Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Organized Sound

Sabine Breitsameter, Chen Qiangbin, DJ Spooky, Joseph Klammer, Yuko Nexus6

Music is “organized sound”. Allegedly first formulated by John Cage, this dictum is often heard. For beginners in traditional sound and form languages, it may still seem like an inadequate generalization. As if it were an attempt to establish the smallest common denominator for a definition, and in doing so, stretching the very being of music beyond recognition, instead of giving it identity. Indeed, the maxim of “organized sound” stands in opposition to all dogmatic definitions of music. At the same time, it merely reinforces the achievements of modernism—i.e., the dissolution of material boundaries, an implicit commitment to space as a sound-structuring parameter, the listener as receptive organizer of sound and, hence, music-maker—without adding anything to them.

Yet despite its “catchiness”, neither composers nor recipients have actually exhausted the dictum of “organized sound” in its innovative potential. A number of things have fallen to the wayside: for instance, so-called applied sound design, implemented acoustic architecture and landscaping, as well as efforts to overcome traditional categories and genre boundaries in, e.g., the media, cultural institutions and science, and replace them with a more comprehensive category of acoustic art forms. This tendency could also be observed in the works submitted to the competition.

Though hasn’t a new force set the concept of music in motion in the meantime. A force involving new drafts of reality and the tools of a growing digitization? Can the dictum of “organized sound” still do justice to these developments? Ultimately, there’s also the question of which concept of music is now replacing it. To keep track of what’s happening, the jury’s work in the category Digital Musics is not the worst listening post.

So what is it that the three winners—Hans W. Koch’s the benchmark consort (Award of Distinction), Teri Rueb’s Core Sample (Award of Distinction), and Sergi Jordà and his team’s reactable (Golden Nica)—have in common? To what degree can they, and the other twelve works singled out for Honorary Mentions, be seen as “living proof” of a forward-looking concept of music?

For a start, the three winners each stand for a prototypical topic of a sonic art that explores digital concepts: In the mid and late 1980s, “space” as a category became the focus of artistic audio creations. Sound installations finally succeeded in establishing themselves as an artistic genre. Teri Rueb’s Core Sample, which has been selected for one of this year’s Awards of Distinction, definitely comes from this tradition of organizing sound spatially in installations and expanding forms of experience via digital possibilities. The piece revolves around interlinking locations and the sounds related to them by means of a Global Positioning System. Thus each of the defined sites offers its own unmistakable sound experience. This prizewinning work enables visitors to experience this as they wander around an island near Boston. Depending on the route, pace and duration of their excursion, participants in the installation experience their own individual audio piece. Texts and noises intensify how nature is perceived, while providing evidence of the island’s first inhabitants and enriching the present with accounts of historical events.

Jury member Yuko Nexus6 reminds us how since the early 1980s, the Sony Walkman has fostered a close (linear) relationship between listening and walking. Rueb’s work “goes a step further via GPS. Core Sample is a site-specific interactive DJ, that makes the history, ecology, time and space of the island conceivable, perceptible and audible.”

To link mobility and perception is a central theme of contemporary digital life. Since the early 1980s, Christina Kubisch has attained “classic”

status in the field. Her work Magnetic Flights (Honorary Mention) enables the acoustic detection of a thoroughly technologized reality. Here it is not the soundscapes of the urban environment that penetrate our ears, but the electromagnetic interferences and noises of soda machines, alarm systems, mobile communications and electric wirings. Hence today’s world undergoes both an “unheard” of and complexly differentiated auditory representation: it is achieved via an electromagnetic field recording that reinterprets the background noises and interferences in aesthetic sound events.

Jim Denley’s Through Fire, Crevice and the Hidden Valley demonstrates how a love of nature and of the representational world do not necessarily have to be backwards (Honorary Mention). Yuko Nexus6: “With portable digital recorders, people can track down sounds in their environment more easily. In Jim Denley’s piece the strains of a saxophone become a natural sound; and natural sounds, music. Simple, but effective.”

