From the Machines of War to the
Body as Compiled Code
A review of the ICMC 2000 in Berlin as Published in Music Works
by William Osborne and Abbie Conant
The International Computer Music Association is an academic organization comprised of composers, performers, engineers and scientists working to apply digital media to music. The membership is international and the conferences alternate between the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The most recent was held in Berlin from August 27 to September 1, 2000, and included twelve concerts of new music (approximately 70 compositions) and over 130 paper presentations that were also published in the conference’s 563 page “Proceedings.” The conference also produced a CD containing ten of the compositions that were programmed. There were often two to four events running simultaneously, starting at about 9:00 AM and with the last concert of the day ending around 11:00 PM. There was also an Off-ICMC at Berlin’s Podeville that included many additional concerts and a series of workshops.
opening concert was a rare performance of John Cage’s HPSCHD (one of the
first major computer works) played back through about fifty speakers
laboriously installed in the foyer of the Berliner Philharmonie.
There was a hushed silence as the music began emitting metallic baubles
of defrocked baroque sound from everywhere, but after a few minutes most of
the public, which was standing around in groups, began to talk and continued
to do so through the hour-long performance.
It was a noble effort not fully appreciated by the public. Perhaps
music coming from speakers in foyers has become too ubiquitous.
conference included many sessions devoted to “physical modeling.”
The goal is to create software that imitates not only an instrument’s
sound, but also its acoustic principles and performance idiosyncrasies.
This allows the visceral quality of instruments to be playable on
electric keyboards—synthetic clarinets that can imitate the squeaks of reeds
gone awry or the straining air pressure of trumpets that half valve or crack.
Researches at IRCAM have made these models so accurate they are almost
as hard to play as the acoustic instruments they replace.
The next step is to create models for how specific artists play (or
played.) They might, for example, digitally recreate in a robotic sort of way,
some of Coltrane’s mannerisms of playing the sax.
were eighteen sessions demonstrating concrete results of new research.
Adrian Freed, who works at the Center for New Music and Audio
Technology at the University of California, demonstrated a keyboard that
provides continuous information throughout the entire depression or release of
each key. The device connects to a notebook computer via an Ethernet
connection and among its many uses allows for more expressive and authentic
digital keyboards. Perry Cook and
Colby Leider of Princeton demonstrated two extensively modified accordions
they call “squeezeVoxes” which control physical modeling software with the
instrument’s bellows to synthesize the human voice. Tomoko Yonezawa and Kenji Mase demonstrated a fountain that
played piano music. The speed, range and volume of the music changed in
accordance with the trickle and flow of water through funnels.
at the University of Zurich and the University of Campinas, Brazil,
demonstrated a robot with a capacity to learn, and then reflect its
experiences in music. It was
programmed to search for spots of light within in a fenced-in area, and
accompany its movement with music. By bumping around it could learn where the
fence was, which made its music low and dissonant, and where bright spots
were, which made its music go up an octave and become more sublime.
The robot, which was about eight centimeters tall, thus had a sort of
ontological and epistemological nature. It’s
learning process created a musical structure that moved from the frustrated to
the transcendent as it learned more about its world and gravitated toward the
light. Epics of human history
passed before your eyes.
were also displays presenting various projects. One of the most important was
created by Kristine H. Burns, of Florida International University, who
discussed her research concerning on-line teaching techniques and her
“WOW’EM” website. The
beautiful and informative site encourages young people, and especially girls,
to learn more about computer music.
areas of research presented included the design of virtual music environments,
movement sensing installations, 3-D sound spatialization, audio encoding
formats, sound processing and perception, transducers and speakers,
intelligent composition tools, tempo tracking software, and sound synthesis
methods. Unfortunately, many of
the presentations were almost incomprehensible, not because the material was
complicated (as it often was,) but because they were poorly presented.
of the most promising areas of the ICMC were the sessions on the aesthetics of
computer music, organized in part, by Leigh Landy (UK).
