Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Digital Musics Diaspora

Digital Musics Jury

It's a fact: on the cusp of the twenty-first century, the most innovative, compelling and startling work being produced in the impossibly broad area of Digital Musics comes from musicians whose backgrounds have largely bypassed academic study and customary career paths. Instead their work speaks of an intense, autodidactic engagement with the hyperlinked worlds of post-industrial cultures: conceptual and performance art, installation and video work, improvised music, post-industrial cultures, eco-activism, post-colonialism, as well as the post-techno/hip hop/dub grass-roots diaspora of blunted beatnuts and bedroom boffins.

Some of this socially and culturally vital, open-ended activity has pushed electronic music to the forefront of contemporary creative endeavors. This was apparent in many of the entries in this year's Prix Ars Electronica: the three prize winners along with the honorary mentions are excellent representatives of the core of a vast area of expression and exploration that has perhaps never been so vibrant. But the tradition and culture of electronic music prizes such as the Prix Ars Electronica still mitigate much of this work being heard and celebrated in competition. As well, it was felt by the jury that "some" of the artists who submitted voluntarily or were invited to do so, did not send in their best work.
A problem still facing the Prix Ars Digital Musics tier is that to many of these musicians and sound artists, the notion of competition is either alien or anathema. If they are known at all by the wider musical community, the major music prizes are still seen as the preserve of a musical elite that plies its hermetic art inside the high walls of the world's university music departments and institutions. This is still the case, in spite of the valiant attempts in recent years to broaden the music category. Perhaps many sound artists and music people question the relevance of so-called 'contests' and their influence on acts of sonic creation. When laptop pioneers Autechre were initially approached about possibly entering in 1999, they respectfully declined, stating, "I reckon we're no better than anyone else". Curiously enough, the following year there was somewhat of a reconsideration of this stance when the same duo's other project Gescom actually was awarded a distinction, partially because of the jury's acknowledgment of their diverse achievements under several public identities.

What is needed if the Prix Ars Electronica is to continue to be perceived as one of the world's most crucial and egalitarian barometers of the current state of Digital Musics is an additional concerted effort to broadcast that aspiration far and wide, not just via the academies, but via all available communication conduits, from the music press to the online community. Most musicians operate in a climate compromised by financial imperatives; if nothing else the cash prizes offered by the Prix Ars should be incentive enough to ensure that many of the electronic 'outsiders' consider entering for the first or second time.
The war may be over, but there are those remaining who would have the battles linger. As we mulled over the 380 submissions from all sectors of the sonic cybernetic map, some of the questions posed in previous years continue to cause controversy. In last year's "Forward To The World" jury statement, a call went out to the former dominating influence in the competition to "Astonish us or fade away". Once again, the reference to the historical hierarchy of the electroacoustic and acousmatic influences on the evolution of the Prix Ars musical wing was reverberating across the conversations of the panel. We would compel any digital musical style to astonish or to try at least. But simply 'fading away' seems too easy - as if one wanted to shrink from the demand rather than take it head on and attempt some other angles. It was precisely this challenge that we had our collective ears peeled for.

There was some discussion as to whether the electroacoustic genre should be given special consideration, given its historical significance. It was decided that it should not be treated differently. While comprising the majority of submissions to the competition, most electroacoustic pieces were anchored in tried-and-true compositional structures. The jury was hard-pressed to find fresh, unexpected approaches in this field. Perhaps this lack of ground-breaking works can be explained in part by the boycott initiated by some influential members of this community. If so, let it be known that this competition is open to everyone, including the scholastically inclined! Of course, the jury is not only looking to reward innovation, and will likely reward exceptionally exciting works, even if they are conceived using traditional techniques. The jury also felt that the competition should reach out to other sonic practitioners, like sound designers in cinema, software programmers, and, of course, people from as many countries as possible. We yearned for real diversity over arbitrary tokenism.

With all the practitioners on even ground, it is remarkable to see how musicians and sound artists from different generations can have so much in common. Many are applying modern real-time laptop techniques that reinvent the slower methodical manner of musique concrète composition. By blurring these former boundaries, the new school will eventually dispense with this digital divide. So if it appears to some the prize has been sold down the river to some commercial backwater, they're going to be perplexed by the lack of mainstream accessibility in any of the chosen 15.

We don't want to tar the scene with all the same brush here either. We have to watch out for a new elite taking over past ones, hence falling into similar entrapments. There will be those looking at this year's winners and honorable mentions, like the western US posse that surrounds Kid606 and friends, J. Lesser, Blectum from Blechdom and the TigerBeat 6 collective and call favoritism toward an electronic 'clique'. It just happens to be their time right now and the jury responded to the distinctions between these individuals based on musical and sonic impact criteria and less on the fact that they know each other. When the factor of their loose alliance was brought up in discussion, it was considered to be a political imbalance of representation. Though that may be so, each was submitting from different labels, and the jury had to consider what we were actually listening to beyond the personalities involved, while sticking to a musical perspective. We voiced the danger of singling out a particular known group in the results, and this allowed us to consider producers and curators who submit compilations of many various artists to the competition.

