What?? is a focused and grounding work produced by Swedish composer Folke Rabe in 1967. From his interest in sound phenomena and harmonics Rabe was able to make one of the most deep, moving pieces of sustained sound generated in this formative era of minimalist electronic composition. Initially reissued on Dexter's Cigar in 1997 and now available on Important with expanded packaging including archival materials furnished by the composer. Amplified infinity.
"My interest in the makeup of various sound phenomena began many years ago. The basic physical preconditions were familiar to me, but I wanted to experience the components of the sound with my hearing. I attempted to "hear into" the different sounds in order to grasp the components that made them up. I experienced how the overtones in a tone sounding on the piano change slowly as they die away. I also attempted to grasp the brittle arpeggio of formants that arises when a vowel is slowly changed at a particular pitch. I also tried, as far as possible, to train my hearing to tease out the complex processes that occur at the origin of sound.
At the same time as this listening, I was concerned with monotony. My first feeble attempts yielded little: later, more systematic repetitions led to findings. I found methods by which the transitoriness of sound could to some extent be compensated. Small details and micro-variations between the repeated elements that would not have been noticed in a context richer in contrast then come to the fore. Extended sounds that change and move into one another very slowly have a similar effect.
Hobby experiments of the sort described, as I conducted them, are of course primitive from a theoretical point of view. But this basic experience was exactly what was important to me.
The musical field indicated here is perhaps somewhat foreign to the Western musical tradition. In other living cultures it is entirely relevant. This state of affairs is, I believe, connected with the development of musical notation. As this method of fixing sound developed, all the subtler qualities of pitch, sound, and time relationships had to be leveled off. On the other hand, systems of notation first made possible meaningful musical constructions. This fact compensated for the loss just described, making possible the great tradition of European music.
In Western composition, intervals, rhythms, and tone color – to the extent that they eluded notation – were subordinated to a philosophical idea, or at least a motivic/formal one. The sounding fact as such retreated into the background, and the West, in ethnocentric self-idolization, erected its own cultural tradition (be it Beethoven or Coca-Cola) as an example to the world.
But there are in the world many fields of music in which the qualitative element grows from the immediate sound. In such music, one looks in vain for formal elements in the Western sense; this music may thus seem primitive, senseless, or even provocative. In reality, however, these are two different possibilities of musical organization.
Indian musicians said to me that Western music is certainly good music, but they found its technique of phrasing incomprehensible. "The music always breaks off before it has begun!"
What What?? means: As you will hear, What?? is constructed from harmonic sounds. These sounds move into one another by means of enharmonic melding of the partials. I chose harmonic sounds because a pleasing richness results from them, but more particularly because the partials reinforce one another through their inner hierarchy, and can thereby produce certain illusions.
I chose the extended, seemingly endless form in order to enable peaceful journeys of discovery in the sound, but also in order to work with this particular material. Electronic devices have no muscles. "Breathing" expressiveness is contrary to their nature; their characteristic quality is an enormous, tireless endurance.
About 85 % of the material is made up of electronically generated tones, which however are never present in their static, original form. Each partial has been specially treated in itself, which can at times yield a very rich result.
What?? was created in the late summer of 1967, and was realized by me in the electronic studio of the Swedish Radio. The piece was presented for the first time in the same year as part of a collective evening performance ("Signery") in the Stockholm Radio Hall by Jan Bark, Bo Anders Persson and myself."