In its calls for participation, the ICMC said that, “Computer music
is neither a style nor a genre.”
Two musicologists from Denmark, Ingeborg Okkels and Anders Conrad,
suggested that the ICMC does have an aesthetic bias.
It leans toward “academic computer music” that focuses on abstract
sound created by the latest engineering technologies. Okkels and Anders feel these “engineer composers” are
given preference over other groups, such as those following the American
tradition of experimental music (e.g. John Osterwald and John Zorn) who often use low-tech
instruments such as samplers to collage cultural artifacts. They said that by focusing on tools used, the ICMC declares
tacit aesthetic decisions.
was apparent that technology is sometimes given more status than musical
quality, and that this occasionally causes composers to “hype” their works
as more technological than they really are.
The technological focus also causes the ICMC to sometimes erase its own
history, since musically valuable low-tech electro-acoustic works are seldom
presented. Karlheinz Stockhausen,
for example, who has left an enormous legacy to electro-acoustic music, was
not presented or present at this conference in Germany.
Okkels and Conrad suggested that the price to be paid for favoring
“engineer composers” is “that the ‘engineer way’, is extending
serial music’s compartmentalization as expert culture” into computer
Kittler, one of the world’s
most esteemed media historians who is a professor at Humbolt University in Berlin,
discussed the relationship between technology
and war. He expressed his belief
that computer music derives from the same cultural milieu as the “men in
white coats” who work for the military-industrial complex. He suggested that for our own well being we must learn more
about the social meanings of technology and the “ontology of thinking
Barrett, a Brit living in Norway, illustrated her methods for basing
compositional structures on mathematical models of natural phenomena such as of
avalanches or the spatio-temporal distribution of animal vocalizations in
tropical rainforests. Barry Truax,
by contrast, spoke of the computer’s ability to represent and create forms
of internal drama. Since computer
music allows for such precise control of sound and requires no performers, it
naturally leads to an internal world that is very real, only real, as opposed
to the “hype” of virtual 3-D realities where we always remember there is
a computer somewhere in the background.
though five of the nine papers on aesthetics were by women, there were none on
the final grand panel comprised of six sagely male professors. Whatever the future of computer music might be, it appears
women are being partially left out. Only
40 of the ICMA’s 499 members are women—or 8 percent. Interestingly, 17 percent of the compositions presented at
the conference (which were selected by anonymous submission from over 600
applicants) were by women--over double their membership in the
is not possible to review all seventy compositions presented, so we can
provide only a small representative cross-section.
There were two categories of works, those using only electro-acoustic
sound, and those using electronics with soloists or small chamber groups.
It seemed that about two thirds of the works used “tapes,” and
about one third used some form of live “interactive” electronics--usually
involving the programs MAX or SuperCollider.
two concert spaces, the Matthäus church and the Akademie der Kunst, had excellent
octophonic sound systems installed in them.
Due to the aesthetic focus of the programming, there were no
presentations involving ensembles of electronic instruments, and very few
works dealt even remotely with discrete pitch divisions and forms of metrical
rhythm. Timbreal manipulation of
sound was the focus. There were,
in fact, a number of composers with scientific or engineering backgrounds who
did not have extensive “formal” musical educations.
Todoroff’s “Voices Part II” (Belgium) evoked his childhood memories of
building and listening to small radios. Delicate sinusoidal glisses recalled old
radios being tuned, while ghostly, staticy voices built to very powerful low
square waves. Marc Ainger’s
“Shatter” (USA) impressed by emulating shattering glass and metal objects
accompanied by the sounds of heavy machinery.
Lippe’s “Music for Hi-Hat and Computer” (USA) was one of the most
effective “interactive” works of the conference.
Due to the cymbal’s rich and extensive overtones it can be filtered
to great effect. This allowed the cymbal to be sampled, time streched, and
modulated timbreally and spatially in many variations by a program in MAX/MSP. The work had an improvisatory character and was a bit
repetitive toward the end. Richard
Karpen’s “Sotto/Sopra (USA) was an interactive work for violin and
computer using similar technologies and was notable for its fine violin
writing excellently performed by Iliana Göbel.
