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's8 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.
0:00 Initially we hear 3 layers: two pitched buzzing sounds occurring in a question and answer relationship (resolving by a fifth at the end of each repetition, thus implying a conventional tonal relationship) and a layer of `drum' noises (see above). This repeats 5 times; interesting in that there is an initial denial of the traditional popular music groupings of 4 to 8 repetitions that will become important later in the piece.
0:45 On the sixth repetition another layer enters, this one composed of extremely processed electric guitar, probably manipulated by looping, fragmentation, and amplitude envelope control.
1:32 Another layer of guitar sounds is added, not always regular.
2:09 The most recent guitar layer changes to a higher pitch and we begin to hear the sound of the Mexican dance band horns (hereafter referred to as `horns') faintly in the background. This is almost unnoticeable since it is placed at such a point in the cycle that it seems to be part of the delay/reverb characteristics of the manipulated guitar sounds. Very effective and subtle. These two elements gradually increase in prominence, the horns rising out of the guitar's trail and the buzzing sounds receding. At the same time new `drum' noises are brought in and by 2:55 constitute a definite groove. At this point we are into a transitional section as the guitar becomes slightly more recognisable.
Presentation of Main Material and Development
3:13 Four presentations of a sample of horn material, presented in a question and answer relationship with a sample of guitar harmonics. One of the low `drum' noises resolves into a fretless bass. Hereafter this material thus presented is referred to as H1.
3:28 Fragmentation, loop, and envelope manipulation of horn and guitar material. Hereafter M1.
3:43 Slight variation, presence of a descending melody.
3:50 New horn material. Four repeats. Hereafter H2.
3:58 More manipulations, bringing to prominence the descending line presented at 3:43. Answered by manipulated horn noises. Four repeats. Hereafter M2. Both this section and the previous one are approximately 8 seconds long.
4:06 Eight repeats of M1 material.
4:21 Variation on material at 3:43 which mixes M1 and M2 material.
4:29 H2 material. Four repeats.
4:36 M2 material. Four repeats.
4:44 Return to H1 material. Four repeats.
4:59 M1 material. Eight repeats.
5:14 Variation on previous, hints of M2. (Similar to 3:43, 4:21). 3.5 repeats (truncation).
5:22 H2 material. Four repeats.
5:30 M2 material. Four repeats.
5:38 H1 material with fragmented and truncated repetitions. Considerable use of panning here.
5:58 H2 fragmented, made to sound like an Eastern melody. This hints of new material and the descending line of M2.
6:10 String (violin, ehru?) sound presented with H1 material, adopting and replacing the guitar answer in the second part of each cycle. Varying repetition of string pickup to each cycle.
6:26 String sound presents material similar to Eastern melody at 5:58. Other processed sounds in the background. Four repeats.
6:33 New string material. Similar to descending line of M2, and the Eastern melody. Four repeats.
6:41 String sound answered by extremely processed horns. Four repeats.
6:57 Manipulated H2 material. Four repeats.
7:04 Accordion material, similar in nature to string melody but ascending. Like a retrograde variation of M2 descending line. 3.5 repeats. Hereafter A1.
7:10 Bleat sound, answered by horns. Four repeats, last repeat shorter. Hereafter B1.
7:18 A1 material. Four repeats, last repeat shorter.
7:25 B1 material. Four repeats.
7:32 Combination of M1 and M2 material, extremely fragmented, panned, syncopated rhythms, longer phrases. Patterns adjusted, fragmented, and shifted increasingly throughout this section.
8:04 H2 material with amplitude envelope varied to coincide with bass pulses. Four repeats. Ends with a short string transition into the next section.
8:16 Variation on 7:32, shorter.
8:30 Variation on 8:04. Four repeats.
8:43 H1 material. Two repeats. Short string transition into next section.
8:49 Accordion plays a folklike melody. Syncopated `drums'. Longer phrase. Four repeats with short cadential gesture, then four more. Hereafter A2.
9:21 A1 material. Repeated with fragmentation and truncation.
10:18 A1 and A2, varied and combined with other materials, (M materials etc.)
10:33 Four repeats of B1.
10:40 Two repeats of M2 material.
10:44 H1 material, three repeats as normal, then fragmentation ending in one guitar answer. Piece ends at 11:01.
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 (www.sukothai.com/CSbio.html)
The Carl Stone Home Page (www.sukothai.com/index2.html)
Club Wired Interview Transcription (www. hotwired.com/club/95/43/10-16-04.stone.html, 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 (www.sukothai.com/CSbio.html). For further information see The Carl Stone Home Page (www.sukothai.com/index2.html). - return
3 Club Wired Interview Transcription (www.hotwired.com/club/95/43/10-16-04.stone.html, 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