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Musical Collage and (Previously) Impossible Counterpoint

by Cooper Ottum; December 6th, 2013

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Collage and Counterpoint

Visual art historians generally credit Pablo Picasso for the creation of the first collage, a French word literally translated as “gluing,” with his 1911 cubist piece Still Life With Chair Caning. Onto canvas, Picasso glued oilcloth printed with artificial chair caning, and then painted an image covering the canvas while also partially covering the caning pattern. Further, Picasso framed the elliptical image with a piece of rope. The construction of this work from appropriated objects, a work which otherwise might be considered a painting, challenges the viewer to decode its complex aesthetic syntax. (1) As in other visual collages, the piece becomes a study of the interaction of its component parts, and the relationship of those parts to the image as a whole.

Pablo Picasso, Still Life With Chair Caning

The effectiveness of collage is reliant on the individual character of incorporated materials. In music, this concept manifests most directly in counterpoint, in which case the work as a whole is reliant on the individual character of its component voices. Counterpoint, especially Baroque counterpoint, is evaluated on the strength of musical intent of each of its voices, and the ways in which the composer relates the intent of the contrapuntal voices to the overall harmony and structure of the piece. In a work like Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080), the “appropriated” materials of each fugal voice are set in motion simultaneously in a way that creates recognizable fugues. And, within the context of those fugues, Bach grants each voice individual musical intent. The exposition of a fugue reveals this individual intent because each voice enters musical time with an iteration of the fugue subject, suggesting that all voices equally express the central musical material of the piece.

Impossible Counterpoint

Modern and contemporary versions of musical collage, empowered by the studio and the computer, enable counterpoint that was previously impossible through strictly melodic and harmonic musical discourse. The popular rise of sampling and the “mash-up” in hip-hop music exemplifies the use of a musical collage to create cultural counterpoint, in which sample source recognition is vital to an understanding of the intention of a given song. (2) The remix artist Girl Talk, on his album All Day (2010), inventively combines hip-hip and rap recordings with classic rock recordings to juxtapose lyrical and expressive content of the popular source materials (Audio Example 1). Although the music has surface appeal without an understanding of the cultural counterpoint between its source materials, the musical discourse and sociopolitical message of the album is better understood if listeners are familiar with the appropriated recordings.

But, even when a listener cannot identify the symbolic meaning or cultural context of the source materials of a collage, the aesthetic still allows for nontraditional contrapuntal interaction. With contemporary studio techniques, a composer could create counterpoint between perceived sound sources by processing a single musical idea to sound as though it is being played back through an Edison phonograph, a skipping Sony Discman, and a portable mp3 player with tinny headphones—the interaction of the varying spectral qualities of each interpretation could become the discourse of the piece. The collage (and, therefore the “impossible” counterpoint) is perceptible as long as some spectral or musical trait of the source materials differentiates them from one another. This is analogous to the use of pasted-together scraps of paper in visual collage, in which context the cultural significance of paper as an artistic material is not as significant as the perception of an aggregate image created unconventionally from existing objects.

Girl Talk: “Oh No” from All Day (excerpt)

Collage in Electroacoustic Music

To show how collage has become an important aesthetic in contemporary electroacoustic music, this discussion will examine three recent recorded works: “We Will Become Sihouettes,” from Give Up (2003) by The Postal Service; “Bloom,” from The King of Limbs (2010) by Radiohead; and “Neighborhood,” from Corps Exquis (2013) by Daniel Wohl. These recordings were chosen because they are recent, represent diverse musical aesthetics, and because their syntax is primarily abstract, based on melodic and harmonic movement in rhythmic time. In all three cases, the collage techniques employed generate some kind of extended contrapuntal relationship that does not require the listener to perceive a semantic or symbolic purpose of the materials that make up each collage. Instead, the collage technique uniquely connects the listener with the compositional process, enabling additional musical density and complexity while maintaining an accessible humanity.

Counterpoint of Source Material: The Postal Service, “We Will Become Silhouettes” from Give Up

The Postal Service was a collaborative effort of Ben Gibbard (singer and songwriter, Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (producer, electronic composer and songwriter, Dntel) that produced one unexpectedly successful album, Give Up, for the record label Sub Pop in 2003. Both artists treated the collaboration as a side project at the time, and distance was a constraint: Gibbard lived in Seattle while Tamborello lived in Los Angeles. The two musicians used U. S. Mail to facilitate the collaboration: once Tamborello finished the electronic component of a track, he burned the music to CD-R and mailed the disc to Gibbard, who would then write vocal melody, lyrics, and occasionally add acoustic instrumental parts. After recording his portion of the song, Gibbard mailed another CD-R (with written suggestions about track editing and mixing) back to Tamborello, who would finish the track. (3) This process continued until the duo had an album-length set of ten completed songs. Musical collage technique enabled Gibbard and Tamborello’s creative process, and it is also apparent in the finished product. While the abstract musical discourse of these songs is often true to the pop music conventions of repetition and simplicity, some songs reveal their collage materials at the beginnings and endings of the recordings, layering or splitting apart over time.


