Peter Nelson: The voice of the UPIC: technology as utterance

Recent work in Sound Studies figures the logos of electroacoustic music as a set of sounds and sound-types that reveal themselves as if a sort of stethoscope were applied to the aether, as well as to the industrial and organic sounds around us. Thus, electroacoustic music is connected to the imaginaries of science fiction, space travel, and Jules Verne-like explorations of the universe, and of planet earth and its life and industries. In the UPIC, a computer music instrument of legendary intransigence, Iannis Xenakis conceived of an electronic music with a totally different ethos: ancient not modern, divining not palpating, physical not imaginary. The works conceived on the UPIC, from Mycène Alpha to Voyage Absolu des Unari vers Andromède have a visceral energy and epic power that come from its unique, hand-made sound production methods. In this paper, I reimagine the UPIC as the re-intonation of ancient voices, with a logos which, in the words of Barbara Johnson, “break(s) through preconceived notions of meaning in order to encounter unexpected otherness”. I explore from a philological perspective the sonic material of the UPIC, and relate it to the ‘writing’ of the traces that constitute the instrument’s compositional interface. These twin notions of writing and intonation set the sounds of the UPIC apart from the mainstream of electroacoustic texts, and propose an aesthetic of direct address: the voice of the UPIC.


Peter Nelson is Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh, where he held a personal chair in Music and Technology. He initiated the Edinburgh Electronic and Computer Music Studios, co-ordinated the Music Informatics Research Group and was a founder of the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD). From 1986 - 1991 he worked closely with the composer Iannis Xenakis and his UPIC computer music system, composing a number of works for the UPIC and touring extensively with les Ateliers UPIC. He has written on topics in music informatics, and more recently on social theories of rhythm. As a composer, his output includes chamber, choral, orchestral, and electronic music, with commissions from the BBC, Radio France, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and other international performers and festivals. He was Editor of the journal Contemporary Music Review from 1994 to 2022.