“The power and circulation of music technology, and the use of electro-acoustic music in all of its incarnations have greatly expanded in the years since SEAMUS started. I think that SEAMUS has been an important force in this evolution, and I trust it will continue to be so in the future.”
—an interview with composer Barry Schrader
Schrader began composing electronic music in 1969 while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was also organist for Sunday high mass at Heinz Chapel. He graduated with an MA degree in musicology and then went to the newly formed California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, where he received an MFA in composition in 1971. He was appointed to the School of Music faculty of CalArts in 1971, and has been on the composition faculty ever since. Las Vegas, and Beijing Central Conservatory. The founder and first president of SEAMUS, Schrader responds below to questions posed by Jon Appleton that prompt reflection on the past, present, and future roles of SEAMUS.
Jon: As the essential founder of SEAMUS, do you think the organization has fulfilled the direction you envisioned?
Barry: Yes, and no.
When you, Jon, in 1983, returning from the ICEM (The International Confederation of Electroacoustic Music) meeting in Bourges, contacted me and several other composers in the field, the electro-acoustic music world was a very different place than it is now. Accepting your call to work on the formation of what became SEAMUS, what I saw as its mission became the stated goals of the organization:
• 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 electro-acoustic music both in the US 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 for electro-acoustic music
• To attract a wide diversity of members and supporters
• To advocate licensing and copyright concerns.
We, the founding and early members of SEAMUS, earnestly tried to accomplish all of these goals. Some of these quickly became difficult. I had been working on a plan with Yamaha for a series of broadcasts, but that fell through. An archive was created at the University of Texas at Austin, but it never developed in a major way. Both of these goals were eventually made somewhat irrelevant by the development of the internet, where the storage and instantaneous availability of data allowed for easy access, especially to sound files.
Other goals seemed to have been easier to accomplish. The national conferences became successful very quickly, and they continue to be an important series of events today, especially for emerging composers of electro-acoustic music in the academic community. This has been one of SEAMUS’ main successes. But my idea of creating a diverse community of composers and performers never materialized. Looking back, it was probably naïve of me to think that this might be possible. There was, and to some extent still is, a sort of invisible wall between the academic and commercial music worlds, although academic music programs are increasingly offering more commercial music classes. This is because of several recent developments, not the least of which is the death of high art culture and the demand for more practical career-based curricula.
With regard to publications, SEAMUS has had an inconsistent history. There was a serious effort to generate publications in the early years, but now, again because of the internet, printed materials seem superfluous. Still, SEAMUS could have done more with its internet presence in the past. I’m happy to say that this has now been corrected with a new and excellent website. As for technical matters, the internet has provided a wealth of information from individuals and companies, so the need for SEAMUS to provide this is no longer there in any major way. A means for sharing information among composers online is important, and, to an extent, this is being provided by the CEC in the operation of their list server, which is open to all.
Working with ASCAP, one of SEAMUS’ earliest supporters, has been valuable, particularly with regard to how easy it is now to register electro-acoustic music. Even after the y copyright was introduced in 1971, it was difficult to register and get reasonable credit from licensing organizations for electro-acoustic music works.
A lot has changed since SEAMUS was formed thirty years ago. Electro-acoustic music is no longer a novelty; overall, in one shape or another, it has become the dominant form of music production in developed countries. Institutional studios are no longer necessary for the creation of electro-acoustic music; everyone can have a studio in a laptop. Access to electro-acoustic music, in all of its many genres, is instantaneous; there’s little need for specialized collections, except, perhaps, for archival purposes. But with universal dissemination and availability, the currency of all recorded music has fallen to almost nothing. It’s ironic that those of us who are involved with technology for the very existence of our music must also acknowledge the direct correlation of the rise of technology with the fall of the value of recorded music. At the time I’m writing this, most of the national societies for electro-acoustic music have disappeared. The international organization, ICEM, has been gone for many years. But SEAMUS remains, and has, I think, recently become revitalized. The national conferences are still important and well-attended, the new website shows great promise, and the series of recordings by member composers remains an important resource.
When you begin a journey, you’re never certain of what might happen. SEAMUS continues to fulfill several of the goals that I hoped would be realized thirty years ago. Some of the original goals have become realized by other means, particularly the internet, and a few have become irrelevant. It isn’t easy to sustain an organization that is almost entirely run by volunteers. SEAMUS’ continued and successful operation is, in itself, a testimony to its importance and durability.
Jon: At the last SEAMUS conference did you think the music was representative of the field world wide?
Barry: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on this at this point in my life.
I’ve seen styles and philosophies of electro-acoustic music come and go over the decades. Often this has to do with when and where composers are making music, and also what technical resources are being used. When personal computers took over from control-voltage analog systems in the mid-1980s, few would have imagined a later resurgence of interest in analog systems, but that happened over a decade ago, and now some composers have switched from computers to analog systems. It would have been difficult to predict in the 1960s that the Schaefferian-based style of concrete music would become the dominant approach in the academic electro-acoustic music world, not only in France and the rest of Europe, but also in the U.S. and Canada. Another important development has been the use of computers and other digital devices in improvisation and processing of live acoustic material. Laptop orchestras have been around for some time, and improvisation, in all types of music, seems to be increasingly popular.
What I noticed at the Wesleyan SEAMUS conference was pretty much what I expected: a predominance of the French-influenced acousmatic style for fixed-media works, and live works that were often improvisational and/or interactive. There were compositions based on algorithmic procedures, but not as many as I might have expected. A few of the live works seemed to me to have been carefully composed along more formalistic lines, and some of the scores for video works exhibited a greater degree of independence as opposed to certain other fixed-medial works. Very few works used purely electronically-generated source material.
