Vol. 26 Issue 1 Reviews
DEGEM: Klangkunst in Deutschland (Sonic Arts in Germany)
CD-ROM, 2000, Wergo T 5150; available from Schott Music & Media, GmbH, Weihergarten 5, 55116 Mainz, Germany; telephone (+49) 6131-246-883/888; fax (+49) 6131-246-252; World Wide Web www.schott-music.com

Reviewed by Oliver Schneller
Paris, France

Klangkunst in Deutschland (Sonic Arts in Germany) is the title of the first CD-ROM presented in both German and English by the German Society for Electroacoustic Music (DEGEM) in collaboration with the Aesthetic Strategies in Multimedia and Digital Networks project of the University of Lüneburg. The disc, issued on the Wergo label, contains portraits and work samples of seven "sound artists" currently living and working in Germany. As a special feature, DEGEM has included its International Documentation of Electroacoustic Music, a gigantic database (in FileMaker and Excel formats) containing a worldwide listing of studios for electronic music and a catalogue of 21,062(!) works written between 1901-1999 by over 4000 composers.

Five individual artists, Werner Cee, Michael Harenberg, Robin Minard, Jutta Ravenna and Johannes S. Sistermanns, as well as the artist-tandem Sabine Schäfer/Joachim Krebs were invited to present themselves and their work with texts, pictures, audio samples, and spoken words. The CD-ROM seems a tremendous medium for the purpose of introducing artists who find themselves working in the zone between music and the visual arts with an emphasis on composed installations and interactive environments. After reading through the informatory texts at his/her own pace, the user has the possibility to get an impression of the spatial set-up of the often rather complex installations by viewing video-clips while listening to the actual acoustic responses. Pure audio files of a higher quality are provided for works where listening is the priority. Needless to say, both audio and video samples in their CD-ROM presentation convey merely an idea of the aura of the works presented. In reality, they may feature 32-channel spatialized sound or highly differentiated light choreography. One artist, Michael Harenberg, aware of this limitation, had the idea to create a new work especially for his contribution to the CD-ROM. His enjoyable "virtual interactive sound installation" PERSIMFANS transforms the graphic user interface into an interactive audio-visual experiential field which invites the user to freely browse through and interact with 15 virtual "rooms" appearing on the monitor. The sounds are also virtual in that they are based on physical modeling of flutes, percussion, and string instruments.

In spite of the fact that each of the contributors were given complete liberty to assemble their presentations according to their own wishes, the disc retains a graceful sense of unity with its engaging user surfaces. In addition, this release provides a vast source of information on the "state-of-Sonic-Arts," with links provided to individual Web sites as well as listings of publications and compact discs. On a technical note: the various plug-ins that are needed to fully activate the HTML- and Java-Script-based applications have been conveniently included on the CD-ROM by DEGEM.

The following provides a brief overview of the individual contributions. Werner Cee (b. 1953), a musical autodidact, fellow of the Akademie Schloß Solitude and Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, and Bourges prize winner in 1993, presents his work in six categories: 1) Sound and Light installations (multi-media); 2) Acoustic Art (composition); 3) Soundscapes (installations); 4) Theater (mostly music theater projects for children); 5) Live-music (improvisations); 6) Ethnomusicological projects, mostly in collaboration with the writer Bettina Obrecht (specializing in music from the Scottish Highlands and Istanbul). His works in these categories range from more or less "traditional" installation set-ups such as microphone/loudspeaker feedback-signals transformed to create a self-generating piece, to the light installations lost (1992) in which a stroboscope is suspended from an elastic cable, to between the lines (1992), coordinating the diffraction of colored light through a mass of glass-splinters with sonic responses, to braindrops (1993), in which the frequency and electronic transformation of the sound of water droplets is controlled by bio-feedback via EEG-processing.

A different aspect of Mr. Cee's work are his "acoustic films," mostly composed for radio production and filed under both of his categories, Acoustic Art (composition) and Soundscapes. While traveling the composer collected recordings of mostly urban environments and later mixed them to create an acoustic portrait. Such an "acoustic film" can then even be performed outdoors, as in the case of Open Air Soundscape (1998), a "piece for summer sunset" lasting over two hours to be performed in a familiar space that is then gradually (acoustically) contextualized and transformed into an Istanbul bazaar or a Cuban village via eight-channel sound diffusion.

