Resonant Air: The Music of Michael Alcorn

Resonant Air: The Music of Michael Alcorn

In the sixth article in his series on Irish composers, Bob Gilmore interviews Michael Alcorn, Director of the Sonic Arts Research Centre in Queen’s University.

According to history, Pythagoras divided his followers into two groups: an inner circle called the mathematikoi (‘mathematicians’) and an outer circle called the akousmatikoi (‘listeners’). The akousmatikoi were never allowed to see their teacher, and had to listen to his lectures from behind a veil. Some two and a half millennia later their name was purloined by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer and used to describe a form of music that would have seemed every bit as unearthly to them as the ‘music of the spheres’ that Pythagoras claimed to hear: acousmatic music, defined today as that kind of electronic music that exists only in recorded form in a fixed medium, and is intended to be heard over loudspeakers. In acousmatic music we can’t see the source of the sounds; like the akousmatikoi, we hear from behind the ‘veil’ of the speakers.

Such thoughts pass through my mind as I listen on a friend’s high-spec sound system to Resonant Air by Michael Alcorn, originally commissioned for the Galway Arts Festival in summer 2000. If one can divide all the music in the world into two kinds, northern and southern, then this is music of a northern sensibility, clean and cold, as refreshing and sensuous as a sudden snowfall. (Its composer tells me he is pleased how the piece ‘sits at the front of the loudspeakers’, alert and immediate.) This is acousmatic music without a live component of any kind. As it proceeds I flit between the two modes of listening that seem to be basic to such music: an abstract one, in which the disembodied sounds draw shapes in the air – brief, sharp, pinpoints balancing on, or falling toward, long leisurely lines; and a figurative one, in which I form mental images – splinters of glass, ice crystals, wind blowing over a frozen landscape. The piece explores the concept of ‘containers’ as resonators of sound, and Alcorn used small physical containers such as jam jars, metal tins and wooden boxes to act as resonators in recording the source sounds of the piece. The resulting recordings were subjected to further transformation using a computer, which acts as a ‘virtual resonator’, filtering, time-stretching, and otherwise transforming the material. It’s an engaging piece, highly advanced in technique and sensibility; I’m both surprised and not surprised to learn that even since its release on by the new time (Silverdoor, 2001) Alcorn has continued to rework Resonant Air, editing and trimming it, feeling the work has an open-ended quality resistant to definitive form.

Michael Alcorn’s compositions fall into, and between, the categories of instrumental music, electroacoustic and acousmatic music, and areas of new media creative practice. Strangely for someone widely regarded as one of Ireland’s most important composers in the electronic domain he has done, besides Resonant Air, only one other piece for fixed media: Patina, first heard at the 1998 Sonorities Festival in Belfast as part of a collaboration with the visual artist Barbara Freeman. He has always chosen to remain slightly apart from the institutionalised world of acousmatic music; and although he would like to do other pieces of this type, he has done much more for the combination of electronics with live performers, a medium in which he clearly feels at home. Overall, his is not a large catalogue, but it’s an impressive one; if composing was all he’d ever done he’d still be a force to reckon with. There is, though, the additional fact that while still in his twenties he managed to create, or to transform to professional standard, not one but two electronic music studios in Northern Ireland; and more recently he led the successful bid to develop SARC, the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University, one of the leading music research environments in the world and, at a cost of £4.5 million, the recipient of what was then the largest single research grant ever awarded to the Humanities at a UK university. Needing facilities in which to work, in an acousmatically impoverished Ulster, he has developed the happy knack of building himself playgrounds that can be shared by a great many other people.

If one of Alcorn’s original proposals had come to fruition, SARC would have been contained within a huge geodesic dome in the university area of Belfast, situated at the top of Chlorine Gardens where the road rises to meet the Stranmillis Road. The building that finally opened its doors in October 2003, around the corner in Cloreen Park, is only slightly less astonishing. The jewel in its crown, the Sonic Lab – which the SARC website describes as a ‘cinema for the ear’ – is both a performance space, with a variable acoustic made possible by moveable panels, and a laboratory-style environment for experiments in sound diffusion and loudspeaker design and placement. As such it reflects one of the main themes of Alcorn’s own compositional trajectory: the relationship between notes on the page and sounds in the air.

