Vol. 31 Issue 2 Reviews

Multidimensionality: International Computer Music Conference 2006

Music Department, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 6-11 November, 2006.

Reviewed by Silvia Matheus
Berkeley, California, USA

Even after the worst natural disaster in US history, Hurricane Katrina on 29 August, 2005, many areas of New Orleans are intact and continue to be very much alive. A light of hope shines for better days when historical New Orleans will return to the normality of daily life. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that only one year after the hurricane, Tulane University, one of the top research universities in the nation, hosted the 2006 International Computer Music Conference (ICMC).

The 2006 ICMC was hosted by the Tulane Music Department, and thanks for its excellent organization is owed to Tae Hong Park with the support of a highly capable staff of students, professionals, and faculty members from several US institutions. These included Dartmouth College, Louisiana State University, Loyola University, University of Florida, University of Delaware, University of Virginia, Stanford University, Georgia Tech, Columbia University, and Princeton University.  

“This conference would not have been possible without the help from our generous sponsors in the industry, academia, government and our friends,” states Mr. Park in his introduction to the program booklet. The devastating hurricane did not stop him from generating the organizational structure of the ICMC 2006. “This conference was much more than a gathering of our computer music community, it was an event that would directly impact the recovery of the city and a school that would need all the help and confidence it could muster.” 

ICMC 2006 was an extremely welcome opportunity for music and computer science students at Tulane and other universities in New Orleans to mingle with professionals of the field. It yielded a strong sense of community and compassion among the conference visitors who traveled to New Orleans for the conference. The theme of the ICMC 2006 was “multidimensionality.

The conference presented works integrating music and video with computer technology: acousmatic, interactive and instrumental compositions involving live electronics or tape, laptop music ensembles, and audio and visual installations.  Audio disciplines such as radio broadcast, concerts, and audio installations explored the myriad expressions of “multidimensionality.” Attendees and composers arrived from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia, a variety of ethnic backgrounds, aesthetics, and disciplines. Approximately 320 computer music professionals participated and circa 200 works were staged: 121 during the morning, afternoon, and night concerts; in addition, there were ten installations, four pre-conference afternoon concerts, and 44 Digital Jukebox pieces. Presented at different venues on campus, the extensive concert schedule made it challenging for conference participants to attend all events.

A high standard of works was presented, including video and instrumental compositions, acoustics with electronics and computers, interactive and tape pieces. A few selected works were accompanied by Tulane student dancers. SEAMUS (Society for Electronic Music in the United States) presented the best selected works from the 20th anniversary of SEAMUS (2006 conference) and SEAMUS Video in one of the night concerts. The wide spectrum of selected works emerged with a genuine, unique voice without being restricted to one kind of artistic language or technology. During past ICMC conferences the aesthetics of certain works, by mainly European composers was particularly emphasized. Not so this year. Nevertheless, several tape pieces showed a strong aesthetic influence of the 1980s and 1990s French and German schools, while the surround-sound experience created by multiple loudspeakers around the hall has become prevalent. The nature of the sound palette, processing techniques, and musical gestures of many tape works was similar. In the small, tightly-knit computer music community, we are strongly influenced by closely-related sound aesthetics and ideas. The lack of uniqueness and creativity is an ailment of this era, where globalization, software standardization, and time convenience are the demand. Composers have to rise to the expression of their own voice in their cultural uniqueness. However, I do not wish to minimize the quality of the tape works presented at this conference and I will mention those that certainly stood out from the many beautiful and well-constructed works.

Instrumental pieces did not suffer from the same lack of creativity and uniqueness as compositions on tape. Obviously, the choice of orchestration and writing techniques demands a personal style, and small variations in the choice of instrumentation make a significant difference. 

Most of the late night concerts, the “off-ICMC,” a collaboration between ffmup—Free_Form_MashUp—and the ICMC 2006, took place at the Column Hotel. It is a cozy old French-style building on elegant St. Charles Street, with salons and a grandiose veranda and equipped with a wonderful bar for late night socializing. These concerts presented improvised, live-processed pieces, with indeterminacy and momentum driving these kinds of performances. Being staged in small, intimate spaces worked in favor of most performances, particularly when visual interaction between performers and audience was minimal.