The technical level of all of the works was very high, and technical prowess of even young composers in the medium today is very impressive. But there’s no question in my mind that people, especially students, are influenced by the styles and techniques that they find surrounding them. I’ve had faculty at certain institutions tell me that they have to compose a certain type of music in order to fit in, and I think this is unfortunate. I think academic programs in electro-acoustic music are doing a wonderful job of giving composition students technical skills. When it comes to compositional approaches and styles, however, a lot of academic electro-acoustic music seems to me to be stuck in a locked-groove. The commercial use of the medium rarely seems more inventive to me.
In the 1960s, Leonard Meyer said that musical style had entered a period of stasis. There were no major forces of stylistic cohesion, no coalescence of ideas or approaches, no dominant styles or directions. A composer could use any technique or procedure from any period of music history, combine them any way they wished, and it would all seem to be “contemporary.” I don’t think that has changed, but, personally, I don’t see this as negative. I have found this a great opportunity to synthesize my own personal compositional style.
Jon: You continue to be an active and distinguished composer. Why have so many of your generation stopped composing?
Barry: Composers seldom state why they’ve quit composing. Age is certainly a factor. In the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic, there’s an article that discusses creativity and aging, and it mentions, among other studies, one (done by Dean Keith Simonton at UC Davis) that states that a “classical” male composer typically writes his first major work at 26, peaks at about the age of 40 (composing his best work and producing his greatest output), and then declines in production, doing his last significant piece at 52. Perhaps women composers fare better. With age usually comes increasing illness, loss of energy, and, perhaps, a sense of ennui, so it’s not surprising that some composers might stop composing as they age. But many composers continue to compose at they get older, and the quality of their output doesn’t necessarily decline; it’s an individual situation. Personally, I consider the compositions I’ve done since the age of 50 to be better than my earlier ones, but others may disagree.
I’ve known composers who worry about what to do for their next work, especially in light of what they’ve already composed. At one point in a composer’s career, they will have done their best work. But knowing when this has happened is probably impossible to recognize. Sometimes composers think they’ve said all that they have to say, and so, they stop composing. Some composers also worry about doing something new, especially since there is such a huge historical legacy of musical creation to consider. I think there has been too much emphasis placed on novelty in music and art in general over the past 60 or so years. But there’s no question that the past weighs heavily on many composers, and this only increases with time.
Most non-commercial composers in the U.S. and other countries could never support themselves with their music in the world outside academia. In fact, most composers working in any style today are hard-pressed to make money from their compositions. Many of us composing non-commercial music have taken teaching positions in order to support ourselves, so, in a sense, today’s colleges and universities are somewhat like the western medieval church that supported artists in an otherwise unfriendly world. But some composers in academic positions, for a variety of reasons, may lose interest in composing and continue to compose only to protect their positions. These composers often quit creating when they retire because composing has become irrelevant for them.
Some composers lament the possibility of finding an audience for their work. That’s increasingly difficult in today’s world. While the Internet provides opportunities to disseminate music, the sheer number of people who are doing so makes it difficult to distinguish one’s self in a sea of sound. There are many thousands of composers in today’s world, and very few recognized arbiters of taste or quality. We’ve reached a point when anyone can claim to be a composer, author, poet, video artist, etc., and few will challenge their declarations. The realities of the very nature of today’s musical world could be enough to discourage people to give up composing.
Jon: You were absent from the organization for many years. Specifically, what was the reason?
Barry: In, I think, 2003, the SEAMUS Board decided to join and contribute money to a consortium that was formed to commission Mario Davidovsky to compose two new works, Synchronisms Nos. 11 and 12. This was in honor of his 70th birthday in 2004. While I have great regard for Mario and his work, I was against doing this unless the Board took a vote of the entire SEAMUS membership and received their permission to contribute to the consortium. This is because, unlike the SEAMUS CD series and the SEAMUS student awards, funneling the money collected from members to a specific composer for a commission had never been one of SEAMUS’ stated goals, nor had this ever been done in the past. I told the Board that if they gave the money to the commission without getting the permission of the majority of the membership, I would leave the organization. The Board refused to take a vote, and so, from that point until this year, I haven’t been involved with SEAMUS. I know that there were other rumors floated around about my leaving, but this is the only reason I did so.
Jon: What could be SEAMUS’ engagement with electro-acoustic music in other countries?
Barry: To be honest, I have no idea.
In the past, SEAMUS engaged with other national electro-acoustic organizations in mutually beneficial exchanges of concert production. These were highly successful, allowing performance opportunities for several composers, opportunities that might not have otherwise existed. Today, however, many of the foreign societies have disappeared or are moribund.
I have always thought that the main focus of SEAMUS should be to serve its members. How and if SEAMUS could work with the few remaining foreign electro-acoustic music societies is something for the Board to consider. Perhaps there are opportunities, and if there are, and they seem like positive prospects, I’m sure the Board will examine them.
SEAMUS’ goals and activities have changed with the times. The natures of the music and academic worlds today are very different from when SEAMUS began in 1984. The power and circulation of music technology, and the use of electro-acoustic music in all of its incarnations have greatly expanded in the years since SEAMUS started. I think that SEAMUS has been an important force in this evolution, and I trust it will continue to be so in the future.