Barry Schrader Interview – Electroacoustic Music

Theory and practice

Synthtopia: Most musicians are now likely to deal with electronics, in some form, in their careers. What do you think a classically-trained musician needs to know about electronics and electro-acoustic music?

Barry Schrader: It depends on what kind of musician you’re discussing. A performer of an historical acoustic instrument, who plans on a career playing in an orchestra, for example, may need to know nothing about electro-acoustic music. A performer who is likely to be involved with concerts of contemporary works or soundstage work, probably needs to learn how to perform with mics and should probably have some passing knowledge of the medium. For performers who are going to be in bands whose work centers around electronic instruments, I imagine they should know some basic theory, MIDI, and be able to dissect the architecture of their instruments.

All composers should have basic grounding in EAM theory and technology, even if they intend to compose primarily for acoustic instruments, because they may need to move into electro-acoustic music in the future. Composers who want to specialize in EAM, computer music, film music, sound design, and similar areas, should have as much knowledge as possible. For these people, there is no such thing as too much technical knowledge. There is a difference in emphasis on what’s most important for an academic career as opposed to a career in more commercial areas, but I don’t think there are any limitations on what one should know.

Synthtopia: You’ve written a respected book on electro-acoustic music, An Introduction to Electro-Acoustic Music. Much has changed since this was published in 1982. What aspects of an electro-acoustic music education haven’t changed?

Barry Schrader: A lot has changed and progressed since Introduction to Electro-Acoustic Music was published. The history, theory, and analysis presented in this book are still relevant, but there are 22 years of additional history, technological development, and some new theory. It’s interesting that this book still continues to be used in classes on the subject, although it’s long been out of print. I think this is because this was the first book to organize the history and branches of the field and to focus more on the music than the technology, presenting analyses of pieces as music rather than just discussing technical details.

As such, it’s still a relevant book in the history of the field, but, of course, there’s a lot of music that’s been created since this book was written. With only one exception, I limited myself to works which were available on recordings at the time (excluding my own music for this reason), and now there is a much larger variety of recorded EAM compositions.

Synthtopia: You’ve worked extensively with the Buchla modular synthesizer, one of the earliest synthesizers. Are these old synth technologies still relevant? Are they valid tools and instruments, or are they museum pieces?

Barry Schrader: I think an old synth is only a museum piece if it’s no longer operable and if composers no longer want to use it. But, as you know, there’s a large retro movement at the moment which is not only involved with the restoration of older analog systems but also the design and building of new analog equipment. I’m hearing more and more analog material and I think this means that analog synths are very relevant.

In an article I wrote in the middle 80s for the American Music Center, I envisioned a time when analog systems and computers would exist side by side as relevant technologies for the composer. While that hasn’t happened, and probably won’t happen in the academic world, it seems to have come true in the broader world of EAM in general. I find some of the new analog modules, many of which have also implemented aspects of digital technology, quite fascinating. The validity of a particular technology is something that should be left to the composer using it. If it works for you, it’s valid.

I really don’t like elitist attitudes in terms of EAM technology.

Synthtopia: In 1984, you founded the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS), one of the premier organizations in the world promoting electro-acoustic music, and you’ve had a role in creating other organizations and festivals. What was the need for an organization like this?

Barry Schrader: SEAMUS came about because of a call from the now-defunct ICEM (International Confederation of Electroacoustic Music) for individual countries to start their own electro-acoustic music organizations. At the time, EAM was still regarded as somewhat of a novelty, and I thought that it would be good to have an organization to promote the field and which would serve as a centering for U.S. composers and their music. The original goals that I had for SEAMUS were:

  • To encourage the composition and performance of electro-acoustic music
  • To develop a network for technical information and support
  • To promote concerts and radio broadcasts of US electro-acoustic music both home and abroad
  • To create an exchange of information through newsletters and other means of communication
  • To establish and maintain a national archive and information center devoted to electro-acoustic music
  • To attract a wide diversity of members and supporters from both in and outside of academic institutions
  • To advocate licensing and copyright concerns .

You can find more on this at the SEAMUS site .

Synthtopia: Has its role changed in the last twenty years?

Barry Schrader: I think the goals are still basically the same, but successive SEAMUS Presidents and Boards have interpreted things differently at different times. The organization has grown quite large, with over 500 members, and there’s now a definite bias in favor of the academic community, which, perhaps, was inevitable considering the nature of the organization and of the field itself.

Music

Synthtopia: On your last CD, EAM, the pieces are traditional in many respects. They seem to avoid many compositional approaches that were popular in the last half of the 20th century. There always seems to be one aspect of your pieces, though, where you explore the unique possibilities opened up by electronics.

On many of the pieces on EAM, for example, you seem to be interested in exploring the ways the timbre of electronic instruments can
change over time. Can you tell us a little about your approach to composition, and the ideas you explore with it?