Returning to Michael Harenberg (b. 1961), one discovers already in his early works an emphasis on the use of computers. His activities have included collaborations with multimedia artists Clarence Barlow and Barbara Heller, shows at the Documenta in Kassel (1992) and participation in the aforementioned Aesthetic Strategies project at Lüneburg University. Following his early compositions for instrumental ensembles are works in which the sounds of real instruments have been replaced by an array of virtual instruments created by complex physical modeling algorithms. His works Stundenlang Nr.5 for a dancer, four instruments, and virtual flute, E-/L-/M-Medusa for virtual bass flute and computer (1999), and Doublebind (1998), an interactive sound installation for "low-tech" analog equipment and complex computer-controlled physical modeling, make extensive use of this synthesis technique. Inter-music (1996), for Speech Synthesizer, connects to the virtual space of the Internet by reciting all the URLs that were to be found in Mr. Harenberg's browser at the time.

If the accent of Mr. Harenberg's work lies in the creation of the artificial and virtual, the installations of Robin Minard (b.1953, Montreal) seem often to be based on finding links to the organic world through the use of technology. Works such as Silent Music (1995) or Landscape I (1997) consist of hundreds of mushroom-like little piezo loudspeakers that cover the floor or are mounted on walls. The organic analogy of these plant-like configurations that emit soft sounds of computer-controlled MIDI instruments is enhanced by their responsiveness to natural phenomena. In Weather Station (1995), light and climate sensors turn detected weather changes into MIDI control data, while Intermezzo (1999) is a fixture of hundreds of loudspeakers partially hidden among bushes, adding to the acoustic environment of the Federal Garden Show 1999 in Magdeburg, Germany.

The transformation of a given environment through sound is also the theme of Mr. Minard's Neptun (1996) commissioned by the Institute of Electronic Music (IEM) in Graz. Here, two small rooms of a castle in Graz are fortified with a layer of artificial walls behind which lies—invisibly—an 8 cm-thick "loudspeaker ribbon" which circumscribes the two rooms. Water-like, streaming sounds evenly pass through this diffusion field. The composer describes the "loudspeaker ribbon” as:

" A variation of the electrostatic principle sometimes found in high-fidelity loudspeaker systems. The ribbon diffuses sound uniformly across its entire surface. For the installation Neptun a special loudspeaker ribbon, made from a paper-thin amalgam of aluminum and Mylar plastic, was developed and produced together with Christoph Moldrzyk (Berlin)."

Interaction with environments, in particular with hidden or even inaccessible ones, is also one important aspect of the work of Jutta Ravenna (b. 1960). Besides installations using floating sound-buoys to amplify the barely audible sounds of water-insects (LeiseLaute(Feld1), 1994), or the mixing of digital and real cricket-chirping in an abandoned factory hall (LeiseLaute(Feld2), 1994), she has found ways to make the inner world of computer circuit boards acoustically tangible. Through the use of impulse amplification and transposition these sounds become audible to the human ear. By creating sculptures of mounted racks with circuit-boards, often equipped with light- and pressure-sensors, Ms. Ravenna's aim is to "re-materialize and integrate this phenomenon [the circuit board] into the real world in which it is presented."

A particularly original manifestation of this idea is the series of Data-Sound-Windows (Fields 1 to 4) created in 1995. In Field 1, green windows of semi-transparent circuit boards contextualize the sacred space of a church. By placing the construction in front of the church windows the intricate patterns of the circuitry shine through in counterpoint to the usual paintings found on the windows. Field 1 is equipped with light sensors that trace light changes that are transformed into timbral changes in the accompanying soundscape of amplified printer, mouse-click, and ventilator sounds.

By comparison, Cologne artist Johannes S. Sistermanns (b. 1955) stresses the "performance" aspect more than any of the other composers presented on the DEGEM CD-ROM. His work revolves around the idea of resonance in the widest possible sense: "The room becomes a resonance of what is out, the outside is the resonance of what is in."

