ELECTROACOUSTIC MUSIC FOR THE FLUTE
By Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte
Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte. All rights reserved.
Composers have been writing music for flute as a solo instrument for centuries. During this time, the music has evolved, demands on the performer and instrument have increased, and expectations have expanded. In the 20th Century, the possibilities of new sounds on the instrument were explored enthusiastically, with many composers calling for uncommon techniques. Extremes of range, speed, breath, and dynamics were employed, and pieces started using extended techniques such as flutter-tonguing, multiphonics, key clicks, harmonics, whistle tones, along with other unfamiliar sounds. The flute, with its flexibility, variety, and agility, lent itself well to new techniques. Eventually, interested composers began to include the world of electronics and recording, and it didn't take long before composers combined the worlds of electric and acoustic sounds. It's possible that the flute was attractive at the outset because the nature of the first purely electronically derived sounds (for example, the oscillator) resembled the sounds of a flute tone. The relationship of the two sounds could serve as a bridge between the two, even to the point of blurring the distinction to the listener.
As performers took on the challenge of the new pieces, they found they had to look at the new compositions in a fresh way. Pitch and tuning took on an expanded definition, since the computer is not required to use fixed pitches, and may include glissandi, notes at unusual frequencies, "unpitched" sounds, and "out-of-tune" and bending pitches. The flutist would need to then rethink his/her approach to matching the sound. They had to play with new and various tone colors and intonation. The computer has almost limitless capabilities to allow different speeds, lengths of sounds, variety and evolution of sound, dynamics, attacks, and decays. A composer who has had the freedom and the practice in composing for this range of possibilities also could conceive of extending these possibilities on an instrument. Mario Davidovsky said that his first experiences with electronic music changed his conception of what sound was, "I learned a tremendous amount about sound that I would not have otherwise." He found that electronic sounds offered him "more colors and more expressive resources," and by combining acoustic instruments with electronics, was able to experience "the best of both worlds." Flutists have said that this music has required that they pay "special attention to timbre."  Some of the characteristics of the electroacoustic flute literature include greater expectations of the performer. The flutist is sometimes expected to play for longer without a breath, (which is related to the advent of circular breathing), for example. They are also expected to play faster, to make untraditional sounds, to make large and quick dynamic changes, to articulate in more ways, and to read notation that had been created to implement these changes.
Along with the practical differences that were taking place for the flutist these were also conceptual differences. While in many ways music retained its nature in terms of form, length and proportion, certain ideas of music necessarily changed as computers came into use. Because of the nature of how music is generated on a computer, traditions such as meter, fixed pitch, and measures were no longer of foremost importance. The focus instead turned to elements including length, frequency, intervals, attack, decay, and the nature of the sound itself. And, given these new possibilities, composers didn't seem eager to generate computer sounds to conform to traditional practices. Rather, the traditional practices were stretched and changed to accommodate the new music.
The expansion of the music written for the flute has natural limitations, and it is this that helps electroacoustic music to be an approachable extension of flute repertoire. This music provides new challenges to the growing numbers of very capable flutists, encouraging and inspiring them to a broader expertise. This, in turn, keeps the momentum going for composers to continue writing challenging works for flute. For any instrumentalist, part of the process of learning is to find the limits of one's playing and the instrument and to understand fully the capabilities of both. For flutists that had explored the traditional repertoire thoroughly, and had mastered the required techniques, an introduction of unique concepts and demands was welcome. Richard Karpen stresses the importance of the role of electronic music being, in part, the fact that it expands our knowledge and experience. "Any composer who doesn't need to hear their music because they can hear it all in their head is an amateur, because they're not doing something they haven't heard before...It's all about context. There are things you haven't heard before that you need to hear in this new context."  When asked how important it is for composers in this day and age to compose computer music, flutist / composer Linda Antas emphasizes:
There is a vast array of terms that are commonly used to describe the different genres of music that include technologically-produced sounds. Probably in part because of the ever-changing world of electronics, computers, and other technology, it is difficult to establish a term without it becoming quickly dated. This has led to confusion and vagueness when defining some of these terms, and clearly many of the definitions contradict or overlap each other. Some terms used include electronic music, musique concrete, electroacoustic music, live electronics, acousmatics, radiophonic art, computer-generated sounds, tape sounds, and so on. The term electroacoustic, which I use throughout this work, is often misunderstood, and must be defined in order to create an appropriate context for the forthcoming discussion. Often, and mistakenly, electroacoustic music has been defined as compositions that include both one or more live performers on an acoustic instrument along with electronically-generated sounds. The term is often also seen as "electro-acoustic", although this is falling out of usage. Nonetheless, the abbreviation "E-A" for electroacoustic music is still seen frequently. In this paper, I will keep the definition as broad as possible. All of the electroacoustic works that I will cover in-depth include the existence of a live performer as well as electronically-generated sound (whether they be computer or some other technology). Following are some of the various definitions of the terms involved in this genre of music:
Clearly, this definition is extremely broad, and would apply to literally any sound or music ever recorded in history.
