The Outer Limits
Exclusive reviews of two avant garde music festivals that saw technology pushed to its creative limits, Ars Electronica at Linz and the International Computer Music Conference at IRCAM, Paris.
The tail-end of 1984 saw two international music festivals at which modern technology was pushed to its performance limits. Here we present exclusive
overviews of both of them.
Ars Electronica, Linz: Markus Aigner
ICMC, Paris: Tony Mills
You may well remember E&MM reporting on Ars Electronica back in E&MM January 83, when it was already a regular international festival with the prime objective of encouraging modern technology to be applied in interesting and innovative musical ways. Centrepiece of the festival has always been its Grand Prize competition, in which composers and performers from all over the world vie for the attentions of a panel of well-known judges. The Grand Prize competition in 1984 was as important and as well-attended as ever, but there were also more peripheral concerts and lectures than ever, too.
Of the concerts, the most noteworthy was surely Isao Tomita's astonishing performance from a specially-constructed glass pyramid suspended over the picturesque tranquillity of the River Danube. Fifty thousand people witnessed a sonic recreation of the Big Bang, brought about courtesy of Tomita's synth genius, an enormous lighting rig and no fewer than seven individual (and very high-power) speaker systems.
The wizard presented a cross-section of his recorded output, with excerpts from his Kosmos (Strauss, Wagner), Daphnis et Chloe (Ravel) and The Planets (Holst) arrangements, as well as some new interpretations of Rimsky-Korsakov's Hymn to the Sun, the Pachelbel Canon, and Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras. As it turned out, slightly excessive length made the performance more tedious than it should have been, but while the content of Tomita's concert held few surprises, the equipment he was using - Casio's newly-developed Cosmo synthesiser system - was entirely new and well worth further investigation.
Such investigation revealed the Cosmo to be a complete computer musical instrument featuring two digital synthesiser modules (a bit of a misnomer, that, as these are actually the sound-sampling devices), six sound generators, a central MIDI interface and distribution box, and a music work station comprising a 16-bit microcomputer, ADCs and DACs, disk drives, and monitor.
Each of those 'synthesiser' modules is capable of acting as a four-voice polyphonic sound-sampling system with a maximum sampling time of three seconds, a frequency bandwidth of 20Hz-15kHz, and a five-octave pitch span. You can generate loops with the minimum of fuss (glitch-free loop points can be selected automatically by the electronics), but more interestingly, the system's microphone input has a built-in automatic triggering system that prevents the very beginning of a sample being ignored as a result of inadequate operator reactions: up to 100mS of information can be stored before you actually activate the Cosmo's sampling mode.
The big Casio's sound-generating modules employ the principle of Phase Distortion, a novel concept subsequently seen on the more accessible CZ101 polysynth (see review last month), though as the latter wasn't in full production at the time of the festival, Tomita used a MIDI-equipped Casio CT6000 as the controlling keyboard. The work station stores both voice waveform and performance (sequencing) data on floppy disks, and these can be retrieved for further editing if the user so desires.
At the time of writing, no further technical information about the Cosmo system was available, though Yukio Kashio, managing director of the company that bears his name, says it's his intention to produce an affordable sampling keyboard in the near future: the CZ101 is the first step along that road.
Sonic comparisons between the big Cosmo and competing designs such as those from Fairlight and PPG are fraught with difficulties, but I can say that a press demo of the system revealed it to be generally well-behaved, save for a slight lack of sparkle at the high-frequency end and a mild noise problem. It could be that the Cosmo system seen at Ars Electronica will never become commercially available, but personally, I hope it does.
Like the Fairlight, the Cosmo can be placed on the receiving end of any drawable waveform the user cares to input, and Tomita applied the brightness curve of the star AD Leonis (as measured at a radio observatory in Nebeyama, Japan) to form a string sound for use in his performance.
As it happens, Tomita and his prototype Casio weren't the only stars of Ars Electronica's opening concert (it was entitled 'Mind of the Universe' incidentally), as the River Danube acted as the backdrop to a mind-boggling musical and optical extravaganza. Red and green lasers cut lines dramatically through the sky and illuminated two boats, one containing Far Eastern folk musicians and the other housing a 100-strong choir to aid Tomita in his performance of Beethoven's Ninth.