Dobrian’s “Entropy” (USA), written for Diskklavier and video projection,
stood out because it was one of the few works to exclusively use a set of
twelve pitches with no timbreal alterations.
MAX patches created fascinatingly inhuman gestures sweeping across the
keyboard. Gordon Monroe’s
“The Voice of the Phoenix” (Australia) for tape and contrabass flute,
which rises from a peg on the floor and stands over six feet tall before
bending back to the performers mouth via a huge triangle, was interesting
because the acoustic instrument was far more exotic than the electronic sounds
surrounding it. Monroe, a
professor of mathematics, writes sophisticated music, even though he mentioned
in conversation, perhaps with an excess of modesty, that he wouldn’t know
how to resolve a diminished 7th chord.
Ludiger Brümmer, and video artist, Silke Brämer, (both from Germany)
presented a well-received and highly compelling work for video projection and
loudspeaker using software that correlates the creation of sound and video
images. Francis Duhmot (Canada)
presented one of the best works of the conference.
Based on samples of various types of flutes, it stood out due to its
extremely well crafted structure unifying an interesting variety of subtlety
worked material, a fine sense of tension and release, excellently spatialized
by the composer at the mixer.
ICMA made no error in offerings its conference commission to Elizabeth Hoffman
(USA.) Her stunning work in four
continuous movements, entitled “Mannhattan Breakdown,” for clarinet,
cello, percussion, tape and live electronics, explored improvisatory
structures based on predetermined elements and used a free temporal
interrelation between the live performance and tape. Her work demonstrated a
wide-ranging command of compositional methods.
the end of the conference, the music began to become rather predictable due to
the aesthetic confines of the festival’s programming scheme. The homogeneity
also existed because so many people were using relatively similar synthesis
programs—especially MAX and SuperCollider.
These programs are very flexible, but composing with “patches” can
create aesthetic and epistemological biases that incline music toward certain
kinds of sounds and effects. Washes
of sonic material made by stuttering loops of granulated sound shaped by
modulated timbre were ubiquitous, as were improvised, real-time
spatializations at the mixing board.
there was a general weakness to the music, it was structure. Timbreal studies are new to western music and so there are
few models for structuring them. After
observing this problem in previous conferences, Ian Whalley (New Zealand)
presented a paper suggesting that system dynamics modeling might be used to
create narrative structures for computer music. He demonstrated the idea with
computerized flow charts outlining the structures of works such as
(See diagram below.)
Problems remain though, because one still needs something semiological (signs and signifiers with metaphorical meanings) to place in the structures. Timbre, which seems to be the focus of much computer music, might not have the same richness of semiological meanings associated with it as pitch and rhythm. The reasons for this might not be only cultural, but also have something to do with the kinesthetic characteristics of music.
there was any single impression left by the conference, it is the extent to
which the computer is disembodying music.
In his keynote address, Joel Chadabe, said, “We want a holistic
instrument that stresses the intellect and isn’t dependant on the body. We
can play the sounds of a cityscape. Why
do you need a body for that?” Even
though he is not against the body, he spoke of it as an unnecessary hindrance
to music-making, a limitation to freedoms of the intellect.
Some feel this approach might be based on false assumptions about what humans are. In the last two decades, cognitive psychologists such as George Lakoff have argued that there is no Cartesian dualistic person with a mind separate and independent of the body. Reason is not disembodied. Its very structure comes from the details of our embodiment. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty, also view the body as inseparable from reason, the primal basis that shapes everything we can mean, think, know, and communicate.
We may find that there is no quick path to putting the body in music, and that without the long, existential process of making an instrument and the body-mind one, we weaken cognitive structures that are essential to musical meaning. Technical and aesthetic strategies for solving this problem formulate the future of computer music.