The Postal Service: “We Will Become Silhouettes” from Give Up

“We Will Become Silhouettes,” the seventh track on Give Up, is constructed piece by piece of disparate materials interacting in tempo from 0:00 to 1:14, when Gibbard’s vocal line enters. In this opening (Audio Example 2), a pulsing keyboard-like sound oscillates octave displacement on the pitch D, a chord figure from an older-sounding source recording alternates between D major and G major on every strong pulse, a drum machine marks time, and an accordion-like figure plays in asynchronous harmonic rhythm, occasionally overlapping the other chordal figure.

The perception of the collage structure within this piece comes from the individual character of these layers, which are segregated by spectral qualities and by rhythmic interaction. The asynchronous harmonic rhythm of the accordion-like sample particularly draws attention to the counterpoint generated between appropriated materials. The timbral “newness” of a drum machine separates it from the fuzzier, analogue-sounding octave oscillations and alternating chords. And, this counterpoint of ad-hoc samples, while creating a complex aggregate structure (from a spectral and harmonic perspective), grant the song an amateurish charm by revealing improbably combined, disparate materials that are forced together to form the collage.


Radiohead: “Bloom” from King of Limbs

Micro-rhythmic (Groove) Counterpoint

Radiohead, “Bloom” from The King of Limbs

In 2011, the internationally successful rock group Radiohead released The King of Limbs, an album that was the result of experimental, studio-heavy songwriting processes. In an October 2011 interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered, (4) Thom Yorke, the band’s lead singer and most outspoken member, said of the band’s process:

Almost every tune is like a collage: things we’d pre-recorded, each of us, and then were flying at each other ... You get to a point where you think, ‘OK, this bit needs a big black line through it.’ It’s like editing a film or something.

This studio collage process is especially apparent in the first track of the album, “Bloom.” The first minute of the recorded track (heard in Audio Example 3) is a progressive layering of dense, tightly interacting rhythmic structures. Despite the familiar instrumentation throughout the music of this opening (keyboard, percussion, guitar, bass guitar, and voice), Radiohead achieves a floating, ambiguous musical texture because of improbably combined groove figures.

Groove describes variable micro-rhythmic inflections imparted upon a rhythmic figure by human performance. Most often, groove is influenced by established performance practice, like the discrepancy between notated swing rhythms and the performance of those rhythms. In a groove-based musical context, the micro-rhythmic inflections of performers are as significant to the overall texture as any other musical element. Moreover, micro-rhythmic deviations from an established pulse can contribute to the perception of interactivity in music, essentially revealing performers’ humanity through careful implementation of imperfection. (5)

In “Bloom,” the micro-rhythmic deviations of each pre-recorded performance encourage stream segregation in a densely interacting and ambiguously metric texture. And, each stream is granted distinct humanity by its subtle discrepancies in relation to other musical layers and to the pulse of the song as a whole. The counterpoint of these rhythmic grooves allows the listener to perceive that, despite the complexity of the texture, “Bloom” is still an interaction of the familiar musical personalities of Radiohead.

Counterpoint of Surrogacy

Daniel Wohl, “Neighborhood” from Corps Exquis

Daniel Wohl’s first album, Corps Exquis on New Amsterdam Records, was released in the summer of 2013 to significant critical attention—in addition to a write-up for the online magazine NewMusicBox, Corps Exquis was favorably reviewed by the New York Times, Pitchfork, and NPR, among others. Much of the journalistic attention focused on the title of Wohl’s album, and its reference to the surrealist parlor game “exquisite corpse.” Wohl consciously references this game (though the literal translation of the album title is “exquisite body”) because he used principles of it in many stages of the album’s creation:

I came up with a series of six instrumental ‘songs’ ... where an element from the previous song is present in the one that follows, though this element is often disguised or transformed in some way. (10)

The use of the “exquisite corpse” to constrain the compositional process is akin to collage technique, and contributes to Wohl’s collage aesthetic.

