Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

The Machine Turned Upside-Down

Rob Young with Kiyoshi Fukukawa, Andrei Smirnov, Elisabeth Schimana

We feel less of an obligation to look to digital and electronic music for signposts to the future. Like most musical forms in the past, perhaps the stuff that sounds most “digital” and futuristic now will come to seem, several decades down the line, the most dated and locked in its own time. The range of expressive tools, both software for sound manipulation and processing, and the hardware, such as interfaces, has increased rapidly to the point where “expressiveness”, in a more conventional sense, has become admissible into the practice of cutting-edge music once again, after many years of experiments in pure formalism. In the nearly 600 submissions assessed for the 2007 Digital Musics category, we discovered a wide range of practices, from sonic miniatures exploring highly personal emotional states to installation work treating with sound and light on a spectacular scale.

There is a lot of collaborative artwork/network art occurring in the field of electronic music/sound/ radio art. In these art forms, the individual artist is losing control over her/his personality and material and the actual emerging “art” is going on between these connections, creating fictive personalities and spaces, leaving the notion of the artist as “lone genius” stranded by the side of the road. This kind of work, though, is hard to experience for an audience and nearly impossible for a jury, because to a certain extent you have to become a part of it. This problematic suggests the need for a new category at some point in the future, with different rules of valuation and perception and different conditions of evaluation.

Because digital technology has developed so rapidly, almost everybody has the opportunity to produce some form of digital music. As a result, it appears that music itself is becoming more and more important, less of a niche interest. With regard to those entries that were developed from the latest technologies or new music software, we still need to pose the critical question: do they genuinely open new possibilities for musical expression or new musical concepts?

Only one entrant this year genuinely and innovatively attempted to grapple with the problem of what a notion of digital music might mean, implicitly interrogating all other music by dismantling the assumptions that are frequently made about the art form’s status as an expressive medium or technical showcase.

After much heated discussion, this controversial entry was awarded this year’s Golden Nica.

Golden Nica

Simulation. The word, in its application to computer culture, refers to the recreation in virtual space of a set of conditions familiar from “real life”, according to a set of predefined algorithms and generative processes. This might include the generation of a city, the interactions of a set of virtual “characters” or warring “civilizations”, or in science, creating predictive conditions such as weather systems or planetary surfaces.

Masahiro Miwa’s Reverse-Simulation Music is not a single composition but a compositional system that entirely turns the notion of a simulation on its head. Instead of a computer carrying out actions defined by human input, his methods involve human performers engaging in musical and gestural actions by following cues set by a self-generating mathematical algorithm.

Using this methodology, Miwa has made several compositions for a huge range of forces, orchestras, solo performers, choirs, children’s groups and traditional Japanese instruments. All these work on the principle of “iterative calculations” of human activity: that is to say, digital information is released into the domain of physical human activity to be enacted by people.

Miwa’s other intention is to critique contemporary notions of spirituality and psychological presence in music by stripping it of those factors. All musical outcomes are derived from rule-based calculations and leave no room for individual interpretation or expression.

Miwa’s methods captured the attention of the jury from the start. Some praised the way Reverse-Simulation Music opened a crack in the fabric of conventional musical “reality” by placing a digital process at its heart. This was viewed in the context of the projected increase in automated systems in the modern environment, including generative music played in public and telephonic space.

Strong objections were raised on ideological grounds: namely that the methods imposed a quasi-fascistic system of control, negating autonomy and invoking outmoded concepts of the post-human.

The jury decision was not unanimous, but the Nica was awarded in the hope that the heated debate around this work could be extended outside the jury room. It was certainly the most radical, paradigm-shifting proposition on offer this year.

