Vol. 32 Issue 1 Reviews

International Computer Music Conference 2007: Live Electronics

Re:New—Forum for Digital Arts, Copenhagen, Denmark, 27-31 August 2007.

Reviewed by Arne Eigenfeldt
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Presented as a joint initiative between the International Computer Music Association and Aalborg University Esbjerg, the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) 2007 took place 27-31 August in the picturesque Danish city of Copenhagen. Organizing chairs Kristoffer Jensen, Lars Graugaard (music) and Stefania Serafin (papers) did an admirable job of bringing together researchers and composers and presenting a very successful event.

Rather than having all events hosted at a single location, the entire conference was spread throughout the city, with paper sessions and a daytime concert at the Danish School of Architecture, afternoon concerts at various locations in the town center, and late night concerts in a local club. While this certainly presented unique listening experiences in the various venues, it also presented some logistical complications. For example, the installations, only active during the daytime, were located at the same venue as the late night concerts, several kilometers from the paper sessions; therefore, one had to make the decision to leave the paper sessions for at least an hour in order to view any of the installations.

As is usual for ICMC, there were several concerts spread throughout the day. Perhaps more unusual was the clear division in theme between them. The daytime concerts took place at the same location as the paper session, and were limited to eight-channel fixed media works. The late afternoon concerts alternated between the PLEX music theatre, in which mixed chamber works with and without live electronics were presented, and the DGI-Byen, a conference center whose swimming pool area hosted several “water concerts.” The impressive Black Diamond concert hall hosted the larger ensemble works, while video works were performed at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium.

Having attended the last few ICMC gatherings, I realized that there was no way I could attend all the concerts, listen to the paper presentations that interested me, as well as present my own two papers, and leave the event with any coherent memory. As such, I made a rather bold decision to only attend the concerts that presented live electronics, my specific interest. I realize that I missed some great music; however, in order to do justice to those works I did hear, I felt this was necessary.

A local club, Huset, hosted the late night concerts. For several years now, ICMC has presented an “alternative” venue for music events, sometimes called “off-ICMC,” in which music closer to club culture (rather than the concert hall) has been presented. Performers interested in improvisation, loops, clear pulses, and longer time frames have had an opportunity to present their music in a more informal setting. Unfortunately, many delegates do not attend these events, most often due to their late hours (usually 10 or 11 p.m.) rather than considerations of musical aesthetics. Due to a wicked case of jet lag, I was able to attend, and, perhaps more importantly, appreciate, most of these late night events.

A curious decision was made at ICMC 2007, perhaps inadvertently, to place almost all works that involved live electronics onto late night concerts. The result was up to three concerts per night (10 p.m., 11 p.m., and midnight) occurring each night, sometimes with three or four works per hour. (I remember the days when a single live electroacoustic show took all afternoon to set up, and only rarely succeeded on a technical level, while these concerts all came off smoothly. Kudos not only to the technical staff, but also to the composers and performers who had the nerve to set up in under 10 minutes in many cases.) Most of the works presented in these late night concerts were not what I would normally associate with the club atmosphere; many should have been presented in more formal listening events since they required active listening by an audience not distracted by beer and loud conversation.

Some works that incorporated live electronics did occur in venues outside of the club environment. The Plex was an intimate space, but I found that the wide loudspeaker placement separated the original sound source from the signal processing in a rather dramatic way; this was especially evident in Robert Rowe’s Moon on one side, Sun on the other for harp and interactive electronics. Mr. Rowe is one of the masters of interactive computer music, and he displayed his ability in this fine work. Moon exhibited a great deal of interesting and unexpected processing that clearly explored a variety of relationships between harp and electronics; sometimes subtle shadings, at other times stark opposition. Like any good interactive work, the processing was clearly related to the live performance, without being obvious. Mr. Rowe was also able to precede gestures in the live part with prerecorded material. Because I read the program notes beforehand, I exerted some effort in trying to figure out what was live, what was processed, and what was soundfile playback; this was eventually forgotten (and unnecessary), given the quality of the piece.

John Chowning’s Voices, a work for soprano Maureen Chowning and interactive electronics (the program notes stated Max/MSP), caught me by surprise. Earlier in the concert, a reconstructed version (by Kevin Dahan) of Mr. Chowning’s classic Stria, with new visuals by the Princeton Sound Lab (Ge Wang, Ananya Misra, and Perry Cook) was performed to an appreciative audience, and more in keeping with what I expected from one of computer music’s “grandfathers.”  This new work was one of the most effective live works of the festival. The composer achieved an admirable and fluid relationship between performer and accompaniment, incorporating one-to-one relationships, but not relying upon them (as other gestures continued independently). In one case, the soprano sang an extended melody, accompanied by busy high frequencies; the last note of the phrase triggered a low frequency tone that cut off the synthetic gestures, resulting in a magical interaction and confluence. Curiously, the FM sounds did not appear dated: the composer created a wide variety of sounds that remained unified in timbre.

