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Surface Noise: A Cagean Approach to Electronica

David Carter

Sessional lecturer in Music Technology
Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Australia

Beginning in the mid 1990s, authors such as David Toop (1995), Mark Prendergast (1995) and Witts and Young (1996) documented a generation of Electronica producers whose work was said to reflect the influence of ‘experimental’ and avant-garde composers such as John Cage, Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Cascone 2000). This influence was inferred through observation of similar musical ideas or traits and predicated on purportedly shared approaches to music making. These claims were given legitimacy by authors, composers and performers associated with experimental and avant-garde art musics enthusiastically endorsing a “new art music” (Neill, 2002, 389). Reich himself proclaimed, “here's a generation that doesn't just like what I do, they appropriate it!” (cited in Abbot 2002 68).

The resultant narrative – that during the 1990s a fringe group of ‘popular’ electronic musicians emerged who (re)connected their work with twentieth century art music, citing Cage, Stockhausen, Reich and others as primary influences – has become pervasive and can be traced through writings by Cascone (2000), Cox and Warner (2004), Emmerson (2000, 2007), Holmes (2002), Martin (2002), Neill (2002), Prendergast (1995, 2000), Toop (1995) and Veale (2007) as well articles in magazines such as The Wire (Emmerson 2007).

One such artist, Robin Rimbaud came to prominence during the early 90s with the release of his first two albums Scanner (1992) and Scanner 2 (1993). Both albums contain recordings of intercepted telephone conversations placed against “minimalist musical settings” (cited in Cortes 2001). Due to this ‘unauthorised’ use of private phone conversations Rimbaud was declared a ‘telephone terrorist’ and received widespread press coverage of his work. This notoriety boosted Rimbaud’s exposure and he went on to become a prominent artist within the electronic listening music genre.

The emergence of electronic listening music (also described as Intelligent Dance Music and Armchair Techno) in the early 1990s reflects a developing schism between an increasingly populist dance music scene and a growing body of disenfranchised ‘purists’. For such purists the ritual of clubbing and illicit-drug use was, purportedly, of secondary concern to ‘the music’, which they felt had become co-opted by what Collins (1998) describes as “weekender hedonism taken to the borders of oblivion” (262). Electronic listening music was seen as an antidote to the increasing speed and intensity of the dance floor and functioned as ‘chill-out’ rather than ‘dance’ music, providing respite for ravers overcome by noise, heat or drug use. Gilbert and Pearson observe that,

The discourses around the movement which ensued appeared to remove techno from the dancefloor and back into the mainstream of the     metaphysical tradition; musics to listen to, musics to sit still to, electronic avant-garde music by and for (although not exclusively) white middle-class men. (1999, 76)

Splitting with most previous electronic dance forms artists promoted the creation and reception of album based works, rather than 12” singles, which were intended to create a sustained immersive sonic environment. As the genre developed, it took on the trappings of ‘audio art’ incorporating

. . many elements of art music: experimental live performance techniques . . conceptual and process oriented composition . . collage . . performance art and theatrical spectacle . . and the extensive use of experimental software and hardware [that] can be seen turning up in clubs and on dance records around the world. (Neill 2002, 388)

Supporting this observation, David Toop (2005) notes that producers such as Rimbaud, citing experimental composers such as John Cage, have achieved recognition for creating works that explore “issues of spatial and environmental articulation or the physics of sound using media that included sound sculptures, performance and site-specific installations”.

In recent years Rimbaud has made a successful career out of positioning his work within the contemporary art world, rather than Electronica, and has created commissions for the Tate Modern Gallery and UK Royal Ballet (Rimbaud 2009). In 1998 Rimbaud created an ‘alternative film soundtrack’ of London. Titled Surface Noise, the work was performed over three nights on a double-decker bus travelling between London landmarks Westminster Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The once-off project was commissioned by UK arts funding body Artangel and exemplifies the type of site-specific work discussed by To op (2005), explicitly linking Rimbaud’s work with that of John Cage.

Throughout his writings and interviews Rimbaud cites Cage as a key influence and claims that Surface Noise employs a ‘Cagean’ approach to creativity (2001). In doing so Rimbaud appears to be evidencing the narratives relating to the adoption of experimental and avant-garde musics within Electronica. This paper examines these claims through discussion and analysis of Rimbaud’s musical and conceptual concerns with particular reference to Surface Noise.

