Vol. 28 Issue 2 Reviews
International Computer Music Conference 2003: Boundaryless Music

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore, 29 September–4 October, 2003

Reviewed by David Kim-Boyle
Baltimore, Maryland, USA


With the resonance of the SARS epidemic still haunting the city and threatening to force a change of conference venue, it was a relief for many that ICMC2003 was finally able to be launched in Singapore. While ongoing concerns about SARS and the relatively high costs of traveling to the city dissuaded many potential delegates from North America and Europe from attending, a number of whom had pieces on the concert program, those who did manage to make the trip were treated to a wide variety of music celebrating the state of the art, produced by approximately 80 composers from around the world.

This year’s conference theme, “boundaryless music,” encouraged the celebration of music without cultural boundaries or which transcended limitations of genre, an opportune focus given the multiculturally diverse nature of the host city. This theme was addressed most overtly by a handful of composers through the use of non-Western instruments, or, less commonly, through reference to non-Western music-making traditions. The former approach presented a rare opportunity to hear unique instruments in an electronic music context, a context where orthodox instrumentation is more the norm.

Like previous conferences, there were two concerts a day held in the afternoon and evening with the exception of the first day’s sole evening concert. In addition to these concerts, this year’s conference also included a Sound Garden, an audio installation consisting of 18 pieces autonomously played by an iMac, an intermission piece, two other installations, and a Fringe Concert. Pieces were chosen by an international jury comprising Alessandro Cipriani (Italy), Mara Helmuth (USA), Paul Koonce (USA), Naotoshi Osaka (Japan), Jøran Rudi (Norway), Akira Takaoka (Japan), Ian Whalley (New Zealand), and Frances White (USA), from a total of 289 submissions.

All of this year’s events took place at the University Cultural Centre located on the National University of Singapore campus, some six miles from the city center. Afternoon concerts were held in a theater while evening concerts were held in a large concert hall. To my mind, the size of the concert hall in which the evening concerts took place was not especially well suited to many of the pieces that were performed there—a number were somewhat lost in the enormity of the venue. On the other hand, the afternoon concert venue, a much smaller, 450-seat hall, was particularly well suited to the style of music heard, and drew a pleasing number of attendees. Indeed many of these afternoon concerts were so well attended it was often difficult to get a seat in an ideal listening position, in contrast to the evening concerts, where a full house would have brought well over 1,500 people.

What was also somewhat troubling was the fairly large number of composers unable to attend, leaving their pieces to be either cancelled or mixed by others. On more than one occasion I felt some of these pieces, which were mostly in the tape medium, were not well served, as the mixing engineer was less sympathetic and sensitive to the nuances of each piece as they happened to be brought out by the particular venue. It also tended to reaffirm the unfortunate view that tape music requires no active participation or is a performance-less affair.

A fine representation of the music selected for performance at this year’s conference can be heard on the official conference CDs. These contain music by Steve Everett (USA), Pablo Furman (USA), Konstantinos Karathanasis (Greece), Julian Knowles (Australia), Cort Lippe (USA), Russell Pinkston (USA), Heinrich Taube (USA), and Paul Rudy (USA).

Given the limitations of this review, it is not possible to comment on all of the pieces heard. Instead, I will try to convey what to my ear were some of the highlights or particularly interesting aspects of music presented at this year’s conference.

September 30th, 8:00 p.m., Concert Hall
The tape part of Heinrich Taube’s Aeolian Harp, for piano and computer-generated tape, consists of sounds produced from acoustic instruments that are transformed through various techniques of filtering, time stretching, and cross synthesis, amongst others. These sounds complement the music performed by the pianist in various dimensions, the overall result of which is an evocative piece in which the concept of the Aeolian harp is extended to draw on themes of the transformative effect of memory.

Like Mr. Taube’s Aeolian Harp, Naotoshi Osaka’s Chiekagami, for hichiriki, a traditional Japanese double reed wind instrument, and tape also addresses issues of memory although in a less direct way. Performed by Katsuhiko Tabuchi, this piece draws on a range of synthesis techniques to simulate other traditional Japanese instruments as well as to transform the sound of the hichiriki. These timbral transformations parallel the transformation of images by mirrors, an important theme in the work.

