By Dustin Ragland
In early electronic music, particularly those works based on environmental sounds (what we might call field recordings, however spliced and arranged they might have been), we hear a world of sound objects that are irregular and fragmented. This reflection was made possible by the various recording and replay technologies that allowed us to reflect back on the sounds we might encounter. This reflection is assisted by the conceptual container of composition that early sound collages provide a listener. If a listener can recognize (or hear something similar to) the sonic world they might encounter any given day, there is a new way of hearing one’s real-time experience of sound, whether or not it is captured in an intentional recorded work. Regardless of how organized that sound experience might be, much of it is irrythmic at best: a collection of sounds that blur and mask the air more than they do regulate intervals between sonic events. This industrial, and now post-industrial soundscape dovetailed quite nicely with emerging socio-philosophical trends in the middle of the 20th century. Fragmentation in the post-modern age already had a soundtrack, and it was difficult to dance to.
When my students encounter Etude aux chemins de fer, the most common pick-up point for their admitting they recognize it was a work of music – not just a claimed work of music – is the moment when the train resembles a regular, repeating rhythm (around 00:30, and at various places throughout the piece). Timbre, pitch, and harmony – all are secondary in their appraisal of the work to their perception of the beat. On that beat their minds begin to build their own elements of composition. A beat without those other expected musical signifiers feels incomplete in many cases, but it does offer bedrock on which to construct an imagined set of musical gestures, even if just imagined in the moment. However, there is a problem of sorts: “beats” belong to pop music, to the myriad subgenres and hashtags of Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music; they belong to the dance club; they belong to the common slang for contemporary music production as “beat-making;” they are “Study Beats” in the background of Third Wave coffee shops, not “serious music.” Already we can see where the problem lies in cordoning off beats as a subversive musical gesture in art music – we’ve excluded vibrant and diverse communities of music by a priori exclusion of sounded pulse. In most cases, this socio-sonic exclusion was never anyone’s intent (at least in recent years); but even so, there are compositional assumptions that remain curious at the least, if not pernicious at their worst. In a brief conversation with composer and educator Ethan Hein, he noted the exclusion of beats in even informal commissions: “I was asked to compose something for the NYU Laptop Orchestra. I said I would be delighted, and asked what kind of thing they were looking for. They said, “Write whatever you want, as long as it has no beats.”
What I hope to explore in this essay are various responses to the ways beat is understood and employed in various instances and worlds of electroacoustic music. By beat I mean a steady metronomic pulse as a starting place, but within that polyrhythmic, glitch, and modulating beats are all possibilities. I also want to emphasize beat – in this essay – as driven by percussive sounds, not only drums and various “unpitched” timbres, but primarily those pulses within a work that are voiced. Of course, a great deal of music has a pulse embedded within the composition that is felt – but it is not always instantiated in an instrumental voice.
By no means is this an exhaustive look, nor is it intended to be particularly polemic – I’m concerned more with the possibilities for self-aesthetic reflection and connections to pop music gestures that are, more often than not, excluded on a compositional level. As is the norm for this series of essays, I lean more on a few key reflections and hope to offer brief commentary on them as we move along.
A brief look through a handful of contemporary electroacoustic collections offers some insight into how beats are understood in our specific context for this exploration. In the newest SEAMUS collection (No. 28), there are some moments with recognizable beats: Chi Wang’s lovely Poeony Garden features some rapidly modulating but regular pulses at various points in the piece; Caroline Louise Miller’s excellent Subsong “bridges practices of future bass, instrumental hip-hop, and musique concrète,” at least two of these genres providing for a typical pop understanding of beats, re-imagined in an electroacoustic context. In this work, the beat is slowed down to a seemingly-intermittent pulse, a wonderful reworking of the expected steady beat found in the seed genres of the piece. In Bandcamp.com’s “Ten Musicians Updating Electroacoustic Music for the 21st Century,” we see only Poppy Ackyroyd’s “Resolve” employing a regular beat, and it is primarily an ostinato that becomes as textural as it is accentual. In the Lebanon Music Survey’s Anthology of Electroacoustic Lebanese Music we see a few more pronounced examples of voiced musical pulse, as in Jad Atoui’s “Diving Blue,” where the arpeggiation of the main voice gives steady rhythmic information, aided by the modulation of the low-pass filter at work in various points. In Ricardo Del Farra’s Latin American Electroacoustic Music Collection few works include anything resembling a beat, though Juan Blanco’s “Interludio con Màquinas” hearkens back to Schaeffer’s rhythmic train recordings – incidental or not.
