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Syntax as Sign: The use of ecological models

within a semiotic approach to electroacoustic

Simon Fraser University, 1957 Venables St, Vancouver, BC, V5L 2H9, Canada

This article examines the possibilities afforded by the use

of ecological models in electroacoustic compositions within
a semiotic framework for composition. The ecological model
is defined and distinguished as a signifier which is recognised
through its syntax, and is examined in relation to theoretical
writings in the field of electroacoustic composition, as well
as approaches adapted from ecological psychology. Several
approaches to ecological models most significantly, those
explored by Keller and Barrett are surveyed while focusing
on both technical and conceptual approaches. Finally, the
author suggests new compositional possibilities and modes
of engagement using ecological models, specifically through
the lens of a semiotic framework and relating to the
hybridisation of signs afforded by manipulation of
computer models illustrated through the authors
recent compositional work.


If we accept that electroacoustic composition is a
form enabling various forms of exchange1 (Nattiez
1990: 17) between composer and listener, resulting
in the listeners reconstruction of meaning,2 then
we must accept that the compositional strategies used
by the composer have at least the potential to act
as significant factors in a listeners perception and
understanding of a composition.
Furthermore, it seems reasonable to suggest that
these poietic strategies, resulting in the aural experience and eventual interpretation by the listener,
revolve largely around the relationships between the
sound materials, their aural evolution in relation to
the compositional syntax of sound events, and the
sound events syntagmatic relation to one another.

I am using Nattiezs summary of Molinos view of the study of

semiotics as a study of symbolic functioning which enables various modes of exchange of which communication is no more than
a particular case (Nattiez 1990: 17, emphasis in original), and
thus situating my argument within the field of poststructuralist
Meaning is referred to in this context in the widest sense of the
word, as an [apprehension of an] object and its [placement] in
relation to areas of his lived experience y of the world, or alternately as existing when an object is situated in relation to a
horizon (Nattiez 1990: 9).

That is to say, most simply, the poietic strategies

of the electroacoustic medium are comprised of the
use of a particular sound in a particular way (including
digital signal processing, filtering, spatial trajectory,
etc.) at a particular time, and in relation to other sound
events within the compositional time frame. As a
result, the nature of electroacoustic music, by virtue
of its structuring of sound events in time, suggests a
semiotic framework for both the composition and
analysis of electroacoustic works.3
Admittedly simple a model as this may be, I would
argue that interplay within this semiotic framework
can quickly create a complex web of relationships of a
potentially symbolic nature between various sounds,
especially when one considers the listeners dynamic
relationship to each of the above parameters. As
well, while this model can be applied to compositions
in which the sound material is completely abstract
(albeit interpreted with an even greater degree of
variation based on personal associations), it is clear
that this model can reach its full potential with
the use of real-world sounds, or sounds that are
perceived as being related to the real world, due to
their rich associative qualities (I am thinking here of
metaphorical evocation of real-world phenomena
achieved using unrelated sound material or processing techniques, such as are found in Truaxs Riverrun
and Basilica, as well as Smalleys Valley Flow and
Doldens Below the Walls of Jericho).
While the shortcomings of the communicative
aspect of classic semiotic relationships between a
producer and receiver (mediated by the work) are
well documented in post-structuralist discourse, I will

Since I am primarily suggesting compositional strategies, I have

chosen, for pragmatic reasons, to concentrate solely on the possibilities enabled by a semiotic framework within the poietic process;
that is, solely in relation to the composition as text. It is clear that
any application of these concepts to a wider-reaching analysis of a
work must take into account contextual factors residing outside
both the poietic state and the compositional text. For one suggestion of potential solutions for the integration of semiotic theory
within wider concerns relating to the mise-en-sce`ne, I refer readers
to Pavis writings dealing with integrated semiotics and vectorization (Pavis 2004: 96109).

Organised Sound 15(2): 125132 & Cambridge University Press, 2010.


