Towards a New Aesthetic in Electroacoustic Practice in New Zealand Universities [1]

Ian Whalley

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999

About the Author
Table of Contents

Sound files:


On 29 December 1995 in the Friday Forum of the Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand), critic Lindis Taylor posed the question: "Who do serious classical composers write music for these days?" He argued that the "academically-driven industry devoted to experiments in sound and sound generation" rated self-expression and originality above giving listeners pleasure. Taylor suggested that the real problem with much of this approach is the composers' attitudes to their audiences. He concluded that the "onus of communication is on the artist".

University music departments, Taylor suggested, are alienating a wider audience by writing esoterica for a small academic audience. He raised the question of whether this constitutes a valid use of taxpayer money: the universities are in effect providing artistic subsidies.

The article prompted lively debate, including letters to the newspaper's editor. Further, it was reprinted in Sounz News (No.7, 1996), published by the New Zealand Music Center.

A response was published in the next edition of Sounz News (No. 8, 1996) penned by Auckland composer Eve de Castro-Robinson. She took the view that Taylor peddled "an insidious viewpoint," and asserted the "sovereign right of the individual composer to create music, however idiosyncratic, apparently difficult or challenging . . . or of course how appealing or accessible the result."

She went on to state: "The composer can do nothing about how his/her work is received/perceived by any group of people. It is enough to have created that work. How can an individual possibly understand and cater for an audience?"

She suggested that the only way to meet the needs of the present audience in Taylor's terms is "to dilute, sanitize, prettify, smooth down, arrange and generally mulch music down to the level of muzak, which is what most people want given the size of the industry . . . to give audiences something they are familiar with," which she describes as "antithetical to the intrinsic nature of the creative process."

The issues raised by this debate provide fertile ground to open a discussion on the current state of electroacoustic [2] music production, distribution and reception in New Zealand universities; to confront aesthetic and pragmatic issues that academic composers in the idiom face in a wider New Zealand cultural, social and economic context; and to suggest possibilities for broadening the audience for the idiom. Although a case study, the paper is intended to be polemic. The points made may touch on common concerns internationally.

A founding premise of this paper is that music is a socio/cultural construct, and as such it is examinable as a part and reflection of the changing conditions of its production, distribution and reception. [3]

The thesis is that composers working in the university based electroacoustic music idiom in New Zealand are accountable mainly to academic authority, which has largely determined stylistic direction since the 1950s. The university system which supports the idiom partly insulates the art form from social, cultural and technological changes in the wider community, and a wider audience.

Given the changes in New Zealand society over the last fifteen years, the contention is that the basis of accountability needs broadening to reflect a wider audience. In these terms, issues of the accessibility of musical language need confronting if the electroacoustic medium is to communicate effectively. A suggested way forward is a synthesis of popular and academic music idioms to ensure some common ground between composer and wider audience. This synthesis is best undertaken in mediums that are generally accessible to a wider audience so that the context of distribution and reception for creative work is broadened.

The theoretical approach taken is influenced by a variety of perspectives including discussion of the sociology of knowledge as represented in the work of Berger and Luckmann; [4] techniques of ethnomusicology; [5] the cultural perspectives of Mary Douglas [6] and Clifford Geertz; [7] arguments on the nature of discourse by Foucault, [8] ideas advanced by Said concerning the social and ethical positions of artists and critics employed in universities; [9] and perspectives on power put forward by Lukes. [10] These perspectives are not entirely consistent with one another, but provide useful insights and methods with which to discuss the topic.

An assumption in the thesis is that what counts as music is socially constructed. 'Music' and 'musical experience' are things that are possible because people produce them as aspects of a social world. [11]

Music must also be heard in order to become complete. [12] A person's understanding of musical meaning comes about because of the knowledge and experiences that a listener brings to the listening situation. The musical experience is understood on the basis of previous experiences that are used as a basis for this interpretation. Like language generally, in order for music to communicate it must be based on shared knowledge and meanings that are communally recognized.

The significance of any 'music' is then best understood through a focus on commonly agreed meanings according to the group that creates, realizes and uses the music. In short, music is not a self contained or extra-social entity, but the result of specific practices by groups of people, and examinable as such. Methodologically, the paper then begins from the premise that music is a socio/cultural product and reviews the current production, distribution and reception of electroacoustic music in New Zealand university settings.


