All this machinery, making modern music

U of M professor Örjan Sandred talks about music, the brain, and computers

Photo: Beibei Lu

Örjan Sandred is a professor of composition at the University of Manitoba’s Marcel A. Desautels faculty of music. His music involves the use of computers, both during performance and composition. He teaches courses on electroacoustic music and composition, and his Acoustics of Music course fills the math credit for most first-year music students. Last week, I sat down with him and discussed his work.

The Manitoban: So I was listening to some of your music last night and reading some of the papers you’ve got linked from your website. One of the things I find interesting is that you use computers in your music, and you use computers to generate certain parts of your music. Could you tell me a bit about the role of computers in your music?

ÖS: First of all, music is about communication. That’s what music is about for me, and I think for most people. Maybe not all people, but I think for most people it’s really about communication. The thing with music, as I feel it differs from a lot of other art forms, is that it’s very abstract. You can’t really translate music easily into words. You can’t really say the same things in music as you can say in language. You can’t be so precise in certain fields, but you can reach other levels in communication that you can’t in words. But that doesn’t mean that it’s as precise as you can do it in words.

Because music is very abstract, to be able to communicate you need a lot of structure. So music—any type of music—is very structured. That’s what we deal with in music theory. The research on music tends to focus a lot on the structure. I think that that’s the secret of musical communication, the structure, because that’s kind of the most concrete thing we have. Everything else is very abstract. The structure is necessary to be able to communicate something, and that’s where all these tools, these computers or whatever you use come in.

The role of the computer is helping with the structural part of music to enable the composer to focus on the communicative part of music.

M: Could you give me an example of some of the ways you’ve used computers in certain pieces?

ÖS: Broadly speaking, there are two different uses of computers in music that I do myself. One is to work in the performance of a piece, and to expand the sound of the performance into what computers can contribute into the speakers. So that’s live electronic music, where you can interact with the performer and you make it into a chamber music communication between the performer and whatever comes out of the speakers, which is helped by the computers. Now you need the computer to create this communication between the performer and sounds.

The other way of using the computer is when you’re composing music, you use it as sort of your calculator to help you construct the score. The problem with being in art music is that one of the big drives in art music is to be on the edge of what you can communicate in music. You’re always trying to find new things. In commercial music you don’t necessarily need to find new things. You just have to find things that generate money. But here you’re trying to push what’s possible to communicate or how we can communicate things. So you’re trying to find new things all the time, and that’s where the computer can help you kind of research certain ideas you have and try certain things.

Photo: Beibei Lu

Photo: Beibei Lu

M: In one of your papers, you talked about translating certain gestures into rhythmic notation. I think you used the example of a train that you had recorded.

ÖS: That was a very concrete example. That’s a very technical aspect of the whole thing. It has to do with musical time. Music is very gestural. Some people think that musical gestures are the same as body gestures. You move your body or you dance or whatever, and that can be seen also in musical phrasing. But the problem is, how do you translate one to the other? In a lot of music, musical time is not the same as the time we perceive when we sit and speak here. You have metric music, where you have beats, you subdivide time very carefully into sections, and we perceive things in tempo in music but we don’t really perceive our everyday life in any specific tempo.

So musical time is a different approach to our understanding of time. We approach musical time in a different way than our everyday life time. To convert from one to the other is very complicated. The purpose of that paper was to find a way to have a gesture that exists in our everyday life, and to translate it into musical time, and how would that be done. That’s a very classical problem in computer music or in music in general—how do you do that translation?

M: How did you originally get involved in computer music?

ÖS: I started in music in 1984, when I started to study. I started to study very traditionally as a composer—you know, pen and paper, and maybe a piano. That’s how we were taught. I got interested in electroacoustic music because it was part of my education to do that. Everyone studying composition has to do that wherever you study today, I think. I thought it was kind of cool, the way you could build sounds with the help of speakers more than performers. You can reach other things than you can with notated music. Just different, not better in any way, just different.

