Vol. 24 Issue 1 Reviews
29th Festival International des Musiques et Créations Electroniques

Synthèse '99
29th International Festival of Electronic Music and Creation, 28 May-6 June 1999, Bourges, France

Reviewed by Larry Austin
Denton, Texas, USA

Presented each year in Bourges, France, by the Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges (IMEB), Synthèse is the oldest and most prestigious annual festival of electroacoustic music in the world. The stated aim of Synthèse, according to its directors Françoise Barrière and Christian Clozier, is "to introduce diverse artistic forms and expressions, using electronic techniques and media such as music, sound art, installations and environments, multimedia and interactive sound/image creations, video, CD-ROM art, art online…" For Synthèse '99, the International Festival of Electronic Music and Creation, held from May 28 to June 6, there were 50 presentations; 36 concerts, performances, and spectacles; 166 works by 143 composers, including 36 world premieres and 112 French premieres; and, notably, 13 works receiving repeat performances. The "Open Work Project," a series of new pieces from around the world intended to reflect on the passing of the twentieth century in sound and music, comprised 110 new works by 112 composers from 34 countries. Add to this the impressive number of works commissioned by IMEB through the years–46 commissioned composer residencies in the 1998-99 season alone–and one can appreciate the enormously significant contribution of this institution toward sustaining and nurturing the electroacoustic music genre and its acculturation around the globe.

Day One: from Reality Checks to Conquistadores!

The festival began quietly late in the afternoon of 28 May at the Théâtre Jacques Coeur (TJC), rising in intensity through four presentations to end just before midnight. The most dramatic piece was the last heard that first day–Luigi Ceccarelli's solo tape work, Tupac Amaru. It is the ultimate histrionic sound work–a sprawling, furious, polemical sonic realization of Italian poet Gianni Toti's narrative poem about the brutalities of the Spanish Conquistadores toward the sixteenth-century Incans of Peru.

The first presentation at the TJC was three half-hour video pieces with montages of human forms with narration. These included Captives, filmed dance scenes by Nicole and Norbert Corsino, Floating Bodies by Robert Cahen, and Tathata by Patrick Degeetere. Following this, the audience was invited to visit the first exhibition of installations in four rooms of the Palais Jacques Coeur (PJC). The rooms were devoted to: Sylvie Marchand's and Lionel Camburet's mixed media installation, Temps d'histoires pour Compostelle; Yuji Oshima's Room, a large, white box container with sounds and voices emanating from and moving around the five or so persons who would venture to gather inside its white walls at one time; Robert Cahen's Paysages-Passage, a line of 18 video monitors displaying simultaneous, continuously moving images seen through a train's window; and the most engaging sound/image work, Jean-Baptiste Barrière's Reality checks: Auto-portrait in Motion, where the viewer of a large animated screen is confronted with his/her own computer-interpreted visage, in sight and sound. Unreal (sic)!

After dinner, the first of two evening concerts was presented at the thirteenth-century Saint-Pierre Cathedral. In this beautifully resonant space we were treated to the quiet, acoustical vocal harmonics and harmonies of Les Voix Diphoniques, four male singers–chanters, one could say–who demonstrated their quite remarkable multiphonic harmoniousness, performing six pieces from their group-composed repertory.

The final concert of the day, back at the TJC, was the first full presentation of electroacoustic compositions, three for solo tape and three for tape-plus-instrument. Five were French premieres. One, Carlos Cerana's solo tape work, Avaricum (1999), was a world premiere and a 1998 IMEB residency commission: god-like roars and jungle sounds abound, dramatically utilizing the orchestra of loudspeakers on stage and around and above us. Dieter Kaufmann's Dialogue with Wittgenstein (1999) opened the concert as a dramatic solo tape overture, with its orchestral hammer-strokes and layerings of spoken French and German. 1997 Magistère de Bourges, Edward Kusnir (Argentina/Venezuela), presented his Trompa Peregrina (1998) for horn and tape, an amusing satire complete with orchestral timpani and even castanets, while the horn player blows his part until a voice cries out, "Quarta Sinfonia!", to abruptly and rudely end the mock "concerto." Games (1995), by Fabir Cifariello Ciardi (Italy), was, to my ears, a piece for solo tape plus double bass where the tape wins no contest. The tape was a beautifully-made montage of recorded/processed bass sounds/gestures. Fully the first quarter of the piece found the solo player standing, not playing, following the tape part on the large score pages in front of him. After the tape's cascades of electronic sounds and processed bass sounds subside, the bassist enters, trying his best to establish his musical presence. Takayuki Rai's Transfiguration (1999), for clarinet and computer processing (NeXT/ISPW), was, in contrast, beautifully integrated. The clarinet's sounds and musical gestures are imitated, harmonized, and modulated by the computer, the sonic textures thickening to the exciting dénouement. As mentioned, Mr. Ceccarelli's Tupac Amaru ended the day with a powerful climax.

Day Two: from Ich Tank to Cable Bay

The second day began with another Art Video presentation at the TJC, this one comprising an hour-long piece by David Larcher, Ich Tank, a play on the German and English words "[f]ich" and "tank" for "I tank" or "fish tank." About a man and his goldfish, incarnate in himself and his psyche, sickness, and presumed and oncoming death, it was truly amazing in concept and a virtuosic computer graphic realization.

