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The language connection in early electronic music: French and German approaches

Dack, John (2016) The language connection in early electronic music: French and German approaches. University of Leeds. [Dataset]

This item is part of the Alternative Histories of Electronic Music collection.

Dataset description

The relationship between music and language is frequently cited as mutually beneficial. Before the eighteenth century language properly speaking was considered of prime importance. Music appeared to be an art form with ‘no semantic content’. By contrast, in the nineteenth century this lack of ‘semantic content’ was considered to be a positive advantage. Nevertheless, writers on music still draw upon linguistic terminology and concepts to clarify and explain how music functions. For example, in his Harvard Lectures ‘The Unanswered Question’ Leonard Bernstein refers to phonology, syntax, semantics and Chomskian grammar in an attempt to elucidate how music communicates. In addition, terminology from linguistics and semiotics can be found in many books on music theory and analysis. When viewed from an historical perspective it can be argued that the emergence of electronic music followed a parallel path comparable to that of music’s emancipation from the subservience of language. As music achieved autonomy from vocal compositions, electronic music also achieved independence from traditional pitch and rhythmic structures. Nevertheless, electronic music, like traditional music, continues to make extensive use of language studies in developing its own theories and practices. My paper will explore the importance of language to electronic music by investigating two different approaches, one French the other German, to the music/language problematic. The first is the use of linguistic terminology by Pierre Schaeffer in his ‘Traité des objets musicaux’, the second is the appropriation of phonetics by Werner Meyer-Eppler who was a central figure in synthetic sound production in Bonn. In his attempt to understand how music in general functions, Schaeffer made extensive use of concepts derived from linguistics. Indeed chapter 17 in book four of the ‘Traité’ is entitled ‘Structures comparées: musique et langage’ (Comparative structures: music and language). Schaeffer investigates the application of the rules of language to music. He paraphrases Jakobson and suggests that the concept of ‘levels of articulation’ and the combination of units into increasing degrees of complexity can be used by composers. While Schaeffer did not restrict his ideas solely to musique concrète it is clear that he believed the expanded vocabulary this genre benefitted from a knowledge of linguistics. By contrast Werner Meyer-Eppler and ‘elektronische Musik’ had a different agenda. Meyer-Eppler was instrumental in the establishment of the studio at the NWDR (this became the WDR in 1955). His main concern was the development of synthetic speech and the effective transmission of signals in order to maintain effective communication. Consequently, synthesis and concepts such as information theory figured prominently in the thinking of young German composers and indeed in the evolution of serial thought. My intention is to compare these two radically different approaches to language and music in order to tease out the similarities and differences. My principal methodology will be an analysis of writings by Schaeffer and Meyer-Eppler amongst others. It is well-known that despite the fundamental aesthetic and ideological differences of these two ‘schools’ both made a significant contribution to the history of electronic music. I intend to emphasize the still largely unacknowledged but fundamental role played by their different approaches to the study of language.

Subjects: W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music
W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music > W310 - Musicianship/performance studies > W316 - Electronic/electro-acoustic music performance
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures > School of Music
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Date deposited: 27 Jul 2017 19:47



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