In Corps Exquis, Wohl creates contrapuntal interaction between the relative relationship of acoustic sounds and electronic or synthesized sounds to abstract musical material. “Neighborhood,” the opening track, is carried by a singular musical idea reinterpreted across multiple timbres—a rapid, mostly rhythmic pulsation. Wohl prescribed this interaction by creating a constraint for the music: “the rule for [Neighborhood] was that both acoustic and electronic elements had to be pulsating,” (11) This “pulsating”is most often represented as rhythmic reiteration of electronic sounds or as a tremolo in acoustic strings. (heard in Audio Example 4)


Daniel Wohl (with So Percussion and Transmit): “Neighborhood” from Corps Exquis

By reinterpreting a single musical motive in acoustic and electronic contexts, Wohl sets into motion a counterpoint of surrogacy (a term here used in accordance with Denis Smalley’s concept). While the second-order “instrumental” surrogacy of string tremolo strongly references the listener back to its originating gesture, electronic sounds are more distant from gesture and may be perceived as third-order surrogates despite being used in an instrumental context. But, because both the acoustic and electronic surrogates are referencing the same gestural origin (“pulsating”), the perceived level of surrogacy throughout the piece is blurred. Wohl creates further ambiguity of surrogacy by including an electric organ, an instrument that, for most of the piece, behaves as a component of the electronic texture of held chords. At around 4:00 in the piece, (heard in Audio Example 5) the click of the organ keys is privileged by sparse orchestration, and a sound that was previously a more distant surrogate becomes much more closely connected with its gestural impetus.

Instead of clarifying acoustic and electronic discourse within his musical collage, Wohl uses musical material to blur the lines between levels of surrogacy, leading listeners to connect an electronic tremolo to an originating physical gesture as readily as a string tremolo, or linking electronic textures with a human origin. Because listeners are constantly able to reference a singular musical idea and that musical idea’s relationship to physical gesture as well as compositional intent, Wohl is able to increase the complexity of his sonorities without sacrificing musical clarity.

Enabling Complexity with Humanity

All of the examined works above make music within abstract syntax—all three are, essentially, “songs” with short forms based on melodic phrase, harmonic progression, and rhythmic interaction. “We Will Become Silhouettes” and “Bloom” are even carried, for the most part, by vocal lines with recognizable, semantically or symbolically significant lyrics. But because each is made up of distinctly characterized contrapuntal voices, forming some kind of musical collage, these works are also heard as abstracted from their compositional procedure. If a listener is able to recognize that a piece is constructed, that listener is brought closer to the human intention of the piece’s composition.

Traditional counterpoint enables musical (especially harmonic) complexity because a dense overall texture is clarified by the musical intent of each of its component voices. The human point of reference in counterpoint is the character of each voice. Similarly, musical collage enables new kinds of complexity because the counterpoint of its component parts references the compositional intent of its creator. If the layers of a collage are perceived as such, increasingly complex structures will remain grounded in a clear intentional origin. Because of this, collage will remain a significant technique in the creation of electroacoustic works, especially when those works exist in the context of a genre that would otherwise reject the complexity of electroacoustic techniques.

All images and recordings © their respective owners, and the use of those materials here is intended as ”fair use;” exclusively for the purpose of study.


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Demers, Joanna. “Material as Sign in Electronica.” Chap. 2 in Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Emmerson, Simon. “The Relation of Language to Materials.” In Language of Electroacoustic Music, edited by Simon Emmerson, 17-39. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1986.

Gibbard, Ben and Jimmy Tamborello. “The Postal Service: In Their Own Words.” Video of interview with Sub Pop records. Published April 9th, 2013. Accessed December 6th, 2013.

Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis). “Oh No.” On All Day. Illegal Art IA123, 2010. mp3 audio file.

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The Postal Service (Benjamin Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello). “We Will Become Silhouettes.” On Give Up (Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition). Sub Pop SP1045, 2013. AAC audio file.

Radiohead (Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien). “Bloom.” On The King of Limbs. Independent Release, 2011. mp3 audio file.

Smalley, Denis. “Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes.” Organised Sound, vol. 2 issue 2 (August 1997): 107-126.

Wohl, Daniel. “Neighborhood.” On Corps Exquis. New Amsterdam, 2013. AAC audio file.

Wohl, Daniel. “Backtracking With Daniel Wohl’s Corps Exquis.” Interview with Textura (blog). Published June 2013.

Wohl, Daniel. “Interview with composer Daniel Wohl.” Interview with Marc Chan. The Theater of Found Sounds (blog). Published October 10, 2010.