Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Are we bored?

Rob Young, Naut Humon

We feel affinities not only with the past, but also with futures that don't materialize, and with the other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we have agreed to live in. (Brian Eno)

Once again our critical listening committee in the land of the Prix Ars Electronica is asking our international electronic sound and vision communities to give us any indicators of where it is we keep moving towards. Are we running on the spot or is the future as we’re living it now all it’s cracked up to be? Once upon a time the 2000’s were supposedly closer than we thought and all that seems to be happening now is that much of the “fresher” music of this grand new millennium doesn’t seem quite as innovative as it used to be. We’ve settled in, digital is ubiquitous and there’s global “swarming”—a sea of saturating media arresting our attention deficit disorders. There are so many channels, but what’s really on? Between the history network and previews of scenes to come, what seems to emerge aren’t always the elements that are new or “original” but the components that stand the test of time.

The saga of electronic music can be seen as a journey—from its immediate post-war origins in the tape and loop experimentation of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, to contemporary use of sonic transformation software by the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre. Artists working in the aural medium have been obliged to navigate a constantly altering landscape of technologies and conceptual approaches. Some survive this journey by constant adaptation, others by the sheer force of their determination and perseverance.

Golden Nica

This year’s winner of the Golden Nica in Digital Musics is an example of the latter. Eliane Radigue, born in 1932, began her musical life under the tutelary wing of those French pioneers mentioned above. Conventional histories of this Parisian school, the GRM (Groupe de Recherche Musicale), tend to focus on a small handful of (male) composers, ignoring the vast amount of work done in both tape music and pure electronics by scores of other associates.

Radigue began her work with synthesizers in the 1950s and has steadily ploughed her own course, developing a personal style of long form, slowly evolving tonal odysseys that act as meditations on death and eternity. After working in Paris and, in the early 70s, at the Columbia-Princeton studio facility in New York, Radigue adopted Tibetan Buddhism as a personal philosophy and as a guiding principle in making a new phase of compositions, culminating in the monumental Trilogie de la Mort (1988–93). Now in her midseventies, she is belatedly being recognized as a cornerstone of electronic music. Radigue’s work is being audited at international music festivals, and she has come to stand as an important, inspirational figure for several younger generations of musicians. The four piece digital ensemble The Lappetites, instigated in 2004, features Radigue alongside Kaffe Matthews, AGF and Ryoko Kuwajima—four generations of innovative female musicians developing engaging new strategies for composition and performance.

Radigue continues to work at her ARP 2500 synthesizer, which has been the founding medium for all her music, and her prizewinning entry, L’île ré-sonante (“The Resonant / Re-sounding Island”), is a piece of ravishing sonic beauty and emotive force. Containing a lightly more programmatic feel than many of her previous works, it suggests a voyage deep into the heart of some psychic space, the “island” eventually looming out of the aural fog depicted through subtly deployed vocalizations. Powerful on the levels of pure sonics, emotive drive and conceptual interest, the work stands as the culmination of a life’s work. Thanks to her perseverance, dedication and an innate feeling for the physical and emotional power of music, Radigue has reached her island, and her Golden Nica awaits her there.


Sound and music has a wide variety of functions; often its entertainment value or familiarity factor is privileged over more unsettling uses. Our two awards of Distinction celebrate these opposing qualities. Young San Franciscan Joe Colley’s work was unknown to all but one of the jury members, but his psychic stress soundtracks captured everyone’s fancy with its intense attention to sonic detail, acute production values and faithfulness to his intention to disorient and traumatize the listener. His “unstable sounds” alternate passages of quiet menace with sudden CattleProd bursts; the digital audio holds the attention with a kind of cruel beauty. The jury praised the fact that this is a versatile music that can be reproduced thematically as a performance as well as its CD presence; Colley’s use of sound sculptures and amplified objects adds an intriguing three-dimensionality to a genre often content to explore nothing but its own formal characteristics. With that in mind, psychic stress soundtracks evoked recent reports of the use of high-volume music used in the torture chambers of the Middle East for sleep deprivation and disorientation; this contemporary political resonance also helped to lift it above its competitors.

