Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Fulfilling the Means of Sonic Expression

David Toop / Gordon Monohan / Naut Humon

It is a sign of the times that continuous development in audio technology and interfacing is feeding an ever-unfolding scenario for music and sound art. One can recall a time thirty years ago when the sound art scene was so small that even most contemporary artists had never heard or experienced it.

Today’s approach promotes a trend that has steadily developed from obscurity to commonplace over the past century or so: that consequential music can be produced by people who do not consider themselves full-time artists, who may be producing crafted sounds simply because they have acquired a laptop with access to a variety of music software. In that sense, what was considered to be a fringe artistic activity only a generation ago, is becoming a kind of new-technological-folk music that is no longer the sole domain of the schooled musician, but rather is being made by people of many different vocations and professions.

This points to the growing relevance of music in the underlying fabric of our increasingly associative society. Over a century ago, music served the functions of entertainment, high culture, or sacred worship. Nowadays, the operation of music has forged well beyond those uses and is mutating in its social-cultural interactive significance, redefining itself in terms of theory, technique, concept, science, environment, and lifestyle.

Along with this expansion of use and function comes the continuing evolution of genre with specific relevance to the category of “digital musics.” We heard and viewed works of deconstructed pop, traditional musique concrète, academic computer music, sound art and installation, improvised instrumental and sampler-based music, laptop mixing, DJing, invented instruments, sound sculpture, music video, sound/video hybrid installation, and environmental soundscape, to list but a few common examples that crop up annually. With sound being vague in its essence, the evaluation of music is very subjective. Our jury this year often found itself wandering in the mists of subjectivity, looking for some clear sign that could lead us to a decision of some solidity. No art form can leap forward every year. 2004 was characterized by the sensations of a holding pattern: you circle above the airport for some time, hoping to land, yet even in this uncomfortable position of going nowhere, enjoying the opportunity to study the ground below in detail. To be blunt, nothing sounded very new or surprising, although the source materials that are transformed into finished sound works become ever more exotic and, in some cases, puzzling or downright hilarious. From their point of origin, rather than their final destination as a CD-R format, pieces were created from clocks, paper, pencils, clay, mud, steam, the resonance of a public lavatory, heavy metal clichés, stock market fluctuations, yeast cells, weather readings, and waves on the Pacific Ocean. To consider two compositions made from weather variations was interesting, since their difference as listening experiences was considerable. Clearly, data can become anything at all, once it becomes aligned with the aesthetic intentions and technical capabilities of the composer.

The issue of the transformation of data and its significance is growing in importance, confirming that this is a consequence of the ubiquity of computers, which enable the translation of nonaudio information into something we can hear, or the transformation of audio recordings into sounds that bear little resemblance to an original source. The question is: Why? A favourable response to this category of work often depended upon our shared sense of perceived meaning. If data collected from a hurricane ends up sounding like new age music, then its exploitation is both pretentious and tendentious. If, on the other hand, it sounds as complex and dramatic as a hurricane, then it has a point worth recognizing.

Much the same can be said about sound diffusion, the programmed movement of sound in space. The emergence of the DVD guarantees a rising number of future entries demanding four, six or eight loudspeakers. The sound will zoom from speaker to speaker, sometimes to powerful effect, sometimes to no effect other than a feeling of indifference. Again, why do it? There has to be a good reason and there are those who can truly articulate their motivations.

One longstanding figure in this spatial field of electro-acoustic phenomena that held our ardent attention was Horacio Vaggione. His continued morphological expeditions conveyed an underlying passion for experiential sound expression which sometimes queried our individual emotional attachments to his sophisticated approach. With everyone’s gravitational affections towards significant acousmatic achievement in flux, Vaggione’s stirring transformations kept refreshing the jury’s hopes in this controversial genre. Here was a master of his craft still completely relevant to the present, yet our aesthetic sentiments toward this type of music remained divided.