126 Adam Basanta

nevertheless suggest that the use of semiotic relationships in electroacoustic composition can be effective in
shaping the trajectories of interpretants (in the Peircian
sense) on the part of the listener. These arguments,
as well as particular strategies towards this end, have
been well documented in both Wisharts and Youngs
writings (Wishart 1996; Young 1996, 2004) and compositional work (most notably Wisharts Red Bird, as
well as Youngs Inner and Liquid Sky).
However, the notion of sign in relation to electroacoustic music, particularly within the context of
compositions which retain a degree of recognisability
of sound materials, has primarily centred on the
individual sound event; the sound of a bird chirping
or a bell being struck is recognised by its spectrotemporal content, and refers us to look up the sound
of a bird or bell in relation to our index of experiences
and associations. I would like to suggest the notion of
the Ecological Model (Keller 1999: 6, 2000: 55) as
an additional method of signification that takes place
through its syntactical characteristics, and is ripe with
artistic possibilities for composers.
It seems that the term ecological model alludes
to two historically unrelated approaches within the
discourse of electroacoustic music. In fact, at first the
notion of the model and by extension the physical
model, the scientific analysis and re-synthesis of
physical sound producing systems and its emphasis
on modelling instrumental sounds, seems diametrically opposed to the notions of acoustic ecology
and soundscape composition, with its emphasis
on environmental and social issues, as well as social
modes of listening. However, this initially puzzling
amalgamation of approaches within the discourse
of electroacoustic composition are merged together
convincingly in Damian Kellers MFA thesis,
Touchngo: Ecological Models in Composition.
In his paper, Keller suggests that the field of
ecological psychology the study of acoustic phenomena by observing the physical characteristics
of a sound event, the high-order configuration of
variables, and the listeners ability to detect the
information provided by the event (Keller 1999: 11)
provides a framework capable of joining the abovementioned approaches of physical modelling and
soundscape composition. Keller proposes that the
ecological approach suggests that time be parsed into
informationally relevant events and then restructured, using a variety of methods within an artistic,
compositional context in order to create a finite
event which is feasible, at least in theory, within our
day-to-day environment (1999: 11). In this manner,
Keller suggests, the composer is able to engage the

listener, whose perceptual system is constantly searching for new patterns of information, and through these
ecologically feasible events, relate to social and cultural
modes of listening (Keller 1999: 3, 2000: 55).
I would like to briefly expand on this idea, specifically in relation to the semiotic model detailed
above, through an examination of Kellers approach
in relation to Wisharts concepts of the phenomenology of sound objects and the natural morphologies of sounds (Wishart 1996: 64, 177), as well as
Windsors adaptation on the Gibsonian concept of
affordance (Windsor 2004: 180).
As Wishart details, based on research conducted at
IRCAM by Stephen McAdams (Wishart 1996: 64), our
perception of sound and the subsequent attempts to
recognise and contextualise sound objects incorporate
many of the morphological concepts employed by
Pierre Schaeffer in his Solfe`ge (Wishart 1996: 67). One
example of this is the importance of similar and coinciding onset characteristics (attack morphology), as well
as parallel frequency modulation in the perception
of a unified sound object (1996: 64). However, Wishart
takes this notion one step further in order to propose
a natural morphology of sounds (1996: 177); that is,
the recognition of certain spectral and syntactical
characteristics of sound events or, to borrow Kellers
terminology, various informationally [and ecologically]
relevant events (Keller 1999: 11) and their suggestion
of various real-world sound phenomena, both of a
singular nature (turbulence, wave-break, shatter, explosion, to name a few) and grouped nature (Alarum,
the Dunlin-effect, streaming) (Wishart 1996: 186).
The relationship between the natural morphology
of a sound (Wishart 1996: 177) and its perception
and signification is developed further by Windsor,
through his adaptation of the concept of affordance,
taken from ecological psychology. Following Gibson,
and working within the similar ecological view that
signs are described in terms of the information they
offer to a human organism (Windsor 2004: 183),
Windsor defines affordance to be relational properties which pertain between organisms and their
environment (2004: 180). The cognitive response of
a perceiver to a certain object or action is thus
afforded dynamically depending upon the needs and
effectivities (capabilities for action) of the perceiving
organism (2004: 181). While the concept of affordances in the cultural realm becomes more complicated, this ecological view points to the importance of
signification in relation to the most basic needs y of
the perceiving organism (2004: 181), as sound identification and the subsequent significations of that
sound is a necessary tool for the organisms survival
(Truax 2001: 18, 57, 58). Following from this view,
since affordances are learned, discovered, or made,
through co-operative perception and action (Windsor
2004: 183), and since certain invariant properties of

