The ‘Scambi Project’
Open Forms and Electroacoustic Music 
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The Project
  The ‘Scambi Project’
  Research questions
  Project team
  Project events
  Listen to Scambi
Henri Pousseur
  About the composer
The Open Work
  About open form

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Research questions

The research questions and problems identified by the ‘Scambi Project’

The ‘Scambi Project’ will address three principal musicological/analytical research questions.

1. What is the status of the ‘open’ form in electroacoustic music?

This is the central question. Particular emphasis will be given to the genre of acousmatic music; ‘live’ and ‘mixed’ electroacoustic genres will, therefore, not be considered at this stage. Despite the ‘advanced’ nature of much musical thought in electroacoustic music (and we accept that the notion of ‘advanced’ is itself a contentious issue), the use of ‘open’ forms in acousmatic music is rare. In the years between 1950 and 1980 this can be explained by the technical difficulties intrinsic to the medium which was, of course, based on analogue rather than digital technology. Technology allows composers of acousmatic works to make use of any recorded sound. Thus, sounds can originate from the ‘real-world’ or they might be created by various techniques of synthesis.

In addition to this vocabulary new formal arrangements are possible. However, by contrast with many developments in instrumental music, acousmatic works are isolated from any kind of performance participation other than in the process of sound diffusion. Aspects such as expressive timing (other than that included by the composer in the studio at the point of realization) and re-arrangement of sections are excluded. Acousmatic works thus remain fixed in the formal arrangement and durations of sections. In this sense the genre conforms (perhaps surprisingly) to many of the conditions of traditional musical ‘works’. Fidelity to the composer’s view of his/her music is an inevitable outcome as only one recorded version exists. The only variation that can occur is during the aforementioned ‘performance’ practice of diffusion and these variations will result from the acoustic characteristics of the venue and the type and amount of equipment available. Expressive timing, regarded by many as constitutive of musical performance, remains unaffected.

Few academic studies have addressed these issues. The composition Scambi has been chosen as a rare example of an analogue tape work in ‘open’ form. An analysis of its realization methods and the creation of new versions provide the focal point for the initial stages of the project. Scambi occupies a particularly important position in the context of post-war music. Pousseur made use of one type of ‘open’ or ‘variable’ form. The thirty-two sections of the composition can be re-ordered and even superimposed according to a basic rule formulated by Pousseur. By studying Pousseur’s realisation processes the relationship between ‘open’ form and tape composition will be clarified.

2. To what extent did the materials and techniques of the analogue studio inhibit an exploration of ‘open forms’?

The second question relates to the equipment, physical materials and resulting work practices of the analogue studio.

Thus, can a form of ‘technological determinism’ be identified as a decisive factor in these compositions. Compiling individual sections of an ‘open’ analogue tape work would retain a reassuring sense of physicality. But each new version would entail cutting and splicing the tape and mixing the superimposed sections via other outboard devices such as mixing desks. Furthermore, several tape recorders would be required. By contrast, in the digital domain many of these operations can be transferred from the ‘actual’ to the ‘virtual’. This fundamental shift in the relationship between musician, equipment and material remains central to many practitioners and theorists in electroacoustic music. Thus the project will extend beyond Scambi to current technology.

3. Why do many electroacoustic musicians continue to produce compositions with fixed, rather than ‘open’ forms?

This is a more general question. Could it be that electroacoustic composers tend to locate their practice within a traditional paradigm (referred to earlier) of a uniquely realised and fixed musical work? While the first part of the investigation will concentrate on historical practices, this final issue addresses the apparent resistance of some contemporary electroacoustic musicians to the use of ‘open’ forms. The aforementioned difficulties of the analogue medium are doubtless mainly responsible in the pre-digital period. However, the majority of contemporary electroacoustic composers continue to disregard ‘open’ forms despite the ease with which sound files can now be stored and retrieved from a computer’s hard drive. Consequently, with the possible exception of algorithmic and generative compositions, there is little practice and often less debate regarding ‘open’ forms in electroacoustic music. This imbalance between the use of technology and the resulting formal structures should not go unchallenged.

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