After this, we adjourned to the first concert held at the Salle Gilles Sandier (SGS) at the Bourges Maison de Culture. For solo tape works by Hungarian composers were featured, followed by two solo tape works by Japanese composers. The contrast was striking: the Hungarian pieces uniformly made use of familiar pre-set synthesizer sounds, often presented in combination with pre-recorded instrumental music. The music does not creatively explore the solo tape medium but uses it as a recorded medium for pieces that would have been better performed live. In sharp, brilliant contrast, the Japanese composers exhibited a keen understanding of the genre, with its sonic promise and potential more than fully realized. Shintaro Imai's Resonant Quarks II (1999) shocked our ears with dissonant timbres and discontinuous/continuous textures, exploding into Xenakis-like grains of sound at times recognizable as transformed vocal sources. Shu Matsuda's Raven Oscillation (1999) was so titled not because of any bird-like metaphor but because he liked the sound of the English word, "raven." No raven ever sounded like this one! Its sustained, quiet electronic sonority was suddenly blasted away by powerfully complex granular oscillations, producing both events and complex wave-forms, rising and subsiding–ah!–like a raven in flight! Both composers are associated with the Sonology Department at Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo, where they produced their pieces on the venerable NeXT/ISPW system.

The second non-electronic concert of Synthèse 99 was also the first to take place in the open courtyard of the (PJC). The featured performer was the acclaimed cellist, Dominique De Williencourt. He performed–along with the birds singing at sunset–four works, the most adventurous one composed by the cellist himself, Jericho on l'Appel du Désert. At one point, he even seemed to be imitating the birds heard earlier from above, making use of fast harmonic glissandi and figurations. The large audience, made up primarily of amateurs and practitioners of electroacoustic music, was rapt with appreciation.

After a late dinner, we returned to the same courtyard for a late evening concert of solo tape pieces. Of the seven works presented, three were world premieres, all commissioned by IMEB and produced, in some part, through composer residencies in Bourges during the previous year. Philippe Auclair's L'anaclorète de Ste-Agathe (1999) contained beautifully-crafted episodic soundscapes. Ryszard Szeremata's Belief (1999) alternated slowly unfolding vocal sounds with FM bell sonorities, gradually broken up in free-form textures. Andrew Lewis's Cable Bay (1999) was beautifully composed and diffused with the composer at the console. Beginning with hammer-stroke FM sounds trailing off in gestural flourishes, bubbly drops of electronic water melded with an organ-like pedal. These textural combinations build, recede, build, and build again to an exciting climax, closing on a slowly dissipating major seventh chord in fourth inversion. A bird flying overhead sang its approval along with shouts of "Bravo!" from the applauding audience, grateful for this brilliant new work. Excellent works by Argentenian composers Graciella Castillo and the venerable Francisco Kropfl concluded the evening. Mr. Kropfl's Al Sur (1998), commissioned by the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in Paris, was a perfectly timed work. The composer explained that the piece is based on a ritual song of the Mapuche Indians of Argentina, their vocabulary rich in diphthong modulations and glottal attacks. "Consonants become percussion sounds, while vowels become mostly choral masses or long sounds not related at all to their vocal origins," all heard on the gloriously resounding chorus of loudspeakers in front and surrounding us.

Two more events followed at midnight in the TJC nextdoor to the Palais: Jøran Rudi's music video composition, When Timbre Falls Apart (1992-94), and the first presentation of the international Open Work Project. Mr. Rudi's superb video is well known, exploring electronic sounds in combination as they happen and have just happened in three-dimensional sounding/viewing space.

Day Three: from soundscapes to erotica

Having missed the first listening session of the Open Works Project program the late, late night before, I was anxious to redeem my reviewer's conscience to hear its second installment the next day. Mr. Auclair was the host, introducing and presenting some 15 works, ranging in length from five to seven minutes each. There was no printed program and none of the composers were present. The broad theme for these openly invited works "The world turned into music through listening to the century; a musical summing-up of the twentieth century." This set of responses to the theme yielded a montage–singly and collectively–of mixed and processed electronic and ambient music and sounds, including out-takes, brief episodes, loops, collages... In short, a century of all kinds of music, to be sure.

The next concert, carrying on from the Open Works Project at the TJC, featured invited pieces from composers representing the national federation members from Norway, Belgium, Switzerland, and Russia. The best of those I was present to hear was Annette Vande Gorne's octophonic Vox Alia II (Amoroso) (1998), a commissioned work from GRM. It is a beautifully formed, brief vocal study of the spatial mixing of sound/timbre events and their interaction, modeled on a phrase of Gregorian chant.

Listed in the program as "En préambule du concert," Ms. Barrière's Acceleration (1999) served as a gentle prelude to the evening concert in the PJC courtyard: children playing and singing in a long downward spiral of sound to collide and mix with industrial sounds, ending as a passing train disappears into the distance. Poetry. John Rimmer's Pacific Soundscapes with Dancing (1995) opened the program proper. The composer collected his sounds of the sea, cicadas, bell birds, and parrots on Little Barrier Island and sounds of volcanic bubbling on White Island, both off the coast of New Zealand's North Island. He also used native percussion groups and sounds of the Mauri flute, granulated, stretched, and mixed at Simon Fraser University using the POD program. Ocean sounds begin, exotic birds join in. Suddenly, a big comber washes away the little sounds and rhythms, culminating with giant, sonic hammer-strokes; then, quiet, modulated, patterned voices build to a lone whistler, ending this symphonically-conceived piece. Two world premiere pieces ensued: Yves Daoust's Bruits--2 mouvements (1999), and Roger Doyle's (Ireland) Mr. Foley's Final Moments (1999). Mr. Daoust's aptly titled, two-movement work is big and sprawling/brawling, with lengthy, chaotic, even catastrophic sonic flourishes subsiding to long, pregnant silences…then more, then silence again. Dramatic, indeed. Mr. Doyle's work, by contrast, was playfully electronic. Though played from a compact disc recording, all the sounds had reversed transients as if a reel-to-reel tape was being played in reverse direction. In his notes, the composer explains: "In the film industry, a Foley artist is someone who adds post-production sound such as footsteps, fists against chins, cups on saucers, etc. Foley is also an Irish surname. This piece represents a fictitious Mr. Foley's final memories as his life comes to an end." Ah…life in reverse (sic). I couldn't stay for the final pieces by Enrico Cocco (Italy) and Patrick Kosk (Finland).

