Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Forward to the World

Kodwo Eshun

It is amusing and bizarre to read the many emails berating both the 1999 Digital Musics Winners and the Digital Musics Jury for their choices. Before elaborating on this years decisions, it is necessary, not to defend our decisions, which we have already done in the 1999 Jury Statement but rather to analyse the assumptions that guide those criticisms.

Hostility especially centred on last year's Golden Nica winners - the music video director Chris Cunningham and the producer Aphex Twin. It’s audible that our critics in the academic electroacoustic community have a visceral dislike of popular culture. For this sector, the entire value of the now defunct Computer Music Prize stemmed from it’s historical role as a refuge from, a direct opponent of, and a zone of aesthetic superiority over the inescapable vulgarity of popular music.

Last year, the Jury definitively broke with this position, one which had led the Computer Music Category down a dead end of irrelevance and terminal boredom. To our critics, no music video has a place in a serious digital music competition, because by definition the form epitomises entertainment culture- unserious, frivolous and unworthy.

But dismissing Cunningham and Aphex, let alone the Mego label and Ikue Mori for their frivolous commercialism displays a staggering ignorance of their influence and importance in contemporary digital music. Crude terms such as commercialism, entertainment or popular music are irrelevant because they are unable to analyse the winning entries to any meaningful degree. And this is their real purpose; not to understand this digital moment but to prevent analysis, to block thought, to replace it with sneers and ridicule.

Scrolling down the emails posted, emails seething with wounded sensitivities, you’d think we had awarded the Golden Nica to Christine Aguilera. If only.

Ars Electronica is as far from the worlds of teenpop, boygroups, alt.country, pop artificielle, 2 Step garage, broken beats, militant R&B, turntablism, nu electronic dub, playa hiphop, postrock, avant-rap, nu Afrobeat and Eurotrance as it ever was.

In fact, the Prix Ars Winners epitomise a digital innovation and seriousness that’s as far from Britney Spears as it’s possible to get. And to believe otherwise, as our critics do, is to proudly flaunt their ignorance of today’s musical landscape. Sonically speaking, our critics actively work hard at dismissing the world the rest of us live in. Academic composers, bless them, insist on maintaining a distance from the extreme complexities of modern digital music.

The Jury was invited specifically because of their familiarity with this complexity. You might think our enemies’ squeamish revulsion at today’s digital music disqualifies them from judging our decisions but, paradoxically, the more demonstratively ignorant our critics reveal themselves to be, the more entitled they felt to launch weirdly personal attacks at the Judges.

This can only be because their extreme minority isolation is experienced not as a fatal disability but as a valued attribute. Which raises the point - why are the worlds of popular music, entertainment culture and commercial music so automatically detested? What is so inherently terrible about these fields? Why are they wielded as self evident insults? Are these fields really inimical to originality? Of course they are not. To assume otherwise is to adopt a position of reactionary avant-gardism, long discredited in a post Greenbergian art world.

This defensive, fearful and sterile attitude has incubated and bloomed in the narrow world of academic music composition. So we can hear the heirs of electroacoustic, musique concrète and acousmatic tradition behaving as if their (illusory) distance from the market automatically bestows an aesthetic superiority on their music. Conversely, music delivered through the market is automatically inferior. But commercialism doesn’t corrupt music as academics believe. In fact it multiplies and mutates all media into networks of audiosocial desire.

Our critics turn networks into hierarchies of value. Prix Ars Electronica is not naively anti-hierarchical at all; on the contrary, we are keen to rank, grade and evaluate. It’s a question of cultural power- whose evaluation, whose definition counts here? All these complaints about commercialism really point to an academic community that is losing the cultural authority and historical privilege it has taken for granted. The virulent hostility we have received only indicates what we all know: time is up for the ancient regime of electroacousticians. Astonish us or fade away.

Because the leading edges of 21st Century digital music are elsewhere. As Naut Humon who has done more than anyone to engineer this change says, "Ars Electronica is catching up to the changes that are already going on. It’s crucial if Ars wants to be cutting edge." For our enemies even these baby steps are one too many. But we haven’t heard anything yet - All the adventures are still ahead.

For the Digital Musics Prize to live up to its founding principles it must honour the most influential living producers, the composers who have actively shaped today’s approaches and thought processes. Only active recognition can dissolve the terrible burden of academicism it still labours under. Zeena Parkins the composer, musician and now Judge of this years Prize remarked, "I always thought of Ars as conservative and academic. My impression didn’t change until Ikue won - that for me was a profound change."

The pioneering figures are not at all mysterious. Anyone who has paid close attention to the music of the last decade will recognise them. At this stage, those pioneers have spawned generations of helpless acolytes thus making it all the more necessary to recognise those originators.

