Elements 37: Rubidium is the twenty-third album in this series of music on the Elements, a very large work in progress consisting of electronically/digitally created architectural music compositions by Oscar van Dillen.
The cover art in the Elements series consists of color inverted pencil drawings made by the composer.
A word of warning: after careful listening, the world around you may not sound the same any longer.
The work on this album was created, composed, recorded, and produced June-August 2023. All works, cover art and booklet of this album were created by Oscar van Dillen.
On scientific content as artistic inspiration
“The new BIG STORIES are all told by science, their scope is vast, and their telling has only begun relatively recently. We are daily getting updates on answers to all the ancient basic questions of life that inspired human art, cultures, and religions for millennia, and we are getting verifiable answers this time. Most important is perhaps that we are also facing completely new questions.
It is high time the old myths and beliefs are abandoned and replaced by contemporary, that is to say: scientific sources of information, imagination, and inspiration. The vast field of modern science is far more complex, has a verifiable and direct relation to reality, and it offers a far greater abundance of possible stories and references for artists in all disciplines than any older belief or myth system, however poetic, could ever come up with (as was superbly demonstrated by writers such as Stanislaw Lem (The Cyberiad), Primo Levi (The Periodic Table), and Italo Calvino (The Complete Cosmicomics)).
In our times we need new and innovative music in all genres, whether electronically or no; let these leave behind the stories of our alleged past and use such new narrative sources as our present times offer for reference and inspiration.”
–Oscar van Dillen
All albums in the Elements series so far, in order of release:
- Elements 1: Hydrogen Deuterium Tritium H D T
- Elements 118: Oganesson Og
- Elements 6: Carbon C
- Elements 8: Oxygen – Ozone O
- Elements 14: Silicon Si
- Elements 7: Azote N
- Elements 2: Helium He
- Elements 15: Phosphorus P
- Elements 20: Calcium Ca
- Elements 12: Magnesium Mg
- Elements 38: Strontium Sr
- Elements 4: Beryllium Be
- Elements 56: Barium Ba
- Elements 88: Radium Ra
- Elements 49: Indium In
- Elements 31: Gallium Ga
- Elements 13: Aluminium Al
- Elements 5: Boron B
- Elements 81: Thallium Tl
- Elements 3: Lithium Li
- Elements 11: Natrium Na
- Elements 19: Kalium K
- Elements 37: Rubidium Rb
- Rubidium – section 1 05:21
- Rubidium – section 2 04:03
- Rubidium – section 3 07:26
- Rubidium – section 4 04:47
- Rubidium – section 5 04:48
- Rubidium – section 6 02:27
- Rubidium – section 7 05:25
- Rubidium – section 8 04:21
- Rubidium – section 9 04:48
- Rubidium – complete 43:26
Total duration: 01:26:52
Ways of hearing
Just like in other arts and sciences, the history of music gradually develops from the prehistory of music, bit by bit findings and remainders from long ago start appearing in the archaeological record. Painting left its oldest recognizable works to us, in caves. These are found all over the world, from Africa, Australia, Indonesia, and Europe. In Spain, the currently oldest found cave paintings were found, dating back to more than 64,000 years. To compare, the age of the Neolithic archaeological site Göbeklı Tepe with its wonderful architecture and sculpture is estimated to be between 10,000 and 11,500 years, meaning the oldest paintings preserved are at least over 6 times older. At this age, the humans having made them are still classified as Neanderthal, which most people do not realize is partly us too, as many humans today share vestiges of Neanderthal genes, or similar genes in Asia. A persistent solipsistic attitude of looking at these our common ancestors tends to hold on to the belief that “we” came to Europe only later, but this narrow view of what is “us” is gradually shifting in paleoanthropology (See the excellent book Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee and Shin-Young Yoon, 2015/2018). The descent of humans is now found to be a complex web of interconnections, reconnecting and interbreeding, not a simple tree with branches splitting off, its structure is much more alike to a mycelium or rhizome. Music is lucky to have in its archaeological record a flute of close to the same age as the paintings in the Maltravieso cave: the Divje Babe flute, preserved because it was made of a cave bear femur, not wood nor bamboo, and this flute happens to have a pentatonic scale built into it. So music history started with a Neanderthal flute and a scale, at around 55,000 years ago, but of course no composition survived.
Still older than these is the Bruniquel cave, where the other humans the Neanderthals built with broken stalagmites 176,000 years ago.
