e-PAIVirtuosity and Performance Mastery issue, 2003/04

Virtuosity and the Virtual

Copyright © John Dack 2003.

(No part of this text may be reproduced without the written permission of the author.)

John Dack

This material was presented live at the Virtuosity and Performance Mastery symposium for postgraduate/research degree students and academic staff over two days by Performing Arts at Middlesex University on 31st May and 1st June 2003.

The cartoon accompanying this paper exemplifies an enduring attitude of many people when confronted with technology - musicians are as prone to such fears as anyone else. The expressions of the onlookers - mixtures of horror and disbelief - contrast with the robot's slightly self-satisfied smirk (the robot, if no-one else, seems to be having a good time). I came across this cartoon largely by chance. It was printed in "le Monde" on April 12th 1995 - le Monde is a newspaper I buy occasionally - and luckily in that edition's "Culture" section there was an article on the French research institute IRCAM. "IRCAM opens its doors and shares its computer science treasures". The article went on to describe the interest displayed by the general public who had been invited into the centre. It referred to long queues of the "milieu musical" who, once inside, could hear the results of research and composition (and the distinction between these two is a persistent issue in universities and conservatoires), the synthesis capabilities of the 4X computer (now superseded), the then recently established IRCAM forum where studios and composers could exchange software via networks… Much of the article referred to aspects that would not have been out of place in a computer science conference. It is quite obvious from this article that music was already participating in a number of scientific and technical discourses, as it has always done, ranging from programming, acoustics to psychoacoustics in its efforts to construct theories and explain its processes. Nevertheless, fundamental issues remain. What do we mean by musical skills in the electroacoustic medium? Are they related to physical skills recognisable to anyone learning an instrument? In short where are traditional notions of the "instrument", the "musician" and, by extension, the "virtuoso"?

Robot cartoonAny discussion of virtuosity would be incomplete without a discussion of the relationship between the instrument and technology. Musicians rarely seem to question the necessity of the instrument so obvious is its role in music making. The very foundations of music rest on the relationships between the musician playing an instrument in real-time. Even a recording is usually simply a representation of such an event and although the consequences might be profound for the listener in that each rendition is exactly the same - thus can a recording still "surprise"? - the basic features of a "performance" are generally captured and reproduced. (There are of course exceptions to one-off performances and their recordings such as the cut and splice techniques used by Glenn Gould which are anathema to many musicians.) The musician's relationship with technology cannot be denied and thus extending this relationship into analogue or digital electronic technology is entirely logical. Each instrument represents the careful development and precise manufacture of what is often an extremely complicated piece of technology. A piano, for example, has always struck me (as the son of a piano maker) as a supreme example of music technology. Its physical development goes hand in hand with the musical languages of composers. The two aspects - musical language, music technology - usually progress simultaneously. Can we imagine a late Beethoven sonata played on an instrument without the resonant characteristics of a modern instrument? It is not too fanciful to say that Beethoven did indeed surpass the potential of the instruments of his time even allowing for his increasing deafness and thus his remoteness from the actuality of sound. As new instruments are invented or developed new musical languages and techniques follow. It is arguable in the aforementioned example whether Beethoven utilised, for example, the increasingly rich sound characteristics of the piano and features such as its rapid escapement mechanism because it was possible or that piano manufacturers responded to the need that composers demanded - it was almost certainly both. Moreover, as Jacques Attali wrote in his book "Noise" (Attali, 1977: 35) can we imagine the electric guitar without the music of Hendrix and vice versa? As a guitarist Hendrix worked within the traditions of blues and rock but extended the role of the guitarist by the use of the tremolo arm and so-called effects pedals (they cannot be described as "mere" effects in the hands of Hendrix!). His improvisations involve feedback, exploration of noise to pitch, the use of continuous rather than discrete pitches… He was in my view a true "sculptor" of sounds both in real-time and in the use of the recording medium (I am thinking of his use of multi-tracking in versions of "Star Spangled Banner"). Sound, therefore, is not simply a physical signal. It has to originate from a source, a component of which is excited into vibration and subsequently modified and transformed by someone or something. The physicality of sound and thus music and performance skills seems undeniable. The source - the instrument - has to be learnt and its predetermined capacities understood and, if possible, extended. However, instruments can also be seen as inhibiting musical exploration. Pianos are tuned to pitches of the equal tempered scale - a relatively new addition to pitch systems in Western music. We can contrast this standardisation identified by Adorno with Gamelan "orchestras" which exhibit few, if any, standard pitch scales. The situation of learning how to interact with the instrument, this physical object by which musical structures are realised, is a skill all musicians recognise. Virtuosity is, of course, not simply a matter of playing notes quickly and accurately - important though these aspects are. While it is true that some of the most profound musical works are extremely difficult to play there is a virtuosity in playing slowly, and producing a "beautiful" and "expressive" sound.