An early definition by one of the pioneers in the field, Otto Luening, is also somewhat vague:
And equally broad:
The next definition gets more at the heart of the problem, which is one of implication, aesthetics, or semantics, rather than solely of definition:
The following quote addresses this problem of agreeing on the definition:
And a contradictory understanding of the term is evident in this quote from a record catalog:
We experience some of this same confusion with the term "computer music." Part of this confusion comes from the fact that a computer is capable of both generating algorithms or other methods which can then be used to compose purely acoustic music, as well as of actually generating sounds themselves.
Another term used alongside these, and the one most often used interchangeably with "electroacoustic" is "electronic". "Chadabe defines electronic music as "all music made with electronics, whether specifically with computer, synthesizer, or any other special equipment."  Notice the similarity of the following statement to those made about electroacoustic music: "When referring to electronic music I mean music composed by using electronic instruments and concrete sounds by living composers and by computers." 
And finally, getting to the root of the problem, Stephen Travis Pope states: "I would contend that calling computer music 'computer music,' or calling electroacoustic music 'electroacoustic music' is as meaningless as calling rock and roll 'electric guitar music.'"  It is arguable that the term is really one of aesthetics and not just of terms and the point in the end is to communicate effectively. Clearly, more universally accepted and hopefully more descriptive terms will gain favor.
Live electronics usually refers to sounds that are in some way a reaction to the performer during the performance; the computer receives cues in the form of amplitude, pitch, or gesture, for example, and is programmed to respond accordingly. This gives the performer more flexibility and freedom, an also retains the element of uniqueness to each performance, more than do pre-recorded sounds. If the music does not include live electronics, then it is "fixed" in some way either it is pre-recorded or it is being generated by the computer but is an unchangeable composition of sounds.
In this paper, I will be analyzing five pieces, all of which are for flute and electronic sounds, and none of which include live processing of any sort. The list of works at the end, as well as the general discussion, is intended to include all electroacoustic music that utilizes one flute.
There are a considerable number of compositions in the flute literature now that are written for flute and electronically-generated sounds. Composers are becoming increasingly interested in using electronics in various ways, exploring the ways in which this medium expands the creative possibilities. There is a great deal of electroacoustic music that combines the nearly limitless possibilities of computer music with the excitement and presence of a live performer. As a flutist and composer, it is of special interest to me to approach music with an openness to the newest creative ideas, and to be careful not to view "electric" and "acoustic" as incompatible fields.
