Vol. 38 Issue 4 Reviews
EMS 2014: The Twelfth Electroacoustic Music Studies Network Conference

The Twelfth Electroacoustic Music Studies Network Conference, June 10–14, 2014, Universität der Künste Berlin, Germany. Information about the conference is available at http://www.ems-network.org/ems14/.

Reviewed by Ian Stevenson
Sydney, Australia

EMS 2014Over 100 delegates came to Berlin to attend presentations by 74 experts from the field of electroacoustic music studies at the annual Electroacoustic Music Studies Network Conference (EMS14). Several days of surprisingly tropical weather allowed the delegates to enjoy the relaxed and welcoming atmosphere of the host city.

The theme of the conference was Electroacoustic Music Beyond Concert Performance. It was hosted by the Universität der Künste Berlin in cooperation with the Technische Universität Berlin and Freie Universität Berlin.

Given the conference theme, Berlin was a good choice for the host city as it is renowned for its contribution to electronic music and to sound art or Klangkunst, both in the fields of academic study and professional practice. This contribution is reflected in the programs of study in music, sound studies, and audio communication offered by the host institutions.

The presentations were selected according to their relevance to the conference theme. The region most represented in terms of the number of presenters (perhaps largely because of geographical proximity) was Europe. 17 presenters came from the United Kingdom; 13 from Germany; eleven from France; six from Italy; two each from Finland, Greece, and Sweden; and one each from Ireland, Hungary, and the Netherlands. North America was the next most significant region with nine delegates from Canada and six from the United States. Finally a representation from Asia and Oceania included two each from Japan and Australia, and one each from Hong Kong and New Zealand. Several researchers from China, Japan, and Taiwan currently working in France are included amongst the eleven indicated above. The gender distribution was as follows: 22 presentations were made by women and the remaining 52 by men.

In the first paper session Simon Emmerson laid out the principal concerns for one of the main themes of the conference – the contrast of conventional musical practices with sound art practices, both in terms of the temporal engagement of the audience and their spatial relation to its presentation. These issues were reiterated in many of the subsequent papers, offering a wide range of perspectives on both the theoretical analysis of these differences and the specific ways in which particular works exemplify temporal and spatial structures that can be experienced or manipulated by audiences.

Many precedents to the non-linear and flexible presentation of sound material, typical of much sound art practice, were demonstrated in early experimental approaches to electroacoustic music composition. Regionally focused surveys of these practices from China, Italy, Japan, and Finland were presented, offering new insight into the wide-spread diversity of these practices beyond the canonic figures that occupy the conventional music history in this area.

Much of the work in these surveys demonstrated the difficulty of drawing clear distinctions between electroacoustic music, broader sonic arts practice, and work more readily associated with the fine arts. A range of works that crossed these boundaries was represented by Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. One important factor in drawing distinctions, implied in the conference title, is the site in which the work unfolds. Other than the concert hall, some alternate sites included art galleries, the cinema, museums, domestic and mobile listening situations, and the now ubiquitous network streaming services. In addition to these actual and virtual spaces, the outdoors as a site for locative and mobile media and other forms of public art was also considered. This increased scope for the study of electroacoustic practices presents a direct challenge to any comprehensive approach. However the conference was marked by a strong sense of common purpose and shared history and concerns.

The distinctions and similarities between musical and fine arts practices were explored in the first keynote address given by Helga de la Motte-Haber, a musicologist and pioneer in the systematic study of sound art in Germany. Her incisive presentation identified spatiality as both a unifying and differentiating factor in the comparison of electroacoustic music and sound art. Returning to the themes identified by Simon Emmerson, the presentation introduced canonic works that crossover the spatio-temporal concerns of music and installation. Works that unify sound, light, and space such as La Monte Young’s and Marian Zazeela's extended duration work Dream House (1969 to present), and Iannis Xenakis's architecturally realized Diatope (1978) were considered. De la Motte-Haber made a distinction between works that dealt with space as an intrinsic element and those that addressed the attributes of external space. An important link was made with the canon of installation practice in the fine arts, in particular the work of Robert Irwin which made the gallery space itself the object of the work and eventually focused on the phenomena of perception and experience. According to de la Motte-Haber, works such as these address the “site condition” rather than being “site specific”. Her presentation contrasted Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting in a Room (1969) as an example of a site-specific work, with Robin Minard's Klangstille (1995) as an example of a site-conditioningwork. Both works in a sense articulate the space but one deals with the relation of the composer and listener to the space as it presents itself, while the other modifies the space. Her presentation covered other canonic figures such as Bernhard Leitner, Hans Peter Kuhn and Christina Kubisch. Despite the crossovers and intersections the normative concert hall format continues to differentiate acousmatic music with its fixed audience orientation, from installation practice in which the space and work are continually modified by the dynamic orientation of the audience.
The presentation was bookended by the experiential immersion with two movements from Robin Minard's eight-channel work Book of Spaces (2004). It is characterized by an extreme clarity in which two to six streams of material are presented in a sequentially additive form. The first movement, in ternary form by addition and subtraction, contrasted abstract iterative metallic elements with environmental sounds presented in the middle section. The second movement, which exhibited a more complex formal structure started with a slow accretion of three rotating elements following a circular trajectory around the audience. These elements gave way to a field of environmental sounds that, in turn, were replaced by streams of beautiful, textured, noisy elements. The presentation of these high quality and engaging works positioned on either side of the historical narrative of de la Motte-Haber's keynote address was a brilliant stroke of conference programming.

