By Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte
Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Louise Bassingthwaighte. All rights reserved.

Chapter X


Programming and Performing

Programming and performing electroacoustic music is not nearly as daunting as it was a half of a century ago, when electronic music was young and the technology unfamiliar. Even in the last ten years, the technology has improved so vastly, become much more affordable and easily obtainable, that there are few setbacks to presenting this music anymore. Possibly the biggest obstacle remaining is simply familiarity with electronic works, and habits of integrating them into the standard repertoire. It is actually quite easy to become familiar with this music these days, though. A great deal of it is available for listening in the university or public libraries, and record / compact disc stores carry a great deal of it. But the most effective means of hearing this music is on the internet: not only is this an effective way of discovering which pieces exist, but a large percentage of websites offer sound bites of the pieces. The Internet has allowed composers and performers to promote their work without having to resort to costly advertising or association with a commercial vendor. Many of these composers and performers have their own personal websites, including sound bites, work lists, biographies, and links; they also are most often included on other people's websites as well. The lack of connection to commercial success is very liberating for the field, and clearly many motivated and creative musicians are making extensive use of this option. In researching information for this dissertation, I discovered hundreds of flutists and composers working in electroacoustic music all over the world. I also discovered close to three hundred pieces specifically for flute and electronics.

The other main obstacle to programming electroacoustic works is simply habit and expectations. This, though, I think is easily overcome, and while audiences may be unfamiliar with electronic music, they tend to be quite open to it. Elizabeth McNutt, an experienced and frequent performer of thesekinds of works, has "never had a problem introducing someone to electronic music." [101]  Granted, there is usually the least resistance when the audiences are presented with a mix of that which is familiar to that which is unfamiliar. It is my feeling that one of the most effective ways of bringing electronic music to new ears is to integrate it into more conventional concerts, rather than to isolate it.

The distinction of what is considered conventional and what is unconventional is very subjective. It does not have to be a concert that mixes baroque music with electronic music; it can easily be a concert of 20th and 21st Century music while presenting a healthy mix. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with presenting concerts that are entirely of electroacoustic music; I've done this myself. This serves to expand the genre also, and will be especially interesting to composers, flutists, and electronic music aficionados who are already familiar and comfortable with it, and would like to hear more. It's very appropriate, in my mind, to prepare students to play this music in competitions or recitals. It seems fair to say that the people who will be most resistant to electronic music will actually be those that grew up without hearing it. The younger generations have been raised with computers and have integrated technology into nearly every aspect of their lives. It is a natural extension to incorporate electronic music into their musical experience, and there will probably be little if any resistance.

The response to concerns about programming and performing these works is to go ahead and present these pieces. Not only are they approachable and enjoyable, but the audiences and musicians alike will respond to the excitement of experiencing music written by living composers, and music that specifically reflects their time and place in history. This is music written by our colleagues, neighbors, friends, people in our community, and is also vibrant, intelligent, and creative. As electronic music becomes increasingly accessible and familiar, I believe it will be widely welcomed and encouraged.

Technical Needs

For pieces that consist of a live flutist with pre-recorded sounds, the technical needs are pretty standard. Basically, the supplies include speakers, compact disc player, mixing board, microphone, and a monitor. At the most rudimentary level, it's even possible that the piece can be successfully performed simply using a CD player with speakers or a boom box. This could make integrating electroacoustic pieces into private lessons possible. It could also be used to present a lecture or demonstration; notably, these presentations are more educational than explicitly musical. The pre-recorded sounds usually have been recorded to compact disc, although occasionally digital audio tape, minidisk, or with some older pieces, a reel-to-reel tape will be used. Standard stereo speakers are sufficient for amplifying the sounds in most cases. If given the option, placing four speakers evenly around the performance space is preferable. The flutist does not require amplification, unless specifically called for by the composer, but mild amplification with a bit of added reverb helps to blend the sounds of the flute and the electronics. In order to do this, the flutist will require a microphone and a mixing unit. Also, in almost all cases, the flutist should be supplied with a monitor. The monitor will not only allow the flutist to clearly hear the electronic sounds, but can also present the mixed sound of the flutist with the electronics, so the performer has more control over the balance. It is possible that the sound coming out of the speakers will be enough, especially if the speakers are placed somewhat behind the flutist, or, in the case of quadraphonic sound, facing the flutist. Some composers prefer that the electronic part also have some reverb added, in which case a mixing board will again be necessary. Flutist Patricia Spencer advises that when playing a piece for flute and electronics, "the important thing for the flutist to remember in this situation is to lead, to lead the tape, and try not to fall into thinking you have to follow the tape all the time. If you give in to that, you're not leading the audience, you're not leading the piece." [102