If the above work revolves around the mutual penetration and integration of perceptual levels of aesthetic sound, then in Ramón González-Arroyo’s installation L’isla des Neumas (Honorary Mention) it is a matter of unleashing the dynamics of the spatial concept itself. Closely related to central themes of the digital age, like processing, networking and communication flow, this concept literally demands auditory implementation, and by doing so makes dynamic spatial experiences perceptible to the senses. Ray Lee’s Force Field (Honorary Mention) does something similar. The installation sets sounds in motion, while revealing the underlying mechanics, which continually subject spatial-acoustic perceptions to changes.

The jury gave the other Award of Distinction to a work of equal merit: the benchmark consort by Hans W. Koch. It represents the principle of critical or ironic commentary on technological functions and phenomena: an infinite number of volunteers sit on stage with their— unamplified—laptops. Simultaneously they all start the same software program that generates sounds via a FM synthesizer while opening ever more windows on their screens. The individual computers are slowly pushed to the limits of their CPUs. The initial sound continuum turns into the stuttering, wheezing and waning of the computers as they conk out: gradually the whole piece falls silent. Jury member Josef Klammer remarks: “On the one hand, Hans W. Koch demonstrates … in a simple but vivid manner that there is a musical potential inherent to systems failure, to the very imperfection of computers; on the other hand, he reappropriates, recasts, mitigates and demystifies computers. In other words: Fear not! It’s only a computer!”

If Koch’s work strives to illuminate one principle for the length of an entire performance, then Videobrücke Berlin–Stockholm (5 punkt 1) by Sabine Ercklentz and Andrea Neumann (Honorary Mention) builds on a revelation at the end: on occasion of Art’s Birthday, the two musicians perform simultaneously in Stockholm and Berlin via an Internet connection. And what appears on the screen in the familiar jerky and frozen images—like in a genuine live streaming—suddenly, at the end of the performance, turns out to be a fake: “Towards the end they both take their fingers off their instruments, but the music continues all the same. They even have the cheek to dance. The original cannot be distinguished from the fake. The credibility of simultaneous concerts is under question.” (Josef Klammer)

A balancing act between the seemingly neverending playful treatment of digital clichés and subtle-ironic commentary is also presented in the interactive, live installation d.v.d Young Japanese artists “control geometric figures via drums on a large screen behind them; at the same time these pop images generate the music. A music that works its way through the gameconsole sounds and ring tones of our collective daily acoustic emissions.” (Josef Klammer)

Physical exertion (in this case, on drums) as the catalyst or basis of a process and metamorphosis also plays an important role in this work, not unlike in the spatially oriented works depicted earlier. This also applies to the multi-channel Timepiece Triptych (Honorary Mention) by vocal artist Pamela Z. Here we are dealing with one of the few works to be honored that does not involve live electronics. The only sound sources are the vocalist’s voice and those of birds, which have been processed, layered and then distributed across a number of loudspeakers. Explored in its micro- and macrostructures, Pamela Z. shows how in the digital age the human voice has become a universal instrument.

The same is true of Yasuno Miyauchi’s choral work Breath Strati (Honorary Mention). The body operates as inspired and inspiring generator, as “human synthesizer” (Yuko Nexus6). Each member of this women’s choir “is an oscillator that generates a completely specific sound”. This live performance is presented by the singers as if it were an ancient ritual, the sounds of their voices overlapping one another and creating an acoustic experience of supernatural intensity—the body as technology and as commentary on technology.

In contrast to the body as “sender” is the body as “receiver”. The latter is the topic of Satoshi Mori ta’ s Sound Capsule (Honorary Mention): to hear something you have to withdraw into a specially constructed object. In it you don’t just listen with your ears, but via loudspeakers that are positioned so that you hear soundscapes from everyday life with your entire body. By literally embedding yourself in the sound, the illusion arises that you are the sound-producing subject: riding a bike, chopping onions, breathing, moving, handling things. In Sound Capsule, the listener slips into the role of the soundmaker. Also immersive, though in a different way, is Yu•Tian Cong He by Qin Yi. It focuses on the expansion of the sonic possibilities of traditional instruments and voices. Not a single element has been prerecorded or preprocessed. The chanting of lamas and the timbre of the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument, are the starting points for this aesthetic sound project. Jury member Chen Qiangbin: “By combining a traditional Chinese instrument, the human voice, loudspeakers and interactive software, the author has generated an amazingly (poetic) space in which the performers also act as sound ‘creators’.”

