Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

The Digital Distinction

Naut Humon, Gordon Monahan, Alain Thibault, David Toop, Yuko Nexus 6

As always with our jury discussions, a great deal of energy is expended on the validity or legitimacies of certain entries. How do they fit into a machinederived audio category such as Digital Musics?

We attempted to evaluate and equate productions which are created using mechanical means, analog electronics, acoustic instruments, digital data conversion, robotics, fire, acoustic sources using digital editing and processing, and hybrids of video art and sound. In the latter case, these entries seem to be increasing, though this may reflect the current pricing and availability of editing packages such as Final Cut Pro. From our experience in 2005, this is a trend that can lead to interesting work, or it can result in DVDs that resemble pop videos without a record, or advertising without a product. Although the hybridization of digital sound and image is inevitable, very little of the work suggested any kind of breakthrough in conceptualization. For now, in the bulk of what we received, it seems expedient rather than innovative. A number of exceptions to this observation are evident in the fifteen artists represented in this article.

Ultimately, we award a prize in sonic arts. This reflects the current breadth of contemporary sound work, in which 19th century physics and the mechanical origins of the computer are as keenly felt as the latest developments in software applications or processor speed. The humanity of sound art remains central, whether considered through robotics or data processing with an environmental theme, or through collaborations between computers and the human body. Some of the struggles of the jury sessions arise from the fact that there is no such thing as purely digital music.

But when the digital is “dirtied by the analog” the resulting hybrid can often be what the digital realm is seeking—an effective binary replica of the analog circumstance. Much of the focus of today’s software design, particularly in sound, is oriented around “how warm” or how well a certain digital simulation can achieve parity with its analog equivalent. Well, fortunately we are not here to judge or compare recent developments in software emulations of hardware devices from former decades, but we are here to consider the historical perspectives of some artists whose recent works still contain strong analog artefacts from their lingering past.

Firmly rooted in continuously variable physical methodologies are two of the top winners; Maryanne Amacher (Golden Nica) and the group Pan Sonic (Distinction). The sonic skeleton of both of their projects is fueled by a strong analog lineage that relies very little upon the digital diaspora. Maryanne Amacher is one of the premier musical mavericks of structure-borne sound. It is remarkable that even in 2005 what a mystery she still is even to the sonic underground that embraces her ongoing legacy. Amacher’s known for creating installations so extreme and all-encompassing that the idea of trying to record the sonic mayhem to two-track stereo is akin to taking a snapshot of the Grand Canyon. In other words, while one may get the general idea from the reproduction, it in no way replicates the intensity of the original experience. A controlled environment, where sound is delivered to the listener according to strict parameters determined by the designer, is the best way to experience these demanding works of abstract music. Her newest installation TEO!, is another one of her designs where in certain places the listener leaves with the impression that certain frequencies are emanating from the center of the brain.

These compositions are completely unique then, not just due to their original installation nature, but for each individual listener, as the frequency of sounds in each piece resonate within the ears and head, causing new sounds within the listener’s mind to evolve.

These explorations deal with what Amacher calls “third ear music,” wherein high-pitched tones are structured to resonate inside the listener’s skull so that the person’s inner ear vibrates, creating “new” music distinct from that which emanating from the speakers. Sound crazy? Well when your ears start to modulate, you begin to feel funny, and it becomes unclear exactly where the music is coming from. Many of these sections in TEO! are flat-out terrifying, in that they make you feel spare and languid in the face of their power.

In a time when almost everyone considers CDs too long, lumping four nearly full discs together and calling it your new album is self-aggrandizement bordering on clinical mania. Kesto works, though, because Pan Sonic, through intelligent sequencing and a burst of inspiration, are essentially offering four separate, complete, and internally consistent albums. Each disc has its own mood and offers a rounded take on a different mix of their approaches. David Toop’s commentary on them from his music, silence and memory volume Haunted Weather summed up what our jury as a whole was feeling about the experience of Pan Sonic:

Live, their music can feel as physical as a weather system. This enveloping escalation of physicality seems a kind of materialism, even though there is nothing to see other than the projected image of beats activating an oscilloscope: the rawness of sawtooth, the sumptuous melted wax massage of pure sine, the error sounds of contact and broken contact. Inevitably, there is a temptation to listen for signs of refinement or romanticism, simply because the music goes beyond process and phenomenology, broadcasting a manifesto for the poetry of electricity.

Although their minimalism is executed with elegance and precision, Pan Sonic nurture a rougher, clumsy side. These maligned qualities occupy an important place in electronic music, a field haunted through its history by the deathly consequences of unlimited order, reason and control. The non-academic influences of reggae, rockabilly and the legendary New York duo, Suicide, ensure the opposite. Mika Vainio and Ilpo Vaisanen cultivate a precarious balance between the elegant formalism of their own constructions and the threatened proliferating chaos of feedback. Sun stroke, odorous nausea that overpowers, then thins to the buzz of a thermionic valve on the threshold of filament purgatory.