If all this sounds decidedly Over The Top, that's the intention. The opening concert (and a similar one performed later that featured the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, among other things) were more ambitious, more adventurous, and more spectacular than anything Ars Electronica's organisers had ever attempted, and they worked: nearly 100,000 people attended the two events, and the stir they caused must have helped the remainder of the festival's proceedings.
In addition to the Danube concerts, a number of other musical events took place during Ars Electronica's busy seven days. Local composers Harald Zuschrader and Hubert Bognermayr presented a live performance of their Bergpredigt recording, with several Fairlights (and a claimed 4000 sound samples), a choir, live percussion and guitar solos, and the curious mixture of Biblical quotations and others from the present day. The concert took place in the suitably sacrosanct atmosphere of Linz' New Cathedral, and the musicians made effective use of the room-within-room effects made possible by the Quantec Room Simulator, though musically the output oscillated between musique concrète and department store muzak.
Urban Sax - an avant garde ensemble comprising no fewer than 40 saxophonists - treated us to a fine example of their individual modal music, while the Dance Theatre of Vienna presented the world premiere of Tobias Zapfel by 28-year-old Austrian composer Thomas Pernes, in which the chords oscillate only between F# and F#m, with just the arrangement - tapes and acoustic and electronic instruments were used - altering during the piece's length.
And, as is more or less inevitable during a festival of this scale, there were also a couple of disasters, like the infernal racket proffered by Glenn Branca's ensemble (minimalist music at 127dB?), and the operational overkill of Leo Kuepper's Sound Dome, an installation of 104 speakers and 52 stereo power amps that can be switched on and off manually by the creator - any £200 computer could have done the job better, and the final artistic results in no way justified the technological expense involved.
Ars Electronica '84 also offered some fascinating lectures and workshops under the umbrella title of 'The Digital Arts'. Among the speakers were composer and studio manager James Dashow, who explained the relationship between FM sound synthesis and inharmonic sound structures, and how his own music aims to create a dialogue between the composer and the computer; Klaus Buhlert, an expert in the fields of psychoacoustics and computer music, who commented on the future of electronic music and how it could be made more accessible to modern audiences: Bob Moog, who spoke on the pros and cons of that wonder of the current Communication Age, MIDI; and IRCAM's Jean-Baptiste Barriere, who presented a detailed report on that organisation's current musical and technological activities, among them CHANT, a voice synthesis program capable of recreating a wide range of vocal examples from a Mozart aria to Tibetan folk chant. IRCAM was also the venue for the ICMC event attended by Tony Mills - see later for his report.
Ars Electronica's Grand Prize competition seems to have turned into something of a playground for amateur constructors and intellectual hobbyists, rather than a great gathering of musical innovators. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that.
Still, an international jury chaired by Bob Moog had a reasonable selection of interesting acts from which to choose 'the most original and future-orientated new development in the field of electronic sound production'.
Previous winners of the Grand Prize include Bruno Spoerri (lyricon, 1979), Nyle Steiner (electronic trumpet, 1980), and Ivan Tcherepnin (electronically-modulated Persian dulcimer(!), 1982), so the competitors had plenty to live up to. In the event, American Dorothy Stone picked up Third Prize with her 'ghost electronics box', a novel device that enables electronics to be blended into a live performance so that the electronics only become audible when the performer is actually making some sort of sound. Ms Stone utilised a German flute with a suitable pickup, while the more up-to-date hardware comprised two items, a tape recorder and the 'ghost box' itself, which contained a stereo locator, a ring modulator, an amplitude control, and filter, octave divider, and wah sections: the tape contains high-frequency audio signals that aren't amplified but act as controllers for the electronics.
According to the judges, the competition between the musicians that came first and second was more than a little close, as both innovators came near to fulfilling the Grand Prize's specified criteria. In the end, a German, Werner Schwarz, took Second Prize for his 'Ballex' system, used for the transformation of dance movements into control functions for music synthesisers. It's not a new idea, of course, but Schwarz' solution was thought to be particularly elegant. Sensors are placed on the dancer's arms and legs, while the battery-powered transmitter is mounted on the back of the dancer so as not to hinder freedom of movement. Once the movements converting 'black box' receives them and produces corresponding one volt per octave control voltages and trigger signals.