The last concert of the evening took place back at the SGS of the Maison de la Culture, and featured American double-bassist Robert Black. Four of the six works on his program were commissioned by and composed expressly for Mr. Black's amplified/processed double bass, combined with tape or video: James Sellars's Radio Sonata (1982, rev. 1984), Reynold Weidenaar's Thundering Scream of the Seraphim's Delight (1987), Richard Zvonar's Massif (1993-95), and Barry Truax's theater piece, Androgyne, mon Amour (1997). My own art is self-alteration is Cage is... (1982; tape-plus version, 1993), for 16 pre-recorded basses plus one live performer, opened the program, followed by Rafael Linan's Primavera Ametra Ilada (1991), for double bass and tape. I am biased, of course, but I doubt there was a single person in the audience was not at some time moved, amused, touched, enthralled, amazed, aroused, surprised, or shocked by Mr. Black's performance and the music he programmed.

My own work began the program with a one-page "omniostic" score projected on the performer as he quietly and meditatively played along with the simultaneous iterations of his recorded performance of the score on tape. Mr. Linan's piece for bass and tape was a violent tour de force, with Mr. Black repeatedly attacking the open E-string in reaction to the fierce attacks on tape, followed by screaming glissandi echo effects. By contrast, Mr. Sellars's piece charmed with its tunes and clever electronic accompaniments. Mr. Weidenaar's double bass/video piece juxtaposed Mr. Black playing live, stage-right to close-up video montages of himself in a succession of arresting episodes exploring all the recesses above, below, and about the big instrument and the player's hands and bow. Mr. Zvonar's piece was incarnate in its title, Massif: big sounds, low, but growingly frenetic toward the exciting climax, culminating in a virtuoso improvisation by the performer. Mr. Truax's theater piece for Mr. Black was the pièce de résistance. In his notes, the composer explains:

Androgyne, mon amour incorporates a setting of six poems by Tennessee Williams from his book of the same title, as read by Douglas Huffman. The poems are intensely lyrical, intimate and erotic in a celebration of gay love that is acted out, both musically and dramatically, by the live performer interacting in a variety of conventional and unconventional ways with the instrument which is personified as his lover. Both the vocal part and various sound materials from the bass are digitally processed through resonators that model the characteristics of the open strings of the instrument, thereby linking them sonically and musically, as if each is speaking through the other.

The performer portrays the lover, his bass the beloved-possessed, while voluptuous sounds and a resonatingly processed, sensuous reading of the poem envelops the scene. Through it, Mr. Black changed costume, smoked a cigarette (after sex, of course!), played love music on/to his beloved, and ended with a final embrace. Powerful.

Day Four: the Cybernéphonic sea


Three more video works at the TJC opened the fourth day of the festival: François Vogel's zoomed-in/out snapshots of everyday life on Rue Francis; Dragana Zarevac's Ocaj-Le Deuil, a grim chronicle of death and desolation in the early 1990s in Yugoslavia; and the computer-animated, shadowy/happy lives of cats and people of Geoffrey Barbet-Massin's Domino. Following on immediately from these works was a presentation by the 1996 winner of the Musical Software Competition, Tom Erbe, who elucidated and demonstrated the features of his popular sound utility and processor, SoundHack.

Then, we quickly hiked back to the SGS at the Maison de la Culture for a concert featuring solo tape pieces from Cuba and Sweden. The best piece of the concert was presented last. Ruber Hinojosa Chapel's Scratch, aptly named for and elaborated from scratches of an old 78 rpm recording plus electronic sweeping noises that gathered hot momentum toward the climax, then subsiding, the scratchy noise fading away to silence. To my ears, the best Swedish piece was Patrick Thorell's Everything (get out of the sunshine and play), built from a hovering sound floating over a quiet drone, growing in complexity and interest.

After an enjoyable outdoor dinner we returned to the Maison de la Culture for the first concert in the grand theater, Salle Gabriel Monnet (SGM), and our first occasion to hear-see the Cybernéphone. Developed by the IMEB team led by Jean-Claude Le Duc, the Cybernéphone is a spectacular sight–an array of 58 speakers (my count) on and above the stage and at least 12 more surrounding the audience area. The massive, touch-sensitive console is installed two-thirds of the distance from the back of the hall to the front of the stage. (See Fig. 1) To the aural delight of all, "sweet spots" were abundant, depending on the piece heard and the aesthetic disposition of the performing composer. Like the great thirteenth-century Gothic cathedral close by, the Cybernéphone is surely a twenty-first-century counterpart–a "cathedral" of sound diffusion, so important to the characteristic style Bourges of electroacoustic music. Throughout this concert, I was spellbound by the immensity, the subtlety, and the sonic potential of this new instrument, not yet fully explored I suspect (though its progenitor, the Gmebaphone, has been through six prototypical incarnations since its first appearance in 1973).

All eight world premiere pieces were imaginative sonic realizations of the specified sea theme–La Mer, Le Flux. Three works were especially engaging: François Giraudon's exquisitely brief, Esquisse Maritime (1998), with its luxuriant mix of water sounds, sirens, and deep ferry horns; Francis Dhomont's Je te salue, vieil océan (1999), with its great rushes and sweeps of sound, its poetic setting of the narrative voice crossed with splashing water; and Justice Olsson's La mer, or, as he explained before the piece was performed, "the sea dream," an allusion to his inclusion of samples of his wife's nightly snoring episodes. I listened for the snoring, as surely everyone did, but meanwhile, I enjoyed the sea as a filtered harmonic continuum interspersed with attractive, Lansky-esque rhythmic vocal patternings. A bit of snoring–crossed with sea and other sounds–did indeed ensue, adding an amusing layer of lightness to the rich textures. The opening chordal sonority returned to close a beautiful piece.

