Umberto Eco and Electronic Music

By Antonio Vizcaino

Translated from the Spanish by the author

Umberto Eco, the famous Italian semiologist and author of The Name of the Rose, dedicated his attention to electronic music during his long career.
In the late 1950's Eco was working as RAI's coordinator of cultural programs for radio and TV in Milan. Just upstairs was Luciano Berio and his phonology studio ("...it was a continous whistling of square waves and white noise..."). Berio's musical experiments served to call Umberto Eco's attention, who became interested in the characteristics of that new music, with its virtually infinite varieties of performance and audition, as being representative of the "open work." In his book Opera aperta, Eco discusses Omaggio a Joyce, which was composed by Berio from recorded readings from Joyce's Ulysses. These spoken samples were then processed in many ways (phoneme filtering, etc.) until they were rendered unrecognizable.
Considering electronic music as a part of artistic avant-garde, Umberto Eco dedicated more attention to the subject in Apocallitici e integrati. This, his most influential work on mass culture, contains an entire chapter dedicated to music created and played with machines.
According to Eco, the electronic generation of sound involves the creation of totally new musical material, destined to overcome tonality as the dominant expressive form. With electronics, it's not only possible escape from tonal system (based on predefined notes) but to build the sound in every detail, opening infinite posibilities, which were welcomed by advanced musicians who wanted to expand the sensory palate of an audience used to existing musical convention. Eco demonstrated the importance that audio tape recording has for both for the processing of "concrete" sounds as well as for the preservation of electronic experiments. This has a serious implication, as the apparent impossibility of notating these experiments -- which are often subject to chance -- tends to limit their life to the very tape upon which they were recorded. (Though it is helpful to mention that many modern digital recording tecniques now open up new possibilities.)
This is made problematic, however, because many electronic musicians mould their musical processes on paper, annotating precisely their use of filters, generators and the values of various other elements. This often involves very particular notations, which in some cases can attyain an artistic level all own its own. For example, this is the 'partiture' for a composition by Klaus Schulze:


(© Klaus Schulze & Brain Records, 1976 )

For anybody who makes the attempt, it's no trivial matter to follow the symbols in this soup of music; which tends to lend justifications to Eco's objections. In the other hand, electronic devices allow one to obtain an infinite set of sounds from a very simple set of elements, all of which can be carefully constructed down to the smallest detail. Given this, the composer has beyond him an unexplored universe. To use these possibilities with effectiveness, a new musician should have a basic knowledge of mathematics and physics, as well as a great proficiency regarding electronic instruments -- in other words, a composer should be a musical engineer, wide open to every possibility that culture has to offer. Referring to music in performance, it's important to note that, given tape as a recording medium, the composer-performer duality disappears, eliminating problems of "performing fidelity."

"I believe in mechanic music. If I had a player piano with hypertones, I would record my music in the tape. To eliminate any interference from the performer"
--Manuel de Falla

Things change on the comsumption side, too. The performance in concert halls supposes modifications in conception, derived from new technical needs. Indeed, it seems this could disappear; as things point to a private performance with the possible interaction of the music consumer, who now bears new levels of responsibility in tandem with the musician. In the end, Umberto Eco inverts the arguments of the enemies of this new form of musical expression. They contend that electronic music makes music less human, too much dominated by machine. Eco offers two replies to this. First, that traditional instruments can be very complex as well, thereby limiting the musician's creativity -- just look at the piano. Secondly, he offers an inverse argument, pointing out that many electronic musicians maintain their devices with the same attitude of XIX-Century pianist, a certain romanticist inertia which has not been eliminated by the lights and screens of their device consoles.
The innovations introduced to music by the appearance of electronics create new conditions, but this doesn't destroy the older ones: that's true for experimental and popular music, and it's not enough making a previous statement without examinating all the implications.
Umberto Eco wrote this in 1962. While many aspects of it seem dated now, the fundamental lesson has not changed -- in the face of a cultural fact as electronic music you can't close your eyes or deny its existence. It's necessary to study it to reach the pertinent conclusions after a rational argumentation.

--Antonio Vizcaino, 1999



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