In Mr. Sistermann's works, "resonance" encompasses the acoustic response of a room or body as well as the resonance of a mind: "I just want to open up a field of infinite possibilities. I make an invitation." Resonance happens in the response of the listener: "Experience yourself as an observer whose body is being played".

To begin with, a practical example of this composer’s idea of resonance can be found in his frequent use of his multi-monochord, which is based on Pythagoras's instrument but which has 39 strings tuned to the same pitch. His Lichtung (1997) suspends three such instruments in the atrium of the SFB-Soundgallery in Berlin. Their excitation occurs via membrane-contact by transferring radio and television sounds onto the bodies of the monochords.

In his “TV-under-water-performance," Water under Water (1997), the monochord at first resonates to the sounds of Mr. Sistermann's voice and is then struck by pebbles collected in his mouth during a dive in the Rhine river.

A broader idea of resonance comes to carry the pieces Paris, drinnen (1992) and Klangort (1992). The former is a radiophonic sound-project for interior spaces (passages, metro stations, malls, and private apartments) found in Paris. These spaces maintain contact with the outside world through various openings, windows, and doors. Mr. Sistermann found the particular resonance tone of each room and recorded himself humming it. The results of this process including additional noises recorded in and around these spaces were then played into a piano with the sustain pedal down and re-recorded with the added level of resonance. Klangort for 24 a cappella singers in 24 private apartment spaces with open windows presents a live application of a similar idea. All 24 singers chant the resonance tones of their rooms at the same time out of their open windows, thus giving a city block a magical acoustic ambience.

The most elaborate presentation of a single work on this CD-ROM is the project sonic lines n'rooms by Joachim Krebs and Sabine Schäfer, who have worked together as a team since 1995. A commission by the SüdWestRundfunk (SWR), the piece was presented at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in October 1999 in the basement of the old library building, the Hofbibliothek. The 32-channel spatial sound composition spreads out through four connected rooms, which together become a "traversable four-limbed spatial sound body." Each of the four rooms contain eight loudspeakers set up in different configurations—diagonal, elliptical, and trapezoidal—each with their own diffusion patterns of varying sound sources. The CD-ROM features detailed plans of the set-up (so-called "consistency-maps") as well as the spatial trajectories of the source sounds and their transformations, along with photos, video clips, and audio samples.

The objective of the installation was to intensify the experience of acoustic conditions through the artistic-poetic manipulation of architectural space. The sounds themselves fluctuate between low continuous drones and rhythmic and discrete artificial or processed animal utterances. Controlling this elaborate sound-space composition is the Topoph40D, a spatialization system developed for Sabine Schäfer by Sukandar Kartadinata during the early 1990s. Three computers share the control of this system together with a special mixing board built to fit this configuration. Computer A receives the itineraries of the desired spatial motions as MIDI data from a sequencer, transforms them into system-exclusive control data that is relayed to computers B and C which then translate the data into the format used by the mixer which in turn passes out the discrete signals to the speakers by means of voltage controlled amplification (VCA).

Other projects involving elaborate spatialization are Sabine Schäfer's TopophonicPlateaus (1995), for 27-channel sound, electroacoustic sounds, human voices, and computer-controlled piano, SonicRooms (from 1997), a group of sound-tents with individual multi-channel spatialization, and Joachim Krebs's AquaAngelusVox (1998), a 16-channel sound installation with visual projections premiered in the Zeiss-planetarium in Berlin.

Be it through the statements of the artists, through the audio or video samples of their works, or through score excerpts and diagrams, this CD-ROM presents a wealth of stimulation and ideas around the context of "Sonic Art," "Audio/Visual Art,” "Sound ART," and “SOUND Art," or whatever definition one chooses to settle with. In spite of the practical necessity to be selective, the expectation raised by the title to present an overview of "Sonic Arts in Germany" is not disappointed, and one leaves one's screen with an inspired air and the hope that listening/seeing/perceiving will continue to be challenged through the creation of art.