The late-night event took place at the TJC: Sten Hanson's intermedia work for video, audio, and dancer Annette Henriksson, Four Women (1997)–The Dreamer, The Desperate, Nausikas, and The Mourner. Short, ironic video interludes included Rise and Shine and Summer Sisyphus I and II, all three featuring the same dancer, portraying the daily drudgery of rising to a new day. The four solo dances were illustrative of their themes of despair, accompanied in The Dreamer by beautifully-sustained electronic sonorities, the movements slow and contained. In The Desperate, a half-nude woman scolds her reflection in the mirror with utterances from the tape–"I ought to have my face lifted," "I ought to get a breast implant," I ought to lose weight," etc.–coupled with a patterned frenzy of voices on tape. Slow, sensuous movements for Nausika were accompanied by a recorded flute with a mournful tune and a sustained chord progression. Finally, The Mourner, dressed in black, entered and stooped, slowly moving to center stage accompanied by intertwining glissandi of electronic sounds. As a postlude to the dance piece, Mr. Hanson played his short tape piece, La lutte du siècle, his contribution to the Open Work Project. This piece is an ironic mix of patriotic singing and machine gun fire, true to his long-held anti-war sentiments.

Day Five: from a surprise aperitif to a delicious dessert

Dehors (outside/out)–Dedans (inside/in) was the apt title of the fifth Art Video program at the TJC, curated by Ermeline Le Mézo, a retrospective of select videos from 1979 to 1996. The thrust was minimalist in all eight pieces in both sight and sound. Half of the works were by American video artists, the rest by Europeans. To my ears/eyes the most engaging was Tango (1980), by Zbigniev Rybscinski (Poland). Here, all the ages of life, all the events which form the everyday ordinary and extraordinary are superposed in one room of a house, gathering first one, then another and another character to least a dozen, who then disappear one by one until only the room remains. The audience was rapt. Following in the same venue was a demonstration by the 1997 winner of the Music Software competition, Philippe Montemont, of his CDRégie, a system for sound retrieval and live applications, especially in theatrical/musical productions.

The apéritif concert was in the SGM, and featured two composers from Spain followed by four from Argentina. All the pieces had strong, original sonic profiles. While all were presented in solo tape performances, Juan Figueiras's Piano Santo, for piano and tape, was a recording of a live performance. Another work, Miguel Calzon's Insectos, was listed as a tape piece but sounded very much like a synthetic version of an instrumental work, modeling its timbres and gestures on acoustical wind, string, and keyboard instruments. In contrast, the models for Oriol Graus's Anima and Jep Nuix's His Master's Voice were purely electronic: Mr. Graus's gently modulated sine-tone traces and Mr. Nuix's complex wave-forms in tonality-based sonorities, both beautiful to hear. The collaborative Argentinian work by Carlos Sacanel and Pablo Genoud, Urbre, and Raoul Minsburg's Dias despues were, on the other hand, created in the best acousmatique tradition, in technique and substance.

After dinner, our dessert was a "soirée des concours de Bourges 1998 et 1999" at the TJC, where the formal announcement of the winners of the 1999 Bourges Competition was made, and the pieces of the 1998 winners were heard. As a preamble, past winner Robert Normandeau's new work for the Open Works Project, Clair de Terre (1999), was diffused by the composer himself, with a promise that this was a preview of a larger work-in-progress. This earth-inspired piece set the sonic benchmark for compositional excellence for the winners to follow, subsequently announced by Ms Barrière, of IMEB, and Sten Hanson, chair of the jury.

Excellence, indeed. 1998 winner Natasha Barrett (UK/Norway) was present to diffuse her Little Animals (1997), for solo tape. It is not a little piece; rather, it's an extended work with big swooping sounds and little, soothing coos, well-formed and rich in moment-to-moment detail. Jonas Bromberg's Conversation in Cadaques (1996) begins with huge thumps and noises, then continues with lush chords and voices in montage. Jose Manrique's Voz oculta explores a combination of water sounds with fascinating cross-rhythmic patterns. Emmanuele Casale's Studio, for horn and tape, was heard in a recorded performance, an excellent and amusing work, what we Americans would describe as "funky," with its horn blurts and metal banging, a set of short, funny, but beautifully integrated pieces. The final work was Paul Koonce's Walkabout (1998), for solo tape. It, too, is funny, even cartoon-like, with diverse auto horns honking, then mutating all over the "walkabout" space. A technical tour de force, it does, indeed, meander through every conceivable sound effect one could possibly encounter on such a long walk through Mr. Koonce's studio fancies.

Day Six: from cowboy flicks to eye/ear-banging

The fifth Video Art event was once more curated by Ms. Le Mézo. Her theme this time was "Litanies," concentrating on works using narrative/poetic voice-overs with sentiments to express and to form continuity. Again, the chosen video works were as old as 1980 and as new as 1998. Francisco Ruiz de Infante's Le jugement (1991) was beautifully filmed and composed, poetically narrated and musically well done. Bill Seaman's S.He (1983), pronounced "she," was paradoxical in every way: American scenes of industrial pollution versus a gentle chant with organum, combined with a litany of "S.He" is this and that–a building, afraid, warm, cool, confused. The remaining works were similar in style and substance, though not as well made.

The apéritif concert which followed was devoted to works by three composers each from Columbia and the Czech Republic. Almost without exception, the works were recorded live performances, variously of tape/synthesizer-plus-instrument(s), live-electronics, or live synthesizer solo. For this reviewer, the missing live-performance component of such works weakens the experience, leaving us to imagine just what was happening in the live interaction of any one piece. For the most part, the electroacoustic parts in these pieces seemed ancilliary.

