Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

A new ambiguity: human and digital

David Toop & Naut Humon

"If I was given a choice between listening to something I really liked and nothing at all – very often I would choose nothing at all."
David Toop

At this point in time, digital technology has become ubiquitous in our lives. Even for an acoustic guitarist, the recording, mixing, editing, mastering, distribution, promotion and playback of music is likely to be digital to some degree. In 2003, a digital music jury is faced with a dilemma: how can digital music be distinguished from any other category of music? Some relatively recent trends in music can be interpreted as a response to digital technology, even if the means of generating sound are located within the body or in instruments made from wood or metal.

Digital listening is one aspect of this change. The microscopic focus on small sounds allowed by the computer, along with the minute transformations typical of audio software programs, has affected timbre and form in many different types of music making. Even the reduced noise floor of recording and playback that comes with digitization has opened up new possibilities for performers exploring an unprecedented ratio of silence to noise, or inactivity to activity. In a broader context, the information overload characteristic of digitized societies has been the catalyst for a backlash where withdrawal, subtlety and silence are the watchwords.

Audio work produced from this philosophical position is essentially fugitive in nature, structured according to principles that are less clearly evident, the 'narrative' less transparently developmental or dramatic than any existing aesthetic of digital sonic arts. This raised excruciating issues for this year's jury (and juries to come) in that a prize such as the Golden Nica implies a 'masterpiece', a work unassailable in its completeness, its virtuosity and its mastery of technology, technique and form. And the problem might be that when you're getting into competitions, one is almost automatically looking for big statements and the smaller, more personal pieces are often overlooked in comparison.

But is this meaningful in the 21st century, in an era when change is so rapid and audiences are so fragmented and diverse? Do these shortened attention spans indicate any sort of real progress? The enormous impact of a breakthrough composition, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen's Telemusik now seems to be the mark of a previous era. For better or worse, quantity is one of the defining trends of digital music. The ease of recording on home computers with generic software packages, then burning CD-Rs of the results, has unleashed a torrent of technically capable yet often unengaging music. A striking aspect of many of the works that emerged out of the general morass this year is that they represent a positive sense of opening possibilities, rather than closure. At first glance the achievement can seem modest, yet the implications and influence may be far more profound than a noisier, grander work.

A good case in point is the winner of the Golden Nica in 2003, a recording of two duos: vocalist Ami Yoshida with synthesizer player Utah Kawasaka ("Astro Twin"), and Yoshida with Sachiko M ("Cosmos"), who plays the sine tones installed in a digital sampler. All of these players are engaged in a scene that explores minimalism, subverted technologies, restraint, silences and the outer limits of auditory perception. The scene is distinctly Japanese yet also international – part of a wider approach that can no longer be contained under any rubric of improvisation, minimalism, electronic music or composition. The players are very adaptable in one sense, yet they limit the range of their activities in order to avoid the 21st century temptations of all things being possible.

Terms such as strength or interaction are called into question, just as received views of music, noise and silence were challenged by John Cage in the 1950s. Above all, this kind of music questions the relevance of defining or celebrating any kind of audio activity in relation to a single technological approach. The utopian dreams of the 20th century have been tempered by experience. Our future as humans depends upon a relationship with technology that sustains our own humanity.

As digital musicians continue to actively consider the role that software plays in the character and identity of their special sound, one is led to wonder how much these processes color a listener's identification with unusual particularities an artist may be attempting to convey. Is the creator simply subscribing to an electronic genre's compositional expectation and style, or is there an effort to transcend trendy musical anachronisms to seek a technological transparency where obvious software demonstration seems to "disappear" into a deeper experiential organism? Traditionally, much of modern electronic music takes acoustic or synthetic source materials and disguises them through transformative signal processing or non-destructive editing techniques. Where developments in physical modeling programs attempt to emulate accurately older analog tape and instrument sounds, there is an equivalent opposite movement amongst some human improvisers with analog synthesizers, voice and live instrumental lineups who are conveying a "digital" attitude and influence in their works.

