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Hyperrealism, Hyperdrama, Superperformers and Open Palette

by Noah Creshevsky

Hyperrealism is an electroacoustic musical language constructed from sounds that are found in our shared environment ("realism"), handled in ways that are somehow exaggerated or excessive ("hyper"). Contemporary reality is so densely layered and information-rich and so far removed from a hypothetical state of "naturalness" that hyperrealism is an accurate term for identifying the fabric of daily life. We live in a hyperrealist world.

Hyperrealist music exists in two basic genres. The first uses the sounds of traditional instruments that are pushed beyond the capacities of human performers in order to create superperformers -- hypothetical virtuosos who transcend the limitations of individual performance capabilities. These are the "supermen" who appeared in a number of my compositions, beginning with Circuit (1971) for harpsichord on tape. The compact disc Man & Superman (Centaur CRC 2126) is largely connected to my interest in the ambiguous borders between live performers and their impossibly expanded electronic counterparts.

The idea of superperformers has numerous precursors, including the violin music of Paganini, the piano music of Liszt, conventional music for player piano, and the fully realized player-piano music of Conlon Nancarrow.

Fundamental to the second genre of hyperrealism is the expansion of the sound palettes from which music is made. Developments in technology and transformations in social and eco­nomic realities have made it possible for composers to incorporate the sounds of the entire world into their music. Hyperrealism of this second genre aims to integrate vast and diverse sonic elements to produce an expressive and versatile musical language. Its vocabulary is an inclusive, limitless sonic compendium, free of ethnic and national particularity. The compact discs Auxesis (Centaur 2194), Who (Centaur 2476), and Hyperrealism (Mutable 17516-2) present compositions that are representative of my conviction that expanded sound palettes will become a routine characteristic of music in our time.

Essential to the concept of hyperrealism is that its sounds are generally of natural origin, and that they remain sufficiently unprocessed so that their origin is perceived by the listener as being "natural." Since the sounds of our environment vary from year to year, generation to generation, and culture to culture, it is impossible to isolate a definitive encyclopedia of "natural" sounds, but there are a great many sounds that are familiar to nearly all of us. These are the most basic building blocks in the formation of a shared (if temporary) collective sonic reality.

The development and incorporation of expanded palettes consisting of natural sounds also has precursors, most notably the tradition of musique concrète.

Hyperrealism celebrates bounty, either by the extravagant treatment of limited sound palettes or by assembling and manipulating substantially extended palettes.

Of my compositions, Coup d’état, Gone Now, Who, Ossi di morte, et puis, and Novella (among others) share aspects of a particular style. I call that style “hyperdrama.” In addition to other qualities, hyperdrama is character­ized by a steady level of heightened sensations. Hyperdramas attempt to consolidate and compress intensified states.

Hyperrealism is a language because various composers, using identical sounds (i.e., parts of speech) can produce significantly different kinds of compositions, based on their tastes, intentions, and technical resources. Tonality and atonality speak differently in the voices of legions of composers. Hyperrealism is the work of many, not of one.

Hyperdrama is a musical style in which hyperrealistically extended palettes and/or restricted palettes in conjunction with superhuman performance capabilities express a larger-than-life level of emotional intensity.

A guest on a television talk show once described his surprise and disappointment that there was no music to accompany his first romantic kiss. He had seen so many films abounding with the music that generally accompanies such momentous moments. A silent kiss is a slice of real life, but a kiss with music and the crashing waves of an incoming tide is a slice of hyperdrama. Movies are filled with moments that are "beyond" life. We need only focus to notice them. Hyperrealism is an inevitability. Indeed, it already exists in many moments of our lives, but the term has not yet been accepted as a legitimate definition for a great deal of what we already experience on television, in films, and on countless improbably perfect sound recordings.

Open Palette

Every movie soundtrack differs from every other movie soundtrack because it is possible and practical to create new soundtracks for every movie that is made. Audiences would not be pleased to hear identical soundtracks in two different movies. Why are today's audiences--brought up in a varied and information-packed world--asked to respond enthusiastically to another piano sonata?

The term "open palette" implies that our circumstances permit and encourage us to harness all the sounds of the world, and to use these sounds in any ways we like in order to create musical compositions.

Raised as we are in a visual age of film and television, our ears and minds have come to expect a fresh sonic environment for each new show. Every film begins by presenting a unique visual and sonic landscape. No two films use the same materials. Part of our thrill in seeing a new film is the knowledge that we are about to enter into a new world of sight and sound. Why then is it considered reasonable to hear mere variations on the same timbral formats over and over again, through the fixed palettes of pianos, string quartets, wind ensembles, and symphony orchestras? We don't wear someone else's socks; why do we compose new music with someone else's second-hand sonic palette?