In each of these examples we see how beats have remained elusive in application among contemporary and canonical electroacoustic works, and working past the more obvious compositional influences that might explain this absence (outgrowth of orchestral and chamber music, focus on pitch-timbre as locus of experimentation), we can see some of the issues with genre that emerge in electroacoustic music. Without stepping all the way back to our definitional study last year in this newsletter, we can gain some insight from Andrew Hugill’s “On Style in Electroacoustic Music,” where he claims “The collapse of style becomes particularly evident when beat-based music is introduced into the electroacoustic domain.” Hugill goes on briefly examine how a few electronic music artists in the pop world (Amon Tobin, Autechre, The Chemical Brothers) use the beat in a manner “subservient to an interest in timbral manipulation that is related to the theoretical constructions of spectromorphology,” but could more accurately be described in genre terms as having been influenced by electroacoustic music, while remaining outside of the mainstream of it.
One of the major contributions that electroacoustic music continues to make within musical communities, and even outside of them, is in the way the experimental edge of electroacoustic music re-centers music in environmental and embodied contexts, such as Lea Bartucci’s “Site-specific sonic investigations,” and Marcus Fischer’s “sound art (that) can be political even without words.” When one examines Jeff Pressing’s notions around beats in “Black Atlantic” musical groove, you see an insistence on a beat’s “effectiveness in engaging synchronizing body responses (e.g., dance, foot-tapping).” Mark Campbell finds this notion of the “soul controller” in how DJ’s work with a crowd in a reliance of “relational rather than rational thought” as the DJ works to “foreground relationality.” In “Roots and Wires,” Erik Davis argues that jungle electronic music – rooted in West African drumming and black British communities – evokes “the mandible-rustling telecommunication of the insect world” (2005). In keeping with the ethos of many electroacoustic communities, Davis claims “one must learn to listen and dance to jungle’s complex and extremely recombinant rhythmic language,” placing polymetric rhythms in the realm of the experimental and demanding – drawn not merely from disembodied computational processes, nor from deconstructed historical forms, but from Afro-diasporic music that is most commonly cited within pop music forms.
In Ben Neill’s “Pleasure Beats: Rhythm and the Aesthetics of Current Electronic Music,” he notes John King’s description of “art-music composers” resisting regular 4/4 rhythms in their work as “fear of the funk.” Continuing the idea that electroacoustic music not only challenges a listener with timbral innovation and tonal de-centering, but also with innovations in procedural composition and re-situating music in embodied and environmental contexts, Neill notes that for rave musicians (who would sit in most minds as pop musicians) “the audience truly becomes the performance.” He recounts seeing Squarepusher at the Coachella Festival, where Tom Jenkinson
presented 1½ hours of music in which long stretches of highly processed digital noise and textures that would rival any art-music composer’s sonic palette alternated with completely frenzied hyper-speed beats that exceeded 200 beats per minute – hardly dance music as anyone on this planet would recognize it (p.4).
Neill later describes Terence McKenna’s idea of “shamanism” in regular pulsing beats as just one of the ways in which pop electronic music is not only culturally embodied, but active in producing experimental effects among its listeners (p. 6).
On the other end of this approach to “the fear of the funk,” is a note from Prince in The New Yorker, confronting Dan Piepenbring on his understanding of Prince’s musical approach. When the writer had described Prince’s work as “magical” at one point, Prince made sure to correct him: “Funk is the opposite of magic. Funk is about rules.” This spirit of beat application leans into the procedural aspect of dance music, one that could find more purchase when confronted with the question of just how then (and if), electroacoustic music can have conversation with more funk-informed beats and pulses. The very materials of “funk-feel” rely on minute variations, abstractions, and interpretations of note values, durations, and blocks of musical timing – all applied in a bodily context to evoke movement in dance.