Robin Rimbaud and John Cage
In order to identify and evaluate the ways in which Cage’s influence may have impacted Rimbaud’s it is useful to examine the key aesthetic concerns behind Rimbaud’s work. Notably, Rimbaud discusses Cage’s influence as conceptual rather than musical (Fringecore Magazine, 1997) and describes his own work as “take[ing] ideas, concepts, shapes [and] frames and generally contextualis[ing] them within sound” (R. Rimbaud, personal communication, Nov 28, 2004). It is reasonable to assume then that Cage’s influence should be observable in the ideas and concepts applied to Rimbaud’s work.

Rimbaud variously describes his work as concerned with exploring the “relationship between sound and architectural space and the space in-between information, places, history and relationships” (2001, 65); “the hidden resonances and meanings within memory and, in particular, the subtle traces that people and their actions leave behind” (69); and “the process of surveillance … using the indiscriminate signals drawn down from the ether, the acoustic data of the city, the wow and flutter of our daily lives” (cited in Villas 2000).

A constant element of Rimbaud’s work is ‘mapping’ physical environments by creating audio documentations of the locations that he performs and records in. Rimbaud has expressed this process as creating a ‘sound polaroid’ or ‘invisible map’ of the locations such that “the sounds are reflective of that area” (cited in Lee 2000, 184).

Rimbaud has utilised a number of techniques to achieve this including the scanner (a long-range radio receiver that allows the user to tune in on a range of transmissions, from ham radios and mobile phones, to electrical surges) from which he derives his stage name (Scanner); audio generated from visual images via a program called Metasynth and; the use of samples “of locations, of cities, of voices, accents, radio, television, music, etc.” (cited in Anon 2003). Though unacknowledged, Rimbaud’s use of these sound sources parallels Cage’s prophetic vision of a “music produced through the aid of electrical instruments [comprising] … all sounds that can be heard (1968, 3–4). Instead Rimbaud suggests that Cage’s influence had led him to “zoom in on these spaces in-between” (cited in Cortes 2001). What Rimbaud appears to be referring to is a perception that Cage’s work is positioned ‘in-between’ music and noise through his use of environmental sound. Rimbaud suggests that “the effect of Cage taught me that sound is ever present [and that this poses the question] … how does one define the spaces between music and sound?” (Ibid).

Rimbaud has expanded on these ideas most succinctly in a 2000 interview where he states:

I was very liberated by the ideas of John Cage where he talked about you embracing your environment. So if you’re trying to work, and you’re trying to write or make a film or something, and you hear these sounds in the background, you have to accept the fact that this is part of the situation you’re in. It’s that environment whether good or bad. It’s reflective of that situation. (cited in Lee 2000, 184)

Rimbaud appears to be referencing a number of Cage’s ideas surrounding the composition of 4’33” and the composer’s adoption of aleatoric and indeterminate composition techniques. Specifically Rimbaud’s comments bring to mind Cage’s writings in Experimental Music regarding a new music that would open “the doors of music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment” (1968, 8), as well as Cage’s description of 4’33” as “not silence at all, but sounds, the Ambient sounds” (1968, 22). Whether Rimbaud has made an accurate reading of Cage is largely unimportant. What is significant is that Rimbaud makes a connection between Cage’s writings and music and his own use of environmental noise despite myriad examples of similar techniques throughout the history of ‘popular’ electronic music or Electronica, beginning with Dub (Toop 1995).

In addition to the use of environmental noise Rimbaud suggests that his work embraces a ‘Cagean’ approach to the use of chance and indeterminacy. Rimbaud has stated “chance is a key factor in all that we create … and as such I embrace this Cagean approach to creativity” (cited in Palmer 2002). Similarly, Rimbaud describes elements of his 1998 work Surface Noise as “following a Cagean use of indeterminacy” (2001, 67).

This would suggest that in some way Rimbaud engages with compositional processes similar to those employed by Cage in his chance and indeterminate works. Certainly Rimbaud echoes Cage’s own emphasis on process-based composition through statements such as “art for me has never been a 'thing', an object oriented discipline but more of a process” (cited in Palmer 2002); and "art is not a 'thing' spelt with a big capital A, it's a process" (cited in Villas 2000).

