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  • Forays into Uncharted Territories:An Interview with Curtis Roads
  • Brigitte Robindoré

Curtis Roads is a professor of media arts and technology with a joint appointment in music at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He is also Associate Director of CREATE, the Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology, at UCSB. He is the author and editor of several books on computer music, including The Computer Music Tutorial (Roads 1996), which has since been published in French and Japanese editions, and Microsound (Roads 2002).

In the following discussion, I have chosen to focus primarily on Mr. Roads as a composer, rather than on his experience as a researcher in the field. Should readers require more standard documentation of his publications and a general curriculum vitae, they may wish to visit his home page at Special note will be made, however, of a new double-disc (CD + DVD) collection of his music, POINT LINE CLOUD, which has just been released on the San Francisco-based Asphodel label (Roads 2005). This collection was honored with the Award of Distinction at the 2002 Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria.

Electroacoustic Perspectives

Robindoré: In an article in The New York Times (Crutchfield 1988), the instrumental composer Olivier Messiaen gave his rather remarkable perspective on electroacoustic music:

The ancient musical modes lasted for ten centuries, tonal music only a few centuries, three centuries really. Serial music lasted about fifty years. Aleatory music should last for a few days, Minimalism a couple of weeks. What will last longer, I believe, is electronic music, or electroacoustic music. Some composers do this, some don't; I don't—but even for me it has changed music. I cannot hear the orchestra in the same way, for instance, because of electroacoustic music. It has not yet given us new masterpieces, but it has given us new timbres.

With the vantage point of 30 years in the field, can you concur with Messiaen's opinion concerning the lasting nature of this genre? And what of his comment that the field has not yet offered (as of 1988, that is) any "masterpieces" such as those yielded by Western art instrumental and choral music composers over the centuries?

Roads: What provocative questions! Olivier Messiaen wisely encouraged new music to expand in multiple directions. In my classes, I play his Fête des belles eaux for six electronic Ondes Martenots, which he composed as a young man in 1937.

I would say that we live in a multicultural world where the different genres and styles mentioned by Messiaen never die completely. Because one of the ways that music evolves is through combining styles into a new hybrid, the historical styles continue to serve as an important gene pool for future music.

In the 21st century, many factors align in favor of the electronic medium. In my view, we are in the midst of a golden age of electronic music composition, supported by strong technical and aesthetic momentum. Edgard Varèse's vision for the "liberation of sound" is our reality. In an imperfect world, I am very grateful for at least this.

As to the question of masterpieces, I would say that a masterpiece defines a genre or sets a standard for works that follow. The question of choosing masterpieces is tricky. What are the masterpieces for acoustic instruments since 1950? The choice would have to be quite subjective.

In any case, electronic music gives us more than new timbres; it offers new tools for organizing sound material. New materials and tools lead to fresh compositional strategies based on timbral mutations, spatial counterpoint, detailed control of complex sound masses, graphical sculpting of time-varying spectra, juxtapositions of virtual and real soundscapes, sound coalescence and disintegration, [End Page 11] and interplay between the microsonic and the other time scales that cannot be realized by acoustic instruments. Listen to Forbidden Planet (1956) by Louis and Bebe Barron, which defined the genre of space music. Karlheinz Stockhausen's four-channel tape Kontakte (1960) not only created a fascinating sound world, but also defined a new musical code. Bernard Parmegiani's De Natura Sonorum (1975) is a tour-de-force of...


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