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Unfolding the natural sound object

through electroacoustic composition.
(Presented at the The tuning of the world conference in Banff Canad, 1993.
Published in The new journal of music research Vol. 24, No.4 December 1995.

We are living in a world which poses many problems to its inhabitants. The
industrial revolution at the end of the last century developed new technology put to
the service of mankind, but at the same time, this technology contributed to the
deterioration of the human condition by degrading the environment with toxic waste,
and by generating high levels of noise. This situation hasnt really changed that much,
and quite the contrary, the problem has increased with the rapid growth of urban
populations, which are going chaotic and where it is now almost impossible to control
degradation of the environment.
The generation of high decibel levels of noise in cities, due to car traffic,
construction, street repairs, aircraft, home supplies, etc, has alienated inhabitants from
their environment. Composer Barry Truax (1984) has described this situation as low-
fi, meaning that at a certain point, a high level or mixture of noise in cities generates
nervous problems and muscular tension, giving way to an attitude of distancing
ourselves from the environment by ignoring what is going on around us. In this way,
we stop interacting with our environment and stop listening to our surrounding world,
considering that everything forms part of that noisy chaos.
As an electroacoustic composer, I have been forced to open my ears to all
existing sounds, including those produced by machines
. The beauty of these sounds
was first noticed at the beginning of this century by futurist Luigi Russolo, who
constructed instruments that imitated different noises and who tried to make music
with them
. I have myself discovered very pleasant motor sounds such as that of the
refrigerator, which produces a changing drone rich in harmonic and inharmonic
. Although it is true that certain noises generated by machines can be loud
and continuous, and that this steadiness and loudness can be boring and irritating, the

I believe as says John Cage that by opening our ears to all existing sounds in our
immediate soundscape we can listen to a new kind of music.
They were called intona rumuori (Russolo, 1913).
I discovered some time later that American composer Lamonte Young was a fanatic
of motor drones.

main problem is not centered on the existence of an isolated noise like this that we
can still perceive, but in the existence of masses of noise, where we cant differentiate
one thing from another. This is what happens most of the time in urban places, and it
has become a difficult problem to solve. Nevertheless, I believe that a possible
contribution to the solution of the problem could be given by composers, sound
engineers and musicians in general. If we can help people to be aware of their daily
encounter with noises, maybe then they could reestablish interaction with their
soundscape. One way of doing this would be to isolate these sounds from their
context by recording them in order to listen to them carefully and learn to find a
positive quality in them. This has become possible thanks to the development of
electroacoustic technology.
The invention of the tape recorder was of great importance because it was
more than a device to record music and events. It was as with the photographic
camera, a tool with memory, capable of freezing a portion of reality, and letting us
discover the detail of a specific moment. With the camera, photographers started to
take images of urban life that generally passed unnoticed to the common citizen. Not
having the time and disposition to pay attention to what is going on, the community
could nevertheless discover the magic of unimportant moments thanks to the
photographers work. In the same way, sound engineers started to become interested
in recording everyday events that went unnoticed to people. In France, the
introduction of the tape recorder started a whole musical current called musique
concrte, based in the recording of all sorts of sounds that were edited to make a
composition. Pierre Schaeffer (1966), the leader of this group, believed in reduced
listening (lcoute reduit), which was listening to a sound object out of its
context in order to discover its intrinsic physical and musical qualities. Recording and
listening through speakers was a good way to abstract a noise from reality, and to
detect things in that sound that would be impossible to listen to in real life. Concrete
musicians rejected the original meaning of the sound coming from its context,
because they thought it was a distracting factor and that it would prevent a musical
discourse from being built. Nevertheless, some French musicians coming from this
current like Luc Ferrari and others used the metaphoric meaning of environmental
recorded sound in their musical work.
The invention of the concept of sound object belongs to Pierre Schaeffer.
This term is very important because it speaks of the intention to abstract and reveal
the qualities of a specific sound by recording and editing it. A sound object can be

