An Ode to Electronic Instruments in the Arts

This piece appears as the opening in my second book, The Electronic Arts of Sound and Light (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983). I'm posting it on my website because the basic principles in the statement continue to represent the fundamental philosophy of my work in technology, the performance arts, and education. My "virtual group", The Real* Electric Symphony, was in the 70s what today would be called a "media band" or more precisely, a performance-multimedia band. It was a "virtual group " in the sense that I engaged specific performers for specific gigs from an extensive collection of performance artists; the majority lived in the San Francisco Bay Area with others spread across the USA and Europe. In other words, the composition of the R*ES changed according to the requirements of the gig; the size of the group ranged from three to as many as thirty performers. In the early 80s I was involved with a number of other performance media bands (The Sonoma Electro-Acoustic Music Society in California and The Real-Time Composition Band in Texas) but I discovered that the best way to make a living from these activities was to hire myself out for residencies around the USA to produce performance-multimedia events that showcased local performance artists in the context of my visual music work. Rather than using a single title such as Ephemeral Forms: Mother Musing's Flight Patterns, today I work with an extensive set of my specially designed performance-multimedia modules that I adapt to various local situations.

I recently (October 1996) ran across the website of David Rosenboom, a composer and administrator at California Institute for the Arts who is advocating an approach to teaching music very much in tune with the principles laid out in this essay. Rosenboom is in a position to make a difference in today's university music education scene. He and CalArts could very well take the lead and contribute to the creative flowering of a struggling university music scene which for far too long has been unduly influenced by highly specialized historians, pedagogues, and instrumentalists. The heart and soul of music are nourished by creative activity which by nature is generalized, interactive, and integrative, a perfect match for a liberal arts approach to education. Yet the vast majority of music curricula assiduously avoid creative work. When it is included it is usually shunted off to the side as special classes for special people taught by a special person. Just because an institution offers composition, or jazz, or electronic music does not mean it is supporting a creative environment; usually the focus is strictly on materials, instruments, and history. Exploration, experimentation, personal discovery, personal expression, and group dynamics are usually avoided in favor of toeing the institutional line. From time to time, when it's in style, the creative approach to music becomes the fleeting object of lip service from administrators trying to be identified with the creative forces in our society. David Rosenboom is in a position to be the exception.

What follows is the essay exactly as it appears in my book.


An Ode to Electronic Instruments in the Arts


Ephemeral Forms: Mother Musing's Flight Patterns is the title of a long series of music and performance events produced by the author and associates under the banner of The Real* Electric Symphony. Since 1973 the majority of the events have been produced in the San Francisco Bay Area; others have been presented throughout the USA, in Rio de Janeiro, and on tour in Europe during 1977 for international festivals in Munich and Bourges and series in Paris.

The Real* Electric Symphony (R*ES) is a changing international group of composer/performers concerned with the integration of sound, light, movement, and environmental design. The range of instrumentation includes: wave synthesizers for sound, video, and lasers; traditional and recently invented acoustic instruments; microcomputers; film, slide, video, and laser projection systems; light sculptures; dancers and theatrical elements. The composer/performers range in age from 18 to 83 years and represent the gamut of professional artistic and academic career evolution.

The artists in the R*ES are involved in an art and social process called "real-time composition." The process calls for specially designed and always different composition/performance formats based on the nature of the performance space and the number and specialties of the participants. In designing events, great care is taken to elicit and support each artist's particular perspective so that every event is unique and has a far-ranging and kaleidoscopic character. The R*ES performs in museums, colleges, community art centers, artist's studios, concert halls, outdoor plazas, and on radio and television. One of their primary concerns is to make their work available to the general public in as many forms as possible.

The Ode was written in celebration of the process referred to in the title [Ephemeral Forms: Mother Musing's Flight Patterns] after it assumed a coherent and articulable form. It was first presented at a colloquium in connection with Intermuse, a five-day Festival of New Music/Media hosted by Larry Austin at the University of South Florida in 1975. Intermuse was an international meeting of composer/performers whose work employed the full range of new art media. In attendance were Mary Ashley, Larry Austin, Joel Chadabe, James and Mary Fulkerson, Jerry Hunt, Ben Johnston, Hilton Jones, James Lewis, Edwin London, Salvatore Martirano, Dary John Mizelle, Stephen Montague, Jocy de Oliveira, Joseph Pinzarrone, David Rosenboom, Elliott Schwartz, Josef Sekon, Donald Walker, Arthur Woodbury and the author. The agenda included colloquiums and panels presented by the participants and concerts featuring the compositions and performances of those in attendance. The Ode, Ephemeral Forms: Mother Musing's Flight Patterns, was first presented as one of the colloquiums on the opening day of Intermuse.

Ephemeral Forms: Mother Musing's Flight Patterns

Discovering the air waves above the meeting of hills, the flight of the hawk is an ephemeral form. Though often motionless to the eye, the hawk's event is based on streaming analog computations of invisible fluctuations in the passing air currents that speak the cosmic language of instantaneity, The hawk and the real-time composer/performer are students of that language:

Ephemeral Forms: Mother Musing's Flight Patterns

Alternative: Retard the Decay

Focus forward or back to the side. Concentrate on what is happening or what happened a bit ago, which is sure to be blurred because you were concentrating on what happened a different bit ago while the bit ago presently being considered was happening. Retarding the decay necessarily requires focusing attention on past bits ago. A singular preoccupation with retarding the decay constitutes the pursuit of the past and contributes to the atrophy of creative faculties.