Awards of Distinction

Two fairly young practitioners received our Distinctions this year. Grist, a CD released by Drumcorps (aka Aaron Thall, an American based in Berlin, who uses the alias Aaron Spectre), is pitched as far away from academic work as can be imagined. But its sheer bone-crushing energy and acrobatic sound design brought delight to all the jury members on each re-hearing. The sonic tropes of metal – grindcore, black metal, etc –have encroached upon many areas of modern music over the past few years, and here they were effortlessly sewn into the fabric of live electronics in exhilarating style. There’s nothing precious or tentative about Thall’s work here – no sense of any concern with the metaphysics of his craft. Grist is a barrage of distortion, acoustic pressure and hyper-speed electronic rhythms. “I want my music overflowing with 500 years of pain, lust, inspiration and energy,” Thall said in his accompanying statement. Given the bloodless quality of many of the rejected entries over the years, such sentiments are to be applauded.

A key turns in the ignition, and a car engine reluctantly chokes into life. A brief pause, and then a deafening smash. Those are the opening seconds of Mi Vida (My Life), a seven-minute composition by Mexican composer Israel Martínez. The wit and concision of this work consistently impressed the judges, with its narrative of a car ride that ends in a crash. Martínez processes these sound effects and rearranges the “story” into non-linear form but its seamless transitions elevate it above much generic “cut-up” work.

Honorary mentions

The remaining 12 selections are extremely difficult to separate in terms of quality, and they represent several quite distinct approaches. untitled sonic metaorganisms / untitled sonic microorganisms by prolific Spanish musician Francisco López cast its looming density over the whole competition. It is one of this composer’s many noise-based productions but its acoustic density and exhilarating granular rush were irresistible. Keiichiro Shibuya and Takashi Ikegami’s filmachine / filmachine phonics installation harnessed the raw power of electricity and the intense polarities of binary operations with a set-up that immersed the listener in a three-dimensional space marked out with tall, blitzing halogen lights.

The Wayward Regional Transmissions by Israel’s Ran Slavin, concocted a busy soundscape of small loops of Middle-Eastern instrumental music, arranging them in tight ringlets of repeating sound to build up an evocative and descriptive soundscape. Like Slavin’s video pieces, the Transmissions’ persuasiveness comes from the way small looped incidents mesh together to create intricate and involving structures, although his rich soundworld failed to engage everyone over the long haul.

Robert Henke’sLayering Buddha is another work constructed from multiple overlapping drones. This time the sounds are sourced from 13 Buddha machines – iPod-sized miniature drone generators manufactured in China. The abstract, layered music Henke extrapolates from these toys creates an intoxicating atmosphere.

The Caretaker’s Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia reaches back in time for its source material. Manchester-based electronic musician James Kirby has been working with a mass of phonographic material for over ten years, often with fairly satirical intent. His Caretaker project represents a trawl through hundreds of dancehall records from the 1920s and 30s; these are converted into MP3 format and then subjected to distortion and other processing, so that the end result is a mass of dark digital noise with the original tune existing as the faintest of ghostly echoes deep in the distance. This form of “haunted audio” has appeared in a number of guises in the past year or so and the Caretaker’s six-CD set of such transformations is one of the genre’s most impressive documents.

The sound of young Russia came from the trio of Nikita Golyshev, Ilias Mikaenev and Polina Voronova. Luxurious is a series of drone pieces that shimmer and vibrate like unfamiliar or alien metallic alloys. They use computers and a wide variety of electronic equipment, plus field recordings and certain esoteric relics from the old Soviet Union. With plenty of micro-activity keeping the surface details in constant motion, these were pieces that held interest whether viewed from afar or at close range.

Fluctuatio (in)animi by French composer Clara Maïda, for string quartet, flute and electronics, was one of the rare composed pieces entered this year, involving a fusion of acoustic instruments and electronics. We feel there is still significant potential in this field, and Fluctuato (in)animi should serve as a shining example for next year’s entrants.

Günther Rabl is one of Austria’s pioneers in electro-acoustic and computer music. Since the early 80s he has been working exclusively with his own developed software NMS4 (Numerical Music System), VASP (Vector Assembler for Signal Processing) and AMP (Asynchronous Music Processor). His piece Ain’t There TV After Death is the overture for Thomas Kemper’s play Jokebox, and is based on Beethoven’s Große Fuge played from a jukebox and a TV set. While the jury recognized Rabl’s important contribution to Austrian new music and beyond, it was felt that this particular piece was not representative of his very best work and compared unfavorably with the other offerings on the table.