But the relationship between instruments and music is a problematic one. We can frequently read musicians and composers imply that their thoughts are as much inhibited by the instrument as liberated by it. "My position is decidedly in favour of music and against the instrument" in "Zur Theorie der Aufführung" (Kolisch, 1983: 6)). What then of a medium which has no instrument? Does this mean technology will confer freedom on the composer once the shackles of physical causality are broken? What is the medium's position with regard to the acquisition of performance skills, the interaction between the performer and the sounds? What musical discourses can participate in these investigations?

My research field is that of electroacoustic music. This, naturally, embraces many different languages and genres. My principal concern in this talk will be that of "acousmatic" music (though I shall make references to others). Acousmatic is defined as hearing a sound without seeing its source. Of all the genres in electroacoustic music (the other two are instruments playing with recorded sounds and "live" electronics) this is the most challenging to audiences. As far as the present discussion is concerned acousmatic music would seem the most resistant to any analysis of physical skills - to put it quite simply there aren't any - there is no performer making real decisions on a real instrument in real time. However, in musicological terms acousmatic music can offer insights into what can only be described as performance aspects. It is the French "school" of electroacoustic music which has occupied the majority of my research time, in particular the theoretician and composer Pierre Schaeffer and his research group the Paris-based Groupe de Recherches Musicales. As part of a formidable theoretical system Schaefferian concepts can be used to gain a more complete understanding of "instrument" and "performance". It might seem paradoxical that a medium which has no need of physical instruments can provide such insights. I will suggest that the Schaefferian approach has appropriated terms from traditional music (such as "instrument" and "virtuosity") which then encourages their re-appropriation to music but, once re-appropriated we gain new insights into how sounds - all sounds - might be used in music.

Once again we must acknowledge immediately the number of different discourses within 20th century music. For example, the electroacoustic medium can facilitate the precision that is one hallmark of virtuosity. No matter, we might claim, that the performer is no longer present, the notes are finally played with complete and total accuracy. The most risible examples are computer "realisations" of traditional music. Even a brief encounter with post-war musical thought will know that this utopian ideal of accuracy, of transmitting precisely what the composer indicates (note I avoid the word "intends" because notation has its own agenda). This accuracy is one of the advantages of the electroacoustic medium. Pierre Boulez (the first director of IRCAM) wrote in die Reihe in 1955 "But electronic music is not to be reduced to the role of robot which fulfills inhuman tasks; it is certainly possible to realise otherwise unrealisable values on tape, but the very simplicity of procedure demonstrates the poverty of the idea" (Boulez, 1955: 24). I should remark parenthetically that it is somewhat ironic, threrfore, that the robot was the very image used in reference to Boulez's research institute! However, when Boulez wrote this remark the apparatus of electronic music, was considered by many composers to be the means by which accuracy of pitch and duration could be achieved. Thus, electronic music was considered as the culmination, the vindication of serial thinking. As Ulrich Dibelius wrote in "Moderne Musik", with such highly organised music it was hoped that: "(…) through such total organisation musical sense must also appear" (Dibelius, 342: 1966). Moreover Herbert Eimert - the first director of the studio at the NWDR thought that the agendas of electronic music and serialism were identical. Thus, the position of electronic music in one of music's grand narratives - the extension of control over all parameters - seems assured. It used to be difficult to see any alternative to this perfectly valid approach. The relationship was of course mutual: there is no denying that serial thought itself changed as a result of its encounter with electroacoustic music. Is this perhaps the destiny of electroacoustic music? Machine-like accuracy and superhuman performance skill must be acknowledged, but in my view apart from its relationship serialism it is a relatively uninteresting one.