Why use acoustic instruments at all? The sub-genre of flute and tape pieces has the unique ability to combine the limitless capabilities of the computer with energy and interest of a live performer it is this precisely that sets it apart from both acoustic music and from purely computer-generated sounds. When composing computer music, the composer has more control over the sounds produced than ever in history they choose when, for how long at what frequency, every aspect is up to the composer, within the computer's capabilities. The composer is even able to program randomness, unpredictability. What this can't offer is a live musician, another person on whom the performance depends. Understandably, some composers prefer to eliminate this element of chance, while others believe that it is exactly this uncertainty and lack of control that lends the performance vitality and excitement. The performer has the opportunity to express ideas, personality, subtle changes in tempo, intonation, articulation, so that the piece has variances with each different performance and performer. The presence of a performer has always had an effect on the outcome of the piece, and of the listener's experience. The listener responds to the effort of the performer, reacting to the difficulty of fast or high passages, or to the subtle changes of vibrato or slight upturning at the end of the phrase. While a computer is quite capable of making these sounds, the listener has an empathetic connection with the performer and the amazing artful feats of which he/she is capable. This is not to say that in the computer sounds the listener doesn't hear these nuances, these artful changes and phrases, and react to them also the computer sounds are, after all, also programmed and therefore created by a living musician. But to hear a computer at a high frequency, for example, doesn't have the same visceral effect as experiencing a performer who is working hard and pushing the limits of the instrument and of the playing. There is also the likelihood of hearing imperfection in the playing, wrong notes or unclear sounds, as well as personality and style that can be very interesting. The visual element of a live performer can't be ignored. While it has been seen that the composer will sit on stage working the computer, it is probably not as compelling as the sight of a performer, complete with movement, style, facial expressions, and technique. The focus is on the performer, whose fingers are watched as they move and whose face sometimes reflects a feeling for the music. As we watch the performer, we sense the presence of human and machine, of the similarities between them and of the differences. There is a perspective of seeing what humans are not that brings greater clarity to what humans are. There is a possibility that performances involving a human and a machine together extend our understanding of what a humna being is and what wider capabilities are possible for them.
We need not create a division between humans and computers, or see this combination as one of opposing forces. Computers are created by humans, and as of yet, do not function without the aid of humans. The functions of the computer were chosen by a human for the purpose of being used and heard by people. Then, a living composer created the computer music, a musician whose art is the manipulation of this computer, with every sound made at the discretion of the composer. The sounds that are being made are music, of course, and are the expressions of the composers will, personality, and emotions the art of the composing is as human as that of composers of the past, and of painters, writers, or poets. And although the composer of computer music is provided with tools that don't have the strict limitations of an acoustic instrument, a palette of paints, or the words of a language: they still have the limitation of the programming itself. The possibilities of artistic expression are possibly greater than they've ever been, and in this way, computer-generated composition can be considered an even closer approximation to the expression of humanness than these other, more limited forms.
The question becomes, then, what is the relationship between computer and live performer, what are the real differences, and what do they hold in common? The most obvious distinction is that the computer will provide the same performance each time, within a controlled set of parameters. Even a program that includes a great deal of variance or one that uses live electronics, will only perform a certain set of results. The computer won't play a wrong note, it won't go too fast or too slow, it won't get lost, it won't miss an articulation, and it won't have trouble breathing. If something does go wrong with the production of the computer sound, then that becomes the responsibility of the person controlling the computer at that time. Another distinction is that the computer can produce many sounds that a human cannot in terms of high and low frequencies, length or speed of notes, combinations of sounds, and dynamics. Linda Antas describes a difference between her composing for acoustic and electronic instruments: "In both cases (EA and acoustic music), I do some amount of letting the sounds themselves inform the composition. In a work for only electronic sounds, I don't usually pay much attention to having all the pitched sounds tuned to the equal-tempered scale, for instance."  The thing that makes a computer-generated sound feel so different from an acoustic sound is that it doesn't sound human. A human could not have produced it. Ironically, that is precisely why the computer has been chosen to do it, and why it works as an instrument.
