To fully appreciate the extraordinarily creative, unique, and iconoclastic approach of Barry Truax to composition, it is helpful to consider another great innovator, the painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891).
Like Seurat, Barry Truax explores the world of beauty, poetry, and passion that animate his work through the quantum. Where Seurat invented Pointillism, Truax created an entirely new approach to composition with a method of sound manipulation called granular synthesis.
Pointillism is the practice of applying small strokes or dots of colour to a surface so that from a distance they visually blend together.¹
Granular synthesis involves generating thousands of tiny sonic events known as grains. According to Timothy Opie: “These grains can be considered the building blocks of sound, or atomic sound particles … and can be combined to generate new sounds, timbres, or sonic textures.” ²
The word for art in ancient Greece was techne, from which the words ‘technique’ and ‘technology’ are both derived — terms equally applicable to both scientific and artistic practices.³
Where Truax studied physics at Queens University, Seurat studied the physics of colour at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, and was greatly inspired by the optical effects and concepts of perception in the colour theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul, Ogden Rood and others. 4 Adapting this scientific research to his painting, Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colours that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue.
“Up close, the surface of his painting contains thousands of painted dots and dashes, discrete areas of colour. But Seurat juxtaposed these dots of complementary colours — purple and yellow, orange and blue, green and red—so that at a distance they interact to create vibrant blended colours and larger, whole forms.” 5 Seurat believed that this form of painting would make the colours more brilliant and powerful than standard brushstrokes. 6
Of granular synthesis, Barry Truax writes: “As with water, each countless grain of sound flows away, yet the river itself remains as it was. Like a drop of water each grain on its own is trivial and powerless, but when it accumulates it becomes like a strong flowing wave of immense power.”
Aside from the surprising consilience between these two very different artists, what is shared and completely magical is the unique combination of quantum elements to create something lasting — poetry capable of moving us, as Barry Truax has done throughout his entire career as a composer.
¹ Encyclopaedia Britannica
³ Robert Eskridge, 2003 lecture at the University of Chicago: ‘The Enduring Relationship of Science and Art.’
4 Robert Herbert, Neo-Impressionism, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
5 Lecture by Robert Eskridge titled “Exploration and the Cosmos: The Consilience of Science and Art.” University of Chicago
6 Herbert, Robert L., Neil Harris, and Georges Seurat. Seurat and the making of La Grande Jatte. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago in association with the University of California Press, 2004. Print
The Cover Image is ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ by Georges Seurat © Chicago Institute of Art