Trevor Wishart 2 comments

Trevor Wishart is a composer who has devoted most of his career to composing music through the computer. Very important is their role in the development, teaching and promotion of computer music.

Biographical notes – Composer, teacher, author of essays, researcher and developer of computer music software. Trevor Wishart was born in Leeds, UK, in 1946. He studied at Oxford, Nottingham and York University. At the latter he obtained in 1973, a Doctorate in Composition. Its formation occurs mainly in the traditional music but his career as a composer takes place mainly in the production of electronic music, analogical and digital. Wishart has never occupied an official position in academia, university or conservatoire, preferring an independent career. In recent years he began working as an honorary professor at the University of York.[1] During the formative years, traditional and academic, was very impressed by listening to some electronic works by Xenakis, Berio, Stockhausen and Pierre Schaffer. A first step towards electronic music is by purchasing a small tape recorder, through which he began to record industrial sounds to use in his compositions. His career has been enhanced by numerous awards such as the recent Giga-Herz Grand Prize awarded by the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie), the Golden Nica at Linz Ars Electronica, the Gaudeamus Prize and Euphonia d’Or at the Festival of Bourges. His works have been commissioned by major institutions such as the IRCAM in Paris, the Paris Biennale and the BBC Promenade Concerts.

Poetics: vocality – Wishart’s approach to composition is based on two elements: vocality and improvisation, which in different ways constantly return to his work. The vocal is certainly the most important. It is no coincidence that the name of Wishart is also known for experimenting with different vocal techniques applied in the context of electronic music. Interested from the beginning to the sounds fusion, through a process of continuous transformation, Wishart conceives the voice as an instrument that, better than others, satisfy his personal creative needs. Unlike traditional instruments, designed with a timbre that remains relatively constant, the voice is a medium with great flexibility, potentially able to generate any sound dictated by the imagination of the performer or composer.[2] The interest in vocality has its origins in the early seventies after the study, together with Richard Orton, of vocal writing adopted by Stockhausen in Stimmung.[1] No less important, then, the encounter with composer Warren Burt that in California, San Diego, from 1973 to 1975, was a member of the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble, engaged in research on many different vocal techniques. The Rockefeller Foundation awarded him for the research will push the limits of vocal possibilities.[3]

Poetics: improvisation – Second relevant factor, we said, is improvisation. In his view, between the performer and the composer, there isn’t that enormous difference highlighted, at all costs, by some of the musicians. Certainly he acknowledges the existence of substantial differences between the improviser that working with traditional instruments respect to another who works with electronic media, as there are further differences, in his opinion, between those who work with analog instruments or computers. Speaking of improvisation, Wishart uses the concept of “slow improvisation”,[1] whereby wants to emphasize a timing that requires to be perfectly calculated so that the transformation of sound to another, the sound morphing, is perceived in the right way. The human perception requires a precise time to recognize the initial sound, a time to recognize the final and, finally, a time to accept, or ensure, that a transformation is taking place. In the specific case of Wishart the time, during the composition, is calculated by listening, then through an approach that is primarily perceptual, as it is improvisation, where the balance between the parts, in a context of traditional music, or the contribution of each performer, is based on a perceptive and empathetic relationship between the various performers involved. Respect to the question of improvisation, Wishart does a distinction between that implemented with analog electronic instruments or with the computer. Wishart argues that improvisation in the analog studio settled mainly during the generation of sound material, enforceable through the live control of various musical parameters. In the case of computers, however, improvisation is attained primarily experimenting with various transformations of sound through the different software available.[1]

Electronic and computer music – For Trevor Wishart, vocality and improvisation are a common scope for the use of electronic instruments, both analog and digital. From this point of view, his training is done primarily through the frequentation of study dedicated to analog musical electronics, where Wishart was faced with equipment that allowed him new possibilities of expression. The interest in this instrument is dictated by his passion to the evolution of the sound spectrum, which implemented with electronic instruments offered borders much wider than those set by the voice. Only later, and after gaining experience in analog music, Wishart senses that its processes of sound transformation could be generalized and encoded in a computer environment. It is true, in fact, that Wishart’s attention to the computer is not born as a priori interest in the new electronic instrument, but rather is based on the knowledge that the computer made much easier to carry out same processes already carried out by analog instruments.[1]

At Ircam – In this relationship with computer music, that Wishart not conceive Wishart as something unrelated to the music in general, is crucial as it moves at Ircam in Paris. In the late seventies, in Europe, computer music is presented as a consolidated reality. Wishart does a proposal at the center directed by Pierre Boulez, a proposal that was accepted in 1981. What most influenced his later works were the readings of Steve McAdams on Psychoacoustics, the meeting with Miller Puckette, the study of the CARL System, which implements the technique of Phase Vocoder and Cmusic by Richard Moore, the study of the Linear Predictive Coding synthesis, especially effective in the synthesis of speech sounds (like Phase Vocoder), and the development of custom software. Unfortunately, at the end of his studies, the Ircam began a renovation work of software and hardware you have. This slowed down the work of composition, so Wishart who had to wait until 1986 to make Vox 5, the first work in computer music and the fifth part of a cycle that Wishart went to work since his arrival at Ircam.[1]

Composers’ Desktop Project – Following the experience in Paris (in 1993 again returned to France for a collaborative experience with the Groupe de Recherches Musicales of Pierre Schaeffer)9 Wishart returned to Britain, in a context very different from Paris, at least with respect to computer music. What was missing, in addition to institutions (public or private) equipped with the necessary computer equipment, was above all a community of reference with can share their activities. Past experiences, the dryness of the situation in England and his meeting with former students of the University of York, contributed to the birth of the Composers’ Desktop Project, a software package, developed by Wishart and those who were part , made available for institutions, studio, university or private users who could not afford to pay software. A project started in 1987 and continued until today.