As préambule to the evening concert in the grand SGM, Nicola Sani (Italy) diffused his piece Open Works Project, reflective of the passing twentieth century. Mr. Sani chose sounds and symbols of the very day he was born, concatenating the date in French to form the title, Vingtseptmarsmilleneufeentsoixanteun (1999)–radio transmissions from Gregarin's space flight around the earth, John F. Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, popular tunes of the day, etc. Great fun, especially for those of us who were 30 years old at the time and immersed in such cultural phenomena.

In the program proper, seven of the eight solo tape pieces were world premieres and all were recent IMEB commissions. Several of the composers were present to diffuse their works on the Cybernéphone. Earlier that day, they had received a hands-on tutorial on the operation of the console controller. François Giraudon's Suite en forme de bulles (1998) was first. His "bubbles" were rich electronic flourishes, long lines, hammer-stroke interruptions, locomotives, voices, traffic, and so on, each one appearing and just as suddenly bursting to reveal another. Montreal composer Marc Tremblay (Canada) was not present to diffuse his Cowboy Fiction, which for western fans was a rêverie par excellence: John Wayne drawling, "You speak pretty good American for a Commanche;" granules of Spanish/cowboy guitar music; howling wind on the open prairie; a granulated gun fight; lonely locomotive whistles; a bar fight; and, finally, "They shot him!" as the whistle wails and trails off into the distance. A purdy good piece there, podnah! Rainer Boesch (Switzerland) was present to diffuse his dreamlike Espaces V (1999), which ranged from oscillating electronic patterns to the sounds of an old harmonium to fragmented, frantic vocal sounds. Jose Manuel Berenguer's work, Dur (1999), was heard next, a rich, crackling soundworld. Cathy Lane (UK) then diffused her extended, multi-sonic Hidden Lives (1999), beginning simply with city walking sounds, broken up by incisive hammer-strokes, evolving to a texture of the many sounds–as the composer puts it in her notes–"of the house as the repository of memories," especially women's utterances. It was an impressive demonstration of diverse compositional applications of granular synthesis. Patrick Ascione's Boléro Picasso (1999) explores rich, sonorous harmonies, lines, and pulsating rhythms, a Ravelean fantasy. Erik Michael Karlsson's Réponse/Reposante (1999) dreamily and abstractly ended the concert with lush, restful sonorities.

The late night concert that followed downstairs in the SGS featured the collaborative video/music/multimedia team from Canada, composer Alain Thibault and video graphics artist Yan Breleux, in a performance of their piece, A-Live (1997-98). This is a great piece! Ear-banging sounds and eye-banging geometric images, morphing pulsating patterns in and out of sync. It makes you want to dance–let's party!

Day Seven: from Ssaufhapt to gigantic flutes to Hooghly

This day began at noon with a reception given by the Mayor of Bourges to welcome the guest composers, performers, and international practitioners of electroacoustic music. The city of Bourges is a generous sponsor and supporter of the arts, and of IMEB and Synthèse in particular. That afternoon, the International Academy of Electroacoustic Music at Bourges met for the first of its three sessions, featuring papers given by the select members, all of them distinguished practitioners from around the world.

The early evening concert in the SMB was a curated concert of music of composers from Bulgaria, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Ireland. The two New Zealand works stood out. John Cousins, in his notes, explains his unpronounceable title, Ssaufhapt, as an antique phrase which declares, "To probe a hole, first use a straight stick," a process "central not only when we respond to an art object but also when we attempt to fabricate one." The composer’s measured restraint with the delicate materials of his piece was characteristic: a lone, slightly quivering electronic sound hovers briefly, followed by a long silence; other tones follow, filling out a wider spectrum, alternating; vocal sonorities are introduced to the texture; then another pause. And so it went. Poetry. With its sudden opening flourish of bell-like sounds, Chris Cree-Brown's Iron Pebbles and Gold Dust was in sonic relief to that of his compatriot. Bell timbres–iron pebbles?–with vocal formants created fascinating effects, followed by a busy granular texture. Sudden events and swiftly moving flurries of sounds grow, then subside to elongated FM-like sounds, bells stretched in time.

The main evening concert at the TJC featured German flutist, Beate-Gabriela Schmitt. The first half, however, was devoted to solo tape pieces, two listed as world premieres. Daniel Arfib's Fragments Complet, a non-sequitur by title, was not so in performance. The "fragments" comprised complete linear predictive coding-derived vocal sounds, an aria with accompaniment, flurries of granulated sounds, monotonic male voices, wiggly electronic tunes, bubbling water, a chant-like solo voice, diverse zaps, and so on. Later, the exposed fragments return in a different ordering and combination, quite complet. German Toro Perez's Puntos, Lineas followed, its title being true to its substance: gentle electronic sounds and chords, flute-like flurries, bird-like flutterings, wind chime-like sounds, all combined, the chords returning as a German speaking voice enters, a piano passage, a woman speaking, a clock ticking…

For the second half, Ms. Schmitt presented six pieces for a diverse family of flutes, two of which most of us had neither seen nor heard before. The sub-contrabass flute stands about eleven feet high, with the huge headjoint and mouthpiece jutting out at head height, while the smaller–at about nine feet–contrabass flute, also has the headjoint at standing height. There were also two more conventional instruments, the C flute and the bass flute, and one more unusual flute, the regular flute tuned to Eb, a third higher. Each member of Ms. Schmitt's family of flutes was equipped with a headjoint microphone, used for amplification in all of the pieces and for computer-controlled signal processing. Of the six pieces played, two–the first and last–were for flute or bass flute and tape, while the middle four were for a variety of flutes processed by a variety of effects (using MSP). This formidable technical setup was handled efficiently by Ms. Schmitt's technician, Thomas Selig (Germany).

