KISS2014 – What is “Organic Sound?”

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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

NOPera

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.

Plantification

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?

theEar

Did I miss the point?

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A creative artist works on his next composition because he was not satisfied with his previous one.

-Dmitri Shostakovich