The topic of emotional engagement with sound is difficult and highly subjective. However, it seemed to be a recurring (if unspoken) theme in our appraisals. A certain amount of cuteness, or crazy humor, made its presence felt this year. After listening to many grim sonic exercises in computer rhetoric, these smiling instances were very welcome. Computers can help inexperienced and barely developed sound artists to produce work that sounds professional, if little else.

Interesting dialogues emerged during the jury sessions concerning the ethics of trying to judge so many styles, depths of experience, and varying levels of accomplishment against each other. Meanwhile, composers such as AGF and Christian Fennesz are attempting, with considerable success, to confront problems attached to the fetishization of technical processes. Their work accepts and integrates problematic relationships between humans and digital technology. A willingness to engage with the potentialities and limitations of software adds to their music a strong sense of how it is to exist in the contemporary world. This was exactly the case with Thomas Köner’s DVD entry Banlieue du Vide. Simple in its components, the piece matched downloaded images from surveillance cameras, mostly deserted snow-covered roads in rural settings, with the rich yet unsettling drones familiar from Köner’s past work. David Toop’s response was an immediate recall of Don DeLillo’s short novel from 2001, The Body Artist, in which the central character “spent hours at the computer screen looking at live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland. It was the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best.”

Nothing much happens in Köner’s DVD, yet the effect was disturbing, hypnotic, disorientating, beautifully realized and strangely moving. We were in a mysterious, suspended unanimous moment: this was the Golden Nica. Here was someone who matched visually what his music had portrayed for years; a cold arctic sense of a desolate sonic tundra—ever slow changing. He might have been the last person we’d ever foresee as a winner, because the subtleties in his sound continuum require concentration and time for reflection.

Of all things, what was making this type of work rise to the top?

After spending a number of days listening through segments of six hundred submissions and searching for the outstanding ones, there seemed to be a split in much of what we heard. Many people are interested in technical development, complexity of programming or compositional issues and so on. Then there are others who are very focused on using the computer in a more conventional song-oriented manner. Whether this engages the ears emotionally, intellectually, or both, is a personal call. We found a number of examples that touched this compelling, aesthetic quality.

AGF’s Westernization Completed project brought a lyrical vocal presence to some very exceptional soundbed constructions of fragmented beats and abstract tonal passages. It’s almost as if she dissected contemporary Hip Hop or R&B flavours into very small precise particles which pulse or coalesce in a less predictable manner. Her spoken or sung utterances ride a broken stream of syllables and sentences clipped from informal online emails or dangling conversations. What appears to be partially ambivalent reveals a sense of intimacy that curiously questions the contradictions of having relationships through the computer.

The words seemed at once fearless, stark and still vulnerable—almost on the edge of embarrassment at times—a contrast that hushed the room and perplexed our panel. As this puzzlement pulled us in, there was a notion that Antye Greie was doing something that most men hiding behind their laptops wouldn’t do. Pushy but pliant.

Bewildering but believable. Unexpectedly, we had found a meaningful Distinction award. AGF, however, has found her own distinctive language.

Computer-treated guitar pieces seem to be undergoing a renaissance these days. After encountering some very promising six-string recordings by Akira Rabelais, Desormais and others, we distilled a few more down to our Honorary Mention register. Austrian Christian Fennesz has already become a preeminent laptop musician to reckon with. His fundamental songwriting modes have been branching out for over a decade, culminating in the dark melancholic 2004 release, Venice, an epic of binary pop and textural spill released by the Touch label. Although Fennesz has already been recognized by the Prix Ars Electronica in 1999 with an Award of Distinction, we were equally, if not more impressed in 2004. Here was a calculated corrosion superbly achieved by smudging guitar tones into a warm and brazen vaporous mass. Any organic inclinations are scrupulously violated by accidental kinds of pops, cracks and static instabilities that permeate a discernible melodic context. Unnaturally interfering with these forces of nature, Fennesz takes a bath and drowns the sounds in a resplendent radiance of sublime submergence. This, like the Golden Nica, was a masterwork, but we had to wait.

