christopher jette (2017)





I’m standing offstage of Bing concert hall, the three year old cultural centerpiece of Stanford’s Art complex. Beyond the four inch wall in front of me, a sold out audience is waiting for the program to commence, I am about to be the center of their attention at a sold out event. Of course, I am a professional musician, this is concert and I am about to to do what it is that I do, “organize noises into a compelling aesthetic statement”. I am being introduced by composer, researcher and director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Dr. Chris Chaffe. My instrument this evening is balloon and a push pin. I am part of an elaborate team of musicians, acoustic researchers and artists. My role, at this moment is to pop a balloon in order to concretize the process of collecting a impulse response. I am a highly trained professional about to impress upon this audience the wide spectral range of a short burst of noise. I walk on stage and approach the single microphone at the center of the stage. I place the balloon in front of me at an arms length and draw back roughly one meter from the mic. Poised with balloon and push pin, silence holds the tension of the room as I draw the pin back and prepare to blast a brief transient of concentrated sonic energy into the voluminous space. A high definition, slow motion stretching of time becomes my reality as I lightly lift my arm in the motion of a string player cuing the first note of an epic symphonic journey. My arm glides through space and I focus the point of the pushpin toward the tense balloon surface, while a brief last minute adjustment of the fingers in my opposite hand position the balloon and make certain I have just the right angle. The pin collides with the balloon, my elbows bow out slightly and glide upward absorbing the impact of the metallic projectile with this volume of air. With the weight of expectation from a concert hall of listeners and still wrapped in a dilation of time where I can sense microseconds, I notice a gaping roughly one centimeter tear in the balloon where the pin has torn the surface. The explosive burst of sonic energy that has the ability to rapidly activate the hundreds of square feet this hall encompasses has been replaced by an even more dramatic, nearly inaudible, hissing. My staccato attack on the immensely tense surface of the balloon has failed to produce a loud wrap and instead my instrument has transmuted from percussive blast to an eerily lyrical slow hissing of air. In the ensuing moment I have choices, where to turn,what to do, I was asked to pop a balloon and it is not going well. I waiver slightly attempting to draw the audience into the sublime nearly inaudible whistling of air escaping the balloon. Then in an even larger gesture I punctuate my grand performance with a second more vigorous jab that ruptures the balloon sending several pieces of latex to the floor. The sound is nearly as unimpressive as the blackhole that has sucked the sonic energy from my performance. I look up from my performative trance to the laughing audience and think to myself, how did I end up here?


The larger event in which I have performed my underwhelming sonic sorcery is a concert called The Icons of Sound. A group of fifteen early music chant specialists are performing a recent transcription of Byzantine chant within an electronic recreation of the acoustics of the Hagia Sophia. I am one of the many technical people who has contributed to making a giant ambisonic reverb happen for this concert. Before the concert, Chris Chaffe asked if I would support his presentation by illustrating the “balloon pop” method of exciting an acoustic space used for collecting an impulse response. This multichannel reverb, with room correction, fifteen live inputs and deployed over an ambisonic 24-speaker array is a significant technical achievement. To explain the technical side of this setup, Dr. Chaffe takes the audience through the various aspects of creating a convolution reverb and chooses to include an embodiment of some of the fun that we have as artists/researchers, namely the balloon pop. This decision to not only describe the cutting edge technical aspects, but to tease out and embody some of the fun represents a choice on Dr. Chaffe’s part. His presentation locates the intellectual and technical challenges within the larger emotional motivation, a joyful playfulness. It is this intersection of technical and playful that inspires this essay.




This notion of fun as an element that is embedded in the highly refined aesthetic creations that we generate as composers is the elephant balloon in the room. To often, we dance around the issue, holding fast to the rigor learned from critical analysis. We create elaborate technical rationalizations that obscure the sublime joy encoded in the DNA of our compositions. While there is a limited language to discuss this, it is important to consider the importance of emotion in shaping a musical composition. It will be illustrated later that notions of the sublime and more generally the emotional, operate on a different level than the cognitive/intellectual. In considering the sublime it is important to acknowledge the range of emotions that manifest, from the positive to the negative. While profound gravity and deep anguish are components of the human psyche they are not the only aspects of human emotion that are embedded in musical compositions. Humanities radical ability to find humor and joy in even the most desolate depths of depravity and despair is a remarkable and important component of the human condition. The goal of this article is to emphasize the positive inclination of the human psyche and advocate for the acknowledgment of this in both the consideration and creation of compositions. In order to achieve a balance in the creative process, this focus on the felicity of music making must act as the conduit for deep technical prowess and balanced critical reflection. To be clear, technique and critical thought play an important role, but it is part of an ecosystem of thought and emotional energy that is focused and applied when composing, performing and curating music.




