“Providing Context: Music and SEA” delivered at Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the U.S. national conference, 3/1/01 published in SEAMUS Journal, Spring 2002.

Providing Context: Music and SEA
John H. Morrison

Electro-acoustic and computer music, along with much of late twentieth-century music, demand that the conception of music be broadened. What we are doing is not so incomprehensible to listeners as our music's public image might suggest -- in fact, a large segment of the listening population is already quite prepared to understand our music, whether they're aware of having heard electro-acoustic music or not. My thought is that shaping musical experience by shaping sound, as we do, is forcing change in the very foundation of musical thought. The changes wrought will benefit the way we are able to think about all music, not just electro-acoustic music.

What I propose here will be familiar to most. It is essentially what we all do when we attempt to grasp or describe any music. I believe we tend to discount this sort of pursuit -- seemingly intuitive and so much at the root of what consciousness is -- because it is too difficult to quantify, defend or rationalize. But the state of music theory has become so separated from the reality of music, especially the kind of music we compose, that it in fact builds walls around the natural understanding of what we do. I am here to offer a vessel into which our myriad ways of understanding music can be poured, sharing the same space and threatening no one else's means, a vessel which can contain any musical style and any abstruse theoretical technique. We must take the risk of opening a new hierarchical realm, and to call upon ourselves to give up proprietary claims on musical understanding.

If we try explain the meaning, shape, or value of a piece of electronic music to someone, musician or not, where do we start? Conventional pitch analysis, for all that it does achieve for other types of music, in fact helps us little. The lack of traditional formal procedures of thematic exposition and recall render traditional investigations of form nearly useless. And the extraordinary emphasis on timbre reveals a world to be analyzed for which a vocabulary has hardly been attempted. In many ways, then, this music makes us do something very important: to think from the very beginning of ways to deal with what is the essential element of music in our time, sound.

Whatever the style of music, you're dealing with manipulation of energy through time. I therefore recommend a method whereby the elements are all accounted for in terms of the energy they contribute to the whole, producing what I call the Sound-Energy Aggregate (SEA). In this manner, one can trace individual elements such as dynamics, rhythm, or timbre quite readily, building up a detailed, almost quantitative account of a piece which can lead to a synthesis of factors in a verbal or other abstract analysis. To demonstrate the goal of such pursuits, a question: how often does the verbal account of a few key factors seem to capture the essence of a passage to an incredible degree? For example, "After a furious low pounding, the way the tinkly sounds trailed off while slowly rising and becoming legato..." communicates the action of music in time in a very supple and meaningful way. How do we get there?

As a preliminary consideration, then, before even entering the world of energy analysis, it is worthy of note that simply accounting for two, three, or four parameters in the way that they interact through time is enough to impart a real sense of the essence of a passage or piece. In considerations of form, I assume that we are all highly aware of the power of abrupt change in a single parameter to create sectional identity, and that gradual change or transition in any parameter is possible. Furthermore, it is exceedingly important to realize that counterpoint potentially exists within and between all musical parameters.

As we begin considering the Sound Energy Aggregate, it is critical to be aware that each parameter has a potential energy contribution which must be traced, and that the effect of one parameter on another is often profoundly transformative. For example, I'd say a really grating, nasty sound has a moderate level of energy at low volume. The same sound at high volume would carry significantly higher energy. Of course the situation gets complicated when one transposes the sound, but in general I'd say maintaining the perceived loudness (that is, high volume) and transposing the sound down would increase energy level slightly, while transposing up would decrease it slightly. The example is purely imagined, obviously, and the results might vary with particular timbres, but my point -- that changes in dynamic or pitch level transform energy content -- should be relatively clear. It is clear also, I hope, that we can chronicle the energy contribution of each parameter to the total sound complex, or sound-energy aggregate. That chronicle can come very close to the way many of us think about our choices as we compose, and offers a tracking of energy manipulation through time which can be used in a number of ways further along in the analytical process.

The analysis:
Based on repeated close listenings, one should examine in turn all standard parameters, and intuitively develop additional elements for examination. (Interaction and paths of development of sounds or sound groups come to mind.) One can do a number of things with the information gathered in this step-by-step, "combing" process, depending on your aims, the way you happen to think, or on the nature of the materials analyzed.