Analog works – Wishart’s electronic production is marked by certain milestones. First we recall Machine …an Electronically-Preserved Dream (1970), first work of electronic music, where Wishart uses those sound materials recordings after purchasing her first recorder. Wishart described the approach adopted in this work as “music montage”.[1] In this work Wishart uses eight Directors and a Chorus that imitate the sounds recorded on magnetic tape in a continuous sequence. The Choir had the task of making a process of trasformation, trying to humanize the recorded material, as indicated by the composer. Among the works prior to the digital phase of the eighties also recall Red Bird (1977), realized using different sound materials: songs of birds, or animals in general, sounds of various industrial machines, sounds of water, etc.. All this combined with a continuous process of sound transformation by means of tools such as mixers and analog tapes. Within this work there is also a vocal part obtained by a singer who follows a free improvisational approach.

Theater – The electronic production of Wishart also extends into the theater. Among these works include Tuba Mirum (1978) and, in particular for the use of electronic instruments, Fidelio (1977) and Pastorale (1980). For this work Wishart emphasizes the distinction respect the traditional music. The English composer prefers to talk about music for theater, or as a musical performance in which even the gestures, action, costumes and other theatrical conventions play a role.

By music-theatre I mean to imply that type of (often instrumental) musical performance in which theatrical conventions, actions, gestures, costumes, etc. play a part.

Fidelio, in particular, is a great metaphor for the technological means, in which the man initially pinned their hopes for a different and better world. Up to become aware of his inability to be able to controlling developments as the technology has become increasingly complex. The technological dream, idealized by creatives, in Fidelio becomes a nightmare when the technology meets the commercial interests of managers that with technology stifle the same creativity that generated it.

VOX – At the turn of the analog and digital production are the cycle of compositions called VOX. At this cycle started working since 1982 and for the entire duration of years spent at Ircam. In 1986 created VOX 5, the first computer music work composed by Wishart. Even the choice of the title shows the importance attached to the voice. Chronologically, the cycle is divided in this way: VOX 1 (1982), VOX 2 (1984), VOX 3 (1985), VOX 4 (1988), VOX 5 (1986) and VOX 6 (1989). All works, with the exception of VOX 5, made for magnetic tape, are written for four amplified voices and two or four tracks tape. VOX 1, commissioned by Phoenix Electric, uses a four-track tape, but it is prominent the use of vocals. In VOX 2, voice is used more prominently in imitation of the sounds of nature. In VOX 3 the emphasis is on rhythm. This focus on rhythm back in VOX 6, where Wishart wrote the rhythm first, adapting in a second step the text part to the rhythmic profile.[6] For the latter work, commissioned by Radio 3, Wishart took charge of investigating directly the way in which the singers had to pronounce the words. This is the only work around the cycle in which a text is used. The entire cycle was structured in six work because the intention of Wishart was to explore in this way different vocal techniques. A special place is occupied, since the use of computers, by VOX 5. For the realization of this work Wishart developed some ad hoc software that allowed him to exploit the analytical data obtained using the Phase Vocoder. Among the most important are those that allowed him to perform sounds stretching and morphing.[2] Among other works carried out through computers also include Two Women (1988), Fabulous Paris (1997) and the more recent Angel (2004).

Publications – To complete the figure of Wishart, finally, there is his work as a teacher and divulger. Among his publications is worth remembering Sounds Fun, which is the account of the Schools Council Music Project realized with John Paynter and focused on applications for free improvisation. It was, in the eighties, radical and innovative ideas, then standardized by twenty years of applications in British schools.[1] Another publication, written in the years at Ircam, is On Sonic Art, where Wishart speaks of the aesthetic implications of the technology applied to music, with some attention to recording and analysis. More oriented to computer music is Audible Design, where Wishart brings all his important pioneering experience in sound design.


For this topic I’ve read:

[1] Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, An Interview with Trevor Wishart, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 33 [2], 2009.
[2] Trewor Wishart, Extend Vocal Technique, The Musical Times, Vol. 121, 1980.
[3] Nicholas Zurbrugg (edited by), Art, Performance, Media: 31 Interviews, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004.
[4] Trevor Wishart, Computer Sound Transformation: A personal perspective from the U.K., on-line at
[5] Trevor Wishart, On Music-Spectacle, Interface, Vol. 10, 1981.
[6] Dick Witts, Trevor Wishart and Vox, The Musical Times, Vol. 129, 1988.

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