Several subsidiary themes were evident in the conference program. For example, some of the papers addressed aspects of narrativity in electroacoustic music and sound art. Two sessions representing the important work going on in East Asia were chaired by Marc Battier, who has been active in developing and supporting the EMSAN (Electroacoustic Music Studies Asia Network) network. These sub-themes showed both the broad range of methodological approaches, and the broad geographical impact of the field.

The second keynote address, given by Miller Puckette, developed the theme of “the deadly embrace between music software and its users”. He outlined the conflicts and challenges faced by both software developers and the composers and musicians who use their products. Developers are encouraged to provide features to assist the composer, but there is also a need for reliability and longevity of the platforms in which works are developed. These two concerns are often in conflict particularly when commercial constraints come into play. The discussion then moved to the related concern of the transparency and generality of a software environment. Puckette offered an engaging and honest assessment of the ideal aim of environments such as Pd and Max, which is not to impose musical constraints on the composer. Ultimately, he concluded that software must encode musical practice, or at least mediate existing practice. It was refreshing to hear such a thoughtful and reflective analysis of the role of digital instrumental tools from the perspective of someone who has been deeply engaged in these issues and has been central to the development of the field.

These software design issues were also reflected in a major theme of the conference that reflected upon tools and techniques for the analysis and notation of electroacoustic music. Several of the current software tools were described and evaluated in the context of describing and analyzing particular musical works. These tools included the TIAALS software of the TaCEM project at the University of Huddersfield, and EAnalysis developed by Pierre Couprie for the new multimedia project for electroacoustic music analysis at De Montfort University. Importantly the tools were validated through analyses of a range of electroacoustic works. The important analytical work being done with these tools is central to the challenge of developing a more broadly recognized musicology of electroacoustic practices, alongside other methodological approaches relevant to the interdisciplinarity of electroacoustic music.

In addition to the paper sessions, there were three new installation works at the Universität der Künste and two permanent works housed at the Technische Universität Berlin. The first work, Circle of Fifths by Hans W. Koch was a twelve-channel piece. In each channel a series of band-pass filters, each tuned an octave apart, collected the sound material belonging to one pitch class at one point in the circle of fifths harmonic progression indicated by the title. Thus the system decomposed the sound material into a kind of spatial-harmonic filter-bank that surrounded the audience. A range of sound types was presented in the work, including a canon by J. S. Bach played on the piano. This linked the sonic presence of the work to the conceptual ordering of sound in the Western tonal system. The band-pass filtering effectively removed high-frequency components that would otherwise lead to the clear localization of the harmonic pitch fields. The overall sound could be described as a soft, immersive sound space. On closer listening to any of the twelve loudspeakers, the harmonic field became audible as each filter momentarily captured a passing element in the underlying sound material. The work highlighted the essential link between the ideal and material aspects of the sound itself, a theme suggested in a presentation by Luc Döbereiner that was repeated in each of the works.

The second installation work, N.N. by Thomas Ankersmit employed combinations of pure tones to stimulate sum and difference tones and invoked otoacoustic emissions for the audience. This piece takes the modification of the work by the presence and orientation of the audience, a theme highlighted by Helga de la Motte-Haber, to a new level. Here, it is not merely a subjective point of audition that is brought to bear on the work, the actual material of the work is in some part generated or produced by the objective auditory physiology of the listener.

The third installation was entitled Reflexion: A Site Specific Sound Installation for Six Glass Windows by Luc Döbereiner. This piece was a working out in practice of the theoretical position presented in the composer’s conference paper entitled: “How to think sound in itself, towards a materialist dialectic of sound.” Here, the principles of dialectical materialism namely: the interpenetration of opposites, transformation of quantity to quality, and negation of negation, while not being directly applied, lie behind an attempt to overcome representational thought in the development of sound theory and practice. The work itself invoked these concepts through the production of sound material that had a strong tactile or textural sense. The sound was generated through a signal-processing network of feedback, and delay lines that captured sound from the room and from six transducers on the glass windows of the room. Feedback was produced by resonating the glass itself using six actuators. The strong material identity of the work was produced by articulating the building materials of the windows with a transformed reflection of their own sonic attributes. In this work the “empty square” of sound-in-itself opens up to be filled by a transformation from abstract quantity to concrete, sonic quality.

Finally, ideas which come to us from the 19th century via the political theories of the early 20th century were reflected in the amazing 832-channel wave-field synthesis installation HörSaal (2010) at the Technische Universität by Bernhard Leitner and Florian Goltz. In this work the voices of well-known physicists such as Max Planck, Erwin Schrödinger, Albert Einstein, et al., the individuals who wrested the certainty of atomic matter away from the human imagination forever, are brought to life by the uncanny process of wave-field synthesis. Each voice occupied a specific location in space within a large theatre. As an audience member approaches one of twelve locations marked by red poles a recording of the voice of one of the physicists emerges from the babble of unresolved acoustic interference into a clear disembodied presence. This was a remarkable experience not soon to be forgotten.

Berhard Leitner's second work on the campus entitled Ton-Raum (1984) engages with the initial concerns of time and space. It took place in a stairway landing that was transformed by careful acoustical treatment and the installation of 34 channels of sound. It offered a dynamic and engaging experience of sculpted space-time. The work demanded an aesthetic response, arresting the ambulant audience out of their everyday concerns into a world of sonic imagination. At its best, this is what electroacoustic art can do.

Despite the increasing integration of all forms of electroacoustic musical practice in both popular music and contemporary chamber music, and despite the slow but increasing incursions being made into mainstream musicological and music pedagogical practice and discourse, EMS14 demonstrated the ongoing need for a place for the focused study of the practical and theoretical concerns particular to electroacoustic music and its many hybrid forms. It also engaged with an openness to crossing disciplinary boundaries that will be essential to articulating the increasing scholarly and social impact of the field in the future.