One may:
• graph the element as is (e.g., musical space, spectral graph)
• interpret the energy contribution of the parameter (high-low energy)
• employ symbolic representation (rhythm, timbre, texture)
• produce a verbal chronicle (allows naming of ideas, motives, etc.)
• (especially valuable for students or average listeners)
• (allows listener to "make the piece his/her own")
• or use traditional symbols (dynamics, articulations, etc.)

The energy contribution of some elements may be interpreted later, but it must be accomplished at some point. Of course, decisions made in graphing elements are a critical part of the analysis. Verbal chronicles are already energy-laden.

The next step is to observe patterns, regularities, parameters working together or against each other, and to begin considering more abstract or entangled items using tools contributed by existing means of analysis. An initial move in that direction would be simply to overlay the graphs so far produced. As an example of using existing analytical tools, I'd say that for pitch-centered compositions, a Schenker graph ought to be estimable in terms of energy contribution.

A necessary and productive procedure to follow at this stage of the analysis is largely intuitive, but one which can certainly be assisted by empirical research. It is the sorting of information into categories of recognizability, what one might think of as layers of reception. In the mass of overlapping lines produced in overlaying the graphs, which are the most noticeable or important in shaping the listening experience?

The multitude of active factors in music are in a constant state of flux, and the ebb and flow of momentarily-most-important elements against a background of lower-level but persistently important ones is clearly one of the realms of magic in music. Discerning and documenting that flux can be of tremendous assistance, not only in managing the potentially vast amount of information gathered, but most critically in helping to produce an analytical statement which carries something analogous to experiencing the music in time (or out of time, for that matter!) When all the investigation is complete, one will have discovered plenty which describes the working of the piece, including insight into short- and long-range structural elements.

What I have described so far is a method adaptable for use by average listeners, college students, or professional theorists. Having used the technique with college students for a number of years, I can report great success in its use. The advantage for that group is that the method provides a means to generate repeated close listenings, which inevitably get one inside the music. Allowing naming of sounds is inviting and productive, since words carry personal meaning and plenty of energy. Encouragement to achieve focused, limited listening as well as a broad, holistic sort is part of the inherent scheme as well. And there is a quiet rigor provided by carrying around the constant, nagging question of how what one hears contributes to energy flow.

That quiet rigor is available to the more seriously-inclined analyst as well. I believe that it can ultimately provide a foil to help us unlock the riddle of how to account for the impact of timbre in analyzing electro-acoustic music. For whatever the value of classifying sound objects or achieving spectral analysis (significant, undoubtedly!), both remain essentially static, representing fairly well "what is", but not wholly illuminating the shifting impact sound has over time.

To close, let me offer some hints of the extension of this concept. A number of other factors not normally considered in musical analysis can contribute to the SEA, including:
• text (clearly energy-laden!)
• recognizable sound references (hear a siren?)
• stylistic references (entry of big band jazz carries specific energy contribution, interacts with context)
• level of perceived effort to perform (trumpet playing high and long creates high level of tension/appreciation of effort)
• level of perceived effort to create (especially important for practitioners of electro-acoustic music!)
• the visual element of live performance (especially critical with music for instrument and tape)
• hearing sound dispersed in the performance space (acousmatic, multichannel, live vs. recorded orchestra)
• other media which constitute the whole (film, dance, theatre)

In light of the expansions just exposed, it is clear that the concept of SEA must be understood to include energy of a wide variety, including intellectual energy, psychological energies such as empathy or relationship, and spectral or sonic energy. Certainly many more varieties of musical energy can be contained in this vessel I call the SEA.

Final remarks:

Considering ways to understand or analyze today's music leads us to a technique that is broadly applicable, including music which does focus on melody and harmony, thematic development and recall, and other more traditional elements.

Sound-Energy Aggregate analysis is particularly valuable in dealing with electronic or computer music.

The use of timbre as a shaping device seems to be
the common thread which links all of modern music together: by modern music, I mean modern classical music, pop/rock, jazz, bluegrass, everything. Nearly every composer thinks carefully about shaping music through timbre these days. Especially when one considers the wide disparity of pitch and rhythm treatment among modern composers, this is an extraordinarily important unifying phenomenon.

There is a wide range of timbral shaping as well, and there are identifying practices and patterns of achieving that shaping, but the fact that the domain is yet beyond description makes it owned by no one, and therefore intellectual space that will fill to create a real "world" music. The SEA concept provides us a vessel that is large and open enough to hold any input.