We take for granted that music makes use of tones, pitches, scales and harmonies, forgetting that these are special cases of sounds as heard and recognized by our ears. Yet music has always consisted of much more than these specific sounds such as tones, but since these are mostly not represented in contemporary notation, they seem to be irrelevant and are forgotten, even not heard. The 21st century is flooded with “music”, some of it made by artists who cannot read notation or cannot even sing in tune, some of these world famous and immensely rich. We cannot even think of starting to understand the origins and true nature of music if all we are aware of is this mix of worldwide broadcast and sold popular or commercial music in other genres in general. If such a daily listening experience, marketed to us by many contemporary media, characterizes, delineates, defines, and sets the boundaries of what we consider to be “music” is used as reference, then auditive exploration of new music is made very hard indeed. Great innovators are often largely misunderstood and undervalued, even by their peers. More time and more music are needed, and open ears.
In the various surviving living traditions of world music, memories and vestiges of prehistoric music can sometimes still be found, along with the various disciplines of listening these require. The secret of their appreciation lies in the willingness to commit the necessary effort to learn to understand such different languages of music, it cannot be expected that every music is always immediately a language which explains itself while listening to it. Like with learning a spoken language, learning to understand other musical languages takes time and effort. Once one has developed a basic understanding, learning will proceed by repeated and discovering listening. Mere hearing, as people are supposed to do with mass marketed “music” will not suffice, just as one cannot absorb knowledge by sleeping with a book under one’s pillow. Along with the development of understanding new musical languages, listening itself is being schooled and trained in the process, and the world around you may not sound the same any longer, as van Dillen warns above. While becoming more precisely aware of sound, the perceived world becomes more real perhaps, or larger, surprising, more meaningful.
On listening to electronic music today
The meaning of the term electronic music has changed dramatically since modern composers started to work with electronic equipment in radio studios after the second world war. In the 50’s and 60’s of the 20th century it meant mostly avant-garde esthetics by an elite group of mostly male composers making the headlines for this at the time niche medium. Today the term changed meaning but at the same time its history is in the process of being rewritten as more and more female composers are being credited for having played a defining role in the development of the medium. In 2021 the acclaimed documentary film called Sisters with Transistors was released, it demonstrated this process for a larger than specialist audience. One can also conclude that on the whole and over time the term electronic music defines a medium rather than a style.
Compositional ideologies played a major role in the times of avant-garde aesthetics, and they still do for many contemporary composers today. In more popular genres this aesthetics has been transformed to a more practical approach to the instruments actually used, with more musicianship involved in the creation of works, and less cold quasi scientific laboratory-like calculations to justify the results (a major consequence and certainly a hobby of the avant-garde ideologues). Today the first thing a young listener will think of when expecting to hear electronic music will be known as EDM, or Electronic Dance Music. Music to party, to dance, to have fun. A starker contrast to the early composed electronic music, say to the times of a Stockhausen and his Etudes I and II and Kontakte can hardly be imagined. Meanwhile the innovative pioneering work of Eliane Radigue was almost completely ignored. What the early electronic composers shared was a very elaborate working process: to create a single minute of music took days/weeks to produce. With the rapid and drastic advances of technology in our times with regards to sound generation and recording this changed completely. What used to take a large studio with very expensive hardware to produce can today be done on a good laptop with professional software, much of it affordable or even free and open source.
When listening to electronic music, one misses the musical instruments such as strings and winds, yet on careful listening there may be sounds referring to these, but more flexible and moving in sound than the physical instrument could ever practically realize. Moreover, with electronic music one misses a musician for every single sound, there may be just one person performing on a laptop, or just a recording, and one stares at loudspeakers (never stare at loudspeakers btw, rather try to locate the sounds instead, as they are not in the speaker but resonating in the room). Most electronic music is however still made by humans and by composers’ choices, the path from human action and sound creation is just somewhat different than playing an instrument, a mouse or a button or a wheel is moved, a bit more technically indirect perhaps, but at the same time producing an audible sound not significantly less instantaneous than playing a live piano would. Moving the mouse, the wheel or the button are of course less visible on stage than a performance on a piano or wind instrument, where an informed viewer can read the keys.
The truly informed listeners to electronic music will be able to recognize historical instruments when used, such as the ARP 2500 or 2600, or the Buchla 200, or the Moog Modular, in case these are used. Each of these iconic and historical instruments can be found again today, mostly in the form of software versions, but now and then in hardware form, all newly made, sometimes with new, sometimes even with “vintage” components. Most modern synthesizer clones reliably reproduce the iconic sound and usage, and sound but slightly different. Hearing the differences between old hardware and modern hard- or software can be similarly a specialist skill as in being able to hear the differences between a Steinway, a Bösendorfer, a Yamaha, a Fazioli, or a Schimmel grand piano – on a recording. Not obvious, not obvious at all, as music is about music first of all and not about musical instruments at all. Still, diehard electronic composers may swear by certain hardware: Moog, Buchla or ARP synths. Likewise acoustic instrumentalists swear by instrument brands and types, Muramatsu or Haynes flutes, Selmer vs Yanagisawa saxophones, Stradivari vs Guarneri or Amati violins, etc.