Syntax as Sign: The use of ecological models within a semiotic approach to electroacoustic composition

the sound are directly and lawfully related to the

physical properties of the causal event, and it is this
lawfulness which specifies the event for the perceiver
(Windsor 1995: 68), it follows that the aural characteristics of a sound phenomenon afford its identity
to the perceiver. This form of phenomenological and
ecological signification, which by definition of its
evolutionary function is more precise than the classical semiotic model, can then be seen to act as a
starting point for the semiotic chain of interpretants.
I find this sort of parallel and related exploration
undertaken by Wishart, Keller and Windsor, to
represent a move beyond the simple semiotic model
in which a single sound-event acts as a signifier.
Rather, the concepts of ecological models and natural
morphologies assert the role of the syntactic, the
organisation of sound events over time, as signifier.
In other words, signification, and the subsequent process of re-constructing meaning, is achieved through
the structure of [sound organization] (Truax 2001: 55).
This seems to reinforce the natural perceptual approaches we use in everyday life; I know that it is raining
outside not because I identify the micro-event of the
drop as signifier (in fact, the sound of a single drop in
the midst of rain is quite far from the platonic ideal of a
drop, with its unique pitch glissando, as perceived in a
leaking tap) but because I recognise the macro-level
syntactic organisation of drops the ecological model
and Poisson distributed density, or the natural morphology (Wishart 1996: 177) of rain.
It is through this articulation of syntax as signifier
that I find myself somewhat expanding beyond
Kellers stressing of the cultural and societal context
in the interpretation of music (Keller 1999: 1, 2000:
55). Though cultural and societal context is obviously
of immense importance to the interpretation of signs,
I find that the use of ecological models as signifiers
may transcend some cultural barriers in the realm of
initial signification (as opposed to the following chain
of interpretants, in which contextual elements are of
utmost importance) due to its syntactical recognition.
If we, as suggested above, perceive sound events and
generate their affordance by comparing both spectral
and, more importantly in this context, syntactical
characteristics, to our perceptual index of ecologically feasible (Keller 1999: 16) sound phenomena,
can we not regard some ecological models which
most have experienced and thus indexed (such as
rain, as well as phenomena of breaking, bouncing,
etc.) as effective means of generating the process of
meaning-construction on the part of the listener? This
is not to suggest that these ecological models are
capable of signifying or transferring the composers
intent of a particular meaning to the listener, but
rather I would like to suggest that since these are
near-universal, perceptual and ecologically cogent
phenomena, they exist in most perceptual indexes and


thus form a common vocabulary which listeners have

the potential to recognise. Thus, the use of ecological
models as signifiers does not guarantee a particular
meaning, but it does particularly guarantee a meaning,
or at least the process of generating meaning in
relation to the affordance created by the interplay of
a recognisable sonic signifier, a particular environmental and cultural context, and a particular listener.
Implicit in any attempt to model a physical system for
compositional use in an electroacoustic context is both
the reliance on the computer (though related concepts
were theorised and in some cases realised by Xenakis on
analogue means) and, by extension, the interdisciplinary
nature of the process, since the skill set required for the
necessary programming of complex models may be out
of the reach of composers. Though this interdisciplinary
process results in complex and effective models, the
documentation of the collaborative process often lacks
integrative analysis that addresses both the technical
and artistic considerations involved. Despite this fact, I
will attempt to describe several approaches to ecological
modelling from precisely this perspective, detailing the
relationship between technical construction and artistic
implementation. However, as this process is a speculative one, these explorations should be read in relation
to my specific premises and intentions, described at the
start of the essay.
3.1. Ecological models through micro-sound
approaches: Truax to Keller and Staccato
The emergence of the concept of micro-sound seems
to have been important in relation to the idea of
ecological models. This seems fitting, as many of
what we consider to be unified real-world phenomena
are in fact comprised of micro-events.
Arguably, one of the first pieces explicitly using an
ecological model is Truaxs seminal granular synthesis
piece, Riverrun. While Truax describes the relationship
between the granular synthesis technique and the
sound-image of the river as a connection which arose
through the process of exploring the technique (Truax
2002: 5), and thus not a classical physical modelling
approach of analysis and resynthesis, the connection
between the means of sonic production and the means
of the rivers mechanisms clearly remains. As a result,
the granular techniques applied in the piece sound like
running water precisely because the granular technique
operates like the model of running water; various
granular streams (note the terminology in relation
to ecological modelling) consist of variable amounts
of grains, or in this case drops, structured in both
synchronous and asynchronous syntax.