As a listener, I continue to prefer acousmatic pieces over laptop performances. While live laptop performances may be very engaging for the composer/performer, the audience does not enjoy the opportunity of participating in the evolving interaction; after a few minutes listening the interest starts to wane. Personally, I was drawn to performances that showed a clear communication between performer, device, and audience. It was in any case quite engaging to see the performances up close in such intimate spaces. 

The volume of high-pitch frequencies and static noises exceeding 95 dB is apparently one of the aesthetic foundations of electronic music played in Japan, according to composer Hiroki Nishino. His performance in a small room was rather painful and caused many members of the audience to cover their ears or to leave the room.

This controversy leads to the thought that some electronic music composers seem to lack knowledge of psychoacoustics. I would like to mention here the keynote speech by Max Mathews, who strongly advised the new generation of composers to study psychoacoustics for a better understanding of how the brain responds to sounds. Mr. Mathews presented in his keynote address, “Thoughts on the Past and Future of Computer Music,” a historical account from the first hardware and software developments at Bell Laboratories in 1957, to stages of software development from Music I, II, III, and V, Max/MSP, along with historical scientific papers that for example influenced John Chowning, resulting in the discovery of FM synthesis. Mr. Mathew warmly recommended the following books and recordings to the new generation of composers and researchers: The Historical CD of Digital Sound Synthesis (Computer Music Currents, Vol. 13, Wergo WER2033-20); FM Theory and Application by John Chowning and David Bristow (Hal Leonard Corporation, ISBN 4636174828); Music Cognition, and Computerized Sound by Perry Cook (The MIT Press, ISBN 0262531909); and This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin (Dutton Adult, ISBN 0525949690). 

Mr. Mathews emphasized that composers of computer music require a grasp of sound synthesis, psychoacoustics, and need to undergo a different kind of ear training. He may be critiquing the sound quality and the exploration of computer and electronic music composition at present: “The computer is so powerful we don't know how to use the power.” In order to accommodate the demands of today's real-time music performances, composer-musicians ought to know more about instrument design and learn to build their own performance instruments. Stanford University has offered courses since 1991 on instrument building, sensor technology, 3D sensor technology, and controllers. In a video of Keith McMillen's work, the new, innovative ensemble TrioMetrik uses enhanced instruments coupled through an intelligent computer network (MASIAS) to interact with the players. This was a dream of Max Mathews 40 years ago that has now became reality. The opening composition of the SEAMUS concert that followed illustrated some of the concerns that Max Mathews referred to in his speech about sound design, since the piece was lacking in textural timbre.

Due to the great number of works, I decided to focus on a few that I was impressed by. These were pieces that showcased electronic novelty, well-constructed composition, good synthesis technique and performance.

Cort Lippe's Music for alto saxophone and MAX/MSP live processing was a well-punctuated piece with richly processed sounds, a highly engaging opening for the ICMC. The sounds of the saxophone were recorded and manipulated live using the Max/MSP

I would like to mention that there were only a small number for acoustic works accompanied with tape in this ICMC. Presently, there is much less visual intervention of the electronics over acoustic instruments. Most of the time it was hard to identify the pieces that were using live processing techniques from the pieces that were not.

Dream Tableaux by Madelyn Byrne was one of the pieces that left the greatest impression on me during this conference. The piece is well structured and was beautifully performed by Javier Olondo on acoustic guitar. The electronics for this piece and the acoustic sounds were equally interwoven, while the selection of the processed sounds complemented and extended the sound of the acoustic guitar, a true marriage between electronics and acoustic instrument.

Mobile Variation was another strong tape piece composed by Wolek Krzysztof, who used only synthetic sounds for his piece. He made use of different synthesis techniques with great variation. The composition had dramatic phrases with fast passages; overall, a well-crafted work with good control of the sounds in the space. Binjib (empty place) based on the Gi Hyung-do poem "Bun-jib" was a poetic piece for voice and traditional Korean instruments and tape, a well-orchestrated piece with a theatrical performance. It made use of instrumental extended techniques recorded on tape with processed sounds of traditional Korean instruments. The sounds truly enhanced the texture of the acoustic instruments, and the piece was poetically and beautifully performed. Unfortunately the text was spoken in the Korean language without translation, and therefore it was more challenging for the audience to follow and appreciate the development of the drama. I count the translation very important as without it the work loses meaning. 

The violinist Gascia Ouzounian gave a fantastic performance of Bruce Pennycook's composition for violin and computer, Panmure Vistas, a technically challenging piece with live processing using Max/MSP. The quality of the instrumental performance was an eye opener for the computer music community, which has to realize the importance of the oneness between the performer's body and the instrument, and how this communication strongly affects the audience in a positive or negative way. This was an outstanding performance.