Writing in Microsound, Curtis Roads notes “In academic theory, formal coherence is one of the most vaunted characteristics of musical composition.” [1] This emphasis on intellectual technique in the theoretical domain accounts for a bias. As composers, performers and generally as artists, a high level of technical skill must be continually exercised and refined. This attention to craft provides a vehicle through which to articulate an acoustic imagination. What is sonically conjured by the composer is a reflection of the times and the culture occupied. This article is an attempt to step back from the proverbial technical trenches and identify the importance and location of the emotional landscape. This emphasis is undertaken in order to establish awareness and encourage consideration of ways in which the practice of creatively organizing sound can evolve.




“… in contemplating the discovery, we are looking at it not only in itself but, more significantly, as a clue to a reality of which it is a manifestation”. With this statement, Polanyi introduces the notion of a tacit dimension within the human condition and emphasizes the lack of a tangible location. This conception posits the act of discovery as a surface which provides access to an inner reality. This reality can be intuitively understood, but it eludes intellectual segmentation and understanding. Polanyi exemplifies this by pointing out that the performance of a skill occurs without a specific awareness of all the muscular acts involved, “we can know more than we can tell.” [2 p.4] This architecture serves as a blueprint for compositional activity, where the skill of creating a new work arises from the interaction of technique in organizing notes, gestures and structures, motivated by an emotional underpinning. This emotional state eludes a precise knowledge (Polanyi “we can know”), the same way a performer can not articulate particulars muscular combinations, except in vague terms (Polanyi “more than we can tell”). This lack of a precise understanding withstanding, people continue to devote large portions of their life to practicing and developing facility as a performer or a composer.      


Polanyi’s tacit dimension illustrates the implicit connection between the various layers of compositional work and the location of emotion. The choice to narrowly focus on such an elusive target as the emotions motivating compositional choices is motivated. Emotional content of a work and the emotional state of a creator or receiver has profound ability to shape perception. This perceptual malleability can be understood as analogous to the way an instrument convolves with the unique sonic character of a performance space. In the case of an acoustic space we can spectrally decompose and analyze the frequencies of an impulse response. With human emotion there is no technique analogous to spectral decomposition. But just as descriptions of sound have evolved over time, from something intuitive and suggestive to something quantifiable, so is our evolution of emotion progressing. In order to orient creativity on a positive bearing, play is a useful tool. Richard Serra notes, “The freedom of play and its transitional character encourage the suspension of beliefs whereby a shift in direction is possible; play ought to be part of the working process”. [3] Using play as a tool to remove the constraints levied by critical assumptions is a way to engage positively in the creative act. In considering the social and evolutionary impact of emotional content, it is important that these musical decisions provide agency for the profound depth of joy. The notion of joy is clearly articulated by the philosopher Sharon LeBell “This happiness, which is our aim, must be correctly understood. Happiness is commonly mistaken for passively experienced pleasure or leisure. That conception of happiness is good only as far as it goes. The only worthy object of all our efforts is a flourishing life.” [4] The “flourishing life” as goal contextualizes the importance of continued research and development in this area.




An extension of this discussion of positive emotions is the culture of composition and the lack of diversity. McSweeney points out that the field of composition is dominated by a culture of the “composer as genius.” This cultural position stifles the diversity of practitioners. Put another way, composition “should acknowledge ways in which the traditional definition of composer may exclude, intimidate, and alienate.” [5] Many compositional approaches are rooted in trial and error along with notions of play. The positively oriented emotional state that underpins play widens the definition of composition. Indeed, play is a point of access to, as well as a component of the craft of composition. This expansion of the definition of composition has the added benefit of increasing heterogeneity of the compositional population by welcoming those traditionally left out. Increasing diversity is a manifestation of the type of growth that suggests a flourishing.


There is much to be learned in discovering the ways in which composers and more broadly humans can understand and influence emotional activity in the creation of music. It is important to acknowledge the ways in which higher order compositional activities can reveal lower level emotional structures. Recognizing the tacit dimension provides a bridge to anticipating the ways in which a positive emotional proclivity can not only be identified but also manifest creatively. This positive orientation, facilitated by play, increases the chances that composition will not only evolve but flourish. As humanity increases the ability to quantify emotion it is important for composers to recognize their ability to positively form culture.




[1] C. Roads, Microsound, MIT Press, (2001).

[2] M. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, Doubleday, (1966).

[3] R. Serra, If Not Now, When?, <>, (2008).

[4] S. Lebell, The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Cirtue , Happiness and Effectiveness, Harper San Francisco, (1995).

[5] E. McSweeney, How Our Concept of the “Genius Composer” Is Hurting Everyone, <>, (2016).