128 Adam Basanta

Damian Keller, who completed his MFA under

Truax, developed this approach to ecological models
in relation to micro-sound while introducing his
own unique methodology to the application of said
Using models of analysis (both perceptual and
using FFT analysis), Kellers investigation of natural
phenomena of a micro-event nature, such as the
bounce, scrape and break phenomena, yielded several
important observations. Acknowledging that both
spectral and temporal characteristics of sound events
need to be accounted for in the modeling process
(Keller 1999: 16), Keller stresses the perceptual
importance of interaction between levels of model
organisation: Organization at one level influences
the others. Therefore, this is neither a top-down nor
a bottom-up process, but a pattern-formation one
(1999: 13). This is exemplified in how the micro level
characteristics of a sound grain influence the meso
and macro properties of the sound event (1999: 13),
resulting in an aural product that is characterised
by emergent properties, which are not present in
either global or local parameters (1999: 31).
Central to this interaction between levels of organisation, as well as to the notion of ecologically feasible
models, is the technique of algorithmic generation,
as opposed to the construction of a specific, singular
ecological event. When developing ecological models,
the emphasis is not to obtain exact resynthesis of a
given sound but to approximate the behavior of a class
of sounds (1999: 27) in order to satisfy the perceptual
systems [constant search] for new patterns of information (1999: 11), which are nonetheless classified
as the same kind of sound. Once again, this is directly
related to our perception of an authentic, environmentally feasible sound; it is improbable that the
phenomena of shattering glass will occur the exact
same way twice (Keller 2000: 59). On the other hand, it
is improbable that the meso-level of particle density,
for instance, will deviate too far from a statistical mean
of particle density calculated for a certain size of glass
object shattering on a certain surface.
In terms of practical methodology, Kellers analysis and algorithmic mapping of phenomena was
applied using such tools as Cmask, AC composer and
Alcaulcil (Keller 1999: 30), and exported as Csound
scores. When one such model, in this case the
glass breaking model, is analysed, several layers of
organisation become apparent. The macro-level,
encompassing the entire event, is divided into three
meso-layers, or sub-events (1999: 389): the initial,
instantaneous wide-bandwidth attack, followed by
35 ms of a noisy cloud, and the final 1.5 sec consisting
of sparser collisions of glass particles. Accordingly,
Keller varies micro-level parameters such as grain
onset (i.e. the syntax or position of an individual
grain on the time axis), grain duration, as well as

pitch and amplitude variation using various tendency

masks (1999: 37), corresponding to the results of his
However, Keller departs from the classical method
of physical modelling, as well as Truaxs approach in
Riverrun, by choosing to use an adaptation of sampled sound, rather than additive or frequency-time
approaches to synthesis, in order to recreate the macrolevel sound event. In the glass-breaking example, he
uses numerous short fragments (approximately 7 to
100 ms) of sampled sound, in this case derived from
several samples of glass breaking, and ordered according to spectral content (noise vs. pitch) (1999: 38). These
samples are then loaded as function tables in Csound,
and are recalled using tendency masks from the score,
corresponding to the initial spectro-temporal analysis.
In this method, Keller is able to create incredibly
complex sound events which are both aurally and
perceptually realistic in terms of sonic content and
syntax, while having the ability to generate numerous
variations of each event using the algorithmic mask
generation process. This period of research then
culminated with the production of Touchngo, a
fixed-media composition constructed of a series of
movements, each exploring ecological approaches to
composition (Keller 1999: 40, 2000: 578).
Several years later, and unrelated to Kellers research,
similar studies were undertaken around research
on Statistical Event Modeling (Cascone, Costello,
Porcaro, Stilson and Van Duyne 2001) at an American
commercial video-game design company Staccato
(Neville 2000). As detailed by Kim Cascone, who
worked at Staccato at the time, this research was
undertaken in order to create realistic game environments, in which each car crash, for example, seemed
realistically to comprise initial crash sounds, followed
by metal buckling, glass breaking, glass shattering and
falling, impacts, metal falling on asphalt etc (Cascone:
personal correspondence, 2008), while the algorithmic
dispersion of sound events would guarantee a singularity, and thus enhanced realism, to each unique crash.
Once again, similarly to Keller, the research in Staccato involved the use of sampled sound, dispersed
like grains in granular synthesis (Cascone, personal
correspondence); once again, using higher-level controls such as intensity (rate of events), wave (sample)
selection, pitch, pan and amplitude distribution
(Cascone et al. 2001).
In a strangely complementary way, it seems that
the striking similarity of this commercial enterprise
to Kellers research in many ways validates both his
methodology and, more importantly, his notion of
the artistic potential of ecological models. If the
aleatoric variation of real-world events such as glass
breaking is deemed important enough (from a business model, bottom-line perspective) to create realism
for the average video game consumer, then it certainly

