Vol. 25 Issue 2 Reviews
Music for Humans: International Computer Music Conference 2000 "Gateways to Creativity"
Berlin, Germany, 27 August-1 September 2000

Reviewed by Thomas Gerwin (Berlin, Germany)

This year's International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), one of the most important events in contemporary electroacoustic music, took place in Berlin from 27 August to 1 September 2000. Some 500 contributors, musicians, and researchers from all over the world presented and discussed their works and ideas. There were over 140 lectures, papers, presentations, and podium discussions in different locations around the region of Potsdamer Platz: the Berlin Philharmonic building, the State Library, the New National Gallery and the National Art Gallery, and various other cultural buildings. The music program of 20 concerts took place at the Matthäuskirche , the Akademie der Künste, and the Podewil Center for Contemporary Art.

The ICMC events received a friendly, sometimes delighted echo in the culture of Berlin. The city houses a growing and very active group of artists using electronics in their pieces and is a regular host to major festivals and concerts of electronic, electroacoustic, and all kinds of contemporary art-music events. Berlin has, in my opinion, a leading position worldwide in its sustained and growing receptivity to contemporary sonic art.

The ICMC organizers—Conference Chair Peter Castine, Music Chair Martin Supper, and Papers Chair Ioannis Zannos—are to be commended for their organization and presentation of the heterogeneous materials submitted, and for coordinating the entire program including the ICMC concerts. Overall, there was a fluent and relaxed stream of information and events flowing through the whole conference. The event was very ambitious, perhaps a bit too much so; the press release statement that the aim of ICMC 2000 was for "public understanding about the role of new media in daily life and to provoke people to reflect consciously on modern culture" is perhaps more of an ideal than a reality. Nevertheless, the conference imparted a true sense of contemporary currents and was conducted with sincerity and rigor.

The symposia further consolidated the status and importance of electronic music, whose history spans some sixty or more years. Electronic music is today an institution and a genre, no longer mere technical or aesthetic revolutions, as it was once perceived. Rather, it encompasses information and different approaches to topics of contemporary relevance, and is able to be received as such. For this reason, the conference witnessed no great avant-gardist sensationalism or scandal. Instead, new aspects and developments of computer music unfolded in a kind of continuity. This held true both for the conference and the musical performances proper.

Because of the high quality of the Proceedings documentation (available from the International Computer Music Association, ISBN 0-9667927-2-6), I prefer to concentrate my review on the highlights of the concerts. The music program consisted of two or three concerts per day (20 in all), five sound installations at different locations, and—new this year to the conference—a so-called “Off-ICMC.” More about this later. The Music Chair was Martin Supper, head of the Electronic Studio of Berlin University of the Arts. He conducted the selection jury and created the form and order of every concert. He, in agreement with the Music Jury, also chose the pieces for the ICMC 2000 compact disc. This excellent collection contains pieces by Horacio Vaggione (France), Cort Lippe (USA), Marc Ainger (USA), Agostino di Scipio (Italy), Richard Nance (USA), and Gerhard Eckel/Vincent Royer (Austria/France).

The concert pieces and installations were selected by an international jury: Alex Arteaga (Spain), Elsa Justel (Argentina), Robin Minard (Canada), and Volker Straebel (Germany). They chose approximately 60 works from over 600 submissions. In addition to these choices was the incorporation, through invitation, of three historical works to broaden the scope and musical texture of the concerts. Gottfried Michael Koenig's filigreed Intermezzo (1985-91), for ensemble, was performed on the Thursday evening. During intermissions all through the conference, Iannis Xenakis's famous Concret PH was played, a tape piece he had composed for the Philips Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World Fair. For this work, the composer recorded cooling charcoal as well as the signal from a burning microphone. Then he cut the tapes into very small lengths and spliced them back together out of sequence and with different modular variety. Because of these composition procedures, Mr. Supper commented that "this can be considered a preliminary form of what in contemporary computer music is achieved with granular synthesis."

The third historic piece, HPSCHD, by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller, opened the conference, performed with 7 harpsichordists, 51 tape machines, and 58 loudspeakers. The loudspeakers filled the large foyers of the Philharmonic on its several levels as well as the Chamber Music Hall. The concert venue continued through an open passage up to the Museum of Musical Instruments where some of the loudspeakers and keyboard players were more concentrated. The concept of this performance was different from others I have experienced because the harpsichord sounds were spread over a large area. It was a kind of "mobile” concert, impossible to hear everything at the same time or as a unity. Thus, textural density was given up and the musical operations were exposed clearly as chance operations, but the "Spirit of John Cage" pervaded the whole area that evening.