Everything in our top twenty was good. However, there were not enough places for all the favorites. To win at the Prix Ars Electronica does not necessarily mean one is better or more popular or has produced any kind of masterpiece at all. It’s all about what strikes a resonance with an unpredictable, imperfect group of people who live and work within music in disparate ways; and what signal or substance of expression certain pieces mean to the assembled jury and to the international digital music and sound art community. There are hundreds of important projects and we can only select a few for our single forum. So our search continued.

Instead of following the path of the usual expectations, Anne Laplantine grabbed a guitar and found chords and melodies to digitally deconstruct and reconstruct in peculiar passages. Concerning structure and composition, her music owes more to the baroque fugue and comes across as very analog without the strong and over saturated curves that are commonly followed. She refrains from typical “theme-variation-theme” repetitions and stays on a playful transitory trail of substantial harmonic densities that allow the individual instruments to breathe in space. Her work is a personal musical road movie, a search for the ultimate solution, a constant struggle, a neverending sound story that captivated our curiosity.

At some point we were jumpstarted by an onslaught of smashed up and disorienting mangled metal music. This wasn’t an ordinary mash up audio job. Chlorgeschlecht just stuck out for some odd reason. The trio used to play in metal

bands, so what they’re trying to do is bring some of the songs that they like from heavy metal, redo them in different styles like easy listening, and then mix it up with a lot of electronic layering. Chlorgeschlecht’s objective is to get away from the image of laptop music as a very introverted and nerdish kind of thing, introduce some humor to the practice, to say that it’s not ironic and that they love these songs and this music.

Another artist whose performances embody a consistently subtle amusement and magnetic attraction is Felix Kubin. A keyboardist who parodies the image of the quirky nerd laboring in his electronic music laboratory, Kubin produces a kind of “fake-pop” music, pointing to influences ranging from serious academia to dada as well as the “German New Wave” of the 1980s. Kubin’s odd approach to music, and indeed hairstyle, proves that German humor does exist inside a compelling framework of fascinating sonic constellations.

Combining equal parts digital and analogue, instrument and hard drive, was Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins’ recent Mego full-length Phantom Orchard. With an absolutely stunning document of two virtuoso performers simultaneously extending the reach of their instruments—percussion and harp—far beyond their original pre-DSP vocabularies, Mori and Parkins impressed the jury with the artistic depth in which they pulled this off in a duo format. Indeed, Phantom Orchard came across not only as an instinctive compositional collaboration, but also as something special in the miles of piles of computer-manipulated and processed instrumental archives. It was great to hear an instrument well-played in the context of electronic music. It is of equal value to hear something that isn’t ridden with cliché either. Even though it evokes a trace of 1950s Sci-Fi soundtracks in places, Mori and Parkins’ collaboration didn’t sound like anything else we’ve heard. The chemistry between the two players seemed strikingly intricate and rugged.

The other winner of an Award of Distinction, Janek Schaefer, created a sound installation that represents a kind of low-tech “reverse-engineering” of turntablism. He retrofitted an old Victrola record player by adding a loudspeaker that points into the horn of the gramophone, and then placed an un-etched vinyl lacquer disc onto the turntable. By playing sounds through the loudspeaker into the gramophone horn, Schaefer was able to etch a primitive record consisting of inconsistent grooves intended to cause “skating” when played back on a modern turntable. This became his “master” disc from which he made further pressings at a record manufacturing plant.

Taking these manufactured pressings, Schaefer recorded them in “scratch-skate” mode onto 3 CD’s, which were played back simultaneously in a gallery exhibition space so that the rumblings and noises heard on the homemade vinyl records triggered a primitive light show of flickering bulbs that reacted to the sounds coming from the speakers. This low-tech installation represents an elaborate deconstruction of a once-common yet presently receding phenomenon: the making and consumption of vinyl records. It was the vitality with which Schaefer explained the entire process on the video submitted to the jury that clinched his prize-winning place, showing that some music in the 21st century resides in the broad area of social entertainment, questioned functionality, do-it-yourself research, and consumerist deconstruction.

