Curtis Roads’s “Composing Electronic Music”: The Bad Parts

Over the last few years I’ve read several books on music with the aim of learning to create captivating electronic music myself. In this practical endeavor, Curtis Roads’s Composing Electronic Music (2015) must be seen an been invaluable resource. It’s a cornucopia of technical information, a precise and motivational description of how this kind of music differs from other genres, as well as an encyclopedic history of the genre, or meta-genre–punctuated an extensive curated list of sound samples–stretching much further back than I had innocently supposed: at one high point during my reading, I imagined this work the product of a young, ebullient professor hoping to achieve tenure despite dedication to an obscure, novel, often alienating genre that isn’t taken seriously by people in ivory towers: but to my surprise Roads is now seventy years old. Then I recalled what I have no excuse for having forgotten: we’ve been postmodern for so damned long, that it looks like Jane Austen to me.

I would like to go into a little more depth on what I find good about the book. I feel uncomfortable writing a negative review because I’ve heard that writers tend to take personally. What if Roads reads the review, recognizes his mistakes, and suffers a reduction to his self esteem, which leads directly to his perishing, say, after his second cup of coffee one morning rather than living long enough to enjoy his third? I’m concerned about the scope of seemingly trivial connections. May the excellent man, then, enjoy that third cup of coffee if I cite at least one brilliant passage, an item under the heading “the specificity of electronic music”:

Electronic music opens the domain of composition from a closed, homogenous set of notes to an unlimited universe of heterogeneous sound objects. Varèse called this opening the “liberation of sound.” The notes of traditional music are a homogenous system. Each note can be described by the same four properties: pitch, dynamic marking, duration, and instrument timbre. […] In contrast, heterogeneity implies that diverse musical materials may not share common properties. Moreover, in these objects, we all the possibility of time-varying morphologies and even mutations of identity. We can extend heterogeneity even further, down to the level of microsound […] However, the diversity of sound made by electronic music comes at a price: the loss of note homogeneity and, with it, the foundation of a standardized symbolic language (common music notation). To enter the realm of heterogeneous sound objects is to be cast into a strange new acousmatic land without conventional language.

(pp. 8-9)

This is a great formulation and formalization of what I intuitively felt when I first heard Autechre’s Amber and thought: my gosh, that’s music without notes, it’s full of melodies made of texture rather than pitch! It’s strange, but it’s also incredibly pleasurable, with all the familiarity of pleasure itself. What an amazing feat! Most strange music sacrifices the part that makes you smile (or feel the smile without smiling it), or dance (or tap your toe politely), or sing (in your mind) to the part that makes you furl your brow and try to figure it out.

For good measure, one more great passage:

when sound waves are projected on a naked human body, it is almost entirely reflected […] This is because the unadorned human body is acoustically similar to a bag of water […] When human beings don several layers of clothing, they become sound absorbers. Thus a thousand people dressed in several layers of clothing in a concernt hall have a damping effect on the acoustics of the hall.

This is an astounding insight and a fun image, evoking as it does, a performance of the Ring Cycle in Bayreuth, in which all of the audience members are buck naked, even Grandma, all overcoming their shame for the sake of better acoustics!

Almost the whole of the book is of the same caliber as these passages. It creates a precise, rich, detailed language for a musical territory which for most music lovers still feels foreign. And yet these few innocent mistakes are so important, that the poor reader who doesn’t notice them, sails through the book, lands ashore in Latin America, and calls the natives Indians.