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Standing Next to the Thing and Singing
Some of his clearest boyhood memories are not to do with music as such but with the nature and behaviour of sound. When he was six or seven a family friend gave him a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a microphone, thanks to which he developed an interest in sound recording: ‘I had no splicing block, so I couldn’t edit anything, but I enjoyed the idea of capturing and re-listening to material’. Rather than collecting stamps or model aircraft he collected sounds; he developed what he calls a ‘magpie instinct’ for gathering sonic materials, a tendency he has to this day. The soundscape of the rural North provided further inspiration: visiting his grandmother’s farm in Omagh he remembers, in one of the rooms of his uncle’s nearby dairy farm, an air compressor that produced a pitch, or rather several pitches, very slightly different from each other. In this way he discovered the acoustical phenomenon of ‘beats’, the wah-wah effect of slightly mistuned near-unison tones. He began to recognise the different vibrational patterns of musical intervals such as seconds and thirds, without the technical vocabulary to describe them; and he was amazed by the beating and flanging effects he could produce by standing next to the thing and singing. Today Alcorn considers these early sound memories even more formative than his early music lessons.

Growing up in a mixed area of south Belfast his childhood was relatively untouched by the sectarian violence in the North, but certain images remain nonetheless. His bed was in the roof space of the family home, right under a skylight, and he remembers in the summer, with the window open, hearing bombs going off and seeing clouds of smoke in the air. When I ask about his memories of the twelfth of July parades, he tells me that the biggest impression was made not by the actual music, or by the sounds themselves, but by the scale of displacement of air created by the Lambeg drums. There is perhaps a slight allusion to the parades in the work of his that is most explicitly concerned with Ulster, the orchestra piece Macha’s Curse, premiered in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in May 1997. Typically, perhaps, he began to conceive the piece during a year-long sabbatical at Stanford University in California: but the work is a response to the then-recent ceasefires in Northern Ireland as well as to the murder of a local shopkeeper. It opens with wild, irregular stabs of sound, the orchestra functioning as a homophonic and highly dissonant single entity that seems intent on dodging, rhythmically, the banging of the two bass drums. This high-intensity sound-world persists for a long time before collapsing into quieter music; the piece ends with a bleak, forlorn melody on alto flute that dissipates into breath sounds and whistle tones against rumblings on timpani and bass drums. In Irish mythology the goddess Macha is obliged, thanks to her husband’s boastfulness, to compete in a race against the king of Ulster’s horses even though she is heavily pregnant with twins. She wins the race, but at the finishing line collapses in the pangs of childbirth. In revenge she places a curse on the men of Ulster for nine times nine generations.

As a teenager Alcorn played the trumpet in a local brass band and, at home, indulged his taste for the prog rock music of the time (‘I could spot a Minimoog on an LP at twenty paces’). He didn’t do A-Level Music, choosing sciences instead, and therefore ‘didn’t go through the sort of education that teaches you respect for the canon’. After a year of drifting he enrolled at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, where he credits David Morris as having a ‘transformational’ effect on his development. His love of modern music, already strong, became ‘like an acid finding its way through water and overheating’. During his years at Jordanstown two obsessions, external to music, fuelled his inclination to compose. One was his love of the calligraphy involved in putting music on paper; he bought a set of Rotring pens and spent hours watching the ink forming shapes on the white manuscript page (even today, he says, he finds it difficult to take a telephone call without jotting down a chord: ‘I write down a load of intervals and wonder, what would that sound like?’). The second was his fascination with technology. At the end of a lecture towards the end of his second year he spotted a cardboard box under a desk in Michael Russ’s office that contained a VCS3 (an early type of synthesizer); instantly he became a man with a mission. Within a couple of weeks he had commandeered a room, had connected up all the equipment that could be wired together ‘including things they probably didn’t want me to have’, had installed a primitive mixer he’d built at home, and had the beginnings of an electronic studio. Even with the university’s subsequent purchase of an Apple 2E computer (‘a green screen thing with an 8-bit sound card’) he soon reached the limit of what could be done there; so thanks to a quiet word from one of his teachers in the sympathetic ear of Adrian Thomas, Head of the School of Music at Queen’s University, he was able to moonlight, taking advantage of the small amount of extra equipment that Queen’s possessed. With these relatively primitive means he put together Hanging Stones, tape music to accompany a photographic exhibition of Stonehenge, which was presented at the Sonorities Festival in 1985. He doesn’t rate the piece now, but, he says, he was ‘marking out territory’. Thereafter he began Doctoral studies at the University of Durham, studying with John Casken and Peter Manning. Finally he had access to a real studio, learned the computer programming language Csound, and discovered the joys of tape splicing (‘I realised I’d been waiting all my life for a razor blade’).