One of this year’s other prize winners of distinction, John Oswald, is no stranger to the world of digital music. In fact, his most well-known body of work, Plunderphonics (his own invented word), has become a world-wide genre in itself. Thus, Oswald’s early plunderphonics work, truly radical in its time (1969 through to mid-90’s), has become more commonly notorious in today’s alternative music world where DJ “mash-ups” and compositional “cutups” derived from found audio are frequent fare. Oswald continues to work in the genre but has expanded his range to include music for orchestra.

Oswald’s winning work Ariature / Panorama, for orchestra and amplified voice, is in fact a cut-up of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with a live Glenn Gould imitator humming along over the top of the orchestra. In this work, Oswald maintains his well known short splice editing technique, but takes his razor blade to Bach’s original score rather than to existing audio recordings. Giving a nod to Gould’s unorthodox habit of humming along to his exquisite piano interpretations, Oswald puts Gould’s slightly out-of-tune humming technique up front in the performance. The humming habit that Gould’s producers failed to prevent from being recorded, becomes the focus of Oswald’s piece. This work was deemed to qualify as digital music since Oswald used a computer to hack apart and regenerate an adapted orchestral score.

A considerable proportion of top-15 choices were sound installations. These could be categorized in roughly 2 sub-categories: installations using some form of sound sculpture for sound reproduction (artificiel, DeMarinis, Demers), and installations using ‘traditional’ loudspeakers (Maryanne Amacher, Jens Brand, Scott Arford).

A curious hybrid is the installation by Paul DeMarinis entitled Firebirds. DeMarinis takes a victorian-era science experiment by Chichester Bell (brother of Alexander Graham Bell), who discovered that applying voltages to a gas flame can excite audible vibrations in the flame, thus creating a ‘flame loudspeaker’. DeMarinis constructed 4 such flame speakers, arranged them in an art gallery, and played 1930’s-era political speeches over the flames, thus drawing an analogy between the dangers posed by flames and also by politicised speech. DeMarinis’s piece also creates incidental light from the flames, and two other sound installations also used light in different manners to create sound. The Montrealbased group artificiel (Alexandre Burton, Julien Roy, Jimmy Lakatos), created an installation using a grid of 64 large industrial light bulbs, that emit varying types of hums and buzzes as they are dimmed by computer control. The grid of bulbs becomes a room installation and the group invites guest composers to perform pieces on the grid.

The other light-based installation was by Scott Arford, who routed a system of video and audio feedback into video monitors, with light-sensitive audio pick-ups placed at strategic points on the video monitor, thus generating impressive tones that are amplified through a sound system. The result is an immersive, synaesthetic environment where the perceptual and physical qualities of sound and light merge to create a very direct singular experience. Tones and abstract color fields break down into vibrating sheets of interlaced flickering and shredding static, the abstract projections and resultant sounds making it possible to hear the buzzing images and see the flickering sounds.

This year a large quantity of submissions used sounds from satellite transmissions as compositional material. One piece using this sound source that was unique in its approach was the piece called G-Player by Jens Brand. Rather than compose or mix the blips and static emitted from satellites into a sound collage, Brand has designed a table-top receiver which resembles a stylish (some might say ‘kitschy’) stereo component, similar in appearance to a CD player or amplifier. The receiver, which receives and mixes the noises from passing satellites, can be plugged into your stereo system like any other audio component. Thus, Brand has cleverly taken a sound source that many other sound artists are currently using, and extrapolated that material to create an ironic stand-alone consumer item that is a sound sculpture.

Honorable mention Louis-Philippe Demers mobile surround soundscape contraptions inhabited the area where audio encounters robotics in an intricate installation. The wide assortment of sonic projection robots he assembles is truly remarkable with a look, character and sensation all his own. This mechanical theatre becomes a space for a collective consensus of the acceptation of simulacrum in a more pronounced way than traditional theatre. We were drawn to the level of abstraction this automated presentation enabled a multiplicity of interpretations where the open ended nature of the work provided the viewer with a reflection of their own feelings and simulated audentities.

