This article presents a reflection
on some ideological problems that surround the creation of a history
of electroacoustic music. The analysis of the role and evolution
of a musical concept through the history of a musical tradition
can show the strategies used in the creation of a historical narration.
As an example of these rhetorical devices, the article briefly
tracks the presence of dissonance and noise in diverse musical
traditions through the last century. Thus, two parallel historical
narrations are presented. Some apparent differences between them
are questioned when the concepts of dissonance and noise are regarded
as 'the other' for each respective musical tradition.
An analogy connecting music and sex (as different ways for contacting
'the other') is also discussed. The concept of 'the
other', standing for what is and must be usually hidden
and repressed, works as a limit for the identity of any ideological
construction, including the Western subject. The analysis of 'the
other' and how it is repressed or emancipated can therefore
reveal important aspects of the identity of a musical tradition.
Thinking about the history of electroacoustic
music demands the definitions of the concepts of history and electroacoustic
music. The former would exceed the purposes of this article, but
some reflections on this issue will be pointed out. Regarding
the latter, such a definition involves not only an idea of technology
but also (and as far as we do not include this into the concept
of technology) an aesthetical approach to music. Then by analysing
the history of each of these ideas about technology , or the
history of each of these aesthetical approaches to music, we can
find different histories of electroacoustic music.
It is possible to trace one history of electroacoustic music through
the analysis of the role played by dissonance in its development.
We can also use the concept of noise as a guide through the evolution
of the music that makes use of electroacoustic technologies. Two
different histories may appear, with their own different pasts.
And from each of these pasts, we may be able to foresee even more
One of these histories roots itself
in the middle of the last century, with its center at the WDR
studios in Cologne. Names such as Robert Beyer, Herbert Eimert,
Werner Meyer-Eppler or Karlheinz Stockhausen appear at the beginning
of this history. Of course, we could track at least part of its
origins in Paris during the previous years, but that period can
be also thought of as only the preparation of what was going to
be born in Germany some time later.
Part of this history of electroacoustic
music, as it was explained before, is constituted by the history
of the aesthetical approach to music present in the work of the
aforementioned. This particular approach is strongly associated
to serialism, and we can find a very good testimony of the close
relationship between serialist thought and these early electroacoustic
practices in the first number of die Reihe journal .
Serialism was not only an aesthetical
approach to electroacoustic music. It had begun in the domain
of what we could name today as composition with 'traditional'
instruments. Since 1948, it had its center at the Summer Courses
of Darmstadt (where most of the authors mentioned before met each
other), and it nurtured many instrumental pieces and musical thoughts.
There is one aspect of the serialist
approach to composition, and to music in general, that gains special
importance for the purposes of this article. It has to do with
the relationship between new music and history. For the most representative
composers of this movement, new music was somehow detached from
history. The serial procedures permitted one to compose following
completely different rules than the ones that constituted tonality
(which, by the way, could only be considered as a system after
the appearance of serialism). And tonality was, according to this
history, the core of the Western classical tradition. From this
point of view, serial music could be easily seen as something
"out of history" or, if we prefer, a new "zero
point" in history.
From our growing historical perspective
we cannot avoid questioning these ideas. Strong connections bind
the serial approach to music with previous musical practices.
Serialism, through its extreme interpretation of some aspects
of Webern's work, not only inherited many ideas about music from
the Second Viennese School, but also many elements that Webern,
Berg and Schoenberg themselves had received from their tradition.
Between these assumptions we can underline, for example, a strong
influence of the idea of absolute music , or a characteristic
understanding of the idea of progress in art.
The idea of progress involved in
the notion of music that these first electroacoustic composers
took over was closely associated with the concept of dissonance,
as it has been developed by Adorno . According to him, what
modern music offers is not sensuous pleasure but dissonance, caused
by the convergence of the immanent dynamic of art and the external
reality, or by the inclusion of the non-integratable in the process
of artistic integration. For Adorno and for his musical tradition,
dissonance, as an expression of negativity, plays the role of
'the other'. It represents the empirical 'other',
strange to the concept of (absolute) music. Modern music, to avoid
being fetishized, constantly negates its artistic confine and
maintains the mobility between itself and this empirical 'other'.
Dissonance was 'the other'
for classical Western music, and so it was for the electroacoustic
music that, as we have seen, followed a particular branch of that
tradition. This process took place in a historical moment when
dissonance was already 'emancipated', but this fact
did not affect dissonance's important role. The dialectic
relationship between consonance and dissonance inherited by the
serial music composed for traditional instruments was merely transposed
to the music composed with electronic media.
The decades that followed the appearance
of this new music constitute a period that, borrowing the expression
from Georgina Born, we could designate as "the institutionalization
of the musical avant-garde". The main aspects of the musical
thought in question extended, during the second half of the last
century, to some of the most important centers of music education
and research in Europe and the United States .