described as being formed by an attack, a body or steady state, and a decay. New
Zealand composer Denis Smalley (1986) has described two main qualities of sound
objects which can also serve as a strategy to structure a musical work: gesture and
texture. Gesture is concerned with an action directed away from a previous goal or
towards a new goal, and is related to the attack and the decay of a sound object.
Texture is concerned with the internal behavior on patterning of a sound, with energy
directed inwards, re-injected and self-propagating. This term is related to the body or
steady state of a sound object. Sound objects are sometimes more gesture or texture-
like, and at other times they behave in both ways. The ways to listen to each quality
are different. Gesture is more related to the morphology of a sound object, so we
listen more to the sounds external shape and to its rapid movement
. On the other
hand, texture is related to the spectral content of a sound, and for this reason, we
listen to its internal structure. It is important to notice that our way of listening from
one quality to the other changes continuously and that sometimes we cant define
where the frontier between them is . Smalley has also used the concepts of gesture
and texture to explain structure in electroacoustic music
, in this way serving both to
analyze the micro-structure of a sound object and the macro-structure of a musical
work. Thanks to this close relationship between the micro and the macro levels, we
could create the whole structure of a musical piece based on the analysis of a sound
There have been some electroacoustic composers who have done pieces based
on the exploration of the qualities of a natural sound object
. Here, the tools used to
vary a sound are not the same tools as for written music to vary a rhythmic or melodic
motive. Electroacoustic composers have used analog and now digital technology to
transform a sound as an artist uses different tools to work with stone in order to create
a sculpture. This way of working with sound as an artisan is something quite new. By
converting an analog sound into binary numbers (ADC), it can be analyzed with the
Fast Fourier Transform (FFT), the resulting analysis altered, and the sound re-

We can find the origin of musical gesture in the attack of a sound because it consist
of a drastic change in the short period of time called the transient. This rapid
change is perceived as causal because it makes us suppose that there was an action
that originated the attack (Smalley, 1986).
In this way there would be gesture-like passages, texture-like passages, passages that
go from gesture to texture or vice versa, or multilevel events (Smalley, 1986).
Some of the first electroacoustic pieces made from the exploration of a sound were
"Dripsody" (1955) by Hugh LeCaine where he makes a study of a water drop, "Water
music" (1960) by Toru Takemitsu, "Concret P-H II" (1958) by Iannis Xenakis, etc.

synthesized. Through this technique we can now open the sound object and explore
both its morphological and spectral qualities, and then be able to manipulate them
(Risset, 1991)
. In this way, we have discovered the hidden characteristics of sound,
and moved a step further from just abstracting it from its context through recording.
This is very important to music and to our knowledge of the sound domain.
Acousticians are presently discovering different properties about timbre in
sound, but these investigations remain abstract and removed from easy public access.
For this reason, I think that the electroacoustic composer should have the social role
to reveal the characteristics of the inner world of sound through his/her music. In fact,
this has been done in other artistic fields. Visual artists for example have always been
concerned about showing their subjective view of the hidden qualities of visual
representation by transforming it. If we go back to the beginning of this century, we
can see how expressionism tried to express the human psyche by painting deformed
personages. In a different way, cubism tried to synthesize different qualities about a
subject in the same painting, by cutting, dissecting, and superimposing its elements in
a geometric way. These formal painting techniques can be analogous to the different
electroacoustic techniques with which we transform natural sound objects. However,
working with environmental sounds is like working with real images which are much
more compelling than an abstract representation. Even with electroacoustic sound
coming from speakers we have the sensation of listening to something real, and for
this reason, it is very tempting for composers to take advantage of the metaphoric
quality of sound to enrich their musical work.
By processing an environmental sound we affect not only its physical
characteristics (timbre), but also its metaphorical meaning. With some of the
techniques developed in digital technology, we can apply the spectral envelope of a
sound to another by multiplying their signals, producing a hybrid sound as a result.
This method is called cross synthesis, and with it we could get for example the sound
of a trumpet articulated as a barking dog, or a dog barking with a human voice. This
allows us to create a large diversity of metaphoric images starting from the same
sound object. There are many other digital techniques to transform a sound object
which could change its signification, that I cant explain here in detail. I would prefer

