Paradigm Shifts and Electroacoustic Music : Some Personal Reflections

Published in Organised Sound, 20(1), 110-115, 2015.


The author reflects on the past decades with reference to predictions of several paradigm shifts offered in the 1990s, including a broad range of issues from acoustics, psychoacoustics, the role of the composer, compositional models, environmental sound perception, soundscape composition, and the integration of music and context. Contemporary developments that were not predicted, such as the proliferation of compressed audio, the rapid development of sound studies, the elimination of electroacoustic music from state-funded broadcasting, and the proliferation of mobile listening and online sound databases, are also discussed.

I.  Introduction: On Anniversaries, Reflection and Speculation

It seems that anniversaries provide a needed opportunity to reflect on the past history of the subject at hand, and so, along with marking my personal 45th anniversary of electroacoustic composition work, I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the past 20 years of this journal to which I have had the good fortune of being able to contribute eight articles over the years. I will start by recalling the 20th anniversary of another journal, Interface (now known as the Journal of New Music Research), that was marked in 1991 by a symposium in The Hague. In the spirit of pre-millennial anticipation at the time, the theme of the conference invited us to speculate not on the past, but on the future represented by the new century that was on the horizon, and so I obliged with a paper called ‘Musical Creativity and Complexity at the Threshold of the 21st Century,’ which was published the following year (Truax 1992).


Although I am not aware that this paper has been widely cited or discussed, I think it might be useful to review the rather boldly stated predictions contained in that essay from the perspective of a decade and a half into this century on the occasion of the current anniversary. Since the style of this paper is allowed to be more personal and informal, I would also like to refer to another previous essay in that vein, namely my ‘Letter to a 25-year old Electroacoustic Composer,’ published a few years later in this journal (Truax 1999), and if any such young composer read it then, I would be interested to know what they would think of it today. I can also report, with some relief, that in re-reading these publications, I have not found anything particularly embarrassing (as one sometimes does in looking at old scrapbooks), and so I am prepared to re-state and even defend the observations made in these articles, as well as perhaps to re-evaluate and extend them. However, I am also aware of my limits as a prognosticator, and so I think that a sober look at what I was unable to predict back in the 1990s, events both positive and negative that have transpired in the meantime, might help to balance my reflections on the current situation and the challenges that lie ahead.

II. Have Paradigm Shifts Really Occurred?

In my 1991/92 paper, I rather grandly predicted several paradigm shifts towards models of complexity that I saw emerging from the integration of the computer in contemporary music research and compositional practice. Looking back at those statements, I think they were as much an impassioned argument for such shifts as they were a prediction of their occurrence. The first shift, what I called ‘the end of the Fourier era’, argued that new research models of sound were supplanting older, linear acoustic models (Fourier models being the prototype of linearity) by investigating non-linear acoustical phenomena, as well as the quantum level of frequency-time models (e.g. granular synthesis), what we now usually refer to as ‘microsound’ (Roads 2001). There is little doubt that computer-based techniques have influenced these research trends, and on the more popular front, it is not unusual today to see a handheld device producing real-time granular synthesis or granulation of sampled sound. Besides my own documentation of the extensive use I have made of these techniques (Truax 1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2012b), such as time-stretching and convolution, other composers such as Curtis Roads, Agostino Di Scipio (1994) and Michael Clarke among many others, routinely work at what Clarke aptly described as the ‘intersection of time and frequency’ (Clarke 1996). Even in the realm of real-time sound analysis software, although FFT analysis (using a linear frequency model) still dominates, and FFT-based processing techniques are readily available in Max/Msp, logarithmic frequency representations which correspond more closely to the way we hear (based on the resonance response pattern of hair cells along the basilar membrane) are also available in real-time software packages, such as Spectrafoo which is used in our studio.


