Aesthetical Concepts of Music and Technology

(Text by Folkmar Hein for the seminar "Aesthetical Concepts of Music and Technology", SS 2008)

Lets ask first of all: what is the meaning of "Aesthetic" and "Concept":

Aesthetic is the sience of Beautyness, observed by our senses;
concept means brieving of thaughts (must be clear and understandable).

here we may conctruct two subtitles by means of overstatement:

incidental remark: Kitsch is something, what appear as more than it is; for example  to simulate properties who are not available - like: showing brass instead of gold; or showing glas instead of diamonds (the reason for that is: gold and diamonds are too expensive); so the appearing of the material by means of a value seems to be more than it is;
but not only the value of the material is interesting to simulate: it is also the social value! (for example to appear in another social group as you are yet - petit-bourgeois want to be a noble).

The word "aesthetic" contains few  aspects what can be misunderstand as Kitsch! This is in any case dangerous, if the aspect "beauty" is isolated from other properties. This other properties are:

We may look now for a reason to make or make NOT  aesthetical concepts ("Rezepte").

There are several chapters where we can access aesthetical concepts. Lets go for a while to the question of "music and space" .

Reductions in stereo & surround: why?

Looking into a “common” EM production, it is striking at first sight, that the used original sounds were recorded in mono or mostly stereo. True surround recordings, meaning sounds recorded using a multichannel system, are rather rare. A consequence of this fact is that there is no get away from the stereo sound.

From this follows a “left-right” thinking, which becomes apparent in multichannel assignments: the left channel remains on the left, the right channel on the right. There is hardly ever a center choice nor a sum up on one channel. We easily recognise assignments in quadraphonic or octophonic works where the loudspeaker arrangement is set in “pairs left – right” without a center in the front (or in the back). From this follows the problem of assignments in the surround standard: it is difficult to find a convincing octophonic channel assignment that takes into account the center channel. Therefore it can be said that the surround standards contradict the traditions of EM by using the even-numbered and by four divisible quantities of audio channels.

If we look now at the EM usual LS arrangement for quadraphonic and octophonic reproduction, then we can find substantial assignment problems, particularly in octophonic works.

Of course, everybody knows that these surround standards are intended for cinema and frontal picture projections which predominantly orientate in a rather frontal way and put the surround channels in a second level of importance. An orientation usual in EM and equal in all directions is not at all intended. Think of the lonely LFE-channel which works rather ineffectively because each of the 4, 8 or 16 loudspeakers should cover a full range, and thus, if at all LFE, then at least a pair or even several pairs! 

Now the following question: why does EM use these rather useless industry standards anyway? And: why do we constantly use spaces and technical facilities we actually reject? Is it only due to finances? Or could it be because these technical standards are not at all so relevant?

First of all we should point out: art production does not take technical possibilities from the point of view of technicians, scientists and theoreticians, but quite practically from its own perspective. This perspective, as is well-known, sets the main focus somewhere else, perhaps surprisingly away from techniques.

In many cases we notice that:

It is really absurd when complex spatial works like for example Nono's Prometheo appear in stereo version on an audio-CD. (A surround version is at the moment being released. It is a bit nicer than the stereo variant, but, of course, it does not at all meet the intended concept of the work nor the  ideas of the composer) !! In the best case such publications can only be considered a documentation, but it is interesting to see, that they are fully accepted! In a more or less radical way this applies to almost all works that are reduced from their original multichannel realisation to a stereo version. This ranges from publications on vinyl records and CD to, and above all radio broadcasts. Radio is on the one hand the biggest obstacle and on the other hand represents the ultimate big financial source – a source we absolutely do not want to lose!! But it is also fair to mention that radio stations are not doing this “stereo terror” because of bad will!. Since some time some editorial staff (especially from the radio art sections) are financially supporting multichannel productions. Although these productions are not broadcast in their original conception, there are from time to time public concerts where multichannel productions are premiered “on the spot” for an interested audience (we can name for instance the Ars Acoustica in Cologne).

From all this I gather: alternative infrastructure and atmosphere are as important or even perhaps much more important for EM than the concert hall with its acoustics and its superlatives stemming from the traditional concert business! We are even willing to accept considerable reductions to create an adequate concert experience with a pleasant atmosphere!

We accept plaster coming off, unstable and decaying seats, floors not swept. We accept that there is no cloakroom, that porters are missing, and that the missing elevators are too small or don’t work. And finally we do not keep standards in slavery. We have a nice atmosphere to encourage interesting and maybe new thoughts, as well as loudspeakers and technology that we place around the audience!

Now the question is whether this list of different functions can contribute to new or different lasting hearing experiences.

“… more beautiful”

We believe that with the technical revolution in studio technology the sound in general has “improved” (see above). In this context, the word “better” is defined: an improvement is a change of an older state. It is doubtful whether it really is an improvement and whether the former state is really “worse”.

E.g.: The old voluminous studio technology is associated with mysterious qualities. The old analogue vinyl is preferred by some fans to the digital CD/SACD etc. Indeed, this is a special issue that brings up strong and deep feelings. It is interesting to notice that time goes on and new generations won’t be able to understand why people were so fond of what once was considered “better”. In other words: the next generations won’t be able to understand neither the sound aesthetics nor that, that was considered “beautiful” – now it does not seem to be more beautiful anymore (mention the fairy tale “the emperor’s new clothes”).

