains the mobility between itself and this empirical
‘other’ can always reveal itself through the error, the
lapsus. Searching for what ‘error’ means in the context
of a specific musical practice can thus help to uncover
Dissonance was ‘the other’ for classical
this music’s ‘other’.
Western music, and so it was for the electroacoustic
music that, as we have seen, followed a particular
It is even possible to establish an analogy about
branch of that tradition. This process took place in a
how changes in our conception of ‘the other’ tend to
historical moment when dissonance was already
happen in the domains of sex and music. In this regard,
‘emancipated’, but this fact did not affect dissonance’s
we can remember how Spanish composer Agustín
important role. The dialectic relationship between
González Acilu (born in 1929) describes the
consonance and dissonance inherited by the serial
transformation that his sensibility experimented when
music composed for traditional instruments was merely
his traditional music background (deeply root in
transposed to the music composed with electronic
tonality) was firstly confronted to the composition of
atonal music. He describes this process as a change in
his “auditory morals” (“moral auditiva”) [8], and
The decades that followed the appearance of
compares his increasing tolerance to the phenomenon of
this new music constitute a period that, borrowing the
dissonance with the acceptance that Spanish society
expression from Georgina Born, we could designate as
was meanwhile beginning to show for the bikini
“the institutionalization of the musical avant-garde” [4].
swimsuit. It is also interesting to note the strong
The main aspects of the musical thought in question
presence of the idea of progress both in the thought of
extended, during the second half of the last century, to
the musicians that expanded the concept of dissonance
some of the most important centers of music education
and in the social acceptance of different sexual
and research in Europe and the United States2.
behaviours (usually regarded as a matter of ‘social
As a result, the value of dissonance as ‘the
other’ in the growing context of electroacoustic post-
serial music was strongly diminished, as Adorno
himself pointed out3. This phenomenon could be Tracking the presence of noise in different musical
understood as an intrinsic transformation operated in manifestations could lead us to another possible history
this particular musical tendency, or as the result of a of electroacoustic music. Again, the starting point of
general historical process. Following the second, this history is movable, though the beginning of the last
adornian interpretation, this process would have century seems like a good possibility. Parallel to the
increased ‘culture industry’s’ capacity for making us conception of Schoenberg’s musical revolution, some of
understand everything (including ‘the other’ in the form the earliest electroacoustic devices (such as radio,
of dissonance) as a commodity. phonographs or the first technical attempts of
introducing sound in cinema) started to spread. Many
composers (dissonant or not!) remained deaf to the
implications of these new technologies on the ideas of
And discussed in [2]. sound and music, but for many artists (not necessarily
Remarkable manifestations of these issues can be found in [4] and musicians) they represented a turning point in the
[12], the latter representing a great summary of the implications of histories of sound and music.
structuralism in electroacoustic music. Maybe we can also observe this
phenomenon as an inheritance from the desires expressed by
Schoenberg when declaring that his discovery of the twelve-tone
composition method would “ensure the supremacy of German music 4
Tolerance, as a concept that we can only apply to ‘the other’, can be
for the next hundred years” (cf. [18], p. 234) understood as just the other side of the same coin represented by
Cf. [17], p. 36. repression or domination.
The concept of noise was specially affected by As it was shown before, some strategies of
the artistic use of these technologies. Maybe we could approaching ‘the other’ are shared by sex (understood
borrow the idea of ‘emancipation’ in order to describe as a Western cultural production) and the musical
what happened to noise through the work of the tradition that takes dissonance as its ‘other’. But we can
Futurists (mainly after Russolo’s ‘Art of Noises’), or find very similar means for referring to ‘the other’
composers like Varèse or Cowell. But the presence of through the history that tracks the presence of noise in
noise in music does not describe a straight line (like the music. Henry Cowell evokes in these words a common
one that the history of dissonance tended to draw). Its strategy, repression: “Although existing in all music, the
evolution not only passes through the names of noise-element has been to music as sex to humanity,
composers, but it also crosses the work of (sound) poets essential to its existence, but impolite to mention” [6].
and inventors (as Schoenberg would define John Cage).
Noise occupies as well a very important place in the Repression is a characteristic way of
field of popular music, through its different shapes approaching ‘the other’ in our culture. As Jacques Attali
(blues, jazz, rock & roll, rock…), each one of them wrote, “Not an essential myth which does not call upon
presenting a more or less direct connection with the the musician as a protection against the noise, perceived
classical Western musical tradition. everywhere as a threat from which it is necessary to be
protected. Not a myth which does not describe the
In the last decades, and thanks to the music like the shaping, the domestication, the
increasing access to computer technology and audio ritualisation of the noise (…)” [3]. Even the visionary
production tools, new forms of popular music (such as Russolo, in his “Art of noises”, shows his desire of
techno, house, ambient…) have appeared. It is difficult disciplining noises, assigning pitches to them and, by
to find many features shared by all these different forms so, making them fit into a norm: “We want to give
of music, but we can affirm that dissonance has not pitches to these diverse noises, regulating them
played the same role in them as it did in the tradition of harmonically and rhythmically” [14]. Murray Schafer
Western classical music. In a certain way, noise also tells us about the repressive attitude of our musical
substituted dissonance in its relationship with music. tradition when he writes that “Noises are the sounds we
And, from this point of view, the tolerance to have learned to ignore” [15].
dissonance that contemporary classical music has
progressively developed would be comparable to the As another example, the desire for reaching
increasing acceptance of distorted guitars and grainy newer limits or extreme aspects of ‘the other’ can also
voices1 showed by popular music. be found in different sexual and musical practices. In
the interview quoted before, Akita refers to Merzbow
This phenomenon is especially clear in some (his own recording name) in the following terms: “If
forms of popular music that have built an aesthetic music was sex, Merzbow would be pornography”2.
