BLOCKFLUTE & ELECTRONICS
Recorder repertory making use of electronics has increased exponentially in the last 10 years in all kind of formats (written music, improvisations, music theater, multimedia collaborations). The diverse areas of electronic and electro-acoustic music are presently very popular among performers, composers and technicians. Rapid advances in computer technology have made it possible for almost anyone to manipulate sound in a live environment (such as concerts, installations, broadcasts) to establish professional home studios, even to control a full electronic performance via a mobile telephone; a possibility unimaginable only ten years ago! The gear has become more and more portable (smaller, wireless, lighter), you can find all kind of software on-line, microphones and effects have become every time more affordable. With a laptop, microphone and a proper interface you can basically run great performances.
Three branches have been responsible for major milestones in the development of electronic instruments in the past 100 years: Electronic Music, Electro-Acoustic Music, and Live-Electronics. Let’s take a quick look at them.
What is Electronic Music?
A lot of people would always wonder what electronic music is and its origin. Basically, electronic music refers to music that utilize the capacities of electronic media for creating and altering sounds. Electronic devices used to produce electronic music include computers, sound synthesizers and Theremin.
Example of Theremin
The pioneering potential of electronic instruments to serve music was already recognised in the first half of the twentieth century by composers such as Edgar Varèse and John Cage.
“I believe that the use of noise…to make music…will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments…which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. Photoelectric, film, and mechanical mediums for the synthetic production of music…will be explored. Whereas, in the past, the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future, between noise and so-called musical sounds.”
(John Cage, lecturing at the Seattle arts society in 1937)
Experiments in electronic tone production began soon after the invention of the vacuum tube. The first important instrument was the Theremin, invented by the Russian Leon Theremin (1896—1993) in 1920. The earliest pieces of electronic music used recorded sounds that were then electronically altered to create sonic collages. This style, called musique concrete, was developed in Paris in 1948 by Pierre Schaeffer. The invention of the tape recorder in the late 1940s gave composers new means for modifying recorded sounds, including splicing (cutting the tape to create new juxtapositions of sound), speed variation (which changes the pitch of the recorded sound), and mixing (which allowed two or more different recordings to be played back at the same time). Linked with the radio broadcasting networks, experimental music studios were founded (RTF-Paris, WDR-Cologne) leading to the composition of what is seen as the pieces of electronic music.
Examples vacumm tubes
During the 1960s synthesizers were made widely available by companies such as Moog and Buchla and found widespread usage in rock music. In 1983 the MIDI standard was agreed on by synthesizer manufacturers. MIDI stands for Musical Instruments Digital Interface. It is a protocol that enables computers, synthesisers, effect processors etc. to communicate with each other. Today MIDI is widely used in both academic and popular musical production.
De YAMAHA-DX7 was a very successful synthesizer in the 80’s. Many bands used it in all kind of formats, including people artists like Queen, Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, Yes, Toto and U2, just to name a few.
What is Electro-Acoustic Music?
The term ‘Electroacoustic music’ designates a musical orientation based on the use of electroacoustic devices for the conception, production, presentation, storage and/or cognition of works. Electroacoustics uses sound sources as diverse as natural sounds (which can be picked up by microphone), analog electronics (produced by equipment such as synthesizers) and digital (generated or processed by digital means). These sources may subsequently be processed and organized by electroacoustic techniques or by digital means before, in many cases, being stored on or presented by an electromagnetic medium. In actual fact, electroacoustics cover a complex of artistic production and research, ranging from a simple concert presentation or pedagogical application to an elaborate combination of multi-media events covering all degrees of combinations of instruments and electroacoustic means and computer-based research, not to mention the types of music which accompany dance, theatre, the visual arts, installations, among others, as well as the sonorization of locations, ambient and environmental musics, advertising, cinema, special effects, etc. The frontiers of electroacoustics are flexible and adapt themselves as much to the contours of technological evolution as to creative innovations.
Jorge Isaac and the head of the Theremin Centre Andrei Smirnov (Moscow, 2007)
What is Live electronics?
Tape pieces by Pierre Schaeffer, Edgar Varèse, Bruno Maderna, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and John Cage stand at the beginning of the enormous outgrowth of electronic music in the form of tape pieces, an outgrowth that made the musical world almost exclusively refer to tape compositions when the term electronic music was used.
Some composers realised that a concert of tape music without a live element could be unsatisfactory. Berio, Stockhausen, Maderna, Cage, Kagel, David Tudor, Cornelius Cardew, had an interest on the use of electronics in live performance.
The term live electronics was introduced to distinguish electronic music compositions from works for tape wholly or largely based on live synthesis. Live electronics refers to electronic music performed in real-time in a concert situation where performers make use of electronics devices to create sounds and/or other ingredients of their performance.
Electro-acoustic music categorisation
There is a standard categorisation of electronic and electro-acoustic music:
a) Music on recorded media (“tape-pieces”, exists only in a recorded format as a fixed medium, also called Acousmatic music).