This year 288 entries were submitted. Moving the closing entry date forward a month decreased numbers, while other composers doubtless decided not to submit because of the rightwing turn in Austrian politics. On listening carefully to the electroacoustic entries, the producer Peter Rehberg offered a damning judgement. "That kind of music has become a formula, it’s become formalised. It’s a cover version of people like Pierre Schaeffer and Francois Bayle. It’s been done before. It’s documented. It’s in museums."

These composers often work by minor alterations and miniscule improvements to their forebears. It often feels as if the more subtle or indetectible the change, the more applauded they expect to be. It’s a short step to concluding that the blame lies, not with their inability to reinvent, but with us, the Judges, for being too coarse and stupid to appreciate them.

The music we honoured in fact updates the extreme traditions of 20th Century electroacoustic and the future shock of musique concrete - reinstigating a new awareness of "the perception of processes and processes of perception." It sheds the institutional structures and substitutes independent labels, networks of informal support systems. In the passage from techniques of cut & mix back in the 80s to early 00s click & cut, "the digital routing of ideas based on sound" leads us towards today's digital minimalism.

Analysed as glitch, microsound or lowercase and "characterised by colossal shifts in dynamics, tone and frequency" digital audio now feeds off "the technical errors and unplanned outcomes of electrical society." Think of it as "an urban environmental music - the cybernetics of everyday life, that reflects the depletion of natural rhythms in the city experience and in the striated plateaux of the virtual domain."

The Honourable Mentions for the Digital Musics Prize were awarded to veteran composers such as Tone, Amacher and Troyer and encouragingly to new producers such as snd, Dat Politics, Errorsmith and Radian.

We were unanimous in our regard for the endless immersive drones of Maryanne Amacher’s "Sound Characters" ("making the third ear") (US) to Kaffe Mathews for "Cécile"’s mesmeric sustain (UK), the amplitude tautenings of Yasunao Tone’s "Wounded Man"(Japan) to snd for the warm minimal house of "makesnd cassette" (UK) and Radian for the fuzz scoured small jazz trio of TG11(Austria).

The harmonic swells of Markus Schmickler’s "Sator Rotas" (Germany) impressed us as did the extreme fluctuations of Dat Politics’ "Villiger" (France), Kevin Drumm’s disruptive switchbacks on "Three" (US), the granular splinters of Uli Troyer’s "NOK" (Italy) and errorsmith (Germany) for the jarring jumpsplices and sudden frequency shifts of "EP1"- the first ever 12" vinyl to be honoured in the Digital Musics Award.

Our first Distinction for the Digital Musics Prize went to GESCOM- the English trio of producers Rob Brown, Sean Booth and the designer/artist Russell Haswell for "MiniDisc". Firstly for its innovation - "MiniDisc" is the world’s first independently produced MiniDisc only release. It integrates the digital compression of the format into it’s aesthetics by presenting 45 micro-tracks spread over 88 cue points which you play in shuffle mode. In the abbreviated perforations and pock marks of "Is We" and "Vermin" and the brooding meditations of "Shoegazer" and "Dan Dan Dan", "MiniDisc" demonstrated a bewitching range of digital signal treatments, transformations and effects.

The second deciding factor is that GESCOM is the alter ego of Booth and Brown who record together as the immensely influential Autechre, the duo whose non-linear programming and extreme digital signal processing pioneered the post techno world of glitch and microsound we now inhabit. Like Aphex Twin, they emerged in the early 90s and record for Warp Records, one of the worlds most revered electronic music labels. From experience Rehberg asserted that "There are so many Autechre copyists these days. If we had to choose our favourite Autechre tracks we’d be fighting for 3 days. Someone would choose LP5, someone else Chiastic Slide, but this is okay, here’s a serious concept and we can all agree on its importance."

Our other Distinction went to the sound recordist Chris Watson for his CD "Outside the Circle of Fire". Once part of the groups Cabaret Voltaire and Hafler Trio, Watson’s winning CD consists of 22 field recordings of mammals, birds and insects from Mozambique nightjars circling the Zambesi rivers to the scritch-scratch of deathwatch beetles in ageing floorboards. By precision miking these sounds Watson records in close up, recording events which impact the listener with their ferocious, ambient unfamiliarity.

The mystery, Parkins observed, is "how music emerges from field recordings." Rimbaud pointed out that "Outside the Circle of Fire" "sounds like digital signal processing but isn’t." The Jury appreciated how Watson’s radio-linked audio-events had arrived at electroacoustic composition from the other direction, by an opposite method of exacting miking rather than signal processing. Watson, as Humon suggested, had in fact "stripped electroacoustics away" only to turn a microphone and a vulture into inadvertently brilliant composers. Parkins also drew attention to Watson’s obsessive notes - a case where information multiplied mystique instead of draining fascination.