I was kind of interested in how can you use computers when you make scores. Not just notate scores, but actually build scores. In 1996, I think it was, I had one teacher whose name was Magnus Lindberg, a really important Finnish composer, and at that time in his life he was completely obsessed by computers and composition. So the only thing he spoke about for a whole year was this. We didn’t understand much of what he was saying at that time.

In 1997 I went to Paris and I started to study. I got into a program there where they focus on music and technology or music and computers and composition. There I kind of explored what he [Lindberg] had tried to teach us for the last year. I really went deep into it. That was really fascinating for me, and that was the changing point, I think, for why I wanted to go further with computers, because I didn’t know that before I went there.

I think one reason why I do it is because I’m very curious about how it’s possible to find other ways of communicating things—finding other alternative structures of music that people didn’t think about before. I find it very hard to do that because whatever you do, you tend to fall back on what people have done before. With the help of the computers, you can kind of—I can’t remember who said that, someone said that computers can be completely stupid sometimes, which is a great feature because they can find some things that you would think were too stupid, but all of a sudden you discover that it’s not so bad. You can really see the irony of the thing that the stupidity of the computer can sometimes be the strongest aspect of using them because you wouldn’t have done that in that very mechanical, stupid way that computers have done. You wouldn’t find those pearls that can be found by computers sometimes.

And then of course it’s a lot of work. Some people think you use computers because it’s faster, but it’s not. It’s much slower, actually, because you’re trying to push the limits in a completely different way. So it’s a lot of patience and research that you have to do all the time to find anything that can be useful. But that’s part of the fascination.

Photo: Beibei Lu

Photo: Beibei Lu

M: When you teach the electroacoustic music class, you’re probably introducing people to this whole way of making music that they’ve never heard of before. What’s that like?

ÖS: That’s one of the most fantastic aspects of teaching music—to make other people discover things they didn’t know existed. Teaching composition in general is very cool for that reason. You meet someone who you’re going to make a travel with over the next couple years and just explore so many things. You see how that affects people. Someone who comes through this door will not be the same person four years later when they leave. I think that’s a good thing about probably all music education – I just know composition because that’s what I’m teaching.

That course, that’s just a one-semester course, so of course it’s a more compressed time. But I think whatever instrument you play, I think it will affect your playing and understanding of music if you do something completely different for a while and just discover that “oh yeah, I didn’t think about this”. I think that’s something that I enjoy with teaching those types of courses. Really to do that travel over and over again is nice.

M: You also teach the acoustics class. How does this fit into your work? Have you done a lot of work with acoustics?

ÖS: No, I just slipped into that. I guess it’s kind of natural to pick me to teach that course. I’ve been doing it before I came here to Canada. I learn a lot from it, of course. Whatever you teach you learn from. It’s part of teaching.

I think it’s an important aspect of music. Whatever way you study music, you end up studying humans. Music is about us. Whatever tools you use, you realize that you’re actually discovering how we work as humans, how we perceive things as humans. It’s not a coincidence that we study the ear in acoustics, for example, because even though people might not think of that as acoustical, it’s the most crucial thing to understand music because it’s about what we hear.

Or the brain. It would be fantastic if we knew more about the brain–how we understand all this information coming in. I think if we look at a musical score and how it’s structured, it must reflect the structure of our brains somehow. I think that’s very fascinating, to see that all this structure and music theory, it’s all about how we perceive things. It’s all about how the brain works. So in a way we kind of just make a mirror of our own brain. Music is an aural way of displaying how the brain works. That’s how I see that. I mean, it’s hard to scientifically prove that in detail at this point in history, but that must be what it is.

M: Could you tell me a bit about your electroacoustic music? As I understand it, there are some pieces where you take recordings that you’ve made and you mess with them with the computer to make something out of them, and other pieces that originate entirely within the computer.

ÖS: That’s the classic way of looking at electroacoustic music. It’s the German and the French schools historically. The French are the explorers of the world and they try to figure out all the sounds around us. The Germans are building a universe that didn’t exist by making sounds in the computer or synthesizers. Me and most other people, they do both. They kind of fuse together at one point. So this division and these two schools were very valid in the 50s and probably the 60s, but the further we go into history, one doesn’t differ from the other so much. You can record things and make a synthesized version of it from the recording, and vice versa. So that distinction is not so important anymore.
The thing that’s been around for the last 30 or 40 years is to mix in live elements with musical instruments in electroacoustic pieces.

