Book Review: Microsound and Composing Electronic Music

    Anyone interested in in reading and perhaps acquiring an “electronic music bookshelf” is going to eventually notice something interesting about the bookshelf itself – no, not the wildly variable books in terms of size and thickness – (to amuse your friends, place Brian Eno’s A Year (With Swollen Appendices) next to your copy of The Csound Book for visual variety), but the basic categories the books on your shelf that will appear as the titles mount: reference works, cultural histories that shade into biography, manifestos, and collections of articles by “trusted agents” in the field that are intended to provide an overview of some area of inquiry.
    For this book review, I’d like to bring not one, but two books to your attention, both of which are by the same author – an author you’ve already encountered: Curtis Roads. One of them is relatively new, and the other falls into my personal list of “must have” texts. In addition to talking about their content, I wanted to say a little bit about how they differ (and how they differ from Curtis Roads’ Computer Music Tutorial, whose praises I’ve sung previously).
    You may have noticed that one of the comment/followup postings to the original Computer Music tutorial review had to do with whether there was a newer edition coming (there is – MIT Press has informed us that we’ll see it next year, and that it will include new material). One of the interesting questions to consider with the original text has to do with what a reader would imagine might be missing from the original text (Those of you who are long-term readers might want to pause for a moment and make a list of what the original tutorial doesn’t cover, just for fun).
    Following along after The Computer Music Tutorial, Curtis Roads' Microsound is a good deal more than the most standard and comprehensive treatment on the subject of granular synthesis – it’s also a book that explicitly places the practice and process in a compositional context. More so than The Computer Music Tutorial, it’s an interesting balance between being a theoretical and a practical guide.
    Those relationships are clearly laid out by a quick scan of the Table of Contents: Its early chapters provide an overview of how we structure time in the practice of composition itself – he contextualizes microsound as he defines it by gradually zooming on on temporal structure until he’s looking at those sounds which live at the very threshold of temporal and timbral perception, and then provides the finest guide out there to the types and methods for manipulation at those scales – audio work in the territory between what you might think of as the sampled sound and sound objects or processes made from them.
    And that territory is wide and rich – from more traditional computer music (Curtis’ own compositions and canonical works such as Barry Truax’s Riverrun) to Autechre’s work – their collaborations with Andrew MacKenzie come to mind here (it will surprise no one that Autechre invited Curtis Roads to perform when they took their turn curating the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival). The interest in and possibilities of working at the microsound level are now widely available – Nathan Wolek’s MSP granular toolkit, iPad applications such as Borderlands, and the Nebulae Eurorack analog synth module all come to mind right away. When it comes to understanding the low-level processes and how they can be manipulated to achieve results, the middle chapters of Microsound is the finest guide to the implementation of granular synthesis I have yet found.
    Microsound deserves a place on your bookshelf for what happens in the center of the book: a clear and concise explanation of grain types and the techniques for synthesis and transformation – from windowing to phase vocoding and Fourier and Gabor transforms. One of the great features of the book’s center is that it covers windowed and non-windowed approaches, whose effects can vary widely (Here’s a little epiphany from the book: “Windowing is akin to synchronous granulation.” Think about that over your next cup of coffee).
    Just as there are readers out there who may find the discussions of granulation in the original Computer Music Tutorial to be all they need, you may find yourself thinking that the center section of Microsound is all you need. I'd like to suggest that - for me, anyway - the real meat of the book lies at its edges.
    One of the ways that Curtis Roads diverges from the content of the Computer Music Tutorial in Microsound might be described as personalizing and providing a theoretical discussion of the material he works with - thinking about the tools that he thinks with.
    In the same way that we can discuss FM synthesis as a compositional process in which the modification of timbres created by doing frequency module become the subject or means of the composition rather than thinking merely of the best way to synthesize the sound of an electric piano (cf. John Chowning's work), Roads engages with something more than the technique - he's interested in thinking about the ways in which granulation is used rather than a mere description of method. Unsurprisingly, that interest is personal and tied to a body of practice - his own.
    Where the opening and closing sections of Microsound engages with these ideas, Curtis Roads' new book, Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic foregrounds them. He wisely eschews the attempting the impossible task of generalizing the process of electronic composition, Roads instead builds upon Microsound to sketch out what he sees as the historical context of his own practice, its connection to tools and technique, and builds a personal vocabulary and aesthetic. The book itself is liberally salted with audio examples that can be played from the book's website in addition to a fascinating consideration of the very basic materials of the craft (pitch, duration, rhythm, etc.)
    It's a compelling read for anyone who's ever wondered at how they might think of their own practice (I found his chapter on the notion of rhythm in electroacoustic music to be particularly interesting). In some respects, the book that most closely reminds me of Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic is Trevor Wishart's Audible Design - a book/CD combination that fuses personal practice and technique to create something that's a personal vocabulary, and more the beginning of a conversation than a manifesto. In that regard, reading it led me to imagine what a similar book that fused theory and practice might read like from, say, Morton Subotnick or Eliane Radigue or Richard Devine. It's a thought-provoking addition to the other Curtis Roads titles on my bookshelf, and one which - on finishing it - gave me a better sense of Roads as a person and a composer.
    In addition to our world being full of techniques and recorded objects, it's full of makers. This book is a fascinating portrait of the mind of a maker. I'm not sure that CM is going to help you construct your next techno track, but I think it will encourage you to think about the sources of your own inspiration and process.

    • Apr 09 2016 | 4:49 pm
      How strangely serendipitous! I had a little bit of free time in the office of RECORDING this week, and was clearing my bookshelf of titles that could be donated to my local library. I came across a copy of Microsound that had been sent to my predecessor for review and abandoned, and brought it home to read… how nice to see that it carries the approval of someone I respect greatly! And how awkward that I feel the need to start two different sentences in the same post with the word "how"…
    • May 13 2016 | 7:17 pm
      Hi Gregory,
      I would love to see a similar review of Curtis Roads' Computer Music Tutorial.
      As an aside, I have started a Gen~ Facebook group. Have you had a look at Task 3?
      Thanks :)
    • May 13 2016 | 9:06 pm