Integrating Physics and Acoustics with Personal Experience – Helen Hall

Published in Leonardo Music Journal, MIT Press, Vol.3, (1993), pp.17-23

My essential desire as a composer is to integrate my knowledge of physics and acoustics with my subjective observations and personal experience — a process I think of as integrating ‘both sides of the mirror’.  Several areas of interest have converged to influence my creative work during the past 10 years—from quantum physics, psychoacoustics, linguistics, information technology and systems theory to theatre, film and video.  From the seminal influence of John Cage I inherited the understanding that music is organized sound and that the entire field of sound contains infinite possibilities for music.

In the early 1980s a huge explosion of research and technological innovation related to computers produced a revolutionary form of interdisciplinary thinking.  Articles in Computer Music Journal, for example, covered a vast range of subjects, including physics, linguistics, acoustics, cognitive science and biology.  The unifying theme of these disciplines at that time was general systems theory, which describes systems—such as atoms, cells, bodies, families and societies—as irreducible wholes.  It describes the behavior of these systems in relation to their environment—the interactive way that biological systems adapt, repair and sustain themselves.  In Vancouver, where I was living and studying music at the time, there was a lot of groundbreaking work with sound synthesis and computer music taking place at Simon Fraser University, where I had the opportunity to take a class with Walter Branchi, a composer visiting from Rome.  Branchi introduced us to his approach to computer music which he called “composing within sound”, in which the frequency ratios of a tuning system formed the basis for all the parameters of the music.


Fig.1. Catharine McTavish, Night Vision #14: Stars in the Eyes – A Landscape, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 396 X 244 cm, 1983-84. (Collection: Art Gallery of Ontario) The painting consists of microscopic points of acrylic paint, all meticulously structured to create a dazzling, web-like patterning.