The opening piece was Horacio Vaggione's Scir (1987-88), for bass flute and tape. The composer diffused the piece and, I learned later, was frustrated by a technical feedback problem. Nevertheless, the piece is an amazing onslaught of flute sounds cascading over and around us, ebbing and flowing in density. Well into the piece, the texture thinned to reveal the performer humming through her flute–a wonderful moment. She then blew air without pitch through the instrument, joined by a windy chorus of breathy grains and flute harmonics to the end. A signature Vaggione piece. I loved it. Mr. Sani's Dove volano le nuvole piu vaste (1996-99) is for contrabass and effects processing. A big, organ-like sound emerges with a sustained low tone via electronic elongation, an effective technique since Ms. Schmitt could play a sustained tone only a few seconds at a time through the giant instrument. This generates a texture of thick, airy sonorities in continuous delay and looping, which then transcends to a complex, ring-modulated series of sounds. A big piece for a huge instrument! Mr. Selig, also a composer, was represented by his amusing Loops and Grooves, for contrabass flute and computer processing. This piece explores a lighter side of the massive instrument. Built from key pops in imitative, catchy rhythms, a harmonizer passage, and some jazz-like riffs, Ms. Schmitt essentially accompanies herself live. Mr. Sani's second piece, I Binari del Tempo (1998), the last on the program, is for flute and tape, with digital reverberation added for the flute. Distant sounds, like the Japanese shakuhachi, glissandi, and bird-like figures, create an impressionistic soundscape.

The late night concert took us to the SGS at the Maison de la Culture to hear/see a single work, Jean Piché's psNi intiyA (1996-98), a fascinating 42-minute video and music composition. It is brilliantly conceived, created, and composed, and was, for me, the best piece presented at the festival to that point. A video/sound odyssey of the composer’s journey to southern India in 1994, the work is in four sections comprising seven titled segments, forming a kind of wedge form, with the first section, Rail, lasting longest…but swiftly! The segments following are about different places, things, and phenomena: viLi aparatAm (prayers of atonement); Perumal (a flat top mountain in the western Ghat range in South India), with its sub-sections Dolmens (stone statues from a prehistoric site in the Palni Hills), Arcotia (the name of the cottage Mr. Piché and his family lived in in Kodaikanal), and Munjikal (the Sunday market area); and, the fourth and shortest section, Hooghly (the river that traverses Calcutta in Bengal). The train-ride sounds and images of Rail "rail" at the listener/viewer with eye/ear-shattering intensity: superposed, continuously changing camera shots directly out the train window of the unquiet rail-scape and rail-sounds going by right next to the track, all brightly colored. After our relentless ride of, say, ten minutes, there is suddenly the visual/aural quiet of a countryside scene, with a tree seen in the mist. After ten or so seconds, the mad train ride resumes, to end minutes later. The music of the train's sounds were enhanced and transformed by the composer into an unrelenting, absorbing counter-rhythmic, moving wall of sound. The remaining five sections all contrast vividly with one another, but one unifying theme runs throughout–the energy of life itself, its color and intensity. The piece ends with the corollary of the opening section, atmospheric, misty sound and coloration. A great piece to experience, but too short… I wanted more!

Day Eight: from a mother's song to a stormy sea

The next afternoon’s Video Art session presented two as yet not shown videos. Magic in the Air, by Joan Leandre and Toni Serra, is, for someone of my generation, a nostalgic black and white reverie of the first years of television and the films of the 1940s and 1950s, juxtaposed linearly in ironic combination, coupled with menacing, unrelated sounds. Jose Manuel Palmiero's Chaos, true to its title, is a noisy collection of out-takes, where television looks at its navel. No benchmark work here.

The early evening concert in the TJC presented eight pieces, four from Italian composers and four from the USA. Each set programmed three solo tape pieces and one tape-plus-instruments recording. My favorite piece of the concert was Michelangelo Lupone's Canto de Madre (1998), commissioned by Radio Vaticana on a Marian theme. The best American piece was Scott Wyatt's Private Play (1997). I even found aesthetic and meditational concurrences between the two works. Both are personal, like the solo tape genre itself–a sonic poem to one's self. In his notes for the piece, Mr. Lupone writes: "Tolerance, suffering, forgiveness, hope are the themes that in different cultures recur in the acknowledgment of the roles... of a mother's real life; the wide sense of these themes has suggested and stimulated... meditation and the interlacing among the parts of the piece." Mr. Wyatt, in the notes for his piece, sub-scripts his "composition for tape"–originally octophonic but here performed in its stereo version–as being "designed as a gestural soundscape with absence of harmful intent, with free and unimpeded motion, yet not generally known." Song, sound-poem, both beautifully realized.

The evening concert in the black-box SGS featured Italian guitarist, Elena Casoli, playing three works by her countrymen. I especially enjoyed Giacento Scelsi's Ko-tha and Sylvano Bussotti's Ultima R.A.R.A. Both composers are legendary experimental composers, of course. Seated on a carpet, cross-legged, with a guitar fingerboard resting on each leg and with the strings in scordatura tunings of perfect fourths and fifths, Ms. Casoli strummed both guitars' open strings with both hands in a quiet, opening ritual, performing Ko-tha. Soon, the strumming evolves to drumming on the guitar bodies, evoking multi-colored, resonating sounds, growing in intensity, then subsiding to the quiet strumming to end. Mr. Bussotti's ever-theatrical piece includes taped and live vocal exchanges, while the guitarist performs the fascinating, amplified intricacies of the graphic score. Delicioso!

