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Sonic Arts Repetoire Essay- Poeme Electronique

A composition that demonstrated that it is possible to use electroacoustic sounds in producing a rational piece of music was Varese’s ‘Poeme Electronique’ (1958). This particular piece paved the way for other electroacoustic composers to come in the future and popularised the electronically-generated style of music for the other half of the 20th century (the 1900s). It was presented in the form of a prepared tape. The composition appears to be narrating some stories which supposedly hints at the title of the piece ‘Poeme Electronique. These stories distinguish life in the western world (i.e. countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom) which are more developed and emphasise a more modernised culture of living, as well as non-western countries (i.e. like countries in Africa), which are less developed and they, emphasise a more traditional culture of living.

Sounds you would hear in a city environment indicate that the story of life in the western world is being narrated. On the other hand, sounds you would hear in a jungle or village environment in third world countries indicate that the story of life in the non-western world is being narrated. This separation is illustrated by the two main contrasting electronic interpretations, which are present throughout the piece. The use of various musical cues indicates the change in story and section. These cues take the form of what appears to sounds like a pitch-transformed ‘animal cry’ loop, which gradually fades into the background with increasing densities of reverb effects that reflect this (for example, at ’00:56′). Alternatively, it can take the form of a certain sound in the piece that also gradually fades into the background, but is artificially enhanced with delay and attack effects.

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This results in a step-up of pace and pitch in the sound (for example, what appears to sound like animals at ’01:46′, or the gong of the clock building’s bell right at the start of the piece at ’00:01′). These musical cues act some kind of chorus and help to shape the structure of the composition. The opening section of the piece begins immediately with the clock building’s bell going off as if it has struck another whole hour, and gradually fades to the background. This suggests the start of one story (i.e. life in the non-western cultures). This bell at ’00:01′ seems to have timbre transformations and the colour of the sound changes. Also, its texture thins out in layers gradually as the bell fades out into the background. This says a lot about the flexibility of the sound. So it can filter out from a slightly distorted initial struck of a bell, to a cleaner sound with time. Varese may have chosen a bell to start the piece off as a substitute for not having a motif to tell his “movie-like” story. This could be due to the dynamics of the metallic sound of the bell, which makes it fade out slowly so that a smooth transition can be made to the next section.

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An electronic interpretation of what appears to sound like a ‘mosquito’ buzzing around, is very accurately produced by the composer. This happens at ’00:32′ seconds. Here, the composer takes advantage of the stereo field available and makes creative use of it. He does this by using the panning technique very effectively to illustrate the effect of a mosquito flying by. This really engages the audience’s senses and brings the musical piece to life, and tricks the audience into thinking they really are in a country in Africa. In addition to the panning transformations, there are also pitch transformations during this event. The pitch of the mosquito flying appears to transpose down an octave, as the mosquito flies back to its former position in the stereo field. This changes the timbre of the sound by making it sound more gentle and eliminates the slight vibrato effect present at the start.

At ’01:20′, what appears to be a ‘cement mixer’ vehicle sample retains the tone at which the melodic section was played, but transforms the melody rhythmically by chopping it up, by sounding as a cement mixer vehicle would. Moreover, at ’01:25′, this particular sound returns with its pitch transposed an octave up and harmonises with an accompanying sound of what appears to be a ‘TNT’ explosive. This gives the piece a sense of ‘urgency’ at this point. In the third section starting at ’01:30′, it appears to sound like animals having a conversation (a mouse ‘squeaking’ and a frog ‘croaking’). This brings the audience back to where the former story paused (i.e. life in the traditional cultures). Varese uses the compositional technique ‘call-and-response’ in conjunction with the creative use of panning, to effectively convey this idea of animals conversing.

What sounds like a drum fill at ’02:02′ gets the audience prepared for the fourth section of the piece. The intention for the composer to do this gesture is perhaps to add rhythmic value to the piece. This also reminds the listeners that this is a piece of music with rhymic and melodic qualities, rather a just an arranged set of sounds extracted from the environment and electronically processed. The construction site noise returns at ’02:05′, as well as other sounds that establish an atmosphere of “city life” in the minds of the audience (such as the sounds of what appears to be a dog scratching itself, and a railway bridge opening and closing). At ’02:22′, a quiet ambulance siren transforms into a more densely layered police siren, with an increase in pitch. Varese uses a similar sound, an effects-processed synth, the make the transition from the ambulance siren, to the police siren smooth.

His intention of delaying the time at which what appears to be the sound of footsteps, whilst the police siren was fading out in the background, may have been to create the image of a criminal escaping from the police. This is done effectively, especially with the use of panning. The clock building bells return at ’02:33′. However, there is a difference in timbral quality than that of at ’00:01′, which sounds more like ’00:12′, where the bell’s timbral quality begins to transform. Perhaps Varese did this intentionally to enable the bells to fade out smoothly, to the ‘saw’ and ‘lead’ synth sounds that follow it immediately. At ’02:42′, there is a beeping countdown consisting of these very ‘saw’ and ‘lead’ synth sounds, which is produced by pitch transformation adjustments made to these synths. The sound of an aircraft is heard after this countdown. So it may refer to a countdown for the aircraft to take off.