Electroacoustic music can reveal as much as it can realise. For this viewpoint we need to refer to the French. In reference to the aforementioned attitude promoted by serial thought Michel Chion, the composer and film theorist, wrote in his book "La Musique Electroacoustique": "They wanted to sit the electroacoustic child at the piano, rapping his fingers, to make him play serial scales, whereas his gifts were different ones. They relied on him to be more precise than the human performer" (Chion, 74: 1982). I repeat Chion's phrase: "(…) his gifts were different ones (…)", it is precisely these different ones that I find the most interesting. Chion is alluding to another role - a complimentary one - for technology (one, in fairness, that was also suggested by Boulez). This is often ignored but was of fundamental importance for the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. If we want to discover an alternative to the serial agenda this is where we must look. Technology can be used not just to conform to the ideals of post-war musical thought but as a means of discovery and in this discovery we learn about the "instrument" and "play". Accuracy - the long cherished aim of serial thought - is not so much replaced as elaborated by a genuine "experimental" method derived from an earlier thought system. Pierre Schaeffer in his book "Machines à Communiquer" wrote that the "age of mechanism (…) is the age of the most inordinate human sensibility." He continued to say that machines: "(…) give to modern man tireless touch, ears and eyes, machines that he can expect to give him to see, to hear, to touch what his eyes could never have shown him, his ears could never have made him hear, to touch what his hands could never have let him touch." (Schaeffer, 1970: 92) This is not the language of a technocrat - even though Schaeffer was a trained radio engineer. This is not the speech of someone who wants the machine simply to perform physical tasks that a human cannot. It is the language of a man who understood the real value of machines for music and how we interact with them - that virtuosity can also lie in the virtuosity of the ear rather than simply the hand. If the basic elements of music are re-evaluated then so is the instrument and by extension virtuosity. Symbolism informs French electroacoustic music as much as serialism informs its German counterpart. To remain oblivious to post-Romantic French thought and its transcendental implications would be to misunderstand one of the most important strands of European music. Indeed, anyone who reads Schaeffer will come across Symbolist words such as "au-dela", "correspondence" and frequent references to writers such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé.

To quote from the book "Les Musiques Electroacoustiques" by Michel Chion and Guy Reibel: "It is thus apparently as a paradox, electroacoustics have enabled musicians to link up with nature again, in its widest sense, a contact lost by instrumental music, which had become tangled up in its problems of writing and of virtuosity, and to open windows on life which the sophistication of written musics and the formalism of systems kept obstinately closed." (Chion/Reibel, 1976: 12) It is clear that this agenda is not that of serialism. We have witnessed the use of computer-based accuracy. It is also true that computers can create individual sounds at speeds surpassing human performers. There is nothing unusual in this. The American Nancarrow made his own piano rolls to explore fiendishly complicated rhythms and chord voicings that would defy even the most virtuosic solo pianist or indeed piano duet. However interesting the results might sometimes be - I usually end up by shrugging my shoulders and muttering "So what?". The computer can play faster, louder, more notes, complex rhythms… so what? If this is the ultimate end of computer applications then I for one would unplug my laptop and go home. Even though I must admit that in some musical genres it is precisely this machine-like accuracy that is highly valued - "techno" music for example. For me, the virtuosity of the electroacoustic medium lies in skills of the composer whose abilities have been transferred to the studio where he or she can work directly with the basic "stuff" of sound - to shape and sculpt sounds, to explore the musical value of long continuous sounds. To create "scales" of sound features that have previously existed on the margins of structure. And all this with "instruments" that have no physical existence.

