Vol. 25 Issue 3 Reviews
Leonardo Music Journal CD, Volume 9, curated by Guy Van Belle: Power and Responsibility: Converted to Streaming Between Machines
Compact disc (enhanced), LMJ CD 9, 2000; available from MIT Press Journals, 5 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142, USA; telephone (+1) 617-253-2889; fax (+1) 617-577-1545; electronic mail journal-orders@mit.edu; World Wide Web mitpress.mit.edu/Leonardo/

Reviewed by Laurie Radford
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Since 1968, the International Society of Arts, Sciences, and Technology (ISAST) has published Leonardo Journal, a scholarly collection of articles, reviews, interviews, and coverage of art "that would serve as an international channel of communication between artists, with emphasis on the writings of artists who use science and developing technologies in their work" (mitpress.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/). Since 1991, a parallel publication appearing annually, the Leonardo Music Journal (LMJ) with accompanying audio CD, has concentrated on science and technology as it relates specifically to music and audio art. LMJ CD, Volume 9, offers 32 audio and audio-visual works in a variety of formats (CD audio, Quicktime Movie, MP3) as well as a collection of software on a CD Extra. The contents of the disc are accessible using any combination of a current model PC or Macintosh computer and an audio CD player. The title, Power and Responsibility: Converted to Streaming Between Machines, reveals the focus of this issue of the journal, namely the multidisciplinary and cross-platform exchange of audio and video data via networks, and the social and cultural ramifications of this burgeoning artistic community (information on the journal and CD can be viewed at mitpress.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/lmj/lmj9.html). The dearth of information about the disc’s contents provided in the CD booklet reflects the curator’s wish to engage the user in the same multimedia environment from which most of the works arise, necessitating a visit to the Leonardo Web site. In fact, certain elements of this issue, namely the CD review section and a collection of supplemental articles, are only available there.

Eight of the audio tracks are playable on a CD audio player. The remaining items need a computer host to audition, view, and launch. A simple but effective graphic interface serves to navigate and choose from the disc’s contents as well as provide links to related Web sites. It is curious to note the predominance of Quicktime and MP3 formats represented on the CD, and then to find none of these files on the Leonardo Web site. The difficulty that curator Adam Van Belle faced in putting this compilation together is evident in the contradiction found between the typical "habitat" of the works (including physical and on-line galleries, concert venues, the personal entertainment complex of one’s home computer), and the desire to gather them together and distribute them under the singular LMJ banner and the fixed medium of the CD format. The call of the "object" and the "owned" is still all-powerful!

The LMJ CD is not simply an addendum to the printed journal. Especially in the case of the volume under review, the LMJ CD provides autonomous illustrations of important veins of audio-visual creation and the cultural context of these creative acts. After initially confronting the conundrum of the fixed and inflexible medium of the compact disc versus the open and malleable artistic environment of the internet, Mr. Van Belle sought "a multifaceted answer to the question of what we have done to music and sound via computers, the Internet and multimedia." The LMJ call-for-works gleaned a rich gamut of data-driven works of audio art, works which are "about the user, and the way we perceive and conceptualize technology, and ultimately about how we appropriate and misuse tools for purposes of creativity."

The resulting collection of audio works and software reflects the current jostling for attention of new tools, the ever-changing nature of technological means, and the outpouring of creative work produced with these tools by artists who adopt and discard, modify and combine the myriad software tools and environments currently available. Mr. Van Belle clarifies his curatorial objectives by stating that "it is only through the active involvement of artists who are aware of possibilities and who demonstrate the creative potentials of crucial technologies that cultural and artistic innovation persists." The making of music, the exploration of sound, the untold mysteries of audio-visual combination are being undertaken by countless users of new technologies. At every level, from professionals creating consumer-targeted products, to the hobbyist who contributes unique and often deliciously distorted perspectives, there is a mass of social sound-making presently underway.

The works and software offered on Power and Responsibility emphasize "heterogeneity and contradiction." The diversity of items presented on this CD will come as no surprise to those who make the Internet a daily stop in appeasing their media and entertainment appetites. Nonetheless, the disc provides an engaging cross-section of what one very likely would come across "out there." The artist Miekal And’s contribution, 30 Samples, provides a matrix-like palette of photos of composers such as Alban Berg, Edgard Varèse, Frank Zappa, Duke Ellington, and John Cage. The user "plays" the sample orchestra, comprised of brief examples from each composer, by moving the mouse over the photos and thus triggering each successive audio fragment. Piet Van Wijmeersch/Sola Produxies offer three short pieces, Atacama, Pinacoteca, and Sabandia, that combine bold, pounding music with several equally bold and revealing images of politically motivated oppression, violence, power, and conflict.

