The Future of Electronic Music
by David Westling
(written Mar. 2007, revised 2017)
Electronic music, from its “heroic” period around 1955 onwards, has held a special promise for those looking for a way to continue to explore the mysteries of sound that began with the the dissolution of the traditional structures of tonality brought into focus by the So-called “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s Liebestod and certain works of Chopin and Liszt and reaching an apex of sorts in the work of Arnold Schoenberg and therefrom to points beyond. In the later 19th century something that is now termed the “emancipation of the dissonance”, a term introduced by Schoenberg, arguably reached a point of emergence. Schoenberg was more astute than most in arriving at a raison d’etre for the new forms: in his conception the "emancipation of the dissonance" functions as a way to get beyond the will to comfort which, in his view, is the hallmark of the modern age. A pertinent quote from his Harmonielehre of 1911 illustrates his thinking on this matter. "Our age seeks many things. What it has found, however, is above all: comfort...the thinker, who keeps on searching, does the opposite. He shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved." The process which animates this emancipation of the dissonance is articulated nicely by Jim Samson, as put forward in his book Music In Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality 1900-1920:
“As the ear becomes acclimatized to a sonority within a particular context, the sonority will gradually become ‘emancipated’ from that context and seek a new one. The emancipation of dominant-quality dissonances has followed this pattern, with the dominant seventh developing in status from a contrapuntal note in the sixteenth century to a quasi-consonant harmonic note in the early nineteenth. By the later nineteenth century the higher numbered dominant-quality dissonances had also achieved harmonic status, with resolution delayed or omitted completely. The greater autonomy of the dominant-quality dissonance contributed significantly to the weakening of traditional tonal function within a purely diatonic context.”
Many contemporary composers construed this movement towards dissonance as connected with the emancipation of society and humanity. And so the stage was set by the onset of the 20th century for a quantum leap into a new realm of the emancipation of the dissonance and the musical mind: Electronic musical instruments.
Karlheinz Stockhausen, the noted electronic music composer, writing in 1977 in connection with his own composition Sirius, summed up his view on its possibilities thusly: “One perceives how the newly discovered means and structural possibilities of electronic music can awaken in us a completely new consciousness for revelations, transformations, and fusions of forms, which would never have been possible with the old musical means, and become increasingly similar to the art of metamorphosis in nature.” Can this new means really fulfill such an extravagant vision? In addressing this question I want to explore certain viewpoints, both from within the discipline of traditional music theory and also from the standpoint of the psychology of music.
To start, I refer to an article published by the Varèse scholar Chou Wen-chung in the v. 5 (1966), number 1 issue of Perspectives of New Music, “The Liberation of Sound”. This is compiled from a few lectures and statements Varèse made between 1917 and 1961. The earliest of these statements, those from 1917, were originally published in the iconoclastic periodical 391 edited by Francis Picabia, the notorious Dada instigator, and reveal many close contacts between certain key currents of modernist music and art. One sentence in this early statement strikes me as particularly interesting: “Why, Italian Futurists, have you slavishly reproduced only what is commonplace and boring in the bustle of our daily lives.” This statement finds its echo in the words of Marcel Duchamp made toward the end of his life in which he comments on the signficance, or lack thereof, of the Futurist movement in painting: “The Futurists were strictly a continuation of the Impressionist movement. I was not interested in continuing this trend.” Here is Varèse again from the 1917 statements in 391: “Music should pulsate with life” and the new sounds generated by advances in technology should “lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm.” I would like to expand on this idea, for Varèse makes further comment on it in the 1936 article exerpted by Chou in the 1966 compilation of statements. Varèse here makes a point of of distinguishing between cadence and rhythm: “Cadence or the regular succession of beats and accents has little to do with the rhythm of the composition. Rhythm is the element in music that gives life to the work and holds it together. It is the element of stability, the generator of form. In my own work, for instance, rhythm derives from the simultaneous interplay of unrelated elements that intervene at calculated, but not regular time lapses.” In his understated way he is offering here quite a radical reconceptualiztion of musical form. This complements what he said earlier in the lecture: “When new instruments will allow me to write music as I conceive it, taking place of the linear counterpoint, the movement of sound-masses, of shifting planes, will be clearly perceived. When these sound-masses collide the phenomenon of penetration or repulsion will seem to occur. Certain transmutations taking place on certain planes will seem to be projected onto other planes, moving at different speeds and at different angles. There will no longer be the old conception of melody or interplay of melodies. The entire work will be a melodic totality. The entire work will flow as a river flows.”
Varèse closes by comparing the genesis of his compositions to that of crystal formation. He quotes an unnnamed minerologist concerning this process: “The internal structure is based on the unit of crystal which is the smallest grouping of the atoms that has order and composition of the substance. The extension of the unit into space forms the whole crystal. But in spite of the relatively limited variety of internal structures, the external forms of crystals are limitless.”
