|Vol. 24 Issue 2 Reviews||Reviews > Events >|
|1999 International Computer Music Conference|
22-28 October 1999, Beijing, China
Reviewed by John P. Young & Margaret
ICMC '99 was held in Beijing, China, a bustling city with its feet in the 15th century while reaching toward the 21st. Scant weeks before the ICMC, Beijing had finished a "refurbishing" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic, so the city was in fine form to receive the computer music delegation. Even though it was sometimes hard to tell just by looking around, China still considers itself a developing nation (the first to host an ICMC). This occasion presented an unparalleled opportunity to showcase computer music to an audience unfamiliar with the medium. Apparently a large media contingent covered ICMC '99, including China Central Television (CCTV), China Education Television (CETV), and Beijing Television (BTV), which produced documentaries in addition to live broadcasts. China National Radio and Beijing Radio played music and interviews. Newspapers published articles, and periodicals such as TIME (Asia edition), Cosmopolitan (China edition), China Daily, China Youth Daily, Beijing Youth Daily, Music Weekly, and others contributed to focusing attention on the ICMC and computer music, with a potential audience in the tens of millions.
There were likewise many complications associated with holding the conference in a country still "under construction." People in the West tend to take infrastructure for grantedlittle things like dependable electricity, a drinkable water supply (and public restrooms with flush toilets). Luckily, while technical difficulties did occur, they did not predominate events. As far as we know, no delegates had any problems convincing customs officials of their harmlessness. Unfortunately, we found out later that the single commissioned installationCross-Talkwas delayed because of customs issues, so wasn't active until nearly the end of the conference.
Beijing is a city full of interesting sights and wonderful food. Most delegates took at least one day off from the conference to go sightseeing; who could resist the lure of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, or the Temple of Heaven? From our first meal in China to the last, dining was an adventure. The handful of delegates who spoke Mandarin found themselves in high demand as dinner companions. One night without such assistance, we found ourselves confronted with a smiling waiter holding a netted live fish in one hand and two blinking frogs in the other! Sadly, we missed the official ICMC banquet, but surely the legend of the camel paws will be told in computer music circles for generations to come.
Most delegates stayed at the Beijing Friendship Hotel, an impressive multi- building complex 15-45 minutes away from the university depending on traffic. The Friendship housed several restaurants, two bars, a few little shops, and a business center with an agonizingly slow Internet connection and Microsoft Word in Chinese! There was a paid lunch plan at the University, but we chose to fend for ourselves. On the last day, we broke down and ate with everyone else on campus and it was a congenial atmosphere, conducive to meeting new people and renewing old friendships. While all of the papers can be read in the proceedings, and much of the music appreciated just as well on disc, there really is no substitute for the camaraderie of swapping stories with grizzled veterans and young punks alike, feeling the sense of community, of involvement, of collectively shaping the future of music.
Before we get into the concerts and presentations, we thought we would try to convey the flavor of a typical day, in travelogue form.
Well, you get the idea. All kidding aside, we have attended birthday parties that had more serious problems than this ICMC. Full credit should be given to Josef Fung for the extraordinary feat of stepping in as Conference Chair relatively late in the planning process. The original Conference Chair, Professor Gong Zhenxiong, from the Department of Physics at Peking University, initially presented a hosting proposal in 1997, which the ICMA Board accepted. In November of that year, he traveled to Japan in order to raise funds and open a dialogue with the many music-oriented corporations there. While in Tokyo, he fell seriously ill, to the point where he could not continue as Conference Chair, and Peking University felt it had no alternative but to withdraw from the project. This occurred in April 1998. Josef Fung was by then aware of the situation, and soon after decided he was willing to take it on. So, first we should thank Professor Gong Zhenxiong for initiating the process and turning our eyes towards Beijing, and wish him well on his way to recovery. Sadly, he was not able to attend the ICMC he originated. Secondly, we should all thank Josef Fung and his wife Chang Yan, for taking up the yoke and carrying ICMC '99 through to completion. Without their selflessness and stamina, there may have been no ICMC at all this year. If even half of the media exposure surrounding ICMC '99 hit its mark, the worldwide audience for computer music could well have doubled, and this year could become known as a watershed moment in our field. Regardless, it is certain that ICMC '99 will hold a special place in all our collective memories.