Syntax as Sign: The use of ecological models within a semiotic approach to electroacoustic composition

can be deemed as important within the context of an

engaging artistic enterprise, specifically with relation
to the aural engagement of both specialist and novice
listeners. Furthermore, the importance of pattern
recognition to the average listener seems to strengthen
my argument for the use of syntax as signifier within
a semiotic compositional framework.
3.2. Ecological models as spatial and gestural guides:
Smalley and Barrett
I would like to detail in this section several approaches found in British acousmatic music which relate
to the notion of ecological models as signs. As would
be expected, the connections between the ecological
model and the compositional subject matter are, at
times, not as obvious as the connections detailed
above in Truaxs and Kellers work, which emerged
out of the extended Vancouver Soundscape movement. Nonetheless, I find these to be interesting
examples of engagement with the compositional use
of ecological models.
I have previously detailed the expansion of the sign
to encompass syntax as sign. I would like to expand
this idea further, as I find that the use of spatial
motion in Smalleys Vortex acts as a spatial variation
of the syntax as sign model. Following Smalleys
terminology regarding indicative fields (Smalley
1992), an analysis of Vortex shows that the piece
contains an indicative network centring around the
gesture field, and touching on the motion, energy and
behaviour indicative fields (Smalley 1992), which
refer to the real-world phenomenon of a vortex: a
whirling of mass. As the above indicative fields are
affected by the syntactical development of certain
parameters which are linked to non-sounding experience (Smalley 1992: 93) of energy-motion trajector[ies]
(Smalley 1992: 84, emphasis in original), I suggest that
this spatial gesture should be categorised as an ecological model.
The value of thinking of Vortex as utilising an
ecological model lies in its suggestion of a transcontextual listening mode (Smalley 1992: 99), in which
abstract acousmatic gestures correspond in some way
to perceivable real-world phenomena (and perhaps
evoking associations related to these phenomena).
This mode of listening may help unaccustomed listeners become engaged with what at first could seem
to be a complex or unapproachable work (Landy
2007: 27). Furthermore, it is likely that the evocation of a referential mode of listening was Smalleys
intent when taking into context the environmental
inspiration of many of his catalogued spatial motion
archetypes (Smalley 2007: 357), his writings on
indicative fields (Smalley 1992), as well as the title
of the piece, which specifically points to the importance of the Vortexs spatial trajectory as a sign.


I would also like to briefly discuss some examples

of ecological modeling in Natasha Barretts work,
as her approaches are unique in their combination
of scientific rigor and the acousmatic notion of the
primacy of the ear. Though Barrett has used ecological models in music theatre pieces such as Agora,
where the spatial morphology of various sounds was
determined by a computer simulation [of the traced
motion of different] people with different personalities and their various interactions with one another
within the virtual space (Barrett 2008a), as well as
installations such as Adsonore, which engages with
sounds occurring within the physical location of a
hospital using the model of the human immune
system (Barrett 2005: 11119), I will avoid analysis of
these examples as I have never experienced them
aurally. Instead, I will concentrate on two examples
taken from her acousmatic repertoire.
In the first movement of Three Fictions, entitled In
the Rain, Barrett employs the ecological model of
the statistical computation of rain drops falling onto
a 2-dimensional surface (Barrett 2008b). This model,
using a Poisson distribution system, is then mapped
using The X co-ordinate [as] translated into left-right
space, the Y co-ordinate as front-back space and
pitch shift, with the average density of rain sculpted
to increase and decrease in density (Barrett 2008b).
This syntactical mapping was then imported into a
Csound score, allowing for many sound materials
[to be] gradually slotted into the mix (Barrett 2008b).
This notion of maintaining the syntax as sign characteristics of rain while modifying the micro-events of
the phenomenon (i.e. the drops) is one which will be
revisited in the next section.
In The Utility of Space, a looser relationship
between the compositional subject matter and the
ecological model is apparent. In this composition,
numerical data models (as opposed to modelling by
observation Barretts distinction) of the avalanche
phenomenon, developed by the University of Oslos
physics department, were used to create both musical
gestures and spatial information (Barrett 2000).
Once more, a syntactical organisation the avalanche
model was filled with a variety of sounds ranging
from text to numerous sound objects in order to
produce gestures. I would argue, however, that the
cohesiveness of each gesture and the cohesiveness
of various gestures of different intensities used
throughout the piece are directly connected to the use
of the avalanche syntax as sign, and our general
phenomenological knowledge of self organized critical systems (Barrett 2000). As Barrett articulates it,
the process [or] pattern found in nature y was
clearly evident to our perception, and valid on both
the macro and micro structural terms (Barrett 2000).
She then further uses the ecological model of avalanche motion in space in order to affect the filtering