A Few Grains of Ricin In The Ocean

The first little red flag I noticed seems little indeed. It’s a misunderstanding of Cantor’s ideas about infinity. The author starts off fine: “Cantor’s theory of the transfinite numbers showed that the infinite set of real numbers is greater than the infinite set of integers.” This is quite true, and a very interesting fact. But then, the second sentence reads: “Thus the infinite set of possibilities of a full orchestra is greater than the infinite set of possibilities of a cello, because an orchestra already contains all the possibilities of the cello as a subset.” (12) Here, he’s wrong in a manner which any grad student in the Math department would have glibly pointed out: there are plenty examples of infinite supersets which contain the same number of elements as their infinite subsets: for example, the following sets are all the same size: the natural numbers, the integers, the integers greater than ten, pairs of integers, rational numbers. These sets are all said to be “countable” because you can map them perfectly to the natural numbers, by figuring out a way to count them.

If the passage is unnecessary anyway–what does Cantor’s theory of infinity have to do with electronic music?–then the bungle is rather of an editorial nature. But maybe there actually is a way to find a connection between one of the wildest and most inspiring theories in mathematics and our newer musical genres. Getting the facts plain wrong closes the doors to such a wonderful possibility.

There are a number of other little red flags, mostly individual sentences, phrases, even words than warn the reader of bigger trouble ahead. When the divorce finally comes, we do recall that our wife had stopped kissing us long ago, or had quickly closed her email when we glanced at the screen, or had started staying late at the office much too often. We should have known all along what was going to happen, and might well have, if we had really wanted to. Yes, there should have been an explanation for the cufflink you found under the car seat. Here are some examples:

“To be a composer means that one enjoys solving puzzles…” (1) appears in the prominent position as the first sentence in of the first chapter. It’s the word “puzzles” and their purported ability to be “solved” which jars me. The artist deepens unsolvable enigmas–solving a bunch of puzzles along the way–but the prominence of the claim suggests conflation of the two. The deepening of the mystery is the principle task of the artist, not the solution of puzzles, which is what we do with our Sudokus or New York Times to keep the faculties from dulling with age.

Then there’s a criticism of the term “timbre.” We may accept the claim that “timbre is a problematic,” but do we wish to go on to agree that this problem lies in its definition as “a perceptual phenomenon and not an attribute of physical sound” or (xvii-xviii)? Music is made of perceptual phenomena, so that to speak so poorly of such phenomena is a subtle rejection of music itself.

Then there’s a discussion about pitch. We readers are presented with a flurry of repetitions to emphasize that pitch is an “illusion.” That is, the perception we call pitch is really (just) the frequency of waves, a vibration at a certain rate. In Roads’s words:

Why is pitch an illusion? Consider a laboratory impulse generator that can produce pulses in the range from 0.0001 Hz to 1 MHz. As the pulse sweeps upward in frequency, the physical circuit registers a linear increase in the rate of repetition. In contrast, when a human being hears these same impulses, the tone passes through major perceptual thresholds. (199)

The paragraph goes on to list these thresholds, which are indeed musically amazing, and a rich source for musical gestures. The main one is the movement from rhythm to pitch as frequency moves up past around 20 Hz to around 40 Hz. Suddenly our rhythm has transformed itself, by a gradual continuous increase in frequency, from one thing (rhythm), to something as different to it as a gazelle to a goose (pitch).

The question posed in the first sentence I’ve quoted above has not been answered, though. “Why is pitch an illusion?” Because it is “really” a wave which can be measured objectively by a machine? I would like to ask Professor Roads why he is so interested in the illusory nature of pitch, which is an experience the listener will likely enjoy even when he hears electronic music considered atonal. Pitch may be an illusion… but the sonic waves themselves we might be an illusion too, don’t you think? This illusion is where we live when we experience music. Without the “illusion” of “hearing” (for “sound” proper is just physical vibrations), there is no such thing as music at all! The baby goes out with the bathwater, and that dead baby would have grown up to be the Frederic Chopin, had he lived.

The first sentence of the conclusion (191)–also a very prominent position in a book–is equally reductionist, though we might forgive it for also being whimsical and evocative, even groovy too: “Music is a dance of waves vibrating the air, the ear drum, the bones of the inner ear, and the auditory nerve, with the ultimate goal of stimulating electrical storms in the brain.” Jeez, I didn’t even know that I was going to a concert to make electrical storms in my brain, and have no idea when or why they happen: I want to have a subjective pleasurable experience at the concert, thank you very much, to cry tears which are the product of a beauty and revelation so near pain that all usual categories are destroyed.