Two concerts took place in the official program each day, one at 2:30 pm in Matthäuskirche, and another at 8:00 pm in the Concert Hall of the Academy of the Arts or (on Thursday) in the Concert Hall of the University, the place where Herbert von Karajan made his famous recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic. All pieces were diffused on a multi-channel sound system (8 outputs, and sometimes more) during the concerts. Even the pieces in stereo format were performed spatially, mostly by the composer in person. Loudspeaker positions varied from concert to concert. Here are some notable pieces in order of appearance.

August 28, 2:30 pm, Matthäuskirche.
One flute generates a whole orchestra in Rainer Bürck's fine Flautando (1998), which won 1st prize of the 1999 Musica Nova competition. Derrière la porte la plus éloignée… is an intricate composition made of “concret” sounds and soundscapes by Gilles Gobeil, and was a finalist at the 1999 Bourges International Festival.

8:00 pm, Academy of the Arts.
Akemi Ishijima's Catalysis (1996) is a wonderful piece. She combines light sonic fabric with interesting textural turns, using noise in a thematic way. Pacific Dragon (1990) by Barry Truax, oscillates between a radio play (through the natural use of the recorded material) and audiovisual shaman music (through the hypnotic repetitions of sounds and visual slides). Ludger Brümmer's well-calculated music came together perfectly with Silke Braemer's miraculous animations in the audio-visual composition Le temps s'ouvre. Both the music and the animation were produced using the Genesis software from the Association pour la Création et la Recherche sur les Outils d’Expression (ACROE) in Grenoble.

August 29, 2:30 pm, Matthäuskirche.
Guillaume de Machaut's Biauté parée for three recorders was performed live on stage. After that, the like-named piece by Anna Ikramova was played using Renaissance recorders together with tape and live electronics. The idea of decomposing Machaut's work using electronic and electronic-inspired procedures is quite a novel one, but the electroacoustic piece did not achieve the level of the original.

7:00 pm, Academy of the Arts.
Elsa Justel's Mats (1999) was one of the rare conference works inflected with humor and wit, refreshingly balanced between “concrète,” archaic (based on the sounds of very early instruments), and electronic sounds. One of the highlights of the whole conference for me was Cort Lippe's Music for Hi-Hat and Computer (1998). He utilizes in a perfect, light-handed way the complete range of possibilities for interaction with and processing through a computer, mixed with partly humorous elements of music theatre, and all generated solely from the sound of the hi-hat. I suspect that this work will become a classic like Wlodzimierz Kotonski's Etude on a Cymbal Stroke. Tim Kreger presented a nice scene in his Piano and Words (1999), with a skilled typist providing counterpoint to a computer hacker live on stage. Elizabeth Hoffman’s Manhattan Breakdown, for ensemble and live electronics, was both expressive and free. The acoustic instruments sometimes sounded electronic, and vice versa, in an interesting, interactively-processed mixture.

August 30, 2:30 pm, Matthäuskirche.
One of the highlights, in terms of instrumental virtuosity, was Gordon Monro's The Voice of the Phoenix (1997). The highly accomplished flute player Beate-Gabriela Schmitt performed this European premiere on her contrabass flute, playing with a strong sensitivity to the many nuances of the work (see Figure 1). Another highlight, this time for tape, directly followed: Phonurgie (1998) by Francis Dhomont. In this profound work, the Canadian-French master reinvented 50 years of “musique concrète” and with total artistic freedom "tried to bring out the connection between Schaeffer's moderate 'objet' of observation and the wildest 'metamorphologies' of the Art of Sound, our contemporary Ars Nova."

8:00 pm, Academy of the Arts.
Beatriz Ferreyra's Rio de los páyaros azules (1999) is a work of rich spatial intensity. Palpable influences and re-influences from the sounds of the string quartet counterpointing the resonances of the concert hall let 5 Difference-Sensitive Circular Interactions by Agostino di Scipio be an ear-opener for tiny differences and nuances of sound. Dirk Reith's Dialog from Mécanique Mon Amour, for alto sax, video projection, and live electronics, was a colorful, futuristic, and at times humorous homage to the so-called world of machines.

