The majority of works, lectures, and papers at any given conference or festival will likely be uninteresting to any single observer. Here I’m only interested in reviewing the small number of works that really stood out to me as the most interesting, unusual, and exciting new repertoire from the International Computer Music Conference a little over two weeks ago. I’ve grouped the works roughly according to their instrument or ensemble.

Acousmatic Works

Buoy by David Berezan. It’s hard to describe what it is about an acousmatic work that immediately draws me in, but Buoy certainly did this. The work, which apparently “explores the sound world and environments of sea buoys, many of which have bells, gongs or whistles […]” has a very immersive quality with moments of sudden. This was the very first acousmatic work I heard at ICMC, and I think it was one of the best. Unfortunately, there’s no stereo virsion online, but other works by David Berezan can be heard here:

Birth by Mark Pilkington is like Minecraft meets Oskar Fischinger. Pilkington’s work probably doesn’t deserve to be compared to a game by me. In truth, it’s a beautiful and very successful synthesis of abstract visuals with sound. The stereo version below can’t compare to the immersive effect of hearing the work in a concert hall in surround sound.

Another audio-video work, Dotscilloscope by Cooper Baker has a peculiarly direct aesthetic. It stood out as being different from almost everything else I heard during ICMC. The rough oscillators and simple visuals consisting of a “synchronous visual representation of the music’s waveforms” appeals to me because of the clarity of concept.

Joseph Sannicandro’s review […] criticizes Javaari on the grounds that “Acousmatic music is meant to obscure the source material, but both instruments were clearly recognizable[…].” I couldn’t disagree with this […] attitude more.

I unequivocally loved Javaari by Manuella Blackburn. A striking feature of this work is the use of tabla and sitar samples. Although clearly evocative of the cultural and musicological themes we associate with Indian classical music, within the setting of this work these gestures were composited into new and equally compelling musical objects. I was immediately struck by how natural and intuitive the timing of the electronic gestures sounded. Through a hail of granular sounds the strong rhythmic motives of the table stutter and snap. I was enchanted. Interestingly, at least one other reviewer of the work online does not share my enthusiasm. Joseph Sannicandro’s review (which Manuela Blackburn has
responded to on her website) criticizes Javaari on the grounds that “Acousmatic music is meant to obscure the source material, but both instruments were clearly recognizable[…].” I couldn’t disagree with this (all too common) attitude more. Aesthetic judgments of this kind only have meaning in relation to a particular cultural context. Such debates never make it outside the walls of academia.

Percussion Works

Percussion works were the real highlight of ICMC 2013. For whatever reason, there was an abundance of great music for percussionists and electronics.

The entire ICM conference was itself just a portion of the Totally Huge New Music Festival in Perth. Before the conference even started I attended a performance by the Melbourne based Speak Percussion group. This program included Transducer, a work whose “composition and concept” are credited to Robin Fox and Eugene Ughetti. Essentially Transducer is an evolution of the concepts in Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music: creating music from the hardware of recorded sound itself. Various freely swinging microphones cross the path of speakers and create isorhythmic patterns of feedback. The somewhat hypnotic clicking and purring of feedback from the ten output speaker channels around the audience meshed nicely with the mise en scène of swinging microphones and the utilitarian movements of the percussionists. One of the must beautiful effects in this work was a feedback loop in which a large tam-tam was placed between the microphone and the speaker. Since feedback works by recording an acoustic frequency and playing it back immediately into the microphone, by manipulated the location of the microphone in front of the tam-tam, Peter Neville from Speak was able to isolate specific resonant frequency in the metal plate. A video will serve to illustrate best here (tam-tam effect at 1’52”):

Dan Van Hassel’s Fzzl for electronically prepared snare drum may have been my favorite piece of the conference. It’s a simple and magnificently-crafted composition, a sentiment I also heard expressed in nearly identical terms by older and better composers than myself. Fzzl uses just one transducer placed on the bottom of the drum. Through inducing vibrations in the drum electronically Van Hassel has created a consistently fresh and surprising dialogue between the live performer and the electronically induced (but acoustically propagated) sound. Go listen to this piece!

THAUMA [dialogue for amplified percussive guitars] by Giulio Colangelo is a spikey landscape of twangy struck strings and fearful things done to soundboards. The unfortunate victims of this attack (two guitars) were thankfully nearly out of sight behind overfull music stands. I loved how Colangelo has explored many timbres of this unusual ensemble. The electronics sometimes inched towards the cliché, but overall the work kept me involved and left me wishing that I’d thought of writing a piece like this.