History and practice

The practice of electroacoustic music in New Zealand began with the pioneering work of Douglas Lilburn in establishing the Electronic Music Studios at Victoria University of Wellington in the early 1960s. He not only established the studios, but gave the electroacoustic idiom a New Zealand voice with his emphasis on the use of local environmental sounds. [13]

Environmental sound and its processing has remained a feature of New Zealand electroacoustic music, although the palette of styles and approaches now includes a wider range of international influences, as revealed in the works of the next generation of university based composers, a collection of whose work was recently included in the release of a CD series by Ode Records, with the support of the New Zealand QEII Arts Council. [14]

Both nationally and internationally, the electroacoustic idiom has developed its own grammar and syntax, codes and meaning since the 1950s. [15] Much of the essential language remains foreign to most but a few initiates and, as the Taylor article cited above attests, remains largely inaccessible to the general public and average concert goer.

In New Zealand, electroacoustic music practice and output has been supported mainly through the university system. [16] Without the substantial funding provided by universities over the years to build and maintain the studios and sustain the composers' salaries, notwithstanding the occasional Arts Council [17] grant, the idiom would not be sustainable.

Historically in the university situation, once electroacoustic composers had completed teaching requirements, studio facilities were more or less free for them to compose in. [18] Apart from specific commissions for projects such as theatre sound tracks, the product was largely aimed at university concert audiences, conference submission, or CD release (with Arts Council funding). Accountability for product, beyond fulfilling the research component of employment contracts, was largely down to peer assessment nationally and internationally. [19]

Prior to the microprocessor revolution in home computing which began in the mid 1980s, the electroacoustic idiom was largely the domain of the few because of the sheer expense of studio equipment (such as the Fairlight Synthesizer) and the amount of time the composition process took. Outside the university system, it was difficult to justify the enormous capital expenditure on the required equipment, or afford the time, to produce works which had little hope of earning any significant financial income because of small audiences.

Given these conditions, combined with the research culture of universities which makes originality a basic requirement, the electroacoustic idiom developed to a significant degree isolated from a wider audience in New Zealand. Two things reinforced this.

First the idiom was largely distributed (apart from CDs) in a concert setting where the audience sat and listened to speakers on the stage. Apart from pieces where composers combined the idiom with live performance, theatre, or attempted to integrate the idiom in a live popular music type format (in groups such as Free Radicals) the dissemination of most of the output remained limited by the lack of a performance connection with the audience. [20] What audience it did have was often limited to the few who attended experimental concerts in and out of the university, or concert goers who, in attending university concerts, heard pieces as part of the series programmes.

A second factor contributing to the comparatively isolated status of electroacoustic music has been the influence of a Romantic aesthetic in which individual composers adopted the stance of freedom of expression without audience compromise, a view supported by many contemporary art music composers. This perspective is eloquently promoted in the article cited by Eve de Castro-Robinson. [21]

This view is a relatively recent phenomenon in Western art music. [22] It asserts the notion that although experimental art works might be beyond the understanding of most of the current audience, one day they will be understood by a general audience. This view is highly culturally specific and is also demonstrably inaccurate historically: the serial works of Arnold Schoenberg from the 1930s, for instance, have no bigger an audience today than they did half a century ago.

The history of the electroacoustic idiom in New Zealand up to 1980 seemed a secure one while it was supported by the academic system, in a period when the country was relatively affluent. It was also sustained generally in isolation from a wider audience with little accountability apart from peer appraisal, and it was underpinned by a range of theoretical perspectives and academic conventions that supported its continuation.

The Wider Context and Dislocation

Why is electroacoustic music produced, and for whom? In answering this question, a brief overview of the wider current environment for the medium in New Zealand provides a basis for final discussion on future directions.

New Zealand went through major economic and social changes from the mid 1980s to the 1990s. The ethos of the welfare state that had been for many years part of the New Zealand psyche was attacked on a broad front through New Right ideology and monetarist policy. Popular capitalism and individualism were promoted in place of state ownership and community. More significant was opening the national economy to international influences, and the consequent diversification of our import and export sectors. [23]

Regardless of how one views the relative merits of these changes, the consequences were largely unavoidable. [24] Management jargon has become a part of everyday language for many, and the Employment Contracts Act combined with a growing litigation culture has made working relationships more fluid and accountable, but also less stable. A right wing market philosophy now pervades many of our institutions. [25]

Further cultural changes have been brought about by an increasing Maori political and economic voice as grievances are raised and settled under Treaty of Waitangi legislation. [26] The country has also become more obviously culturally diverse with increasing links to Asia through trade and immigration.

