Vol. 33 Issue 1 Reviews

Electroacoustic Music Studies Network 2008: Musique concrète—60 years later

INA-GRM/Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris, France, 3-7 June 2008.

Reviewed by Karen Sunabacka
Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada

“The City of Light” was the background for the fifth conference of the Electroacoustic Music Studies Network (www.ems-network.org). The conference was presented jointly by Musicologie, Informatique et Nouvelles Technologies (MINT) of the Observatoire Musical Français (OMF) at the Université Paris-Sorbonne and the Groupe de Rechercehes Musical (GRM) of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA). The EMS08 conference committee included Marc Battier and Bruno Bossis from MINT-OMF, Leigh Landy from De Montfort University (UK), and Daniel Teruggi and Christian Zanesi from INA/GRM, Paris.

Interestingly, after the submission deadline the conference dates were extended by two days because of the wealth of paper proposals. Was it the conference focus, Musique concrète60 years later, that sparked this interest or was it because the conference was in Paris and people couldn’t resist planning a trip to this picturesque center of Europe? I, for one, was delighted to add Paris to my summer itinerary.

The INA/GRM and OMF provided the venues for the conference. The local organizers were Oliver Baudouin (MINT-OMF), Frédéric Dufeu (Université Rennes 2), and Julie Hacquard (MINT). The papers were presented at INA, rue de Patay, and at the Maison de la Recherche at the Université Paris-Sorbonne. The concerts, banquet, and social events were hosted at the Maison de la Radio where GRM has facilities and where there are numerous concert halls. With three very different venues situated in different parts of Paris, finding the venues was sometimes a bit of an adventure, although I thoroughly enjoyed walking the cobblestone streets and learning to take the different metro trains that weave through Paris.

The conference also marked the 50th anniversary of GRM. As Pierre Schaeffer and his term “musique concrete” are a central part of the history of the GRM, his influence was lurking throughout the conference. When looking over the conference schedule, I was surprised to find only two presentations specifically about Pierre Schaeffer: Joel Chadabe’s paper titled “Schaeffer in the United States,” and “Balancing between Schafer and Schaeffer in Refining Young Children’s Aural Perception within an Ecological Approach to Education,” presented by Ioanna Etmektsoglou, Andreas Mniestris, and Theodore Lotis. But discussions of Schaeffer and “musique concrete” were omnipresent in many sessions and informal conversations.

The first two days of the conference were hosted by the INA. On the afternoon of Tuesday, 3 June, the conference began with a roundtable discussing the socio-political aspects of electroacoustic music (“aspects socio-politiques de la musique électroacoustique”). After a break, the keynote address was given by François Bayle, former director of GRM, and this was followed by a reception. It was a nice beginning to the conference with lots of time for socializing and a slightly relaxed schedule for those of us adjusting to the new time zone.

On Wednesday, 4 June, the conference began in earnest with the following four sessions: Electroacoustic Performance, Analysis and Research on Electroacoustic Music, Historical Impacts of Electroacoustic Music, and Musical Composition and Technology.  Here again the schedule was slightly more relaxed with only one session at any given time. I particularly enjoyed the presentations by Margaret Schedel and Leigh Landy and I will discuss these in more detail below.

From Thursday to Saturday the conference sessions were held at the Sorbonne. The facilities at the Maison de la Recherche included two rooms as well as a lobby area. By this time in the conference there were considerably more people attending the presentations, and there were more presentations to choose from. At times it was difficult to move around the lobby between sessions, but this was a great place for networking, discussions, and reflections.

During Thursday, the first day of the doubled sessions, one of the rooms was devoted to presentations hosted by the Electroacoustic Music Studies Asian Network (EMSAN, www.omf.paris-sorbonne.fr/EMSAN). The four sessions there focused on current topics surrounding electroacoustic music in Asia. EMSAN was created in 2007 and, according to the EMS08 program booklet, “The main goal of EMSAN is to conduct a vast project on electroacoustic music and music technology, with three main areas: a database, a knowledgebase, and archives.” The sessions included papers that focused on the electroacoustic music of Taiwan, Japan, China, Malaysia and Singapore.

