Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Music from the Bedroom Studios
Kodwo Eshun

In 1996, the composer Bob Ostertag pointed to the paradox that had driven the Prix Ars Electronica for Computer Music to a point of crisis:"... as computers' presence in music has mushroomed from nearly invisible to downright unavoidable, so the range of music considered to be Computer Music has become increasingly fixed and rigid. Why this emergence of Computer Music, instead of an openness to all the musics which computers make possible?”

Changing the Prix Category from Computer Music to Digital Musics acknowledges this "openness to all the musics which computers make possible.” Focusing on digital innovation, the 1999 Jury embarked on a mission to immerse itself in the soundworlds of 720 entries. We listened eagerly for new ways of listening. Nothing would have pleased us more than to hear the new Todd Dockstader or the new Bernard Parmegiani, but the vast bulk of electroacoustic and acousmatic entries showed no such iconoclasm. As the judge and composer Laetitia Sonami said, "There's a certain arrogance that comes with the language which says that to be recognised you have to follow that language and nobody questions it. There's no self regeneration. Because it's an academic world , it can live on its own. In this case, there's no commercial imperative, so you can keep this kind of bubble going.”

Like a Cavalier king only too aware of the new dispensation, the ancien regime of electroacoustic music has automatically assumed a noblesse oblige for itself, awarding itself an undeserved authority at the cost of cultural irrelevance. But Sonami's argument applies across the board; there was just as much formulaic music produced outside academia as inside. Today, graphical software packages such as GRM Tools or SoundHack with their menu upon menu of options enthrall producers, generating a situation where the track and the composition become a predictable outcome of programmes like SuperCollider.

This year's Jury included the producer-engineers Jim O'Rourke and Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner, both of whom were especially attuned to digital transparency where signature sounds are directly attributable to particular software. Many entries, for example relied on digital signal processing. The gorgeous shuttling, tumbling, shingling sound of GRM Shuffler VST mode was heard repeatedly. "I'm getting allergic to people processing things just because they can,” O'Rourke complained more than once. "It doesn't matter what they put in at point A because it's just the sound of the process.” On the one hand the proliferation of software has a democratizing effect. Because the late 90s minimal techno producer uses the same software in his bedroom studio as an acousmatic composer at her university studio, both become digital musicians, Powerbook composers. On the other hand, the latest GRM upgrade matters less than a distinctive sonic thought process. So the approaches to the virtual studio become even more crucial and the clash between ways of hearing becomes a battle between the noises of art and the musics of sound.

In its gleeful glide between horror n' humour, its split second slide between a grin and a groan, the Jury recognised a new digital aesthetic in the music video "Come to Daddy", unanimously awarding the Golden Nica to its English video director Chris Cunningham and the influential English electronic producer Richard James/Aphex Twin. Filmed on Thamesmead Estate in South East London where Stanley Kubrick shot "Clockwork Orange", "Come to Daddy" is the first in Cunningham's classic trilogy of videos, followed by 1998's superkinetic "Squarepusher" video C'mon my Selector and 1999's ultralascivious "Windowlicker" video, again for Aphex Twin. The Cunningham-James collaboration is characterised by what composer-conductor Naut Humon calls a sound driven aesthetic of extreme digital mutation, one which speaks to the artificial in us, as it veers from micro engineered rapid-edit rhythms to brutalizing psychotic music with a visceral virtuosity.

When programmes become immediately recognisable, it's easy to hear how the software is manipulating its user. A key approach in 90s digital music obstructs this tendency by amplifying the point of breakdown into a new digital irritainment, an immanent disobedience that maximises the moment when the CPU reaches 100% and your Powerbook crashes. Back in the 60s, Hendrix exploited the immanent potential of the guitar feeding back through the amps, turning the noise of destruction into art. Today's Powerbook composers are doing the same as they turn electronic catastrophe into music, training us to enjoy the sound of failure and the art of the accident.

"What I like is when digital doesn't work, ”says Robin Rimbaud. Across the audio-spectrum, producers are arranging digital error into new granular synthetic tones, turning accidents into new texturhythms, opening all the sound files until the graphic user interface gives up the ghost.

This tendency was pioneered by Aphex Twin and by the winners of the 1999 Distinction: Vienna's Mego label. Rather than splitting the prize between the two Mego entries: Christian Fennesz's "Hotel Parall.lel" and Pita aka Peter Rehberg's "Seven Tons for Free Remaster Version 1.2", the Jury broke with Ars Electronica convention, agreeing with O' Rourke's suggestion that the Distinction should be awarded to the Mego label as a whole. Sonically speaking Rehberg's "Seven Tons for Free Remaster Ver.1.2" consists of pulsing, hissing, flapping sinewave tones, arranged on an early 8 bit 520 Powerbook. In the "Hotel Paral.lel" CD you hear a micro-pulsing variation where sounds transform in and out of recognition, pulling you in and out of perceptual focus. A tinny guitar becomes a scratch which blurts into an ear shredding sinewave that modulates into high pitched whines that become a new kind of brand new improved tinnitus. Since the mid 90s, Mego has defined what O'Rourke calls a "brand new punk computer music, a punk aesthetic, like do it yourself, press your own records, get your own distribution going.”