The balance of the solo tape pieces commissioned on a sea theme were programmed on the late evening concert upstairs in the SGM, with all but one of the seven composers present to diffuse their new work on the Cybernéphone. I seated myself just behind the console controller and could both hear and see the sonic manipulations as they happened. I noticed that Mr. Clozier referred to a diffusion score from time to time as he expertly performed his octophonic composition, De la grève au loin (1999). The sounds are well placed, as we hear children playing, a motor scooter whizzing by, the combers crashing, a barking dog... a sunny soundscape in the virtual beach of the diffusion space.

Mr. Hanson's poetic offering, La mer d'Ulysse (1998), has quietly bubbling water sounds, then introduces a solo soprano voice singing a faraway, wordless melody. The surf pounds, then the soprano continues, joined in turn by male voices and the interplay of these elements, before the sounds return to the quiet of the beginning, then drift away. A dream.

George Katzer's Le paysage de Vineta (1998) is indeed an imagined underwater seascape. It opens with electronic sounds joined by breakers which are soon filtered into pitched strata then combined with phase-vocoded voices, gulls, and droplets. Playful water sounds carry on to the sudden entrance of a single church bell in the distance. A passage which seems to be from Claude Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie is heard, the surf returns, and the piece ends. "La mer est calme."

Elzbieta Sikora was not present to diffuse her work, Aquamarina (1999), for which she had just been awarded the prestigious 1999 Magistère de Bourges prize. An opening massive chord splashes electronic droplets from the breakers. Modulated, filtered voices with quick surges of energy in the rich texture take over until suddenly, louder, thicker, more complex sonorities enter with abrupt shifts and thrusts. Male voices form a thick cluster of sound, broken up by the massive chordal blows of–what?–an orchestra? Now, away. This is a great, diverse, surprising, beautiful piece by Magistère Sikora!

Inspired by Petrarch's poem, Canzoniere, Gerald Bennett's Vêpres Vénitiennes (1999) begins with low, throbbing sounds joined by chordal voices and instrument-like timbres. A single, deep, church bell, invoking Venice's San Marco Cathedral, resounds, completing a wonderfully-realized opening section. A solo voice enters, a ticking clock, sizzling metal sounds, very high... This is a quietly dramatic piece full of symbolism in a classic poetic form.

A dissonant, metallic comber breaks suddenly over us–Mr. Vaggione's Prélude Suspendu (1999). Harsh, arpeggiated timbral dissonances with high, bird-like sounds hovering above, as the breakers continue. The gulls' calls punctuate the stormy sea of synthetic granules, a prelude, suspended until the next wave breaks.

Ms. Barrière's S'y sont baignés (1999), for solo tape and video, reveals a quietly beautiful reverie of sounds and distant sights of the seashore from a promontory above, a poetic collage of sea sounds and sights to end the day.

Day Nine: from Still Blue to Elementa

The penultimate day of Synthèse 1999, in the ultimate year of the twentieth century, continued with more international open works being heard for an hour in the TJC, followed by two more art videos, then a demonstration of the music software laureates of the 1999 Bourges Competition. Indeed, time and the times were the afternoon's essence. Counting consumed the first art video of the afternoon, Gilles Charalambos's 00:05:23:27, a light/dark, always-changing, rhythmic scene, amusing, sad, and always counting time. Still Blue, by Alessandro Cipriani (Italy), followed. Beautiful vocal sounds, underpinned with a constant undertone, evolved into a simple melody, and our eyes began to see forms of sea life in the hazy blue, underwater scene. Now, a man's body is seen floating–gone. A voice grieves "the death of David". A beautiful memorial.

The early evening TJC concert of works from diverse countries included two pieces by one composer from Mexico and four works from Brazilian composers. One Brazilian piece, the shortest, excelled: Rodrigo Cicchelli Velloso's Ebosco de Thétis. A voice is heard declaiming in German followed by an electronic interlude of FM bells, beautifully cross-synthesized with voices. Also relatively brief were two pieces by Mexican composer, Javier Alvarez. Overture sounds like a mariachi band gone mad, suddenly melting into choruses of auto horns–a scene and sound one can actually experience in Mexico City, as I recall. The second, Mambo à la Braque, was, in turn, a mambo band gone Cubist. With granular synthesis treating large chunks of saxophones, brass, and bongos, I can imagine trying to dance to this frenetic mambo band, starting/stopping eternally. HA!

The evening concert at the SGM was dedicated to the music of two distinguished pioneers of electroacoustic and computer music, Wlodzimierz Kotonski (Poland) and Jean-Claude Risset (France), co-winners of the 1998 Magistère de Bourges distinction. Ms. Barrière introduced the honored composers, present to perform their works that evening on the Cybernéphone. She extolled their achievements as composers and innovators and their profound influence on the art-form over the past four decades in Europe and around the world.

Beginning in 1958, Mr. Kotonski collaborated with the Polish Radio Experimental Studio to create the first electroacoustic musical composition in Poland, Study On A Single Cymbal Stroke (1959), as well as several other pieces. The composer selected four tape pieces to perform from his impressive oeuvre: Microstructures (1963), Aela (1969-70), Antiphonae (no date), and Tierra Caliente (1992, rev. 1997). The earlier works were created using classic analog studio techniques. Microstructures begins with distant, fragmented, percussive sounds, reiterated in echo. White noise breathes on us, and increasingly complex waveforms and gestures add tensions that are finally resolved. In his Aela, "the play of aleatoric structures on a single harmonic complex," very high sine tones quietly gather, modulating in patterns and clusters in dialogue. A drone enters, masking the accumulation; flashes of noise erupt with throbbing low sounds. All are electronically generated but without onset ramps to smooth their attacks. This is a well-formed piece using technology of an earlier period. The title of Antiphonae referred me to the antiphon of early church liturgy rather than to antiphonal sound per se (no notes were provided). Voices enter for a chorus of declarative statements, but without text. Then come patterned sequences of sampled vocal sounds played on a sampler keyboard, chanting combined with organum-like voices. The rich harmonies are marred by synthesis distortion, however. Mr. Kotonski's final piece was his most recent, Tierra Caliente, opening with a great flurry of sounds whizzing past. Vocal harmonies follow, adding bird sounds, growing to the end. In his notes, the composer elaborates:

The material is based entirely on sounds from nature: whistling of the wind, chirping of crickets, croaking of frogs, the voices of birds (and not only their song), the voices of other living beings, including the thunder of falling stones and even a volcano erupting. The material was submitted to many transformations and overdubbings to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable as such, and yet leaves no doubt as to its origins.