Many films have soundtracks with moments in which music (acoustic and synthetic), "sound effects," verbal utterances (words, but also sighs, moans, screams, laughter, etc.) are blended to form an indivisible fabric of sound. Just as viewers expect to see a different movie each and every time they watch a new film, listeners are legitimately entitled to hear a fresh palette whenever they hear a new piece of music. "Open palette" -- the idea that music can be made from an ever-changing medley of diverse sounds -- is fully accepted by sound editors as a routine state of affairs for the construction of soundtracks, yet it remains a fundamental heresy within much of the professional musical community

Visual art embraces an ever-broadening palette that has moved outward from paint to include plastic, metal, newspaper, fabric, etc. At the same time, music departments have quarreled over tenor saxophones, electric guitars, and accordions. The inclusion of a bit of noise makes some pieces "concrete" or "electronic," and a kalimba requires an "ethnic" modifying prefix to apologize for its intrusion into a club that is reserved for a select few.

While nearly everyone in any other medium than music rejoices at expanded technological resources, many musicians openly (or secretly) follow a credo devoted to the endless propagation of something quite ridiculous: the deeply held (and deeply foolish) belief that "real" music is only made by traditional instruments--traditional Western instruments (and not all of those either) -- and it is made with 12 notes. Those 12 notes -- probably no fewer, and certainly no more.

Such squabbles are particularly foolish in an age in which any sound that can be heard can also be recorded, manipulated, and shaped into viable, natural, expressive musical compositions. The inclusion of "extra-musical" materials into a piece of non-pop music is generally regarded as something "exceptional," but what is truly exceptional -- and exceptionally odd as well -- is the tendency to continue writing music for the same few instruments and ensembles.

How did these exclusionary absurdities come to pass for truth? More astonishing than the proposed inclusion of many sounds is the fact that so many sounds have been excluded for so long, and with such blind confidence in a pointlessly discriminatory system that has long since ceased to nurture anyone -- composers, performers, or audience.


What is it that induces musicians to endlessly compose string quartet after string quartet, or an infinite number of pieces for solo piano? These prefabricated musical formats are generally chosen because composers imagine their music being played by live players in concert halls. In fact, most music is heard through speakers or headphones, at home. The home theater has replaced the concert hall. If it has not yet done so quite completely, it has very nearly done so, especially in the area of contemporary non-pop music.

Concerts of new music are often attended by audiences so sparse that participants are frequently embarrassed to count. The number of players on stage may equal or exceed the number of people in the audience, and if one subtracts the complimentary tickets that have been disbursed, the number of paying customers is generally down to something approaching single digits.

Many composers voluntarily compose unsolicited string quartets for players who will have to be found. If four capable players are somehow acquired, the ensemble will likely confront funding and venue challenges, and therefore have little time or incentive to practice the new composition. With luck, there will eventually be a performance before an audience of fewer than 50 people.

It is both a virtue and a necessity to write for four strings when one has an opportunity to have a decent live performance of a string quartet. It isn't quite playing the game to sneak in extra notes during the mixing of a master tape for a compact disc, but pitch corrections and massive edits are routine parts of modern musical life. It is only a small step from that to rewriting the definition of a string quartet.

The future of music and the future of concerts are not the same issue. If nothing else, those of us who sit together with our students, colleagues, and friends at poorly attended concerts of new music have to wonder what is wrong with this picture. At no time in human history have so many people heard so much music. At the same time, attendance at most non-pop concerts is in critical decline. Perhaps music has lost some of its power through overexposure, but I think that much of the overexposure is related to the steady reiteration of the same 12 notes played on a handful of familiar instruments.


Irrelevant economic and social considerations continue to limit our conception of what music can be. When a soprano is hired for a concert performance, it is economically and dramatically appropriate that she be called on to perform enough notes to justify a paycheck and her presence on the stage. We must not pay good wages to a live performer who merely sings a 10-second coda at the end of a string quartet. That's bad economics. Additionally, what to do with the tacit singer until her possibly glorious coda presents a visual and social quandary. Bad economics and bad drama unite to form a powerful disincentive to compose that coda, but the issue disappears when one emancipates sound from the limitations of the concert hall. Composing for recordings instead of for live concerts closes some doors, but opens others.

What of the composer who had dreamed of having a flutist imitate some bird sounds at the end of the last movement of a quartet that has been limited to four strings? Can we hire a flutist to play for only one minute of a 30-minute piece? Should the flutist stand backstage for the first 28 minutes, and then come out to mimic the bird, or should the flutist sit next to the hard-working cellist and listen to the opening movements? The audience has had to listen to all of the movements; why should the flutist enjoy a 28-minute reprieve?

If this were a recording instead of a live concert, no one would care about the dramatic or economic comings and goings of the cello and flute.

If this were a recording, and if the composer wanted birdcalls, he or she could make a recording of some real birds and dispense with the flutist altogether.

If music -- including music for standard ensembles -- was conceived for recordings instead of live concerts, the music composed could be very different.

Superperformers and Mozart's Nose

"At an evening party, Mozart bet a case of champagne that Haydn could not play at sight a piece he had composed that afternoon. Haydn accepted the bet and proceeded to play it on harpsichord only to stop short after first few bars. It was impossible to continue because the composition required him to simultaneously strike notes at two ends of the keyboard and a note in the very center. Haydn exclaimed, 'Nobody can play this with only two hands.'

'I can,' Mozart said, and took his place at the keyboard. When he reached that problematic portion of his piece, Mozart bent forward and struck the central note with his nose.

