Book Review: Between the Tracks: Musicians on Selected Electronic Music

    You might be forgiven for looking at the cover of this book and figuring that it's a collection of writing about The Great Works (Why is it that the phrase "Selected Electronic Music" seem to imply that so effortlessly? The answer, of course, has to do with something implicit about who "they" are... you know. The ones making the decision). But good news! Miller Puckette and Kerry Hagan’s book “Between the Tracks” is an interesting and useful way to imagine the start of a very different kind of discussion. The basic structure of the book is simple: a dozen authors each select a composer and a piece of electronic music that they think should be better known, and they mount a case for why they believe it to be so by looking at the compositions and their creators. In this case, this book will introduce you to the "they" making the selections, and "they" will tell you why you might have missed them along the way. Hey - new stuff to listen to that you may not have heard about!
    On some level, the paradigm of “informed recommendation” doesn’t diverge much from what you do with your friends– you recommend things to others, and keep your eyes peeled for interesting work, while keeping an eye out for which of your recommending community seem to understand what you’re looking for or are likely to give you good or true advice (the ever-popular “trusted agents” they talk about weaponizing in Marketing 101).
    At its best, Between the Tracks does a few other things for readers, as well and providing an interesting selection of composers and works (and machines) to check out.
    If you don’t particularly identify as academic, this is as good look as any to investigate academic discourse and look at the way that people “inside the academic tent” talk about works, the composers who created them, and the cultural currents that they think help to explain why the persons and works they champion aren’t better well known or more celebrated.
    I wouldn't be surprised to find that you may be introduced to composers whose work may surprise you in terms their work connecting to what you’re doing right now. What emerges from the book’s individual chapters lays itself out along lines that seek examples of contemporary currents in the field in earlier exemplary works and lives that we may have passed over, as well as the sense that the persons the authors are geeking out about are doing things we’re very much interested in in the present age.
    • Three of the chapters expand the notion of authorship - worthy works from that move from the notion of a single creator to more complex interactions: Juliana Snapper’s careful look at precisely how much more Cathy Berbarian contributed to Luciano Berio’s Visages than is commonly thought, the manner in which Anne La Berge distributes and shares compositional responsibility with her performers, and Laura Zattra’s look at Teresa Rampazzi locating authorship within the collective in which she worked (It’s great to see Teresa Rampazzi’s work with the NPS receive some well-deserved attention. If you haven’t encountered the releases of her tape music on the Die Schachtel label, you’re in for a treat).
    • The early rise of interest in algorithmic composition figures strongly in the chapters by Margaret Schedel (on Bülent Acel), Jøran Rudi (Knut Wiggen and the MusicBox at EMS studios in Stockholm) and David Rosenboom (Salvatore Martirano’s Sal-Mar Construction). It’s interesting to note the way that the authors separate out the notion of algorithmic composition from the context of the Modernism that was the dominant paradigm of the time, and the interplay between available technologies and how they shaped compositional practice (which appear in all three of these essays) – Miller Puckette’s essay on the sense in which Charle Dodge’s explorations of the then-new technologies of speech synthesis at Bell Labs actually created the sound of the Speech Songs itself (this chapter was my personal favorite).
    • The phonographically and site recording-inclined reader will have a chance to discover Valentina Bertolani’s discussion of how Gayle Young’s work involved the soundscape itself and its physical features as the material for instrument making. Leigh Landy’s inviting analysis of Hildegard Westerkamp’s Beneath the Forest Floor written for a decidedly nonspecialist audience does a great job of inviting you not only to listen, to invites you to think along with the author about questions of form and assembly. Yvette Janine Jackson’s article on Cairo-based soundscape composer Jacqueline George considers how the soundscape tradition can be extended into questions of narrative and the use of environmental sound to engage social issues as well as creating a world for the listener to explore.
    • In a world in which we are increasingly aware of the need to consider questions of cultural and gender identities, Between the Tracks gives us two great introductions by Kerry Hagan and Marc Battier that focus on the work of two Asian composers – Unsuk Chin and Zhang Xaiofu, respectively - whose approaches to identifying with Western musical traditions (or not doing so) and their own Asian heritage are quite different (Kerry Hagan further instructively discusses Unsuk Chin’s work in terms of her gender identity as well, which I appreciated).
    As a reader, you emerge from the book with a sense of how – as scholars – they talk about the works themselves in addition to getting that all-important list of stuff to listen to. While a certain writerly academic tone appears throughout the book, it’s clear that these are works and persons the authors really care about, and that they think that the works themselves have something to show/tell us. It’s hard not to read a lot of this material and not hear the author whispering to you “You’ve got to hear this….” to you conspiratorially.
    But back to the original version of the phrase "Selected Electronic Music" that you might have been suspicious of. I react that way often - the more traditional lists of "selected electronic music" sometimes seems to involve a kind of exclusion - dismissing or diminishing works/creators on the basis of race, sex, class, gender identity, cultural background, and so on (with just enough minority creators/works attempt to profess being “blind” on matters of the exclusionary criteria). To the extent that we're interested in being mindful of how questions of privilege have shaped our current shared culture by excluding work on those rubrics, the question that follows has to do with what we can practically do in terms of addressing that situation. I think that one of the ways that that process begins lies in the humble activity of hearing new things and finding out about new people.
    In musical practice (even electronic music), we've got the idea of "the canon." In fact, you've got a private personal canon of your own - works you like, or works you think are important. So do I.
    But I'd argue that the larger canon is supposed to be something shared, a list which emerges from the community of people with shared interests. In a more perfect world, canons of the world of electronic music are somewhat more complicated lists that aren't supposed to rely so heavily on individual whim or desire - they're supposed to be the a kind of curated listening list that are the result of sustained conversations between multiple communities about electronic music and its practice.
    But what if you wonder about who's making the exclusionary decisions? What can you do? After a pint or two and some shouting, how do you begin to create the world you'd like to see?
    Well, you can remain curious, listen widely, join the discussion, passionately engage and share more widely. in some crucial ways, I think that Between the Tracks does just that.
    • It's a collection of essays that are aimed at talking about influence on a broader community rather than publication numbers or more common indices of "success."
    • They're essays about the continued development of a field that connect the past through the present (that stuff you're working on now) toward a shared future. Rather than mere museum pieces, they point toward something
    • They're essays that search for the less well-known but nonetheless substantial contributions to the shared conversation of culture, and advocate passionately for them.
    These are conversations worth having, and I think that Miller Puckette and Kerry Hagan have put together a kind of book I'd love to see in different guises, full of other authors inviting us to other banquets in other halls.
    I'm sure that - like me - some of you might even have found yourself saying, "Huh. I wonder why I didn't see <enter your own composer/work here>?" I'd love to know who you'd like to see in a book like this, and my hope is that yours is just as inspiring a read as this one.

    by Gregory Taylor on
    Oct 27, 2020 8:40 PM

    • Iain Duncan
      Oct 28 2020 | 9:51 pm
      Thanks Gregory, as usual, I love your articles. :-) This sounds like a great book and I will be ordering it, thanks for letting us know about it. For those reading this who are tantalized by the prospect of discovering new (to them) electronic composers, I am also really enjoying the most recent from Curtis Roads, "Composing Electronic Music", which also has a wonderful listening list and snippets on the web site.