Et Ignis Involvens, composed by Joao Oliveira, is an articulated, synthetic-sounds composition with middle-to-high frequencies and long phrases that form a continuous dialogue. It presented a deep coherence in the development of the compositional process: attraction, repulsion, and complementation of the sound punctuated with low-frequency bursts. Even though there was some repetition in the gestural contour of the phrases and timbre, it had an interesting projection of the sound sources in space.  

The conference featured the Azure Ensemble, Ensemble Surplus, and Onix Ensemble, and these groups presented very engaging pieces. The ensemble piece that stood out the most for its compositional quality, the use of computer processing, and a magnificent performance was The Path to The Serene by Yuriko Kojima. It was composed for solo flute with live electronics, along with five instrumentalists: violin, viola, cello, harp, and piano. The music conveyed a deep coherence in the development of the compositional process, creating an effective contrast and dialogue between the instruments and the processed sounds of the flute, incorporating many melodic contours. Computer processing was only used as a highlight to the flute, extending and elaborating the acoustic quality of the instrument. The orchestration was such that it gave an impression of a much larger ensemble.

Das Bleierne Klavier by Hans Tutschku was another dramatic piece, a "sound extravaganza." The live treatment of the sound is controlled by the pianist. According to the program notes the pianist’s gestures are traced and interpreted by the computer program to determine a large ensemble of parameters for the generation and playback of the electroacoustic part.  The piece is made up of a chaotic assemblage of processed sounds of piano with other sonic material. Some interaction was visible, but most of the time it was difficult to distinguish what the pianist was controlling in real time. The gestures never seemed to repeat, the work manifested a convincing, dynamical overall shape.

The Tuesday Night Concert presented two tape pieces, video and dance, instrumental pieces with tape, electronics and computer. I would like to mention that selected pieces for this ICMC were choreographed and performed by the New Comb Dance Company, formed by students from different universities majoring in different fields than dance. Valerio Murat’s Coppi for video and tape was an interesting work using concentrated abstract and no-abstract images in synchronization with sounds. Video and audio appeared in uniform playing complimentary roles. Unfortunately, a dance was added to this work, which distracted from this unity. The work became the background for the dance performance. I personally think that a combination of several media is a difficult undertaking if it is not worked together carefully and intentionally from the point of conception of the work.

Natasha Barrett's piece for tape, Deep Sea Creatures, is a fantastic work using mainly water sounds. We heard only the second half of a 52-min work called Trade Winds for 16 channels. It is a beautifully crafted work, slow in pace with great sonic quality. It was never repetitive and always pleasing to the ears. She made good use of spatialization as well. Natasha Barrett is a solid computer music composer. I look forward to hearing the entire piece.

Of the Thursday morning concert I would like to mention Loom (Etude II pour un enfant seul), a collaborative work by Ge Wang, Perry Cook, and Ananya Misra. Ms. Misra is a talented mathematician and programmer who received the award for the best ICMC paper at this year’s conference. Loom is a demo-style work, with excellent transformation of natural sounds using software created at Princeton University called TAPESTRA (available for download at taps.cs.princeton.edu). The magical experience of listening to this work was that most of the sound sources used were beautifully manipulated, but nevertheless still identifiable. 

A performance that stood out on the program through its instrument design was Sonofusion by John Thompson. This piece was performed with an "augmented instrument" designed by Dan Overholt called Overtone Violin. The Overtone Violin (www.create.ucsb.edu/~dano/violin/) is an evolution of the traditional violin instrument with the purpose of controlling electronics and video without affecting the traditional playing of the violinist by using extended gestures. For this reason it is called an "augmented instrument," contrary to a "hybrid instrument" in which the design of the electronics usually accommodates the playing technique of the performer. Mr. Overholt received waves of applause from his colleagues at the Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE) in Santa Barbara. This is a highly sophisticated instrument and controller!

Balanfo by Daniel Blinkhorn is an acousmatic piece with sonic material derived entirely from a balaphone (close to a marimba) from Guinea in Africa. The coherence of the fluent overlap of the acoustic and processed sounds concatenated with the speech and singing of indigenous people from Guinea. Listening to this piece I felt comfortably transposed. Balanfo differs from other works at the ICMC for its anthropological context; it has not been common to hear pieces from composers who are more engaged in social and political aspects and try to transport their vision into their music world. ICMC works are often a display of the technical skill of the composers, while this work presented a balance. Mr. Blinkhorn is from Australia.