We hope we have given you a sense of the surroundings at ICMC '99the simultaneous culture shock and delight made up a significant part of the conference experience. But to move on to the relative familiarity of the computer music world, things for the most part were business as usual.
It was wonderful to see so much local interest in the ICMC. Television cameras were evident at all of the evening concerts, broadcasting computer music to over a million viewers and listeners. The dance concert, the only performance that wasn't free to the public, completely sold out and people were actually scalping tickets on the street. This is definitely a situation future conference organizers should aspire to (though perhaps not the scalping). Most days followed the same format of a tape concert at 1:00 PM and a themed concert at 8:00 PM. Themes included featured composers of instruments, dance, and multimedia. Unfortunately, the afternoon concerts were not well-attended by delegates, in part because it was almost impossible to hear the late-morning paper session, eat lunch, and get to the afternoon concert on time. On the second day the schedule was even more hectic with an extra concert at 5:00 PM featuring guitarist Norio Sato.
There were far fewer technical difficulties than most people expected. Only two of the interactive pieces at the conference had to be presented in tape form. Ms. Andrea Beckham danced to a video and tape of Russell Pinkston's lovely piece All Round Me because the interactive dance floor and video tracking system were too difficult to ship. Ms. Ye Sung Lee's piece, Der Wanderer, was also played on tape because it proved impossible to obtain a MIDI grand piano. Judith Shatin's interactive flute work, Kairos, suffered a few technical problems, but was moving despite some unwanted distortion. Luckily, her piece was selected for the official conference CD so we can hear how an ideal performance might have sounded. Interactive pieces continue to be the most challenging to perform and produce, so itŐs gratifying to see that both of next year's ICMA- commissioned works will involve interactive elements.
We were dismayed that three of the live instrument and tape pieces were presented by playing recordings of live performances. The pieces were not nearly as effective as they could have been; the intimacy of the performer and his or her instrument combining with the tape was lost. Should pieces be pulled from the program if they can't be performed properly? Whose decision should it be? Many other composers were concerned at this turn of events but no one had a definitive solution.
The most significant criticism with the concerts concerned general organization. Most had at least one order change, but they were not written anywhere and were only announced (none too loudly) at the beginning. This was a particular problem with the afternoon tape concerts because there were no visual cues to help the audience distinguish between pieces, most composers were absent so we couldn't peek to see who was running the console, and of course the program notes often bear only remotely on the music. Would it have been so terrible to announce the composer and name of the work before each piece, or at the very least post a revised program in the lobby for reference? Even so, by far the worst snafu happened the night of the dance concert. On every printed schedule we had been given, the event was listed as starting at 8:00 PM, but when we arrived on time, the concert had actually begun 45 minutes earlier. Ironically, we had received our tickets the very first day of the conference and on the back was stamped "715," but somehow no one made the connection and there was never any mention made of the time-change. The concert itself was amazing and everyone who came late was sorely disappointed they had helplessly missed the entire first half. Not only that, but we had also defaulted our assigned seats, so we all had to watch from the very back of the upper level balcony, barely able to see the stage.
The Beijing Modern Dance Company did an incredible job choreographing and dancing to computer music. Josef Fung and Vincent Gagnon's work, Blood, was especially effective, with at least twenty-five dancers in red bodysuits rolling, crawling, and propelling themselves fluidly across the stage. The choreography itself almost seemed granular, with the dancers demonstrating independently general tendencies, but no specific interrelation until at one point they converged to form a beating heart. Other imaginative choreography included a trio with a man, woman, and newspaper, and extra dancers that appeared for only seconds each within a ten-minute piece. While the use of the fog machine was a bit excessive, the performance was consistently engaging, both visually and aurally. We've heard it said that for dance, the best the music can hope for is to "not get in the way." In this concert, the music rose well above that standard, embracing, enhancing, and intensifying the choreography. But to be fair, the night truly belonged to the dancers, who were nothing short of stunning throughout.
