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Postcard from Keele

Martin Russ attends the Second International Computer Music Weekend Conference held at Keele University, 28-29th January 1989.

Martin Russ attends the Second International Computer Music Weekend Conference held at Keele University, 28-29th January 1989.

Dear SOS,

I'm just finishing an exhausting but interesting weekend where the only topics of conversation were MIDI, digital signal processing, computers and music! I'm at Keele University in Staffordshire and it's a very mild January - the venue, Keele Hall, is an impressively decorated old building which is part of the rather more modern campus of the University.

After a fast train journey from Euston, followed by the usual registration red tape, we got down to the serious business of the first of the formal papers. There was a busy programme of seminars, tutorials, forums and a concert to be squeezed into the next 17½ hours.

Rajmil Fischman started the proceedings with an overview of the role of the personal computer in computer music - rather than the more traditional large mainframe computers. Rajmil is one of the Directors of the Composers' Desktop Project (CDP), which aims to use the Atari ST to bring powerful synthesis capability into the hands of the composer who has no access to institutionally based computing facilities (powerful computers with the right software are usually only found on university campuses). The CDP's main hardware product in this area is the SoundStreamer interface, which allows the ST to be used as a workstation for CD quality signals, using a Sony PCMF1/PCM701 and Betamax video recorder as the major sound storage medium. The CDP also distributes a wide range of signal processing, synthesis, resynthesis and editing software suitable for use with the SoundStreamer.

Another of the CDP's products that is of more general interest to all MIDI users is MidiGrid - a flexible MIDI instrument, using the ST's screen and mouse to control MIDI equipment. You can store events (notes, sequences etc) in boxes on the screen for recall just by clicking in that square, or store complex mappings of channels and notes which can then be activated by other events. Everything is mouse-driven and although initially simple in appearance, MidiGrid is really a comprehensive and very impressive piece of complex software which should extend the performance capabilities of everyone who uses it. There were plenty of opportunities to see demonstrations of MidiGrid and the other CDP software/hardware in a series of hands-on tutorials which were slotted in between the papers.

After this fast introduction to the pace of the weekend, lunch was a welcome opportunity to pause for breath and swap ideas and thoughts with the other delegates. I was so busy listening and learning that I can't remember what the food was, except that the quality has been excellent for all the meals. Unlike some conferences where you hang about for ages waiting for the next session, I was still finishing my lunch when the afternoon session started!

The first seminar after lunch was by Trevor Wishart, a Composer and Director of the CDP (See 'Postcard From Windermere': SOS Feb '87). Trevor talked about computer music and post-modernism which, although sounding like an Open University course, was actually a fascinating historical perspective on the current state of computer music. This was followed by Denis Smalley, Composer and Lecturer at the University of East Anglia (UEA), who described the processes involved in producing the sounds from his piece 'Wind Chimes', which was to be played in the concert later on that day. It is not often that one gets the chance to see and hear how a composer makes the decisions involved in producing a piece of music, and the tape excerpts and examples helped bring the whole process to life.

Tea was served inside The Great Hall - wood panelling, an enormous fireplace and imposing sandstone construction! The seminars continued with research results and live demonstrations of vocalised tuba tones from Melvyn Poore, a research fellow at Salford College of Technology. I had never heard of singing at the same time as playing a brass instrument! The spectra of the various sounds produced the first real interaction between the delegates and the speakers, with a discussion on the effects of analysing non-static segments of waveforms.

This trend towards discussions rather than passive listening continued in the next seminar, by Hans Strasburger from the Institut fur Medizlinische Psychologie in Munich. Hans described a way of using the Atari ST as a means of providing musical event lists for CSound, the computer synthesis program (a version of Music 11) and Score 11, a text-based method of doing the same. S11 input, the program which Hans described, receives note on/off messages from a MIDI source and converts them into an ASCII file suitable for Score 11. An alternative way of achieving this was suggested by one of the delegates - convert from MIDI Song File format to the format used by Score 11 (MIDI Song Files are just a list of events, each with a time stamp to indicate exactly when they occurred). This provoked further discussion as to the current state of MIDI Song Files, with specific questions about whether or not the specification had been fixed yet. (No-one had any definitive answer.) The time before dinner was occupied with a packed demonstration of MidiGrid, ably given by Tom Endrich, another CDP Director.