Sami Klemola’s Fragile demonstrated one of the pitfalls of live electronics: the audience wondering “what is the computer onstage doing?” Fragile was a modernist gestural work for three strings, two winds, piano, and onstage computer in which occasional instrumental notes were amplified, but not necessarily processed, through the loudspeakers. The electroacoustic elements to this piece were subtle and didn’t seem integral to the work, other than the last two minutes. Is that a criticism? It is when the work is on a program entitled “Ensemble Electronics.”

Dan Trueman’s Lasso and Corral: Variations on an Ill-Formed Meter proved to bea clever work in which the four onstage computers served as audible metronomes to the four musicians (and audience). The audible click could possibly have been replaced with a conductor; however, it added a whimsical nature to the work, at times hiding the complexity of the music itself. Impressively performed by the quartet, which included the composer on an eight-string fiddle, the work’s bright harmonies and continual pulse were reflective of the work’s Scandinavian fiddle band origins – fitting, considering the location of the festival itself.

Tommaso Perego’s Incastro di Mondo featuredthe composer on a wireless gamepad controller, facing the musicians—flute, bass clarinet, and violin—and thereby giving the impression of “playing” them. The extreme digital processing of the musicians’ sound was nearly continual, enforcing the post-postmodern noise aesthetic. Unlike many of the works in the festival, the work was shorter than it needed to be.

Most of the music featured at the Black Diamond concert hall was for large ensembles and fixed media, although two works incorporated live computers. Joshua Parmenter’s Organon Sostenuto, for flute, bassoon, cello, contrabass, and interactive electronics, deserves mention, not only for its use of live computer processing, but for the sophistication of the composition itself. The computer provided a harmonic and textural web derived from the live performers; however, the resulting relationships were much more than a simple delay line. The responses were more “orchestral” than singular solo lines, the result of the clearly thought-out use of a live computer and its potential role. For example, the multi-channel spatialization was saved for later in the piece, an effective choice. I liked the shimmering extended chords that were often created, and I found them more effective than the one-to-one delay section (which only occurred once). Of particular note was the feeling that the computer voice was clearly an integral part of the overall composition, rather than “improvised” effect overlaid in performance.

The final evening concert at the Black Diamond featured Calliope Tsoupaki’s Mal di Luna, a work for Frances-Marie Uitti on electric cello, amplified chamber ensemble, and live electronics. Featuring a superstar performer on the final mainstage concert raised my expectations, particularly since it was a live electronic work. This was only reinforced when Ms. Uitti appeared on a raised platform, playing her five string electric cello. The work began effectively with the solo cello’s artificial harmonics coupled with subtle delay processing, creating a shimmering texture evocative of the title. The extended solo progressed to a dynamic divergence between shimmering stasis and violent gestures, dramatically diffused in multiple channels. The orchestra was a colorful combination: guitar, mandolin, harp, percussion, bass clarinet, and piano. It also included a synthesizer which, unfortunately, produced a number of uninteresting drones. The sound mix was at times confusing, as Ms. Uitti’s live sound occasionally disappeared amongst the amplified orchestra. One section featured what appeared to be playback of the soloist’s earlier material, but it was unclear why it was occurring at that point, as Ms. Uitti wasn’t herself playing. At times, the piece seemed to forget it was electroacoustic. When it did explore electroacoustic elements, the occasional duets between soloist and computer were most effective when the processing remained subtle and effective, something harder to achieve within an ensemble of ten instruments. While it was an evocative work that featured some dramatic playing by Ms. Uitti, the live electronics seemed to be trendy and, unfortunately, superfluous additions.

The remaining works that I heard that incorporated live electronics were presented at Huset. R. Luke Dubois and Lesley Flanigan’s Bioluminescene was a work that one would expect from a late night ICMC: computer processing of a live singer with generous amounts of feedback delay, resulting in long gestures that take extended periods to evolve and change. The difference here is that the collaborators have obviously performed together, as Ms. Flanigan’s vocal improvisations were clearly created with full knowledge of the potential processing. Mr. Dubois’s background textures, complete with the requisite low frequency drones, high frequency noises, and subtle beats constructed from timbral processing rather than more direct percussion sounds, were (almost) always in control: to his credit, the feedback got away from him only once.

Ajay Kapur, known for his work in robotics and sensor work, chose to leave his drum robot at home for Digital Sankirna, instead focusing upon his sitar to create a “high energy electroOrganic tribal experience.” If that means dance music with an electroacoustic twist, he certainly succeeded. Playing his modified sitar and controlling Ableton Live software, the composer used the sensing capabilities of his sitar to influence the live processing along with more obvious interactions with drum loops. The audience seemed to appreciate the results: on one hand a driving corporeal rhythm that suited the environment, but at the same time, careful manipulation of timbral elements that could be appreciated if one chose to listen closely.

Silvia Matheus’s Crossings featuredMorten Carlsen on tárogató (a single-reed wind instrument that resembles a wooden soprano saxophone) and Roberto Morales on flute and interactive electronics (complete with a WII strapped to his arm). A curious piece for the venue, not the typical electronica-influenced noise piece one would expect to hear. The audience seemed to recognize this, and remained relatively quiet for the performance. The work demonstrated some of the slow extended gestures of improvised music, while also providing some quick sectional changes of pre-scored compositions.