Finally, we, the Digital Musics Jury awarded the 2000 Golden Nica for Digital Musics to "20’ to 2000", the 12 CD series of 20 minute compositions conceived by the Berlin producer and sound artist Carsten Nicolai for Noton, the label heruns with the producer Olaf Bender. On one hand the decision was not difficult- the ambition of the concept eclipsed the other entries.

On the other, we were uncertain as to whether we should honour a project which included the judge, Robin Rimbaud in his Scanner persona. None of us, least of all Scanner, wanted to be flamed for nepotism. Scanner abstained from the final vote. The rest of us pondered and argued, comparing the situation to previous years then referring back to precedents in other categories. Finally we decided the scope, the scale and the brilliant execution of "20’ to 2000" was such that it absolutely deserved the Golden Nica.

"20’ to 2000" started in January 1999 with Frank Bretschneider/Komet’s pinpoint nanosyncopation. In February came the whine, scree and juddering frequencies of Pan Sonic’s Ilpo Vaisanen. Ryoji Ikeda presented his "Variations for modulated 440hz sinewaves" in March- a painful treble pulsating like submarine sonar. The powerstation hum of Ivan Pavlov/CoH’s memories of s-tone for Gavin Bryars followed in April

Next came Olaf Bender/Byetone’s project of swooping frequencies while Jens Massel/Senking’s issued baleful drones in June. Thomas Brinkmann’s "Ester Brinkmann" released his steady state minimal house music in July while Scanner’s Cystic-electric blue looped an anxious, prim Jenny "Walkabout" Agutter voice in August. Noto aka Nicolai’s noto.time.dot-sea blue arrived in September-all rips, pocks and shreds.

In October Mika Vainio of Pan Sonic released flash flood roar and melting brass band tones. The immersive surges and peaks of Wolfgang Voight’s "20 minuten gas" in November was immediately recognisable while John Balance, Drew Macdowell and Peter Christopherson of Coil under the name Elph concluded with the brilliant "Zwolf", a ravine of audio turbulence.

By synthesising product and artwork, concept and design, serial form and individual signature into a single event-structure, "20’ to 2000" became the ultimate curated series. A different production for each month of the last year of the 20th Century, it encapsulates and probably concludes the 90s fascination for serial projects familiar from producers such as Richie Hawtin and Thomas Brinkman and labels such as Kompakt. It’s difficult to see how anyone can exceed the light touch of this sober limited edition series.

"For me" , Parkins commented, "its like seeing a series on TV and when you reach the conclusion its bigger than the sum of it’s parts." "Curators," Rehberg suggested "are very important at the moment because there’s so much information out there." The serial nature of the project makes it a sound art collaboration between some of the key producers in 21st Century post techno minimalism.

Rehberg also drew the Jury’s attention to the striking design conceived by Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag of Bless, the brilliant Berlin based conceptual fashion duo. Each transparent CD is identified by information arranged around the rim and by different coloured dots arranged around the central hole, then encased in a transparent CD shaped case with a thin base held together by a magnet. "The magnet did it for me," Rehberg said. "The 12 magnets that fit in the hole and snap together. It’s something you can put on your desk. It’s become an object."

As an object that radiates a lowercase mystique, "20’ to 2000" epitomises several tendencies in mid 90s to early 00s microsonic audio: the tendency towards anonymity, pseudonymity and equivalence. Towards a frequent flyer internationalism that embraces producers from Tokyo, London, Cologne, Berlin and Barcelona. Towards a signature, branded sound. Towards audio austerity. Towards visual reduction in its lower case typeface. Towards sound art: Nicolai, Ikeda, Pan Sonic and Scanner all manufacture installations for prestigious art spaces such as the Pompidou, the Hayward and the ICC.

Above all, "20’ to 2000" typifies the tendency towards collaboration between label, curator producer and designers that’s part of post media practice. As argued by the media theorist Howard Slater, a postmedia operator emerges wherever practices "escape the institutional control of the industry and the media" thereby eluding the "dominant repressive models of an inherited subjectivity."

Instead of choosing "competition, exposure and the labor of success," the composer operates "outside these monetary and conceptual constraints." Concurrently, a new experimental attitude emerges which signals "the end of the need to conform to what is expected and ‘understood’". The result is a "renewed appreciation for the idiosyncrasies of sound and the transgression of perceptual habits they inspire."

Tomorrow will be otherwise but for now, "20’ to 2000" sums up the moment.

1 "perception of processes", Sascha Kosch, Sleevenotes to "Clicks and Cuts", Mille Plateaux, 2000

2 "the digital routing …", Sascha Kosch, Sleevenotes to "Clicks and Cuts", Mille Plateaux 2000.

3 "the technical errors …", Rob Young, Worship the Glitch, "The Wire" 190/191 NewYear 2000

4 "practices escape …", Howard Slater, Post Media Operators p398-9, in "Read Me Read Me Read Me" (Autonomedia, 1999)

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