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
out . This phenomenon could be understood as an intrinsic transformation
operated in this particular musical tendency, or as the result
of a general historical process. Following the second, adornian
interpretation, this process would have increased 'culture
industry's' capacity for making us understand everything
(including 'the other' in the form of dissonance)
as a commodity.
Music (and art in general) can be
regarded as a medium between ourselves and 'the other' (or, if
we prefer, 'our other'). Sex can also be considered, in a similar
way, as another access to 'the other' or 'our other'. This 'other'
perhaps has found its best conceptualization through the Freudian
notions of unconscious and subconscious, and it is remarkable
that these ideas were born in the same Vienna-fin-de-siècle
where Schoenberg radically transformed the concept of dissonance.
Following this conception, both
in sex and music 'the other' would represent what is and must
remain hidden, unknown and alien to our world, to ourselves. And
in both cases our different ways to approach to 'the other' evoke
words like repression, domination or tolerance . Coming back
to Freud, this '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 this music's
It is even possible to establish
an analogy about how changes in our conception of 'the other'
tend to happen in the domains of sex and music. In this regard,
we can remember how Spanish composer Agustín González
Acilu (born in 1929) describes the transformation that his sensibility
experimented when his traditional music background (deeply rooted
in tonality) was firstly confronted to the composition of atonal
music. He describes this process as a change in his "auditory
morals" ("moral auditiva") , and compares his
increasing tolerance to the phenomenon of dissonance with the
acceptance that Spanish society was meanwhile beginning to show
for the bikini swimsuit. It is also interesting to note the strong
presence of the idea of progress both in the thought of the musicians
that expanded the concept of dissonance and in the social acceptance
of different sexual behaviours (usually regarded as a matter of
Tracking the presence of noise
in different musical manifestations could lead us to another possible
history of electroacoustic music. Again, the starting point of
this history is movable, though the beginning of the last century
seems like a good possibility. Parallel to the conception of Schoenberg's
musical revolution, some of the earliest electroacoustic devices
(such as radio, 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 sound and music, but for many
artists (not necessarily musicians) they represented a turning
point in the histories of sound and music.
The concept of noise was specially
affected by the artistic use of these technologies. Maybe we could
borrow the idea of 'emancipation' in order to describe what happened
to noise through the work of the Futurists (mainly after Russolo's
'Art of Noises'), or composers like Varèse or Cowell. But
the presence of noise in music does not describe a straight line
(like the one that the history of dissonance tended to draw).
Its evolution not only passes through the names of composers,
but it also crosses the work of (sound) poets and inventors (as
Schoenberg would define John Cage). Noise occupies as well a very
important place in the field of popular music, through its different
shapes (blues, jazz, rock & roll, rock…), each one of
them presenting a more or less direct connection with the classical
Western musical tradition.
In the last decades, and thanks
to the increasing access to computer technology and audio production
tools, new forms of popular music (such as techno, house, ambient…)
have appeared. It is difficult to find many features shared by
all these different forms of music, but we can affirm that dissonance
has not played the same role in them as it did in the tradition
of Western classical music. In a certain way, noise substituted
dissonance in its relationship with music. And, from this point
of view, the tolerance to dissonance that contemporary classical
music has progressively developed would be comparable to the increasing
acceptance of distorted guitars and grainy voices  showed by
This phenomenon is especially clear
in some forms of popular music that have built an aesthetic approach
from their link with noise. Glitch, post-digital, or simply noise
are some terms coined for practices and styles of music that use
a technology inherited from what was used in Cologne during the
fifties. And, as Kim Cascone expressed in a well known article
devoted to the "Aesthetics of Failure", "(…)
more specifically, it is from the 'failure' of digital technology
that this new work has emerged: glitches, bugs, application errors,
system crashes, clipping, aliasing, distortion, quantization noise,
and even the noise floor of computer sound cards are the raw materials
composers seek to incorporate into their music" . While
in Western classical music the error produced dissonance, in post-digital
music the error generates noise.
The error, the musical lapsus, is
a common way for 'the other' to emerge. And noise appears as 'the
other' all through the history of these musical practices. Following
Freud's theories, the lapsus linguae can guide us to the unconscious
. Masami Akita, an artist whose background comes mainly from
popular music, expresses his view about the relationship between
music and noise in a brief sentence: "Noise is the unconsciousness
[sic] of music" .
As it was shown before, some strategies
of approaching 'the other' are shared by sex (understood as a
Western cultural production) and the musical tradition that takes
dissonance as its 'other'. But we can find very similar means
for referring to 'the other' through the history that tracks the
presence of noise in music. Henry Cowell evokes in these words
a common strategy, repression: "Although existing in all
music, the noise-element has been to music as sex to humanity,
essential to its existence, but impolite to mention" .
Repression is a characteristic way
of approaching 'the other' in our culture. As Jacques Attali wrote,
"Not an essential myth which does not call upon the musician
as a protection against the noise, perceived everywhere as a threat
from which it is necessary to be protected. Not a myth which does
not describe the music like the shaping, the domestication, the
ritualisation of the noise (…)" . Even the visionary
Russolo, in his "Art of noises", shows his desire of
disciplining noises, assigning pitches to them and, by so, making
them fit into a norm: "We want to give pitches to these diverse
noises, regulating them harmonically and rhythmically" .