M: Aside from electroacoustic music and the acoustics class you also teach composition students. Could you tell me a bit about that?

ÖS: Right now we have eight students in the composition program. This year I teach six of them, actually, so I have a lot of students coming in and out. From a teacher’s perspective, the thing I enjoy the most is to explore things with students. It’s very cool to do it one-on-one because you can follow someone over many years. I feel that when I meet someone in first year and then I continue to see them and we go to the fourth year, we’ve been talking for several years about things, and it’s very cool to see how people change over time. I think it’s for the better. People discover things on different levels of music that they didn’t know existed. It’s very nice, I think.

I always think being a composition professor is a little bit like having a clinic with a shrink and you lie down on a sofa, you know. You talk. That’s the only tool you have, is to talk. And to play examples, of course. I can’t compose music for people, so I just have to talk about music.

It’s kind of a delicate topic to teach because you can’t tell someone how to compose music. You can just give them hints on how to think. I don’t think a good teacher can say “you can’t do this, you should do it like this.” Like in the old days when they would hit your hand when you play the piano. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t tell people directly what to do. You have to develop ways of thinking. That takes a long time. I probably teach differently now than I did fifteen years ago, so it affects me also, I think.

It’s part of growing up. I think that for every performer, the older you get, the more you bring your feeling for music along with age. When you’re a student, that’s the time you change the most.

M: Could you tell me a bit about Studio FLAT?

ÖS: When I came here to the university seven or eight years ago, I think one of the reasons why this position was put in place was that they hoped that someone would develop the electroacoustic music part of the program. There was a studio that existed for quite some time, but it was a little bit outdated, it wasn’t very developed as I see it, so one of my big tasks was to find money for purchasing everything that belongs in a studio. That was my first goal, which I succeeded in. We got some money for that, and we built Studio FLAT.

The studio is kind of a research facility because we research music. That’s one of my big interests, to research how to compose music. That’s what I do. It’s also part of my teaching, of course. We have a few courses that relate to that. The electroacoustic music studio or computer music studio has several aspects to it. One is the research, one is the production, to make music–everything ends up becoming music in the end, so that’s a very important part and they go hand in hand–and then the teaching aspect, of course. You teach techniques to others and eventually they will bring it further. Studio FLAT is all around those three things.

M: Because this whole world of electroacoustic music is very different, some people when they’re introduced to it have a bit of a shock. I imagine some people have very sharply negative reactions at first, and not all of them get over it. Have you ever had any experience with these reactions to this kind of music?

ÖS: Well, let’s put it this way. Those who take the class, except for the composition majors, there are a lot of other people that take the class, they’ve done it by choice as an elective. Music is funny because nothing can provoke you as much in art as music, I think. People can leave concert halls being furious, but it rarely happens at an art exhibition unless it has to do with nudity or something like that. Music can provoke a lot. It’s kind of an interesting aspect of music that it can be so provocative and still so innocent.

Have I ever had really negative experiences with people regarding electroacoustic music? Not much. I’ve met one or two older composers that said some stupid comments about it, probably. I think it’s interesting, but it reflects generations more. The thing is, with composers, I think wherever you study composition today, you will be in contact with electroacoustic music in your program. There are few places that won’t do that. And I think the generation before me was the same, more or less, because people found it so valuable to have that experience even if you’re never going to work with it again.

You just learn from it. I think it affected music in general. Music history took a different turn. Even orchestral music took a different turn. [Hungarian composer György] Ligeti worked in an electroacoustic studio, and then he did his huge orchestral masses. There’s definitely a connection somehow.

Örjan Sandred will be performing his piece, “Cracks and Corrosion II,” for guitar and live electronics at the Mondavi Center in Davis, California on Jan. 26. His new piece for violin and live electronics will be premiered sometime next year.