On Thursday in the other room at the Maison de la Recherche, the following four sessions were held: Sound Organization, Musical Structures; The Studio as a Place for Musical Creation; Music Perception and Congition; and Reappropriations and Becomings of Musicial Materials.

Like Thursday, Friday and Saturday had doubled sessions. With two exceptions, the rooms were divided by presentation language. On Friday one room had the following sessions: Sound Organization, Musical Structures (using the same name as one of the sessions on Thursday); Social and Cultural Approaches to Electroacoustic Music; Sound in Electroacoustic Music; and Live Electronics and Improvisation. The sessions in the other room were: La Technologie dans l’acte de creation musicale, Relationship between Arts and Music through Technology (the only English session in this room on the day), Analyse et methods de composition, and Intervention et integration d’éléments paramusicaux dans les musiques életroacoustiques.

The schedule on Saturday was similar, the sessions titled: Musical Parameters, Evaluation and Organization; Music and Representation; La son et sa representation (the only French session in this room on this day); and Music and Education, were held in one room while the following sessions were in the other room: Électroacoustique et instrumentalité: influences et interactions; La lutherie électronique; Premiers développements des musiques électroacoustiques, and L’organisation du son et sa diffusion.

It is an interesting choice to have the sessions divided in this way, instead of mixing papers of similar topics regardless of language. There were a few sessions that were bilingual with papers in French and English, but these sessions were rare. I did wonder how much I missed by taking the easy path and attending the English sessions. I was frustrated on Friday, 6 June, when the sessions titled Social and Cultural Approaches to Electroacoustic Music and Relationship between Arts and Music through Technology occurred simultaneously. I was presenting my paper in one session and was extremely disappointed to miss the other session.

On Wednesday a comment was made about not having the resources to provide translation during the sessions. I am disappointed that this was not available, because it meant that the sessions tended to be divided by language rather than by topic. What important topics and cross cultural issues are missed when attendees are only able to participate in sessions in the language in which one is most comfortable? This is an issue that may perhaps be addressed in a future EMS conference.

On Friday evening there was a concert presented jointly by GRM and EMSAN that introduced electroacoustic music from Bejing, Shanghai, and Taipei. Including this concert, GRM presented three evening concerts that overlapped with the conference.  

I thoroughly enjoyed many of the papers at the conference; I was particularly drawn, however, to topics pertaining to women, technology, and electroacoustic music; preservation, terminology, and technology; and the use of quotation in sound-based music. There were numerous papers that addressed the above issues and I wish to discuss some of them in more detail.

I was delighted to find that there were many presentations by, and about, women. During the first session on Wednesday, both Hanna Bosma and Margaret Schedel discussed their research. On later days I also enjoyed the presentations by Anna Rubin, Andra McCartney, Natasha Barrett, Rosemary Mountain, and Kyong Mee Choi. As a women composer and theorist, I have at times found it difficult to find role models, especially within the electroacoustic music community. The fact that at the conference there were many women attending, and presenting on a variety of topics, was encouraging.

Throughout the conference there were papers that addressed issues of preservation and terminology. On Wednesday, Margaret Schedel talked about the rewards and challenges of preserving works that have technological components. On Saturday, Eric Lyon discussed barriers and possible solutions to archiving sound-based music. In the contemporary landscape, composers or creators are not always the best at notating or finding a way to preserve their pieces so that others are able to recreate, listen to, or even study the work or event.

Ms. Schedel discussed whose responsibility it is to preserve the works, as well as the problems encountered when trying to explain or notate works that exist in a temporal environment. Using a 1966 event, Nine Evenings of Theatre and Engineering, organized by Billy Klüver, she discusses how a recently-released video documentary may not be an accurate representation of this pioneering work. She feels that it is important to preserve the works in some way, and that the responsibilities may lie with the composers and curators of certain events to find the right type of preservations for each piece or event.  