Everyone crowded into the Old Library for a glimpse of some of the possibilities of this very flexible piece of software. If you thought that computer music people were only interested in VAX computers and UNIX, then you might be surprised by all this mention of MIDI, but it turns out that most computer musicians are well versed in current musical technology and will exploit anything which can be turned to their own uses. In fact, MIDI has become just another element in the repertoire of computer, tape, DACs, surround sound, and other constituents of performance and composition.

Saturday night after dinner was occupied with the serious business of the real thing - computer music. A concert had been arranged as part of the Conference, with pieces by Tom Williams, Tim Howie, Simon Emmerson, Mike Vaughan, Gordon Ross, Patrick Lee and Denis Smalley. Tom Williams is one of the organisers of the Conference, from Keele University Music Department, and his 'Sunk Deep In The Night' was a computer generated piece on tape based on two main sound sources: two vocal sounds and a clunk from two clay wind pipes. Tim Howie is studying an MA in Composition at Keele, and his piece 'Semiconductor' was for piano, percussion and tape, with the tape being produced using the CDP system. 'Time Pass IV' by Simon Emmerson, the Director of the Electro-Acoustic Music studio at City University in London, involved a soprano (Nicola Walker) and a tape produced from an analogue studio mixdown from eight tracks produced using a Fairlight CMI. 'Crosstalk' by Mike Vaughan, a freelance composer and teacher, was another piece composed using the Phase Vocoder, CSound and Groucho programs from the Composers' Desktop Project system, and this completed the first half of the concert.

Returning from the bar for the second half, we were treated to 'Episode 9' by Gordon Ross. Reminiscent of the worst of Australian soaps, this is a three minute piece constructed entirely from speech segments taken from more than forty voices. The juxtaposition of different voices and the changes from easily comprehended to almost incoherent speech made this a memorable event for me. Gordon is currently working on an MA in Composition at Keele and, judging from the subject matter, is well familiar with the work of Ivor Cutler.

Music theatre was the medium used by Patrick Lee to perform his 'Diary Of The Singing Lakes'. Patrick, currently studying for a PhD in Composition at Keele, mimed to the sounds on a tape describing the fate of a man who is rendered incommunicado through no fault of his own, with the lakes forming a fanciful escape from reality.

The final piece was 'Wind Chimes' by Denis Smalley, the Director of the Electro-Acoustic Music studio at UEA. This tape piece was commissioned by the South Bank Centre, London, and consists of a complex exploration of the sounds and qualities of a set of ceramic wind chimes from New Zealand. Complex signal processing was applied to transform the basic sounds into a wide range of textures, which were then accompanied with other material to produce the final composition. I was particularly impressed with the way that one of the seminars earlier in the day (and one on the Sunday, as it turned out) were relevant to the music in the concert, with the two composers explaining their approaches to composing their pieces, with emphasis on the sounds and their derivation and manipulation.

Sunday started with an excellent presentation by Mike Vaughan, describing the sound from his piece in the concert, followed by a seminar with the CDP Directors answering questions about the Project and its progress, products and future aims.

The afternoon session consisted of a fascinating meeting of the Electro-Acoustic Music Association (EMAS), which was open to all the delegates - even those who, like me, have never quite got around to filling in the application form! The major topic of conversation was the National Studio for Electronic Music. This is a project which aims to provide a national centre for the creation, research and performance of electro-acoustic music - rather like IRCAM in Paris. I must declare an interest in this project - I am the British Telecom representative on one of the committees. Why BT? It turns out that such a project will require comprehensive and sophisticated communications, especially for computer data, as well as expertise in state-of-the-art digital signal processing - BT is active in many other areas than just telephones! EMAS itself aims to be a focus for electro-acoustic music in the UK and "membership is welcomed from composers, performers, dancers, visual artists and anyone else with an interest in this type of music", as it states on their membership form.

Computer music and electronic/experimental music have contributed a lot to much of today's mainstream popular music. FM, mixing samples with synthesized sounds, computer-controlled stereo imaging, and complex signal processing and effects have all been part of the armoury of computer music for many years - often long before commercial products have become available to the general public. Much of the sampling/found-sound techniques that are so popular and well exploited today owe their existence to these pioneers, and you will be pleased to learn that this Conference confirms that there is still much to explore in the future.

Overall, another fascinating Conference.
See you soon, Martin.


The Composers' Desktop Project Ltd, (Contact Details).
EMAS, (Contact Details).

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The Magic Of Enigma Studios

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Apr 1989



Show Report by Martin Russ

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