Perhaps it was Michael Young’s slight free jazz stylings on electronic piano at the start of his piano_prothesis that suggested to the audience an informal environment that invited them to resume their conversations. For those that did, they missed a truly inspired interactive work that showed the potential of real-time neural networks in interactive music. The composer’s system reflected, interacted, expanded, and developed his live improvisations on the piano in a way that was both unpredictable and musical. The complexity of interaction between human and software went well beyond the capture/manipulate/regurgitate aesthetic of much live computer improvisation; the neural network showed its usefulness through its quick adaptations to Mr. Young’s playing, recognizing situations, and seemingly anticipating them. The performance would have done well in a concert environment, rather than the noisy late-night club.

Unlike Michael Young’s work, klipp av (Nick Collins and Fredrik Olofsson) were completely at home in the club atmosphere. Beginning with a light tonal harmonic pattern and black-and-white visuals, their collaboration quickly evolved into darker textures with the entrance of percussive sounds. Mr. Olofsson’s live video, using a handheld video recorder, teased us with blurry two-bit images of his face (and later a rubber duck), and it seemed that we would be in for an interesting, but perhaps predictable, electronica-plus-visuals performance. Catching us somewhat offguard, two people strode casually onto the stage and gradually began an extended contact improvisation that demonstrated that the two were clearly acrobats as well as dancers. While this may sound somewhat distracting from the already dense music and visuals being created, it resulted in an unbelievable confluence of energy. Mr. Collins’s breakbeats were synced to the quick video edits of the live movement, creating a synchronicity that had the audience on their feet. While hugely entertaining, it was equally satisfying artistically, and possibly my highlight of the conference.

Wednesday night at Huset, I was stuck in the back by the bar, and many of the more subtle and delicate transformations of the live instrument in Andreas Weixler and Se-Lien Chuang’s The Colours of a Wooden Flute were lost. From what I could see and hear, it seemed like an effective combination and dialogue, in which the live processing formed an integral part of the work’s success. The processing had consistency, yet managed to create enough variations to prove dynamic.

Richard Dudas’s Prelude for Clarinet and Computer was particularly hampered by the venue. The work was a sophisticated composition for a scored clarinet and evidently pre-scored live processing, in which the processing perfectly augmented the clarinet writing. It came off so seamlessly that the audience seemed to miss the technical achievement of the work, one that ten years ago would have been almost groundbreaking, whereas now is considered virtually commonplace. However, the work was definitely not simply a study in technical matters: the musicality of the work is what I remember most.

I missed most of Thursday’s events, my jet lag catching up to me; however, I recovered the next evening to hear Hugi Gudmundsson’s Windbells. a work for small ensemble and interactive electronics that utilized simple delay lines (both forward and backward), which were effective in relation to the instrumental writing. The computer was an active part in the work, creating separate and unique layers, offering counterpoint and commentary. Despite the conductor making an announcement requesting the audience to be quiet, it did seem like dinner theater at times.

Cort Lippe chose to run the computer for his Music for Cello and Computer from the rear sound booth, leaving the performer alone on stage. This resulted in the audience perhaps not realizing the work was not for cello and fixed media, but a thoroughly integrated work for performer and live electronics. The interaction between performer and computer was well thought-out and controlled, ranging from subversive processing to pushing along predetermined soundfiles. The complexity of the processing, combined with the intricate interaction, resulted in a thoroughly mature and sophisticated piece of music.

Roberto Morales offered what at first appeared to be a typical live work in Viento Sereno, improvising on flute—using the requisite extended playing techniques—and Tibetan prayer bowls, while the software processed the audio in real time, extending, expanding, and altering his playing. The most unusual aspect of the performance was his curious dancing, as he manipulated the WII controller strapped to his arm. The sections where he didn’t play flute proved more interesting, as the computer accompaniment was less directly related to the live performance, including one section that feature voice-like chatter.

Gil Weinberg’s performance was highly anticipated, allowing the audience to hear firsthand his unique robot performer, Halle, in Svobod, for robot, MIDI piano, and saxophone. His program notes stated that Halle was designed to “listen like a human, play like a machine;” perhaps the latter part was stated since Halle was playing two xylophones, not expressive instruments in themselves. Once one got over the fact that a robot was joining in on an improvisation, it came across as a bit of a gimmick, much to my disappointment. Compared to other systems that listen and respond (i.e. Michael Young’s), the final musical result was less than stirring, seemingly incapable of subtle phrasing. Playing with a free jazz ensemble has already been done many times, albeit not by a robot; this musical decision, coupled with the choice of having Halle play xylophones, was, perhaps, not the best environment to feature Halle’s potential. The robot did know when to end, though.

Despite having most works that featured live electronics at ICMC 2007 ostracized to the late night concerts, I felt that the level of musicality demonstrated in the compositions had reached a maturity missing only a few years ago. Most of these works were no longer “experimental”—the technology was clearly under control, and used for the benefit of creating some exceptional music—nor were they suited to the club atmosphere: their subtlety was often lost in the ongoing chatter. As a genre, live electronics has grown up, and deserves to be placed alongside fixed media, chamber music, and large ensemble works on the main stages that allow for more concentrated listening.