In practice Rimbaud’s terminology is misleading, as he appears to be referring to the process of composition rather than composition as process. Rimbaud does not, in other words, use process to refer to what Nyman describes as “outlining a situation in which sounds may occur, a process of generating action (sounding or otherwise), a field delineated by certain compositional ‘rules’” (1999, 4). Instead Rimbaud is describing the more mundane process of the conceptual and musical steps leading to the composition and ultimately realisation of a musical work. While it could be argued that Rimbaud’s use of devices such as the scanner introduces an element beyond his direct control, this does not correlate to Cage’s own use of chance operations to determine specific elements of his compositions. Nor does Rimbaud appear to compose in such a way that his works are structured so as to be “indeterminate of [their] performance” (Cage 1968, 69). Further contributing to this quandary, Rimbaud is actually at odds with the rationale that underpins Cage’s use of these techniques as a desire to eliminate his own personal prejudices from the compositional process:

I disagree with Cage here. I try to make work that connects with people. I've always used a style of sound and sonic matter that attempts to maintain a connection with people, that moves and engages them, rather than leaves them in a confused, post modern, deconstructed analysis state where they are trying to tear something apart to understand it, rather than simply move inside it and become attached. My works have become increasingly personal over the years. (R. Rimbaud, personal communication, Nov 28, 2004)

In order to make sense of Rimbaud’s claims, it is helpful to observe that he does not think of composition and performance in the same way that Cage does. For all his subversion of the medium, Cage’s compositions follow the tradition of Western Art music in that the score and performance are separated to the point that, in some cases, the system of instructions comprising the score is divorced from the sonic realisation of the work in performance. An ‘indeterminate’ work, in Cage’s terminology “refers to the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways – that is, the work exists in such a form that the performer is given a variety of unique ways to play it” (Pritchett 1993, 108). Cage writes that “an indeterminate piece, even though it might sound like a totally determined one, is made essentially without intention, so that, in opposition to music of results, two performances of it will be different” (cited in Kostelanetz 1971, 10).

Excepting a one-off series of simultaneous concerts involving 16 doppelgangers ‘performing’ pre-recorded material (Rimbaud, 2001), Rimbaud does not employ musicians to realise his works. Like many composers of Electronica, Rimbaud manipulates and arranges sound directly without the need for score or performer. Echoing Stockhausen, Rimbaud argues that in some instances the ‘performance’ never really takes place and the work exists only as ‘virtual’ construct:

I record into a sampler … it’s digital information, it’s zeroes and ones … then it goes onto a DAT tape, so it’s never real; at this point, it’s even less real. It’s still zeroes and ones. Comes out on compact disc, and in some way, it’s [sic] never actually existed. (cited in Lee 2000, 185)

In such a situation it becomes difficult to distance Rimbaud’s intentions from the realisation of his compositions in the manner that Cage advocated, even if Rimbaud wanted to (though as observed above, he would appear not to).

Furthermore, where Cage’s scores pertain to a structured process, Rimbaud’s method of composition relies heavily on improvisation, which he declares “happens at the nexus point of all my work, even in the studio” (personal communication, Nov 28, 2004). By improvisation, Rimbaud is referring to a live ‘remix’ that could be considered synonymous with the improvisatory mixes of Dub:

Basically I take two or three MiniDiscs out with me, a keyboard, a sampler, a hand-held Theremin, a little short-wave radio, and a scanner … on the MiniDiscs I have a series of rhythms or textures, so I have something going on at about 128bpm, then I have another loop on another MiniDisc, and then another one, all running at the same speed. Then I optimistically press 'start' at the same time and try and get them in time … I just try and improvise around it (cited in Owen 2001).

He appears to equate this form of improvisation with process based artwork in that both result in a necessarily unrepeatable performance object (Lee 2000) and argues that each performance or recorded work captures a unique temporal moment, the ‘sound polaroids’ (Rimbaud 2001) discussed above. This causes the act of composition and performance to become blurred, almost to the point that the terms could be used interchangeably. Rimbaud views ‘live’ performance as a form of composition in which looped material, samples and intercepted transmissions are combined in an improvisatory manner (Owen 2001).

