Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Symposium report: Analysis of electronic music

First I want to say sorry for being a bit long and dull in this post. This is a web version of a report I wrote for my university about the symposium What do we want from analysis of electroacoustic music and how might we get it? at the Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre (MTI), Du Montfort University in Leicester on 5th of November 2011.  Needless to say: this is for the music tech crowd, geeks and nerds, a selected few academics only.

Meeting Leicester

MTI Research Centre, Du Montfort Uni, Leicester
Even if it has its charm, Leicester is not really among the prettiest of British cities. Concrete has replaced red brick in a slightly too extensive fashion. When industry left the East Midlands, much of the momentum also followed. It's a fairly small, around 300 k-people, and with London only 1½ hour away on the train line, culture does not have the most fertile soil. But it has its roman ruins, a decent football team, and most importantly in this regard: a thriving music technology group.

De Montfort University was established as Leicester School of Art in 1870, later turning into a polytechnic, but retaining a strong humanities department. It got university status in 1992, and serves some 20 000 students. The MTI thus has both a strong technological side and an artistic side - not unlike the MusTech department in Trondheim. The centre was started in 1999 by Andrew Hughill, and currently employs 8 faculty with Leigh Landy and Simon Emmerson being the most prominent. They host the journal Organised Sound, with Landy as editor. They teach approx 150 undergrads and around 30 postgrads/PhDs. Their facilities include several mixing studios, and a quite nice concert hall fully equipped with a 12 (?) channel system. The MTI is not the only Artistic Research-group at the university, but is part of a larger Performance Arts Centre of Excellence. More on what they can brag about on the website.


The symposium

The state and future of analysis is clearly a topic of interest. There were visitors from all over Britain, as well as foreigners travelling from far away places like Greece (escaping the economic and political turmoil?) and Norway (me). Even though it was not advertised widely there had been lots of interest in the symposium, and several people had to be turned away. All in all I guess we were around 50 lucky ones.

The goal of the symposium was not to make a "grand theory of analysis" but to "unify and thus broaden possibilities for communication between the different approaches" (quote Emmerson I think…). Never the less, the symposium can probably be interpreted as an effort of standardization, focusing on common terminology, graphic language and software tools.

Eleven invited speakers from different fields under the wide umbrella of electronic music were given 10 minutes (and only one slide!) each to discuss the problem of analysis from their artistic viewpoint. Then followed an hour of discussion, two project descriptions, and an "un-keynote" sum up by Michael Clarke from Huddersfield. The whole symposium was guided by a strict time keeping Simon Emmerson.

The starting point of was the following paragraph circulated on email before the meeting:
Our subject field has been divided into 9 ‘cliché’ genres (which are a starting point and may themselves be critiqued). Each invited speaker (see below) will have a maximum of 10 minutes to present no more than a single projected slide of bullet points addressing the theme for their genre. [...] The discussion sessions will be devoted to sharing responses and an attempt to delineate commonalities and differences across the field. What do we need? What is missing?
Leigh Landy started with addressing the main theme of the symposium:
  • What do we want from analysis of electroacoustic music and how might we get it?
    • which tools/approaches
    • for which works/genres
    • for which users
    • with what intentions?
Then followed presentations from each of the 9 cliché genres
  • sampling & plunderphonics: Leigh Landy
  • post-concrète and the acousmatics: John Young & Manuella Blackburn
  • soundscape: Katharine Norman
  • real world reference: Panos Amelides
  • glitch, hacking, failure aesthetics with live post-instrumental (hardware hacking, found and constructed instruments): John Richards & Neal Spowage
  • sound art, installation and the site-specific: Pete Batchelor
  • algorithmic and interactive: Owen Green
  • live instrumental (mixed and live electronics): John Dack
  • electronica/EDM related: Ben Ramsay
In addition we had two short presentations on audio only computer games by Andrew Hugill and discourse analysis by Simon Atkinson. After the break followed two longer presentations on the OREMA-project and the EAnalysis software. These two presentations were the main focal point of the symposium, so that will be my starting point.


The OREMA project

The OREMA is a web portal and community for analysis of electronic music. Users can submit and discuss analysis of works, and find tools. taxonomy and a toolbox. The portal is still in private beta, but is scheduled for going live in March 2012. The project looks exiting, and the value as a teaching resource looks very promising. The project is lead by Michale Gatt. The website can be found here.

