The Blurred Compilation Album (Track 17) 11.30hrs | Keynote Address | Jonty Harrison “Dilemmas, Dichotomies and Definitions: acousmatic music and its precarious situation in the arts”

Harrison is here to provoke the audience. He is one of the UK’s, if not the world’s, leading acousmatic composers. He describes a situation where a relatively young art form, acousmatic music, is treated with open hostility by those within traditional musical discourse. Here he is explicitly referring to ‘classical’ music practitioners, but I would propose that this hostility, or lack of comprehension, could be extended to almost any realm of traditional sound-making.

While acousmatic music enjoys a relatively high degree of support in its historical Francophonic centres of France and Canada (more specifically Paris and Montreal), within the UK, and much of the rest of the world, acousmatic music remains a culturally isolated activity. Harrison is here to offer us some insight and analysis of this situation.

He beginsby defining his terms. Acousmatic music is designed specifically for loudspeakers; he goes on to pick out a number of defining characteristics:

1)Acousmatic can refer to a situation, or to an intent, it is not a description of a style, and should be seen as a means and not as an end. He compares the term to ‘piano music’ which is sufficiently open to cover musics ranging from traditional jazz, classical works, film scores, experimental work and so on; he relates ‘acousmatic’, as a term, to also allow a great range of interpretations and deployments.
2)It allows the use of any sound as a valid compositional element.
3)Visual aspects are detrimental to acousmatic performance. The focus is upon sound and its transformations and movement in space.

Acousmatic composers trace their filiation to Pierre Schaefer’s influential invention ‘musique concrete’, which began from an empirical approach to sound. From this empiricism (e.g. the classification of sounds according to its amplitude envelope (attack, decay, sustain, release) and frequency envelope) structural compositional implications are derived, with a resulting effect upon working methods; which Harrison describes as ‘hands on’ and ‘organic’.

He compares this traditional with the Cologne School of ‘elektronische Musik’ which operated along much more formalist methods, as typified by serialism.

e.g of Tony Conrad et al boycotting Stockhausen concerts – cultural elitism of Lamonte Young for all his posturing.

Harrison notes that the tension between the differing approaches of the two schools continues to destabilise practice.

L’objet sonore – ‘recording was the most important dynamic of twentieth century music, much more than the abandonment of tonality.

— McLuhan – sense ratios.

Reduced listening – the detaching of the sound object from the sounding object

‘sound as sound’

Schaefer’s early work Etude aux Chemins de Fer (1948), now seen more as an experiment rather than a finished work, was criticised for too close a relation between the two objects, but Harrison notes that this oscillation between ‘real sounds’ and those more abstracted, is one of the most effective techniques available to acousmatic composers.

—- how is visual representation considered? A painting, photograph or a film surely is not presented as reality, but a construct. What does this allow us to say about acousmatics, field recording and phonography?

Harrison ends this section of his talk with a description of the introduction of digital technology as a ‘quantum leap’ forward.

playback > > “Unsound Objects” J.Harrison (1995, 13mins, excerpt)


Footsteps on bracken.
Footsteps on shingle.
Footsteps on snow.

Sudden short cracking sound reveals itself as fire.

Realism gives way to abstract interplay and textural changes.

Fire bounces spatially.
Which then becomes a ping pong ball which fades away.

The sound of keys leads to the unlocking of a door.

Recapitulation–? of rain and thunder
Footsteps motif is linked to a similar sound, a car on shingle.

We then arrive on a beach.


There is a real fluidity in the way the location can be treated in acousmatics.

Acousmatics proceeds from the concrete into the abstract, and from practice to theory.

Harrison then asks the question whether acousmatic music is actually music. Using the often cited quote that music is sound organised in time, and sound art is sound organised in space. Is it then music? Harrison argues that an acousmatic work can be listened to on a CD much less problematically than a sound art piece.


– less associated with the specific site of reception.

– often uses multiple sites as sound sources.

– is concerned with the sonic properties of sound objects, less of a conceptual emphasis. The conceptual concerns of many sound artists, while important in creating significant artworks, can create some pretty unlistenable results, once they have be removed from their original context.

– acousmatic work is explicitly created for loudspeaker listening. Sound art audio output can often be the result of

– unpredicable
– natural
– improvised
– kinetic


and their interest is not in the empirical qualities of sounds per se but in sound’s ability to articulate

spatial relationships.
cultural concerns.
environmental processes.
socio-political agendas.
technological dependencies.

He reports a dialogue he had with Bill Fontana, who is more concerned with letting ‘sound be’, without any of the transformative techniques used by Harrison and other acousmatic composers. Harrison, self-depreciatingly describes his methods as ‘tinkering around’ but, more seriously, considers his transformative approach as an investigation into what ‘sounds may yet become’.

“Acousmatic music is sound art, but sound art is not music”.

In his final comments, Harrison describes his vision of the future of acousmatics, he sees this future an inevitably involving collaboration, diversification and hybridisation, in a effort to move acousmatics from its precarious position in the arts.

While his address has had much to say, he seems to be firmly entrenched within a modernist and institutionalised culture of academic music. Although acousmatics can be seen to question the conventions of serious music, chiefly through its rejection of the score, and in its reconfiguration of performance norms, within the UK at least, one can say that acousmatic music is firmly tied to academic institutions. Examples of this are Harrison’s own BEAST diffusion system, and the work carried out at the University of York and the University of East Anglia since the early 1970s. Harrison claims that acousmatics has this academic association for historical reasons, and that there is absolutely nothing intrinsic to the form that definitively ties it to academia.



Kubisch (from the floor),”I have always seen acousmatic music as academic. There is no difference between a composer of instrumental music, and one of acousmatic music. It’s very male dominated, is not fun, and is clearly academic”.

Harrison responds by emphasising the organic nature of his working process. He is not engaged in research, he ‘makes things’. His approach is not theoretical, but is based in practice. Again he reiterates the historical justification for its placement within universities, but then acknowledges that performance venues and the technical difficulties associated with monitoring and mixing acousmatic work, has limited much performance to relatively well-resourced institutions.

Acousmatic music involves the audience in very ‘artificial listening’, and as such requires a process of familiarisation with the techniques, processes and goals of composers. Given the fact that it remains a largely under funded discipline, particularly in the United Kingdom, this process of familiarisation, has historically been centred upon those institutions associated with the development of acousmatic technique, discourse and practice. Penetration into broader society would require a degree of promotion and dissemination impossible under the financial constraints suffered by historical practice. Harrison responds to Kubisch’s comments with the observation that the acousmatic listeners are highly dispersed in a geographical sense, and a survey of such an audience remains to be undertaken. He concludes by speculating on the future of acousmatic music in the information age where listening habits of music lovers in the widest sense are changing, perhaps towards a situation more sympathetic to acousmatic listening.

“We’re having this conversation again, about you not being academic”. (Male voice from the floor)

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