It is precisely at this junction that the realm of digital musics intersects with its analogue predecessors to realize a hybrid of fresh "audentities" not always tied to their anticipated sources. Several of this year's chosen selections reflected this increasing tendency to further blur these less-defined audio terrains.

The uncommon qualities we found in Ami Yoshida's collaborative ventures with Sachiko M and Utah Kawasaki represents inconspicuous areas of improvisation seldom investigated in the past years of Prix Ars Electronica.

Astro Twin & Cosmos seemed to constantly rise to the surface of our discussions as one of the primary examples in this younger, unassuming music milieu. There was reason to care but not be overly serious about all the intentions in their live explorations as they seemed to be surprised themselves at the subtle directions their sounds would move. Ami's voice, which is never really singing, sounds like a technical artifact from a cracked CD or something, against Utah's analog generated burstings that seem starkly digital in character. SachikoM's sine wave soundbeds affected Yoshida's vocals towards more insular utterances; a more personalized ‘cosmos'. of texture and nuance.
There was a premier moment when these two groups came on that changed the room and the atmosphere changed too, along with our focus. It was times like these that lingered in our memories and led to this Golden Nica surprise along with very significant others.

One of this session's honorable mentions is Foldings, a live document performed by Mark Wastell, Taku Sugimoto, Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakumara on prepared acoustic guitar, violoncello, turntable, contact mic., amplifier, air duster and a no-input mixing board. Here the electronics are scarce and the silences are long. So subtle are the live proceedings that the attention-tension level of the ensemble and its audience are extremely elevated. This commitment to sound as pure sound places a fresh hyper-awareness onto the players and non-players. Almost vanished are the overstated performance techniques of many generations in free improvisation. The new musician has nowhere to hide. The care and diligence taken in these sensitive surroundings must enhance the spare core ingredients of each microsonic occurrence. It is an improvisational language of defined methods and parameters imbued with a "digital" sensibility. This would have been an impossible recording in the pre-digital era. The people playing here have been listening to the kind of detail you get in digital music and are arriving at results quite different from the vinyl fidelities of former decades.

Both the Astro Twin / Cosmos configurations and the Foldings group reflect part of a reductionist music community which explores the concentration on this quieter, intimate aesthetic. There are parts in these recordings that remain underdeveloped, half-formed, or very fragile but acknowledging these remarkable smaller scenes reaffirms the Prix Ars Electronica open statement that a project that's quite obscure, less mature or even technically sparse can still obtain a fair chance at our yearly roundtable. This signal to the digital musics community should illustrate the constant challenge of creating new tools and sounds amidst a saturated climate where electronic music and computers are everywhere and nothing that special anymore.

But what can still be special is the long term effect digital music has interfused with other ways of making music. What we are questioning is how the active technology has shaped the music in good or bad ways. And in terms of issues of control, are groups like these moving away from this romantic idea of the composer somehow taking over or controlling every aspect of the listener’s response using technology to make a narrative connection? All of these approaches are in a state of flux and becoming very blurred and ambiguous. Our verdicts were mixed.

What about some of the rest?

One of the two distinction winners, Florian Hecker, works on several fronts: Hecker is in a dialogue with (digital) instrument developers and referencing an experimental academic aesthetic without all of the trappings of scholastic brainwashing. He emerges with a very customized purpose for altering software and sounds that don't follow the usual rules. Every track on Sun Pandämonium utilizes a different approach to a scientific synthesis that is raw, dense and sometimes even baffling. Even the clarity of intention expressed in his arbitrary formations blazes an intuitive trail through the inner worlds of microsound and its offspring.

Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, whose extended solo vocal treatments form the foundation for her Voice CD from Norway, is the other recipient of the notable distinction award. This collaboration with Ratkje and Jazzkammer's John Hegre and co-producer Lasse Marhaug features furiously fucked-up and sample shredded articulations that squall, jabber, babble and bark over time-stretched layers of her clamorous percussive cutups and walls of noise. At first this dynamic downpour both riveted and repelled our startled panel. Repeated listening didn't seem to dispel the controversy either, but for some reason seemed to hold the mutual attention steadfast to the last. Whether these virtuoso implications seem overly dramatic to some or disturbing to others, it's hard to deny the power of her brave, possessed spirit of the tongues.