When preparing to perform a piece using interactive technology, the needs are greater and more specific to the piece. In an interview I did with Patricia Spencer, she explained her approach to learning how to prepare the necessary technology. She recommends organizing the equipment in a sort of flow chart manner. "It might be helpful to get a leader who's very clear. For example, the signal starts with the flute, so the flute's going into the microphone, your microphone's going into this pick-up, into the receiver, and into the stereo. Give them a roadmap." [103]  Flutist Elizabeth McNutt also recommends having a helper, and considers it important to the success of the performance. She recommends bringing all of your own equipment, besides the speakers, including the computer itself. [104

Linda Antas, both a flutist and a composer, has had a great deal of experience managing the performing, composing, and technical duties. She offers this advice to flutists:

"Technical support involves two things: people and equipment. If you as a flutist are not familiar with set-up of the equipment, I don't advise dealing with it while trying to mentally prepare for the performance. Leave it to people who find this job easy and/or enjoy it. But at the same time, watch what they do as much as possible so you learn for yourself eventually. Find a musician/technician you can trust and leave it to them. You will also (depending on the piece, but almost always) want someone at the mixer DURING the performance—the main point is that they can act like a conductor, ensuring a good balance between the instrument and tape parts, etc.

The good equipment requirement is a no-brainer—that audio setup, especially the loud-speakers, are your "orchestra". It will have a direct effect not only on your performance, but on the piece as a whole. Why wouldn't you want the best possible?

The importance of the tech rehearsal: Just like a "dress rehearsal" for an acoustic group, the techie will need time to deal with unforeseeable problems IN THE ACTUAL PERFORMANCE SPACE. They need to find places to plug everything in, tape down cables so the audience doesn't trip over them, etc. As you would also expect, adjustments will need to be made depending on how many people show up to the concert, etc.

I can't tell you how many times I've gone to conferences and seen this happen: The dress rehearsals go perfectly, there is a 30 minute break and then the concert begins, and things inevitably go wrong. My point here is two-fold. 1) Imagine how much greater the problems would be WITHOUT the rehearsal! 2) It's OK to do a brief test and/or start the piece over if necessary. Don't sacrifice the work as a whole to gain the "surprise" element.

Get comfy with the mic! Give youself time to play in front of the mic, learn how to use it to your advantage as much as possible. Watch how singers use the mic, especially in relation to dynamics. Work with your techie, your "ears in the hall" to make sure you're not getting any wind noise, shying away from the mic, etc...." [105

Studio recording technician Bruce Bartlett advises that, when determining microphone placement, the flutist should "Place a flat condenser hafway between the mouthpiece and the tone holes, about 6 to 12 inches away." [106

In the Microphone Manual, David Huber writes:

"Microphone placement depends upon the type of music and room acoustics. For classical and solo playing, the microphone should be placed on-axis and slightly above the player at a distance of 3' to 8' (1-2.4m). ...[T]he microphone should be positioned midway between the mouthpiece and bell. If instrument mobility is important, a clip microphone can be secured near the mouthpiece or a specially designed contact pickup can be integrated into the instrument's headpiece for amplifying or processing the signal." [107

Flutist Linda Antas suggests: "Find a placement that works with the particular hall, mic, mic stand, and flutist you have at a given time, making the appropriate trade-off between key noise and breath noise. Also, probably most important to the flutist, is that the mic or boom not interfere with reading the music." [108

Footnotes  (See Bibliography.)

[101] Elizabeth McNutt, interview with author.

[102] Patricia Spencer, interview with author.

[103] Ibid.

[104] McNutt, interview with author.

[105] Linda Antas, interview with author, 6/17/02.

[106] Bruce Bartlett, "Popular Mic Techniques for Studio Recording," <http://www.tape.com/techinfo/mics.html>

[107] David Miles Huber, Microphone Manual: Design and Application, Sams & Co., 1988, 93.

[108] 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.