Finding Beauty and Aesthetics of the Processed and Modulated Music

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New inventions gave way to new ideas and the exploration of those inventions resulted in new aesthetics and techniques. The one invention which was the root cause for this massive technology-driven generation of music came back from the invention of the phonograph. From that invention onwards, the idea of record and replay sound widened up its possibilities in the music industry. The Late 20th century was the era where electronic music became widespread by challenging the traditional music. It paved the way to new terms, techniques, inventions and so on. In this essay, we will be thoroughly examining the techniques and aesthetics of Process music and some of the artists whose contribution changed the meaning of Musicology from the classicist, like Blume and Riezler who considered the art of electronic music as foreign technology.

The term “Process music” is sometimes confused with Minimalism. Minimalism is a term developed from visual arts in the 1960s. The definition of minimalism can be given as “Less is More” by the use of raw material or limiting materials as art. “The idea of minimalism is much larger than most people realise. It includes, by definition, any music that works with limited or minimal materials: pieces that use only a few notes…..” (Editions75.com, 2019).
Whereas process music is kind of minimal music that emerges from a single process that which impacts the notes, details and overall structure of the piece. In the western art music practice, the American composers such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young are the one to develop the compositional technique in the early stages of electronic music in a minimalistic way. Even though the term Minimalism is widely used in the field to explain the use of the compositional works of artists, it lacks the principle of techniques used. That’s where the idea of process music makes more sense in the expression of compositional reach.

The term Process Music was coined by Steve Reich from his article “Music as a gradual process”. He was considered by many as one of the minimal and innovative composers of all time as he experimented and pioneered one of the famous Phasing techniques in electronic music. By layering two same recordings and gradually increasing the tempo of one eventually ending up in out of sync and surprisingly joining again on some part afterwards is known as Phasing. The evidence of Phasing technique can be clearly seen from one of his works Come Out (1966) where he uses only five words and tape loops it into 2 channels and gradually moves one channel out of phase with other which creates Delay effect which is kind of a feedback when after the dry signal is played in the beginning. But as it goes out of phase more and more the effect becomes a repetitive pattern which can be experienced from 0:20 – 2:58 minutes from the piece. Then the channel is then split into 4 and phased out a little in each channel. Listeners may experience nothing but a Delay, but when he moves out of phase gradually it actually sounds like a Reverb effect that has the roominess in it which is heard in the piece from 3:33 – 8:32 minutes. But when the 4 channel is split into 8 and phased each channel one by one, things change. The repetitive pattern is thickened and sounds actually like a pitch with just some effects in high and low frequencies. The number of details can be experienced only when the piece fades out. The other technique that was used in this piece was Panning which is an effect shifting the Right and Left side that created spatialization at some points. Thus, technology determinism is the key factor for minimal works.

One of the most used techniques nowadays is the Sampling. Evolved from Tape Splicing technique used in the early stages by Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio and others who were one of the early pioneers in electronic music. The basic idea behind this technique was to digitalise the sound that the artist wants and that sound can be reused or modified in the future when needed without recreating the whole process using man power. This technique created a major impact in the industry that later even started to create virtual instruments which even more reduced the need of an instrumental artist. As the coin has two sides in it, sampling had its impact in the industry of music. The positive was that anyone can play any instruments using the software. The downside was that the no need of professional instrumental artist anymore which leads to serious trouble nowadays such as impotent artists, less interest in the instrumental courses.

The aesthetics of Process Music can be different from one person to another. Such kind of example can be seen from Brian Eno who’s one of the experimental composers, best known for pioneering one of his work called Ambient Music. It’s a minimalist piece where it blends in the background creating an atmosphere. This inspirational idea of ambient music came in when he was bed-ridden after a car crash. As he was listening to an 18th Century Harp music, the volume was soft as he wasn’t able to reach the player to turn up the volume making him just to hear the odd part of the harp. As it was raining outside he began to concentrate on the sound of the raindrops with the odd part of the harp. As Eno said, ‘This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience,’.

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The whole piece is around Fifty-Four minutes and the first thirty-minutes of the piece Discreet Music (1975) uses various techniques where Pitchfork called it as ‘one of the greatest single ambient pieces that Eno has produced.’ Eno experimented by using two overlapped tape loops of melodic synthesizer phrases with contrasting time interval where this technique became to know as ‘Frippertronics’. One of Eno’s experimentation is a generative composition which is by analysing various ways to create music with limited planning or involvement.

There is always something in common with music processes such as pitches and rhythm, and things that are always changing such as tune. A great performance will create a number of different musical outputs to keep your audience interested. But the opposite of Minimalist is Maximalist. So, putting that into perspective, the definition of “More is More” should obviously mean a Maximalist Piece. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) is an album of Kanye West featuring various artists from various genres but mainly focused on Hip-Hop which was one of the most expensive albums ever made. The album had use of various use of techniques and a wide range of instruments as people may think that there can be no new techniques or instruments added. The album has been told as a maximalist aesthetic by music journals. But critics say that the piece had the same chord sequence and same tempo where it all comes under Minimalism. This could be compared with one of Steve Reich works Piano Phasing (1968). It is a piece comprising of 12 notes in Semi-Quaver. The piece is played with 2 pianos and the pianists are played at unison and one of the pianists starts to increase the tempo eventually ending up in phase shifting of 1/16th beat apart and the other just plays the same sequence again and again. The piece is completed only if the pianist comes to the beginning after phasing 1/16th apart of the all 12 notes. This is a minimalist piece but requires maximum effort with total involvement of sound and precise intellectual involvement. So, in comparison with Kanye West and Steve Reich, both of them are considered to be processed in some ways by it is unclear whether are they minimalistic or a maximalist work of art.

In the future, the idea of minimalism and maximalism can be removed from music because the creativity in process music is limitless. The idea of sound can be anything created a various number of innovations and techniques nowadays in electronic music making everything meaningless in the past by the terms that were used to distinguish between one and other.

In the digital world, the idea of processing music is really interesting and mind-blowing. The development of software that is used to create new melodies by randomising the intervals and pitches at the specified time with the use of binary digits is really fascinating. The term Process Music goes apt only to this mechanism, where the treating is done in the background and the result is given out in the foreground. The only disadvantage is that human beings cannot really monitor the whole process which takes place during this action. But that’s the idea which is implemented in today’s Digital Audio Workstation where minimalizing human effort by this process. The visual alignment from the software actually alters the sound which we perceive through the Processing technique. It is also worth considering that this mechanism creates a little-to-no human involvement. So, this has actually influenced the thinking and limits the involvement of composers and producers nowadays compared with the older generation.

To sum up, after analysing the piece from Come out by Steve Reich, the development of a new technique has later advanced into sophisticated effects such as reverb, delays and many more. In addition, we have also discussed how the minimalism can be perceived in different ways by different people from Brian Eno’s Discreet Music which gave a new aesthetic of Ambiance into the background. Finally, we have evaluated how the definition of Process music has not changed and has largely remained the same. Going by Reich’s definition, composers and producers are somewhere in-between where they can manipulate the background resulting in a foreground outcome.

In conclusion, the techniques and aesthetics of process music are in a way laws which music follows but aren’t music necessarily governed by or as, Eugene Narmour puts it “Gravity does not explain architecture, but architecture is subject to its law; likewise, perceptual laws do not explain music, but music cannot escape their influence.” – Eugene Narmour (1990, p. 4).

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