Moulton Laboratories
the art and science of sound
Issues pertaining to the composing of “minimalist” loudspeaker music for home theater arrays
David Moulton
Moulton Laboratories
June 2006
1. The aesthetics of loudspeaker music

Power Chords, Polyphonic Trains and Plain Old Phase

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PDF article download:  issues_pertaining_composing.pdf
Abstract:
Loudspeaker music composed for home theater loudspeaker arrays is subject to a different set of aesthetic principles and production problems than is music (live or otherwise) prepared for concert presentation. Issues of scale, timing, dynamic range, spectral range, sonic materials, reverberance, the treatment of spatial issues and listener expectations will all be discussed.

A Note About the Aesthetics Underlying This Musical Genre

Loudspeaker Music

Loudspeaker music, as a private domestic experience not subject to the constraints and tribal rituals of concert performances, can be much more expansive, meditative, relaxed, informal and playful than live performances. Because the realization of this music is mechanical, length is only subject to (a) limits of the storage medium and (b) demands on the time constraints, patience and attention of the listener(s).

Because it is now possible to easily and economically incorporate a complex surround array of phase-locked loudspeakers into domestic spaces, it is possible to create complex musical interactions between loudspeakers (as solid sources) and also to create complex artificial sonic environments, ambiences and sonic immersion in ways that have not been possible until the past twenty years. In turn, these sonic environments can be extremely satisfying for domestic listening, as a primary listening experience, as background music for reading and other domestic activities, as music in support of meditation and as music in support of healing.

To date, not much has been made of these capabilities and potentials. It is important to recognize that they are extremely idiomatic for loudspeaker performance and they have the potential to generate musical experiences of great beauty, power and nuance.

Machine Music

“Machine music” is my term for music that is based on the realization of more or less complex mechanical patterns, both rhythmic ones and larger physical cycles. A fugue might be characterized as machine music. In the early 20th Century, considerable music was written that used this idea as a primary organizational element. Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” is an excellent and quite familiar example of machine music.

Loudspeaker music is particularly well-suited and idiomatic for machine music. The processes we use for the production of loudspeaker music lend themselves to the generation and resolution of mechanical patterns that are both fascinating and beautiful to behold. In particular, I find the processes of reverberance, and the tension/resolution qualities of complex phase shifting of disparate artifacts vis-à-vis each other to be fascinating natural processes.

Minimalism

“Minimalism” refers to a stylistic movement initiated by a group of painters, sculptors and composers working from the mid 1960s to date. A key feature of the minimalist style is the use of extremely simple materials and structures, often in extensive repetition. In music, Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier are well known for their minimalist work.

I have found more inspiration, however, in the work of sculptor Donald Judd [1], whose work usually consists of extremely simple structures in repetition that have come to represent, for me, “visual phase shift.” Other sculptors whose works have been inspirational are Michael Heizer [2] and Ingvar Cronhammar, who create extremely large, simple shapes or voids, shapes that often can never be fully perceived or examined. In Cronhammar's case [Elia] [3], the sculpture may interact with nature in ways that are both violent and potentially dangerous. Much of the interest and quality of these works lies in their mystery (and danger potential) as well as in the texture of the materials themselves of the objects or of the envelopes of the voids.

Several key aesthetic features pertain to such work:
  • an extremely large scale
  • simple shapes, often in multiple iterations
  • slight variations in each iteration
  • juxtaposition of iterations so that variation in light, texture and color are revealed, and change as a function of viewer perspective.

1. Donald Judd, Nicholas Serota, ed., Distributed Art Publishers, New York, 2004
2. Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, NY houses numerous examples of works by Judd and Heizer, in addition to several other minimalists. More information can be found at: http://www.diacenter.org/bindex.html
3. Elia url http://www.elia.dk/engelsk/index_eng.html
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