Experimental Ideas for Electronic Music
Welcome to Test Patterns – a site dedicated to experimental techniques in electronic music.
Test Patterns will document experimental methods for creating electronic music using a Windows PC. The emphasis will be on using freeware and open software wherever possible.
The Obligatory Manifesto
“The most important musical instrument of the 20th Century may well have been the microphone. The most important musical instrument of the 21st Century may prove to be the computer.”
John Luther Adams – ‘In Search of an Ecology of Music’
In creating the sound installation The Place Where You Go to Listen, John Luther Adams employs computers and information processing to capture the forces of nature at work in our world in real time. His intention was to create a dynamic musical analogue of nature and to present it to the listener who would experience it as a living organism. As he writes: “ The Place Where You Go to Listen… is not a sequence of musical events and lighting scenes. It is a dynamic system of visible and audible forces interacting in a constantly changing environment; a self-contained world connected to and resonating with the real world.” This approach, informed by Adams’ ecological awareness as well as his musical ambitions, brings together at once two important trends in contemporary music that are worth examining in light of this work.
The first trend is that acoustic music as we have known it for the last 400 years is in trouble. Symphonies have failed or have become embroiled in protracted labor disputes. The attendance at formal musical events is down and the demographics of those going are not encouraging. The big musical institutions are increasingly at risk and struggle for grants and donations to survive. Acoustic musicians are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from their art and music in education is diminishing. Indeed, the entire edifice looks a bit like the 19th century itself: the acoustic musician – like a barrel maker, blacksmith or sail maker – must spend years to learn his craft and then spend 6 hours a day in practice to be proficient. The playing of a symphony might require 100 such individuals – hardly a cost-effective paradigm. As a result, those musical pieces that are known to reliably draw an audience are most often heard in performance, with the interpretation of older works seen as a higher calling than the creation of new music. To put it more strongly: new music is not seen as a contemporary art form.
The second trend is that the value of recorded music has diminished because of digital technology. It is possible to easily download or stream music without reducing the supply of the recording medium – there is no longer any compelling need for plastic CDs or vinyl records – so the supply-demand equation has been broken, driving the price of music to zero. Add to this the habits of busy people listening to music from ear-buds instead of at the concert hall and the mounting of a live performance – with all its attendant costs – becomes increasingly difficult. This has added to the pressure on performing musicians – they are priced out of a market that has driven the perceived monetary value of music to zero.
But digital technology and the Internet have also opened up new opportunities for music, as demonstrated by The Place Where You Go to Listen. The first is that music does not need to be recorded – it can be uniquely created and distributed in real time. The Adams piece uses natural phenomena as the driving element, but why not the unique data that civilization creates each day? Freeway speeds, stock market prices, airline schedules – all sorts of data are out there and a new music art form that can capture this digital pulse is waiting to be developed.
The Place Where You Go to Listen opened in 2006 and was a well-funded, solidly designed effort that was sponsored by the Museum of the North. It occupies an entire room on the second floor of the museum, utilized expensive data gathering systems and had to be specially constructed to optimize the acoustics.
In 2014 the technology to create and distribute a similar piece just might be inside your laptop – and that is what Test Patterns intends to explore.