A related development in the field of psychoacoustics has been an evolution away from the study of independent acoustic parameters used in the classical stimulus-response model (a model made experimentally possible by electronic sound production since the late 1920s). I predicted that more complex, multiple parameter models of percepts such as timbre and volume (Truax 1998) would become more common (supported by current digital synthesis and signal processing techniques). I also hoped that such models of analysis, re-synthesis, and perception would extend towards the very acoustically complex world of environmental sound. In general, the idea is to make psychoacoustics more ‘ecological’ (i.e. related to the complexity involved in everyday perception) rather than laboratory based. Although progress in cognitive approaches to soundscape creation and perception is slower than I would like, there is clearly a variety of research ventures, too numerous to mention here, that give me encouragement. Soundscape composition (Drever 2002; Westerkamp 2002; Truax 2002), as its artistic and social face, has obviously forged ahead, aided by the ease of good quality environmental sound recording, but with the expected difficulty of recordists and composers knowing what to do with these recordings compositionally. To my mind, we are gaining a handle on the inner complexity of sound, but only slowly gaining the means (except intuitively) to address the contextual knowledge that listeners bring to their understanding and interpretation of environmental sound.


Whereas this first paradigm shift seems to have been generally accepted as challenging but largely inevitable, my second shift, which I provocatively called ‘the end of the “literate composer”’, often provoked the strongest push-back, at least from composers trained in the academy. In fact, the response (usually from male composers) was often so emotionally charged that I sensed that I must have hit a nerve that one might call ideological. My sense of the term ‘literate’ was to address the visual component of the score as the central musical artifact, not something broader such as familiarity with music history and repertoire, though that could be discussed as well. I wanted to point out a shift described by Otto Laske (1989) towards rule-based rather than model-based approaches (which seem as firmly ensconced in music schools as ever). Scores would remain, as they have, but not as the sole or even primary representation of music. The rapid development, for instance, of algorithmic compositional systems, ranging from live, experimental music through to the vast game industry’s use of algorithms I regard as proof of the pervasiveness of this paradigm shift.


My reason for arguing this shift was less a critique of existing ‘literate’ practices that have obviously continued to exist, particularly with instrumental music composition, and more intended to point to several emerging ideas about music and the role of the composer, which can be briefly summarized as:

- the composer acts as a guide for a complex musical process, less than someone who specifies every detail of a work in written form, though those involved with languages like Csound will insist that they are specifying an even greater level of detail (but interestingly enough, the ‘literacy’ involved in those processes is very different from that of traditional music)

- musical complexity can be re-thought from just being ‘a lot of notes’ to a re-evaluation of the complex interactions involved, for instance, in fluid patterns of melody and rhythm (which became devalued in post-WWII experimental music); as well as a similar re-evaluation of myth, narrative and ritual as inspiration for the content of new media, as in my first Organised Sound contribution (Truax 1996)

- less emphasis on instrumental music concepts, or what Wishart (1996) terms ‘lattice music’, in electroacoustic music, and more emphasis on timbre/spatial integration, context-based environmental music and the complexity of aural culture(s)

- healing the rift of music and context with the demise of the concept of the abstract, context-free work of art (Truax 2000)

I think I can argue that in the intervening years, I have at least tried to practice what I preached in that article, and have found the resulting new pathways exciting and rewarding. I can also point to nearly every issue of this journal over the past 20 years as providing thoughtful and inspiring contributions to the kind of interdisciplinary approaches I imagined back then. However, from my admittedly biased point of view, I still see a lot of composers struggling with these issues, particularly in the degree to which they accept abstraction as a primary value (and the difficulties that ensue with engaging audiences unfamiliar with the resulting musical language) versus the challenges of effectively integrating music with social and environmental themes and places, that is, relating content to context. Since then I have offered some practical advice on this tricky topic in terms of issues of acoustic sustainability and artistic engagement with the environment (Truax 2012a) with the goal, as I said in the conclusion to the 1992 article, of making ‘sonic experience a vital force in society once again’.

