Space in Time

Les Espaces Électroacoustiques II

A collaboration between the Austrian label collegno and the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) at the Zurich University of the Arts, Les Espaces Électroacoustiques volume 2 continues a survey of ‘historically significant’ pieces originally made for multichannel contexts such as radio broadcasts or installations. It’s a convincing package: a pair of SACDs housed in minimalist red digipack with extensive notes in German and English, albeit rendered unwieldy by the booklet being glued to the packaging. Given the heavy word count, this could make for intensive reading. Yet, the aesthetic might also reflect a confrontational attitude towards logistical challenges, which, as the notes make forensically clear, was central to mastering the resources needed to bring this collection into being.

Where volume 1 featured household names like Varèse, Ligeti and Boulez, this one pares down the pan-European scope of the first to just Italy and Germany and features just four composers (Nono, Berio, Koenig, Stockhausen), suggesting on one hand a comparison of concurrent developments in Italy in Germany in the mid-50s to late ’60s, primarily in terms of relations between musicians and electronics, pairings of which feature prominently throughout. However, precedence is given to developments in spatiality, which at the very least means that discerning audiophiles can now enjoy such great works as Stockhausen’s Kontakte or Berio’s Altra Voce in closer to authentic conditions than ever, while lesser endowed listeners can still enjoy them in stereo, with the consolation of not knowing what they are missing.

Situated some 60 years on the period in view, listeners can bear witness to the rapid genesis of an increasingly sophisticated and prescient field of musical endeavour. Luigi Nono‘s early electronic works, taking up most of disc 1, illustrate this swift development. Spanning 1960 – 66, they depict his progression from careening-but-conventional, 4-track concrète collage (Omaggio a Emilio Vedova) to expansive ‘spatial constellations’ inhabited by bellowing actors, clarinets, copper plates and yet more 4-channel tapes (A florest é jovem e cheja de vida). Rendered in mechanical detail by Swiss technicians, these pieces point an accusing finger at decades of successors who have failed to advance at such pace, although compared to Dumitrescu’s calamitous masterpieces or Parmegiani’s naturalistic rigor Nono’s efforts offer but a fairly crude foreshadowing. And, indeed, the leap from 1966 to 1999 to Berio‘s Altra Voce, an electronically enhanced orchestral extrapolation of mezzo soprano and trilling flute, in which loudspeakers were arranged vertically from the back of the stage into the auditorium, reveals the innate claustrophobia of those earlier but quite remarkable works.

The German selection is effectively a Stockhausen filling between two slices of Gottfried Michael Koenig. The composers were acquainted through briefly concurrent tenures at Cologne’s Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) radio station, which Koenig was instrumental in developing and where Stockhausen served as artistic director from 1962, Bookending his tenure as engineer are the ‘serial electronic sounds’ of Koenig’s Klangfiguren II (1955-56), which marks the ‘first phase’ of WDR music and depicts the directional interplay of ‘process forms’ meticulously rendered on grid paper. Although interspersed with silences, this raw, electronic onslaught lacks only a visual dimension, which is compensated for by the surround sound setting. The 11 years between Klangfiguren II and the ‘second phase’ piece Terminus X (1967) saw Koenig refining this machine language into a harsher, more percussive patois; a transition from the relative novelty sounds of early musique concrète to something altogether more visceral. This singularity of vision finds historical counterpoint in Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1958-60): an ‘early example of successful dialogue between instruments and electronics’ with similarly kinetic dynamics to and cleaner acoustics than the Koenig pieces, but leavened with human/instrumental flourishes where the predecessor relies exclusively on those of electronic sound forms.

Heard chronologically, the portrayal of increasingly sophisticated spatiality deftly illuminates one avenue of enquiry – a laborious one for even the technologically more advanced researchers behind the project. As for the dynamic relations between musician and electronics, a cross-cultural comparison between the Italians and Germans becomes necessary. Their respective futurisms express remarkably divergent but stereotypical relationships with tradition: Italians appear preoccupied with reconfiguring traditional forms such as opera and theatre into post-industrial environments, while the Germans graft crisp snippets of piano recital into exacting sonic networks or else remove humans from the equation altogether.

The conceit is my own, granted, but this need to impose a personal rationale for the track selection arises from a lack of explicitness on this matter in the liner notes. While no explanation is spared as to the technical expertise required to bring these challenging pieces into a 21st century listening context – much of which concerns the disparity between the positioning of loudspeakers and even musicians in elaborate configurations – little historical rationale is given to the sequencing. Aside from the audible evidence of the ‘preliminary conclusion of studies on the early production of composers’, it is unclear what the thematic links between these ‘milestones’, hence the imposition of my own. Given the explicitness of the notes elsewhere, the opacity is striking. This possible oversight aside, the collection is nonetheless a stimulating and important overview of some key developments at this relatively early period of electronic music.