Understanding and Analysing Electroacoustic Music

Denis Smalley

Centre for Electroacoustic Music Studies
City University


As yet we lack a comprehensive, systematic analytical methodology for explaining the rich sonic contexts of electroacoustic music. Our first problem is that the musical qualities most significant to the listening experience cannot suitably be represented in any reliable visual way which might make our task easier. Rather than relying on some widely known, objective system of representation, we have to decide for ourselves what are the pertinent features of the music. This means that in order to diagnose the pertinent features and events which might form the basis of an analytical method, we need to have an understanding of listening behaviours. These pertinences cannot simply be diagnosed by applying rules or by elaborating simple parameters. They are spectromorphological phenomena whose qualities have to be teased out aurally, qualities which not only relate to the sounding context of the work, but also refer and allude to sonic and non-sonic experience outside the work: intrinsic and extrinsic features are in intimate liaison. An important goal of analytical exploration is to attempt to reconcile the internal world of the work with the outside world of sonic and non-sonic experience. This is particularly important in acousmatic music, where, in the invisible, spatial play of 'sound-images', there is often an ambiguous entwining of allusion to the real world, and an imaginative distancing from its realities.

In searching for apt words to articulate these pertinences we discover that we inevitably resort to metaphor. Metaphor is a means of travelling between different mental domains, and it provides a fruitful and malleable means of mapping relations between the aural sense, its companion senses, and other forms of human experience.

I find it surprising that we have not made more significant progress in developing the conceptual means for describing and evaluating relations among sounds as they arise in musical contexts. To do that we need to create relational frameworks, which must be archetypal in the sense that they are inherent in music structures, and can therefore be applied across a wide and varied repertory. Furthermore, it is advantageous if these frameworks, once explained, are capable of being grasped by listeners who are not electroacoustic music specialists. In other words, the frameworks should be immediately audible in the music. The use of metaphorical language should aid this communication process at the same time as highlighting the complex nature of intrinsic-extrinsic mapping.

This talk focuses on outlining two relational frameworks. Our musical age is no longer one where we can think of musical 'forms' as such, but we can provide an understanding of the networks of relational frameworks out of which perceived form emerges. The first framework is concerned with the temporal shaping of sonic spectra (spectromorphologies) and how these provide models for perceptions of temporal unfolding. The second framework is concerned with describing the relations among the sonic 'participants' in a work expressed through the metaphor of behaviour. This dual approach is aided by the concept of motion and growth processes, within which are nested the notions of spectral and virtual space. Musical examples will include extracts from works to be heard in the concerts during the Symposium.