III. What I Didn't Predict

I make no claim to accurate predictions of the future, but I certainly know to avoid glib headline-style generalizations announcing ‘the death of …’ – none of which have ever been accurate, whether referring to opera, the symphony, analog audio or radio. On the other hand, the past two decades have witnessed rapid and pervasive technological change on a scale that few were able to imagine. Back in 1984, I had sufficient awareness of computer music and trends in digital audio that I was able to include a section on ‘the digital soundscape’ in the first edition of my book, Acoustic Communication, and even then it was a safe prediction that digital sounds (of incredible simplicity and therefore ugliness) were already populating our daily lives and would only proliferate. By the 1990s, personal computers and workstations were beginning to acquire significant capabilities for real-time synthesis and signal processing, but it would have taken a gifted futurologist to predict the power and ubiquity of handheld and other portable devices today in terms of audio. Ironically, the same period has seen the proliferation of compressed audio formats, most notably the mp3, and their implications for consumption and circulation (Sterne 2012a), resulting in Cassandra-like warnings of ‘the death of high fidelity sound’, a prediction I’m still worried about if listeners really cannot tell the difference, or care. Another paradox is that despite increased bandwidth (both for dynamic range and transmission speed) and nearly unlimited storage capacity in the digital realm, we have seen the opposite trends: greater use of dynamic compression, as well as widespread use of data compression, and the proliferation of short duration files, sound bites, videos, tweets and so on, with all of the attendant fears about over-saturated users with short attention spans. Although Herbert Simon (1971) famously predicted this attention deficit in an information-saturated age back in 1971 before it actually existed by today’s standards, I still find his prediction amazingly prescient as to what has happened since.

What I did not predict, but obviously welcome with great satisfaction, is the ‘explosion’ as it’s been called, of what is generally now termed ‘sound studies’, particularly in the humanities and social sciences as well as other areas that are embracing the type of interdisciplinary strategies that I find crucial to research in sound. One can simply point to the growing number of publications, conferences, print and online journals and websites as evidence of this trend, as well as the sheer diversity of scholars, in every age group and seemingly balanced in gender, who are involved and interested. When I began teaching acoustic communication and soundscape studies back in the 1970s, it was extremely difficult to find any substantial literature at all for students to read, other than the now classic texts by Schafer (1977) and Ihde (1976) and an odd assortment of articles. This lack was of course my main impetus to write Acoustic Communication, now thankfully in its second edition, but today I have the opposite problem. I easily fill up the course bibliography and the library reserve shelves mainly with books published in the last 15 years, including a ‘reader’ of now classic texts (Sterne 2012b) plus countless anthologies, and then I try to guide students through this imposing array of options, not to mention what they can access online. Although electroacoustic music studies – a welcome extension of musicology – has also developed well during this period, and has embraced soundscape composition as part of its repertoire (Landy 2007; Truax 2008), there still remains a predictable gap between it and what is rapidly becoming mainstream sound and media studies. Scholars outside the area have little or no familiarity with this musical genre or its history and concerns.


The gap is not only in the academic arena, but even worse (I will argue) for the general public. I certainly would never have predicted in 1995 that public broadcasting, such as Canada’s CBC network (but similarly for most others, even in Europe, as I understand), would essentially eliminate electroacoustic music from its airplay. In Canada this began during the latter part of the 1990s – with lamentably little or no protest from composers I was aware of – and became absolute in the last decade. Contemporary instrumental music soon followed on the chopping block, with the last vestige being a single webradio station called ‘Canadian Composers’ which plays contemporary works nonstop, mixing styles and genres arbitrarily, with only the briefest of metadata identification and no educative contextual information, thus creating a strange kind of background listening environment where a harp sonata may be followed by a soundscape composition! The regular timeslots on the CBC’s Radio Two that were once devoted to this music are now populated by ‘indie rock’ with announcers acting like DJs with scripted patter, and this music has taken over the mantle of ‘contemporary music’. It represents a growth area for the embattled music industry, hence the likelihood of governments with economic agendas favouring it. The result, as I see it, is that we now have an entire generation of listeners (or two) who are completely ignorant of electroacoustic music, even among those who profess to have an interest in the arts. The music has no significant public profile, and its younger practitioners have no belief that their work merits the support of the public sphere or even that it contributes to what I call public culture (Truax 1996, 1999).