The only other concert that came close to matching the visual magnificence of the dance spectacle was the final night's multimedia concert. Joseph "Butch" Rovan's Continuities I was a triumph of combining art and technology. Mr. Rovan used a stylish, cyber-looking glove controller to trigger samples of a short poem by Archie R. Ammons. While some concert-goers were disturbed by the blatant appearance of the glove, we enjoyed the contrast of a stark technological device producing rich musical textures. The six "scenes" of the piece were each internally cohesive, and the entire work took the audience on a journey from the concrete to the abstract, demonstrating a rewarding sense of multi-layered structure. Curve Air 4, by Kazuo Uehara, was fascinating to watch as the composer set multiple pendulums in motion then sat at the computer to manipulate the data, weaving cosmic video imagery with the sound. Reflets/Vitesse, by Todor Todoroff, featured an almost comical black and white video of a fast ride through the city of Paris shot in 1925. The music matched the video in its unceasing drive to the end. Joseph Hyde's Zoetrope, relocated from an earlier concert, seemed to be a tremendously unusual montage of images and static, interlaced so as to be nearly indistinguishable. We thought the visuals, halfway between apprehension and discontinuity, consciousness and dream, powerfully reflected the musical score. Imagine our surprise when the credits came up and were still distorted; we heard rumors later that the whole video had undergone some strange NTSC format translation error. We were unable to confirm whether or not this was the case. Unfortunately, one of the works we had most looked forward to, Pacific Dragon, by Barry Truax, was not shown.
As always, the evening concerts were the highlight of the conference, but this year's afternoon concerts were particularly disappointing. Many composers felt the long trip to China was not worth the expense and travel time. As the week progressed afternoon concerts had smaller and smaller audiences. While Kenneth Fields and Vincent Gagnon did admirable jobs standing in at the console, they could not know the pieces as well as the composers. It was obvious when the composer was actually running the board, even though some were a little confused at first by the fancy digital Mackie hardware. Paul Koonce spent an entire hour equalizing his piece beforehand so it would sound just right in the hall, and it made a big difference in the performance. His Breath and the Machine was an ICMA commission, and was one of the most successful tape pieces delivered. He used the single concept of the struggle between body and machine to produce a many-layered, timbrally complex work that rewarded attentive listening with evident form, echoing perhaps the eternal tension and release of breathing.
Apparently the jet lag, lousy air quality, unusual diet, and foreign microbes took their toll on both of us, as we missed the Keynote Concert where the other commissioned work, Ambrose Field's Expanse Hotel, was premiered. The prevailing opinion, however, seemed to be that the Chinese Virtuosi were not given material that truly enabled their talent to shine. This circumstance happens too often, in which works for special instruments or ensembles are requested on short notice, and composers don't have enough time to learn the intricacies of the new resources at their disposal. But of course the elusiveness of artistic perfection is a poor excuse not to try, so kudos all round to the composers and performers who struggled with all the unfamiliar challenges and daunting opportunities presented to them by the Chinese milieu. With the exposure that computer music received this year, there should be droves of new ICMA members from China. They will surely take the integration of the avant-garde and the traditional to a new level, along with searching out more common ground between Eastern and Western musical cultures. Baby steps so far, but what an auspicious beginning.
For various reasons, the ICMC no longer seems to be the event where major developments in the field of Computer Music are announced anymore. Because of the Internet, everyone is aware of important happenings long before. As a result, there is no overall buzz of anticipation, and not much to ignite the entire community's interest. Of course, there are plenty of significant and fascinating projects going on in various niches, and the proceedings are packed with valuable information if you are willing to dig for it. And perhaps it isn't appropriate for an academic conference to generate the same kind of hype as an AES or SIGGRAPH or NAMM, but wouldn't it be fun to have something revelatory to look forward to every year? The closest we came to such a watershed moment was the declaration that jMax, IRCAM's interactive platform of the future, has been released as fully open source software under the GNU Public License. IRCAM is surely hoping to hook users on the platform in expectation of selling supplemental add-ons, but it was still a beautiful gesture.