Even though the site is in its build up phase, the analytical toolbox ( can already be very useful for teaching purposes. This is actually the first comprehensive list I have seen of commonly used tools and approaches to the analysis of electronic music. Several of the texts are based on the magnificent Ears website, but the great value of the OREMA-approach is that the selection and framing of the tools are directly relevant for musical analysis.

The site also contains a list of helpful software - take special note of the iAnalyze software, which is made for analyzing classical music score (more on that later).

So far the site contains some 20 analyses of 6 electronic works. The analysis of Hugh Le Caines Dripsody (1955) can serve as a good example of the potential of the site. Here three different approaches to the work is included. Note also the bibliography and list of available recordings of the work.

The site is currently written in MediaWiki, but will before the actual launch be ported to Drupal. The Drupal version looks nicer (we got a glimpse of it at the symposium), and I guess it will be easier to maintain. It`ll be exciting to see what can come out of this.



The second "technical" presentation was the EAnalysis software, developed by Pierre Couprie. The program has its roots in the Acousmographe from GRM, but is more sophisticated and intuitive, drawing on lots of features from Coupers iAnalyse-program. You can easily add and switch between different views (sonogram, waveform, listening score and so on), and make tailor made representations of the music you're analysing. The software is still in closed beta, but will go alpha within the next months. Later iterations of the program will include video.

The potential of the program is vast - for teaching situations and for doing analysis. It’s possible to request beta testing at Coupries website

It is also worth to note Coupries iAnalyse, that can be used for analyzing/demonstrating score based music. This video of Bachs Art of Fugue Contrapunctus 1 gives a good indication of the potential:

For an overview - see:


Notes from the talks:

Leigh Landy (now representing sample based music)
In an analysis of this kind of music you would be interested in
  • what samples/sources are used
  • how are they treated
  • how are they treated legally (stolen/creative commons etc)
  • are they modified beyond recognition or are they recognizable?
  • what role do they play in the preformance / composition
He also used the notion "meaningful objects": what do we want to focus on in our analysis. What are the meaningful objects in the sonic stream we are analyzing?

Manuella Blackburn spoke from a composers’ viewpoint on how analyzing your own work or other works can be inspiring for composing. She was stressing how we need a common symbolic graphical language for sound.

The soundscape composer Kathrine Norman talked about how one while analysing a work consisting of natural world sounds need to investigate the meanings and intentions behind the sounds, not just the sonic qualities an sich (forget the sounds, focus on the listening!).

This was backed by Paros Amendas notes on real world reference: Sounds often carry specific meaning, and recalls experience through memory (ie. if you use sounds from the WWII blitz, the sounds signify meaning that reach far beyond the acoustic information). When confronted with this, do we really care for the spectromorphological analysis? In other words we should analyse both the physical signal and the psychological reference.

Peter Bachelor was talking about in sound art, and how you need to compare different approaches to SA with approaches to other media. You need to bear in mind when in the artistic process is the analysis being conducted, and what is there in the piece to be analyzed. Bachelor is looking for a robust integrated multidisciplinary approach encompassing time, space and the social in the study of sound art.

Owen Green was also talking about intentions, onthologies and epistemologies, and, like Landy, "salineces in the sonic stream" (Landys meaningful objects).

Ben Ramsay talked about three approaches often used in analysis of electronic music: reduced listening (Schaeffer), language grid (Emmerson) and Spectromorphology (Smalley).
He also mentioned a blue sky idea: Since space (the placement of a sound object in the "sonic room") is such a significant feature in electronic music, this should also be analyzed. But how can this be done?

Andrew Hughill called, with reference to Dewey ("art is not a thing, but an experience"), for tools also focusing on experience, pleasure and interaction.

As we see, several of the talks touched on topics like intentionality, exogenous reference, sociological context, communities of practice and so on. In the following discussion Bret Battey raised The Big Question: What questions we are trying to answer? Or, what kind of map do we want to make of the music we are studying? (You need different maps for different purposes). So what question we are trying to answer is really the most important question to ask.

This touches the old debate on why we analyze in the first place (three easy answers: to see patterns, to help composition, to help listeners), and if we really want it (can it damage the listening experience?). The main consensus in the symposium was that analysis is a good thing (quite natural given the topic of the symposium), since it helps us to listen. There was also a consensus for increased focus on pleasure, aesthetics and subjectivity - the actual experience of the work. But this is very much difficult to visualize with a spectrogram.

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