The Electronic Arts of Sound and Light by Ronald Pellegrino (c) 1983 by Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc. ISBN 0-442-26499-2 excerpts

Chapter 8, Composition

p. 211 - Chapter 8, Composition

Since the 1960s, American composer/performers have begun to explore the rhythmic intricacies of sonic patterns that go in and out of phase with each other. In the mid-1970s a group in San Francisco called Moiré Pulse made such thinking the focus of their works. The ancient tradition of moiré music came to the Western world by way of Africa, India, Bali, and other musical cultures that focused on rhythmic subtleties to a far greater degree than the West.

pp. 213, 214 - Chapter 8, Composition

During the 1980s, digital electronic music systems came to resemble closely the conceptual design of analog systems -- a keyboard or other manual controllers conducting circuits or digital "patches" in software. During the 1970s one of the chief advantages of analog systems over digital systems was that they encouraged thinking in terms of simultaneities and the dynamic flux of coincidences rather than in strictly linear, logical sequences. Digital systems erased that advantage in the 1980s.

Whether a digital or analog system, the main criterion for evaluating a synthesizer as a composer's instrument is the matter of versatility. The system should be able to generate a wide range of interactive processes with time variables from a few milliseconds to many minutes. The system should produce an extensive variety of waveshapes and envelopes. It should be capable of interacting with other electronic and acoustical instruments.

A versatile instrument will have the nature of an open rather than a closed system. In an open system all the functions are capable of communicating with each other as well as with functions external to the system. A system becomes more closed as the number and variety of its communication links become determined and fixed. In closed systems in which all the variables can be controlled or determined, the law of cause and effect dominates the output with predictable correspondences. The creative process is best served by open systems in which all the variables affecting behavior can never be known or controlled and the law of causality is not fully applicable.

One of the early hurdles in the electronic arts is the seductiveness of instruments designed with the intention of presenting all the basic material in an easily accessible form, i.e., preset or prewired synthesizers. Such instruments severely limit the need for exploration and the development of uniquely imaginative musical gestures. The primary value of a general or open system is that is provides the impetus for continuing the exploratory phase over a much longer period of time than would be required with a preset or closed system. It is during the exploratory phase that the composer comes to understand the idiomatic electronic nature of dynamic designs, designs based on multidimensional functions, unfolding structures, transformations, and changing relationships.

The compositional power of electronic instruments is a reflection of their nature as integrated extensions of human sensory and motor functions, the human nervous system, and the human need and capacity for emotional and spiritual expressivity. What sets electronic instruments apart from traditional acoustic instruments is that electronic instruments can be adjusted to respond to a specific environment. The general systems are especially capable of modifying their responses in accordance with outside programming influences. Unlike most acoustic instruments whose basic variables are set by physical limitations, electronic instruments have the potential for infinite variation within and beyond the audio spectrum.

p. 216 - Chapter 8, Composition

An electronic instrument is a complex circuit with numerous levels of functional interaction. The circuit is a collection of components each of which imposes certain predetermined changes on an electronic signal fed into it. The output and input signals differ in some significant way by virtue of the operation of the components. The difference between the output and the input signal is referred to as the transfer function. Composing circuits, i.e. networks of transfer functions, that generate desirable waveform transformations is the essence of the electronic arts.

p. 217 - Chapter 8, Composition

Tuning the patch is the key to creating significantly communicative sonic and visual gestures. Patience, perseverance, and a willingness to explore methodically all the available combinations of minute control adjustments are requisites for learning how to tune. To tune means to find the appropriate balance of fixed and changeable settings for all the variables and combinations of variables in the total circuit design. Such a methodical approach to creativity calls for a good functional balance between left and right brain hemispheres, the respective mental seats of logic and intuition .

In the ultimate circuit design every variable of every function will have one input or more to accept dynamic control voltages. The greater the number of control inputs, the greater the flexibility and interactive capability of the circuit. A quantitative difference in control inputs will bring about a qualitative difference in gestural expressivity. When a system is organized with sufficient complexity, it begins to manifest the qualities associated with mind and feeling. In effect, a complex circuit that is both highly responsive and interactive takes on the aura of simulated intelligence.

p. 225 - Chapter 8, Composition

... In the domain of new formal structures, what sets the electronic arts apart from the mechanical arts is a fundamental difference between the types of instruments employed. Mechanical instruments extend the hand, the breath, the ear, and the eye. Electronic instruments extend the central nervous system. Advances in electronic technology have ushered in an era of experimental art structures that function internally and interact with the external world in an integrative fashion similar to the workings of the central nervous system.

pp. 236, 237 - Chapter 8, Composition

... I also worked with smaller forms that probed the relationships between traditional acoustic instruments and electronic instruments. It is possible for an electronic instrument to rely heavily on acoustic information as its primary source of audio and control signals. The acoustic information may be generated by any conventional instrument including voice, invented instruments, found instruments, junk and funk instruments -- anything that produces sound.

The electronic instrument's role may be biased in the direction of processing, modifying, controlling, and moving (locating) the sound. In effect, it can function as an extender and expander of the acoustic phenomena. When employed in this mode, the electronic instrument's expressive capabilities are greatly enhanced. This is true primarily because the physical coupling between performers and conventional instruments is more highly developed than it is with performers and electronic instruments.