British artist Kaffe Matthews’s Sonic Bed_London (2005) provided a welcome comfort zone to recuperate from Colley’s infernal machinations. Designed as an installation and already shown at galleries in the UK and China, the piece’s elegant simplicity impressed the judges. Matthews herself has developed her practice from live violin improvisations via realtime MIDI sampling, gradually abandoning the instrument to focus on pure software application, and her installation work often highlights subtle transformations of domestic furniture adapted for sound purposes. Sonic Bed_London is therefore a focal point neatly encapsulating both strands of her work. Essentially a mattress installed in a box containing a network of loudspeakers capable of reproducing extreme high and low frequencies, Sonic Bed_London’s audio component is experienced as physical effects on the skin and bones, as the harmonic frequencies massage and course through the body while you lie on it. We liked the way the piece encourages unexpected social interactions through its participatory use in the gallery, and that its very simplicity makes it accessible and comprehensible to any age group. Additionally it offers an alternative means of experiencing sound from the traditional CD or concert media; it literally stimulates an awareness and curiosity about the physical properties of sonic frequencies and suggests practical applications for ‘generative’ or evolving audio which too often remains in an abstract state.

Honorary Mentions

Among the other entries that did not make the final three awards, the jury’s deliberations often came down to discussions of whether form was preferable to content. “Abstract” formal explorations have constituted a large part of electronic and electroacoustic music but there is a clear emerging trend of what might be dubbed “mimetic” or “simulacrum” sampling, where significant objects are used as source material.

Matmos’s The Rose Has Teeth In The Eye Of A Beast is a series of audio biographies of the group’s heroes or inspirations: for a track “about”, say, Ludwig Wittgenstein or William Burroughs, the lives of these individuals are studied, objects relevant are collected together and recorded, or important incidents in their lives are acted out and the results again captured. All this is then used as the raw audio palette of colors in the creation of discrete tracks which often bear no immediate connection to their inspirational source other than the memorial associations “locked into” the objects recorded. We praised the imaginative vigour of Matmos’s design (and their devotion to duty: one track features a group member being burned by a cigarette); they were preferred over Matthew Herbert, who uses very similar philosophy of the signifying sound object, but Plat Du Jour, his attempt to critique the global food industry, while admirable in conception, was felt to be too far abstracted from the end result. The fuel expended in driving a tank over a recreation of a meal once served to Blair and Bush (not to mention the cooking of said meal) might have been better conserved, in that it is impossible to detect any aural evidence of this real-life event. The theatrical preparation for these works provides a lively stage for the imagination, but too often this inventiveness is lost in the sonic outcome.

The Touch label’s Spire project offers a different order of theatricality. Documented on a four hour CD set, Spire is a large-scale performance event exploring the sonic qualities of cathedral organs. The recorded version from the St Pierre Cathedral in Geneva begins with several contemporary organ compositions by the likes of Xenakis, Messiaen and Jolivet, giving a mini-primer on the reinvention of this venerable instrument in the 20th century. The audience is then encouraged to circulate around the building and explore the different side chapels and crypt, where they encounter various experimental musicians such as Christian Fennesz, BJ Nilsen and Philip Jeck, electronically transforming variations on the organ sound. Spire’s integration of a variety of different musical techniques, its widescreen survey of the recent history of the organ and its attempt to find a new voice for the instrument outside of the context of worship, as well as its spectacular use of the spaces of the cathedral received our praise.

A lively debate circulated around Zap Meemees by Japanese artist Satanicpornocultshop (*Es, Lisa, Vinylman, Ugh, Liftman, Frosen Pine & Meu). The jury was split down the middle over its plunderphonic approach to modern pop music; there was no doubting the immediate impact of its dayglo digital textures, the reckless attitude with which it tossed recognizable pop samples into its whirlpool mix. However its attention grabbing production was enough to sustain repeated listening—and is repeated listening a criteria that should even be applied to the final judgment? Some thought this was a fresh sound that offered a spirited and irreverent satire on pop culture; others felt that its self-referentiality was too disposable to warrant a distinction.

Zap Meemees was held up against two other intriguing projects that make heavy use of sampling: Voodooluba, by Cologne’s Niobe (Yvonne Cornelius), and A Life Without Fear by Berliner Ekkehard Ehlers. Niobe’s lush, seductive invocations of Latin tinged exotica divided opinions, but her magic realist sonic imagination certainly provided one of the more distinctive voices of all this year’s entries. Ehlers looked to the blues for his piece, part of an ongoing “Plays” series of homages to past musics such as Robert Johnson, Albert Aylers and Cornelius Cardew. It was refreshing to hear electronic music engaging in a dialogue with another musical genre that gave it a frame of reference outside of its own parameters, and Ehlers was noted for the intellectual rigour behind his unique approach to examining musical heritage.

