Barry Schrader Interview – Electroacoustic Music

Barry Schrader, current photoElectro-acoustic music pioneer Barry Schrader’s works for tape, dance, film, video, mixed media, live/electro-acoustic music combinations, and real-time computer performance have been presented throughout the world.

Schrader is the founder and first president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States). He is also the author of the book Introduction to Electro-Acoustic Music.

Schrader teaches at the School of Music at Calarts. He has several current CD releases, including Lost Atlantis and EAM.

In this interview with Synthtopia, Schrader talks about electroacoustic music, the role of classical electronic composers, collaborating with pigs, and more!


Synthtopia: In the late 60s, when you first got into electronic music, electronic sounds were still avant garde. They were beginning to catch the public’s ear, but mainly for their novelty. What piqued your interest in electronic music?

Barry Schrader: My first experience with electronic music was in 1956 when, at the age of 11, I saw Forbidden Planet. I was fascinated by the music in that movie, so much so that I stayed in the theater and watched the film several times until my somewhat exasperated father came looking for me and dragged me home. Over the next 12 years I heard snippets of electronic music on the radio and on recordings, and I also had a tape recorder and experimented a little with the manipulation of recorded material. But it wasn’t until 1969 when I was a graduate student in musicology at the University of Pittsburgh that I actually became involved with working in a studio.

Synthtopia: What made you decide to make this the focus of your career?

Barry Schrader: The University of Pittsburgh installed a studio built around a Buchla 100 system, and I became the teaching assistant for the studio which forced me to learn things rather quickly. I became absorbed by the medium and,even though I finished my degree in musicology, I decided to devote myself to electro-acoustic music from this point on. The things that fascinated me about the medium then are the qualities that still interest me: electro-acoustic music offers the composer an intensely personal and controlled environment within which to create new musical universes.

Electro-acoustic music

Synthtopia: Many people are unfamiliar with the term “electro-acoustic music”. What makes a piece electro-acoustic music?

Barry Schrader: The term “electro-acoustic music” was coined by French composer François Bayle. It’s a very general term that refers to any music produced and/or manipulated by electronic means. It serves only to separate this large area of music from acoustic music, music produced by conventional instruments and voice.

Under the broad umbrella of electro-acoustic music there are several subdivisions, such as musique concrète (music composed with acoustic source material) and electronic music (music composed with electronically generated source material). In the early days of the medium, through about 1955, composers were pretty much in one camp or the other.

But then people started mixing both types of source materials and Vladimir Ussachevsky came up with the term “tape music” to describe works using either or both types of source material. The term tape music is still used today, but it’s archaic, since few composers actually use tape as a medium to manipulate and record sound. I’ve been trying to get people to adopt the term “studio composition” or “studio music” to replace it. A studio composition is one in which, like the work of a studio visual artist (painter, sculptor, etc.), the finished product is created and produced entirely by the composer; the medium with which the data is manipulated and in which it’s recorded is irrelevant.

Synthtopia: What music would you recommend to someone new to it? What should they listen for?

Barry Schrader: It’s difficult to make suggestions of which pieces to listen to first, because people have different backgrounds and tastes. So it almost doesn’t matter what works you start with; you’ll quickly decide if you find them interesting or not.

I think that music is music, by which I mean that all music consists of the same basic material organized in the same basic ways: pieces of dimensional information (pitch, duration, dynamics, etc.) are combined to form small aggregates (traditionally called motives) which are, in turn, combined and recombined into larger and larger structures. While many contemporary composers want to believe that the type of music they’re dealing with is basically different from any music from the past, I don’t think this is so, even if they are composing at the gestalt or gestural level, the level at which the listener comprehends the musical idea.

Now there are a great many ways in which musical information can be organized,and this makes for an extremely large range of possibilities. But we all learn what music is and how to listen to it by experiencing whatever our particular circumstances offer us at a very young age. This, combined with the limitations of our physical natures, creates the basis for how we perceive music, and is, I think, firmly established by the time we’re only a few years old. The range of what we accept and perceive as meaningful in musical terms can be greatly expanded as we grow and develop, but the basic core of what music is and how we listen to it remains with us throughout life.

I think electro-acoustic music can be special in that it offers the composer the possibilities of creating new timbres and new ways of combining musical information. These are two things that the new listener should be on the lookout for. There are things that are only possible in electro-acoustic music, such as timbral transformations (morphing) and moving on a continuum from one musically perceptual area to another, an example of which is moving smoothly from the perception of rhythm to the perception of timbre by increasing the rate of the pulse until, above 20 Hz, sidebands are heard as a timbral modification. As in all music, one should also listen for the individual voice of the composer. Great music is, I believe, like all great art, a communication from and about the individual artist.