approach from their link with noise. Glitch, post-digital, Pornography, by showing what is usually hidden,
or simply noise are some terms coined for practices and represents a form of transgression. In this sense, its
styles of music that use a technology inherited from evolution can be described as a constant search for new
what was used in Cologne during the fifties. And, as limits, a conquest of uncharted territories. These are not
Kim Cascone expressed in a well known article devoted very different goals than the ones pursued in the works
to the “Aesthetics of Failure”, “(…) more specifically, of Merzbow, nor in Schoenberg’s compositions.
it is from the ‘failure’ of digital technology that this
new work has emerged: glitches, bugs, application 5. CONCLUSIONS
errors, system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion,
‘The other’ always represents a focus for our fears and a
quantization noise, and even the noise floor of
menace to our identity. Being one of the limits of this
computer sound cards are the raw materials composers
identity, ‘the other’ is indispensable in order to define it
seek to incorporate into their music” [5]. While in
(the Latin word definire reveals this aspect).
Western classical music the error produced dissonance,
in post-digital music the error generates noise.
We can therefore define a musical tradition by
describing its ‘other’. Concepts such as dissonance or
The error, the musical lapsus, is a common
noise have played this role in different Western musical
way for ‘the other’ to emerge. And noise appears as ‘the
practices. An analysis of the different strategies implied
other’ all through the history of these musical practices.
in the relationships between these traditions and their
Following Freud’s theories, the lapsus linguae can
‘others’ shows similarities that transcend categories like
guide us to the unconscious [11]. Masami Akita, an
high/low culture and help to redefine concepts such as
artist whose background comes mainly from popular
‘progress’, ‘emancipation’ or ‘transgression’.
music expresses his view about the relationship
between music and noise in a brief sentence: “Noise is
These different ways of approaching ‘the other’
the unconsciousness [sic] of music” [1].
not only appear in different musical traditions, but also
in other cultural productions like our conceptions about
sex. Probably repression is the most common
The reference to Barthes and the genotext also appears in [13], p. 58:
“Maybe we should listen out for the noise in the voices of Kristin
Hersh, Tim Buckley, Prince, Michael Jackson”. Cf. [1], p. 60.
mechanism that mediates between us and our ‘other’, [9] Dahlhaus, C. La idea de la música absoluta
just like between a musical tradition an its ‘other’. (translation by Ramón Barce), Idea Books,
From this point of view, when this ordinary practice of Barcelona, 1999.
repression fails, in the form of an error, ‘the other’
[10] Eimert, H., Boulez, P., Stockhausen, K.,
appears. So the concept of error can be useful to
Meyer-Eppler, W. and others die Reihe, I
distinguish which elements are considered
(English version), Theodor Presser, London,
manifestations of ‘the other’ for a particular subject or
[11] Freud, S. Psychopathology of Everyday Life.
Dissonance and noise have been constantly W. W. Norton, New York, 1989.
repressed and expressed through processes that
[12] Holztman, S. Digital Mantras. MIT Press,
constitute the histories of two different musical
Cambridge, MA., 1994.
traditions. It is possible to identify in both traditions
moments in which ‘the other’ is not repressed but [13] Reynolds, S. “Noise”, in Audio Culture.
integrated. This process of integration normally implies Readings in Modern Music (C. Cox and D.
depriving ‘the other’ of all its particularities, or Warner, eds.), pp. 55-58. Continuum, New
annihilating all the conditions of possibility for ‘the York, 2004.
other’ to exist.
[14] Russolo, L. L’Arte dei rumori. Edizioni
Futuriste di “Poesia”, Milano, 1916.
As a result of such a process, dissonance stops being
‘dissonant’ (as happens in serial music), and noise [15] Schafer, R. M. The Soundscape. Our Sonic
cannot be ‘noisy’ anymore (as is clear when listening to Environment and the Tuning of the World.
some of the new musical styles mentioned before). This Destiny Books, Rochester 1994.
may be understood as a possible end for the different
[16] Sterne, J. The Audible Past. Cultural Origins
histories previously presented, or as a starting point for
of Sound Reproduction. Duke University Press,
new histories that wait to be told.
Durham, 2003.
6. REFERENCES [17] Stockhausen, K. and R. Maconie Stockhausen
on Music. Marion Boyars, London - New York,
[1] Akita, M., “The Beauty of Noise: An Interview
with Masami Akita of Merzbow”, in Audio
Culture. Readings in Modern Music (C. Cox [18] Stuckenschmidt, H. H. Schönberg. Vida,
and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 59-61. Continuum, contexto, obra. Alianza, Madrid, 1991.
New York, 2004.
[2] Álvarez Fernández, M. “Disonancia y
emancipación: comodidad en/de algunas
estéticas musicales del siglo XX”, available at
[3] Attali, J. Bruits. Fayard, Paris, 2001.
[4] Born, G. Rationalizing Culture. IRCAM,
Boulez and the Institutionalization of the
Musical Avant-Garde. University of California
Press, Berkeley, 1995.
[5] Cascone, Kim “The Aesthetics of Failure:
‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary
Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal,
vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 12-18, Winter 2000.
[6] Cowell, H. “The Joys of Noise”, in Audio
Culture. Readings in Modern Music (C. Cox
and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 22- 24 Continuum,
New York, 2004.
[7] Cox, C. and Warner, D. (eds.) Audio Culture.
Readings in Modern Music. Continuum, New
York, 2004.
[8] Cureses, M. Agustín González Acilu. La
estética de la tensión. ICCMU, Madrid, 2001.

You might also like