130 Adam Basanta

and transposition of individual sound materials.

While the listener does not perceive this use of the
ecological model as directly relating to the avalanche
model, I would argue that it provides the musical
gestures with a structural cohesion due to its relative
familiarity as a cogent natural phenomenon, as well
as the effective musical mapping to which this ecological syntax is subjected.
I believe that the above detailing of some of the
possibilities of ecological modelling in relation to a
semiotic approach to composition, resulting in the
use of syntax as sign, have important potential consequences to both composers of electroacoustic music
as well as listeners, specialists and non-specialists
Beginning with the composers perspective, it is
clear that while applications of strict ecological
models may be of interest to some (Keller 2000: 56),
there will invariably be interest in the move beyond
strict ecological models and towards what I will term
a hybridisation of signs. This notion revolves around
the potentially dynamic relationship between microevent (i.e. drops within the syntax of rain), meso-level
organisation (i.e. the ecological model) (Keller 1999:
23), and macro-form (overall compositional design,
as well as contextual information such as a works
title). Once more, if we approach composition or
analysis from a semiotic perspective, these dynamically changing relationships can act as a transformative agent to the potentially negotiated meaning of
each ecological model.
One such approach to a hybridisation of signs is
hinted at by Wishart, as he writes of music whose
logic is based entirely on the logic of the evolution of
natural events as evidenced by the natural morphologies of the sound-objects used [while] the soundobjects themselves might be entirely artificial (Wishart
1996: 189), perhaps echoing Xenakis stochastic
approaches discussed in Formalised Music: Thought
and Mathematics in Composition (1971). The technique
of replacing micro-events within the meso-level organisation of the ecological model is evident, as discussed
above, in Barretts Three Fictions: In the Rain, where
individual sound materials are treated and processed
abstractly (that is, without relation to the ecological
model of rain) while remaining within the cogent
ecological syntactical organisation of rain. However,
the full potential of such a transformation can be seen
in the extremely evocative transformation of raindrops
to drops-of-breaking-glass in Kellers ysoretes de
punta. In this example, the interpolation between two
recognisable sound-objects, the sound of drops and
the sound of breaking glass, within the ecological

model of rain points to a very particular and poetic

hybridisation of signs. This hybridisation, in turn,
causes the listeners engagement through both the
ecological model and the poetics and recognisability of
the transforming elements, leading to a negotiation of
meaning within a complex semiotic network.4
Another approach to the hybridisation of signs,
and one which I have not been able to find musical
examples for, is the transformation between two
meso-level ecological models while retaining the
micro-event property of the model. Though Kellers
transformation of drops to glass breaking, detailed
above, does partially satisfy this notion (if one considers the ecological model of the drop transforming
into the ecological model of glass breaking), I find
that this sort of hybridisation of signs is one which
requires more study. What are the poetic significations of an ecological model of rain, using drops as
the micro events, transforming over a long period of
time through some form of interpolated quantisation,
to the ecological model of a ball bouncing, while
maintaining the drops as micro-events? What are
the implications of an ecological model of a glass
object breaking turning into the ecological model of
turbulent water, while retaining the glass particles as
micro-level sound events, on the listeners negotiation
of meaning in a given piece? Possibilities are of course
endless in this regard.
Furthermore, I would like to suggest that these
two approaches to hybridisation of signs may be
further expanded within the context of a given piece,
whether through the macro-form compositional
framework or the given title to the piece. As Paul
Rudy suggests in his concept of the Triangulation of
the Listener (Rudy 2008), the listener is in a constant
state of negotiating meaning through an engagement
with the relationship between the perceptual experience of the piece, the identification (or lack of) of
sound-material, the processing of the material, and
the context of the piece (Rudy 2007: 7). Thus, the
hybridisation of semiotic indicators, both as microevent sound objects and ecological models as signs,
can be further affected through a particularly suggestive title or compositional context. The result is a
rich metaphorical web of various semiotic indicators,
which may be spun in various ways by the composer
as either a central or peripheral component of any
given composition.
I would like to use my own recently composed
work, Free/Association (finalist, Prix Destellos 2009,
Argentina), in order to illustrate a potential use of
hybridisation of ecological models (and thus signs)
in relation to both title and compositional context.