Mr. Risset chose two recent solo tape pieces for his half of the concert: Invisible (1994-96), the solo tape version (there are two others) mixed with the voice of Irene Jarski, commissioned by the Groupe de Musique Experimentale, and Elementa (1998), commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture for the fiftieth anniversary of musique concrète last year.

For me, Invisible is a virtual soundscape, evoking a new impressionism. In his notes, the composer describes it thus: "Many of the sounds which dialogue with the voice do not come… from a physical world that can be seen and touched. Sonic transformations bring the voice into fictitious, virtual acoustics, which is not the audible trace of mechanical vibrations in a material world. Wind and women's voices sound over a low drone, then are transformed. Then there is spoken text–a synthetic chanting voice, very sensual. A texture slowly forms–rain. "The sound of water," spoken, then a signature arpeggio. "Why am I starting to journey home?" Next, textless vocalizing in imitation with rich FM sounds, a live and harmonized voice, sliding up. More voices, and celesta-type timbres for an interlude, followed by the solo voice with light accompaniment. Another signature, an endless rising glissando, with the voice singing through. The bells return with a low drone. Finally, a very high, very low final chord with voice, alternating to silence. Profound impressionism, decidedly.

Elementa, composed for four-track tape, is in four continuous sections entitled Aqua, Focus, Aer, and Terra, metaphorically corresponding to the four states of matter: liquid, ionized, gaseous, and solid. The program notes were only posted on the IMEB website, and so, as I did not see them until afterward, much of my impression of Elementa came from listening alone. Mr. Risset has, however, written poetic descriptions for each section, which I have quoted from here, along with my own listening notes.

"Aqua. Our primal liquid medium–evoked by the water and also by the fluidity of melted materials: inharmonic textures that will be solidified into bell-like tones in the fourth section. Water drips, flows, laps, breaks–brook, torrent, river, cataract, all going down to the sea." Piano-like arpeggios with celesta-like water lapping and trickling, then turning into FM bells, rushing. Birds, then a delicate interplay of waters with a great breaker. This is quite a long, dramatic section. Small strands of other sounds emerge, peeking through. Ahhh… a chord?

"Focus. Fire is ambivalent: warm and terrifying, crackling, quick, blazing, consuming and destructive. Atomized sounds, always moving. The wind sets fire in bushes. The crackling excites resonant filters at its own rhythm. The fire grows and seems to flood the flaming vocalizations. At the end, the fire rotates in the direction of the stars--celestial fire balls." Voices and a string-like tremolo begin… but then, a crackling fire all about us. The fire spreads; the string sounds intrude. The fire is intense, but then recedes. The high voice returns in several places; there are birds.

"Aer. The slaps of the flute are echoed by aeolian puffs in reeds, overblowing into pipes, the air which both sustains and vibrates, set into motion by insect wings or nozzles. At the end, a round of the seven winds." This movement begins with overblowing flute and wind sounds. Then, a buzzing fly, with an interjection from a steamboat whistle sound. Sine tone glissandi take over more and more, turning into a powerful wailing of the wind. This soundscape heightens my visual acuity!

"Terra evokes our vital sphere, with the mineral, vegetal and animal order. The solid state of matter is illustrated through its different forms of vibration: rolling, friction, percussion, creaking, plucking, explosion… After a long expectancy and a passacaglia of pebbles, everything is rocked: in an avalanche, even earth and stones flow." There are cicadas, very regular–are they synthetic? Is that a woodpecker? A third and fourth sound are added, then the sound of a piano harp being strummed. Breaking, crackling sounds from earlier are heard; sounds accumulate and are sustained. Big, little bells return, and thunder from the front and the back. The storm gathers with wood sounds adding punctuation. More angry sounds are passed from loudspeaker to loudspeaker. A storm of everything breaks forth, then suddenly recedes.

For me, Elementa was literally the last and certainly the greatest piece of the festival (I could not stay for the final day's events, unfortunately). It is a masterful piece by Jean-Claude Risset, Magistère de Bourges, in fact and art, bringing great honor to the title bestowed.


The world of electronic sound/sight artists, whose "musiques et créations électroniques" have been celebrated each spring at the Bourges Synthèse festival for almost a third of a century, owes and pays homage to its founders and artistic directors, Françoise Barrière and Christian Clozier. The electroacoustic genre, itself, is nurtured, sustained, and enriched by the International Electroacoustic Music and Music Software Competition, organized each year by IMEB. These grand accomplishments of IMEB are summed up in the editorial statement of purpose for the festival by its directors:

The Festival is unique in giving pre-eminence to electroacoustic music among the electronic arts, reminding us that during this century, and especially since 1948, this music has pioneered evolutions in the fields of sound and music that have radically transformed our aesthetic outlook by opening our musical sensibilities toward other horizons… Thanks to the technological and musical research led by teams in the different institutions, a completely renewed and functional instrumentation has been born, which has altered the outlook on both creating and listening. Thanks to its dissemination by means of concerts and education, this music has had a determining influence in the confirmation of sound as a vital element of society.