new musings: music, art, and more...


Description of Picture.These pages will always be under constructiondeconstruction, or reconstruction
devoted as they are to my artmusic, and science.

And now even animated filmmaking.

Job Michiel van Zuijlen

some thoughts on electronic music composition

Electronic and computer music have brought the composer a new arsenal of sounds to play with. The use of magnetic tape in musique concrête, pioneered by Pierre Shaeffer, introduced everyday sounds into a musical composition. In his book Silence, John Cage remarks that ways to store sounds, such as magnetic tape, made it finally possible to compose with "non-musical" sounds, as opposed to the musical sounds of the orchestra. He points out that by using noises rather than tones as elements of musical expression has repercussions for the kind of organizational principle that is needed for musical composition. He sees a link with film:

The composer (organizer of sound) will not only be faced with the entire field of sound but also with the entire field of time. The “frame” or fraction of a second, following established film technique, will probably be the basic unit in the measurement of time. No rhythm will be beyond the composer’s reach.
— John Cage: “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937)

composing as painting, sculpting, or even filmmaking

John CageLearning about John Cage and his approach to music has helped me come to grips with the challenge of how to employ all those new sounds that are available to us in musical composition today. If you are "tone-centered" and think in terms of chord progressions (which I do myself, sometimes) you limit yourself to a particular style of music that fails to absorb these new sonic possibilities If you know how to write for percussion, you are already much better equipped; many percussion instruments have a noise-like quality. You can also think in non-musical terms. I often view creating electronic music as painting or sculpting with sound. Or you may get inspired by the art of filmmaking, which, like music, has a temporal aspect.

On a side note, John Cage expanded his creativity into visual art, as I recently discovered. His work often has a Zen-like quality as can be seen at his Artsy.net web page. HIs music scores often have a graphic quality that goes beyond traditional music notation.

the sonosphere as organizational principle

So it is crucial to find an organizational principle that suits you, otherwise you will be swamped by all those available sounds. I have created compositions based of the idea of an imaginary landscape: while traversing through time you arrive at different locations in this landscape and the sounds you hear change likewise. They may or may not resemble real-life sounds such as water or wind, but they do give the impression of a specific sonosphere. These are older pieces for which I used analog electronic equipment. The real-time character of the equipment allowed instant feedback and a lot of the basic material was created, much in the way of improvised music. I would then combine the material: either by creating a sequence in time of different portions or by layering several portions and have them sound simultaneously. See the Music Projects page for links to some examples.

am I a real composer?

I do not, in general, compose on paper first. For more "traditional" work, I use a MIDI sequencer, which is just another way to record a composition, with the advantage that you can hear what you are doing and can make instant changes. This kind of immediate feedback is essential to me. I was told once in a computer-music composition class that there was an advanced class where compositions were studied only on paper, since real composers don’t need anything else. That rules me out, I guess. I am not a real composer, so I became a filmmaker!

so what about film music?

I once dreamt that I could then at least become a film-music composer. More freedom perhaps? Not really: in the US movie industry music is part of the show-business cycle, like everything else. So I just content myself with composing music for my animations.

Interestingly, this film-music malaise was recognized a long time ago by Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler:

...there is a striking discrepancy between contemporary motion pictures and their musical accompaniment. Most often this accompaniment drifts across the screen like a haze, obscuring the visual sharpness of the picture and counteracting the realism for which in principle the film necessarily strives.
— Adorno & Eisler: “Composing for the Films” (1947)

imagine your reality — realize your imagination

I would like to conclude these musings with a few words about animation. I have had a long-time involvement with animation: first, as animator's assistant during a summer, then as composer of film music for animation movies, and, finally, as a maker of animated films.

I'm interested in animation films that go beyond the typical cartoon. The common view in the US that animation is just entertainment for children ignores the fact that there are certainly animation films that have an older audience in mind. Collectively, these films display an astounding variety in technique and subject matter.

As to the kind of films I try to present, for me animation is a means, not an end. It is very tempting to dazzle the viewer with special effects. However, I believe that story is primary, and I try to keep the visuals of my films relatively simple, so that they support rather than detract from the narrative. (For an overview of films completed thus far, see the Film Portfolio page.)


External links were up-to-date as per June 25, 2017, but are subject to change beyond my control.