The term acousmatic in its contemporary usage refers to music in whose performance one doesn't see the cause of the sound events heard. Detaching music from its traditional association with acoustic modes of production, such as musical instruments, acousmatic music explores the mediums of analogue tape or digital sound file. In concert there is no performer other than the person at the mixing desk, controlling the minutiae of the channels playing through the speakers.
It was Pierre Schaeffer, the French radio engineer and originator of musique concrète, who introduced the term acousmatic into contemporary musical discourse, seeking to designate the nature of sound as revealed by developments in technology. In doing this he took recourse to an old story told of Pythagoras. It is said that the students of the ancient Greek philosopher in their early training received the teachings of their master from behind a veil, so that they might focus only on his voice (like the dog listening to sound from a gramophone on the HMV logo). Schaeffer felt that this condition marks 'the perceptive reality of sound as such, as distinguished from the modes of its production and transmission' – that sound's true nature is free of the visual, to which we ceaselessly and unconsciously tether it.
Following Schaeffer's instigation of this line of thought, theorists of acousmatic music have tended to see it as a 'meta-aural' medium – a mode of music that enacts the condition of sound in general. With its ability to theoretically synthesise any possible sound, and to replay a sample of any sound recorded, acousmatic music is something like a projection – or performance – of the human faculty of hearing per se. In listening to acousmatic music, we hear dramatised our own ability to listen.
Since the early 1980s, the Inventionen festival in Berlin has been dedicated to airing what is current in electroacoustic and acousmatic music and sound art, presenting the listening public and the electroacoustic music community with the fruits of recent work in the area. A scene exists for electroacoustic / acousmatic composition with its own concerns, composers and audiences, and which doesn't often cross paths with the scene for acoustic or instrumental music; and a festival is a good chance to hear a lot of its music at once.
In terms of 'what's new', the recently developed Wave Field Synthesis system of sound projection was aired here at the opening concert of the festival, held at the Technische Universität. There has been some buzz among sound aficionados about the WFS system; though I must say when I heard a performance making use of its at the Agora festival in Paris last year I wasn't particularly impressed (of course this may have had as much to do with the music as the technology).
The main part of the festival was held at the serene environs of the Villa and Kirche St. Elisabeth in Mitte. The programme of events included three installations, of which I saw one: Stratum, by Yutaka Makino.
Entering the stone building of the Villa one heard the rumblings of a massive sound. The sound grew and became more defined as you walked up the stairs to the first floor, where, upon entering a darkened room, you were greeted with an intense wall of sine tones and frequencies ranging across the spectrum, clashing and jostling with each other, tied up like an immense audio ball of yarn. This took place alongside an array of red laser beams shone centrifugally from a source in the centre of the room. Walking around the room you felt how the sound changed, as you ran your hands through the thin red beams of light, which gave you a limited sense of vision. Although comparatively simple it was very effective: ample scope was given for the participant to lose him- or herself in the experience of the artwork, something which doesn't happen so often with more composer-oriented (rather than audience-oriented) works.
For the concert series, held over five evenings, this year's festival welcomed among its other featured composers a sizeable contingent from Birmingham. They were accompanying the Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre – or BEAST – which was set up in the church for a series of concerts entitled 'BEASTory'. The BEAST sound system was impressive visually, seeming like the internal skeletal structure of some absent mechanical creature (hence BEAST, presumably); and it was also impressive acoustically, the forty or so speakers spread around the church's interior allowing full scope to the spacialisation of different channels of sound.
On the two nights I attended concerts, the works varied in their interest. The audience numbers, on the other hand, did not, the venue being more or less full to capacity – quite astonishing for a concert series of this type. Had the concerts been held somewhere else, in London for example, there wouldn't have been half the number of people in attendance.
Jonty Harrison's BEASTory, composed especially for the festival, opened the first BEASTory concert. Harrison, who studied with Elisabeth Lutyens, has had a distinguished career and is the director of the BEASTory project. His piece convincingly mixes quasi bowl-scraping sounds (a little reminiscent of Autechre's VI Scose Poise) with some muffled vocal samples in a Brum accent. An involuntary sneeze at the end from an audience member provided a cadence to close the piece. Other highlights of the first concert were Maurits Fennis's Nuages – short, sweet and 'atmospheric' (forgive the pun) – and Richard Barrett's SIMORGH, noticeably darker and more violent than the other works, and all the better for that, opening with an octave drone, reverbed and sounding as if heard within a room, and closing with an excruciating rising, pitched up sound.
An interval followed and then the second concert. Ron Kuivila's Study (in grey) is a minimalistic piece foregrounding shifting movements in white noise, reminiscent of leafy trees blowing in the wind, or the sea drifting in on the shore. It benefited to my ears from a concentration on one type of sound. Much of the works from the younger student composers, although technically impressive, were compositionally guily of not leaving much room for silence and trying to fit as much into their allotted space as possible.
Hans Tutschku's Firmament – schlafos made impressive use of the myriad speakers in the auditorium. A female vocal, singing a-capella for streches, was divided up into many different channels, sounding at once intimate and at a distance. Shintaro Imai's Figure in Aperture welcomingly had a visual part, projected onto a screen at the front of the hall, whose abstraction mirrored that of the music.
Friday's BEASTory 3 concert featured Francis Dhomont's Le travail du rêve, which dramatises the processes of conscousness; Eric Bumstead's BlckWnd, a dark work whose closing explosive sound resonated loudly throughout the church's acoustic; and Lucia Ronchetti's Interlude 2, a slow and semi-static piece which gradually over its course introduces flute- and other woodwind-like tones.
The aim with much of this music, it seems to me, apart from exploring techniques of spacialisation and so on, is one of evocation: if a piece is successful, and its elements of sound and process cohere, it transports its listener from where they are to someplace else, subsuming the immediate sound environment by simulating another one. This aim of evocation you can observe by looking around at the members of an audience while a given piece is being played over the sound system: many will have their eyes closed, 'attuning' themselves to the sound, following it to where it would go. In the concert situation there is some need for this because of the lack of any visual element; there is no performer as such, and no point in looking at the speakers. So instead, we try to imagine that world the music evokes and by which it lays claim to our attention. In this sense the visual is the hidden destination of the acousmatic, despite the supposed break from visuality occurring at its origin. Rather than breaking sound free from visualty altogther, it breaks sound free from the domineering visuality of the present. It would be of interest to compare this with other forms of art, such as opera or cinema, where the audience's immersion in that world being presented to them is total, and is the negation of their 'actual' surroundings. The aim here, it would appear, is roughly similar.
The Australian composer Denis Smalley, one of the best thinkers of acousmatic music, has labelled our insatiable desire to link sound to a (usually visually defined) source as 'source bonding'. The second night's BEASTory 4 concert ended with an excellent piece by him, Valley Flow. Preceding this was Pei-Yu Shi's Movements, a beautiful quiet piece of high-pitched flutterings, a garden for the ear. And earlier Julien Guillamat's De part et d'autre presented us with an audio journey from Paris to Berlin, featuring samples of Paris Metro jingles and airplane engines as heard from inside the plane, the former stirring up unexpected memories in this listener's mind.
By Liam Cagney