Why has this happened? A critical political-economic analysis of public culture would probably suggest that the worldwide hegemony of neo-liberal politics attempts to redefine ‘culture’ in economic terms – in short, what sells, not what is perceived as culturally valuable. A vicious circle emerges with the public only knowing what they are exposed to and find available, which is controlled by the investment of advertising dollars designed to produce an audience, and this leads to a gradual withering of public demand and support for the arts. Or rather, arts organizations redefine their strategies for ‘selling their product’ accordingly, and until recently have become so accustomed to arguing for support based on their economic leverage that they have forgotten any other rationale. Niche marketing appears possible, and the Internet famously makes everything a click or two away, as long as you are motivated to do the search in the first place and know what to look for. As obvious as it may seem, education remains a primary necessity for redressing the imbalance between commercial interests and public culture, including the arts, as evidenced by the pressure the private sector puts on the education (and health) sectors. However, I reject the claim that this makes electroacoustic music ‘academic music’ because of its potential to challenge students’ awareness of that creative practice – the commercial world only educates consumers, not artists. Personally I feel that the composer-educator, of which I am one, has a responsibility to provide an alternative to the consumerist paradigm. From a North American perspective, Europe seems to have held out the longest in terms of public support for public culture, but the current financial crises within the EU will likely take a heavy toll in the arts. It would be interesting to make comparisons with other parts of the world in the context of the current level of globalization of the economy.


Another remarkable development that has clearly established historical precedents, but where I would not have predicted the extent and rapidity of its growth, is the proliferation of the personal audio environment, popularly known as the iPod (Bull 2000, 2006). I would like to link this development, which I call ‘music as environment’, to its complement, the soundscape composition, which proposes as a goal the treatment of ‘environment as music’. I have already referred to the artistic aspect of the latter practice in terms of soundscape composition, but here, in comparison to the iPod, I will consider the proliferation of online environmental sound databases such as or to which users contribute tagged recordings. These two developments are usually discussed separately, but they create an interesting dialogue when considered together.


Both practices involve extensive communities of users, in the roles of producers and consumers of audio recordings in large quantities. Although the iPod user may well be listening to a podcast or the spoken word or a soundscape, the majority of its use appears to be to listen to music as a surrogate environment, embedded within an everyday context in order, as Bull (2006) describes it, to manage listeners’ control over the relation of their inner and outer worlds for a variety of personal functions. This listening practice is clearly linked to the long 20th century development of background and foreground music in the environment (Truax 2012b), with the key differences being increased mobility combined with user choice. Anahid Kassabian (2013) refers to the practice as ‘ubiquitous listening’ characterized by lesser levels of attention where music accompanies other activities, and she argues that this produces a kind of ‘distributed subjectivity’ through shared affective responses ‘constructed in and through our responses to acts of culture’ (xxiv) where individuals, machines and institutions are all nodes in a vast network. Ever since the first edition of Acoustic Communication in 1984, I have referred to this practice as the ‘distracted listener’ and as an extension of the type of background listening associated with the traditional acoustic soundscape where all of the same information processing is occurring in the listener, but foreground attention is not required; that is, background listening is still a type of listening, and not one that is necessarily degenerate, as some authors seem to have misunderstood. I was particularly interested in how audio advertising worked in the context of the distracted listener, where the concept of distributed subjectivity seems to play a central role, though unfortunately Kassabian does not make this connection.


