A striking feature of much recent British acousmatic music is the bold use of environmental sound. By that I mean not just the use of sampled natural sounds as digital raw material, but the use of the acousmatic medium to offer interpretative insight to the experience of sound and its meanings. In this respect alone, the breadth of approaches to ‘real world’ material amongst British acousmatic composers forms a significant microcosm of the range of possibilities that the medium seems to hold. Trevor Wishart's Red Bird (1973-77) remains, for me, one of the great landmarks in electroacoustic composition, and a great achievement in the understanding of sound as a medium of artistic expression. In this piece the multi-layered exploration of the interdependent meanings of source recognition and the behavioural aspects of sound articulate parallel worlds of ‘closedness and openness’—through sound-images of confinement versus liberation, repression versus imagination. In Red Bird transformation functions not just as a processes of developing sound morphologies, but as the vehicle for transfiguration of one recognisable sound into another (generally relying on the ‘morphing’ of shared spectromorphological features of two sounds). This becomes the platform for powerfully controlled sonic metaphors which enhance the basic underlying open/closed political ‘theme’, as oppressive words find release in bird song, a book which attempts to swat a fly becomes a door (and a means of escape), and words, animals and body sounds become trapped in the endlessly repetitious cycles of a surreal machine. Red Bird continues to be of importance because of the way Wishart has embodied his own concern for becoming ‘both sonically and metaphorically articulate’.
Vox-5 (1979-86) is the sole acousmatic work in the series of six comprising Wishart’s Vox cycle (which otherwise mix electroacoustics with amplified voices), and marks Wishart’s extension of figurative transformation into digital technology. The use of vocal sound sources and the idea of fluidity in sound transformation are continued in Tongues of Fire (1994). This work presents stunning articulation of a wide variety of sound shapes, though the metaphorical meanings central to Red Bird and Vox-5 have been replaced by an intensified focus on plasticity of sound and a greater openness in the paths taken by transformations.
Wishart’s most recent works set out to embrace more specific programmatic content. Fabulous Paris (1997) deals with the human drift to large cities. The topic of this work reminded me of an ICMC panel discussion in which Wishart was a compelling advocate for the role of the specialist composer/artist amidst the trend towards increasingly similar and ‘(inter)networked’ lifestyles across cultures worldwide. In Fabulous Paris there is gentle satire in the veiled reference to a game show’s prize of a holiday in ‘fabulous Paris, France’, and the final recession of sizzling traffic against nocturnal ‘environment. But the focus of the work overall revolves more around transformational processes per se rather than the creation of images which invite interpretation of the programmatic idea. By contrast, the material of Two Women (1998) offers more content-centred structure, presenting recorded statements by Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana with the inclusion of Ian Paisley’s derision of Thatcher providing ironic comment on the relative fates of these two very different women. Yet the actual transformations of the vocal sources in this work do not have the same essential structural quality as those in Red Bird, where the nature of the transformational process itself provides a key to the layers of meaning present in the network of sounds used.
John Young, British Acousmatic Music, Sonic Arts Network
"RED BIRD aims, among other things, to use the dynamic-relational structuring of music (and speech) AS AURAL EXPERIENCE, to comment upon the linear-analytic-causal mode of thought and its consequences.
This verbal document is therefore only a commentary on what is an essentially and irreducibly musical experience. No explanation, either in terms of 'what the symbols mean' or 'how the sounds are put together' in a one to one correspondence with the sequence of sounds in the piece, will be offered.
In particular the notion that to understand how the sounds are put together constitutes understanding the music is a fallacy propagated through the visually-distanced logic of some avant-garde music.
It is important to emphasise the distinction between the musical process, and the process of composition. The visually-based constructivist aesthetic equates the perception through sound of the organisation of notes on paper with experiencing the musical process. In most music, in fact, the process of composition (as opposed to the ordering principle which seems to underlie the resulting organisation of notes on paper, or sounds on tape) is hidden from view, while the musical process is something which arises from the organisation of sounds (via notes on paper in the case of scored music).
The second half of this document will deal with the process of composition itself, for those who may be interested from a practical point of view. For those, however, who merely wish to avoid dealing with the material at face-value, this document will not reveal what the music "really is".
Finally, this is not a complete visual re-representation of RED BIRD because there could be no such thing. A piece of music moves and operates as a dynamic aural experience. This document only indicates certain routes towards an appreciation of that experience.
Music is not translatable."
(Wishart, 1978, p. 1)