An important concern for composers and performers is the impact of electroacoustic music on teaching, performance, composition, marketing, and programming. Questions arise, such as: "how are electroacoustic pieces different from acoustic flute pieces?," "how are they different from computer pieces?," "how do these pieces relate to standard flute repertoire?," "who is performing them?," "who is composing them?," "who is listening to them?," "what impact do they have on the future of composition, performance, and listening?" Linda Antas strongly believes in a positive future for computer music:
As far as distinguishing what makes a piece for flute and electronics different from an acoustic piece for flute, the one thing that is certain is that the former includes electronics and the latter does not. Beyond that, one can only make generalizations. Both are defined as chamber music, and share certain characteristics in common, such as having pitch, form, rhythm, and dynamics. The specific qualities of these characteristics may differ quite substantially, however. Teaching and performing electroacoustic music has not filtered its way into conventional practice as of yet, being reserved for those who are involved in advanced degrees at various institutions or those involved in non-academic experimental music. There are two primary possible reasons for this: 1) unfamiliarity with the technology required to perform these pieces, and 2) the notion that the pieces are quite difficult and out of reach of the average flutist. Thankfully, both of these barriers are fairly easily dealt with. The technology required for performing the pieces that do not include interactive electronics actually requires nothing more than a standard stereo system, hopefully with speakers of some quality. Some of the pieces suggest that the flutist be amplified. Most of the pieces can actually be successfully performed without amplification, if need be, although usually some reverb on the flute is helpful. This means that any flutist can practice these pieces in the comfort of their own livingroom, and perform them in almost any concert venue. In fact, it is probably easier to provide a stereo system than a piano in many cases!
As far as the notion that the pieces are more difficult, the best response is to educate and familiarize flutists with the music. What they will find is that a great deal of it is quite well within their capabilities, and is probably less difficult than much of the standard competition repertoire. The extended techniques, while seeming initially intimidating, are for the most part no harder than the standard flute techniques, and simply take some familiarity and a little practice. There is really no reason why these pieces could not become part of the standard repertoire, except by an unreasoned resistance by conservative musicians and audiences.
On the optimistic side, the level of flute playing is increasingly high, and already flutists are seeking new literature to challenge and stimulate them. As the 21st Century progresses, the resistance to non-conventional types of music will continue to decrease, especially as non-classical music continues to move forward into new territory. A great deal of our ultimate acceptance of electroacoustic music and other experimental musics will probably be a result of our general familiarity with technology in other spheres of our lives; computers, pop and rock music, transportation, communication, and entertainment. Working with technology in these realms is already becoming second nature to most people, and we are now experiencing a new generation of musicians who have been raised entirely in the computer age. Many of them will be quite familiar with using the technology, and some of them will also be quite proficient at programming as well. This will also increase the likelihood of computer-generated sounds in future compositions. Also, with the abundance of technologically-centered activities, it is quite likely that facilities will be equipped adequately for the performance of electroacoustic music, making it less daunting to attempt to program these works. All in all, the future of electroacoustic music, and electroacoustic music for flute by extension, is very optimistic.
Footnotes (See Bibliography.)
 Elizabeth McNutt, interview with author.
 Mario Davidovsky, interview with Bruce Duffie.
 Karpen, interview with author.
 Linda Antas, interview with author, 6/17/02.
 Austin, Kevin, "Letters: On Identity and Fragmentation of the EA/CM Community," Computer Music Journal 20, No. 1 (1996): 6-8.
 Otto Luening, The Odyssey of an American Composer (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980), 605.
 Andra McCartney, "Soundscape Composition and the Subversion of Electroacoustic Norms", eContact! 3.4 (July 2000) <http://cec.concordia.ca/econtact/Histories/SoundscapeComposition.htm> (May 2002).
 Catalog description and notes for Iannis Xenakis, Kraanerg (Asphodel, 1997). Bullhead City, AZ: Eclipse Records. <http://www.eclipse-records.com/catalog/x_1.html> (3 June 2002).
 Joel Chadabe, Electric Sounds: the Past and Promise of Electronic Music (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), 370.
 Jon Appleton and Ronald Perera, The Development and Practice of Electronic Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975), 1.
 Stephen Travis Pope, "For Lack of a Better Word By Any Other Name," Computer Music Journal 16, No. 1 (1992), 1.
 Linda Antas, interview with author, 6/17/02.
|Electroacoustic Music for the Flute by Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte.
Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte. All rights reserved.