Barry Schrader: As I said earlier, it’s a big musical world, and there are many approaches one can take in composing. I see myself as working within a continuation of western music that has a history and tradition of thousands of years. For most of this history, music was composed and evolved in a way that I call “relational”, that is where the meaning of the musical experience is created through an intentional structuring of musical information in order to form a particular musical idea which can be communicated to the listener. Another way of expressing the idea of relational music is to say that it has teleology, the evidence of an intentional design. With relational music, the theory explaining the music always comes after the fact since theorists need to have the work to examine and analyze before they can understand it. Relational music has developed in many ways through time, but, like most aspects of human culture, the present builds on the past and moves into the future.

There have been a few periods of musical history, however, in which theory has come before practice, and this is certainly true of the second half of the 20th century. I think what happened was that, because of the devastation caused by the intense cult of personality that created leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, some artists decided that it would be better to remove personality from art. Some saw the scientific method as a paradigm for rational art, while others sought to provide an elimination of personality by aleatoric means. Thus you had the rise of what I call “translational” music, music which took the data from some system that had nothing to do with music itself and translated this data into musical information. Perhaps the two best known historical types of translational music are serial composition and chance composition. John Cage, who developed chance composition with Williams Mix, a work for manipulated sounds on 8 tapes, was straightforward in saying that he created chance procedures in order that the composer would not be able to make any personal choices in the compositional process. The serialists were, perhaps, not as candid, but it’s clear that their goal was to give the power of choice to a system rather than a person, thus creating some sort of “rational” justification for the music that resulted from their translational procedures. Chance music and serial music are opposite sides of the same coin. In translational music, teleology is impossible. As Cage pointed out, the listener is free to make or not make any connections they want. While serial and chance music are now regarded as historical compositional styles, translational composition continues as an important part of musical thinking, particularly in EAM, with algorithmic composition.

I hasten to add here that one does not necessarily have to be working with an all-relational or all-translational approach. There can be, particularly with algorithmic thinking, some of both in a particular work. But, by and large, I place much of algorithmic composition in the translational column.

Composers of algorithmic music are fond of saying that all compositional procedures are algorithmic, and this is true, but not meaningful, because it doesn’t address whether or not the procedure is relational or translational.

Also, the reality that any procedure can be analysed and codified after the fact is unremarkable. Many composers in the second half of the 20th century, realizing that change creates information, have held the mistaken belief that all changes are equal, and, therefore, they think only in quantitative instead of qualitative terms. I believe that these composers, like most composers of translational music, fail to understand or care about the perceptual relevancy of what they’re creating as being able to be understood as music in a meaningful way. If music is nothing more than any combination of any sounds in time, then everyone is a composer and there is no basis for making aesthetic or value judgements; the idea of music then becomes meaningless. I don’t think this position is rational, nor can it be historically justified. In order to create meaning, musical elements must be combined in such a way as to create functional relationships which are or at least could be perceived by the listener. This is the whole point of relational music.

Long ago, I decided that I was not interested in translational composition. I didn’t like the kind of works these procedures produced, and I especially didn’t care for the lack of teleology in the music. I have instead preferred to work with extensions and abstractions of relational musical procedures. This is a personal choice, of course, as I believe that art should somehow communicate something of its creator. So, from a general compositional point of view, there are aspects of my work which can be seen as traditional.

At the same time there are other aspects of my music which are not traditional. Timbre, as you’ve noted, is of particular interest to me, and
I deal with this in three primary ways: the creation of new timbres, the development of time-variant timbres, and the use of timbral transformations. Most of my music is electronic and uses no acoustic sound sources. I find it more interesting to use electronic sounds since I can create timbres from the ground up and have more control over the final product. Contrary to current popular belief among many EAM composers, I think that electronically generated sounds offer more possibilities than working with the already complex sounds of concrète sources. I try to create new timbres for each piece, often ones which are intended to work with the overriding compositional ideas, and also fit into the “orchestration” that I want. Most of the timbres I create are time-variant, in that the frequency (spectrum) and amplitude (envelope) characteristics are constantly in flux. I do this because this is true of the acoustic sounds we hear and I think that this is required in order to keep electronic timbres interesting. The idea of timbral transformation is not something that I use in every section of every piece, but it is something that I’ve been using since the early 70s in my music. You can hear this on the EAM CD in several places, especially the last section of Triptych where the timbres move slowly towards a more complex and noise-like spectra, and also in Still Life 5 where the timbres move through many states. In my earlier analog work, there are several examples of timbral transformations such as in several sections of Trinity and especially in the final movement of Lost Atlantis. The point of timbral transformation, which, I believe, is possible only in electro-acoustic music, is to make timbre a primary focus of the music in that it’s creating a progression similar to what composers have been doing with pitch and rhythm for thousands of years.

So I work on multiple levels in composing a piece, and I try to take advantage of technology in ways that interest me and, I hope, the listener.
But I also want all of this to be invisible, to be in service of the larger musical idea. The last thing that I want is for any of my works to be
merely a demonstration of some technology or procedure. Everything that I do is a means to an end which is the entire concept or gestalt of the piece as a whole. I’m creating music, not treatises.

Synthtopia: You’ve got some new CDs coming out. Can you tell us about them?