And joining the ranks of new devices that have won their creators the Grand Prize of Ars Electronica is the synthophone, brainchild of Swiss computer musician Manfred Humi. The acoustic element of this system closely resembles a conventional saxophone, but although it's played in a similar manner and the fingering is the same, the instrument has no sound hole as such; instead, note information, lip pressure and wind dynamics are transmitted electronically via a multiplexing switch array and a computer-controlled interface, and all these parameters may then be used to control various performance functions of one volt per octave equipment. To demonstrate his invention, Hurni used a system comprising synthophone, analogue synth (PAiA Proteus I), and an Apple II with alphaSyntauri. The latter was used to reproduce pre-programmed sequences, and took the part of the kithara in what turned out to be a modern-day adaptation of the Ancient Greek musical ensemble.
The synthophone acted as a sort of hi-tech aolos, while the piece - appositely titled 'Ikaros and Daedalos' - was one of Hurni's own. Impressive - and by no means imitative.
The five-day conference was efficiently organised, though for some reason there were several lectures and seminars (particularly on educational music software) scheduled for dates after the event had officially finished, in any case, it was impossible to attend all the events - the choice each morning and afternoon was basically between a series of lectures in the huge Espace de Projection, or a selection of tape concerts in the Pompidou Centre, followed by a live concert in the evening. Demonstrations, displays and events within IRCAM itself also provided much of the interest at the conference: exhibitors included Yamaha, Fairlight, Sogitec, and many other software and hardware manufacturers.
Let's get the name-dropping out of the way first. E&MM readers might have been pleased to meet Bog Moog (again!), Donald Buchla, Max Matthews, Pierre Schaeffer, FM pioneer John Chowning, British composers Ron Berry, Dennis Smalley, Trevor Wishart and Tim Souster, alphaSyntauri expert Laurie Spiegel, German Fairlight expert Thomas Kessler, Swiss composer Bruno Spoerri, Stockhausen collaborator Rolf Gehlhaar, Yamaha demonstrator Dave Bristow and Japanese rep Katsuhiko Hirano, various gentlemen from the Star Wars people, LucasFilm (who are doing frightening things with computer-controlled digital audio), and Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider. Among the lecturers and performers were some big names in academic computer music, viz Barry Vercoe, Xavier Rodet, Lars Gunnar Bodin and Gottfried Michael Koenig (bet David Coleman would have a spot of trouble with that lot).
It's important to keep in mind that ICMC was an academic event, devoted mainly to the research and development currently going on in Universities and research centres such as IRCAM otherwise you're unlikely to appreciate the degree of uproar caused by Dave Bristow and other supporters of MIDI and 'budget systems' (as far as I can make out, this refers to anything costing less than £1m). The panel session on MIDI and other interfaces became quite heated, the system being described as a disaster by some and as an important step forward by others. The overall feeling was that MIDI is too slow and too keyboard-oriented (that is, designed to play a conventional tempered scale) for most 'experimental' music.
At the same time, Dave Bristow's stand (at which he demonstrated the DX7, CX5, TX816 modules and QX1 sequencer) was packed throughout with inquisitive Swedes from various University research centres, and others pretending to look at something else as they ogled the possibilities of the DX7. Much experimental computer music research is based on creating FM pairs of oscillators in software or hardware, and the prospect of a £1000 keyboard offering these facilities was simply too much for some composers who had spent months struggling with systems such as IRCAM's own Sogitec 4X synthesiser, which works only when supported by a PDP minicomputer.
Slightly less interest was shown in the Fairlight stand, possibly because the company had chosen to display a repeating Page R Pattern which, while undoubtedly impressive, was simply too rock-oriented for the audience present. However, Fairlight did have two interesting new products on show - a low-band video graphics generator (now on show at Syco Systems in London) and the Voice Tracker, a monophonic Pitch-to-MIDI converter with various display options direct to a monitor. Mind you, this doesn't mean they're giving up on the Fairlight CMI - the updated model due for early 1985 is still expected to be a real stunner.
Returning to the subject of budget systems, it was pleasing to see that many researchers were using MIDI-based setups (usually incorporating DX7s) and applying them to all sorts of research. Canadian Kenneth Newby demonstrated a system that uses MIDI parameter commands, rather than note commands, to play the DX7: this makes it possible to introduce glides and unusual tunings, albeit with reduced tonal complexity. Encouraged by this, some of the audience gradually admitted to owning MIDI synthesisers, and in one case argued strongly for the adoption of a more 'rock 'n' roll approach' to interfacing, whatever that means.
