Morphology, Form & Structure

The process of sonic metamorphosis was important to Gerhard. In his Audiomobiles BBC broadcast he was critical of Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul (1951) for not achieving significant metamorphosis of their initial sonic material, thus leaving the associative connotations of the sounds or an unimplied narrative too near the surface of the work. Gerhard states that: ‘there is in fact, no striking metamorphosis of basic materials in it. The identity of the so-called objets sonores remains pretty obvious throughout. Their line up too, is more in the nature of a loose sequence than of an imaginative sound montage’. In contrast, Gerhard’s working method is almost identical to the later notion of the acousmatic that developed at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in the late 1960s, proposed by François Bayle. Gerhard considered that when sonic materials were not sufficiently abstracted from their sonic origins, that the ramifications are not merely that the sounds appear like scenes from a film but because of their lack of metamorphosis they never transcend their concrete origins and become essentially musical:

If the result of sound montage, which is here of course the crucial operation, is not a new and compelling overall structure in which the component parts, as if under a magic spell, are made to play new roles, musical roles I mean, to which their original identity could never have given us any clue, then sound montage remains something of a game; something like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces upside-down or the wrong way around, bumping into one another and thus emphasizing their isolation, rather than giving them a common purpose which would lift them onto a plane of poetic imagery.’

The importance given to this temporal shaping or morphology of sound is demonstrated by another entry in Gerhard’s notebook, where the composer gives a whole page over to the various definitions of the term ‘morphology’ and related terms:

Morphology: science of form. Branch of biology, deals with the form of living organisms, the structures, homologies, metamorphoses which govern or influence that form.
morphography: description of form (descriptive morphology)
morphosis: shaping
morphon: to shape
morphé: the shape (Gestalt), form, figure, configuration
morphotic: formative

In the Audiomobiles radio programme Gerhard stated that often when working with concrete sound sources the composer is working towards a true metamorphosis of source materials. However, he also considered that the result of sound manipulation of musical materials is nearly always an impoverishment due to a loss of high or low frequencies in the original – what Gerhard referred to as a loss of the vitality of the original. The opposite is true of more noise-based sounds, which Gerhard considered ripe for manipulation, as sound manipulation brings the noise element under more control and hence gives it more focus. It is clear from this why Gerhard combined the extensive manipulation of percussive sounds with more simple, though no less sonically sophisticated, treatments of piano, celesta and recordings of his own instrumental works. It also demonstrates why Gerhard was so drawn to John Youngman’s sculpture, since the variety of different timbres and sonic gestures – both pitch-based and noise-based – that could be extracted from it was considerable. In Audiomobile 3 ‘Sculpture’ the sounds from the sculpture itself are supplemented in the final work by piano sounds that Gerhard had already recorded and processed.

Roberto Gerhard with tape machines in his home studio

Gerhard’s notebooks contain numerous entries that discuss the relationship between form and the arrangement of materials in electronic music, and also the notion of bounded openness within controlled large-scale structures – an aleatory technique. Audiomobile 2 ‘DNA in Reflection’ (1963) was subtitled by Gerhard ‘an aleatory soundtrack’ for Hans Boye’s and Anand Sorabhai’s abstract film based on the DNA model by James Watson and Francis Crick. As is evident from the final composition, Audiomobile 2 ‘DNA in Reflection’ may contain a disparate collection of sounds, but they are brought together in a tightly structured, dynamic and vital work where all sounds have ‘a common purpose’ projecting a clear ‘poetic imagery’. Yet, despite the unofficial subtitle for Audiomobile 2 ‘DNA in Reflection’ as ‘An Aleatory Soundtrack’, Gerhard was against too much openness and considered the indeterminate approach that John Cage adopted a step too far, that:

The notion of an ‘open’ work – in the sense of the poetics of ale’a [sic] – (in contradistinction to the poetics of necessity) is open to the charge that it issues in a ‘teleology without,’ (adaptation without design), a teleology in which the final cause becomes little more than a process of mechanism.

In Audiomobile 3 ‘Sculpture’ Gerhard utilizes a sectional structure that demonstrates the use of a variety of more improvisatory sounds, using the sculpture by John Youngman itself as a sound generator, as well as very carefully crafted pitch structures. On a larger scale there is also a balance between intuitively structured and highly organized sections.

When it came to the actual composition of a piece, Gerhard again had strong ideas regarding the dynamic character of a work. In the Audiomobiles radio talk of 1960 Gerhard critiques Luciano Berio’s Mutazioni (1955). Although he admires the colouristic nature of the electronic sound materials, he nevertheless considers the work to have a ‘structural impoverishment’, despite the novelty of what Gerhard calls Berio’s ‘patterning technique’. In the broadcast he states that,

[…] the incidence of sound impact, single or in clusters, popping up all over the auditory space all the time in a quicksilver perpetuum mobile seems to succeed in filling it up evenly and with the satisfactory illusion of broad surface play effect […] and Berio is not quite as successful [as Bach’s solo works for solo strings] in hiding the fact that his piece is but a one part – a single part composition with one solitary strand. Berio misses the polyphonic depth – the structural richness of the interlocking simultaneous pseudo strands which Bach achieves.

