Carl Stone's Mom's


A Brief Analysis


Scott Wilson


Simon Fraser University

Fall 1995

In this paper I intend to discuss the piece Mom's (1990) by the American composer Carl Stone. I shall begin with some biographical and background material and then move on to analysis of the piece and its methodology. In doing so I shall make use of the terminology of Simon Emerson, as laid out in his essay `The Relation of Language to Materials.'1

Carl Stone was born in Los Angeles and studied composition at the California Institute of the Arts with Morton Subotnick and James Tenney.
2 While studying there he worked in the library transferring the entire recordings collection onto 1/4 inch tape for archival purposes, an occupation which he says allowed him to `hear an incredible range of music, from Machaut to Davidovsky to Burundi to salsa.'3 In 1972 he decided to devote himself exclusively to the composition of electroacoustic music. (Although recently he has written some instrumental music, `. . . because some people were kind enough to think that I might write pieces for them. ')4 Initially he was interested only in producing recorded music, but began forays into live performance with his 1980 piece Busobong, which made use of 2 tape recorders with one tape loop strung between them, and a microphone to build up material. Layering played an important role in Stone's early pieces, see for example Sukothai (1979) or Woo Lae Oak, which at times made use of tens of thousands of layers of sound overdubbed on tape.5

Up until 1985 his basic performance instrument was a digital-delay harmoniser into which he fed audio material. At that time it was stolen and he replaced it with a DX7 synthesiser, a Prophet 2002 sampler, and a Macintosh home computer. From this point onwards his emphasis has been on the sophisticated manipulation of samples of pre-recorded material. Stone makes use of wide variety of material, from popular music to Schubert lieder to (in the case of Mom's) Mexican dance band music. Performance plays an important role in his composition, despite the technical difficulties of producing live electroacoustic music. Stone has toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. He says of his performing experience:

I enjoy it. Nice to meet my audience face to face. Writing tape music in the seventies was like dropping things down a well and not hearing the splash. Live performance is emotionally satisfying and I like the fact that mistakes happen. Sometimes the mistakes lead to things that are more interesting than the things I had planned.6

Stone also acknowledges the influence of improvised music on his early development as a keyboard player.7

Mom's was written in 1990 for the Japanese choreographer Katsuko Orita. It was premiered in June of that year in Tokyo as part of the dance piece `Pintafore Space'. Like much of Stone's later pieces it makes use of sampled material. This decontextualised material is processed in a number of ways and then recontextualised in the final work. Methods of manipulation which I have been able to aurally discern are looping, fragmentation, layering, pitchshifting and amplitude envelope control. Sounds are sometimes introduced in a more or less straightforward manner and are then subjected to complex morphological processes. This results in further recontextualisation of materials as they become gradually stripped of their referential value. It is not clear whether the listener is always supposed to be aware of this process. In some cases it is obvious, which might imply that the listener is meant to be aware of the contextual manner in which music is received in our culture, and how elements of music and sound can both carry referential meaning, and come to signify new meanings as they are recontextualised.

This process of recontextualisation of recorded or sampled material would seem to be a logical extension of the development of sound recording. It is of course by no means a strictly avant garde phenomenon, and is commonplace in popular culture. Hip-Hop music is an obvious example. One might also suggest that this constitutes a reflection of the disposable nature of much of our society's production, cultural and otherwise. Art is being produced at an amazing rate. If one can have disposable razors why not disposable music? And more to the point, why not recycled music?