Synthtopia: The technology available to a composer has changed dramatically over the years, and what a composer needs to know about the technology has changed, too. Does electro-acoustic music play a different role, as a result, than it did in the past?

Barry Schrader: I think that it depends on which areas of musical endeavor you’re discussing. In the commercial world, technology has been thoroughly embraced and so a very large percentage of the various genres that make up this category involve technology as a matter of course. In the traditional (historical) art music concert world, technology has little impact except in the areas of recording and sound reinforcement. So electro-acoustic music is an integral part of the commercial scene, while, in the so-called art music world, it has been relegated to an isolated sphere. While there have been incredible technological advances, they don’t seem to have affected the historical concert scene whereas they’ve had a profound affect on the commercial music world.

Some would say that this speaks to the moribund state of affairs in the world of “serious” music. Even in the academic world, where there are many programs and departments for computer music, there is often an isolation factor. And there’s often a line drawn between what is acceptable technology and what is not. Fortunately, the availability of recordings and the internet are breaking down these barriers, allowing people to cross artificially established lines.

I think that the technology of electro-acoustic music has reached a plateau where, for the foreseeable future, changes will be in the area of refinement rather than large leaps. And the excellence and availability of today’s music technology allows almost anyone to have a professional-grade “studio” either in or built around their computers. Gone are the days when one had to go to a particular location in order to compose electro-acoustic music. The current and future role for electro-acoustic music is that, if it hasn’t already, it will become the dominant area of musical creative activity.

Synthtopia: Do you think it’s fair to say that some EAM composers have focused on innovation and experimentation, at the expense of connecting with an audience?. What do you think is an appropriate relationship for a modern EAM composer to have with listeners?

Barry Schrader: If you’re speaking of the “serious” or “art music” world, then the answer is yes. I think that this area of music has been attacked from both inside and outside. The attack from outside comes from the sort of consumerism that seeks to profit by catering to the lowest common denominator. Historically, in any society, what separates high art culture from popular culture is the delay of gratification. One has to learn how to understand and appreciate aspects of high art culture before one can truly enjoy these experiences. In contrast, popular culture usually provides us with experiences that are immediately gratifying.

In the past, learning how to understand and appreciate aspects of high art culture were part of one’s social and educational experience. But this has largely disappeared in today’s world because of the dynamic quality of consumerism. I think it’s possible that high art culture is dying and becoming of primary concern only to museums.

At the same time, certainly since the 1950s, high art culture has been attacked from the inside by practitioners who have little or no regard for an audience. In 1962, an article in Die Reihe (a German journal devoted to new and electronic music) by Werner Meyer-Eppler used primitive information theory to “prove” that audiences were irrelevant to new music and that only the composers of said music were qualified to judge it. This began a separation of the audience from the music that continues to this day.

The audiences for many concerts of “serious” EAM are largely made up of academic composers and their students. I don’t think that this is a healthy situation. While I don’t think I can tell anyone else what kind of relationship they should try to have with their listeners, I can relate what my attitude is: I want to communicate musical ideas to the audience through my compositions. I would hope that my music transcends boundaries and is able to speak in some relevant fashion to people of varied backgrounds and tastes. At the same time, I realize that in composing music that interests me, I am not going to please everyone, and that, in reality, my music will always have a small, select audience. But I am hopeful that the size of this audience might be increased over time as more people hear my work.

Synthtopia: Classical composers have always drawn on popular instruments, forms and influences. Electronic music has become ubiquitous in popular culture in the last twenty-five years, providing soundtracks for movies, dancing, games, and many new styles of music. Popular music has also provided some of the first virtuoso electronic music performers. What can electro-acoustic composers learn from popular electronic music?

Barry Schrader: Academic EAM composers should realize that, like their counterparts in popular music, they might have a wider audience. I don’t think that means pandering, but rather having some respect for listeners that exist outside one’s immediate frame of reference. It’s a big musical world, after all.

Far too often, the theory and/or the technology of “serious” EAM is an end in itself, and these aspects are often used to pass judgements on works. The first thing that is usually said to you after a public performance is “What did you use to make that?” While this is a legitimate question, it seems to me that it is down the line from questions like “What are the ideas in this piece?’ and “How do you want the audience to perceive this piece?”

In reality, I think that many academic EAM composers are trying to please an audience, one made up of their peers. That’s the only way that I can explain the fact that the overwhelming percentage of compositions that I hear at many conferences and festivals are very similar and imitative of a very limited range of styles. Perhaps some composers should consider moving beyond these self-imposed limitations. Academic composers could also learn ideas from commercial composers by paying attention to how they promote and distribute their work, along with how they make public presentations of their music.

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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