Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic - Curtis Roads. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015
by Richard Barrett
The field of electronic music has, in the seven or so decades of its existence, evolved at such a rate that books purporting to guide the reader through this “new aesthetic” and/or its technological ramifications tend to come across as quaintly dated soon after publication. The composer and granular-synthesis pioneer Curtis Roads is one of the rare authors with a longer-term and more philosophical view of the medium and its evolution, resulting in two previous books with more lasting qualities: the encyclopedic Computer Music Tutorial, originally published in 1996 but with a new version promised in the near future, and Microsound from 2001. While the former concentrates on the scientific and technical underpinnings of its subject and the latter on Roads’ own ideas and strategies, Composing Electronic Music is an attempt to provide a more general account of the compositional techniques that emerge from the resources of electronic and computer music, although it is in the nature of the medium that technical and aesthetic issues are closely interwoven, so that for example a working knowledge of the physics and digital representation and processing of sound are essential in a way that they are not to the composer of exclusively vocal and instrumental music. My initial impression was that this new book sits somewhat uneasily between generality on the one hand, and the preferences and field of vision of one particular composer on the other. It is clear that the fifteen years that elapsed between Microsound and the present book brought about many more or less far-reaching changes in approach, even if the raw enthusiasm of discovery that makes the earlier book so attractive has been superseded by a more measured and “mature” attitude. Whether this is an improvement, in terms of how the books communicate, is a matter of personal taste of course.
There are links in the text to almost 150 audio files by a convincingly representative cross-section of composers in the field of electronic music, although inevitably Roads’ own works and those of his favorite artists occur more often than others, but the large, growing, and intersecting areas of live electronics and improvisation are not covered at all, and the author’s disclaimer, centered on the fact that his own composition process tends to be slow and studio-based, strikes me as less than totally convincing. As he puts it: “[S]tudio practice affords the ultimate in flexibility and access to the entire field of time on multiple scales” (p. xvi). This might depend on where in the process that flexibility is located. Others might suggest that this attitude, where a composition is regarded as essentially finished in the studio, greatly reduces the music’s flexibility when it comes to be presented in another space with an audience present. Roads makes a brief mention of the issue of sound projection as an aspect of performance in fixed-media music, but, disappointingly given his extensive experience and knowledge of this practice, and given the dearth of literature on the subject, he avoids any discussion of it outside his survey of spatialization techniques that might be deployed at the studio-composition stage. A similar consideration might be applied to the book’s avoidance of the social dimension of music – it seems to me somehow an abandonment of responsibility specifically to abjure any discussion of an issue which is brought into a particular kind of focus by the practice of acousmatic music.
Some of the most valuable features of the book are those places where a large amount of information is condensed into a concise table, as in the five-page “basic taxonomy of effects” (pp. 130-134) which is at once the handiest and most complete such source of information I have come across. The final chapter, “The Art of Mixing,” also conveniently brings together the results of many years of experience of deploying an arsenal of “tricks of the trade” which can significantly if often subliminally affect the attractiveness of a composition to its hearers.
Where Roads speaks as a composer – and he has indeed amassed a beautiful and extensive body of work – his insights seem to me always interesting and quite often truly eye-opening, as do his references to a wide range of both musical and scientific literature. This aspect of the book might have been usefully enhanced by one or more accounts of the actual composition processes Roads might use in the preparation of a new composition, from conception to the final details of realization. I don’t think the applicability of the book to aesthetic approaches very different from the author’s would have been thereby diminished – probably quite the contrary. When he turns towards generalization, however, the prose inevitably desiccates somewhat, tending more to a textbook-like style of imparting information as systematically and concisely as possible, something that it didn’t take an artist of Roads’ stature to write and which would possibly have been better positioned as part of his Computer Music Tutorial, even though that book is already of a size that seriously compromises its portability! There is an individual and indeed inspiring aesthetic statement here, seemingly struggling to make itself heard through the efficient but relatively commonplace treatment of subject matters which every composer of electronic music should certainly know about but which to my mind belong in a different kind of book. If I were reading this book as a student I would be principally focused on the points that only a composer could articulate. Happily there are enough of them to make this a worthwhile addition to electronic music literature.