Trends: Seeing Sounds

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It may be a long while before listeners accept electronic music with any comfort, at least as part of the standard concert-hall experience. The chief complaint is that there is nothing musical about the production of those unique and sometimes eerie timbres and rhythms that the avant-garde composers draw from oscillators and magnetic tape. Now, however, there is enough evidence to suggest that the electronic composers have at last found the ideal setting for their work. They have formed a partnership with the abstract visual arts, to the point where their sounds at last make musical sense.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Expo 67, which is plugged almost everywhere into an array of far-out, ear-frazzling electronic music. Rather than standing on its own, it functions as an element in a mind-blowing fantasy of give-and-take with visual phenomena; the eerie amplified sounds absorb logic from their surroundings, lend drama to the enveloping space, and force the observer to fuse eye and ear into one receptive organ.

Music on the Move. At the Quebec pavilion, for example, a series of almost blank abstractions—freestanding blocks representing water, forests, industry—is bathed in an electronic score, by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Staff Composer Gilles Tremblay, in which lab-produced whir, twitter and roar complement the visual suggestions. High overhead the individual sound tracks collide and coalesce into a contrapuntal aural landscape.

At the British pavilion, flickering images of medieval pomp and ceremony are flashed on rough stone walls, as a multichannel instrument-plus-electronic score by Guy Wolfenden, equally blurred at first, moves on from muttered chaos to an idealized, magisterial fanfare. France has at its axis an abstract structure of curved interlocking planes and flashing lights, designed by Sculptor-Composer Yannis Xenakis, who also provided a flickering musical score that mirrors the visual shapes.

Actually, much of this medium-mixing has been going on for several years, but Expo has presented these experiments to their first mass audience. According to Professor Istvan Anhalt, director of the electronic studio at Montreal's McGill University, where some of Expo's music was created, Expo's relationship to electronic music is comparable to the partnership between medieval cathedrals and the music that was created for them. The novelty today, says Anhalt, is that the audience can walk around and "be enveloped by the sound."

Music on the Wall. What works well for the buildings works even better in Expo's experimental films. In the best of them, composer and film maker have worked out a new approach in which the musical scheme is elevated beyond its usual background function.

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