Conventional instruments and their performance techniques have long histories. Refinement requires time. Electronic instrumentalists are working with a performance history dating back only to the early 1960s. In fact, the notion of live performance was not considered very seriously until the early 1970s. The problems related to performer/electronic instrument coupling have been and continue to be identified often enough and with sufficient intensity that electronic music engineers and performers are collaborating in the search for solutions.

It is in the nature of the exploratory process to probe the limits of a field. The process always uncovers much that requires further attention. The resourcefulness of the explorer often leads to temporary and makeshift solutions to previously unknown problems. Once a problem is identified and the temporary solution in examined, the way is clear to designing a more elegant solution. The field of the electronic arts generates a high level of excitement precisely because it is essentially an embodiment of the exploratory process.

The interfaces or coupling devices that give the performer the power to influence, control, or "talk to" the main system in a highly refined manner necessarily follow the discovery and articulation of the need to communicate in a particular mode. Making individual systems compatible and capable of communication is an essential thread in the fabric of human history, including the history of technology and the arts.

p. 243 - Chapter 8, Composition

It is always advantageous for a composer/performer of electronic music to work in real-time, that is, to arrive at a one-to-one correspondence between the time it takes to generate a sound event and the actual duration of that event. Acoustic instrumentalists always work in real-time. A jazz drummer does not find it necessary to splice a series of events together nor to mix down a number of tracks containing the performances of his hands and feet. Instead he patiently builds a performance technique that integrates and coordinates his limbs to function as a direct expression of his musicality. Composer/performers of electronic instruments must learn to do likewise.

Fully understanding and utilizing control voltage systems can multiply the number or electronically simulated "limbs." According to the complexity of the electronic instrument, circuits can be designed that result in musical analogs of imaginary limbs at work. In fact the most musically interesting patches or circuit designs are those that integrate numerous elements into limblike subsystems which, taken together, form a complex instrument of a highly unified nature, an instrument capable of a wide expressive range precisely because it is an ensemble that plays with one mind.

p. 245 - Chapter 8, Composition

To engage in real-time composition presupposes highly developed physical and conceptual techniques. It is helpful to be able to design elegant circuits, that is, those producing an extended range of material yet using the fewest possible number of modules. It is also valuable to understand the principles of producing variations of circuits that involve only a few additional modules yet produce material significantly different from the original.


The most from the least is the primary guiding principle for the real-time composer. Designing patches comprised of subsystems that work together as a small tight band can be exhilarating. A completely integrated patch provides for all musical variables -- melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, timbral, textural, and dynamic. Achieving variety and contrast with a single patch is a test of a composer's resourcefulness in the use of variation, transformation, overlay, and transition techniques.

p. 246 - Chapter 8, Composition

Electronic instruments are perfect tools for studying the general nature of musical interaction and the ephemeral forms that spring from it. All the musical variables are immediately available for change because they represent the operations in a wavetrain produced by a specific collection of electrical variables. Electronic instruments are designed to generate, control, and interact internally with their own waves as well as to provide interactive resources for including external generators of wavetrains.

Electronic instruments encourage the exploration of analogs between musical/electrical systems and organisms whose natural forms are ephemeral, transitory, in a continual state of flux. Such forms tend to be self-regulating. Automatic regulators come into being and play during the evolution of a living structure. The formal unfolding is guided organically from within in response to external forces. A decision is governed by the interaction of predispositions with the available environmental alternatives. Real-time composition is closely related to higher biological systems which, though internally governed, are responsive to external control information.

Cybernetics and systems theory are valuable tools for investigating the nature of ephemeral forms. Cybernetics is concerned with probabilistic rather than deterministic systems. it clearly demonstrates that complex systems produce a class of results rather than a particular result. The field of cybernetics includes the study of mechanical and electrical systems designed to replace human control functions. Systems design is concerned with the analysis and organization of a problem to make it suitable for processing and solution by computers and related electronic instruments. It uncovers a problem's essential elements and relates them in ways suggestive of solutions.

A musically fertile patch is not happenstance. It embodies the analysis, organization, and synthesis of a clearly logical yet intuitively imaginative mind. It subtly controls the bandwidths of the windows on probability. ...

p. 247 - Chapter 8, Composition

Group real-time composition is predicated on the phenomenon of internally organizing microsocieties. Each composition evolves from the harmonious interaction of the current composer/performers. A one-time, nonperishable, irreplaceable event emerges from a group consciousness that ideally dissolves individual egos. The group process encourages serious political change that is always interpersonal; change comes about only when the necessity for it exists. One learns to observe and listen in great detail since it is the total environment that provides the instructions for action. One learns to stop playing when the chain of ideas exhausts itself. The process teaches one to assume simultaneously the three essential roles in music -- composer, performer, and auditor/spectator; the conductor becomes the interaction of the three roles.

Written instructions may take the form of a format or a nonspecific graphic score. A format is a conceptual crystallization to be used as a springboard for play, a brief outline of macrostructural supports, or a germinal idea for development. A format can be in traditional notation, prose, or a combination of the two. A graphic score uses symbols that elicit no fixed or habitual responses from the performers. The meaning of the symbols derives from the total context including the personal and collective histories of the performers.

In both forms of instruction a system suggests the general nature of the composition. The composer/performers move with the system's dynamics in a direction harmonious with the flow governed by the group consciousness. The introduction of appropriate stochastic effects in transition from one harmonic situation to another adds immeasurably to the musical drama of real-time composition.

Back to Contents

Booking information and comments.

©1996-2004 Ron Pellegrino and Electronic Arts Productions. All rights reserved.