Some Kind Of Melody

by Gautam Pemmaraju

If you talk a language they are familiar with you’ll communicate quickly. But in artistic matters ease of communication tends to link itself with lightness of worth. Significant depth often involves a new language.

– Terence Dwyer

This January saw the passing of Stefan Kudelski, the inventor of the Nagra portable magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorder. A revolutionary innovation, the tape recorder became an essential and ubiquitous part of filmmaking, not to mention the surveillance and security industry (Black Orpheus was the first full length film to use a Nagra). It was also widely used for research purposes and as the linked obituary points out, apart from mountain expeditions, the recorder was also carried by the famous oceanographer Jacques Piccard on the Bathyscape Trieste which made the historic 1960 dive to the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench, near Guam. Another notable loss last June was the death of the composer, avant-garde electronic music experimentalist Ilhan Mimaroğlu, whose work as Charlie Mingus’ producer and on Fellini’s Satyricon brought him wider acclaim. Mimaroğlu moved from Istanbul to study musicology and composition at Columbia University under Paul Henry Lang and Douglas More, and later with Vladimir Ussachevsky; he would eventually settle down in New York associating with an interesting network of musicians and composers, including Edgar Varese and Stefan Wolpe. Working with Atlantic Records early on, he set up his own independent label Finnidar in 1971, the intention of which he says in this 1975 audio interview, was to release “the kind of music that they would never touch”, referring to bigger and conventional labels. Releasing recordings of a variety of composers, which included iconoclasts Stockhausen and Cage, he also made an album with Freddie Hubbard in 1971, titled Sing Me A Song of Songmy.

Terence Dwyer suggests an audition of Mimaroğlu’s Bowery Bum in his delightful primer on tape music, Composing With Tape Recorders: Music Concrete For Beginners (1971). The track itself was based on the sounds of rubber bands, and indicates quite excellently, the many kinds of formal, structural ideas that Dwyer outlines pedagogically in his book. From elemental exercises to more complex compositional experiments, Dwyer chattily discusses several thoughts linked to tape music (the SF Tape Music Festival has just concluded), the term that he prefers to music concrete, since it “roll[s] more comfortably off an English tongue” because the latter “seems a clumsy and slightly misleading term” (see also Halim El-Dabh). He starts at the outset in encouraging the reader (and potential practitioner) to approach sounds with openness and attempt to understand “something of the nature of sounds”. Pointedly, he indicates that the scope is “absolutely any sound that takes our fancy” and “one man’s music is another man’s noise”.

Whether the sound be a musical one (like a violin playing), a quasi-musical one (like a bee humming or a doorbell), a sound of nature (wind, sea), or what one usually calls noise (like dustbins clattering); we may, if we wish, use it for tape music. Dog’s barking, babies crying, people talking, paper crumbling, cups clinking, doors banging, men whistling – all are grist to our mill.

One’s relationship to sounds changes with repeated audition, Dwyer writes, and argues that if one loses one’s ‘dislike’ for a particular sound regarded initially as noise, employs it in an “organized composition in an attempt to convey significant beauty”, it then “becomes music”. This is quite really the foundational principle in electroacoustic music experimentation (see my previous piece of experiments with train sounds and also aural mapping & found instruments). Classifying sounds into four broad categories of Tones, Mistones, Pseudotones and Sones, Dwyer points out that apart from the world of objects and environment, it is indeed, the human body, that is “the most versatile (and handiest) pieces of sound producing equipment”.

There are great ‘potentialities of sound’ Dwyer writes on – the striking of a match for instance, can suggest a “moon rocket taking off”. Importantly though, any sound, whatever the source may be, “should fascinate by its effectiveness and individuality”. Suggesting the minimum technical requirements (if not a three speed, at the very least, a two speed recorder), he proposes simple, elementary exercises – from recording of simple sections of soft, muffled, loud or reverberant sounds in combinations of short, long, or tremolo, to exercises with speed changes, ascending scales of different pitches (all produced by hands and feet), application of reverse play, etc. Pointing to attack and decay, and how they vary with the length of the sound, he writes that attack in particular is quite important, since “it is one of the chief means by which a sound achieves its individuality”. Aside from the obvious reversal of events, the reverse application to a sound has ‘a more interesting’ effect in the reversal of attack and decay, he continues and writes of a rumour of an LP record of bagpipe music that was issued in reverse play by mistake. Apparently no one noticed, and “as to whether the melodies are just as good backwards as forwards the less said the better”.

His gamely, good-natured suggestions are numerous as he interestingly eggs on the budding tape music composer to “make sounds at random in whatever way sounds fresh, interesting, weird or whatever you think fit. Avoid obvious melodies”.

