Who Dares Wins
Chris Shilling examines Roland's latest synthesiser tape contest winners, and entrants into a CX5M programming contest.
Two competitions were recently held - one well established, and one not so. The former, the Roland Synthesiser Tape Contest, is now in its eighth year, while the latter is a computer music competition held for the first time by Yamaha in conjunction with Granada television. So, two of the largest instrument manufacturers were involved, but despite any rivalry that might exist between the two competitions were of a very different nature. While the Roland competition is now very much a professional affair, the Yamaha competition was for unemployed musicians only. Fortunately, however, the entrants to the Yamaha competition did not have to worry about equipment or lack of it, as imagination was the only factor involved.
Readers of last October's ES&CM might recall that in David Fox's review of Yamaha's CX5M computer with extensive sound capabilities, he applauded the firm's introduction of a computer designed specifically for the domestic music market. As a good home micro with fairly versatile software and an excellent synthesiser, the CX5M held great promise. The competition held on Granada TV proved to be a way of realising this potential.
Entrants to the competition had to send in one sheet of original music written for the CX5M computer, which meant keeping things short and to the point. No room for sprawling concept pieces. A considerable 2000 entries were received, though a further 8000 could not get their music transcribed. These were narrowed down to ten finalists for a grand final filmed before a small audience and a panel of judges. Each composition was presented in two formats, firstly played on the CX5M alone, then with the addition of a DX7 and two TX modules.
While it must be said that the second, fuller versions of the pieces are, without exception, better it is significant that this is only marginally so in the case of the winner Etude by Iain Spencer Baird. Perhaps the most significant requirement of the entrant after getting a decent tune together, was the ability to arrange a piece of music sufficiently well for the CX5M to really do its stuff. Iain admitted that some of the pieces entered sounded "just a bit twee" because of the lack of really textured, imaginative arrangements - a fine example of this being Paul Delany's Optimists Rag, which sounds too close to The Birdy Song for comfort. Then again, this piece did come third somewhat surprisingly, so I doubt if he'll be worried by my criticisms. Still, the runner-up Feeling Classical (not the best title of all time) by Russell Christian was a finely orchestrated affair, which stood out along with Etude as having rich, full sounds and lively arrangements. As Iain Baird Spencer explained to me, many entrants just did not send enough information in - often relying on just a top-line and a bass line. Iain not only had the shrewdity to use narrow lined manuscript to get more info down, but used the space he had to get across to Mal Scott-Taggart who coordinated the competition and programmed the CX5M, exactly what he wanted. Others had to leave it up to Mal to fill-in their compositions.
Iain is now in receipt of a CX5M as his prize, though interestingly he'd not worked with a computer before. He is also joining Mal Scott-Taggart at Mastersound to become a member of a demonstration team soon to tour the country and possibly start a training school. So he's not only got a computer out of the affair but a job too. Alright for some.
The entries to Roland's eighth Annual Synthesiser Tape Contest are, as is only to be expected, of a much higher standard as all the people involved seem to have banks of keyboards at their disposal and the production throughout is excellent. In terms of creativity, the standard was variable though none of the pieces that reached the final tape could be described as bad. Throughout, the playing was excellent and all the entrants had clearly taken a lot of care in composing their pieces. Perhaps the major criticism is the derivative nature of a lot of the material. The spirit of Jean Michel Jarre hangs over the proceedings like that of Baden Powell at a scouts meeting. Erik D. Huber's Calisto is perhaps the most blatant example of this with its pure Oxygene voicing and sequences. Similarly, Maximilian Schiefele's Brainstorming which opens the Roland winners tape soon moves into textbook Jarre-isms after a bit of Another Green World type dabblings. Stampa Friedman's Din-a-mix goes one further by combining lots of the "let's pretend we're on the sea-shore" noises from Oxygene with middle-period Yellow Magic Orchestra dance sequences. It would have sounded very futuristic five years ago. The same could be said of Igor Czerniawski's Poland which is not a million miles removed from Pink Floyd's Welcome To The Machine.
Nevertheless, a number of the pieces are truly excellent. Antonia Valenti's Synthetic Sequences from River Amazon is both evocative and intriguing from a compositional point of view. Although it begins with very ambient bubbles of sounds overlaid with various clanks and shrieks reminiscent of Bill Nelson's Das Kabinet album, the music gradually builds into a captivating structure of fractured rhythms - a sort of Kraftwerk-go-ethnic feel creeping in at times. However, it must be said that the Japanese entrants are the best on the whole. Soichi Terada's Kattingu Etude begins with someone apparently taking a cricket-bat to a guitar neck running into dislocated synth sequences fighting for space with sampled vocal sounds in a maelstrom of melody. Phew.
Similarly captivating is Kazuo Hashimoto's Greece 84 with its merry-go-round of ambient swirls full of depth and colour. Still, by far the best Japanese entry is Reality in a Fantasy... and I by Shigeo Ogasawara. This is a brilliant piece of music. It begins with gentle synth runs over a contemplative backdrop of ambient textures. Music to meditate to. However, just as you're about to reach satori, the music suddenly becomes very disturbing, not to say grandiose in a twisted sort of way. Should ring a bell with all you acid casualties out there. Not to be outdone by the Japanese, American Peter R. Peterson gets similarly disturbing on Alone In The Bathtub which you could describe as the place where synthesis meets psychosis.
Thus, in between all the Jarre mannerisms and the nods towards Eno, the Roland competition managed to produce some really excellent material. Along with the better efforts in the Yamaha/Granada competition, there's some encouraging signs as to the development of electronic music contained in the two tape compilations of the finalists. ES&CM readers could do a lot worse than to check these two out. The film of the Yamaha competition was shown on Granada TV's network at 6pm on Monday the third of June, and a tape of it should be available from: Mastersound, (Contact Details). The tape of the Roland competition is available from Synsound, (Contact Details) at £4.95 including p&p.