Consider real-time: following a frisbee riding on a gust of wind or Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe on a loose-ball fast break. Consider clock-time: waiting for the 7:25 bus or retiring at 65. The future shocks when real-time is fixed by a clock.

A field is a dynamic multidimensional matrix having a center of gravity and a center of levity. The force of gravity is based on regeneration requirements, and the force of levity is based on radiations produced by creative assimilation and reflective resonance. Resonance is a dynamic state of being that occurs in a system when it is excited by an external stimulus with coincidental wave characteristics.

From the center of the field the leading edges of the waves of time expand simultaneously in all directions, but not in phase, nor at the same rate, yet are vulnerable to crossing currents according to interactive wave characteristics: frequency, amplitude, shape, polarization, velocity, direction, and changes in acceleration. An event is a collection of fields joined by coincidental properties serving to create and reinforce an identity.

It is easier to live in the past than in the future because fields existing as leading edges receive far fewer messages in the form of reflections and emanations from future events (which occur ahead of the average time) than from past events. The past carries with it the accumulation of reinforcements to such a degree that it takes on weight and assumes the power and clumsiness of gross matter, whereas the future is sensed in ephemeral forms without the aid of established linguistic systems other than intuitive symbolic analogues of ancient archetypal truths.

The past is comfortable habit. The beauty of the future is that it is immaterial and can only be known during the instant and can only be relatively located. There are no tools to measure it, to weigh it, or compare it. The future appears in ephemeral forms having a half-life of instantaneity.

The material of composition is process, continuous activity. Real-time composition is the activity of convincing waves to become particles but respecting their freedom to change state immediately according to general field conditions.

The stuff of music is energy. The flow of energy is based on a difference in potential that creates the conditions for symbiosis, exchange, and synergy. Energy flows in waves subject to complex transformations determined by the fields with which it interacts. Music is an articulator and transposer of waves emanating from the center of individual fields. Depending upon their relative transparency, those fields can function as lenses focusing and organizing cosmic energy in living forms continuously adjusting their characteristics according to the current state of the collective field.

Music is always one field in a collection of fields. To have maximum impact, music must organize itself to include the participation of all positively biased systems and free elements. The composition of musical events is an integral aspect of the composer's sphere of activity. Larry Austin's Intermuse, an event designed to create a new, ephemeral center for a multidimensional matrix of active composers representing individual fields of great complexity and focusing power, is real-time composition of an extremely high order. A process that encourages its subsystems to offer personal perspectives in the way of positively biased contributions to the art of living sound needs no external effort to retard its decay, Internally it will generate the form and power to resonate truly and to reverberate well in the past and future.

Real-time is all we know. Clock-time is all we cannot know because it is impossible to measure anything with a tool larger than the thing being measured. There can be no tool to measure the instantaneity of real-time; the measuring tool would change its form with real-time and would be inseparable from the nature of that time. Instantaneity, the body of ephemeral forms, is here and gone simultaneously. Events are fields that have found a center. Real-time is what we understand as the flow of events, the living process. It has an ephemeral form whose changing elements and subsystems maintain continuity with past events, provide the energy for current events, and create the base for future events.

Past events collect in the unconscious and echo eternally. In unmeasured time with the grace of God they will resonate with one another and reinforce a pattern of partials that sets the universe to ringing. Eureka! The discovery of another natural law. A new sensor to receive nourishment for the system. A quantum leap. Inspiration. Prana. A breath of fresh air. A whole new ball game! With new rules embraced as they are sensed to be true and old rules discarded when they are no longer consonant.

The offspring of past events are created by the intersection of matrices, spheres of reference with mutual though previously unknown areas of attraction. Past events and their offspring function as a tuner to receive and process current radiations and reflections. Though guided by the predispositions of existing fields, the tuner at its finest has a range and accuracy that expand and improve with stimulation and assimilation.

Real-time is fed by the future and focused by the past. To maintain regeneration the future and the past must be balance on the leading edge of the present. Balance is a dynamic state. It is the process of simultaneously receiving and adjusting to current information passing through the field. The limits of the range in which balance operates are themselves dynamic states subject to general field influences. The limits are extended according to the level and character of current stimulations and past assimilations.

A continuing search for a metatheory of music has led to the notion that the power of music to influence or communicate is based on the principle of resonance. On every structural level, music is characterized by wave behavior, that is, the evolution of dynamic forms that are analogous to all that we sense as the movement of life. Music creates a field of sublime power by influencing wavicles not yet identified, specifically those of life fields that are responsible for organizing and controlling all physical, psychological, and spiritual attributes.

Imagine discovering an instrument that is modeled on the flow of life; that can serve as a direct extension, radiator, and articulator of a composer's view; that embodies the collected thoughts of visionaries in the sciences and the arts; that invites the composer to enter into a circuit with activity and meditation; that beams energy to the composerÕs center, which transforms and reflects it into unique and ephemeral forms analogous to that center's perspective, biases, inclinations, and tendencies. Imagine that instrument. It is an electronic wave instrument, a synthesizer by whatever name it is called - Sal-Mar, Buchla, Synthi, Pinzarrone, Beck, Moog, Sekon, Tcherepnin - they all produce electric waves that offer a synthesis of perspectives, a virtual history of science and art to the real-time composer/performer who needs to continue the song and dance.

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