August 31, 2:30 pm, Matthäuskirche.
Christian Banasik opened this concert with his highly engaging text/sound composition …letzte Gebaerde offener Muender (…Last Gesture of Open Mouths), from 1998, highlighting the spaces and gaps between the words and letters. Michael Thompson played with “concrète” sounds with great virtuosity in his Miniatures (1998-2000).

6:00 pm, University of the Arts.
Traverse (1999), by Gerhard Eckel (Austria) and Vincent Royer (France), was for me one of the major highlights of the conference. For perhaps the first time I witnessed a viola and a notebook computer performing together on stage in a fully integrated manner. Here the computer truly became a live instrument. A satisfying counterpoint to this experience was then offered by Kumiko Omura's Imaginary Bridge (1999), a meditatively intense, slightly theatrical piece for shakuhachi and tape.

8:00 pm, Philharmonic Hall.
This exciting event featured Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, performed by the Ensemble Modern as the concluding event of their extensive tour of this wonderful work. The performance was presented as part of Inventionen, an independent, Berlin-based electroacoustic festival.

September 1, 2:30 pm, Matthäuskirche.
Fabio Cifariello Ciardi (Italy) skillfully incorporates acoustic and electronic processes in Games (1999), for double bass and live electronics. This work is simple, clear, and inventive, making the bass sometimes sound like a sitar, sometimes like a noisy electric guitar.

8:00 pm, Academy of the Arts.
A well-conceived work, using various analysis-resynthesis procedures on acoustic percussion samples, is Horacio Vaggione's AGON, commissioned in 1998 by the Institut de Musique Electroacoustique Bourges (IMEB). Robert Normandeau's Figures de rhétorique is an example of a well-balanced relationship between an acoustic instrument (piano) and tape—coherence and counterpoint at the same time. Benjamin Thigpen creates an expressive choreography of different rooms, influencing and penetrating each other, in his eight-channel Step under.

Mr. Supper defines computer music as "all kinds of music, which essentially need the computer to be produced or performed." As a result, the possibility of listening to contemporary music other than "academic" computer music was offered at ICMC 2000. There is clearly an active scene outside of the institution-based tradition in Berlin, where, night after night, clubs present the newest DJs and VJs and Ambient, Noise, Jungle, Crossover (etc.) musical styles to a mostly young clientele. So, an "Off-ICMC" was organized, curated by Reinhold Friedel, with the aim of presenting all the non-academic currents in computer-generated music. He tried to integrate the "young electronic scene" into the venerable ICMC by providing free entrance to all ICMC events to the artists of the Off-ICMC. In addition, to cross the boundaries, he has proposed the formation of an "Alliance for Computer Music."

Indeed, at the Off-ICMC one could experience new and interesting things, an array of occasionally fascinating acoustic art forms crossing and mixing many facets and styles of contemporary experimental and popular music. The opening of each evening was a one hour DJ-mix, beginning with Iannis Xenakis's Concret PH and moving slowly and/or abruptly to other tendencies and genres. It was a testament, I feel, to attempts to increase the rapport between the "academic" and "independent electro” scenes, represented by artists such as Elliot Sharp (USA), Kozo Inada (Japan), Phil Niblock (USA), Carsten Nikolai (Germany), Toru Yamanaka (Japan), Marcus Schmickler (Germany), Kaffe Matthews (UK), Massimiliano Sapienza (Italy), artists from the Klangkrieg Resident Soundsystem, and many others.

But, one thing is regrettable: not many participants of either events actually took the opportunity to cross over. Maybe it was because of the late starting times of the Off-ICMC events; maybe it was the sometimes incredible loudness of certain concerts; maybe it was the busy conference schedule (paper sessions from 9:30 am to 1 pm, a mid-afternoon concert, then paper sessions again from 4 to 6 pm, then another concert, often lasting until 11 pm or later). Yet most of those who made the effort felt excited and inspired by their experiences.

Earlier, I called Berlin a capital city of sonic art. Unfortunately, ICMC 2000 only presented five sound installations. This was a pity, considering the number and quality of international sound artists living and working in the city. I particularly liked Ted Apel's Surface Osculations, which consisted of five steel plates of different sizes hanging from the ceiling (see Figure 2). Each plate was equipped with a microphone and a resonator. Conducted by computer, the sounds of each plate were recorded and processed and then "played back" on another plate, "each with its own resonant personality."