Yannis Kyriakides’s Wordless samples the silences in the speech patterns of various individuals whom he has recorded; individuals who in different ways are exiles disempowered and with no “voice” in society. The totality of Kyriakides’s output, which ranges across politically charged digital compositions, installations and dance works, and improvisational work with the Dutch anarchist group The Ex, was praised but we felt this particular piece—not the first to isolate “speech gaps” in digital music, was not strong enough in this company to merit a Distinction.

In the realm of electroacoustics and the real time transformation of live instruments, two different projects stood out. , by Nikolaus Gansterer, Katharina Klement and Josef Novotny, takes off from the notion of the prepared piano, with various electric motors and other stimulants inserted into the 88 internal strings of a contact miked grand piano and left to do their work, with the sounds electronically processed in real time. The sound and approach alone piqued our interest but no more, until the fullness of its performative context was revealed. Gansterer augments the sound with a humorous, deliberately obfuscating “lecture” on the unfolding process, with an overhead projection of Heath Robinson-style complexity. We liked the charm and self-deprecation of this approach which undercut the usual pofaced presentation of electroacoustic music.

february sessions by Japanese laptop trio Yoshihisa Suzuki, Kensuke Tobitani and Satoshi Fukushima presented a much younger, cutting edge take on the practice of live electronics. The music took a while to register—this is definitely one to experience in a live context—but we detected an intriguing, fluid and vital presence in the extreme digitization of real time instruments as they were inputted in a hierarchical manner and became disfigured in the live output permutation.

American guitar trio Sunn O)))’s Black One provoked a debate on the presence of a group openly invoking the trappings of Black Metal in a Digital Musics panel. Stephen O’Malley’s reinvention of the genre as a drumless doom-creep has become a popular cult item in underground music over the past few years, and his immersion in such music as electric jazz, and musique concrete gives an interesting contextualization for this ritualistic, semi tongue-in-cheek rock density. The sheer force of the group’s demonic guitar interplay, and their iconoclastic presentation, impressed most panel members including those to whom it was a complete surprise.

Radio_Copernicus, a collaborative broadcast station instigated by Sabine Breitsameter, was a controversial choice. There was no doubting the worthwhile aim of setting up and building a network of transmission hubs between German and Polish stations, with the sole aim of encouraging and disseminating ‘art music’ and innovative broadcasting scheduling—much of it the kind of music generally submitted to our panel. The ethics of awarding a financial prize to an enterprise that already received significant state funding was discussed, and we wondered precisely what Radio_Copernicus offered over and above all the many art radio stations globally which didn’t happen to submit an entry. There was the additional difficulty in assessing the output of a station when the submission was 27 CDs’ worth of recorded output, no English language documentation and no clear statement of the station’s aims and achievements. But regardless of our hesitations this project seemed to provide a meaningful example of a forward philosophy in establishing models for advancing adventurous forms of radio cultures.

Long running avant garde music organization Staalplaat submitted a portfolio of their Sound System’s innovative installations and performances, under the heading Yokomono. Because some of this work dated back past the competition’s two-year limit, judging the whole body of work became problematic. But the jury unanimously found favor with the group’s quirky use of reconditioned household appliances on a grand scale, such as installations of dozens of washing machines, vacuum cleaners and a net of illuminated plastic objects on water. The premier Yokomono piece itself engaged its spectators with 10 turntables with tiny toy highway vehicles that travel in circles on lock groove vinyl transmitting invited artists sounds to 10 channels of multiple FM radio groups placed on mobile model trains or in selected areas around the room. Other pre-made records contain 55 loops of digital silence so that when the little “stylus” cars rotate around and “damage” the vinyl surface the audio deterioration noise is also transmitted wirelessly to the mixing desk where two “erosive” operators edit and manipulate the slowly decaying battery duration of these miniature “vinyl killer” cars. Staalplaat’s presence in the top 15 reflects the group’s long service to experimental music through their label and mail order operation—a fixture and lifeline since the 1980s—as well as the inventiveness and entertaining nature of these works with reclaimed junk.

Amidst the plethora of the musique concrete oriented pieces we found a vigorous, rip roaring, high octane opus entitled Storm! A few of us were familiar with its author, Ambrose Field, but once this uncompromisingly relentless “audensity” hit our ears we were curiously smitten. Here was a composer and sound designer who was putting all his cards on the table and still leaving much to our collective aural imaginations. The tension, drama and impact were intensified by enhanced guitar-like timbre streams and strong cinematic effects which draw the listener into personal moments of sonic intimacy or vaster accelerations that appear “larger than life”. Constructing a convincing surround composition from recorded environmental sound sources and customized computer metamorphosis is always a musical challenge and the uncommon results we encountered here helped to ignite fresh audio insights into a rather profound acousmatic world.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at