On Electro-Acoustic Music: Reich and Risset – Introducing Giverny McAndry – Part 2

In her last post, Giverny dealt with some of the problems of defining electronic music, and dove into Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques III: Partiels (1974).  Now a discussion of Reich’s Three Tales Act III – Dolly (2002) and Risset’s Eight Sketches: Duet for one Pianist (1989) and some of her conclusions.

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Reich, on the other hand, shows how electronics can still be employed even though the conception of and execution of the compositional process is carried out by human control. Three Tales Act III – Dolly falls into a subsection of electronic music where nothing in computer programming has influenced the outcome as decided by the composer. The piece, scored for vocal quintet (three sopranos and two tenors), percussion (two vibraphones, two snare drums, two pedal bass drums, suspended cymbal and large gong), two pianos, string quartet and pre-recorded audio, has an added dimension to it in being a ‘video-opera’, with visuals provided by Reich’s wife, Beryl Korot; the musical narrative follows “speech melodies” of pre-recorded interviews selected by Reich and Korot themselves.[1]

Emphasis is placed on non-electronic music with the sound samples being altered around Reich’s composition – his method allows the musicians to work up some momentum over one tempo and gives Reich total control over the harmonic movement throughout, rather than letting the music be dictated by the recorded speech.[2] Relating to the ways in which humans were beginning to alter their bodies using technology, he uses two techniques that were only recently available to him: ‘slow motion sound’, where speech is slowed but its pitch and timbre remains unaltered, and ‘freeze frame in film’, where a speaker’s vowel is extended in time so that it becomes part of the harmony in its continuation, intensifying the speech and its content.[3] This manipulation is carried out as part of the compositional process and not as forethought – although there are artefacts of the compositional process present in the final product, these were not pre-programmed formulae and were wholly at the hands of the composer.

Risset’s Eight Sketches: Duet for one Pianist is the first example of a live performer-computer interaction in the acoustic domain.[4] The performer realises the score on an acoustic piano (equipped with sensors and motors) which dictates a second, computer-generated score played by the computer on the same piano. MIDI signals are sent to and from the computer and piano – the computer processes information dependent on both what notes are played and how they are played; the relation between the pianist’s and computer’s role and response is specified in the programming. A simple example of these interactions includes ‘Stretch’, where the computer elongates the intervals played by the pianist by a series of pre-determined, non-integer factors (average fractional values accounting for the normally tuned piano which does not feature quarter-tones or fractional-tones).[5]

More complex sketches include the taking into account of resonance within the acoustic piano’s body, and the use of triggers to change the delay in the computer’s contribution. Although the interaction is decided in advance – and there is therefore argument for this piece’s conception being influenced by pre-determined computer-generated means (like in Grisey’s Partiels), each performance of the piece is unique – no keystroke can be replicated with exact precision; the smallest differences have the potential to change the score being produced at the time of performance. There is no escaping the fact that Risset uses electronics as an active, real-time participant, whether that is defined further as a virtual performer or as live musical instrument.

There is no doubt that the advent and development of electronic music has been a central contributor to the modern musical landscape and that its effects are far reaching. Beyond contemporary composition of ‘serious’ music, the use of electronics in film scores and sound effects, commercial music and popular music is considerable.[6] Indeed, in just a few decades it has lifted music from being almost totally dependent on traditional instruments to music that could use almost any sound imagined.[7] It is for this reason, though, that electronic music, as Salzman writes, cannot be considered a ‘movement’ (see my pervious post) – electronics (particularly the use of computers) are a set of tools which may be used for seemingly infinite purposes. The three pieces highlighted clearly show the lengths to which the term ‘electronic music’ is already stretched, and how weak, therefore, the term ‘movement’ would be to group these contrasting pieces – along with their function and impact – together. To describe electronic music as a movement would be akin to so describing instrumental music or vocal music.  Rather than ‘movements’, they are systems or media with conceptual, technical and cultural implications, the parameters of which are defined by the capabilities of the composers, performers, and their means. These parameters remain mutable as these factors are by no means static.  Change occurs indefinitely.

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[1] Griffiths, P., 1978. A concise History of Modern Music from Debussy to Boulez. London: Thames and Hudson Inc. p.166.

[2] Kostka, S., 1999. Materials and Techniques of Twentieth-Century Music. 2nd edition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc. p.243.

[3] Salzman, E., 1988. Twentieth-Century Music: an Introduction. 3rd edition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc. p.149.


[4]Allenby, D. A Theater of Ideas: An Interview with Steve Reich and Beryl Korot on Three Tales. Chapter 10 In: Miller, P. D., 2008. Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Massachusetts: MIT Press. p.116.

[5]Allenby, D. A Theater of Ideas: An Interview with Steve Reich and Beryl Korot on Three Tales. Chapter 10 In: Miller, P. D., 2008. Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Massachusetts: MIT Press. p.114.

[6]Ibid, p.114.

[7] Risset, J. C. and Van Duyne, S. C., 1996. Real-time Performance Interactions with a Computer-Controlled Acoustic Piano. Computer Music Journal, [e-journal] 20(1). Available through: JSTOR <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3681273> [Accessed: 13 January 2014]. pp. 62-75.

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