Another improvisational figure who made the migration from massacred guitar to laptop absorption is Kevin Drumm. His aptly titled Sheer Hellish Miasma combines these two approaches into a brutal, swirling chaos of grumbling distortion and swelling, piercing tones. It brought to the panel's mind the tradition of Metal Machine Music, as though it were run through a filter less explicitly tied to the strictly noise sector. Drumm's use of drones on this recording is treacherous, spastic and severely penetrating, pointing toward a signature position in his surging catalog.

The UK group Whitehouse are still too extreme to find a majority on this jury panel 20 years after their first appearance. They have shifted from the paradigm of being an ambivalent "80s industrial" band towards a contemporary-sounding digital blast. They focus on their issues more precisely than ever. Obvious, but not obvious enough, Whitehouse are one of the few collectives to twist political issues explicitly with their extreme and controversial works. Addressing topics of power, media, violence, abuse or fetish, Whitehouse caused the heaviest debate amongst our committee. The voyeuristic aspect to their work struck some of us as choreographed provocation and others as disgusting theatrics. But the very fact of the panel's polarization over the kind of abhorrence, rejections and fascination their music and dialectical message conveys raised the discourse to grant them, with our divided passions, a disputed place in the final honorable mentions. Their unrelenting live spectacles and savage soundworks are an inexorable testament to a brute strength. Let the outrage continue!

Gert-Jan Prins was taking his Risk to our incidental ears. He is using nothing you can buy in a shop as proper instrument. In terms of technology this could be a by-product of a customized mechanical process that assembles the likes of radio transmitters and other objects for aural projection of frequency interference onto crowds and eventually Pro Tools. This is sharp. There's a snap to it. It's really differentiated and shaped. It pulses madly and is very raw. No, this isn't music as we generally know it but it does utilize a technical structure that can be perceived as a nonlinear musical sound experience. Jump, cut and crazy whir. Are we judging artists, techniques, objects or pieces? In this unusual case of a person with small analog machines on a table we find him guilty of all the charges! Are we reacting to names or what we hear? Well, this wasn't just another electro-acoustic "squeaky toy" narrative – this was skilled in a blunt, rugged manner – these are fresh ways of connecting devices together – just who is this guy anyway? And what is this about? It’s not trying to put the listener into some special state that is supposed to tell you something. It's a direct impetus.

The sound work of Toshiya Tsunoda represents a radical rethinking of the concept of field recordings. With the meticulously scientific approach of a cataloguist, Tsunoda captures the depth of the landscape, the vital breathing of things. Each one of his works is similarly noted for the compositional structure that he discovers to be inherent in the sounds of found objects. The results are surprisingly beautiful electronic works that bear little resemblance to what we would normally consider evironmental recording. Tsunoda bases his methodology on electrically vibrating, found objects by attaching sensors to them that transmit weak electrical currents, which render them audible. Tsunoda then records the results, which are typically recorded out of doors, near bodies of water. Among the objects Tsunoda has used for the sources of his recordings are the motion of air inside a glass bottle, cracks in manhole covers, and the movement of air across – or in certain instances inside of – solid surfaces at specific site locations such as seaports and storage facilities.

Nymphomatriarch just happened to be made from the physical alchemy of framing the sex sounds of partners Rachael Kozak (Hecate) and Aaron Funk (Venetian Snares). Freakish sets of moans, grunts and skin strikes were molded into choirs, drumbeats and other timbral constructions. Although the jury noted this sexual morphology, it did not get hung up in the intrigue. What jumped out from this personal investigation was the style and punch of the music itself regardless of the provocative sources. It stood on its own as a haunting, harrowing work dealing with breakcore dynamics and visceral mood treatments that had nothing to do with porno music, but everything to do with the organic musical expression of animalistic instincts.