I feel like the most egregious error in the book is a complete misunderstanding of Plato:

“Music is signs, not sounds. This is a classic Platonist point of view. […] Platonist philosophy in music posits that music is sign, symbol, and number, not sound […] which is similar to the point of view of Morton Feldman […] who believed that real music existed as marks on paper and that its sound was secondary or even irrelevant. A platonist music theorist could assert that the Werckmeister temperament […] was not invented but […] discovered ” (360-361)

Roads’ aesthetic view–reasonable whether we agree with it or not–is that music is sound. We must agree that musical notation is not equivalent to what it notates: the performance of the Opera, heard by an audience, is certainly music. Maybe this performance is music to a greater extent than the music heard in the head of the conductor when he’s studying that score at his desk. And yet there’s a confusion here between “notation” and what Plato calls “form.” Roads not only gets it wrong, he gets it precisely backwards, diametrically wrong!

To clear this up, think, for example, of a “chair.” There are three things to consider when considering how Plato might think of a chair: 1. a notation for “chair,” such as the word or a pictographic drawing of a chair, 2. an instance of a chair, the one we bought at Ikea and which is falling apart in our kitchen 3. the idea or meaning or concept or culmination of chair. This 3rd idea, which is the platonic form, is not at all like the scribblings we write on a piece of paper: it’s realer than the actual instance of the thing–and far realer than the notation of it. It’s the culmination, abstraction, and perfection of “chairness,” the chair we get to sit on for all eternity when we die and go to whatever heaven our religion presumes. No mathematician would make the mistake of claiming that our notation for a number is the number, or that our drawing of a circle is an actual circle.

The very meaning of the word notation, which suggests writing something else down, ought to make this clear. What we write down when we write our scores can be seen as a script for a concrete musical performance (like 2 above) or a script to communicate an ideal (like 3). Whether we believe in Platonic forms or not, the notation is always less-fully-realized than any performance or any purported ideal form. In an ontological hierarchy, the notation is still in the cave, while the form is up among the fractals of clouds. It’s a scribbling on the wall of the cave–farther from the real thing than the shadows–not the splendor Plato sees when we leave it and experience the sunlit real world outside.

Why is this mistake so important? It’s because this strawman rejection of Platonism is typical of any number of materialist, reductionist, scientistic doctrines spewed by professors in black shirts who cherish their ability to fully embrace nihilism and are unable to enjoy a good poem.

Here the target, music, is one of the very phenomena which is perfect for arguing the irreducibility of mind, as is done effectively in a chapter devoted to it in Roger Scruton’s Soul of The World (2014), “The Sacred Space of Music”. Music is a category which only exists with reference to mind, and our dedication to it ought to presuppose some respect for the phenomenon in all its resplendent mystery. We might more easily excuse a reductionist chemist, who–after all–studies “objectively existent” tiny things of which our bodies among many other things are composed–for believing that these tiny things are our only reality. But the musician who ought to be concerned about good vibrations (that is, our feelings of pleasure in the mind) rather than vibrations alone (a physical phenomenon), does not.

The dismissive attitude towards Platonism, based on a complete misreading, is the kind of thing which, these days, so often corrupts the local youth. I’m glad that we don’t punish people for bad philosophy in the enlightened 21st century. Roads is a great writer when he sticks to the facts of the history of music, or its physics. But if you wish to learn about more abstract, deeper matters, you’d better leave your cave and find a real philosopher. Continue to make music, Professor Roads–I think it may have aesthetic merit–and continue to write about sound waves to our hearts’ content: but quit spreading falsehoods in areas of knowledge in which you are a mere neophyte.

Page numbers from the Kindle edition at the day of publishing.

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