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A male vocalist replaces the female vocalist after the abrupt brass stab at ’04:23′. In section 5, what appears to be a snake ‘slithering’ is heard alongside percussive drum sounds. The use of panning here makes these sounds realistic as if the audience actually were in a country in Africa. At ’03:32′, additional snake sounds are layered around the stereo field with higher velocities, for that surround sound effect. Also, at this same time, shorter and more upbeat, rhythmic drumming takes place. Altogether, it sounds as though a band is performing. In the final section, at ’06:41′, it seems like Varese is attempting to juxtapose the soprano vocalist’s high pitched vocals with the bass vocalist’s low-pitched ones at ’06:56′ appears to be a face-off between two opposing vocal ranges. This opposition continues at ’07:03′, where it sounds like a ‘tug of war’ when the African percussive drum loop is attempting to dominate over the chopped up piano and organ artificially-enhanced sounds. The use of panning makes this separation clear, with both types of sounds occupying either of the stereo field (i.e. left or right). This gives a dramatic feel to the audience.

QUESTION 1. The vocal fragments heard in Schaeffer and Henry’s “Symphonie pour Homme Seul”, establishes the main idea for the composition. The rhythmic loop of spoken words harmonises well with the instrumental and percussive patterns in the piece. There are loud male vocal fragments heard at ’00:07′ seconds, which echo as they fade out instantly. Every word was spoken at this time vary in pitch, which suggests the timbral properties of the human vocal cords. On the other hand, there are quieter female vocal fragments heard at ’00:17′, which sounds different, like a change in timbre.

At ’00:46′, the prepared piano appears to be heavily sustained, so it sounds reverberant, which outputs a very ambient sound. When the piano notes are played in staccato, it sounds more soft and quiet, whilst when they are played in chords thus legato, a richer sound texture and increase in loudness is heard. As a result, there appears to be variation in velocity levels. The footsteps heard at ’00:00′ are reminiscent of a kick drum in a drum kit, and has that same ‘punchy’ sound. At ’00:02′, it changes in pitch before echoing and then decaying. This gives an image of someone climbing some steps and reaching the top where there are flat surfaces, which have ambience.

QUESTION 2. A boy’s voice was a sound source in Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jungle”, which dominated over the electronic sounds heard in the piece. The pure electronic sounds act as chord accompaniments and imitate the pitches the boy is singing in. This is demonstrated at the time ’00:48′ seconds. Also, the electronic sounds imitate the vocal performance techniques the boy is using at ’00:47′, so when there are pitch bends in his sustained voice, the electronic sounds mimic this with the “tremelo” effect heard at this time. Here, the boy’s voice and the purely electronic sounds integrate and layer as one sound, which makes it subtle that there are two different sound sources used. Also, it appears that the purely electronic sounds are imitating the melody created by fragments of the boy’s voice put together. For example, this is demonstrated at ’01:33′. It sounds as if a ‘call-and-response’ technique is taking place at this time. An electronic ‘glissando’ is heard at ’02:33′. This gesture appears to contrast the pitches in which the boy is singing in.

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QUESTION 3. “Music N Languages” refer to a series of application programs that enable the computer to calculate and produce sound. These include applications like ‘CSOUND’, being the most recent, and ‘MUSIC V’. They may all have slight variations in the programs and different names, but in the end, they all work in a similar way. For instance, when any of the programs are run, they all produce an output made up of a sequence of integers. Amplitude Modulation is a kind of modulation where the carrier signal’s amplitude adjusts depending on the information-bearing signal strength.

On the other hand, frequency Modulation is the kind of modulation where the frequency of the carrier signal changes, depending on the modulating signal strength. The use of “melochords”, ‘sine waves’ and ‘square waves’, suggested that John Chowning used the ‘additive’ type of synthesis in Turenas (1972). He uses sine waves in his synthesis to demonstrate ‘vibrato’ at ’00:35′ seconds. This produces variations in the pitch of the musical notes. Also, at ’00:29′ seconds, he demonstrates ‘rubato’ a few times till ’01:18′. At ’02:15′, he synthesizes the gesture of ‘phrasing’ with the melochord.

QUESTION 4. Immediately right at the start at ’00:00′, Dennis Smalley opens the musical piece ‘Wind Chimes (1987)’, with a gentle “attack-impulse” of the wind chimes. This gesture barely gives the chimes time to fade out to the background smoothly. So all within a second, the chime is quickly played and disappears abruptly. Shortly after, at ’00:11′, there is a very sudden ‘attack decay of the musical chimes. This gesture was similar, but the only differences were that there were higher velocity levels, a pitch transformation, and a far gradual decay period.

Also, morphology types ‘gradual continuant’ was demonstrated, and ‘noise spectrum’ soon after the chimes were struck at ‘ 00:13’, so it was difficult to tell what pitch the wind chimes were sustained on. Spectral types ‘note proper’ was demonstrated at ’00:20′. Here, it was demonstrated clearly that the wind chimes were played in absolute pitches. There was then a ‘rubato’ gesture demonstrated at ’00:21′ seconds, where there appear to be changed in ‘intervals’ between this time and ’00:28′ seconds. At ’00:29′ seconds, there is ‘nodal spectrum’ and the chimes fade out.

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Sonic Arts Repetoire Essay- Poeme Electronique. (2021, Jun 30). Retrieved September 30, 2022, from