The Risset article published by IRCAM in 1991 had its origins in the symposium
about timbre organized by IRCAM in 1985. It was later published in the revue
Analyse musical, no.3, and finally modified for its new version.

now to explain through my personal experience, how to unfold a natural sound object
in a composition, in order to explore its physical and metaphoric qualities.
By means of transforming and working with the same sound object, I arrived
at the conclusion that I could open and gradually reveal it in time. The methodology
of working with only one sound would define the structure of the whole piece, and
would give coherence to the composition in terms of timbre. My first experience in
this direction was with my tape piece ATL
where I made all the sounds except one,
starting from the manipulation of a 7 second sample of a water stream. Other
composers have made pieces using water sounds as structural elements, but in this
case I tried to do a spectro-morphological research about a particular portion of a
water stream sound. In this way, all the micro-characteristics of the original sound
object such as its chaotic rhythm and hidden spectral qualities were enlarged. In a
way, this works exactly as in fractal theory, where micro structures are self-similar to
macro structures. For me, this is a way to contemplate something that in normal
conditions would escape us. In this way, the ear acts like a microscope and we have
the impression of traveling within the sound and of being covered by it.
The digital techniques which I used to transform the original water sample
were mainly traditional EQ filters and digital resonators
that emphasized certain
frequencies like the fifth and the octave, thus creating different layers of sounds that
reproduced the typical organum intervals. I also changed the sample rate, creating
in this way different self-similar rhythms which were out of phase with each other,
but mainly, I was able to come up with new sound textures by changing the sound
again and again (by always using resonators, sample rate change, regular filtering,
and some stretching). Finally, I created long glissandos by processing the sample with
a pitch envelope function, by changing its sample rate and by pasting it over and over.
On the other hand, there is all the metaphoric meaning attached to every sound
transformed in the piece, and of the relationship between sounds, because we cant
consider a sound object in a composition as an isolated element. The sound will
always say something different depending on the context in which it is found
. To
make this clear, there is an example at the end of the composition where there are

ATL means water in nahuatl language which comes from the Aztec culture in the
central plain of Mexico.
The software used was Sound tools and Turbosynth from Digidesign.
We have to contemplate the sound object in a determined context because its
signification will depend on its relationship with other sound objects and of the
relation of those sounds in the piece as a whole (Truax, 1984).

water flows that seem to be swollen from the earth
. Following them, a new sound
emerges which seems also to be water, but which in fact is one voice speaking,
superimposed over and over. This voice becomes like water because of the context it
was placed in. A metaphor also rises from the whole structure of the piece. ATL
begins with transformed water sounds that have an instrumental quality that reminds
us of some eastern instruments such as the drone of the tampura in Indian music or
the Buddhist bells from Tibet. These sounds make us think of the ritual or religious
events related to the playing of those instruments, and so, the water sounds become
part of a ritual that puts us in a state of contemplation. At the end of the piece, the
descending waterflows that get stronger and stronger makes us think of falling into
something or being swallowed by something. As we relate water to the psyche, this
could mean that we are abandoning the conscious realm in order to enter the
subconscious, being thus liberated from the rational world by entering into a sort of
By unfolding a sound object, I am also trying to show different perspectives of
the same thing. Metaphorically, this could be equivalent to a three dimensional
sound, being able in this way to perceive its different characteristics. This is like
walking around a sculpture in a museum. It changes all the time, but in fact it is
always the same sculpture. I used this idea in my composition Frost Clear, which is
made from the manipulation of a sample from the motor of a refrigerator. Now, why
did I ever think about making music with such a sound?. I used to hate refrigerator
sounds because every time I was working near a kitchen, I felt bothered without
knowing why. Suddenly, when the refrigerator motor stopped, I realized that my
problem had originated from its intermittent sound. It wasnt until later in Oakland
California that I discovered that refrigerators could make beautiful sounds. The sound
of my refrigerators motor seemed to be like a singing voice because the overtones
changed constantly and regularly, and by listening carefully I discovered that the
spectral structure of the sound was very rich due to the combination of natural
harmonics and inharmonics
. There was also a fundamental hum, as there is a
fundamental note for a chord structure. The micro-spectral changes of the refrigerator
are generally unnoticed in normal life because in order to listen to them we have to
get very near the motor, or amplify it. I tried to use the refrigerators motor sound
structure in a composition, in order to discover its richness. To accomplish this, I