I have been able to discern the following musical elements in Mom's: Unidentifiable buzzing noises (probably very processed samples), electric guitar (including harmonics; somewhat processed, likely before sampling), Mexican dance band horns, some sort of bowed string instrument (possibly Indian violin or Chinese ehru), folk accordion of some kind, fretless electric bass guitar, a sort of short bleating noise (some sort of bagpipe?) and `drum' noises (possibly manipulations of other material presented with very short amplitude envelopes and or truncation, actual drum samples, or a combination). I should stress that lacking access to the original material, this labelling is entirely based upon my own aural discernment. Therefore terms like `Mexican dance band horns' should be viewed merely as arbitrary descriptive conveniences, rather than precise determinations of origin. Nor is this listing meant to be complete as there are elements which I have not been able to even approximately identify. In the discussion to follow all time references are to the compact disk recording Mom's
8 on the New Albion label. It should be noted that the material is subjected to considerable variation throughout the piece and thus the term repetition does not always apply literally, nor does the reappearance of previously presented material necessarily mean an exact reoccurrence.

Timeline Score

Stone makes interesting use in this piece of popular music conventions. The repetitions in multiples of four, the relative regularity of section lengths throughout much of the piece (7-8 seconds or multiples), and the selection of sound material all serve to set up a set of expectations in the listener. These expectations are then denied or revealed to the listener as the material is subjected to fragmentation, truncation, and other manipulation. This would seem to bring process very much to the fore in this piece, as the listener cannot help but be aware of what the sounds are being subjected to. It also highlights the recontextualised nature of the material by delineating the fragmented nature of its assembly, and the methods by which that assembly can be varied and transformed.

Turning to Emmerson's terminology, one could say that this material is both aural and mimetic. A sample, in its raw form is of course strictly speaking mimetic, but it may become aural in two ways. Firstly, by removal from its original context, it may lose the meaningful associations that are necessary for mimesis to be successful. It may take on new associations from its new context thus further obscuring its mimetic qualities. Context is of course very important in sampled music, as it is often composed of unlikely combinations of instruments and sound objects, thus creating a kind of hyper-real virtual context of its own. Secondly, by imposing new morphological characteristics on a sound (i.e. fragmentation, truncation, looping, envelope manipulation, etc.) that sound may also be stripped of associative and mimetic qualities and have different significance. An example from Stone's piece would be the initial entry of the guitar material at 0:45 and 1:32. A first time listener is likely to perceive the material as aural. It does not become clearly mimetic until 3:13. It is not certain that such a listener would perceive the transformations that the material had been subjected to and make a connection between these two presentations. At other times (for example 8:04, 9:21, and the final fragmentation around 10:55) this transformation is made explicit by its presentation. Thus the materials used in this piece can be considered mimetic, aural, or a combination of the two.

Syntactically the piece is largely based on structures abstracted from the material (notably H1 and H2), although one could argue that this also functions as an abstract syntax imposed upon the manipulated material. There is also some apparently abstract syntax imposed upon the material, notably the fragmentation and truncation processes, see for example 7:32.

Thus it can be seen that this piece makes interesting and economical use of sampled material, referring to and diverging from that material's original context, while at the same time exploring some of the aesthetic and psychological implications of the sampling process itself.


Carl Stone Biography (

The Carl Stone Home Page (

Club Wired Interview Transcription
(www., September 20, 1995)

Dolden, Paul, Veils: Studies in Textural Transformations (Vancouver: M.A. Thesis Project, Simon Fraser University, 1985)

Emmerson, Simon, `The Relation of Language to Materials', The Language of Electroacoustic Music (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1986)

Stone, Carl, `Mom's', Mom's, performed by Carl Stone (New Albion NA 049 CD, 1992)

Wishart, Trevor, `Sound Symbols and Landscapes', The Language of Electroacoustic Music (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1986)

1 Simon Emmerson, `The Relation of Language to Materials', The Language of Electroacoustic Music (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1986) - return

2 Biographical information is from Carl Stone Biography ( For further information see The Carl Stone Home Page ( - return

3 Club Wired Interview Transcription (, September 20, 1995) - return

4 Ibid. - return

5 Ibid. Compare Paul Dolden, Veils: Studies in Textural Transformations (Vancouver: M.A. Thesis Project, Simon Fraser University, 1985). - return

6 Ibid. - return

7 Ibid. - return

8 Carl Stone, `Mom's', Mom's, performed by Carl Stone (New Albion NA 049 CD, 1992) - return