Composing generally occurs within a studio space, a dedicated location, that allows for alternations, edits, decision making, a time for contemplation and re-arrangement. Live performance is also a form of composition … but overall allows for a lot more risk taking. It's a reason I don't often use a computer in performance for the fact of danger. I like not knowing the way a piece will develop over time. (R. Rimbaud, personal communication, Nov 28, 2004)

In this context each new performance produces a fundamentally different work through the application of a consistent methodological approach. This presents an interesting contrast with Cage’s indeterminate works in which multiple, often dramatically different, outcomes are produced by the same work.

This contrast goes some way to explaining Rimbaud’s alignment of his work with ‘Cagean’ ideals as both Rimbaud’s improvised composition method and Cage’s use of indeterminacy result in outcomes which cannot be predicted in advance by composer or audience and are necessarily unrepeatable. While the performer may improvise within the context of an indeterminate work, the indeterminate process is pre-planned and distinct from its realisation. However, in Rimbaud’s case it is not that his compositions are structured in such a way as to make use of indeterminate processes but rather, that he chooses to perform in an improvised manner because he feels that to simply repeat his works verbatim is uninteresting:

I'm not interested in recreating many of my works, they are really statements of that moment in time so I simply store the samples on a disc, store the arrangement digitally somewhere . . . It's invaluable for me to continue to discover in performance, rather than repeat. I'm not a jukebox. (R. Rimbaud, personal communication, Nov 28, 2004)

It seems then, that Rimbaud departs from Cage’s intention. If anything, Rimbaud’s use of improvised composition is closer to Steve Reich’s notion of composition as sounding process, but it is not Reich who Rimbaud aligns himself with in this regard. Whether or not Rimbaud’s work accurately reflects Cage is not as important as identifying how Rimbaud believes he has applied Cage’s ideas. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether an improvised approach to the construction of a musical work from sampled and ‘live’ materials can really be thought of as ‘Cagean’.

In addition to Rimbaud’s acknowledged similarities to Cage, it is also possible to identify several congruent elements which Rimbaud does not draw attention to. In line with wider practice in Electronica, Rimbaud’s work makes a feature of transforming sounds through digital means. His list of tools used to realise Surface Noise including several software programs designed to drastically manipulate audio, such as Metasynth, Reaktor and Thonk as well as the GRM Tools and Pluggo plugin suites. Rimbaud states:

I chose to work with these tools as they offer me exactly what I need - the ability to take sounds and transform them, to collage, to edit, to be a small mobile unit for performance, to be light, to allow work to happen, rather than to lose my way within a wall of sound. (R. Rimbaud, personal communication, Nov 28, 2004)

This is congruent with Cage’s predictions on the future applications of music technology. Rimbaud claims to make a feature of the creative abuse of ‘low-tech’ devices such as the scanner, walkmans and other (comparatively) cheap hardware, finding alternate uses for and “bastardising [this equipment by] push[ing] it to its limits” (cited in Lee 2000, 183). Rimbaud suggests that music software is “best when it’s abused [as it] can encourage you to work in patterns that can be limiting” (Ibid). Such abuse of technology for the purposes of creating new sounds is certainly present, though not uniquely so, in the work of Cage whose Cartridge Music (1960) and prepared piano works exhibit just this sort of abuse of music technology, in these instances, a concert piano and record cartridge.

Surface Noise
Having discussed the Rimbaud’s broader aesthetic concerns I now wish to focus specifically on his 1998 work Surface Noise, which he claims employs “a Cagean use of indeterminacy” (2001, 67). The following analysis will examine the composition and performance of Surface Noise to identify whether the work bears out significant hallmarks of the influence of Cage. To this end I will concentrate on elements of the work that corroborate or challenge Rimbaud’s assertions regarding such influence, as discussed above. These will include the identification of sound sources and sonic treatments, the pieces structure and the role of rhythm and the composition process as documented by Rimbaud. The role of ‘familiar’ musical features such as melody and harmony will be discussed but are less important because they are de-emphasised in Rimbaud’s own composition. Transcriptions have been used where appropriate, my preference however is to direct readers to the recording of the work itself – available freely via – to verify the observations made in this analysis.

This recording represents one of only three performances of the work and is the only audio documentation currently available. While this ‘live’ recording must be considered within the context of a particular permutation at a particular time, it is reasonable to suppose that the same general principles would have been applied to each of the three performance of the work. As such the available recording is considered suitably representative for the purposes of this investigation.