Listening tip: Williams Mix (1952/1953) by John Cage (1912-1992)
b) Music for traditional instruments and recorded media (for example, tenor recorder and TAPE)
Listening tip: Sin Descanso (2002) by Roderik de Man (1941)
c) Live electronic music that uses new, specially constructed devices to trigger equipment (for example a wind controller)
Listening tip: Michel Waisvisz - Hyper Instruments
d) Live electronic music that utilises traditional instruments as the source for processing and triggering (for example contrabass recorder + computer running software MaxMSP)
Listening tip: Hendrix (2006) van Jorge Isaac (1974)
You should be aware of the difference between the use of “live electronics” and the use of “recorded media”, meaning music on any “tape” format (CD, DVD, DAT, etc.).
If you play a piece with “tape” background and some amplification (category b), you are NOT using live electronics, just tape & amplification. If you claim that you’re using live electronics, your recorder should be the (main) source for sound processing and (de)activation & control of your chosen media (category d).
Composition and Electronics
You don’t need to be an experienced composer in order to write a new work with electronics. What you should have in first place is a clear idea about the vocabulary, the type of sound and eventually the live interaction you are looking for. The best approach is to have close contact with the player you would like to write for.
Blockflute & Electronics, how did it all started?
The same way than with other instruments. Curious players, composers willing to experiment, research towards analogue and digital sound production, music centerss interested in the topic, the outgrowth of electronic studios, concert organizations and festivals offering possibilities to perform this type of music, etc.
The Blockflute has endured an amazing development in the past 50 years. During the 70’s up to middle of the 90’s the use of electronics was however pretty much limited to concerts with amplification and TAPE. In the Netherlands, a few number of players were pushing the boundaries to make the instrument present in the field of electronics, such as Walter van Hauwe with his numerous improvisations and collaborations with composers and Michael Barker with his ‘e-recorder’. In July 1998, van Hauwe organized a major event in Recorder and Electronics, the ‘2nd International Blockflute Festival’, featuring 6 full days of exciting concerts at the Ysbreker (Amsterdam). The enormous impulse given by this festival, together with the beginning of affordable laptops able to run professional audio software, as well as a young generation of players, formed a turning point in professional recorder playing and the use of electronics.
Photo of the eRecorder (courtesy of Cesar Villavicencio)
Routing the electronic gear
A wide range of equipment is available nowadays. Think about economy of hardware use, in order to avoid too much weight and unnecessary money investment. A smart and creative approach to these devices will give you extraordinary results.
You can organize the gear in many different ways! Let me start by telling you how I started with all this years ago. When I was about 16 years old, I had my own pop-rock band, I played electric guitar, I even sang some times… We played cover songs and own titles. In my mind I had a divorce between my academic Baroque recorder playing and my ‘cool’ band with guitar, drums, keyboard, bass, brasses, etc. One day I just brought the recorder to the studio, I played using the vocal mike and the effects of my electric guitar; we improvised a bit and hurra, all of the sudden I had a fully amplified instrument, with a chain of effects, perfectly melting with the sound of a pop group (you can listen by the way to tracks of this band called ‘Bugambi’ via iTunes online store; CD released in 1995). My conclusion at that moment remains the same inspiration source I have nowadays:
1) forget about any taboos
2) make sure you know the vocabulary of the style (jazz, pop, rock, classical, reggae, what ever)
3) have the right gear and know how to use it
4) dive in the possibilities and have fun!
The access to information has changed substantially over the past years. You can find a bunch of writings, video tutorials on the internet. You can follow workshops for instrumentalists, or a masterclass in the topic. In Amsterdam I teach my students how to work with electronics, addressing the existing repertory and the necessary tools to develop their own ideas. I see how the young generation picks up things very quickly, and it gives me the certainty that, with a proper guidance, recorder players can achieve interesting results fairly quick.
The first step to do so, is to get access to some gear (either by buying, borrowing, renting). You need a mike, amplification, some effects, a computer (preferably a Mac laptop) and software (I strongly recommend MaxMSP). You need to organise your set-up in blocks of functions:
- The acoustic instruments (the unmodified sound of the recorder)
- The interface between the recorder sound and the electronic equipment (microphones)
- The sound processed by effects
- The generation of MIDI
- Modification of MIDI produced
- Sound modules operated through MIDI, where the original sound of the instruments is modified
- Mix of all sound sources
The following graphic illustrates the ABC of how to connect the gear.
What are the possibilities when we combine Blockflute and Electronics?
My personal motto is ‘The only limit is your own imagination’. If you ask me what are the impossibilities of the Recorder in combination with electronics, my answer is a solid ‘none’ (!) It is however extremely important that you have some general background about the genre and that you have an idea about vocabulary.
First you should think as a creative individual (either with amateur or professional level) and then you translate those thoughts into recorder playing (that is, the recorders you would like to use, the kind of music you would like to play, will it be solo or chamber music, will it be classical or jazz, pop or fusion). If you are not experienced with the use of electronics and you try to achieve results right away by thinking through your current abilities, then your artistic product will be seriously limited by the knowledge you have today. Listening to relevant compositions of electronic music and the works of other wind instrumentalists (not only recorder players!) will definitely open your horizon.
How does it contribute to the development of an own instrumental sound?
I always like to consider the use of electronic devices as ‘extensions’ of your instrument. With these extensions you can enhance, augment and transform your instrumental expression. All aspects of instrumental playing needs to be re-examined: blowing, articulation, sound colour, tunning, etc. The electronic extensions will ultimately create a new way of thinking towards any instrument, that is technical, practical and playing demands.
This is an adventurous path that I warmly recommend you to experience!