Book Review – Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic by Curtis Roads
We consider an excellent and thorough survey introduction to the field of technologically produced music by a well-known expert in the field.
by Warren Burt, Jan. 2016
Curtis Roads has been well known in computer music for his encyclopedic surveys of the field. His “Computer Music Tutorial” (1996) covered just about every aspect of the field at the time. And at over 1200 pages, it was absolutely thorough, yet written in very clear readable prose. His 2004 “Microsound” was an exhaustive covering of granular synthesis and related fields: again, very readable. Now he has released another book, equally thorough, with the title “Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic.” Again, the writing in the book is a marvel of clarity and concision.
As the title implies, Roads is here concerned with electronic music in the broadest sense, and is very serious about what distinguishes electronic music from other forms of music, such as film music composed to score and recorded by acoustic musicians, pop albums put together in the studio by bands and producers, classical scores for orchestra or chamber groups, etc. The incredibly widened pallets of timbre, processes, and techniques made possible with electronics (which can, of course, be used in other forms of music, such as those just listed) is his focus here. But he’s not doctrinaire about what he considers “electronic.” As he writes, “I chose “Electronic Music” to refer to the general category of analog and digital technologies, concrete and synthetic sound sources, and systematic and intuitive computer strategies.” And again, he says, “If anything, ‘Composing Electronic Music’ is more of a guidebook: a tour of facts, history, commentary, opinions, and pointers to interesting ideas to consider and explore.” His very clear writing takes into account the perceptual and physical reality of how we hear; in fact, he considers the facts of human perception/cognition as the very baseline for all musical theory and practice.
(Full disclosure: I’ve known Curtis since our days as students together at the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1970s, and I’ve followed his career, writing and music with interest throughout all these years.)
It should be said at the outset what this book is not. It’s not a how-to manual that will guide you through any specific software, or tell you how to write in any particular style (although Chapter 12, on mixing, has a number of specific suggestions that I hadn’t seen anywhere else before). Rather, it tries to deal with each of the elements of music in the broadest possible way. For example, Chapter 6, “Processes of rhythm,” is not only about beats (for example), but about the entire phenomenon of rhythm in music, from the smallest progressions of tiny sound grains up to the hours-long macro-rhythms of an opera. Not only does he deal with rhythm as we might commonly know it, but he also deals with (for example) the rhythm of harmonic changes, the rhythm of vibrato, the rhythm of a piece’s structure, the rhythm of the breath, etc. Periodic pulsation and meter, what we might commonly regard as rhythm is covered, too, of course, but only as one part of a larger examination of all matters temporal in music. He talks about how time, pitch, space, amplitude, and timbre can all contribute to the articulation of rhythm in music. Following on early 20th century experiments in rhythm by composers such as Henry Cowell (who invented the first rhythm machine, the Rhythmicon), Edgar Varese (who wrote the first all-percussion piece) and Conlon Nancarrow (who wrote some of the most rhythmically complicated music ever for the medium of the player piano), Roads deals with all kinds of polyrhythmic ideas, and all kinds of flexible rhythmic changes which technology makes possible. In short, his approach to rhythm is multi-scalar, dealing with all scales of rhythm from the micro to the macro.
Similarly with Chapter 7, Pitch in Electronic Music. Not only are the common notes of the Equal Tempered scale considered here, but the entire realm of frequency in electronic music, from the lowest sub-sonic to the highest super-sonic, is dealt with. Within the range of frequencies that we perceive as “pitch” he then explores what a pitch is (made up not only of a fundamental but also upper partials); what it is we are hearing when we hear something as “pitch;” the role of pitch in consonance and dissonance; tonal and nontonal pitch systems, microtonal pitch systems; constantly varying pitch; pitch as one pole of a pitch-noise continuum; pitch as one pole of the pitch-rhythm continuum; as a component of timbre; etc. All time-scales of pitch perception are also covered, from the almost instantaneous impulse (less than 1 millisecond in duration) and grain (where pitch first appears > 14 milliseconds in duration); through the sound-object time scale of the note, chord or cluster; through the “meso-timescale” of harmonic melodies and progressions; up to the macro-timescale of the drone and sustained tones, something which electronic instruments excel at.
Each of the chapters of the book is similarly wide ranging. “Aesthetic foundations,” “The nature of sound,” “Creating sound materials,” “Sound transformation,” “Articulating Space,” “Multiscale organization,” “Sonic narrative,” Generative strategies,” and “The art of mixing” are the names of the other chapters, and each one goes into great depth. From all this it might seem that Roads’ book is most suited to various kinds of “avant-garde” or “experimental” kinds of composition, and although it’s true that composers of those kinds of music will profit greatly from this book, in fact, composers of ANY kind of electronic music will find much to admire and use here.
The book has companion website ( www.oup.com/us/composingelectronicmusic ) which has sound examples – 155 of them. Some of these are excerpts from pieces by a wide variety of composers, while others are simply sounding examples of whatever is being discussed at the moment. (More full disclosure: Sound Example 7.5 is my Etude 22, in 43 tone Equal Temperament, from my 1993 composition “39 Dissonant Etudes.” I was quite amazed and complimented that my work was chosen as an example!)
In short, if you want a great overview of just about any aspect of the field of electronic music, you’ll find it in this book. Clearly written, with a minimum of mathematics, it’s the kind of book you can refer to time and time again. I’m definitely going to be using this book in my composition classes this year! And that’s about the highest compliment I can pay to a book in this field.
Curtis Roads: Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic
Oxford University Press, 2015
Prices from Amazon.com (USA): Kindle edition: $14.35 USD; Hardback: $99 USD; Paperback: $36.24 USD.