The education system reflects many changes in accountability, marketability and cultural diversity. Our universities, for example, are now operating in a more competitive environment than they were ten years ago. This trend is likely to continue with current moves to review tertiary education, introduce capital charging, decrease the amount the universities receive per full time student, and increasing competition for students. There are also suggestions of separating teaching and research income and setting these on a contestable basis. [27]

Music education in New Zealand has broadened considerably in the last five years. The new school syllabus includes a far wider range of activities and range of styles, and this is supported by the National Education Qualifications Authority. Some polytechnics and private educational institutions are now offering a range of music courses that in the past were the preserve of the universities.

New Zealand's musical landscape has also broadened considerably over the last twenty-five years. Rock music, for example, has developed away from its self conscious cloning of overseas acts to producing groups of originality which win international acclaim: Crowded House is a fitting example. [28]

The musical language that the majority of New Zealanders are exposed to through radio, television, theatre, film and public space comes mainly through rock and popular Western tonal idioms. As the baby boom generation is now an average of forty-one years old, the demographic weight of this generation will ensure that this language and associated idioms are here to stay for some time. For many people, music is popular songs: chordal, metrical, and tonal.

Music technology that was once the preserve of the few due to expense is now becoming accessible to home users. Today's home computers are capable, with a few additions and the right software, of producing music of professional quality. [29] The maintenance of an art form defined in practice by limited assess to technology is no longer viable.

The biggest adopters of this new technology are younger people producing music in new popular music styles, and home studio users who are now writing soundtracks for a range of screen projects such as multimedia and industrial video. The adoption of this new technology by popular music practitioners is the continuation of a trend of technological literacy which is integral to the modern rock and popular music aesthetic. Technological fluency in this idiom is, in some cases, more important than traditional musical fluency. [30]

Popular music styles based on the new technology, such as the editing techniques used in 'world music', are now finding their way into a wide range of other idioms such as advertising music. Similarly, techno is often used as the sound track in promotions aimed at younger demographics through radio.

Given the overall changes cited, some of which echo the arguments put forward in Lindis Taylor's article, there is a sense in which the continuing practice of academic electroacoustic music is dislocated from the general concert going public, the experiences of a wider audience, and a wider cultural environment. The question from a composer's perspective remains, so what? Three possible solutions might be as follows: The first is to adhere to the Romantic notion of the right of the composer to self expression, and perhaps see the university system as the last refuge of artistic hope in a world dominated by banal commercialism that can only corrupt artist integrity. In practice however, such an Adornoesque approach often leads to the most conservative of solutions disguised as radicalism (such as serial composition). [31] This perspective also underestimates the creativity that exists in popular music, and fails to recognize that invention does occur in popular idioms, despite commercial pressures.

A second approach may be to heed the thinly veiled threats of Taylor regarding accountability and the use of taxpayers money: to take the approach that if the practice does not become more publicly answerable to taxpayers and give satisfaction to audiences, then the current climate of increasing accountability may force this situation upon composers in the long run. However, if one subscribed totally to this view, university composers generally may as well start writing New Age or some other purely commercially angled music. But success in those fields would, of course, beg the question of why university composers' salaries should be publicly funded when they are earning substantially from their music already!

A third solution, and the one supported here, is a middle ground between the two extremes. The questions remain about the why, what and how.

Bridging the gap

The social, cultural, political, and artistic environment that electroacoustic practice now takes place in is significantly different from how it was in its formative years. Combined with decreasing university funding and increased public scrutiny of funding from the public purse, accountability for research funding is becoming an issue that must be faced sooner rather than later. In addition, university music departments are finding it increasingly difficult to continually upgrade equipment to a professional standard because of the decrease in public funding. In some cases, home hobby studios are better equipped than university studios.

What is the role of the university electroacoustic music composer in this changing environment, and what is the justification for capital expenditure on equipment apart from historical precedent? What justification is there for continuing the academic electroacoustic music tradition generally?

Apart from the contractual obligations of teaching, examinations and research that a composer accepts when undertaking a university position, there is surely a moral obligation to honor the social contract created by the funding of the position by the taxpayer. [32] A solution put forward here in recognition of this may also prove to be pragmatically expedient in the current environment.

Through not having to make a living off the music one produces, because the position rather than the product is funded, the university based electroacoustic music composer is now in a unique position between theory and praxis, expressive experimentation and pragmatism, the need to survive in a commercial market and academic isolation. This affords an opportunity to make a unique contribution to a wider musical community.

Given this opportunity, it is essential to use the position to artistically contribute to and communicate with a wider audience which 'pays the piper', but also to retain artistic independence so that they do not entirely 'call the tune'.

There are two main ways to begin to integrate the medium back into a wider community. First, an essential undertaking is to concentrate on mediums that will ensure a wider distribution and accessibility for work produced. Traditionally, electroacoustic music has been distributed through concert music settings or CD, reinforcing the art music [33] proposition that music is something set apart that needs to be sat and listened to independent of other events.