Barry Schrader: There are 3 CDs coming out around my 60th birthday, which is in June of 2005. The first is a release of two older analog works done on the Buchla 200: Trinity and Lost Atlantis. This is a new stereo mix of the original quadraphonic versions of these pieces mastered and produced by Gary Chang. This CD has just been released on Innova 629.

For the first time, I’ve discussed some of the technical aspects of my work with the Buchla 200 in the booklet that comes with the CD. While I usually don’t like to talk about technical matters regarding my music, I was convinced by Peter Grenader and others that this was now relevant in an historical sense, particularly with regards to the current interest in analog systems.

The next CD, Beyond, will appear sometime in the middle of 2005 and will contain my most recent studio compositions Duke’s Tune, First Spring, and Death, along with my only purely concrète work, Beyond, done on the Waveframe workstation at UCSB. Toward the end of 2005 or early in 2006 there will be a CD of some of my live/electro-acoustic music (works for live performers and EAM) featuring Love, In Memoriam, composed for and performed by the late countertenor Frank Royon Le Mée, and Ravel for piano and EAM performed by Vicki Ray. The other works for this CD haven’t been set as yet, but it will probably include Fallen Sparrow, a piece for violin and EAM that I’m currently working on for violinist Mark Menzies. All of these CDs will be released on the Innova label.

Personal

Synthtopia: What music do you listen to for pleasure?

Barry Schrader: At this stage of my life, I find myself listening to music for pleasure less than when I was younger. I find this is not uncommon among many composers as they age. I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve heard so much music in my life, a lot of which I can simply bring to mind when I wish, that I don’t need to hear the same pieces over and over. Of course, I’m always excited to hear new works by colleagues in the field, but I listen to these more critically (in a positive sense) and attentively than, say, something that I would put on for background listening. When I do listen for pleasure, it’s likely to be something from the 20th century, electro-acoustic or instrumental, or jazz, especially the standards sung by great vocalists such as Carmen McRae or Nina Simone.

Synthtopia: Are there any artists in your music collection that would shock your colleagues?

Barry Schrader: I don’t think so, but I do have a CD of Christmas tunes “sung” by potbellied pigs called The Jingle Bellies.

Synthtopia: I understand that pot-bellied pigs are one of your interests, and that you’ve even composed a work, Duke’s Tune, based on a theme created by a pot-bellied pig! Can you tell us a little about your interest in pot-bellied pigs, and how this came about?

Barry Schrader: While driving through the area north of Santa Barbara, I visited a shelter for pot-bellied pigs in Solvang called Lil Orphan Hammies. I instantly fell in love with these animals, and I’ve become a supporter of the sanctuary and good friends with Susan Parkinson who operates the shelter which houses around 150 potbellied pigs. I visit Lil Orphan Hammies 4 or 5 times a year, bringing the pigs some treats and doing what I can to help out. These are wonderful and very intelligent animals, but they don’t make good pets for most people (they are not at all like dogs), which is why so many end up in shelters. Duke’s Tune, by the way, actually is based on a theme created by Duke, the pot-bellied pig, on his xylophone. You can see a video clip of his performance at the CalArts site.

Synthtopia: You’ve been very active – teaching, writing books and articles, composing, releasing records and organizing events and groups. What things have you found most satisfying and interesting?

Barry Schrader: I’ve been promoting the medium of EAM for 35 years, and I hope that my efforts have been of some value in this regard. I consider starting SEAMUS one of my main accomplishments, and I enjoy watching its progress. Teaching can be very rewarding, especially when you see young composers grow and develop. Many students have kept in touch with me over the years, and some of them have become good friends. I’m also happy that I’ve been able to present hundreds of EAM works by composers from around the world to concert and radio audiences, and also to relate the history of EAM in my writing and lectures. In recent years, I’ve been concentrating more on my own career and music, partially because I’m growing older, but also because I would like to reach a larger audience. I hope to continue to compose and have my music available commercially. The ultimate reward of creating is to connect with other people and, in some way, touch their minds and spirits.

Synthtopia: If people want to find out more about you and your music, where can they go?

Barry Schrader: BarryShrader.com is a good place to start, as I try to have current information posted there. A Google search will bring up a lot of sites and information from various sources. There’s also my page on the CalArts web site. And, of course, I can always be reached for questions or comments via e-mail to [email protected].

Synthtopia: Barry, thanks for taking time to share your work with Synthtopia!

Resources:

  • BarrySchrader.com – Schrader’s site
  • Schrader’s faculty page at CalArts
  • Schrader’s music is available on Innova
  • Synthopia has a review of Schrader’s release, EAM

One thought on “Barry Schrader Interview – Electroacoustic Music

  1. The audience for good electro-acoustic music is indeed wider than many composers realize. There is a good audience in Dallas right now. For example, Lily Taylor just had Andrew Blanton here for a respectable audience in a coffee shop with a listening room.

    I also agree that the traditional recital method of presenting music could use an upgrade. Presentation style is so much of what will frame music in a way that will leave an audience impressed and talking about the experience.

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