Hi-fi and low-fi counterpoint

Reading this interesting new book by Melbourne sound artist Jordan Lacey – which I’ll write about a bit more soon. I came across the concept of ‘hi-fi’ and ‘low-fi’ soundscapes as conceived of in the field of acoustic ecology. Here’s the definition of the distinction by Barry Truax:

Situations where signal detection is difficult or impossible may be termed ‘lo-fi’ environments, by analogy to electroacoustic signals of poor quality, high noise, and distortion. The complementary situation, the ‘hi-fi’ environment, is one in which all sounds may be heard clearly, with whatever detail and spatial orientation they may have. Such an environment  is, by definition, balanced and well ‘designed’. (Truax, quoted in Lacey, 2016, p. 36)

I think this is a nice distinction for thinking about contrapuntal construction even in traditional concert music settings. Certain parameters affect this dimension more than others: spatial separation on stage, register, and timbre in particular, but just about all other parameters can contribute to whether the counterpoint is ‘hi-fi’ or ‘low-fi’ (that is, whether you can neatly distinguish sonic ‘lines’ or whether they are confused and blurred). The opening of my a new day in the desert is definitely more of a ‘low-fi’ kind of construction, as are the rapid sections of Si el clima, whereas the ‘feudal’ sections of that work, and most of braneworlds, are considerably more ‘hi-fi’. These days I lean towards hi-fi constructions, and I feel they are the basis of contrapuntal thinking, because (as a rational method of construction) they distinguish between sonic objects and therefore a clear logic of interrelation can be established. On the other hand, low-fi situations are also very relevant to contrapuntal logic, insofar as they may result from a bringing closer together (in the topological sense) of musical objects and rendering indistinct previously established (in the logical, and not necessarily temporal/formal, sense) musical identities. It’s an important textural dimension to explore, with strong affective implications.

This also points to the fact that while all parameters are relevant to the determination of identity and difference in a work (and therefore its counterpoint), and all can be structured in this way, parameters are not all equal in their effects and weighting in perception: parameters have different functions on the musical discourse. Parameters are not abstract mathematical quanta, but particular material relations, and as real material things, they different from each other in a qualitative sense. They are also interrelated and mutually interdependent in different ways. This is part of what composing contrapuntally – as I understand it – is about exploring.

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