Much of a wider audience, particularly beyond the 'classical' concert going audience, interacts with music in the context of other settings, such as in film, theatre, computer games, alternative live performance situations, dance and TV. In these terms, it would seem essential to meet the audience on common ground by writing for these mediums. This need not undermine the continuation of historical practice. Indeed, it may help build a wider audience for more abstract forms of electroacoustic music. Many people come to absolute [34] music first through mediums such as film.

Second, working with performers in other mediums may also prove to be worthwhile. The combination of live rock performance and electroacoustic music is a vehicle that has not yet been fully explored in New Zealand, nor has the interaction with performers from other musical performance mediums or cultures to any great extent. The possibilities of including a variety of influences that reflect the diversity of New Zealand provides a rich source of material for artistic expression. This is certainly not an easy road to take, and one that needs to confront cultural and political issues on a most fundamental level. [35] On the positive side, music is a tool through which to explore, debate and resolve issues that in other arenas may be avoided because of difficulty and/or political and cultural hypersensitivity.

These two approaches provide a connection to the industrial and commercial uses of music, yet need not impose the master/servant relationship that often ensues when one is required to compose for a living in commercial conditions. [36]

The last issue, and perhaps the most important, is the one of the accessibility of language.

The use of a wider range of mediums for distribution would result in greater common ground for communication. Many of these mediums have their own disciplines of form, structure, economy and expediency which could negate the self-indulgence for which academic electroacoustic music is often criticised. [37] At the same time, they provide vehicles for expression and creativity.

More significantly, using these mediums implies communication of meaning through musical codes that are commonly shared and generally understood by a wider audience. In these terms, a common ground must be found between the language with which the audience is familiar and the expressive requirements of an individual style.

This does not mean that academic composers must simply resort to 'giving people pleasure', or degenerating into pap formulas. British film music in this century, for example, has used the talents of many of the leading composers of the day who significantly broadened the expressive and artistic palette of the medium. [38] Even today, this tradition continues with many experimental studio-based approaches to television scores. Retaining artistic integrity and working in commercial mediums, although a fine balancing act, need not be contradictory practices. Again, the privilege of the university position allows this.

In these terms, the language, syntax and grammar of electroacoustic music need to be integrated with aspects of traditional and popular musical language idioms so that codes used to transmit meaning are retained but extended. If this is done, highly experimental and individually expressive music can be written to powerful effect. For example, in the context of film or theatre, music that may not be well received by the general audience in a concert setting can find readier acceptance. The extra-musical setting is often used as a guide to interpret the music in this situation.

The meeting ground between the academic and popular voice is, then, based on the view that profound experience can be expressed in accessible musical language, and conversely, that language which is inaccessible does not of itself mean that the meaning expressed necessarily is profound. In short, familiarity of language should not be confused with vulgarity of message.


The issues raised here are part of wider debates touched on by the authors cited in the opening of the paper, and reinforced by the increasing prevalence of 'market' culture. One can only expect these issues to be given further scrutiny as market practice continues to influence university culture internationally. The educational implications are significant in broad terms. [39]

The solution offered here rests on a view of music outlined in the theoretical introduction which many absolutists may find morally and aesthetically abhorrent. The theoretical proposition is not provable either way, and in this sense can only be argued for. This paper has simply added a moral element to support the argument.

Given a choice between the aesthetic and the commercially pragmatic as extremes, the synthesis suggested allows elements of both, perhaps without significantly compromising either position. On the continuum between these views, I have argued that popularist languages already contain elements of their so-called aesthetic opposite, and electroacoustic composers can therefore find their own balance between the two approaches.

The proposition is of course demonstrable in practice, and this is starting to become more evident in a younger generation of electroacoustic composers for whom the insecurity of tertiary education research funding is the norm rather than a novelty; and who have grown up with rock music as part of their musical diet, in conjunction with an art music based university education. [40]

A solution to the broader debate not explored here, is for the aesthetic proposition to be supported through public education beyond universities: through events such as 'meet the composer', in non traditional venues for such occasions. Generally, there has been little willingness on the part of the more esoteric New Zealand composers to undertake this; the 'no-compromise' approach being evident. Apart from this, the dialectics of undertaking such an approach is fraught with its own debates and problems, [41] and may prove to be significantly more difficult and perhaps less worthwhile than the solution proposed.