Haydn conceded saying: 'With a nose like yours, it becomes easier.'"

--E. Van de Velde, Anecdotes Musicales; N. Slonimsky, Slonimsky's Book

Hyperrealism can be applied to compositions with traditional instruments as well as to compositions using expansive sonic palettes. The player piano has already provided a view of the possibilities that become available once instruments and voices are liberated from the limitations of human anatomy. A singer who does not breathe will perform but a single phrase before dying, but by cutting and pasting, he or she can croon on for as long as we like.

If we accept the fact that recordings are routinely edited and enhanced, should we not also go a step further and allow pianists to overdub one hand at a time? Conlon Nancarrow's magnificent works for player piano show the variety and grandness of sound that can be had from just a piano. It's less amusing to overdub Mozart's impossible note than to play the note with one's nose, but it's all the same on a recording. In any case, Hyperrealism aims for something other than more of "the same." It aims to turn performers into superperformers by removing the constraints of human anatomy (breath and touch).

Are We Being Thrifty or Just Cheap?

We were all taught that what counts isn't so much the material itself, but what comes of that material. The mandatory introductory lecture on Beethoven's 5th Symphony dutifully traces the repetitions and transformations of a tiny motive. We are reminded that much is made of very little (why?). It's about economy of means.

Economy of means is important only when it is genuinely important. We need to conserve endangered species, and clean water and air. Nothing is saved when we save a note. Sometimes (often--especially in an information-rich age), less is not more; more is more. Why is it "a good thing" to make a great deal based on very little? Economy of means is by no means an obvious virtue. On the contrary, the rejection of bounty is a questionable act of nonerotic flagellation. Deprivation in itself is no virtue. It's a habit. We have been taught to value economy of means, but this lesson needs to be challenged.

"What Will Become of It?"

One of my father's signature remarks was "maybe something will come of it." When my first LP came out, he trotted out the old "maybe something will come of it" line, and I told him that this -- the commercial recording -- was the thing that had come of all the years of training and work.

I also remember an early composition lesson: "Don't write something unless it reappears in some way somewhere else." This twice-told tale invites any number of metaphors. I like the one that suggests parallels between repetition, motivic development, etc. and human reproduction. If something must be reproduced, it has no value of its own. Its value is established only through replication (my child makes me worthy).

In fact, the ability to record and reproduce sound has altered the need to repeat anything. If we are writing Broadway shows, we had best repeat those tunes often enough for anyone to walk out of the theater humming them, but those audiences are getting old, and so is the idea of validation through repetition. A wonderful phrase has a right to its own existence. We can always replay a recording if we want to hear a phrase again.

To Listen or Not to Listen

There is a great deal of talk about sensory oversaturation and the demise of music. Today, more music is heard by more people than has ever been heard at any time in history. Music is everywhere, accompanying movies and television shows, enlivening elevators and shopping malls. Surely no human being was intended to listen to the same pieces over and over again, year after year and decade after decade. Overexposure to any stimulus tends to reduce its power, but I think that the primary cause of a lack of responsiveness to music is the repetition of the same 12 notes--forever played by the same instruments and traditional ensembles.

Anyone scanning a radio dial with the intention of listening to something makes the decision to listen or not to listen in a flash. If one does not like country western music, it takes only a second to decide that we are on the wrong station. It's all there in a single timbral flash. The dial moves on until a blast of electric guitar (or whatever we like) hits us head on. Of course, in some sense, a flash of almost any kind of music reveals a great deal about what kind of experience we can expect. Based on our experience, a second of Wagner is enough to tell us what we will hear if we don't move on to another station.

We should not underestimate the power of the vertical sound itself. It takes nothing away from Beethoven's ability to manipulate materials in ways that ingeniously make much of very little, but some themes are better than other themes, and new audiences are entitled to have timbral preferences and a reasonable expectation to encounter new sounds. Scanning a radio dial is not a case of "what will become of it." It is an example of a decision based on the thing itself.

The phrase "sound effect" should be eliminated; "ethnic instrument" should be changed to "instrument." "Sound effect" is code for sounds outside the hallowed 12 notes. "Ethnic instrument" is code for a non-European instrument; the term is a remnant of cultural imperialism--one that no longer expresses anything other than an historical bias. When sound effects come together in a film with vocal utterances (words or not words), and ambient and pitched sounds ("synthetic" or "natural"), the result thrills as much (and with greater freshness) as does any piece of traditional music. As long as we have ears and hearts and minds, music will continue to delight us, to move us, and to enrich our lives.

Very little in art must be one way or another, but a musical palette certainly can be different from piece to piece. Every act of composition might reasonably begin with a fresh and open-ended consideration of every available sound source. If someone has a commission for a string quartet from a reliable ensemble that will practice, and if this composer has a social or personal interest in giving and attending concerts, then he or she should write a string quartet. But if your quartet is intended to be heard on a compact disc or over the Internet, indulge yourself. Be extravagant. A soprano can provide one solitary high note, if you like, perhaps just there, at the end.

Copyright ©2005 by Noah Creshevsky