Murray Schafer also tells us about the repressive attitude of
our musical tradition when he writes that "Noises are the
sounds we have learned to ignore" .
As another example, the desire for
reaching newer limits or extreme aspects of 'the other' can also
be found in different sexual and musical practices. In the interview
quoted before, Akita refers to Merzbow (his own recording name)
in the following terms: "If music was sex, Merzbow would
be pornography" . Pornography, by showing what is usually
hidden, represents a form of transgression. In this sense, its
evolution can be described as a constant search for new limits,
a conquest of uncharted territories. These are not very different
goals than the ones pursued in the works of Merzbow, nor in Schoenberg's
'The other' always represents a
focus for our fears and a menace to our identity. Being one of
the limits of this identity, 'the other' is indispensable in order
to define it (the Latin word definire reveals this aspect). We
can therefore define a musical tradition by describing its 'other'.
Concepts such as dissonance or noise have played this role in
different Western musical practices. An analysis of the different
strategies implied in the relationships between these traditions
and their 'others' shows similarities that transcend categories
like high/low culture and help to redefine concepts such as 'progress',
'emancipation' or 'transgression'.
These different ways of approaching
'the other' not only appear in different musical traditions, but
also in other cultural productions like our conceptions about
sex. Probably repression is the most common mechanism that mediates
between us and our 'other', just like between a musical tradition
an its 'other.' From this point of view, when this ordinary practice
of repression fails, in the form of an error, 'the other' appears.
So the concept of error can be useful to distinguish which elements
are considered manifestations of 'the other' for a particular
subject or tradition.
Dissonance and noise have been constantly
repressed and expressed through processes that constitute the
histories of two different musical traditions. It is possible
to identify in both traditions moments in which 'the other' is
not repressed but integrated. This process of integration normally
implies depriving 'the other' of all its particularities, or annihilating
all the conditions of possibility for 'the other' to exist.
As a result of such a process, dissonance
stops being 'dissonant' (as happens in serial music), and noise
cannot be 'noisy' anymore (as is clear when listening to some
of the new musical styles mentioned before). This may be understood
as a possible end for the different histories previously presented,
or as a starting point for new histories that wait to be told.
 As Jonathan Sterne does in The
Audible Past. Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Duke
University Press, Durham, 2003.
 Eimert, H., Boulez, P., Stockhausen, K., Meyer-Eppler,
W. and others, die Reihe, I (English version), Theodor Presser,
 Cf. Dahlhaus, C. La idea de la música absoluta
(translation by Ramón Barce), Idea Books, Barcelona,
 And discussed in Álvarez Fernández, M.
"Disonancia y emancipación: comodidad en/de
algunas estéticas musicales del siglo XX", available
 Remarkable manifestations of these issues can be found
in Born, G. Rationalizing Culture. IRCAM, Boulez and the
Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. University
of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, and Holztman, S. Digital
Mantras. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 1994, the latter representing
a great summary of the implications of 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
for the next hundred years" (cf. Stuckenschmidt, H.
H. Schönberg. Vida, contexto, obra. Alianza, Madrid,
1991, p. 234).
 Cf. Stockhausen, K. and R. Maconie Stockhausen on Music.
Marion Boyars, London - New York, 1989, p. 36.
 Tolerance, as a concept that we can only apply to 'the
other', can be understood as just the other side of the
same coin represented by repression or domination.
 Cureses, M. Agustín González Acilu. La
estética de la tensión. ICCMU, Madrid, 2001,
 The reference to Barthes and the genotext also appears
in Reynolds, S. "Noise", in Audio Culture. Readings
in Modern Music (C. Cox and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 55-58.
Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 58: "Maybe we should
listen out for the noise in the voices of Kristin Hersh,
Tim Buckley, Prince, Michael Jackson".
 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, p.
 Freud, S. Psychopathology of Everyday Life W. W. Norton,
New York, 1989.
 Akita, M., "The Beauty of Noise: An Interview
with Masami Akita of Merzbow", in Audio Culture. Readings
in Modern Music (C. Cox and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 59-61.
Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 60.
 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, p. 23.
 Attali, J. Bruits. Fayard, Paris, 2001, p. 28.
 Russolo, L. L'Arte dei rumori. Edizioni Futuriste di
"Poesia", Milano, 1916, p. 14.
 Schafer, R. M. The Soundscape. Our Sonic Environment
and the Tuning of the World. Destiny Books, Rochester 1994,
 Cf. Akita, M., "The Beauty of Noise: An Interview
with Masami Akita of Merzbow", in Audio Culture. Readings
in Modern Music (C. Cox and D. Warner, eds.), pp. 59-61.
Continuum, New York, 2004, p. 60.