1. Based on my paper presented at INTERFACE 97, The Fifth Annual Conference of the Australian Computer Music Association, University of Auckland, New Zealand. 11 - 13 July 1997. (back)

2. Electroacoustic is used throughout to note the possibility of combining live music with electronic music. Digital music is understood to not have a real performer playing at a rendition of the music, and is now a more common aspect of electroacoustic music. (back)

3. The notion is taken from Wolff (1981) (back)

4. Berger and Luckmann (1967) (back)

5. Blacking (1976) (back)

6. Douglas (1975) (back)

7. Geertz (1973) (back)

8. Foucault (1984) (back)

9. Said (1991) (back)

10. Lukes (1974) (back)

11. This was a mainstay of Blacking's thesis (back)

12. This hearing does not have to be in an aural way. Western 'art music' composers, for example, learn to 'auralize' as part of their training: to imagine how something would sound in their 'mind's ear'. Similarly, the physical vibrations of a loud rock bass player may be 'heard' by the deaf, and there a number of profoundly deaf professional performing musicians who receive music by visual cue and tactile sensation. (back)

13. Lilburn's work, together with other early pioneers, is published along with extensive notes in the L.P. box set NZ Electronic Music. KIWI SLD 44/46. Notes edited by NZ composer Jack Body. (back)

14. This seven CD series was published in 1993 (Ode Record Company, CD Manu). (back)

15. The material is available on CD distributed through bodies such as CDCM (Consortium to Distribute Computer Music), Wergo (Computer Music Currents Series), and the Electronic Music Foundation. (back)

16. The LP and CD output in New Zealand in this idiom is almost entirely limited to university based composers. (back)

17. The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council was recently renamed Creative New Zealand.(back)

18. Salary payments to lecturers in New Zealand have never separated teaching and research components. (back)

19. For example, submission at the Australasian Computer Music Conference. Proceedings are published annually. (back)

20. A good review of the 'live' connection is given by Kerr (1991). (back)

21. A similar defence of the position is given by a number of composers in a recent edition of Music in New Zealand (Number 34, Summer 1998/99) as a response to the suggestion of returning to 'classical' principles to bridge the gap between composers and audience. (back)

22. Harbison, R. (1980) provides a deconstruction of the idea and practice. (back)

23. For an overview, see Crocombe (1991). The current proposals (1999) to reform tertiary education in New Zealand reflect these trends. (back)

24. See Crocombe (Ibid.) (back)

25. The changes have not been without considerable debate. See for example Douglas (1993) and Easton (1988) for two differing views. (back)

26. There is increasing awareness of the rights of indigenous people internationally, particularly in English speaking countries. (back)

27. These proposals have now been formulated into the current government's 'White Paper', which is being debated as the basis of future legislation. (back)

28. A good review of the history of New Zealand rock music is given by Dix (1988). (back)

29. Magazines such as Keyboard and Electronic Musician give a good overview of current possibilities. (back)

30. The argument is elaborated well by Jones (1992) and Negus (1992). (back)

31. The proposition is demonstrated by Eisler (1947). (back)

32. At the basis of any social theory, particularly those to do with an analysis of power, is an ineradicable value judgement: As Lukes notes ( 1974, p26):

. . . both its very definition and any given use of it, once defined, are inextricably tied to a set of (probably unacknowledged) value assumptions which pre-determine the range of empirical applications.
And in discussing a definition and presumption about the nature of interests ( which are and intrinsic part of any discussion on power), he notes (34):
In general, talk of interests provides a licence for the making of normative judgements of a moral and political character. So it is not surprising that different conceptions of what interests are , are closely associated with different moral and political positions.

33. The term is used to denote music from the western 'classical'/intellectual tradition, in contrast to folk and popular music. (back)

34. The term is understood as music for its own sake, or existing without the need to be understood through an associated story. (back)

35. For example, see current debates on music and cultural identity in Frith (1996) and Stokes (1994), or authenticity concerns in Taylor (1997). (back)

36. This is often the complaint in film music. For example, see Bazelon (1975). (back)

37. The Taylor article is an example of this criticism. (back)

38. For example, Bennet, Bliss, Walton, and Vaughan Williams. (back)

39. See Young (1971) and Keddie (1973) for one side of this debate, or Bloom (1987) for an alternative view. (back)

40. For example, parts of Downes' CD Saltwater (Ode Record Co. CD Manu 1453, 1993) illustrate this, as does my recent electroacoustic composition Ga no mita mono (premiered Kunitachi CCMMT, Tokyo, 3rd Dec. 1998). (back)

41. See for example, Blacking (1973), Gans (1974), Muller (1973), Norris (1989) and Shepherd (1977). (back)

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