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Organised Sound
October 17, 1997

Forty years ago, John Cage paid what was then uncommon (even heretical) tribute to Edgard Var se as the defining presence in modern music: "that he fathered forth noise . . . makes him more relative to present musical necessity than even the Viennese masters". Why "relative" rather than "relevant" is not immediately clear, except that the noisy revolution Var se fomented can perhaps only be audited relative to a means of musical production that only became available after his death in 1965. Var se's flight from what Hans Werner Henze in turn had described as the "mechanistic heresy" of strict serialism ironically lacked the mechanical means to achieve escape velocity.

The editors of this excellent new journal of music technology have appropriated Varese's constructivist redefinition of music for their title. Organised Sound presupposes that there are musical parameters beyond pitch, rhythm and time and that these are not yet well served in theoretical terms. The gateway article to the inaugural edition is a reworked history of sampling (interpreted in a wider sense than contemporary "plunderphonics") by Hugh Davies. Interesting as a tutorial piece, it does not quite prepare the reader for the rugged theoretical material that follows, most of it directed to recent developments in Canadian music. Francis Dhomont's rhetorical "Is there a Quebec sound?" is followed by a detailed analysis by Stephane Roy of Dhomont's own 1982 composition Pointes de fuite.

In issue two, the underlying theme - "The time domain" - is rather more securely established. Two Finnish researchers, Vesa Valimaki and Tapio Takala, provide an impeccably sourced and referenced tutorial on "virtual" musical instruments, an ideal introduction to their compatriot Vesa Kankaanpaa's close transcontextual reading of a radiophonic work by the most exciting Finnish composer of the 1980s and 1990s, Kaija Saariaho. They identify Stilleben as a complex palimpsest on Saariaho's earlier Lichtbogen and point to the composer's brilliantly evocative use of temporal displacement as a language device. This is genuinely illuminating musicology, accessible with appropriate effort.

That is also true of Richard Povall's use of video as a real-time performance device and Michael Clarke's straightforward "Composing at the intersection of time and frequency". Ambrose Field's student article on discovery strategy is more impenetrable until one turns to the CD included with issue three. The disc illuminates Barry Truax's methodology better than text, and it includes a full performance of Points de fuite.

Organised Sound is based in the ever-adventurous music department at the University of York, but issue three's focus on algorithmic composition and the use of probabilities in music allows the editors to wheel out the apostolic link to the Var se tradition. Last on the list of board members is the Paris-based Iannis Xenakis and the issue opens with previously unpublished lecture notes on "Determinacy and indeterminacy", originally prepared for a series of talks in Poland.

The premises will be familiar to anyone who has read Xenakis's Formalised Music (translated in 1971) or the still more rugged Musique Architecture, which appeared in France the same year. The pieces that follow, by Francesco Gioni, David Worrall and Jonathan Impett (writing perceptively about his own Mirror-Rite for "meta-trumpet") are all the clearer for being located in Xenakis's intellectual penumbra. One wonders, though, whether the editors would not be better served by a more pro-active approach, a more consistent editorial line and - perhaps - a single annual collection of papers rather than a thrice-annual issue of papers.

Organised Sound is beautifully produced. Brief resumes at the head of articles help the non-specialist navigate safely, but one wonders at the paucity of book reviews (just two) and announcements. Networking may well be better handled by electronic means, but the number of announcements here seem out of proportion to the vitality and geographical spread of new work in the field. The editors' desire to address both musicians and those working at the technical end of the spectrum is well attested: jargon is minimised and it is possible to skip much of the mathematics. This is a journal that will surely grow in stature and may yet become indispensable in a field where it is easier to keep up with cutting edge developments than it is to remain in touch with the historical dimensions of the subject. That, so far, has been Organised Sound's great strength.

Brian Morton is a senior producer, BBC Scotland.

Organised Sound: An International Journal of Music Technology (three times a year)

Editor - Ross Kirk, Leigh Landy, Tony Myatt and Richard Orton
ISBN - ISSN 1355 7718
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £63.00 (institutions) £35.00 (individuals) £25.00 (students)
Pages - -

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