A similar exploration of hybridity in relation to sound identity

using a different technical methodology, namely cross-synthesis, is
described in Young 2004: 911.

Syntax as Sign: The use of ecological models within a semiotic approach to electroacoustic composition

The piece begins with a phonographic recording of

a leaky gutter before giving way to synthetic drops,
scattered in a Poisson distribution system (both syntactically and spatially) the works first ecological
model (Sound example 1). Through increased highpitched resonation and micro-level sample interpolation, a hybridisation of signs occurs (Sound
example 2), as the individual synthetic drops give way
to various struck glass objects, which increasingly
morph syntactically to the recognisable syntax of
striking a glass as part of a delivery of a toast. Thus,
the interpolation of micro-level events is combined
with a metamorphosis of meso-level organisational
pattern, to create a smooth transformation between
two unrelated signs.
Other instances of hybridisation of signs using
ecological models can be heard in Sound examples 3
and 4, where the ecological model of breaking glass
modulates into an underwater stream, followed by a
modulation into a flock of birds. These transformations are once again possible through the combination of micro-event interpolation (between individual
glass-breaking samples, approximately 10 ms long,
and samples of synthesised drops, or in the second
example, birdsong) and meso-level organisational
modulation between the two ecological models. This
meso-level modulation is of particular importance in
the latter transformation between glass breaking and
birdsong, as modulating parameters such as dispersion density, sample length, amount of glissandi (in
order to bridge the spectral gap between the noisier
glass samples and sustained high-pitched bird calls)
are adjusted over time in order to move away from
the model of glass breaking, to the liminal stage
between the two models, finally resulting in the birdflock model. This was achieved using tendency masks
in Andre Bartetskis Cmask, using modified versions
of Kellers glass dispersion models.
These few examples of hybridisations of signs
(combining micro-event and meso-level hybridisation)
in turn relate to the title and contextual information
found in the phonographic opening, as both realism
(suggested by the opening, as well as the word association) and free-flowing, surreal transformations
(suggested by the words free and free association) serve
as reconciling elements for the unnatural transformations (the full piece can be heard in Sound example 5).
This potentially allows the listener to negotiate meaning between associative sound identities in a manner
quite similar to Paul Koonces works from his Walkabout & Back era, as well as many of Trevor Wisharts
works (Red Bird, Vox 5 and Imago).
The use of sign hybridisation, as illustrated above,
has several potential impacts on the listener. To begin
with, the notion of syntax as sign, and the heightened
engagement following the recognition of phenomenological patterns as signs, ties itself to the central


concepts of the soundscape movement. As Truax

details, two of the four principles of soundscape
composition are (1) the listeners recognisabililty
of the source material and (2) the invocation of the
listeners knowledge of the environmental context
(Truax 2002: 67). Could we not postulate that using
ecological models will satisfy these requirements due
to our soundscape competence (Truax 2001: 57)
even if the micro-level sound events comprising the
ecological model have been transformed, as detailed
in Barrett and Kellers works?
Furthermore, in relation to the hybridisation of
signs and Rudys Triangulation of the listener
(Rudy 2008), the heightened awareness stemming
from the original recognition of ecological syntax can
be seen as only the beginning. As the context of an
ecological model is established, only to undertake a
hybridisation of signs in either way mentioned above,
the listener is challenged to move beyond a mode of
recognition and into a mode of interpretation, taking
into account such macro-level elements such as a
works title and overall compositional design. Thus,
the metaphorical web comprising of various semiotic
indicators is not only potentially rich but invariably
open, continually oscillating between the compositional intent and listeners interpretation. It is this
simultaneous challenge to both composer and listener, coupled with the recognisability of ecological
models and the potentials to undermine them, which
will enable a heightened engagement from both listener
and composer.
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