These topics were aired once again in Bob Moog's lecture, but surprisingly, he began by criticising the limitations of MIDI quite forcibly. Now Chief Scientist for Kurzweil, Moog's main responsibility lies in developing better and more responsive keyboards for the company: no doubt experience from his own company, Big Briar, will be brought to bear. The touch pads, multi-sensitive keyboards and Theremin-type devices marketed by Big Briar are now all MIDI-equipped, and Moog's suggestion was to take full advantage of the System Exclusive codes made available in MIDI for individual experimentation: his touch pads and other devices transmit information faster and more efficiently in System Exclusive mode than was ever possible with the very note-oriented System Common mode.
Several of the speakers expressed support for MIDI, while at the same time hoping it could be used only as a final control language for budget synths, leaving faster computer languages to make the musical calculations involved in playing complicated computer music. The Americans (and to some extent the French) seem particularly keen on Apples, as evidenced by demos of several systems ranging from the compositional to the educational. On the subject of educational software, a few examples were on show from Logimus and others, but many of these were designed for the Thompson home computer, which may be big across the Channel but hasn't any presence in the UK at all.
The concerts were something of a mixed bag, most of them being tape-based for obvious reasons. Some composers did have a go at live computer pieces. For instance, Thomas Kessler and a flautist played 'Flute Control' for the Fairlight, in which the flute's pitch and volume (prospectively through the Fairlight Voice Tracker but in this case through a Korg interface and custom ring modulator) were used selectively to replay portions of a complex voice-based sampled sound. Larry Beauregard played Barry Vercoe's 'Synapse', this time with the flute being followed intelligently by a 4X/PDP system programmed with the score of the piece in the computer language 'C Script'. Beauregard plays too fast, the computer plays faster. Beauregard plays slower, the computer slows down. Beauregard misses a page in the score, the computer goes mental. That's life.
The tape pieces varied from the interesting to the monumentally dull and the physically painful. Horacio Vaggione's 'Fractal C' used millions of short staccato events to build up a convincing impression of an irregular surface (a sponge, for instance, is one example of a fractal surface) but the levels and pitches used were nothing short of ear-piercing. Kaija Saariho presented 'Verblen-dungen', with an orchestra and a tape based on orchestral samples, but the electronic element was small. Meanwhile, there were other pieces that had been composed using random computer-generated elements but which were played by conventional chamber instruments, and these were also pretty lifeless.
On the pop front, Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk was exceedingly reticent about plans for the band's long-awaited new album. Two days of gentle questioning elicited the following information: it's called Techno-Pop (we knew that), they're still working on it (hard to believe), and they're not using anything you can't buy in any music store. We did find out that they're using a Fairlight, though Schneider himself strenuously denied this.
Similarly publicity-shy (though a little more forthcoming) was instrument designer Don Buchla, whose 400 series has now been taken up by Kimball in the US. Although he denied his invention was a pop/rock instrument, and won't even admit to calling it a synthesiser, there's no doubt the machines are getting much wider use in the States, even among pop and rock bands.
Over the five days of the conference, it became more than clear that this was not a gathering of synthesiser enthusiasts, but an academic and sometimes highly technically specialised get-together. Given that, it was satisfying to see just how much the field had been shaken up by MIDI, affordable instruments such as the DX7 and simple interfacing for Apples, if not for smaller home micros. It was disappointing to see how out of touch the academic field remains from developments in rock technology: no sign of any live concerts played by men squatting over huge banks of synthesisers (á la Tangerine Dream), and little evidence of the power of rock music in either the tape or live concerts. And the 'Electronic Music Now' tour, sponsored by the Arts Council Contemporary Music network a couple of years ago, showed that the situation is no better in the UK than it is anywhere else.
With luck, 1985 will be the year academic computer musicians realise it's time to come out of their ivory towers. The decision may well be made for them - it's going to be very difficult to justify mucking about on a mainframe if, by this time next year, they could just as well be sitting at home with something the size of a Yamaha CX5 but the musical power of a PDP minicomputer.