Cort Lippe’s Duo For for cajon and computer is yet another great piece. A cajon is basically just a wooden box, so writing such a varied and interesting piece for the instrument (ten minutes of music at that!) is quite impressive. Lippe explains some of the process used in Duo For in his program notes:

“[the computer] does an analysis of the incoming cajon signal and gives out information as to when the cajon is struck, how loud it is struck, the timbre of each strike, and details about relative loudness across the audible frequency range in 11 independent frequency bands. All this information, from larger scale rhythmic and phrase tracking, down to micro-level frequency band information of individual strikes, is used to continuously influence and manipulate the computer sound output by directly affecting digital synthesis and compositional algorithms in real-time. Thus, while interacting with the computer system, the performer has a role in shaping all of the computer output.”

In summery, the effect for the listener is that the computer “pulls out” pitches and “frozen” textures from the percussive strikes on the cajon. This creates an interesting perceptual grey zone between pitched and unpitched sounds.

Cello Works

Rama Gottfried’s Fluoresce unfortunately does not seem to be online. It was a striking piece that opened a whole evening of cello music. Geoff Gartner performed it with much dramaturgy, accentuating the struggle and frustration he seemed to read in the work. Some audience members disparaged the flamboyant performance, but I felt that it fit the mood of the piece.

The lyrical opening of Dart by Tom Williams is beautifully rich and ornamented. It’s a wonderful beginning, but I was more skeptical of the rocky, rhythmic second half which at times bordered on the electronic backbeat cliché. The composer’s website also contains some interesting score samples for this piece.

Clarinet Works

Occasionally you see a piece with which you instantly resonate. I had that experience with Julien-Robert Legault Savail’s Fit into the crowd expertly performed by another talented Canadian, Krista Martynes. The bass clarinetist performs behind a theatrical scrim on which the video elements of the work are projected. At the start of the work a crowd scene hides the performer. As the work progresses the clarinetist is slowly revealed both visually and audibly, a process I understand was accomplished by following the location of the performer with an infrared camera. Another striking element in the work is the washes of color that follow the performer’s gain (volume). The video bellow doesn’t do the work justice. Live, the work effectively synthesizes sound, video, and theater in a kind of parable of artistic risk and reward.

I mentioned it in my last post, but it bares inclusion again here. Carlos López Charles‘s Las flores y las nubes is a great audio-video piece. See my overview of the conference to watch that work. Another piece by Carlos, although not included in the conference program, is Points-Lines-Plane, a wonderfully-playful, live video collaboration with Nicole Canham.

A Horn Work

Kevin Ernste’s Nisi necessarily stands out as being the only work for horn in the whole week. I don’t know why there aren’t more electroacoustic works with horn; the instrument has so many interesting possibilities for extension through electronics. Kevin Ernste made good use tumbrel extended techniques which appear echoed in the electronics like a thick bank of fog. Although a strong composition, I felt that the work fell short of apotheosis by not taking its structural ideas far enough. Although the program notes reference Xenakis (always a dangerous name to invoke), I didn’t hear in Nisi the acute necessity ‘being and being only this way’ that I hear in that composer’s works.


Correction: Peter Bosch has kindly gotten in touch with me to offer more details about the technical workings of Mirlitones: “What we do is controlling the air flow to each pipe by opening and closing gradually “proportional valves” that listen to control voltages. We use a midi-to-cv interface for controlling these valves.”

I didn’t have a chance to see many of the sound installation at ICMC unfortunately (too busy going to events!). One that I did see and liked was Mirlitones by Peter Bosch and Simone Simons. As the artists describe their work “The point of departure for the work was the spectacular noise produced by children with minuscule plastic mirlitons in the cavalcade of the Funeral of the Sardine, the final act of the biggest fiesta in the Spanish town Murcia.” A quick Google search indicates that “mirlitón” is the Spanish word for a kazoo. A kazoo is a membranophone, that is, it produces sounds with a vibrating membrane, normally wax paper in the common instrument. Presumably then, Mirlitones produces sound by electronically inducing vibrations in a membrane covering one end of the PVC pipe.

The actual sound of the installation was subtle: low frequency drones which are inflected almost imperceptibly, perhaps by imperfections in the membranes, changes of the ambient conditions in the rooms, or perceptual effects such as combination tones. For me, the sound was only one aspect of the installation, however. Its location, in Kidogo Institute, an antique, 19th century ‘Dangerous Goods Store’ structure directly next to the ocean in Freemantle encourage a somewhat meditative approach. Colorful beach chairs under the PVC pipes encourage the viewer to lie down and look up at the rough, wooden boards of the room which seem to, themselves, vibrate perceptibly with the installation.

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