Last year, Carsten Nicolai with the Raster-Noton label submitted a multi CD set entitled "20' to 2000" which represented a number of different artists who were acquainted, but working from locations all over Europe and Japan. Carsten Nicolai, as contributor and curator, compiled the project under a unified thematic heading expressing an aesthetic, which brought together a cross-section of important music, and a visual package that caught the eye as well. It seemed that this combination was worthy of the Golden Nica, so this time a sizable number of compilations arrived for scrutiny. The jury took time to discuss the nature of this type of submission that seems to encompass genre gauges or thematic invitationals.

It has become vital for Digital Musics to now recognize new ideas in electronic music in the form of how it is organized, assembled and produced. When labels, galleries or individuals incubate a series or process which demonstrates core methods in which new music is disseminated, distributed and consumed, we should acknowledge the key people behind these manifestations. Without these independent efforts, public exposure to unusual sound art would be far more limited. So with the recent nods to the independent contingents like Mego & Raster-Noton, and this year's honorable mentions to Mille Plateaux, Lucky Kitchen and TigerBeat 6, the Prix Ars jury acknowledges the role of curator as comparable to that of the composer or sound sculptor.

But the prize shouldn't be awarded to someone who decides to gang up their favorite friends' tracks as a convenient arbitrary sampler and take this collection theory as a significant idea without teeth behind it. The artistic concept prior to the compilation becomes the real assessment here. Sometimes a collective context appears to have more of a magnetic pull than solo efforts due to the diversity of varied approaches, but it also makes it harder to judge. Is the compilation being submitted as something convenient to the competition, or with a thematic idea that embraces a consequential substance before the assemblage? Then the whole can be looked at as a singular vision rather than the general pluralistic appellations we had often received.

Another compilation-related dilemma arose when we were given the 2001 retrospective of John Oswald's "Plunderphonics" era, complete with unreleased mixes and untold out-takes. As much as the panel highly touted the absolute significance of these works that question the notions of copyright, sampling, and appropriation so prevalent in today's MP3 Napster debates, we felt that lifetime achievement awards were not in the province of the Prix Ars guidelines that each new jury must evaluate for themselves.

And appraise we did! It is always difficult to compare an elaborately composed piece of music with an audio-oriented installation and come to a balanced judgment. The sounds emanating from these installations are usually affected by the parameters of the sculpture itself and not so much the musical compositional structures that 'composers' define in the studio. Regardless of the format, we had to come to grips with how one attended the sound, whether it came from horizontal linear or vertical note developments or the interference of found environmental sources. Once these abstracts are extrapolated, more questions arise: what sort of language are we translating, and how does it strike the spirit? These were the criteria beyond the mere skill of the craft. And if something is very simple and realized with rudimentary means, how truly 'electronic' does it have to be?

As the distillation process from the enormous range of works became more succinct, the jury thirsted for more quality submissions. Wishing for what wasn't there in this round prompted a lively exchange on how to more effectively attract quality works. How the new MP3 web label coalitions are operating, for example, brings in a realm previously unrecognized in the category and needs further nudging from under the radar. While some presentations could use some fine tuning to more effectively arrest the interest of the panel within the initial 2-3 minutes of quick exposure, the ones that remained managed to instill confidence in the outcome of voluminous listening.

The Winner of the Golden Nica is a brilliant, clear and exquisite winner, voted unanimously, with the runners up causing some controversy, and yet ultimately sailing through. In the circle of the top three: the Japanese Ryoji Ikeda, with his ultra-minimal and powerful work 'Matrix', explores how we perceive sound in space, offering us more of his refined and pulsating sine-tone ensembles; Marcus Popp (Oval) from Germany, with a corroded sound palette, extracting more melodic and harmonic fragments from his noisy sources, and grounding his explorations in solid theory; and American laptop duo bLectum from bLechdom, who combine a whimsical sense, pop references, and a keen sense of show-womanship to DSP programming, creating both witty and enlivening music. With this trio of winners, there exists an axis from which many compelling musical ideas are emerging. The remaining twelve honorable mentions include an installation from Ted Apel, which uses light-bulbs as sound sources; refined work from the extreme edges of frequency perception by Richard Chartier; abrasive gestures and stripped breakbeats from Louis Dufort; an installation soundtrack from Orm Finnendahl; repetitive, barely-perceived sounds displaced from their usual habitat, and shaped into alluring textures by John Hudak; Lesser and Kid606's virtuosic, exciting pop deconstructions, bringing an obsessive use and mastery of sound mangling to the live context; Pan Sonic's detailed shaping of sounds, creating stripped-down sonic archery, revealing with this release an increased interest in the use of space/reverb; Alejandra Salinas/Lucky Kitchen's original merging of field recording materials with synthesized sources to create documentary-like narratives; the sonically rich musique-concrete-meets-vinyl-aberration approach in Janek Schaefer's work; as well as two significant and complimentary compilations from Mille Plateaux and TigerBeat6.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at