Electronic composer Carl Stone described Yoshimitsu Ichiraku’s DoraVideo’s system of real time video-looping using drums, as “loud, gregarious, hilarious and fun”. Our panel was keen to agree with this assessment. What we saw was some of the most inventive use of Max/MSP that any of us have ever witnessed. DoraVideo is a drummer who looks a bit like a sumo wrestler. His drumkit triggers Max software manipulations of digital video projected on a big screen behind him. In this way he controls various short video sequences—a clip from a samurai movie murder, the shower scene from Psycho, clips from Hong Kong gangster movies, a Chinese folk orchestra and even himself playing the drums!. It’s basically live video scratching controlled by a drumkit instead of a shuttle wheel. A cymbal crash can spin the heads back, a snare advances the scene in real time to the next marker point. It’s powerful and whimsical and there were smiles all around our table …

Kateryna Zavoloka’s sonic universe in plavyna is very impulsive mixture of rich, dense and often unexpected soundscapes. Her music consists of intensely varied audiomatic motions and combinations piped into carefully controlled electronic flows. Zavoloka summons quite a long stretch of clicks, fragmented melodies, rhythmic particles, and various other sounds, where occasionally chunks of what we assumed to be folk music from the Ukraine pop up. This wild variety of sounds is carefully assembled in a rich kaleidoscopic mixture that most resemble stuttering machines. The density and jittery movements from one gesture to another resembles the work of some breakcore musicians, but Zavoloka’s work has a much stronger emphasis on melody and sounds lighter and more delicate than most releases in the aforementioned genre. We thought it was a demanding listen, but original in its rather perky approach. Haco has long been one of the reigning songstresses of avant-garde music. But she isn’t only a highly acclaimed vocalist and composer/lyricist; in recent years she’s been exploring areas unrelated to vocalizing or pop melodies, with projects that focus on the sounds that surround us in our daily lives. One of these is View Masters (“the sound collection and observation organization”), which produces a large-scale annual event; another is Stereo Bugscope, which is documented on the album we heard.

In another excerpt from his Haunted Weather book, David Toop observed :

A Haco performance can be an engaging interaction between voice, simple objects and lo-tech electronics, a world away from the depersonalized, machine environment of the Pachinko parlour. In fact, there is no contraction. Her Bugfield performance piece uses two contact microphones to pick up and amplify the oscillating sounds from a computer’s internal electromagnets. The piece ends with Haco inserting a blank CD-R into the drive, setting in motion the computer’s most agitated and complex sound emissions.

“After the performance, some people said they had never imagined how fantastic the CD-R drive sounds,” she replied. “The most interesting thing about the concept is that people attempt to ‘convert ideas’ with the ‘ear’, not with computer software, and not with onkyo, sound resonance materials. My interest is not only focusing on a minimal idea—for example, playing with a sine wave or an oscillator—but examining a wide range of viewpoints—for example, bird’s eye views with the ear, by zooming in and out on the observed object with sound. In this project, I try to approach popology by emitting sounds that everybody makes when they use a computer. Commonly, people simply ignore or fail to notice sounds like the CD-R drive, but by trying to train the spotlight on such anonymous sounds, I hope the audience will change its ideas about sound. In my performance, Bugfield the computer is used to encourage a different focus regarding the computer.”

skoltz_kolgen’s Flüux:/Terminal AV presentation has toured internationally over the last couple of years and we were excited to review it in a contrasting critical context. Their artistic thought essentially focuses on the immediate relationship between sonic systems and visual material. Using digital platforms, they intuitively create a dynamic dialogue between the particularity of each medium. By injecting digital audio data into the images, and vice-versa—an optic influx into the sound,—they construct what they like to call acoustic pigments. Their multipolar work includes, among others, pictorial, sonic, and kinetic objects, installations, as well as performances.

Canadian electroacoustician Gilles Gobeil is one of the important composers associated with the Montreal label empreintes DIGITALes. His works show an obsession with machines and extreme sonic textures: delicate soundscapes blown to smithereens by the thunderous “bang!” of a door slamming shut. When you peer into his electroacoustic antecedents you encounter the names of well-known as well as more obscure organizations throughout the genre which have all rendered him recognitions and well deserved awards. Undoubtedly, this wizard of electronics, spinning all around his hat, is worthy of all this havoc, because he is one of the most talented and sensitive jugglers of sounds we’ve heard.

There seems to be fewer submissions these days in the sphere of “mondo music” extravaganzas. So when Mike Cooper’s homage to Hawaiian lounge musician Arthur Lyman arrived to our table we were overjoyed. Ambient Electronic Exotica is the genre and subtitle of Rayon Hula. Ambient recordings made in the Pacific, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, treated electronically, combined with acoustic and electronic instruments and re-located to produce virtual soundscapes. Last but never least was our lingering attachment to the group that refuses to go away who is the Kapital Band 1, starring Nicholas Bussmann on strings and CPU and the drummer from Radian, Martin Brandlmayr. Now who’s going to argue with these guys? They gave us 2 CD’s; one with music on it and the other one for a shaving mirror …. OK. We like the music and we like the silence. And we hope you will too.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at