Anne Wellmer’s fwd:inf [rec] is a collection, assembled over several years, of little stories, such as a walk along the Ramblas in Barcelona, a fridge in Berlin or the burning candles in a Greek Orthodox church in Riga. Nothing spectacular, perhaps, but the stories and sound transformations are subtle on every level – and that’s exactly what was touching about them.

Marionette is the first section of a multimedia performance incorporating three different works composed for recorders and live electronics by three composers – Roderik de Man, Marko Ciciliani and Jos Zwaanenburg. These were commissioned by composer, recorder player and performer Jorge Isaac to explore the relationship between acoustic sources and electronic sounds. The leitmotif of the project is “mechanics and life”. Roderik de Man’s Marionette is the most powerful piece from this suite. De Man was inspired by the writings of German philosopher Heinrich von Kleist, especially his text Über das Marionettentheater (On Puppet Theatres, 1810) where Kleist shows a belief in the cognitive and creative superiority of the unconscious over the conscious, of spontaneity and intuition over reason. Roderik de Man (music) and Jorge Isaac (sopranino, tenor and contrabass recorders, live electronics) represent this concept in three continuous chapters: Part I for sopranino displays the grotesque and playful character of the marionette. Part II for tenor is a lyrical reflection on “the grace of inanimate matter”, and in Part III the contrabass recorder translates controlled and uncontrolled movements in a chaotic fantasy.

Taiwanese artist Liu Pei-Wen submitted two pieces to this year’s competition. Each had its own merits: because there were so many strong contenders utilizing unprocessed field recordings, we felt her best option was through un canny, a workout on analog and digital equipment that had the random explosive instability of a firework display. As well as a clear, strong individual musical voice, a geopolitical dimension was also introduced with the use of recordings of radio stations banned in Taiwan due to the standoff between the island and mainland China.

Her other submission was normality envision, an audiovisual piece that combined exquisite field recordings of forest ambiences and jungle insects with photographs of the landscapes they came from. While these were beautiful in their own right, Pei-Wen was up against strong competition in the shape of Chris Watson, a former Distinction winner in 2000. Watson has a long and distinguished history in modern music, beginning with his founding of Cabaret Voltaire in Sheffield in 1974, through his work as sound recordist with BBC Television’s Wildlife Unit. In recent years his nature recordings of animals, birds and locations containing special atmospheres have formed the basis of a variety of CD releases, installations and collaborations. Storm, with Swedish electronic musician Benny Nilsen, features the sounds of the Baltic and North Sea and their wildlife, some of it unprocessed, some with subtle enhancements from Nilsen. Focusing attention on one of the world’s coastlines threatened by global warming, this is an act of audio preservation – a bottling of sounds that may not exist in 50 years’ time. And among the 15 commendations in this year’s Prix Ars Electronica, Storm let a welcome breath of fresh air into the occasionally asphyxiating realm of the hard disk.

Statement by Rupert Huber

i like to hear music that is played with a routine, easy-handed and not thematizing the technical aspects of playing at all.
that is why i like to listen to arturo toscanini, or the beatles.
i like to listen to music that is composed with a flow, that is in the air like a cloud and flying like a bird.
that is why i like joseph haydn, or miles davis.
i like to listen to all kinds of music, even if it is not or not only music.
i like to listen to macy gray, john cage, christo and jeanclaude.
like a distinction in digital musics:
i like to listen to music that is strong or heavy energy.
like the golden nica:
i like to listen to music that is not flat and makes me think.
i like to listen to music that is made of pleasant sounds and beats after 10 hours in the studio.
i like to listen to music that is hiding something behind a curtain of strong or nice sounds.
two reasons to like layering buddha by monolake robert henke.
music by james kirby is still in my head.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at