The problem of archiving or notation of sound-based performances surfaces over and over again in a variety of ways. How often have I moved my compositions from medium to medium in an attempt to keep my back-ups current and not dependent on healthy hard drives (let alone earlier media)? If this is happening in my short lifetime, who is going to be concerned with my electroacoustic works when I am gone? Are we returning to a time where art only lasts for as long as there is a living memory of the work and the composer?

In his paper “Radical Archiving,” Eric Lyon presented possible storage solutions where complete works can be stored in an accessible database. This is good solution for making pieces accessible in a centralized place. But there are a limited number of pieces that would be able to be stored in this format. There are many—installations, or other kinds of art pieces—that cannot simply be stored in a database.

As I ponder these issues, I wonder if maybe it is okay for technology-based works to pass into oblivion. For thousands of years music existed in this way. Also, many contemporary pieces are improvised and the intention is not to create an unchanging work. But improvised pieces can at times have multiple presentations and numerous forms. And, as Ms. Schedel asks in her paper ,“Are we going to lose great works because of technical obsolescence?” Archiving or preserving the music that many of us may spend our lifetimes creating is a huge issue. In fact the issues may become more pronounced as the computer becomes even more central to our daily lives.

Related to the issue of preservation is the terminology used to describe technology-based music. Leigh Landy, in his paper “The sound-based Music Paradigm,” proposed the use of the phrase “sound-based music” instead of electroacoustic music. Using a broader term allows for more music to fit comfortably into this supergenre in which there would be sub-categories. With the need for a common language in order to engage in cross-cultural dialogue, a common classification system in which all music is easily included could offer much less confusion. Mr. Landy’s research and presentation was impressive and I was drawn to his ideas and categorization.

On Thursday, I found the sessions titled Reappropriations and Becoming of Musical Materials to be particularly interesting. There were two presentations. The first paper was “The Quotation in Electroacoustic Music” by Raul Minsburg and Fabian Beltramino, and the second was “Applied Plunderphonia: Tagging electronic music with samples” by Julio D’Escriván and Paul Jackson. Mr. Minsburg and Mr. Beltramino analyzed the indirect and direct quotes within recent electroacoustic music in a variety of ways that take into consideration: different ways of quoting, the effect of the quote on the piece, the experience of the listener, and the way a piece is composed. This was a very detailed paper and was a fascinating study of the use of quotes in music.

Something that has piqued my interest in recent years is the way composers are not expected to reference their musical quotes in any type of footnote. There is some fun in trying to find the source of the music quote, but how much is lost when someone doesn’t recognize the quote? Could there be more enjoyment, or a better experience, of a work if the reference is given? Mr. D’Escriván and Mr. Jackson proposed ways in which musical pieces could be tagged or “marked-up” at the time of composition or during an analysis. A subsequent listener could then click on the reference in real time and have immediate access to the source or influence. This software (currently in development) is revolutionary in the way that it could allow both the composer and the analyzer to create a deeper understanding of any recorded or sound-based work with the possibility of music tagging music. 

The conference was a great event and a highlight for me this summer. It was well organized and the hospitality of the GRM and MINT was wonderful. Everyday, I looked forward to the coffee breaks where tasty pastries were available for general consumption. The GRM hosted some wonderful events at the Maison de Radio France including a banquet, a tour of the studio, a concert in Studio 116, as well three concerts in the Salle Olivier Messiaen. My only surprise was that there was no talk or association with the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). When I asked others about this, most people made reference to old divisions between the GRM with Pierre Schaeffer and IRCAM with Pierre Boulez. I had never realized that this separation would be so significant and remain in place today. However some participants of the EMS conference did attend concerts prsented by IRCAM as part of the Agora Festival.

“The City of Light” was the perfect setting for a conference that celebrated the 60th anniversary of “musique concrete” and the 50th anniversary of the GRM. I thoroughly enjoyed the EMS08 conference. I made some important connections and I was impressed with the diversity of presentations. This was my first EMS conference and I am already looking forward to the next one in Argentina in 2009.