These are the long glissandos.

created different sounds by manipulating a refrigerator sample which I recorded with
a contact microphone. Every sound was transformed by reverberating a different
portion of the original sounds spectrum, then they were mixed down, having as a
result a continuous process where we could listen to the whole spectrum being
unfolded through time. As this process is texture-like and has no gesture, we make an
effort to distinguish its different components and listen with care to all the micro
modulations taking place. As a result, this listening attitude allows us to find the
hidden qualities in the motor sound which in real life seems to be just a uniform and
static noise. To reinforce the idea of listening to the spectral change of one sound
object, I introduced a double bass into the piece that only plays its low open string
tuned to the same pitch as the refrigerator hum. The double bass has instructions to
play on different parts of the string, so when the refrigerator overtones are high, the
performer plays sul ponticello in order to bring out high overtones as well. In this
way there is an analogous continuous transformation of timbre in the double bass
sound that follows the process of the refrigerator spectrum.
In the second section of the piece I introduce a new element which is a
transformation of the original sound object, but which breaks with its essence. I create
discontinuity by fragmenting the different transformed sounds of the beginning, and
creating melodies extracted from the frequencies of the original overtones. The shape
of the first melodies are constructed with the frequencies of the natural harmonics
belonging to the spectrum. Later on, I introduce melodies made out from the
inharmonic portion of it, so they become dissonant in relation to the first ones. At the
same time, the long sounds from the beginning continue, but new ones appear in the
register of the refrigerators highest overtones, becoming almost sinusoidal and very
piercing to the ear. By fragmenting and using the original sound as musical notes in
this section, I render it unreal and artificial. My intention was to create note
sequences that resemble the LFO function of a synthesizer, and which make us
imagine a machine that is going crazy. By changing the morphology of the original
sound I also changed its signification and was able to create a metaphor with which I
described a sort of travel into the refrigerators entrails, playing in this way with the
idea of machines as being dangerous living entities.
The different way of treating the two sections of Frost Clear could be
paradoxical, but so it is the existence of technology which can be useful and even

Inharmonics are the overtones that dont belong to the natural harmonic spectrum.

beautiful, but also harmful. What could be our conclusions about the effect of
refrigerator motor sounds?. Should we make them completely silent, or should we
design their motor as to provide a musical noise?. I think that in the future,
refrigerators like other noisy pieces of equipment will be silent, but meanwhile, we
have to learn to live with them.
Perhaps in the future the sound of old trains and other machines will be a relic in
sound archives. These sounds will speak then about history and their richness will be
lost, so we have to accept that they have some value. By saying this, it doesnt mean I
am a promoter of machine noises. Futurism and modernism are gone, and today we
are desperately looking for solutions to eliminate the high decibel levels produced by
mans inventions in order to be able to tune ourselves with our soundscape. In spite of
not finding immediate answers, we have to try to keep our ears open to our
environment. For my part, as a composer I will continue to make music out of any
interesting sound coming either from natural or from urban contexts, trying in this
way to reveal the incredible complexity of the sounds that surround us.


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