A Sort of Baggage in Paper-Based Music
Alcorn claims that he is the kind of person who never knows what is around the corner, and that all the main achievements of his life have arisen from accidental circumstances. (On the other hand, ‘once I get a whiff of something I’m like the proverbial ferret up the trouser leg and won’t stop’.) So it was that in his final year in Durham he ran by chance into Adrian Thomas who, hearing of the work he had done in the past few years, invited him back to Belfast to set up an electronic studio at Queen’s. Alcorn sent him a list of essential equipment purchases worth £300; Thomas told him they could do better than that. He then sent an augmented list totalling £30,000, but heard nothing in return. Fearing the worst, he put his head round the door of the School of Music that August when he was in Belfast visiting his parents, only to find the stuff already sitting there waiting for him. ‘I suddenly had something really exciting to work on’. That year, 1988-89, he had exactly one student, but worked like a devil putting the studio together. He was appointed composer-in-residence at Queen’s in 1989, holding the position for a year before being offered an ongoing job in the School of Music, where he has remained ever since: today he is Professor of Composition and Head of what is now the School of Music and Sonic Arts.

Being based in Northern Ireland, he admits, has been a mixed blessing for someone working so much of the time in electronic music. In Belfast in the 1990s there were few opportunities to network and interact with people in that world. Isolation plants doubts: doubts about how well informed the work is, how competent it is technically, doubts about the real contribution it makes. It was hard, he says, ‘to measure it externally’, and for much of that decade ‘I went up and down about what I was doing’. Be that as it may, from these early years at Queen’s come some impressive compositions – the chamber piece Making a Song and Dance (1989), a work for piano and electronics called Double Escapement (1992), and a large-scale composition for voices and computer sounds on tape, A Slow Dance (1992), setting the Irish poet John Montague. A Slow Dance was made using a NeXT computer workstation which he had gotten Queen’s to buy, and which finally gave him the sound synthesis capability he’d had at Durham five years earlier. The NeXT machine was soon joined by an IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation, and both were used to make a work for string quartet and electronics, The Old Woman of Beare (1994), one of the earliest works to explore the potential of computer-based live electronics in a real performance environment. He lugged the IRCAM Workstation all the way to California for the year he spent studying computer music at Stanford on his sabbatical in 1994-95.

For all the success of the pieces he was producing, there was an inner compositional dilemma that Alcorn says he struggled with throughout the nineties: he couldn’t quite reconcile what he was doing on paper with what he was doing in the studio. He battled for years with the different creative processes involved in putting notes on the page and manipulating sounds electronically – ‘I wanted everything to flow through the same sort of process and it didn’t for me’. He attributes this to the way composition used to be taught, and in some quarters still is; the use of magic squares and other sorts of pitch matrices, for example, so ubiquitous in the eighties (deriving from the techniques of Webern and post-War composers like Peter Maxwell Davies) implied a view of composition as the manipulation of objects on the page rather than the development of a sense of timbral listening. ‘There’s a sort of baggage in paper-based music that you can mull over, you can think through the implications. But you can’t in the studio – you’re there to service whatever the needs are of the material you’re working with.’ Then sometime in 2000, working on a piece for the violinist Darragh Morgan, he felt those two worlds come together – he was painting in bolder, brasher colours, and had the sense that everything was flowing, ‘like cars on a dual carriageway, not like an English motorway where the lanes of traffic can be miles apart’. He made a Max/MSP patch, and as soon as he started processing the sounds he knew ‘there was something there that was really me’. Crossing the Threshold begins on a level of high intensity with cascades of sound from the violin that automatically trigger the playback of quasi-random bursts from the Max/MSP system. Viewed from one perspective, the threshold that is being crossed seems to be that of human and machine: the violinist, Alcorn writes, ‘is tracked by the computer which interacts with the performer when certain thresholds of loudness are crossed’. The electronics are like the ‘shadow’ of which Jungian psychologists speak, a projection from the unconscious, both an ally and a ruthless competitor for supremacy. After five and a half minutes the texture is abruptly stilled and we move into new sonic territory, fragile on the surface but with turbulent undercurrents. The violinist clings to a single pitch, A, as though for stability, but any such certainty is constantly threatened by the intrusion of noise elements, microtonal inflections and octave displacements. Crossing the Threshold is a virtuoso work, for both performer and composer: its success in combining live playing with electronic processing is consolidated in more recent works, notably in Synapse (2003) for orchestra and live electronics.