The jMax announcement underscored a common theme: source code availability is becoming the norm in our field once again. Dozens of projects presented this year have made source code available online, including the Synthesis ToolKit (STK) of Perry Cook and Gary Scavone, CNMAT's Sound Description Interchange Format (SDIF), Grame's MIDIShare, InSpect/ReSpect from Sylvain Marchand and Robert Strandh, Common Lisp Music from Fernando Lopez-Lezcano and Juan Pampin, the Sound Processing Kit by Kai Lassfolk, and the venerable RTcmix originally by Paul Lansky, as well as most of the extensions to RTcmix such as Patchmix from Mara Helmuth. In addition, many projects that are not Open Source themselves have refocused their primary development from some proprietary platform to Linux, promoting at least independence from closed operating systems and even from hardware, to some extent. Dave Topper from the University of Virginia explicitly discussed the Open Source phenomenon in Computer Music and offered compelling arguments in its favor. The greatest advantage is not so much the priceOpen Source does not necessarily mean "free"but rather the potential for distributed development, improved cross-platform compatibility, and the building of peer- support communities rather than reliance on authoritative, unresponsive vendors. We are all aware of how quickly precious years of investment in mastering software can be endangered when its fate is controlled by corporate interests. Perhaps we are finally seeing the reversal of a trend toward protectionism begun in the Chowning years, and the dawning of a new era of free trade. No doubt the market for electronic music tools will continue to expand in size and profitability, but if this growing openness continues it can only lead to more rapid transfer of new techniques from the lab into the hands of composers and performers, and isn't that really the point? As an aside, one frustrating aspect of collaborating as an online community is URL decay; several papers published links to project information and software that had vanished by the time the conference rolled around, and no search engine could track them down. Obviously, in order to fully participate in the computer music community today, it's crucial to have a findable and functional online presence. All of the papers, posters, and demos were presented on the third floor of the Tsinghua University Tong Fang, the Science and Technology Building. There was one large and one small paper room, with posters in the hallway outside and demos sharing space with the lounge. The arrangement made it easy to flit from one thing to another, but it often got hectically crowded and the marble hallway reverberated with competing posters and passersby. There always seemed to be enough seating and rarely was it difficult to hear or see a presentation. The large room had a particularly nice screen projection system, and many people took advantage of it with some fine PowerPoint slides. In fact, the number of laptops around was astonishing. Clearly, no one was taking any chances on what equipment might be available, though the resources provided by the conference turned out to be considerable. The resident stable of iMacs went mostly unused, but the LCD projectors handled every platform, resolution, and refresh rate under the sun with nary a hiccup, and nothing seemed to break down seriously until a few cable problems on the very last day.
The 1999 Swets and Zeitlinger Distinguished Paper Award was actually one of the standout presentations of the conference. Who knows why they scheduled it in the smaller room, but it was packed to standing room only. Dan Trueman delivered a passionate description of BoSSA: The Deconstructed Violin Reconstructed. BoSSA (Bowed-Sensor-Speaker-Array) is a new instrument designed by Mr. Trueman and Perry Cook, from the Music and Computer Science Departments of Princeton University, respectively. This instrument "includes elements of both the violin's physical performance interface and its spatial filtering audio diffuser, yet eliminates both the resonating body and the strings." The components of BoSSA are the R-Bow, the Fangerbored, the Bonge, and the Critter. Despite the cute names, these are sophisticated, sensor-laden functional analogues of the traditional bow, fingerboard, strings, and body, though they fit together a little differently. The R-Bow gives four streams of data (two Force-Sensing Resistors and a biaxial accelerometer relaying angle and rotation), the Fangerbored yields seven independent streams (one left-hand linear position sensora single "string," four FSRs beneath the fingers of the right hand, and another dual-axis accelerometer), and the Bonge provides four data streams (corresponding to four "bowable" sponges resting on fixed FSRs). Because most performers have only two hands, not all dimensions of data are simultaneously available, but since every stream can be mapped independently, the possibilities for generating sustained sounds with one controller and then manipulating them with another are obvious. The final component is the Critter, a basketball-sized spherical array of 12 loudspeakers (mounted in a dodecahedral configuration) that can radiate sound equally in all directions. Mr. Cook and Mr. Trueman use principles from their NBody project, which essentially models the radiative impulse response of various acoustic instruments to reproduce arbitrary resonance models on the Critter. Basically, the BoSSA can mimic the resonant qualities of a violin, a cello, a guitar, or any other instrument whose impulse response can be measured.
Technical details aside, the BoSSA seems to be a flexible and sensitive instrument that takes advantage of traditional violin skills while opening up possibilities for interactive real-time performance far beyond the basic pitch- tracking commonly used. Of course, so much depends on the mapping, and we were treated to, or perhaps teased with, a brief segment of the first piece written specifically for the instrument, Lobster Quadrille. Unfortunately, there was no demonstration of the BoSSA at ICMC '99; hopefully there will be one ready for ICMC 2000 in Berlin.
It is, of course, impossible to do justice to the 161 papers, posters, and demos presented at ICMC '99, so we will restrict ourselves to a few words of other items of note.