In his book "Traité des Objets Musicaux" Pierre Schaeffer formulated the concept of the "pseudo-instrument". This is one clear example of his deliberate refusal to abandon notions of physical causality but to transfer them from the actual to the virtual. For Schaeffer a particular type of musical language communicated by retaining common characteristics - most commonly "timbre" in tradition terms - so that variations in other aspects could be perceived - pitch and duration. He called this "permanence des caractères, variations des valeurs" or PCV2. For example, the piano's timbre remains constant and the pitches and rhythms change. There is nothing very controversial about that until the model is reversed. Such a reversal was utilised by Schoenberg who, in his celebrated movement "Farben" from his orchestral pieces Op.16, kept the pitch movement to a minimum in order that the emergence of changing instrumental colour could become more prominent and perceptible. Consequently, the five part chord changes but always retains its identity as the same pitch-class set - 5z-17 plus intermediate transformations. Schaeffer extended this model and was not content simply to invert it. He wanted to explore the potential to create form from all aspects of sound - for "scales" and structures in sounds which would communicate tension and release and perhaps even " movement" to another area of sound-space on the model of modulation from one key-centre to another. All of this is of course in the domain of the composer's ears and imagination. No instruments can actually do these processes.

There are many aspects to Schaeffer's theories and, naturally, given constraints on space I can only outline a few but I think they will convey the range of his interests which were grounded in physicality though transferred to the virtual. For example, Schaeffer identified seven "morphological criteria" which facilitate the description of sounds. One of these is "allure" which can best be described as a "generalised vibrato" - in other words a modulation in either pitch or amplitude. Schaeffer decided to compose an "Etude aux Allures" (1958) in order to see if this criterion could indeed by promoted to a principal articulator of structure. His intention was to focus the listeners' attention on the changes of allure - the movement from slow to fast or wide to narrow. Schaeffer found sounds with allures and also transformed sounds to give him the allure he required. Thus, we have a "jeu" (to use his terminology) of allures. While it might be difficult to disregard more traditional aspects such as pitch, the large number of different allures and their variations certainly (to my mind at least) promote this criterion to a higher position in the musical hierarchy than "mere" vibrato added to pitch. But where is the virtuosity in this? I would suggest that it has now been transferred to the composer in the studio. Schaeffer still had to control the progression of the allures (by ear as opposed to by serial methods). He still wanted to modify and extend structures of allures which demands skill. There is no "instrument", no single piece of equipment which will produce allure. Schaeffer realised that by changing a criterion of sound other criteria would also be affected - just as in a "real" instrument. The "jeu" of sound features can be delicate as well as dramatic but because it is no longer reliant on physical behaviour of real instruments, sounds are in a sense liberated, and we can truly link up with "nature".

This is the true value of electroacoustic music. Extending and elaborating notions of physicality rather than attempting to supersede them is where the true virtuosity of the medium manifests itself.


Attali, J. (1977) (tr. Brian Massumi) Noise - the Political Economy of Music Manchester: Manchester University Press

Boulez, P. (1955) 'At the Ends of Fruitful Land…' in Die Reihe vol. 1Wien: Universal Edition (English edition, 1958 by Theodore Presser Co., Pennsylvania)

Chion, M. (1982) La Musique Electroacoustique Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

Chion, M. & Reibel, G. (1976) Les Musiques Electroacoustiques Paris: INA/GRM

Dibelius, U. (1966) Moderne Musik München: Piper Schott

Kolisch, R. (1983) Zur Theorie der Aufführung München: edition text+kritik GmbH

Schaeffer, P. (1966) Traité des Objets Musicaux Paris: Editions du Seuil

Schaeffer, P. (1970) Machines à Communiquer Paris: Editions du Seuil

John Dack worked as photographer¹s assistant (1966-70), grave-digger (1970-73), guitar teacher (1973-77); studied music as a mature student at Middlesex Polytechnic (BA Hons, 1980): PhD with Denis Smalley (1989), City University (post-graduate Diploma in Music Information Technology (Distinction, 1992) and MSc (Distinction, 1994); Goldsmiths College (MMus, Theory and Analysis, 1998); since 1998 Post-Doctoral Research Fellow (Sonic Arts) Middlesex University; also Visiting lecturer Goldsmith College and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Research areas: History, theory and analysis of electroacoustic music, the music and works of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, serial thought.

Robot cartoon and background image from le Monde, April 12th 1995.

Web design copyright © John Robinson, 2004.

Page last updated 30th August 2004.