As noted above, Surface Noise was performed onboard a double-decker bus as it traversed London, from Westminster Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though novel, the use of this unusual performance space is not atypical of Rimbaud’s broader artistic practice. The performance of Surface Noise under discussion comprises five sections presented on Rimbaud’s website as separate audio segments. The sections do not bear clear durational relationships to one another and do not appear to develop according to any formal structure. This is unsurprising given Rimbaud’s ‘improvisational’ approach to live performance. As each of the five sections should be equally representative of Rimbaud’s application of his ideas, I will use Section One of the recording as an exemplar and refer to salient features of the other sections where required.

The ‘score’
The ‘score’ for Surface Noise was created by overlaying a transparency containing the melody of London Bridge Is Falling Down over a map of London. Rimbaud recorded sound and images from the locations where the notes fell and these were used to create a ‘sound-polaroid’ of those environments (Rimbaud 2001). The score was also defined the route the bus to follow during each of the works three performances. The process employed by Rimbaud is superficially similar to Cage’s use of several superimposed transparencies in some of his indeterminate works, including Variations I. However there is a fundamental difference in the manner in which Cage and Rimbaud view the compositional process. In Cage’s works the resultant score is interpreted by the performer as a series of instructions for a specific musical performance. In the case of Surface Noise, the score does not have a direct bearing on the structure of the musical performance. Instead Rimbaud uses the score to suggest locations to collect sounds for use in the piece. In this regard the score of Surface Noise is more akin to Cage’s use of chance operations to, among other things, determine the types of sounds to be used in a composition. Even this association is problematic as the score of Surface Noise does not actually determine what sounds will be used, only where they must be drawn from. Consequently the score represents only one aspect of the pre-compositional process, in which sounds that may be used in the performance are collected.

The performance of Surface Noise employs two distinct types of sound sources: recordings of environmental noise; and sounds created using Metasynth, a software program that can be used to generate audio from digital images. Metasynth does this through a “reverse sonogram that uses light and color [of an image] to control amplitude and spatial placement” (Spiegel 2005, 34). Working with these sounds Rimbaud created a number of short phrases and loops for use in performance.

In performance Rimbaud creates an improvised mix of these sounds, building a ‘bed’ of repeating and sustained material that gives the piece it’s groove and harmonic structure. On top of this, Rimbaud layers a number of intermittent sounds that do not recur with any identifiable regularity (though they may repeat throughout the section). For example, Rimbaud makes use of environmental street noise at the beginning and end of each section of the piece. This serves to delineate each new section as well as providing an impression of continuity between sections. At times these recurring motifs give an impression of some form of programmatic development, but this is not prominent or consistent enough to be considered a deliberate device.

Many of the environmental sounds used in the performance are manipulated and affected through the use of delays, heavy equalisation / filtering, time stretching and granular synthesis. Rimbaud’s use of sonic treatments renders much of the environmental sounds unrecognisable. One illustrative example is Rimbaud’s use of electronically treated bells throughout the performance. The source of these sounds is most likely the bell tower at the Palace of Westminster in London (where Big Ben is housed) as this is one of the locations used by Rimbaud for the collection of source materials (Rimbaud 2001). In addition, an unprocessed fragment of the Westminster Quarters (Figure 1) can be heard clearly at the end of section one while Big Ben itself can be heard striking the hour at the beginning of the section.


Figure 1: Westminster Quarters

From samples of these bells, Rimbaud derives a number of loops that are used throughout the performance. In one instance Rimbaud heavily processes a loop of the bell samples to remove high frequency content and accentuate the low frequencies of the sound. The sound of the mallet striking the bell is obscured in this process leaving only a resonant bass drone. Elsewhere Rimbaud employs samples and loops derived from samples of the Westminster bells that have been affected by equalisation, pitch-shifting and granular synthesis to generate new sounds.

Within the first section of the piece Rimbaud employs several recurring samples derived from the Westminster quarters. The most conspicuous of these is a loop derived from the descending fifth interval in the fourth Westminster quarter (bars 17-18 in Figure 1), which can be heard at the start of the section. This loop enters at 2:01 of the recording and is transcribed below at Figure 2. To create the loop Rimbaud appears to have edited and pitch-shifted the bells down by 25 semitones creating a sound not unlike a synthesised bass.