Four of the works utilize the same series of black-and-white audio waveform images, an obvious desire to provide purely audio works with some visual stimuli. Chris Brown’s Talking Drum presents a patter of understated motoric rhythms clothed in percussive and gamelan-like timbres that move in waves across the stereo field. Kim Cascone’s vortex_shedding exhibits a wonderful textural design and sense of formal shape created with soft clouds of flowing, bubbling sound masses. Anne Wellmer’s The Millenium Bug or The Bald and the Beautiful offers a complex of crunching, grating, scratching sound materials that give way to an equally complex mass of speaking voices.

Some of the most attractive and compelling audio compositions on the disc are by three Japanese artists working under the collective name of Gnusic. Experiment 7 is a highly coherent timbral and temporal construction—a slowly evolving, abstract soundscape full of low throbbing drones and sweeping granulated clouds. Both Hogelic and Not Specified are highly contrasting in character with the former consisting of raw, high-frequency pings and clicks that skitter to and fro, while the latter offers a seemingly interminable crescendo from inaudibility that inhabits the outskirts of perception. The Gnusic works are accompanied by a series of self-referential advertising texts and images.

Jerry Deals, by Clay Chaplin, is a highly effective integration of image and sound. It combines images of rapidly appearing and disappearing words (experiment, unpitched, tune, overmodulated, harmonic, signals) with a quagmire of heavily-modulated audio materials that lurch toward an assault of sped-up pop music fragments and a concluding dissolution into the subtle textures of its opening moments. Elizabeth Schimana’s Öffnung combines a series of black-and-white still images of the tiled floors and shrouded bodies of a morgue with sustained vocal drones and garrulous, granulated textures. Hoor Je Dat?! by Hannah Bosma and Boris Nieuwenhuijzen combines elusive glimpses of a reverberated tolling bell, whispering voices, and heavily-modulated squeaks and drones, all under the watchful image of an eyeball gyrating left, forward, right. Todor Todorov’s Voices Part I successfully synchronizes the ever-changing image of an electronics schematic with granular textures and modified vocal fragments to create an evocative, almost lyrical audio-visual experience. Other works on the disc contribute a variety of documentary-style presentations of physical and on-line gallery installations, live performances, and experimental audio essays.

The software items on Power and Responsibility include The Bomb (Macintosh, PC, Linux) by Scot Draves, <head>banger (Macintosh, PC) by Andi Freeman/Deepdisc, a collection of Max objects (Macintosh) by Chino Shuichi, netOsc (Macintosh) by Atau Tanaka, IFS Gen, DigiFilter, and MidiJoy (Macintosh) by Tom Demeyer, FMOL (PC) by Sergi Jordá, MemoryScanner (Macintosh) by Sukandar Kartadinata, and makemusicfast (PC) by Heiko Recktenwald. I am assuming that all of the software contained on the disc is freeware (although nowhere does it actually state this). Most of it includes brief instructions for setup and usage. makemusicfast is a collection of audio and MIDI utilities for PCs. NetOsc is the software instrument used by Sensorband in performances of its network piece, Oscillations (www.sensorband.com/). It is for three Power Macintosh computers connected via the Internet. Each participant performs by changing the frequency of a sine wave oscillator. The actions of each player are passed via a server to each other player. The three sine waves combine to create rhythmic acoustical beating and graphic patterns. MemoryScanner scans through your computer's RAM and turns its contents into sound. <head>banger retrieves HTML pages and turn them into rhythms using prerecorded audio samples while "splattering" the HTML on the screen at various tempos. Mr. Shuichi’s Max collection gives one creative control over a digital video camera allowing one to zoom in/out, pan, and record (to video tape) the entire process. Tom Demeyer’s Digifilter is a utility for experimenting with different digital filters allowing input from a variety of audio sources. It provides three oscillator waveforms and envelope control of a selected pole or zero pair, as well as Z-Plane, Frequency and Phase, and Spectrum displays.

Viewed and auditioned in conjunction with the probing and highly informative articles and supplementary on-line materials of LMJ Volume 9, this CD provides an exciting introduction to the countless modes of expression in which contemporary composers and audio-visual artists are engaged.