Both by technical merit and marketing blitz, SDIF, introduced a couple of years ago by CNMAT, seems to be gaining momentum. Originally an "interchange format for spectral descriptions of sound," it is being positioned as an open standard for describing audio at the abstraction level. As a format, it has more in common with Csound scores and orchestras than a sample-level bitstream format such as AIFF. It is conceptually similar to the Structured Audio Orchestra Language (SAOL) format included in the MPEG-4 specification, and one of the papers detailed how data can be cross-coded between SDIF and SAOL in order to use MPEG-4 devices as "synthesis engines" for audio output. Objects for working with SDIF in Max/MSP were also presented. CNMAT, IRCAM, Xavier Serra, and others have formed a loose consortium committed to using and promoting SDIF, and as tools continue to be developed and made available, it looks to become a very useful standard.
In "Learning Models for Interactive Melodic Improvisation," Belinda Thom from Carnegie-Mellon described her work toward enabling a computer to improvise interactively with a performerlistening to what is being played and incorporating that back into its own outputin an attempt to simulate the "handing-off" of material common to jazz and blues improvisation. So far, it is only in the development stage, but her work already demonstrates real potential for creating an autonomous partner with a musically sensitive "ear." Xavier Serra demonstrated "The Musician's Software Mall," a suite of applications for working with the technique of spectral modeling synthesis. SmsTools analyzes sound files, SmsPerformer provides a graphical interface for real-time synthesis, Music Maker (formerly SmsComposer) aids in composing, generating, editing, and synthesizing score files, and Drizzle (formerly Vocem) presents a graphical interface for real-time granular synthesis. The demonstration, on the Win32 platform, consisted mostly of manipulating audio in real time using various graphical user interfaces to control synthesis transformation and filtering. The applications also accept MIDI messages for parameter control. The interfaces looked well-designed and responsive, if a little crowded. As with any software of this type, trying to make live music by dragging widgets with a mouse is tricky, but connecting more natural controllers to real- time SMS processing would be exciting. As the authors admit, "SMS has, for some time now, been developed and researched with few applications to composition and performance," so, fortunately, it looks like this shortcoming is finally being rectified.
At the very end of the conference, the annual ICMA members' meeting was held, to a notable absence of fanfare. Perhaps one-tenth of the delegation attended, not even filling the smaller paper room. On the agenda were the usual announcements of personnel changes, financial reports, and plans for the future. Mary Simoni was officially designated the incoming ICMA President. A new ICMA logo, in its third and final incarnation, was unveiled to a decidedly lukewarm reception. There were the usual grumblings about the paper and music selection processes and how they promote the acceptance of more conservative material rather than the most interesting or innovative submissions. We happen to agree that the results, particularly in the area of tape music, do not adequately reflect the spectrum of compositions out there, and the Board seemed to understand that there are significant flaws in the current selection system. They encouraged members to offer input and suggestions and to get involved in exchanging ideas with the Board. A thread that ran throughout was the anticipation that a new ICMA Web site, to be unveiled at an unspecified date, would facilitate dramatically increased member participation and Board responsiveness by providing forums for discussions, areas for downloading music, and other enhanced online resources.
The installation was specifically commissioned by the ICMA with children in mind, and the artists created an environment that appealed to young and old. The audience seemed to be mostly Chinese children and their parents. Most kids spent a few minutes playing around, whacking the funnel, peering at the TV, and throwing balls until the bucket was empty, while the adults offered encouragement. It might have been nice to incorporate more overtly musical content, and maybe give the audio greater mobility within the space to create more of a sense of immersion and wonder, and the lighting could have been more colorful. But as with so many things at ICMC '99, the fact that it worked at all was cause for congratulations, and the innocent Chinese audience, for whom it was intended, obviously thought it was pretty cool.
Finally, on the last day. everyone went to see the Great Wall at Simatai. Words cannot describe the awesome ambition and hubris of those responsible for such a structure. Not only is it 4500 miles long, but the section we saw is built on top of some of the craggiest precipices imaginable. On the way up to the ridge, torn by bitter cold winds sweeping across the exposed steppes, we thought of how absurdly harsh it must have been to build this monument 22 centuries ago. With sweeping vistas of mountains receding in every direction, it was the perfect counterpoint to the congestion of Beijing, and we all gained a profound respect for the will and determination of the Chinese culture to achieve something so clearly impossible. It was also the perfect way to end the conference, leaving the delegates with a sense of inspiration to contemplate on the long flight home.