Musical Objects, Action Sound Couplings and Open Form

From the Open Form workshop
My setup at the Open Form workshop

Participating in the Open Form rehearsals and workshops has been very interesting (as previously mentioned here). One thing has puzzled me over the last few days: the lack of focusing on the musical objects. I use musical object to denote a coherent entity consisting of sounding objects (in a Schaefferian sense) but also all the other modalities (in my case particularly visual and haptic features). The musical object is a rather short entity, typically in the range between 1-5 seconds, but sometimes shorter or longer. After reading Schaeffer, Stern, God√ły and others, and my own work on short term music recognition, I have come to believe that this is both the most interesting unit in terms of performance and perception of music.

This is one of the reasons I find the ideals in the open form movement fascinating. In one way, open form is all about allowing for controlled improvisation with a focus on space and listening. The scores often lay out a palette of effects and musical qualities to be used. As such, each of these entities can be thought of as a musical object. This is also often how the musicians conceptualise musical improvisation. What I have found, though, is that still people tend to focus more on the form than the object. This surprises me, because of any musical style, I would assume that the form aspects would be the least important in open form.

Another thing I have been puzzled about is the breakdown of action-sound couplings. Such couplings can range from natural (as we are used to from acoustical properties of all objects surrounding us in nature) to abstract (as we often find in electronic devices). Every object has a certain action-sound characteristic a palette of possible interaction modes and sounds. This is what governs our listening. However, in experimental music, performers increasingly tend to extend the palette of their instruments. This could be done either acoustically, e.g. prepared piano, but also electronically, e.g. using various sound effects. In many cases such extensions become standard, the most obvious example being electric guitars where distortion pedals and other types of effects have long become part of the standard action-sound repertoire. This also makes it is easy for everyone to understand what is happening when a distorted sound appear. Typically, the guitarist will also step on the pedal so that everyone will be prepared for the new sound to appear.

However, in electronic instruments there are few, or no, action-sound characteristics to choose from, leaving both the performer(s) and perceivers trying to look for couplings that work. This is demanding for everyone since it requires a lot of mental effort to continuously organise new action-sound couplings.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.