Åke Parmerud's interactive video/sound installation, The Fire Inside, was specially commissioned by the ICMC. Mr. Parmerud worked with 3D animations on a back projection and with several processes, all taken from the sounds and images of crackling fire—both interesting, but very loud. Perhaps he was trying to satirize the aesthetic of commercial video games, for the result looked and sounded like a kind of computer game. This tended to make his intentions a little too ambiguous.

Alberto Scunio's Green - Voice Tree for soprano, cello, and live electronics, was called a "performed installation" in the program book. It took place over three hours on August 30. The computer transposed the initial live event, playing it back and transforming it slightly, producing a kind of tapestry within the performance time. I wonder why Mr. Scunio used this new term for a long performance where people can go in and out during the performance. The same term was used for Color Code (1998), presented by German Grupo Animato. There, it was used to describe an audiovisual work with hypnotic color fields and slowly evolving sounds.

Stillegung, a quiet, filigreed work done as a collaboration between Johannes Oberthuer (objects) and Martin Supper (sound), played with the idea of "closed" and "open" windows. It was presented in the "singuhr-hörgalerie" (Listening Gallery) of the Parochial Church, one of the places in Berlin famous for sound installations.

The Idea of David Tudor's Rainforest was an interesting large installation which Ron Kuivila developed together with participants of two workshops before and during the conference. Mr. Kuivila's ambitious and intense project was an homage to David Tudor and his project Rainforest I-IV (created between 1966 and 1972) as well as a basic introduction to digital music production tools such as James McCartney's SuperCollider. This project was an initiative of the Off-ICMC.

The provisional highlight of the conference for me was Joel Chadabe's short keynote speech, "Music for Humans." Mr. Chadabe (see Figure 3), who had spent time in Berlin as early as 1964, ventured a kind of artistic resumé of "what we (the electroacoustic community) are doing at the turn of the century." After a short overview of the most important developments in electronic music and its strengths, his message to the audience was inspiring: we all are building the ultimate creative instrument for artistic expression! The computer extends, on one hand, the sonic possibilities of traditional instruments to the level of the infinite, and, on the other hand, extends the possibilities of the composer, in capacity, complexity, and also for real-time processing. Thus, the composer not only can create the composition anew at each moment of the performance, but can also share responsibility with other people or even with the increasingly “intelligent" machine, and thus "compose interactively."

Mr. Chadabe ended his speech with an appeal, a call to enable composers "to create situations with sounds that can be shaped and interacted with by means of new controllers better and better corresponding with the abilities of the human body." Music has been and will be made by humans for humans.

To summarize ICMC 2000 is not easy, but nor is it difficult. It was a very solid and coherent program without sensations or scandals. Electronic and Computer Music is a genre, meanwhile, with borders and guidelines. Some verdicts are still in use and "protect" this particular part of New Music from becoming too popular in style on the one side or too narrative on the other. At the same time, there is a steady development of methods and techniques.

To me it looks as if the philosophy behind "academic" music is still Eduard Hanslick's concept of absolute music. In a way, this music also tries to fulfill Arnold Schoenberg's vision of a pure "Klangfarbenmusik," a music of sound and timbre. In some of the pieces heard at ICMC, computer music has achieved these aims perfectly.

I also noticed a kind of "renaissance” of instrumental music, represented in various and curious combinations of acoustic instruments with computers or tape. The emancipation of noise has slowed or even moved backward a step, in my opinion. Very seldom does a composer use frequency spectra defined classically as noise. In addition, I seldom heard pieces that could be called experimental in the sense that the result is open and unforeseeable or absolutely astonishing. Instead, a lot of virtuosity, impressive craftsmanship, and sometimes even emotion was presented to colleagues and the public. Sometimes, unfortunately, the aesthetic result of a piece lagged far behind its conceptual premise.

What was quite new and thrilling was the emancipation of the computer as instrument. I have never seen such high quality live electronics as at this year's ICMC. This was true for both the official conference and the Off-ICMC. I anticipate for the future a point where we can think more about aesthetics and content and less about machine power and technique. We should reach a "state of the art" where it does not matter how many machines have to compute and for how long to produce this or that sonic result. I am looking forward to a time when people use the computer, the most powerful instrument we have, simply to compose "music for humans." ICMC 2000 has taken a salutary step in this direction.