October 1st, 1:00 p.m., Theatre
This concert was one of the highlights of the entire conference for me, providing a superb variety of finely crafted, inspired music. Ian Whalley’s Kasumi, for tape, employs traditional New Zealand Mäori wind and percussion instruments (Köauau Köiwi Kuri, Pongäihu, Panguru Whakatangi Tanguru, and Pütorino), the sounds being shaped through various electronic techniques, none of which remove them too far from their original character. Introspective in nature, the piece also draws on a traditional Japanese poem, whose meaning reflects the underlying musical concerns of the piece to create a beautifully rich textual dynamic.

Andrew May and Elizabeth McNutt’s Retake is an improvisatory work for flute and live computer, in which both flute and computer respond to a previously recorded improvisation by Ms. McNutt with the computer generating other virtual layers of performance in what was a most successful, ethereal realization.

Noemata No. 2 by Shigenobu Nakamura was one of the very few video works of the conference. With images created by Robert Darroll, Mr. Nakamura uses sounds from contemporary Japanese life, including the sound of everyday electrical appliances, in order to, in the composer’s words, “amplify the characteristics and features of the image.” The overall result was strikingly effective.

In a completely different vein was Mark Applebaum’s Pre-Composition, an eight-channel tape piece which makes good-natured fun of many of the clichés of musique concrète and electroacoustic composition. It was a well-received work that forced one to listen to every piece following in a totally new way!

Jon Nelson’s L’horloge Imaginaire was another wonderful work amongst the many of this concert. An 8-channel tape piece, with source material consisting of a variety of bells and clocks from different ages, the piece was delicate and beautifully nuanced.

October 1st, 8:00 p.m., Concert Hall
Unfortunately, two of the pieces originally programmed for this concert, Julian Knowles’ Sleeper and Panayiotis Kokoras’ Breakwater, both of which I was looking forward to, had to be cancelled, resulting in a shorter than normal concert length. Paul Rudy’s Fantasie, for ehru and tape, is an interesting experiment in stylistic polygamy, drawing on everything from traditional Chinese music to Bluegrass fiddle playing.

Evidence, a duo consisting of Stephan Moore and Scott Smallwood, performed a live realization of their piece Out of Town on a pair of portable computers and various other pieces of hardware. With sounds drawn from a variety of sources, many from contemporary urban life, the work effectively creates a unique industrial sonic landscape that for me was unlike anything else I heard at the conference.

October 2nd, 1:00 p.m., Theatre
Shahrokh Yadegari’s Traditionally Electronic, for vocals, violin, kamancheh, and computer, is another work that resonated with the “boundaryless music” theme. Drawing on traditional Persian music, this piece uses the computer to complement the live performers through the expansion of traditional Persian performance practice. A strikingly refreshing aspect of this work was the rich, intimate nature of the traditional acoustic sounds produced by the performers.

October 2nd, 8:00 p.m., Concert Hall
One of the true musical highlights of the conference was the world premiere performance by the Edison Studio of a soundtrack to the German horror film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene. A visually stunning film with powerful Expressionist imagery, the music composed and performed by Luigi Ceccarelli, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi, Alessandro Cipriani, and Mauro Cardi provided a compelling accompaniment to this silent classic. Richly layered and aggressively beautiful, this is truly a marvelous and masterly piece of work.

October 3rd, 1:00 p.m., Theatre
Cort Lippe’s Music for Cello and Computer received a beautifully restrained performance by Chan Wei Shing. With the computer analyzing the live performance and transforming it through various techniques of convolution and granular sampling amongst others, the result was a texturally dense, expansive, yet delicate performance.

The sound source for Bob Sturm’s Pacific Pulse, Pacific Ocean buoys, could not be further removed from the previous piece, but yet it too is a work of equally striking timbral depth. Like the previous pieces, Joao Pedro Oliveira’s Mahalaka Sadhana also achieves a timbral richness, though this time through fairly overt reference to Tibetan Buddhist chanting.