Oren Ambarchi treats the guitar as a sound generator. His interpretation of the instrument sounds not unlike a Fender Rhodes at times, creating echo and reverb-drenched melodies that seem to suspend themselves, creating slowly turning narratives and repeating patterns that at times resemble locked vinyl grooves in whose repetition abstract patterns rise and fall. Switch clicks and cracks, string scrapes, cable noise and feedback rumble have a certain musicality to them, which Ambarchi captures and uses to compose with. The results are simply stunning, unique and at times sound like Ambarchi is playing a totally undiscovered instrument. To quote Ambarchi, his guitar technique simply involves "re-routing the instrument into a zone of alien abstraction where it's no longer easily identifiable as itself. Instead, it's a laboratory for extended sonic investigation."

Rechenzentrum engineer sound design, music and video images into bleak, emotionally complex melodramas where the events are joined in constantly shifting conflict. Sounds and rhythms become protagonists, creating barely resolved tensions, evoking scenes of subdued menace. There's something inherently alive in what their interdisciplinary work captures that transcends the distinction of their aesthetic hybridity. De-tuned strings, dance floor dub, minimal techno, hip-hop and post-industrial sonic collages combine with the imagery of text, freeways, machines and instrumental ensembles to create beautifully dark cinematic allegories which force us to reconstruct aesthetic experience through the narrative manner in which the group processes it's aural and visual source material. The systematic surplus of controlled meanings communicated by Rechenzentrum's productions points to odd manners of making art that fulfills many of the aesthetic possibilities promised by AV production and multimedia theory since the late 1960s.

From the songwriting sector we came across the personality of Tujiko Noriko whose Make Me Hard project focused on experimental orchestrations with bits of harmonies, noise, and beats. The challenge of forming something interesting out of this quirky blend of fairly straightforward elements seemed to be met as something different from much of the purely abstract works that the jury predominantly listens to. By applying her voice in so many ways, Noriko achieves a blurry romanticism occasionally disturbed by dissonance and intervention of unlikely arrangements. Whether one builds a relationship to the songs as people might with pop frameworks seems less important here. The overall atmosphere was compelling enough.

No one has taken the Viennese Aktionist tradition as a musical blueprint further than Rudolf Eb.er and the Swiss Schimpfluch ("abuse") artists who started in 1987. Particularly when you consider the themes of Eb.er's work: domestic violence, the re-enactment of foundational experiences of trauma, and purposeful regressions to experiences of sheer pain. In his other identity as Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock, Eb.er performs concerts that seek violent resistance from audience members by combining improvised immediacy, extreme taboo-breaking behavior and self-conscious theatrics. Audio documents of these events are marked by jarring voice punctuations, gasped breathing and extended tense silences. In terms of his compositional work, Eb.er's editing technique is unique in its deeply precise dissection of both his recordings. Using traditional analogue methods of editing – reel to reel tape with scissors and scalpels – the collages which Eber creates using this material are compared by him to biologically dividing and growing his own sounds. Given the visceral nature of his recorded output, and the extremely physical nature of his performances, the notion of growing musical cells, in Eber's case, is entirely appropriate.

Conceptually, the idea of Phill Niblock's piece, The Movement of People Working, struck a chord with our panel. This longstanding composer and filmmaker records the instruments from many musicians and assembles them into drone-like sound paintings which accompany his visual odyssey. The images on the DVD depict the workers from various global locales going about their daily repetitive tasks supported by a broad continuum of slowly evolving musical layers. A no-compromise aesthetic effect seems to permeate and resonate with many audiences who attend his ongoing live presentations.

Yuko Nexus 6 Kitamura composes works that remind us of a sound diary. Beginning her interest in music by recording over her father's Bach and Beethoven cassettes as a child, Kitamura now begins piecing together her work by exchanging cassettes with friends, each of whom records over the same cassette using source material recorded from diverse locations such as the street. Kitamura calls the music which emerges from this process "Kotatsu" music, named after a little Japanese table with a heater underneath it which Japanese families like to sit next to in the winter in order to stay warm. Kitamura's project has a particularly sociological significance as much as it has a musical one: through these collaborative recordings using the same recorded-over cassettes, her point is to recall music's relationship to the way that people live, and the communal function pre-recorded music has for them as they exchange it with one other over time.

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