We have here in these statements, it sems to me, a way to begin to evaluate to what extent music escapes the confining strictures of the past. One could use it like one would use a checklist. Does the music depend on “the old conception of melody or the interplay of melodies”? Is it encumbered by the old diatonic scalings? Does it depend on a regularized structure in terms of repetition and cadence, instead of pulsating with its own inner rhythm? Does it fail to move beyond the traditional limits of tone and dynamics as embodied in the compositional conventions of music as it existed before Schoenberg, exemplified by its flagship instrument, the piano? One might wish to argue that to the extent that it fails on these levels, it aligns itself with the forms of the past, and cannot partake in the exhilarating voyage of discovery described by Stockhausen that I referenced above.
How does one then make additional progress in moving away from the old limited forms and the ideas which inform them? The literature at the intersection of psychoanalysis and music seems to me to be a most frutiful line of inquiry. In reaching down into the lower, more obscure levels of psychic functioning one could arguably formulate and achieve the kinds of results that would yield Stockhausen’s “revelations, transformations, and fusions of forms”.
One interesting example is an essay written by Richard Sterba, which appeared in American Imago, Summer 1965, called “Psychoanalysis and Music”, a survey of the relevant literature appearing up to that time. He admits at the outset that most of the articles at this intersection of disciplines are “highly speculative”, but presses on bravely nonetheless. He cites a paper by a certain Frieda Teller, called “Musikgenuss und Phantasie”(“Enjoyment of Music and Fantasy”), which quotes from Hegel: “Music captures our consciousness which does not find itself opposite an object, and due to this loss of liberty it is carried away by the flowing current of tones.” Sterba expands: “This emotional surrender to the tones abolishes the flow of intentional processes and leads to an abandonment of the outside world and a submission to a hallucinatory regression in form of phantasies and memories…music, like dreams, slip actions, and neurotic symptoms are expressions of the mentally repressed.” This is coupled to another observation: “Primitive music is more narcisssistic, modern music is more object-libidinous.”
Sigmund Pfeiffer, in his paper “Ausserungen Infantil-Erotische Triebe und Spiel,” (“Infantile-Erotic Vocalization, Instinct and Play”) brings it down to the Darwinian level by observing that music has biological roots. The focus here is on such elemental means of expression as the croaking of the frogs at mating time…air becomes eroticized by being taken into the lungs and expressed through the vocal cords. This is music as an auto-erotic expression, and, Pfeiffer asserts, an analogue to hysteria. Sterba then interprets Pfeiffer: “Music is a regression to the pleasure principle of primary narcissism. Object-libidinous tendencies are foreign to it.” What happened to Sterba’s “modern” differentiation? Pfeiffer answers this by maintaining that modern music approximates itself more and more to formal language structures, through its use of increasingly complicated melodies and rhythms; the more it approximates itself to formal language structures, the less it remains music strictly speaking. It will turn from objectless art to artless objectivity if fresh tendencies toward tapping the forces of the psychic regressions into primary narcissism are not reinfused into the musicmaking process. One might be tempted to ask at this juncture, how does this relate to Varèse’s theories?
Another theory Sterba cites, put forward in a 1935 article by Desiderus Mosonyi, posits the origin of music in pain. The pain-scream is transmuted through playful imitation into music. Thus formulated, the songs of early humanity are mourning songs or laments. Mosonyi goes on to maintain that rhythm (or cadence, if we are to follow Varèse’s formulation) takes on the function of blunting the original instinctual outburst of the pain-scream through the use of repetitive structures. His theory of musical composition, as Sterba interprets it: “in the unconscious there is present a still confused dreamlike musical hallucination, which originates from an awkward affective complex. The musical representatives of the complex are allowed to transgress the threshold of the preconscious after connecting themselves with well-established musical formulae and thus are capable of becoming conscious. The affective charge comes from the unconscious; if it is low the preconscious can transform the material offered into a play with familiar forms. If the tension of the latent content is greater, then the transformation needs greater resistance on the part of the censor. Restlessness, frequent change of motives, of rhythm, of harmony, of the feeling tone, melodic and harmonic liberties of the composition will then betray the conflict.” This certainly describes such examples of psychic fragmentation as Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra and much of the modern canon from the early twentieth century onwards.
Electronic music, then, would seem to embody an important continuation and consolidation of the impulses toward atonality and the general dissolution of traditional musical structures as a whole begun in the 19th century. The restlessness born of the increasing dissatisfactions associated with Schoenberg’s “will to comfort” finds a most potent antidote in the confluence of psychic forces which only electronic forms seem adequate to bring into being. But this whole line of development now seems to be stalled, if not actually reversing. This, of course, only replicates the cultural stalling which characterizes the so-called “postmodern” era as a whole. We are trapped in a lugubrious reanimation of already dead forms until such time as the impasse is obviated on a social scale. As the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci so sagely observed, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”