In these last pieces—which operate with a perceiving body and/or a vocal expressiveness—it becomes obvious that not only “organizational principles” of sound have to captivate audiences in order for them to rank among other outstanding and forward-looking music productions. Rather they must also represent a sound aesthetics that has a metaphysical dimension, one that is capable of flaring up from time to time and asserts itself as a distinctive, qualitative feature. Howard Kenty’s piece Scherzo; Dance. for two pianos is equally remarkable (Honorary Mention). Based on complex structures of microtonal sound processing, it has an astonishing poetic power. As jury-member Chen Qiangbin put it: “The musical language he uses is traditional, pianistic, and to some degree similar to the methods of Passacaglia and minimalist music. As for the electronic approach, the composer has used conventional, simple hardware and software to achieve the desired ‘bizarre and hypnotizing effect’. In contemporary digital music, people want to hear works that not only cause surprise, curiosity, unexpected feelings and futuristic visions, but also contain poetic imagination and fantastic auditory perceptions.” The last few works mentioned are linear and follow a structure pre-imagined by the composer. But just as Teri Rueb’s Core Sample, described at the outset, would be unable to manifest itself if it were not for operative interaction with the recipient, the following two works are playful in an interactive sense of the word. Here art becomes—and this is also a feature of digital music—communication and game.

Mouse clicks and mouse overs are the interactive moments in Jörg Niehage’s sound installation Samplinplong (Honorary Mention). Visual objects are arranged—electronic junk, plastic toys, compressed air valves, pneumatically operated components, coiling cables and wires—to bring enjoyment to participants. Interactively, minicompositions are generated that feature dense rhythmic hisses, whirs, hums, crackles and mouse clicks—pleasurable arrangements from the everyday soundtrack of the digital age.

Interpersonal interaction with the objective of eliciting complex auditory processes: reactable, produced by Sergi Jordà and his team from the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, succeeds in implementing precisely this objective. Which is why the jury unanimously decided to award this year’s Golden Nica to it. As a thoroughly communicative and playful work, whose contents are also extremely artistic, reactable embodies the principles of networking, collaboration and interaction, coupled with what digital tools are able to achieve, via data processing and modification, to create a close metamorphic relationship between input and output. Central to the work is a luminous tabletop on which several participants can move and relate small acrylic objects. These objects represent the basic components of electronic music. By activating them, the participants set the music in motion—driving it onwards with their next moves. reactable is a visual multi-user interface that makes music both visible and tangible. What’s more, it has a great appeal due to its complex sonic potential. It is not merely a toy that produces something somehow. Rather, reactable is a true instrument that offers even professionals deeper and more complex artistic possibilities. The visual design of the objects gives the audio “séance” collectively experienced at the table a ritualistic and magical quality. The relationship between one person and another and a machine does not happen in the hidden data flow of the machine, but on the table in a form that can be followed: Action generates sound. Structured action generates music.

Back to our original question: To what extent can the dictum of “organized sound” do justice to these developments? One thing has, at least, become clear: the less a piece of music sees itself as a product and the more it sees itself as an activity—as is the case with interactive and participatory works—the more it moves away from this idée reçue. What emerges instead is a question: What has to be organized to produce sound? This can be social processes, as in reactable; a linking of heterogeneous aspects (e.g. of topologies, motives, thematic issues), as in Core Sample; or the discovery and invention of strategies to reinterpret, reassess and comment on what appears to be self-evident, as was made clear in, e.g., the benchmark consort. In this sense, organization comes long before the acoustic dimension. What has been generated in this way creates a situation in which the audible takes on a presence. In this context, sound is merely an appearance and “surface” that have not necessarily evolved out of the structure. In fact, even if a given setting were assigned other sounds, it would not automatically make a different statement or have a different validity. Hence the quality criteria shift away from the plane of material aesthetics to structure, configuration and code. It is here that something is rooted that has dissociated itself from the linear artwork, something that manifests itself as communication and game. Much indicates—and this is quite plain in the fifteen entries acknowledged here—that successful pieces also captivate listeners with the aesthetics of their sounds. Present-day and future “digital musics” cannot and will not be able to get by without organizing sensual components, without concepts of rich sonic content.

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