Specific instruments matter more to performers and should not be made into criteria for listeners. Nevertheless, being able to hear types of instruments is just as important in acoustic as in electronic music. Can one recognize the sound of a clarinet and distinguish it from the oboe, from the soprano saxophone, or the flute? Can one pick up the melody of the bassoon, the French horn, the trombone? Similarly with electronic music: can one hear the wave form types, the sine, the modulated sine, the square and mixed triangle waves in slightly detuned unisons, the types of noise, white, pink, brown? Can one hear certain brands of hardware being used, type of filters or a ring modulator, or the synthesizer itself in case of an iconic known sound?
Most difficult of all: can one hear how a music was made, composed, and produced? Most important of all: can one actually enjoy this music, both with and without all this knowledge and ability to recognize specifics?
And lastly: can we actually let go of the illusion of being in control of that pet we call our mind and let the music and musical perception simply take over and surprise us?
The challenge with innovative contemporary music made for listening per se such as this album, lies in a challenge to connect in a free way, and go through the steps of open perception and appreciation individually, without recipe, without a priori dos and don’ts, without expectations but with memories, with a sense of exploration as in starting a new novel or unknown movie without spoilers:
- Observe – hear everything, don’t be distracted, be aware of what happens in the various registers of time, tone, timbre, space, and volume (the range of each is much larger than with instrumental music): try to imprint what you hear into memory, ask yourself what is it objectively that I heard?
- Evaluate – can you perceive every form distinctly enough, some things may be harder to hear, or are sounds that affect you emotionally or even physically: observe and evaluate the effect of it.
- Interpret – observe your mind creating associations of its own: they are yours and not in the music itself yet are created by the music in you personally.
Elements of both Music and Chemistry
The Elements referred to in the title are obviously the chemical elements: the very first of the periodic table of which is Hydrogen with its remarkable isotopes Deuterium and Tritium, the only isotopes with their own chemical abbreviation. Less obvious from the titles is the use of Elements of Music, as described in his original approach to composing: his method (not a system) of prepositional analysis, developed from 1998-2011 by van Dillen.
Prepositional analysis is a new approach to the creation and analysis of music, not restricted to any style or vocabulary, but based on how humans hear music and perceive its elements Sound and Silence in interaction. Sound manifests itself in spectrum, time, and space, and from this observation 5 categories are derived, which sum up to 6 with silence included. These both include and transcend Stockhausen’s 5 dimensions of sound (pitch, duration, volume, timbre, and place). Based on the interactions a set of 22 prepositional analytical concepts is postulated, for use in creative composition or analysis.
These elements of music have in fact been used for a longer time and some if not all of them can be found in music history. In the work on this album, they are used to create new music inspired by the chemical elements. The chemical elements being such basic building blocks of matter, represent the basis for every existence, and for life.
By means of Mendeleev’s system for natural matter, and thus for material nature, van Dillen ventured to compose his meta-symphony Elements. This series Elements is an elaboration of a lifelong love for the basic building blocks of matter as it formed during the billions of years following the Big Bang.
Element 37 is found in the 5th period of Group 1 in the periodic system, the group containing all alkali metals (excepting Hydrogen, element 1, which although residing in the same group is very different and can be seen as an element in a category of its own).
Though similar to Potassium, Rubidium has no function in any known living organisms. Yet is easily absorbed into the human body due to this similarity and thus a radioactive isotope of it is used in MRI imaging.
In technology Rb is sometimes used in solar cells, and a possible projected future use might be in deep space exploration, as it would enable the creation of ion drives, which effectively inspired the music in this album.
Music of Rubidium
van Dillen composed a basis for the alkali metals’ music eventually used for up to and including the 5th period alkali metal Rubidium (element 37). The sounds used at the basis, the “canvases”, were created using additive modular synthesis, and have a very aggressive character, they are deliberately overfilled with noise and spectral information. The further composition processes in Natrium, Kalium and Rubidium as a consequence have been using a variety of complex subtractive synthesis, then filtered down and sculpted into the music to fit these elements.
While the music of Natrium resembles a somewhat singular obstinate idea travelling through various spaces, each time adapting to its environment, it always has an undercurrent of time, suggested fast rhythm, and even haste and a sense of speed and hurrying. The tempo of the music of Natrium resembles the Jazz concept of forward motion (fast music without fixed structures in time). Such pulsations, sometimes resembling rhythm, but always with a certain drive, play a role in all the alkali elements, most of all in Caesium, the atomic resonances of which have been used in extremely precise atomic clocks since the second half of the 20th century. In the music of Rubidium further use of aforementioned canvases is made for the third and last time, leading yet again to another, new music. Here, next to special sounds, especially the spaciousness is created by a variety of tiny partial delays in mid and/or side channel audio, leading to subtle phase shifts enhancing the depth of the musical experience, which once again is about sound masses in motion rather than tones or “pitch materials”.
OIJ Records – Donemus DCV