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The Cognitive Continuum of Electronic Music

PDF The Cognitive Continuum of Electronic Music 1st Bloomsbury Academic

Book author
  1. Anil Çamci
The Cognitive Continuum of Electronic Music


The electronic medium allows any audible sound to be contextualized as music. This brings about unique structural possibilities as spectrum, dynamics, space, and time become continuous dimensions of musical articulation. What we hear in electronic music ventures beyond what we traditionally characterize as musical sound and challenge our auditory perception on the one hand and our imagination on the other. Based on an extensive listening study conducted over four years, this book offers a comprehensive analysis of the cognitive processes involved in the experience of electronic music. It pairs artistic practice with theories from a range of disciplines to communicate how this music operates on perceptual, conceptual, and affective levels. Looking at the common and the divergent ways in which our minds respond to electronic sound, the book investigates how we build narratives from of our experience of electronic music and how we situate ourselves in them.


Electronic music is a powerful form of artistic expression for a number of reasons. Emerging from a strong collaboration between music and technology, it leverages the creative potential of the electronic medium and allows any audible sound to be contextualized as musical material. This expansion of material opens up structural possibilities as spectrum, dynamics, space, and time become continuous dimensions of articulation on various scales of musical form. The materials and structures introduced into music through the electronic medium fundamentally challenge our notions of musical meaning. What we hear in electronic music can venture beyond what we traditionally characterize as musical sound and match the auditory complexity of the sounds we encounter in our daily environments. This way, electronic music engages with listening abilities that we take for granted in our everyday lives and shows us how intricate they can be. It can test the boundaries of not only our auditory perception but also our imagination. It can make us envision realities separate from the one we inhabit. It can also make us conscious of our physical environment and our embodied presence in it. Such affordances of electronic music amount to unique experiential qualities for composers and listeners alike.

In 1972, the composer Daphne Oram remarked that the electronic medium made it possible for composers to gain direct control over sounds without needing to put their musical ideas into notation and have them interpreted by a performer. This unmediated ability to manipulate a vast vocabulary of sounds opened up new creative opportunities for composers. Yet, many of those opportunities were not immediately obvious or easily accessible. In 1977, the composer Pierre Boulez wrote that musical invention had been restrained by a divide between the conception and the realization of creative ideas; he viewed it incumbent upon artists to bridge this gap by furthering their comprehension of contemporary technology. Over the ensuing decades, composers have indeed firmed their grasp of the electronic medium, which itself has become more amenable to artistic use with the introduction of new audio technologies. However, composers’ increased access to technology brought about new challenges, this time, of aesthetic nature. In 1997, the composer Denis Smalley observed that one of the major hurdles that composers faced was to maintain an aesthetic path in the “wide-open sound world” of electronic music. Since then, composers’ dominion over sound has only expanded as computational systems grew increasingly capable of executing complex audio processes in real time. Today, the electronic medium affords a practically instantaneous dialogue between creative actions and their audible outcomes, allowing composers to imagine through the endless possibilities of sound.

If listening to music can be broadly characterized as an aesthetic experience of contrasts and surprises across various dimensions of sound, composition could be viewed as an act of building up auditory expectations, and then either meeting or evading them. But if anything can be expected from the wide-open sound world of electronic music, how can it evoke a musical sense of anticipation? In this book, I argue that the network of expectations in electronic music is substantially informed by our everyday lives. This is not to say that all composers draw material or inspiration from their environments. Neither do I claim that listening to electronic music is rooted exclusively in representations. But, as I discuss in Chapter 2, abstractness stems from a negation of reality. As we parse through our experience of an electronic music piece, our existing notions of reality form a basis for our interpretation of unreality. I argue that when the virtually unlimited vocabulary of electronic music expands that of a culturally established language of music, it instigates for the listener a profusion of references rooted in events in the environment. I specify events as the units by which perceived time moves forward. Based on existing studies on auditory perception and models of mental representation, I build a thread across events, environmental sounds, and electronic music. This thread leads us to an idiomatic definition of gesture as a meaningful and intentional narrative unit in electronic music. With that, I also stress how the meaning and intentionality conveyed through sound can be as much the listener’s construction as it is the product of a composer’s expression––if such an expression exists in the first place. This understanding liberates the electronic gesture from a communicational hierarchy and places the emphasis on a complexity of listening fostered by both the composer and the listener.

I expand on this view by characterizing listeners’ engagement with electronic music as an act of worldmaking. As listeners construct meaning from their experience of a piece, they effectively superimpose a semantic space on top of the physical reality of their listening environment. Using examples from listener feedback, I delineate both conceptual and perceptual relationships between the semantic and the physical domains of the listening experience. I adopt the narratological concept of diegesis to articulate how listeners contextualize themselves and the composer in relation to the implied universe of a piece, and how fluid this contextualization can become. Listeners not only populate this universe with objects that are appropriate to their narrative constructions but also assume shifting perspectives toward it over the course of a piece. They can, for instance, position themselves as part of the narrative and adopt a first- person view. This can then transform into a third-person view, where they assume the role of an onlooker observing the unfolding of a series of events. To articulate the narrative disposition of the listener with respect to both the perceptual and the semantic affordances of electronic music, I describe a coalescence of narrative modes informed by cross-disciplinary interpretations of diegesis and situate electronic music in a broad framework of artistic disciplines, including literature, film, and visual arts.

For this book, I conducted a listening study with eighty subjects over the course of four years to gain a deeper understanding of how fixed pieces of electronic music operate on perceptual, cognitive, and affective levels. The study was designed to capture a detailed account of a listener’s experience with electronic music by gathering both immediate and post-hoc impressions that reflect how they conceptualized this experience. These impressions offer insights into the communication of meaning in electronic music and how concepts and narratives drawn from a piece can overlap and diverge not only among listeners but also between a composer and their audience. To make sense of the vast amount of feedback gleaned from the study, I employ a diverse range of analysis techniques, including data visualization, descriptor categorization, and discourse analysis, among others. Throughout the book, I refer to the results of this study to weave links between artistic practice, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. In doing so, I delineate a cognitive continuum as an intrinsic aspect of the electronic music experience. This continuum spans from abstract to representational based on the relationship of gestures in electronic music to events in the environment, guiding our appreciation of this music through our past encounters with auditory phenomena.

Ultimately, this book is a testament to the depth and breadth of experiences that electronic music can evoke. The dichotomy between representationality and abstractness has historically been a cause of debate not only in electronic music but also in the arts more generally. In this book, I shift this conversation from a binary distinction between the two toward a continuum, wherein the cognitive reciprocity between the representational and the abstract traits of what we take away from a piece of electronic music underlies the richness and intricacy of our experience with it. In 1986, the composer Simon Emmerson argued that even if a composer is not interested in manipulating the images associated with electronic music, they must take into account the duality between mimetic and aural aspects of the listening experience. In the same article, Emmerson called on future researchers to combine psychology of music with analyses of symbolic representation and communication at a deeper level to explore what makes particular sound combinations in electronic music work. I believe that this book addresses this appeal in its pursuit to further our awareness and understanding of the cognitive continuum of electronic music.
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