The ICMA and the Humanities

(ICMA = The International Computer Music Association) 

Wave List, January 19, 2005

I've been thinking about our discussions of "cyber feminism", the masculinist ethos in some areas of computer music, the relatively high representation of women in some areas of the downtown computer music scene, etc. They seem valuable, and I suspect similar subjects are addressed on the CEC list. (I haven't been on it in years.) These are all topics that fall under the rubric of what might, for lack of a better term, be called the musical humanities. These include fields such as musicology, music sociology, and aesthetic theory.

The ICMA is primarily an artistic organization with a large focus on engineering. Its conferences are roughly divided into two types of presentations: concerts and technical papers. There are occasional presentations involving the humanities, but they seem to be more coincidental than planned. 

I would like to suggest that the ICMA consciously plan a larger portion of its conference for presentations in the musical humanities. This would need to be done through calls for papers, and through designing the conference structure to include this new area. I think the number of concerts should remain the same, but that a portion of the papers presented (maybe about a third) should be planned for the humanities. 

Presentations in the humanities would find a great deal of interest among composers and engineers. I noticed that Leigh Landy organized a panel on the aesthetics of computer music at the ICMC 2000 in Berlin, and that it was one of the best attended events of the conference. It was in a fairly large hall and the place was packed. People were even standing. This subject area has been so overlooked. Composers and engineers seem to really need and want discussions involving the history, sociology, and aesthetics of computer music. 

In fact, people like Leigh Landy, would be in an excellent position to develop this new program area, since the humanities surrounding computer music are exactly his field of expertise. He is also very involved with the ICMA as an organization. (Actually, I am sure there are others also qualified, but I happen to know a little about his work.)

I have noticed that there is almost an over-supply of technical papers at the conferences, with the result that the standards are not always very high. The presentations often involve work in progress that is still so incomplete that there is little to be learned or shared. And often the presentations themselves are hard to follow, not because the material is complex (as it often is,) but because they are poorly prepared. Sometimes there is even a genuine lack of relevance. A little more competition for the presentation of technical papers wouldn't necessarily hurt.

Regularly planning a portion of the conference presentations for the humanities surrounding computer music would be deeply stimulating to both the composers and engineers. It would spark a new kind of intellectual diversity in the ICMA that would help it to grow in very meaningful ways. Below are some off-hand examples of the types of things that could be discussed. They naturally reflect my particular biases and interests, and are much too narrow, but I am sure others could suggest a better and wider range of topics. Remember, these are very off-hand:

+ A paper presenting a critical analysis and update of Georgina Born's article, "Computer software as a medium: textuality, orality and sociality in an artificial intelligence research culture" (Banks, Marcus and Howard Morphy, _ Rethinking visual anthropology_ . New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 1997). Born discusses some of the mechanisms that allowed Ircam to establish such a wide and powerful network within the field of computer music. The reasons Born addresses include even the architecture of its building. How accurate and relevant is her analysis? How have things changed since her article was written? How has Ircam met political pressures from the French government to open itself to the public?

+ How did the failure of NeXT affect computer music? How much time, research and development was lost? 

+ What were the influences that led Boulez to computer music, and what is the history of his negotiations with the French government to found IRCAM? How does the public funding model used by Europeans differ from the university model used by Americans? Do these two models influence the way European and Americans approach and perceive computer music? 

+ How did Edgar Varese's thought about electronic music evolve during his years of inactivity in Sante Fe, New Mexico? How did he continue to develop his vision of electronic music even though electronic instruments didn't really exist? 

+ What events led Xenakis to Indiana University, and what role did it play in the development of his computer music? 

+ What is the history of the motorized, twirling microphone Stockhausen used for spatialization in Kontakte (along with maybe a demonstration of the microphone or a re-creation of it?)

+ How did John Cage work in Champaign-Urbana to create HPSCHD? How did the institution facilitate his computer music even though he had no technical background?

+ Why has so much R&D in computer music affected Hollywood far more than classical music? Is this geographic and based on a kind of regional cultural isomophism? Have California computer music institutions played a greater role in commercial music than those in Europe?

+ Why did Stockhausen, who wrote so many great electronic works, not move to digital music-making? How did this affect his career and reception as a composer later in his life? 

+ A presentation of the history of Stockhausen's work at Ircam (or Berio's or Vinko Globokar's, etc.)

+ A panel on the work of the German media theorist, Frederich Kittler, focusing on his theories about relationships between technology, war and aesthetics. He writes that computer music derives from the same cultural milieu as the men in white coats who work for the military-industrial complex. He suggests that for our own well being we must learn more about the social meanings of technology and the ontology of thinking machines. How valid are this theories?

+ How do the theories of Federich Kittler on technology and war relate to the ethos of violence that surrounds computer gaming?

+ A panel on the aesthetics and sociology of music in computer games. How is the technology being applied to serious, artistically oriented multi-media?

The list of ideas could be endless (and greatly varied by perspectives other than my own.) It shows how many vitally important topics are simply not being addressed by the ICMA because if does not have a component of its conferences devoted to the humanities of the field. Should they not be included?

William Osborne