Electronic music, musique concrète, or tape music, is in many ways predicated upon the manipulation of the sound – its alteration, distortion, recalibration and reconfiguration. But it is essential, Dwyer advises, to have a clean sound to begin with so that, in what is possibly the foundational, axiomatic base of artistic experimentation, “we know what it is that we are departing from”. This is a critical idea to my mind. It is in our grasp of the conceptual idea, the core thought, its immediate neighbourhood, its general topology, and the possibilities such reconnaissance at first presents, that we are able to veer off course with a sure-footed sense of design and adventure alike. Conventions may then be deftly broken, for experimentation embodies it and thus, a composition with “no themes, no melody, no harmony, thin textures, great emphasis on single sounds and their true tone-colour” presents itself as a means to embark on an unchartered sonic adventure. Further still, the use of multichannels opens up the arena of how sounds move in space. Further, ‘having jettisoned’ conventions, composers are then able to exclusively explore texture, timbre or tone-colour. The individual sound assumes primacy, and the “listener contemplates and enjoys” them. Dwyer’s exercises grow in complexity, and as he brings up sound-on-sound multilayering and superimposition, pointing out that repeated layering may deteriorate the signal, “though this may be a lesser drawback to us than anyone recording straight music” (see also Onkyokei and Art of Noises, which I have discussed before). He further brings up ghost sounds (fragments of other recordings), the space of the sound spectrum, and antiphonal experimentation (Flood Sound Effect or Flutklang – see Kontakte). Stockhausen, he writes further, has explored this in his Octophonie and the farewell of Mittwoch aus Licht with eight discrete channels in a circular formation. He even conceived of a future sonic system entailing the audience to be suspended in space with audio channels in all directions (see Dolby Atmos). One can take this thought further (if it has not already been suggested) and conceive of an enclosed theatrical space as a seamless speaker with the materials of the walls, the floor and the ceiling, acting as surface transducers (see here).

The fidelity of abstract thought and ideas find quite some emphasis in Dwyer’s imagination. Conventional sonic exploration brings up familiar pictures in our heads he argues, and he fears that through such practice “we shall lose the abstract power of music to fascinate by sheer sound”. He advises lateral thinking as well; to conjure up a story, a plot that aids a compositional thought, but only when there “seems the promise of a good musical design. Alternatively one may draw one's initial inspiration from an extramusical idea and abandon it for a more abstract plan as soon as it is no longer useful.” (He suggests a delightful Georges Méliès -esque exercise here to design sounds for a spaceship that crashes on a distant planet when hit by a stray meteor and is surrounded by noisy, excited space creatures).

On first acquaintance, tape music often arouses images of space, travel, weird monsters, underground caverns and evil spirits. It is certainly well fitted for suggesting such things but the chief reason for the association is that all these things are ‘strange’ and so is tape music to the average listener. When we grow more accustomed to the medium, we realize that it shares with other music a much wider range of expressive features.

Moving on to the interesting and complex link between music and mathematics which “have always gone hand in hand to some extent”, Dwyer brings up Serialism (see this lovely video lesson on 12 tone serialism). There is a lot to take away from Dwyers’ charming little book – importantly, his consistent invocation of the ‘single sound’ and the need to contemplate and experience timbre, tone-colour. Critically, Dwyer writes eagerly, that we must be “interested in the sound itself” for it is there the “essence of true music” resides.

There are many who have also emphasized the same across musical traditions and disciplines; I will mention here the maverick music producer Kavi Alexander of Waterlily Acoustics as an example. The debate on analogous recordings versus digital are beyond the scope of this essay but I will point out that Alexander’s recordings (and philosophy) of chamber/shrine music are linked critically to the attempt to retain the purity of timbre, tone and abstract elements of an organic performance space-time. In complete opposition to electronic music, his practice entails no manipulation, no post-production of the performance, and is recorded in a Santa Barbara church with a just a crossed pair of custom made microphones (see Blumlein system here). Hitherto recording exclusively on magnetic tape, he has over the last decade shifted to a hybrid analog-digital recording system. Music as a means to the ‘beyond’, a gateway to access mystical realms, is a common enough thought. This is further clarified (and pursued) by the desire to experience and grasp pure tones, timbre and texture. There’s quite a bit of this to be found in Eastern religions (see Anahata, the unstruck sound), and while hypnotic music induced trances are common to all socio-religious traditions, discussions on single sounds, complex iterations, abstract melodic exploration, as opposed to conventional musicality is rarer. Ghanapata (or dense style) recitations of the Vedic hymns are very interesting in this regard and Frits Staal’s (another notable death last year) pioneering recordings (also made on Nagras) are perhaps unparalleled. Iterative patterned phrases in progression switch back and forth in a bell swinging kind of movement in this style of recitation.

I would like to mention Spectralism in conclusion, and the recent passing of the British composer Jonathan Harvey (and somewhat tangentially, Stravinsky and Tisziji Munoz), who says this in an interview with reference to experimental/avant-garde music he was enamoured by: “music was never like this that I had heard before…by the time the piece is finished you have a sensation that you’ve looked at a symmetrical harmonious universe but you can’t really trace a straight line through it.”