October 3rd, 6:30 p.m., Concert Hall
Jon Drummond’s Book of Changes 2 is an interesting piece, and indeed was the only work outside of the “Dr. Caligari” live soundtrack performance to combine video imagery with live musicians. An aleatoric work for violin, piano, and computer, graphical imagery selected by the computer was projected in real time on a screen visible to both audience and performers, and this determined the sections of the score performed by the musicians.

October 4th, 1:00 p.m., Theatre
I was unfortunately unable to attend this concert, so I am unable to comment on those pieces performed. The program included works by Eric Chasalow, Kotoka Suzuki, David Berezan, Reynold Weidenaar, Howard Sandroff, Samantha Krukowski and Daniel Nass, Bonnie Miksch, Yu-Chung Tseng, and Benjamin Broening.

October 4th, 8:00 p.m., Concert Hall
Haunting in the literal sense of the word, Paul Wilson’s Spiritus, for vocalist and electronics, received a striking performance. Through a timbral exploration of the voice, Mr. Wilson evokes a wide range of dramatic gestures.

Appropriately drawing the concert and conference to a close was Steve Everett’s Ladrang Kampung. For flute (or violin), Javanese gamelan, and interactive electronics, it was to my ear difficult to hear any live electronics during this performance. Nevertheless, the sound of the gamelan was so beautiful I don’t believe the piece suffered greatly.

Intermission Piece
Margaret Schedel’s Corporealization of Microphone is a visually attractive work performed on several occasions during the conference. Literally caged within an open steel cube with microphones attached to the corners, a percussionist explores the sounds of a variety of instruments through a variety of different microphones. The sound from these microphones is then processed and played back through Max/MSP. What I remember most about this piece from its first performance was the delight it caused in two young children, who ended up becoming part of the dance of the piece.

Sound Garden
The Sound Garden, which ran throughout the entire conference, was installed on the second floor of the Cultural Centre, somewhat distant from where other activities were taking place. Unfortunately, this distance did not make it possible to critically listen without distraction to all of the pieces to the extent that I would have liked due to the ambient noise created by the everyday conference activity taking place within the Centre. I understand as well that some of the pieces presented in this installation were originally multi-channel works not intended for stereo reproduction, albeit over four small Genelec loudspeakers.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting pieces amongst those I was able to hear. These included Hubert Howe’s Mosaic, a timbrally rich piece realized through the creative use of filtering to bring out particular overtone structures and resonances; Greg Schiemer’s Tempered Dekanies, another timbrally rich, beautiful work in which alternate tunings play a key structural role; McGregor Boyle’s August Nights, the source material for which was taken from field recordings from the Carolina coast and which were transformed in numerous ways to evocatively create a new sense of place not only in terms of landscape but also in terms of timbre, tonality, and rhythm; and Ioannis Kalantzis Ades, a brief but equally striking work developed from the timbral transformation of two short piano sounds.

While the Sound Garden concept is a wonderful idea which I hope is repeated again at future conferences, I would encourage organizers to locate such installations in slightly quieter areas.

Other than the concerns mentioned in the introduction, there were some other trends regarding the music performed at the conference that surprised me. Given the current state of technology I was somewhat surprised at the small handful of pieces that employed any type of video technology, although I understand that the low number of submissions was a mitigating factor here. I was also a little disappointed at the fairly small number of truly interactive pieces, with the majority of the live pieces being composed for instrument and tape. Of more general concern, I was particularly alarmed by the production quality of the official conference CDs. With no liner notes, fairly poor print quality, and, most alarmingly, large numbers of digital artifacts throughout, these discs should not have been released in the condition they were. I hope this is something that will be improved for future conference publications.

Finally, there was also a fairly striking disconnect between the dozens of papers presented, of which I attended many, and the music performed. I feel the conference could be more successful in the future if the gap between these two disciplines was bridged, with more research presented on pieces that were performed, and more performances employing new techniques that have been researched. Perhaps this is the true key to a “boundaryless music.”

Despite these concerns, the conference organizing committee, ICMC2003 Chair Ho Chee Kong, the technical and supporting staff of the University, and last but not least the performers, are to be congratulated for presenting a musically successful and stimulating series of concerts. I hope the tradition will continue in Miami in 2004.