Figure 2: Bass Loop derived from Westminster Quarters

Rimbaud also makes use of processed bell sounds to produce the looping chimes that enter the piece at 2:32, transcribed at Figure 3. The loop is derived from the last three notes of the fourth Westminster quarter (bars 19 and 20 in Figure 1), which can be heard at 8:42 of the recording. To create the loop Rimbaud has sped up and pitch shifted the sample up by three octaves creating a distinct chiming quality.

Figure 3: Chimes loop derived from Westminster Quarters

Rimbaud also utilises two other short samples of processed bell sounds in the first section, introduced at 1:15 and 3:25 respectively. The first of these is heavily processed but is likely derived from the first Westminster quarter or the last two bars of the third quarter (bars 9 and 10 in Fig. 1). The final sample from the Westminster bell tower comprises an unaffected segment of Big Ben striking the hour.

Rimbaud’s use of repeating material produces a strong, though not constant, pulse throughout Surface Noise. The groove of the first section of the piece results from the interplay of several juxtaposed loops including the bass tone and chimes transcribed above at Figures 2 and 3. All percussive loops used in the first section of the recording are derived form the same section of footsteps that can be heard in their unaffected from between 0:19 and 0:22, transcribed below at Fig. 4.

Figure 4: Rhythm loop derived from footsteps

Rimbaud makes use of delays and envelope and frequency filters to create several different iterations of this loop. For example the first use of this loop at 1:19 is heavily filtered to remove low and mid-range frequency content leaving only a series of high frequency clicks. Similarly, the main groove used in the first section of the recording, beginning at 1:40, employs a sequenced filter sweep to extend the loop transcribed above (Fig. 4) to four bars.

Across the entire work, significant variations in rhythm are common and arise from the introduction and juxtaposition of often rhythmically dissonant looped materials and the use of delays. Within the first section this can be clearly heard at 1:40 where the opening groove is interrupted by the introduction of the same loop, affected differently, on the seventh semi-quaver of the bar. This creates a sense of rhythmic dissonance as the perceived downbeat is displaced.

As noted above, the recorded performance of Surface Noise under discussion contains no ‘scored’ melodic or harmonic content. Across the work, there is no underlying harmonic structure and Rimbaud appears more concerned with the textural quality of the sounds and his stated intention to utilise only material captured ‘on location’. Despite this melodic and harmonic content is present as the result of environmental factors such as the Westminster Quarters, London underground public announcements and sounds produced by Metasynth. In addition to the processed Westminster quarters discussed above the first section contains a sustained cluster of notes, resembling an F#maj7 chord, beginning at 53 seconds and running till the end of the section. The source of this drone is unlikely to be Rimbaud’s field recordings and instead was probably synthesised from still images of the source locations using Metasynth.

The manner in which the performance of Surface Noise is constructed is in keeping with Rimbaud’s approach to live performance and  ‘improvisational’ composition. Surface Noise appears to be an 'indeterminate' piece because it produces several different variations from the same source material. That each ‘improvisation’ develops in a similar way does however, suggest an unacknowledged or unconscious order, structure or perhaps ‘determinacy’ imposed on the work through the materials used, the method of performance or perhaps Rimbaud’s own personal taste. Despite the fact that each performance of the work is necessarily unique, Rimbaud’s method of improvised composition does not equate with Cage’s understanding of indeterminate composition. Of course this doesn’t mean that Cage has not influenced Rimbaud’s approach, simply that Rimbaud has not applied Cage’s ideas faithfully.

The sounds and types of sonic treatments employed by Rimbaud are clearly not the result of indeterminate processes. Rimbaud has made a number of important determinations, including selecting material to be processed, choosing the manner in which to manipulate a particular sound and identifying which of these sounds will be used in performance. Even if Rimbaud had no direct control over the process of sonic manipulation itself, he still determines the ways in which these sounds are treated as well as identifying sounds and loops to be used in performance. There appears to be no qualifier for these decisions other than Rimbaud’s own tastes and preference for how he would like the work to sound. In opposition to Cage’s notion of indeterminacy, Rimbaud exerts a high level of control by selecting and processing this material for use in performance. Subsequently, while Rimbaud’s manipulation of sound could be said to fulfil Cage’s imaginings in his essay Experimental Music or the Future of Music, it undermines the notion that Surface Noise is an indeterminate work.

