The Expert: What I Know About … Electroacoustic Music

Everything there is to know about this untraditional music form.

Photography Amber Bracken

Who: Scott Smallwood 

Age: 44 

job: Associate professor, Department of Music, University of Alberta; sound artist, composer, performer

Experience: When Scott Smallwood received a tape recorder for his 10th birthday, he had no idea that the myriad of effects and collages he would create with the contraption was his ticket to a unique career in sound art. Today, he’s an internationally recognized authority on the subject, thanks to four music degrees (including a Ph.D. in composition from Princeton), position papers received widely – as far away as Paris – and accolades from such publications as the New York Times. As an associate professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Music, Smallwood passes his passion for sound on to his students. The Dallas-born, Colorado-raised academic’s specialty genre is electroacoustics, music created with technology that wouldn’t be possible using more acoustic means.

– “In the mainstream, people are more familiar with the term ‘electronic’ music and that’s what I grew up referring to what I now call electroacoustic music. But just the idea of music made with electronics has a long history, and it means different things to different people. I think, in terms of the general public, it probably goes beyond the dance music world and goes more into the world of ‘sound effects’ to the layperson.

– “Electroacoustic music has traditionally been more about a piece that follows a particular kind of structure; it’s designed to unfold in front of you in a particular way. It’s like film for the ear.

– “I do a lot of field recording and collect and record sounds. I try to do a lot of listening. Often times, the sounds I end up gravitating towards as an artist are defined by that process. Sometimes they come directly from the sounds, or trying to recreate the essence of that sound or playing with that sound somehow. I try to make a lot of those recordings and many of them don’t work out well, but, every once in a while, one sound pops to the surface, even if it only lasts for about 30 seconds. It’s an ‘Oh, my god!’ moment that sometimes just becomes my obsession. I start making work using that recording or making sense of some idea from that, so a lot of listening and responding is how I approach things. There’s also a lot of thoughts about conceptual things and experimentation through improvisation.

– “What’s more important than anything else is not how a particular piece of software works, because all that changes every year. It’s more important to understand the concepts. When you make a recording, what are you actually getting? Sound is being transduced through a microphone and stored digitally. And when that happens, there’s a certain resolution and certain level of amplitude you can expect to capture. Understanding what it looks like on a computer – looking at the wave form and understanding acoustics and basics about digital audio – is more important than the mechanics of any software.

– “I once attended with my son a drumming workshop thing called Woodstick in Bellevue, Washington. One of the events was a giant drum set in a big gymnasium, where there were over 400 people with their drum kits, all playing patterns together. I made a bunch of recordings of this, which have turned out to be really interesting. I also have to say that many of the field recordings I’ve made at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada are among some of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard, much less recorded.

– “The best way to get started is to go out and get a digital recorder. Make lots of recordings, dump them onto your computer, download Audacity, which is a free, open-source audio editor. Then, import your sounds into the audio editor and start playing around with them. Listening well is a huge, huge factor, not just with headphones, but with a nice pair of speakers, so you can hear what is in your recordings and really try to find some gem you can play with.

– “In popular music culture, Radiohead is regarded as a band that’s taken the form of rock music to a new level. But one guy in that band, Jonny Greenwood, is someone who has garnered a lot of respect, because he’s very unique in his approach to creating music and soundscapes – things that are a lot less melodic and harmonic-oriented sound – and has been able to bring in a textural ear to music that hadn’t been quite as refined in the past.

– “Burning Man’s become a very important site for me for doing really important ground-breaking research. The work I see there is just incredible. You have to understand that Burning Man is really a city made of art, built by the participants. Because I’m interested in ecological issues and in bringing art outdoors, it’s another way to find out how to make a piece of art that’s going to survive in the desert for two weeks. The harshness of the heat, and the dust storms and lack of electricity and sheer craziness of it is a great place to learn how to do stuff outside and off the grid.”

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