The polyphonic quality that Gerhard is talking about here is immediately evident in the Audiomobile ‘in the manner of Goya’ (1959), which he played after the Berio example. In its short duration (1’54”) this work succeeds in conveying a restless polyphonic dynamic energy somewhat akin to the ‘Tam Tam II’ movement from Henry’s Le microphone bien tempéré (1951). Utilizing low percussive sounds recorded from hitting the inside of his piano as his source material, Gerhard counterpoints this with other more pitch-based and gestural material, again predominantly derived from the piano but using sounds that have undergone more of a sonic metamorphosis. The sheer relentlessness and physicality of the work aptly conveys the intensity and psychological darkness that pervades Goya’s late paintings. In line with thinking in fields of sound activity, Gerhard’s sound compositions are driven by gesture and texture-led sections – the latter of which Gerhard further subdivided into lattice and grid-based. It is this interplay of gesturally differentiated sonic materials and the metamorphosis of textural materials that generates both local level and structural richness in Gerhard’s sound compositions.

What all of Gerhard’s autonomous sound compositions share, as well as many of Gerhard’s post-1960 instrumental works, is a one-movement form. While earlier twentieth-century composers, such as Schoenberg in his Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, and Sibelius in his Symphony No. 7, had drawn all the formal elements of a classical symphony into a single musical span, Gerhard’s one-movement works are often made of a number of clearly defined sections that do not adhere to a classical precedent. Gerhard wrote: ‘One movement form; preferable because breaks act as mechanical interruptions – their blank temporal duration is unrelated, non-integrated in the total form, breaks are like wedges fragmenting a whole’. This technique can be seen in both large and small-scale works – the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 comprise seven and thirteen sections respectively, while the five-minute Audiomobile 3 ‘Sculpture’ is made up of ten sections. What this one movement form enables Gerhard to achieve is not a synthesis of musical elements in the classical sense but rather to draw attention to the constant metamorphosis of materials and the temporal shapes that result. In another notebook Gerhard outlines various structural types that permeate and drive these works:

Structural Types (Trains of events)
I Statement (a) Main (b) Subsidiary
II Introduction. Prelude
III Digression
IV Steady State events (slowing down of progress)
V Transient, goal-aiming, leading events. Building up (speeding up)
VI Corollaries, consequences, expanding or overflow, liquidating, building down, terminating
VII Closing, cadential events (also appendixes, after thoughts).

The terminology here is interesting in so much that terms pertaining more to instrumental works, such as ‘statement’ and ‘introduction’, give way to sound behaviours more suggestive of Gerhard’s notions of modes of action, configuration and textural weaving. Here again, the language of goal-aiming or liquidating musical behaviours is akin to the terms later employed by Smalley in his description of spectromorphology. The correspondence between Gerhard and Smalley, although unintentional, is again highlighted in Gerhard’s discussion of timbre and musical space. The discussion of these topics in the later notebooks is not specific to instrumental or sound composition, but to the composer’s approach to composition in general. Although Gerhard considered instrumental and tape composition to involve different methods of working, it becomes clear as his writings progress that his compositional thinking and aesthetic approach to approaching sound – be it instrumental or on tape – is increasingly unified. Therefore, the quotations below illustrate an approach to musical parameters equally applicable to instrumental writing and sound composition.

Gerhard outlines various timbre types and considers timbre to be the:

    Interplay of all parameters
    Silence (variable limits of tension before it becomes a hole in the fabric)
    Non-pitched sound.

In Audiomobile 3 ‘Sculpture’ timbre becomes a key element in defining the metamorphosis of sonic material. Clusters, silence, pitched and non-pitched sounds are used to define the temporal shaping of the work. The last element to be considered is the auditory space of a work.

Gerhard writes:

Music has its being in a 3 dimensional medium.
Auditory space strictly one dimensional, high-low location of sonic events. Quantitative expression in c/s [cycles per second]. Timbre is a special parameter in this dimension. Interaction of spatial and temporary dimensions result, through space [sic: time?] – metaphorically – impingin[g] on space and space on time. In real or actual span of the notes life: build-up-corpus-decay, and, on a larger scale: anticipation, actual perception (sense datum) + expectancy of things to follow.
Temporal extension: variability of durations + density of events = motion or speed (constituting 2 parameters in the t dimension)

The passages cited above are just some of the numerous entries that can be found in Gerhard’s notebooks on the subjects of form, structure, time and timbre demonstrating his increasingly sophisticated thinking about com-position – the putting together of sound – as a malleable physical medium. What they demonstrate is Gerhard’s working though of these ideas through the practice of composition itself, as well as the composer’s unwillingness to accept European writings on electronic music at face value. They document Gerhard’s own thoughts about, and exploration of the new magnetic tape medium and its wider ramifications.