KISS2014 – What is “Organic Sound?”

Word Lens’s attempt to translate information about our wine

I’ve just returned from a fun and educational week at the Kyma International Sound Symposium in Lübeck, Germany. The conference (like last year’s) consisted of four days of thought-provoking lectures on variety of topics and concerts in a variety of musical styles, all unified in the implementation of Symbolic Sound’s Kyma System.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “Organic Sound.”

I’m a bit ambivalent in the use of the term “organic” in regard to music and sound art, mostly because I never understood what my composition teachers meant when they said that my music needed to develop more “organically.”

I now believe that this was kind of a way of saying: “I don’t know what’s unnatural (uncanny?) about how this piece you wrote progresses, but it’s just not right.”

Of course this understandable, as form and development are possibly the most challenging aspects of composition for many students, due, in part, to the enormous amount of subjectivity in composition and absence of “right” and “wrong” (but, arguably, the presence of “good” and “better”).

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” -Richard Feynman

This is why, for my organic KISS2014 piece, I found the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines, a set of rules and regulations: binary and infallible! Then, I fed the text of these guidelines into an algorithm (another rule!), which produced a wonderfully organic text for my NOPera.

It was a pleasure, then, to collaborate with a number of other organic entities in performing the piece, including mezzo-soprano Kimberly Gratland James, and the young instrumentalists from the Musikhochschule Lübeck


At the conference, though, I found many of my international colleagues had spent a little more serious effort in engaging with the question: “What is organic sound?”

“What is the pattern that connects all living creatures?” -Gregory Bateson

Composers, sound artists, and researchers shared a wide range of ideas over the course of the conference, and there were a significant number of discussions of capacitive sensors, sensors that react to the capacitance of the human body, including a performance by former Oregon colleague Nayla Mehdi, and a presentation on “plantification” (using plants as capacitive sensors) by Damien Grobet, Ludovic Laffineur, and Rudi Giot.


Ms. Mehdi called capacitive sensors a “interdependent symbiotic sensor system” (and thus “organic”), a point I wish I had a greater understanding of last year, when working with a student frustrated by the inconsistency of capacitive sensors.

Of all the discussions of organic sound, however, particularly striking was Kyma creator Carla Scaletti’s talk “What is the Most Organic Sound.” Engaging with the work of researchers in the scientific community, Dr. Scaletti made a compelling argument that the description of “organic”–interdependent, modular, evolving, concerned with change–in regard to sound aptly defines “music” (and perhaps better than the “organized sound” definition commonly used).

So, post-conference, while my ambivalence about the imprecision of term “organic” remains, I appreciate my international colleagues’ engagement with the idea, and I understand that perhaps my ambivalence stems from inorganicism in my own thinking (scientism?).

I mean, since sound is a vibration in a physical medium as perceived by the ear, isn’t all sound organic?


Did I miss the point?

“Academic Music”? OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Milton Babbitt

Composers like to say, “I’m not a university composer, I’m a composer who happens to be at a university.” He happens to be in a university because it makes it possible for him to be a composer. Otherwise he wouldn’t eat, and I can’t imagine a more important function than being able to eat occasionally when you’re composing music. – Milton Babbitt

I recently watched this documentary of Milton Babbitt available at NPR Music, and it gave me a new perspective on a composer whose music I often have a bit of a love-hate relationship with.

Watching this film was perhaps especially timely for me because, earlier this year, I had my first experience of someone calling me an “academic composer” in the pejorative sense (at least my first experience being called that to my face). This experience was a bit of a surprise to me because, as a student, I always thought of myself as the populist rebel, what with my melodic writing and triadic harmony.

When people use the term “academic music” with intent to offend, they usually trying to say that (1) the music has no wide, market appeal, and (2) instead of wide appeal, it has narrow appeal, specifically to others in the academy, and this is helps this music to sustain itself, leading to a large-scale emperor’s-new-clothes situation, where, while everyone knows this music is terrible, no one has the courage to say so (except for the populist rebels).

I’ll share a response to this way of thinking from Detritus Review which is far superior to anything I could put together:

…the harm is that this sort of ill-conceived, childish argument perpetuates a commonplace misunderstanding of music. A misconception that music owes something to us. That when we don’t like a piece of music, it has done us wrong, and the composers have lost their way. While everyone is always free to like or not like any piece of music, that music has no obligations to you. Music doesn’t have to make you happy, please you, provide you with emotional catharsis, or look or sound like anything. In fact, it doesn’t even have to try and be popular. – “Gustav”

Of course, “academia is certainly not above reproach.” Whether or not academic music is a real phenomena that holds its followers to a set of expectations (to write inscrutable music and all wink at the same time), it seems that many young composers perceive that there is a set of expectations they must meet for their music to be considered “serious,” and perhaps across all of the different institutions and music professors in the US, there are some who look for particular criteria in evaluating compositions.

Joseph Dangerfield describes his experience in this article, where the composer (whose work everyone should check out) outlines his liberation from the feeling of obligation to please the academy in his work. This article inspired a surprisingly thoughtful and engaging discussion by academic composers in the comments section, as well as an interesting response, aptly titled “Academic Music” – What’s that? by Christian Carey.

Those poor elephants

I like to think I don’t hold my students to any stylistic standards, just technical standards (counterpoint, counterpoint, counterpoint), and I do believe that technique is something that you have to learn and develop.

Otherwise, why offer a degree in composition?

Despite how I hip I consider myself, though, perhaps the second I started teaching composition at a university I became “The Man,” and now its up to my students to rebel against me.

I think I’m ok with that (perhaps another sign of aging) because maybe, as artists, we need to keep rebelling against the previous generation of rebels.

For me, that would be rebels wrote awesome pieces like this:

Milton Babbitt’s Philomel