Oral History as Form




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Peer reviewed



This paper examines the use of oral history sound recording as a core element in electroacoustic music. Two main examples are used, both works by this author: ‘An Angel at Mons’, a 16-channel acousmatic work, and ‘Red Sky’, a work for alto flute, clarinet, piano and 14-channel electroacoustic sound. The phenomenon of sound recording has profound ontological consequences for artistic work. Recording captures sound events in an intact form, allowing traces of real-world experience to be objectified into artefacts for contemplation and analysis. The advent of recording medium has thus radically enhanced our engagement with sound—not only making all sound available as material for creative intervention, but offering a virtual mirror to be held up to the natural environment and the world of human constructs and interaction. Recording gives us the magic of being connected to a ruthlessly objective electronically-mediated ‘memory’, affording us a view of reality which is simultaneously heightened in that we can review and shift the focus of our attention as we replay events, and also less ‘real’ because of the inevitable loss of the immediacy of the unstoppable and irretrievable present of daily experience. In electroacoustic music we typically think of sound transformation as an integral part of the compositional process: the manipulation of the form and fabric of sound, that is to say: technical methods of shaping and refashioning sonic objects. For most musicians working in electroacoustic music, transformation in this sense is emblematic of what is really innovative in the genre. However, the fundamental fact of recording as a means of interrogating the nature of lived experience is one of the most ontologically original elements of the electroacoustic genre. Recorded oral history powerfully demonstrates this: it is a conduit for the storage and transmission of memory, but also a platform for memory recall and storytelling. The two works focused on in this paper offer practical insights into the expressive and formal potentials of oral histories in musical contexts. Both deal with First World War themes. In ‘An Angel at Mons’, a 101 year old man, recorded by the BBC in 1980, recalls the vision of an angel on the battlefield at Mons in August 1914. The structure and tempo of the verbal delivery of his memories shapes the pace and form of the piece, while electroacoustically transformed material function as stand-ins for underlying emotions and phases in the recall of memory. ‘Red Sky’ is a larger scale work, and integrates the oral histories of twenty World War One veterans, sourced from the sound archives of the Imperial War Museum. In developing these into a coherent form, a set of core themes was derived from the content of their histories and used as the basis for a series of episodes in the piece’s hour-long duration. In ‘Red Sky’ instrumental figures and electroacoustically-realised sound forms interact to amplify and support the charged emotional content of the verbal narratives.

In summary, this paper aims to demonstrate the emotive potential of oral history relayed as recorded artefact in electroacoustic music. In this context the recording has value beyond mere convenience—it functions as a conduit for memory and the process of memory recall capable of allowing the vivid imagery of reminiscence to interact with and colour complex spectromorphological sound design.



Oral history, electroacoustic music, World War I


Young, J. (2016) Oral History as Form, paper presented at the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, June 2016.


Research Institute

Music, Technology and Innovation - Institute for Sonic Creativity (MTI2)