November Sycamore Leaf by Paul Rudy was a memorable piece with a rich juxtaposition of short and long sounds with long pitched drones and gradual sound changes in growing intensity and development. The variety of timbres from thick layers of sounds complimented each other in continuous mutation. There was no pause, no silence. In this the piece stood in contrast to other tape pieces on the Friday morning concert program.

Nobule is a collaborative composition for the "eMic" and two computers by Donna Hewitt and Julian Knowles. The performers used a creative vocal interface, a mic-stand controller designed by Donna Hewitt, called "eMic." The creative design expanded the functionality of a microphone stand, and adapted the artist’s natural mannerisms related to the object to design the interface control. It is a fantastic idea. During the performance of Nobule I would have liked to see more extensive interaction with the eMic controller. But unfortunately the performer appeared too timid. Because of that, the piece lacked in spirit. Imagine Mick Jagger with an eMic and a hip action device to control the electronics!

Nunataq by Petra Bachrata is a dramatic work with synthetic sounds that never seemed to relax. An abundance of crescendos with constantly-moving sound sources in mostly middle-to-high-range frequencies layered with a low pitch reverberated background. The sounds collide, multiply, and transform one another. I was left longing for the low sounds to sustain longer. Finally at the very end of the piece a new, long, densely dramatic material is introduced which then quickly dissipates. More rewarding would have been to experience longer moments of relaxation to digest and appreciate the beautiful strong moments in this work. The spatialization was consciously composed and done well.

American Dreamscape by Steven Ricks, for saxophone with video, is a dynamic composition with well-integrated electronics utilizing various delays and harmonization. Unfortunately, the video did not create any additional dimension or color to the instrument solo. In my opinion, when composers venture into video in their musical work, sound and image must be integrated, otherwise attempting to relate to both, the audience may concentrate on one to the exclusion of the other. In contrast, Substitute Judgement + Metal Catalogue by Jeffrey Treviño, and Circles and Rounds by Dennis Miller both presented artistically processed video images, beautifully synchronized with the audio. Mr. Treviño’s is a well-written percussion work with round video screens and a gong suspended on a stand among the other percussion instruments. The abstracted video images were projected from the back onto each circle, triggered and controlled by the percussionist during the performance. It was a very enjoyable piece, as the video placement among the percussion instruments adds visual uniformity to the performance. Mr. Miller’s piece is a wonderful integration of sound and image. The organic images were technically processed using Maxon Cinema 4D. His work is included on the ICMC DVD.

The tape work Purusha-Prakrti by Manuel Rocha Iturbide transported me immediately to an alternate reality. It was elegantly mixed with slow transitions between events and sound synthesis. As described in the program notes, the sonic material was constructed entirely from sounds recorded in trips to India, along the Ganges river in the cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh and Varanasi, many of them dealing with daily rituals using bells and percussion instruments. The sounds from these instruments, animal life, especially insects and birds, and finally people in daily activities, are the protagonists of this work that evolves as the sacred water stream of the Ganges. The experience of listening to this work was quite convincing in achieving what is described in the program notes. "

Multiplication Virtuelle by Mei-Fang Lin applied a creative use of processed sounds with the acoustic ones of the percussionist. The computer sounds build a contrast to the musical quality of the percussive sounds. The sounds moved from dry percussive sounds to more resonant and wet sounds, to metallic and back to dry wooden sounds.  These colorful stages are punctuated by melodic and resonant transitions. The piece had a circular shape and the rhythmic elements and timbres followed the same principle in varied loops. Multiplication Virtuelle presented a well-written acoustic score, engaging to watch and listen to.

This Too Shall Pass is a composition by Jacob Rundall with spectrally manipulated source sounds of bells and cymbals. It is a textural work with many process variations of the same source, a creative composition with pointillistic separations of the sound sources in space.

ICMC 2006 ended on a very positive note. We thank Tae Hong Park for his flawless organization. The conference was blessed with excellent works and great performances. Due to their large number, many works have not been mentioned. Instead, I have focused on works that impacted on me personally during the performance along with some for other reasons that I have mentioned. We all look forward to meeting again at ICMC 2007 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in August 2007.