John Duncan’s The Keening Towers was conceived as a sound installation, presented as part of the Against All Evens exhibit curated by Carl-Michael von Hausswolff for the second Gothenburg Biennial (2003). Perched at the top of two 24 meter high, galvanized steel towers, four speakers played back the treated voices of a 30-piece elementary school choir, the sounds bouncing off the museum’s façade and into its arched corridor. François Couture commented : “People walking into the building were hearing ethereal drones, low growls, and disembodied children’s screams coming from all around them (ricocheting off the walls). Those screams will get you off your chair running to the window, basement, bedroom, or wherever your kids are at the moment just to make sure everything is all right.”

These few seconds of blinding realism aside, The Keening Towers works on a more subconscious level. The children’s voices are severely slowed down and polluted with well-controlled noise. Mental images multiply as the listener explores the soundscape, one that holds a strong filiation—in the choice of treatments and textures—children look down on us from steel towers. The reversal of positions is a way for Duncan to give abused children a voice, the piece turning into a lament. We weren’t surprised that the resulting work was somewhat rough and disturbing.

One ongoing participant in the sound art world is Dutch artist Paul Panhuysen. Sound art fans of the past 30-plus years may recall his installations using a variety of materials ranging from long piano strings to canaries to mechanical sound-producing devices of his own design. His piece A Magic Square Of 5 To Look At and A Magic Square Of 5 To Listen To received an Honorary Mention this year.

A composer who has been active in new music for more than thirty years, Tom Hamilton’s piece, London Fix, received an Honorary Mention. This work converts data from spot-gold price charts into electronic sound synthesis, producing a multi-channel speaker installation that is melodic and static at the same time. Hamilton says “Many composers try to turn music into gold—I’m doing it the other way around.” In addition to composing, Hamilton has worked behind the scenes for many years as a sound engineer with such artists as Robert Ashley and Phil Niblock.

The artist behind the Leafcutter John project is the composer John Burton, who uses electroacoustic techniques to compose a world of his own. The overall songs on the Housebound Spirit CD are made up from bits of music from very different genres. It includes chunks of plundered classical music, guitar folk music, rock, advanced electronics, broken beats, et cetera. This album contains so many styles that it is quite unclassifiable —“microruminations from the urban periphery”. The Leafcutter live rig includes two laptops, mics, and a pointy bra with a couple of magnetic pick-ups installed, which hand triggers samples from on his chest. This was someone who we felt was not only trying something new, but delivering the musical goods.

What Alvin Curran’s and Domenico Sciajno’s OUR UR brought to the table was a proto-networked real time compositional action between live players, where multiple layers of sound are processed to great effect. Unfortunately, given the live nature of the piece, it was difficult to appreciate OUR UR in a jury room situation, where time to listen is abbreviated. Like Vaggione, Curran has been around a long time and is an innovator and influence on many people. The idea of his collaboration with the younger Sicillian Sciajno, made for some enticing interplay, balancing nimbly between arbitrariness and subtle intent. How Sciajno deals with Curran’s sample-based collages of pianos, vocals, strings and general electronic mayhem keeps things mostly in check, and his re-modifications of the gliding panoramas kept us mindfully diligent.

This year’s jury intended to single out emerging artists as well as well-established names. The Sine Wave Orchestra is a project by young Japanese artists that is part old-school “happening” and part social “audio party” event. The public is invited to bring with them any device that can produce a sine wave, so that the assembled participants join in to produce an unpredictable sound event where the music is simultaneously incidental and a focal point. Thus, a temporary community develops, whose interest is in how the audio outputs fluctuate between the active participants. This type of genre is an example of music being produced outside of traditional music boundaries, a collective deconstruction of the “ego of self-expression” that is prevalent in most musical styles.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at