Sunday, June 5, 2011

The heart of post modern: Creating new instruments and music to support them.

Bear with me.  Stockhausen created an opera part of which requires an instrumental performance in moving helicopters.  I saw this on video. John Cage creates a work where the player doesn't play but turns a page in time. (It would be easy to say that this is simply a theater piece for a musician to perform, Mr. Cage was a theater composer after all.)  Recent European music plays a lot with timbrel similarity and disparity.  In the vocal realm an opera can have editorial that can't be perceived for hearing the work.
Sound artists create works that are site specific.

These works have a similarity  In effect they are creating new instruments.  That is the instruments are not playing music so much as the "music" creates a singular and unique instrument. Some times its a disposable one performance only work.  Other times its features are reusable.  The "laptop" is not the instrument itself, rather it is part of a larger exploration of time, space, and event. A part of many.

A performance in a moving helicopter implies that the moving space itself is part of a site specific instrument.  Is the video a useful recreation or not?

Naturally all musical ensembles and performing abilities have their particular time and place to perform; chamber music, grand opera, solo piano, recital.  Then where do beginners, advanced, students and professionals and different styles might and in what context perform?  Strictly speaking these rules are no longer the case.  The space can become part of the work.

An orchestra has long been considered an instrument with many performers, so too are bands and many other instrumental configurations.  The creation of "super instruments" that is joining several similar or different acoustic/electric instruments into a single formation or unit that act as one instrument (that is mostly rhythmic or gestural unison) is quite popular especial in Europe. That is combining an instrument with a voice or voices, or electronics as a single formation.  Or the melody, the obbligato, and the accompaniment as one multifarious singularity.  All kinds of composers and sound artists are creating sounds and music that explore and develop these new solo and multi-player instruments.

It seems to me that post modernism is focused on music that creates new instruments, rather than in modernism which used instruments to create new music. If that makes any
sense.  Thoughts?


  1. Paul Muller says:
    June 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    “It seems to me that post-modernism is focused on music that creates new instruments, rather than in modernism which used instruments to create new music. If that makes any sense… Thoughts?”

    This is a good point to ponder because new instruments – especially the digital variety – are proliferating in ever greater numbers. I suppose the short answer is that musicians are trying to create new music with new instruments – but it may be unclear to what extent the new instrumentation is essential to articulate the composer’s musical intentions.

    Part of the difficulty I think is that composers have different reasons for incorporating new instruments. Surely some are going for a theatrical effect (and let us not be too judgmental here), just as some correctly conclude that there is simply no other way to express their musical ideas.

    The lack of performance opportunities for new music is proverbial, so perhaps the issue is much more basic – new instruments lend themselves to the creation of music that does not require performance. So composers are creating music that is best suited for direct distribution to the listener’s ears via the Internet instead of via the concert hall.

    For those of us writing for electronic distribution it has become important, IMHO, to distance our work from that realized by performance. There is no way that a simulated violin will sound like a real player – even a mediocre player. So rather than detract from our music by subjecting the listener to a poor simulacrum, we need to use sounds that carry no aural baggage. Some of these sounds might be borrowed from the environment and some built from scratch – but it is the newness of the sound that clears the listener of preconceptions and opens the way for the musical ideas to be perceived clearly. Hopefully the ideas thus transmitted are new and innovative, but they will be – of necessity – riding on sounds and instruments that are a departure from the past.

  2. Phil Fried says:
    June 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    “…new instruments lend themselves to the creation of music that does not require performance…”

    Paul you seem to be talking about, what is for me is a unity, as 2 different dichotomies. Electronic vs acoustic instruments and real time vs step time performance. Delivery systems aside there are many acoustic works which exist only as recordings. Perhaps I don’t understand what you mean by “performance.” I note that twice you call the visual elements into question and that’s interesting but I think the visual has its place. I don’t see a problem with a visual component either as so much recent music the sounds are subservient to the images.

  3. Paul Muller says:
    June 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm


    Sorry to have muddled the issue – your post addressed, I believe, music performed by musicians and I was attempting to describe music created without the need for players.

    The point I was attempting to make – if a bit off topic – was that if I can write a piece in my PC notation program, sequence it with various instrumental sounds, process it as desired and then put the completed work into a listener’s ear via the internet, I have achieved the goal of having my music heard without having to go through a performance process by actual musicians. New instruments facilitate this and have the additional advantage of not being a poor electronic substitute for the traditional acoustic instruments of the 19th century symphony orchestra.

    So new instruments will have a greater impact – beyond novelty or expressiveness – because they will be the vehicle of choice for composers given the present conditions of limited performance potential of new music by a group of live musicians.

    Perhaps the confusion stems from the definition of ‘performance’ – I am using this term as ‘the act of playing a piece by musicians’ and it can also be used in the wider sense of ‘the act of presenting a live or recorded piece to an audience’.

    But I do think that new instruments will have their greatest influence in the way that new music is delivered – and not just be limited simply to new modes of expression.

  4. Phil Fried says:
    June 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks Paul. I thought that the question of the value of electronic instruments was settled in the affirmative some time ago. For me its a fact. Anyway, as for performance everyone is forming their own ensembles so why not have a virtual one? For myself, I try to cover all the bases.