They achieved this firstly by mutating the real-time sinewave synthesis strategies familiar from academic computer music, and secondly "by taking it out of the context of art music as O' Rourke argued, a move "that should be recognised just as much as the music.” As Robin Rimbaud explained, "There's a recognition
of a wider world, where I get the feeling with electroacoustic music that there's nothing outside it.”

The second Distinction unanimously went to the veteran New York based Japanese composer Ikue Mori for "Birth Days", her stunning 3 part Alesis drum machine suite. Performed live, Mori's virtuosity enables her to draw cross- and counter polyrhythmelodies from the most basic factory presets, arranging these into an enchanting audiomaze of a composition. Mori's rhythmatic wizardry underlined the extent to which rhythm remains the next frontier for Ars Electronica in 2000 and beyond.

Approaching producers from the overlapping worlds of turntabilization, hiphop, and electronica for the 1999 Prix, the judges encountered a spectrum of resistance ranging from indifference to antagonism. Years of insularity have created the sense that Prix Ars Electronica was no different from the Bourges Festival, another elite competition in which composers award prizes to other composers.

And so an influential duo like Autechre would not be moved, insisting there was nothing special about what they did. Such extreme self-deprecation contrasted with the majority of entries where, inadvertently or deliberately, compositional statements often became an alibi for underwhelming music. Complex explanations detailing how MetaSynth software scanned visual data to generate audio often raised hopes which their music failed to satisfy. O'Rourke spoke for the Jury when he noted that "If somebody makes a big deal about where they're coming from and then I don't hear it then I'm gonna hold it against them.” Separated from its program, much acousmatic music sounded indistinguishable from Hollywood sound design but drained of the drama of, for example, John Frizzell's music for Alien Resurrection.

The key exception here was Montreal based artists collective The User. Their manifesto succinctly explained how their "Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers" reshapes "ambient technology” into a "musical structure that” doubles as "a critique of technology” in the form of a parody of an archetypal office unit. Architect Thomas Macintosh and composer Emanuel Maden's Symphony for "Dot Matrix Printers" impressed the Jury enough to earn an Honorary Mention. "Dot matrix printers,” they explain, "are turned into musical 'instruments' while a computer network system, typical of a contemporary office becomes the 'orchestra' used to play them. The orchestra is 'conducted' by a network server which reads from a composed 'score'.” Not only did their ideas amplify their project; more importantly their installation overcame the decontextualizing effect of the video player, an effect which fatally drained all the other pieces of their site specific impact. Late 90s digital music tends towards the pragmatic rather than programmatic. Programmatic statements are disguised; a misspelling like Mego group Farmers Manual album title "fsck" or Mouse on Mars compositions such as "X-Flies" or "Tamagnocchi" says as much as any manifesto. In fact a misspelling that makes you disbelieve your eyes is an entire manifesto, one compressed and abbreviated, encrypted and delivered under the Trojan Horse of derision and sarcasm.

Of the 12 Honorary Mentions, the Jury was especially pleased to award an Honorary Mention to Berlin producer Stefan Betke for his "Pole" project. "Pole" uses the simple Waldorf filter to generate the mesmerising pop, crackle and snap of his "Pole 2" CD. The implied rhythm of its enwombing bass skank acknowledges and extends the massively influential technodub continuum pioneered by Berlin's Basic Channel/ Chain Reaction label throughout the 90s. Cologne duo Mouse on Mars — electronic composers Jan St Werner and Andi Toma — earned an Honorary Mention for the bewitching micro-engineered texturhythms of their sumptuous 1997 album "Autoditacker". Emotionally, Mouse on Mars exemplify the joy of a toy, what another Honorary Mention, the electroacoustic composer Rose Dodd termed "kinderspel", the animistic life of toys in a child's playroom. Their melodies spangled and twinkled, wriggled and burst. Like the younger hypermelodic sister to "Hotel Paral.lel", "Autoditacker's" restless variation reveled in insectile complexity. Running too much information through the inputs produces the bursting effect of frictional forms in ceaseless life.

German producer Bernhard Günter's suite "The Ant Moves/The Black and Yellow Carcass/ A little Closer" was another popular choice for an Honorary Mention. As Robin Rimbaud pointed out, "He influenced an awful lot of compositions that have happened in the last 5 or 6 years. "The extreme quietness of Günter's microsonic pieces demanded an extreme concentration to the processed natural sounds occurring at the far edge of hearing. Listening to the act of listening, your attention zoomed into the electronics of everyday life, the hums of radiators, the tock of clocks. At micro-perceptible levels, the borders between silence and accident became porous. At one point O'Rourke asked Naut Humon to turn off his Power Book and the sonic events obscured by the machine's hum loomed audibly into earshot.

At the other extreme, composer Zbiegniew Karkowski's and Masami Akita's (Merzbow) Metabolic Speed Perception used the granular Internet sounds of Dialup Connection to generate a riverrun of harmonic overtones in the noise tradition of Merzbow and Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Like many composers, Karkowski and Akita used the internal sounds of software, but unlike them, knowing this only added to the fascination of their music. Digital processes generate new kinds of chaos; music organizes this into what Felix Guattari termed a chaosmos. 1999 was the year in which the Prix Ars Electronica heard the chaosmos, the year in which danger and unknowing returned to the unstable media of digital musics.

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