There are some practical possibilities for applying regular beats within electroacoustic contexts. Shiau-uen Ding’s work on synchronization with tape and piano music might call this a “steady strict rhythmic relationship,” but I also see this as an outcome of funk being about rules: a complex relationship between pre-recorded material and live performance is made possible by this common rhythmic reference, to be disintegrated when needed, and in relationship when needed. David Ogborn offers insight into how pulses can give all manner of practical and aesthetic possibility to a laptop-based orchestra:
What happens instead is that the rapid underlying cycles of pulses give the orchestra (individual members and the group as a whole) a way of controlling moments of synchrony (things that happen at the same time tend towards perceptual fusion), material distinctions (things that happen at different times and places tend to stream separately) and density (things that happen only on a certain pulse versus on sets of pulses or in the space between pulses). This control has a flexible granularity, in that one can specify something as simple as ‘make this sound on every downbeat’ or as involved as ‘begin this sound a gesturally controlled short period of time after every 13th pulse, with no regard to the length of the underlying pulse cycle, and continue the sound until 2.5 seconds after a separate gestural control on brightness passes a certain threshold.
What are some genuine options for electroacoustic composers to interact with beats inside of their works? Of course, many electroacoustic pieces might find beats inappropriate, or simply not aesthetically viable. There is of course, no requirement for beats like there might be in various pop electronic styles – this is perhaps one way to approach a genre distinction as well. However, when it is a possibility, the inclusion of beats – even with the purpose of deconstructing them in the course of a single work or an oeuvre – offers some unique possibilities within electroacoustic music, beyond the practical-sync ones mentioned above.
Since a lot of younger musicians develop their skills either primarily on mobile and computer DAWs, or these alongside acoustic instrument studies, “beat-making” as an early skill gives young musicians a language with which to approach electroacoustic music that emerges from their communities and their own interests. This is not to say that students shouldn’t be exposed to composers and musicians from more experimental and historical sources – they absolutely should encounter these possibilities. However, a real access point for them conceptually and practically exists at this collision of their developing skills in music theory, music history, and computer music techniques. In interviewing my early Studio Recording and DAW I students, a majority of them from across ethnic, economic, and stylistic backgrounds approach music production through rhythm. Thus, to encourage them “to have something to say that can only be said in the near-future,” as Adam Harper describes, not only do I work to expand their notions of what production entails, I would also hope to use beats as a building block for them to explore new sonic possibilities. Rhythm becomes a connective tissue for typically-excluded musicians who only need the slightest push to embrace and explore electroacoustic musical approaches.
Aesthetically, playing with listener expectations, providing the possibility of dance (even “Mental dance” as Erik Davis describes it), and the evocation of regular metronomic pulse in various pop styles without giving one’s work over entirely to a pop structure – all of these offer points of conceptual and musical exploration that sits at the heart of so many electroacoustic works. Ogborn’s approach is worth considering in this respect:
Within a general context of engaging with pulse-structures without necessarily or directly engaging with popular or traditional musical genres, the distinction between entrainment (brought about by pulses and the expectation that they will continue), distraction (when the periodicity is longer than 5 seconds or so, leading to a different type of listening) and boredom (when material is too predictable) represents a useful conceptual tool (Emmerson 2008). By aiming for an interplay between entrainment and distraction, we can sidestep genre expectations without discarding the potential enjoyment, interest and perceptual orientation effects of beats.
The dissolving of audience and performer given embodiment in certain dance music venues and communities is a point of possibility for electroacoustic music, not a signifier of “less-serious” musical events. The discomfort that certain atonal approaches evoke in a listener can be an analogy to the discomfort one might experience going to an ostensibly “art-music” event and finding moving human bodies not merely there as observers (indeed, consumers), but there as participants – welcomed into a music they might not even have semiotic understanding of, that meets them at various levels of embodied consciousness and sub-consciousness.
Rhythmic beats are a potential de-colonizing force contra the basic assumptions of electroacoustic music that resists regular pulses and beats a priori. This is of course, not to say that the presence of a beat inoculates a given composer from long-standing musical traditions rooted in the assumptions of primarily Euro-centric art-music. Nor does the exclusion of a beat automatically promote a given work of music from a club to a concert hall. However, for those rooted in various communities that have been excluded on aesthetic levels (or relegated to “ethnic” musical forms), rhythmic approaches within electroacoustic music can reclaim and offer new departure points for composition, performance, and the building of ever-new languages of imagination.
With thanks to Ethan Hein for providing sources and conversation to better approach this topic.