With online audio databases for environmental sound, there is a similar detachment of the recording from its original production site, and a re-introduction into another, completely arbitrary context. As common a phenomenon as this is, and I find it interesting how listeners quickly learn to understand such re-embeddings (maybe not at first, but with sufficient exposure), I ask the question as to whether the use of such sound libraries leads to soundscape composition? My answer is, not necessarily, because of some serious deficiencies in the process. For me, the concept of ‘environment as music’ involves listening to the environment (either where one is situated or via a recording) as if it were music, that is, with the same level of attentiveness one might ascribe to musical listening, including its sensual and aesthetic aspects. And here is the paradox, if music listening is now usually ubiquitous and distracted, then environment and music merge as if undifferentiated by their associated listening processes. Or stated in more artistic terms, everything becomes an installation, not a concert, with everyone a curator. I suspect that some will welcome this breakdown of tradition, while others will experience it as a cultural loss.

However, for the composer, or designer if you will, of a soundscape composition, I have suggested that the criteria that describe the genre (Truax 2002) do not necessarily include just the simple use of environmental sound, since synthesized or highly processed works can still be listened to as if they were actual environments, that is, as virtual soundscapes (Truax 2012b). What is more critical is the knowledge of context for both the composer and ultimately the listener, and that knowledge depends on a deeply understood relation to the context of the work, whether a place, a culture or a story. It is precisely this lack of contextual knowledge and involvement with online sound databases that presents the most serious challenge for their use in soundscape composition, in my opinion. First there is the wide variety of sound quality in the recordings themselves, but more significantly, there is usually a lack of documentation about the cultural context of the recording with only minimal information provided. Such databases usually resemble a sound effects library, more than a soundscape documentation project. It is therefore possible that the end user of such recordings has absolutely no experience of, or relation to, the original soundscape and therefore is free to treat the recording as raw sound material, basically an environmental sound object (in an interesting inversion of the original practice of isolating a sound object from its acoustic context through close miking and studio recording).

Soundscape composition, or what I like to refer to more generally as context-based composition, then, is a powerful artistically and socially motivated means of re-engaging both the composer and the listener with real world contexts – and hopefully having something interesting to say about them. The results will not only be found in a concert-style listening environment, but on radio and podcasts, on the web, or even the iPod or wearable computing devices, which may be a trend to follow over the next decade.

IV. Postscript to a Letter

My ‘Letter to a 25-year old Electroacoustic Composer’ (Truax 1999) was inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet from the 1920s, and ended with much the same advice: trust yourself. The topics were similar to those in the more academic ‘paradigm shift’ article, but couched in a colloquial style with minimal references and similar themes to this article, including a paraphrase of Miranda’s famous line celebrating this ‘brave new world that has such machines in it’. In other words, I could write the same letter today.

In fact, some of the cautionary themes in the article seem even more critical today. I spoke of support coming mainly from within the electroacoustic community, but warned that it could be insular and not very self-critical, leading to complacency where you compose only for like-minded colleagues, with little concern for the life-world of a broader audience. I also spoke of the tension between commercial culture and public culture, which I have touched on here as well. While acknowledging the value of increased access to technological tools (the power of which has increased enormously in the intervening years), I also warned that a young composer with access to those tools should ‘have no illusion that originality, artistic validity, or access to an audience are made any easier than before.’ Despite vast changes in the last 15 years, I think these more important issues remain as challenging as ever, if not more so.


At that time, it also was becoming fairly obvious that a young artist’s career was unlikely to be as focused and single-minded as mine has fortunately been, a condition I called ‘post-modern’ in character, and today’s job market, combined with technological saturation and constant immersion in information networks, seems to require everyone to carve out an innovative path, rather than fit into a standard pre-defined mold. As always, the teachers and mentors among us will wonder what is worthwhile for these students to learn, but despite these challenges, I am convinced that the experience of creative energy will always make facing these challenges worthwhile.




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