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  • Models of Constructed Sound: Nonstandard Synthesis as an Aesthetic Perspective
  • Luc Döbereiner

This article deals with aesthetic and philosophical aspects of a body of sound-synthesis techniques that is often misrepresented and discounted. Although my aim is not the description of specific historical situations, I will proceed by historically contextualizing the idea of “nonstandard” synthesis. This discussion will primarily focus on two historical approaches: the nonstandard sound-synthesis techniques developed by composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Gottfried Michael Koenig, and Herbert Brün in the 1970s, and early 20th-century sound-synthesis experiments such as drawing sound on film (Levin 2003) and László Moholy-Nagy’s ideas concerning the transformation of sound-reproduction devices into sound-production devices (Moholy-Nagy 2004 [1922]). These approaches are characterized by a close connection between sound synthesis and strongly articulated artistic positions.

This article does not present the development of sound-synthesis techniques as a chronological history of technological progress. I will rather view the history of sound synthesis as nonlinear, as a history with many bifurcations, in which ideas do not undergo continuous, progressive developments, but in which they reappear, transform, merge, and coexist. The approaches presented are, therefore, not intended to be historically comprehensive. I will, however, try to extract philosophical and aesthetic roots and implications that I deem relevant to the current situation of electronic and computer music.

These approaches to sound synthesis will be discussed as aesthetic perspectives. What unites the nonstandard techniques is not so much their rejection of harmonic or acoustic models, but rather both their intention to bring together ideas of music and ideas of sound, and their recognition of the interdependence of the means used and the possible artistic and aesthetic ideas.

This article also attempts to defend the nonstandard approach against the stigmatizing criticisms that regard these techniques as purely speculative, far removed from empirical reality, and negligent toward the perceptual effects of their audible output. I will try to show that they instead offer profound, critical, and musically radical views on composition, technology, and sound representation.

The aesthetic perspective presented is not the position of the authors of the nonstandard synthesis systems of the 1970s, but my interpretation of, and inquiry into, those system’s philosophical and aesthetic implications. In the process, I will argue for the need for an axiomatic disorientation as the basis of creating new possibilities.

In the following five sections, I will discuss these approaches and look at them from different perspectives. After a brief general discussion of nonstandard synthesis, I will deal with some precursors of nonstandard synthesis and the sound-synthesis systems of Koenig and Brün. Subsequently, I will deal with models of sounds. In the last section, I will discuss some implications and positions regarding technology and its development.

Nonstandard Synthesis

The composers Koenig, Brün, and Xenakis independently developed a number of sound-synthesis methods in the 1970s that have been termed non-standard. This term was coined by Steven R. Holtzman to contrast with standard synthesis:

Standard approaches are characterized by an implementation process where, given a description of the sound in terms of some acoustic model, machine instructions are ordered in such a way so as to simulate the sound described

(Holtzman 1978, p. 1). [End Page 28]

The term “standard approach” is used for differentiation. Its counterpart is the “non-standard approach,” in which “the computer acts as a sound-generating instrument sui generis, not imitating mechanical instruments or theoretical acoustic models,” (Koenig 1980, p. 111) and is described by Holtzman as follows:

The non-standard approach, given a set of instructions, relates them one to another in terms of a system which makes no reference to some super-ordinated model, . . . and the relationships formed are themselves the description of the sound

(Holtzman 1978, p. 1).

The differences between standard and nonstandard sound-synthesis methods are differences of sound production principles. Standard methods are based on physics, acoustics, and psychoacoustics, whereas nonstandard methods are based on compositional ideas of sound and musical organization.

The nonstandard systems are rooted in the belief that electronic and digital means allow “the composition of timbre, instead of with timbre” (Brün 2004, p. 189...


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