Example:  Funkausstellung Berlin 1932; Prof. Leithäuser explains :
My translation:

"The soundboard (of a violin) is a difficult matter; we have problems with the mechanical processing of the wood. On the other hand we know exactly the technique of the electric amplifier. Therefore it is much easier to produce beautiful and loud sounds (as loud as you like) with the electrical amplifier....."

I therefore draw the conclusion that future generations won’t understand what once was considered “more beautiful” and “better”. This also means that the argument “beautiful” or “better” is not good! For example, over and over again classical music is published using always “better” recording techniques to, so to speak,  make these recordings permanently “more beautiful”. This concept is particularly striking in new editions that are only a remix of the same old material by just using “better” tools! Remember: after the replacement of the vinyl record, the same recordings are embellished and published on CD. A generation change is now approaching and we are eager to know whether everything will repeat again. This process might happen again and again, because tools are being improved and improvements are being made all the time – although music remains the same!

I think that a multichannel production combined with the argument of “embellishment” does not have a lasting existence! Only the music is really lasting!!

Space and movement

Arguments have already been provided about the fact that the perception of space is experienced from the perspective of the listener and not from the perspective of the developer (in other words “what we should hear”). Space in itself seems to us the field in which small and/or clear changes of time take place:

small changes happen in the sense of

clearly changes that happen in the sense of:

It has to be pointed out here that the multichannel option is hardly NOT necessary for the representation of "small" changes. As stated earlier it only provides a certain "embellishing” effect.

Performances that make a meaningful use of sound movements are exactly those the multichannel option need! This applies especially to film or theatre or radio play! It also applies to what is called "cinema for the ear" and it is EM in its special facet of radio plays, film music and acousmatic music with its requirement of spatial diffusion or projection.

Since a couple of years we are observing that image production and sound production are getting more and more close to each other due to common computer tools. Today an audio workstation is also a video workstation. More and more audio software integrates video and video software offers increasing audio comfortable facilities. Could the consequence be that  audiovisual works will dominate our EM world in the future? At least it should be planned that spatial as well as media technology / architecture are able to work together smoothly.

Let’s affirm: film / audiovision / cinema for the ear: these are the real customers of our acoustic performance with its apparent movements where a multichannel setting is suitable. But this is probably not the case for the more static instances of instrumental music and of many EM works.

What parameters play a shaping role in "clear" movements?

the objects change their position, so that auditory and optical  localisation plays a role in every case. The motto for localisation is: the more loudspeakers the better!

the objects move in different distance ranges with certain characteristics. Of course, close movements happen quickly and distant movements very slowly (that is one of those characteristics of distance). The distance ranges are:

additional comment to the "acoustic horizon":

It is interesting that all the above mentioned areas or ranges can be represented with the loudspeaker and that of course EM operates intensively with this. A palette of different loudspeakers, differing in depth (installation of loudspeakers varying from a few meters apart up to very far away "at the walls") can simulate these ranges or areas (acousmatic performance). Alternatively one can simulate different distance ranges by sound manipulation and reproduce them through wide distant projecting loudspeakers. These loudspeakers should, if possible, be set up evenly and at equal distance around the listener. This is, so to speak, the standard case in EM performance: the optimal listener's  “sound image” is found in the middle, the sweet spot. The acoustic response of the performance space restricts the possibilities of range representation.

Another parameter for the understanding of movement is the one that works permanently in our acoustic everyday world and for which hearing provides a good experience: it is the Doppler shift. Without this phenomenon a movement seems unnatural, even when many loudspeakers are used.

Let’s briefly listen to the historical piece "Turenas". Besides Frequency Modulation, John Chowning uses for the first time reverb-algorithms as well as algorithms to describe sound object movements in a quadraphonic space:
The dominance of the Doppler shift is impressing: the "movement" takes place for our ears even if the channels are interchanged. It still works, if the all-round acoustic projection is reduced to a line, if it is reduced to stereo, and even if it is switched to mono. The Doppler shift dominates the perception of movement!
Chowning cleverly used reverberation for the perception of distance, where very well selected sound objects move constantly in and out of a fictitious space. In that way a feeling of space size is transmitted.

The power of imagination by means of loops / repetition

The example of “Turenas” shows how eagerly the ear gets involved subjectively into experiences which have appeared in the course of life or got established in the learning process, even in a chronologically short succession of repetitions.

Having a look at a typical EM production, the process of repetition is omnipresent. One checks the sounds over and over again, one repeats passages to correct them or to be able to understand them. In our context it has to be considered that the repetition of sounds and sound passages triggers a habit process.  Exaggerated, we can say that a structure we do not listen to only once or twice but instead a hundred times also works differently. Our attention concentrates on recognising or re-recognising certain characteristics / patterns. In this process certain expectations become gradually fulfilled. For example the expectation that a sound, by means of using a particular tool, should perform a circular movement.  After repeated listenings and a willing attitude this movement is definitely perceived by the listener as a circular movement. This is something which possibly does not work at all when listening only once, or something that an inexperienced listener will not be able to understand.

Looking back at the development from mono to stereo and to multichannel – we honestly have to admit that we have imagined a great deal. At least I am claiming this for my person. While listening to older works produced by myself, I am often surprised with the fact that my memory differs from what I am listening to now. It is also a cover-up of inferior quality reproductions; during the seventies in the Quadro-space created by those monster loudspeakers, we were convinced that sounds would travel through space because theoretically we did the right production.  The truth of perception results from the faith that the technical realisation is perfect. But technical possibilities develop from one perfectionism to the next one. Therefore it has also to be questioned again and again.