- Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic by Curtis Roads
Curtis Roads is a natural person to attempt a compendium of electronic-music composition, as an established composer and author of the authoritative if bulky text The Computer Music Tutorial (Cambridge, Mass., 1996, to be revised 2017; the revision will no doubt remain just as hard to read on a bus). Rather than survey all of electronic music composition across popular and art music practice, Roads accepts a limit to his investigation early on, essentially the territory of electroacoustic art music, and places emphasis on granular techniques covered in his earlier monograph Microsound (Cambridge, Mass., 2002) and most readily applicable to his own compositional practice. A basic nested hierarchy of Roads's preoccupations might be stereotyped by the categories: electronic music electroacoustic art music emphasizing timbral transformation and spatialization ! the aesthetic of Roads's own electroacoustic pieces, most likely involving some element of granular mutation over time.
Roads is an engaging author, well read, and willing to approach a topic from a number of angles. He makes especial engagement with pioneering composers such as Varèse, Cage, Xenakis, Schaeffer, and Stockhausen, that is, the usual modernist male suspects, which is not to deny their historical role. He perhaps quotes from them to excess, at the expense of more recent theory, though plenty of later composers and ideas do make an appearance, and female composers such as Daphne Oram and Natasha Barrett have contributions acknowledged.
This book is not the only manual of electronic music composition, with classic options for electroacoustic repertory including texts by Murray Schafer, Trevor Wishart, and Samuel Pellman, as well as stylistically contrasting volumes such as Rick Snoman's The Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys and Techniques (3rd edn., Abingdon, 2014). Composing Electronic Music is not even the only book to have appeared recently. Worth mentioning are Adrian Moore's Sonic Art: An Introduction to Electroacoustic Composition (New York, 2016, targeting undergraduates studying electroacoustic music, with some technical information on the use of Pure Data and a bias to a certain set of composers typically with UK links) and Leigh Landy's Making Music with Sounds (New York, 2012, aimed at school children encountering electronic music repertory for the first time), as well as the more note-oriented style covered in Winifred Phillips's A Composer's Guide to Game Music (Cambridge, Mass., 2014). Nonetheless, the Roads text achieves a research depth that others lack, even if in turn it sometimes lacks the most practical data on compositional resources. It seeks a greater compass in theory rather than in lists and instructions for particular software and hardware; software that is mentioned is often from personal research projects and no longer running on current operating systems (e.g. CloudGenerator is available only for Mac OS 9; p. 228).
The theoretical assertions are often illuminating, supported by many excellently chosen quotes. Sometimes shortcomings and preliminary propositions are revealed, but this is the price of a braver engagement with research. To voice one qualm, Roads is often compelled to taxonomize compositional phenomena into a small set of discrete categories, such as a basic tripartite classification of the rate of change at a temporal junction (no change/moderate change/fast change; p. 315), or a separation of mutation (any change) and transmutation ('become something else, change identity'; p. 324) that feels forced for the sake of a distinction. Continua of [End Page 675] change, whether correlated or independent over multiple parameters, might have been more true to the spirit of electroacoustic art music. Roads is not the only one at fault here; Wallace Berry, quoted on pp. 326–7, proposes a triptych of reduce/increase/stay the same!
Roads consistently points to music psychology as providing a critical backdrop to electronic-music composition. The importance of music-psychology research into electronic music is a clear need for greater investigation in the coming decades, often ignored by music psychologists and electronic music practitioners alike. Nonetheless, Roads does miss some recent initiatives...