A Palette of Graphic Symbols
Just as there is a tenacity and a capacity for hard work in Alcorn the man, so too is there a sense of discipline in his music. The sound materials are always carefully considered, hand-made. Partly for that reason he is not much interested in improvisation, or in music created ‘on the fly’. Even his pieces that involve live electronics have a lot of material worked out carefully in advance, in the studio. ‘A lot of what I’m doing is replaying, maybe modifying, what I believe are high quality materials.’ He argues sometimes with his PhD students about the commitment many of them have to real-time sound generation, feeling that such practices have their disadvantages: ‘I like that you can drop something into a piece that is a bit too rich, too crafted, to have been done on the spot, that you can tell by listening it’s the best of four or five attempts. It’s that quality I think is irreplaceable.’ He mistrusts also the fetishism surrounding programming skills in the minds of some computer musicians – ‘it’s what it sounds like in the hall that matters, not how it’s been made’. Alcorn’s free-thinking approach to music technology led him to resist commercial software music notation packages for a long time. Although he does now work straight into notation on the computer, he’s never configured any of his notation programmes to play back anything, and encourages his students to do the same – ‘I’ve seen it ruin a great many pieces’. He has looked at graphic programmes like Freehand but doesn’t like them. The score of his string quartet Off the Wall, written in six weeks in 2001, uses a customised mixture of graphic and symbolic notation. ‘I had a palette of graphic symbols and was painting with it. The music does the same – it slips out of graphic gestures into finely notated things’. The compositional process was very enjoyable. ‘There was a cathartic feeling – I felt I’d flushed out a lot of baggage to do with harmony, magic squares and other things. I started treating notational objects just as sound objects. I was almost working the same way as I’d work in Protools’. His interest in notation continues in a new piece he is developing for the Maltese percussionist Renzo Spiteri, which emphasises sound and the physicality of performance rather than dots on the page.

His most recently completed piece is Leave No Trace, a commission for the Smith Quartet plus electronics, which was premiered in Madrid in November 2006. This work is a radical investigation into real-time score generation. The musicians play not from parts in the conventional way but by reading notation displayed on individual computer screens. The musical ideas, often only fragments or gestures, are all pre-composed but their sequence is controlled by a central computer attached to a graphics tablet; the operator (Alcorn himself in all the performances so far) can assemble these in any order and send them to the players. ‘The ideas proliferate on each player’s screen before fading out’, Alcorn writes, ‘leaving no trace of their existence’. It is a piece that could never be the same in any two performances. As a concept, he says, it was quite a ‘high bar’ technologically; the key lay in how he mapped out the surface of the graphics tablet, which has nine macro grids, the operator using pen pressure to control such things as the ratio of occurrence of various musical events to other events. The listener in the auditorium finds it hard at first to figure out what is going on, if the music is improvised or strictly notated. The piece embodies a new sort of performance practice – high risk, high stress for the performers (‘they were brilliant’), but the result has an edginess and vulnerability that is very expressive. ‘There’s a gap between what I imagine and what’s possible for them to play’, Alcorn admits. ‘Somewhere in the middle is an acceptable result’. He had to carry six laptops with him for the performance in Madrid; he’s surprised they even let him on the plane.

Alcorn remarks, modestly, that he doesn’t see this work as a grand new direction in the world of live interactive music, but that nonetheless there is a kind of performance practice in Leave No Trace that he wants to tease out a bit more. Some aspects of the software environment created for that work re-emerge in the piece he is currently completing, a work for piano and electronics written for the English virtuoso Ian Pace. This piece pushes things one step further: the player reads from more-or-less conventional musical notation on a computer screen that is divided into two halves. As he reads one half, the other is filling up with notes – the player is only about four or five seconds behind the algorithm that is ‘composing’ the piece. A second performer, operating the computer, controls with a joystick the generation of material according to a set of variables operative in each section. The piece requires a phenomenal sight-reader with a lot of nerve, and a computer operator with ‘a lot of trust in technology’. Yet for all its ingenuity one senses that in this new work, as in so many others, the crucial component for Alcorn is the human one: unlike the akousmatikoi, his music is not content to remain behind a veil.

Published on 1 January 2008

Bob Gilmore (1961–2015) was a musicologist, educator and keyboard player. Born in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, he studied at York University, Queen's University Belfast, and at the University of California.

His books include Harry Partch: a biography (Yale University Press, 1998) and Ben Johnston: Maximum Clarityand other writings on music (University of Illinois Press, 2006), both of which were recipients of the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP. He wrote extensively on the American experimental tradition, microtonal music and spectral music, including the work of such figures as James Tenney, Horațiu Rădulescu, Claude Vivier, and Frank Denyer. 

Bob Gilmore taught at Queens University, Belfast, Dartington College of Arts, Brunel University in London, and was a Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent. He was the founder, director and keyboard player of Trio Scordatura, an Amsterdam-based ensemble dedicated to the performance of microtonal music, and for the year 2014 was the Editor of Tempo, a quarterly journal of new music. His biography of French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier was published by University of Rochester Press in June 2014. 

Between 2005 and 2012, Bob Gilmore published several articles in The Journal of Music, including seven significant profiles of Irish composers.

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