Rimbaud’s work demonstrates significant congruencies with Cage’s work but also significant variance, often in precisely the area’s where Rimbaud claims to have been influenced the most. While Rimbaud refers to terms and ideas expressed by Cage, his understanding of their meaning is often divorced from their original context.

Rimbaud’s preference for process-based work appears congruent with Cage’s own. However, Rimbaud uses the term to describe the process of composition rather than the types compositional processes suggested by Cage. Though bearing superficial similarities to Cage’s use of graphic scores, Rimbaud’s score for Surface Noise does not function in a discernibly similar manner to those used by Cage. Rimbaud’s work employs no separation between the acts of composition and performance and does not employ the score in such a way that it has a direct bearing on the performance act. In Surface Noise, Rimbaud utilises the score as part of a pre-compositional process that, while influencing the performance environment, has little bearing on the structure or performance of the musical work.

Parallels can be drawn between Rimbaud’s use of environmental noise, sonic treatments and the prominence of rhythm and texture in the performance of Surface Noise and key traits exemplified by Cage. In particular, the performance of Surface Noise can be said to privilege texture and rhythm over melodic and harmonic content, paralleling Cage’s own use of rhythm as a means of realising the ‘all sound’ music envisaged in his essay The Future Of Music: Credo. Interestingly Rimbaud does not make this association himself, instead identifying Cage’s use of ‘environmental noise’ in compositions such as 4’33” as heavily influencing his own work.

Rimbaud’s understanding and application of what he terms ‘Cagean indeterminacy’ differs significantly from Cage’s stated ideals. Rimbaud’s interpretation of Cage’s use of indeterminacy results in improvised thematic musical forms that ape the outcomes of Cage’s indeterminate works but are divorced from Cage’s methodological approach. The performance of Surface Noise is not demonstrably indeterminate in the way that Cage defines the term with regard to form, content or performance. There is a superficial similarity between the construction of the score of Surface Noise and some of Cage’s works (such as Variations 1). However, Rimbaud utilises the score artefact in a manner at cross purposes to Cage’s own, having little bearing on the form or structure of the performance. Though Rimbaud views each performance as necessarily unique, the improvised nature of the performance makes it almost impossible to distinguish the realization of the work from Rimbaud’s preferences and preconceptions as a composer. Rimbaud further invests his personal taste and preference into the piece through the process of selection and processing the sounds. As such, the performance of Surface Noise is at odds with Cage’s notion of indeterminacy, which requires the composer to remove his own taste and preference from the creative process.

In an interesting aside, there are other examples of work by Cage’s contemporaries that more closely align with Surface Noise. Max Neuhaus’ Listen: Field Trips Through Found Sound Environments (1966–68) for example, appears a clear precursor to Rimbaud’s composition. Neuhaus describes the piece as: “an audience expecting a conventional concert or lecture is put on a bus, their palms are stamped with the word listen and they are taken to and thru an existing sound environment” (cited in Nyman 1999, 104). Though Rimbaud utilises processed rather than naturally occurring sounds, there is an obvious similarity between Surface Noise and Listen, at least in as much as the theatre and intention of both pieces (namely the exploration of an existing sound environment) align closely. Rimbaud however appears unaware of Neuhaus’ piece or at least makes no reference to the composer or his work. This raises an interesting quandary in that Rimbaud is eager to explicitly reference Cage while there are other composers and works that provide a much better context for the types of work he is creating. In part this may have to do with some level of legitimacy gained through association with an established and well-respected composer. Alternatively, it is entirely possible that Rimbaud is simply unaware of the broader ‘tradition’ surrounding Cage.

The influence Rimbaud draws from Cage has been subject to significant reinterpretation or extrapolation. This is of course precisely the type of innovation that has always been a part of the transfer of musical ideas. However, the significant differences in the conceptualisation and outworkings of Rimbaud’s composition and performance practice compared to those of Cage brings into question the narratives surrounding the adoption of experimental and avant-garde by composers of Electronica. This paper supports Rimbaud’s claims that he has been influenced by Cage, while at the same time pointing out key differences between the ways in which these influences have impacted on his work and the ways in which they might be understood in their original context. These, at times significant, differences suggest the narratives surrounding the influence of experimental and avant-garde composers on Electronica may need to be considered more carefully and subject to further research.


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