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The plusses, pitfalls and prospects of electro-acoustic music: last November Musica Nova, the international competition in electro-acoustic (EA) music took place in Prague. Already in its 16th year, the competition attracted 85 pieces by composers from 26 countries.

It has two categories: purely electro-acoustic music (Category A) and music combining electronics with a live instrument or voice (Category B). The winning pieces were presented together with their authors at a concert in the Czech Museum of Fine Arts in Prague on the 14th of December. In Category A the laurels went to the Scot James Wyness for devoiler, deplier ... (1st Place), the French Charles Eduard Platel for Sawlogy (2nd Place) and in Category B to the Portuguese Joao Pedro Oliveira for Leaccordeon du diable (1st Place) and the Korean living in the USA Kyong Mee Choi for Slight Uncertainty is Very Attractive (2nd Place). The concert also features Michal Rataj's Dreaming Life from the Czech round of the competition and pieces by the youngest composers to win an award in both categories, i.e. the Canadian Valerie Delaney (Category A, Different Shades of Blue) and the German Bernd Schumann (Category B, Heranreifende Unausbleiblichkeiten). As always, the concert and competition were organised by the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music, with support from the Ministry of Culture, the Prague City Authority and music foundations.


The Prague competition was founded in 1969 and like other long-standing festivals with a clear focus and wide competitor base it is to some extent an evolving document of the changes in practice, taste and theory. The competition is not anonymous and it requires composers to offer a written commentary not only on the piece they enter but also on their attitude to the field, their motivation and so on. The winners are regularly asked questions on the advantages, risks and prospects of a genre which today seems omnipresent, especially in pop music, but is very much a minority pursuit at the experimental arts top end.

The organisers have deliberately avoided extending the competition to include multimedia, pop and open works, partly because of the difficulty of comparing qualities across so wide a spectrum. They concentrate exclusively on music, and on artists for whom choice of material, and compositional and technological treatment is not a routine matter but a creative experimental venture from the detail to the whole. The versatile composer Kyong Mee Choi (born 1971, teaching EA composition in Chicago), put it this way: "In Ed music some people think authors need no education in composition and can make do with just a knowledge of programming, technology and recording. I'm sure that EA music demands exceptional musical abilities and skills. My aim is to go further in understanding and developing musicianship. When composing I trust my intuition."

It may seem banal today, but it was the chance to tape record sound that more than fifty years ago made it possible to involve in the creation of music the whole sound environment in which we live, to draw it in as material so that it could explored, manipulated in ever more sophisticated ways and become the basis for the creation of new sounds. In an era that gives precedence to visual or multimedia communication, so that simple listening is in decline, sound heuristics and the phenomenology are the water of life for sound and music art. This new perspective even allows the qualities of standard instruments and instrumentation to emerge into a fresh new light. It is rather symptomatic of the situation that quite a number of composers are unnerved by the idea of the public listening to music without a visual support such as the presence of the performer (i.e. what is known as the acousmatic approach, where attention is focused exclusively on the sound form in itself, ideally in darkness.) They are nervous either because they don't have enough faith in their own abilities (this kind of presentation makes the music as if too naked in their eyes) or they don't have enough confidence in the abilities of the listener (who finds the expressions and gestures of the performer an aid to orientation in the sound, or a welcome distraction if he is not fully orientated in it). The acousmatic tradition was represented among the prize winners last year by James Wyness (b.1956) from the Birmingham School, Valerie Delaney (b.1982) and Charles-Edouard Platel (b.1946), who was originally a sound engineer.

Among the arguments composers offer for choosing EA, and indeed the reason that Stockhausen gave when he started on his own EA music, is that it frees the composer from dependence on the performer, the technology allowing him to create and test the whole process of creation immediately. Last year's competition winners formulated the point in several different ways: "I have a chance to create my own sound material and express myself directly in an individual way without dependence on performers." (Delaney); "The whole composition process is under my control" (Platel); "I can create sound practically out of nothing like a sculptor" (Oliveira); "I can compose in a practically unlimited range of timbres with extremely fine control of detail" (Choi). Subtle creative work in the field of acousmatic music brings up issues of the compatibility of materials that are in different degrees concrete or abstract, and of different sources of sound, as well as the problematic of continuous and discontinuous transitions between sound objects and layers, the construction of virtual and real spatiality, semantic effects of a Surrealist character, mode of narration etc. (Wyness) or listening strategies (Platel). Ch.E.Platel, originally a sound engineer, just recently published a study Musique imaginaire (2007) in which he explores what is a major problem for all beginners in the field. This is how to embody one's intention in the sound in a way that ensures that it is adequately grasped and understood. Often even a good composer fails to master this parameter of composition fully: the virtual space may not have the required depth for the chosen sound material, for example, and so the different layers and details are not identifiable within it and there is an undesirable mixing and masking of the sound elements. The problem here is that the EA composer does not have a source of support in the tradition of instrumentation and orchestration that is available to the composer of vocal-instrumental music. Composers see the disadvantage of the genre precisely in this very testing aspect of compositional work, unavoidable if you want to do more than just some banal exploitation of the "precooked" sound and software options that are accessible even to laymen today. The composer has to be competent in more than one field and has to be extremely focused because he is composing in a very individualised language (Delaney, Choi). This aspect is also an obstacle for the listener, who likewise has no apriori stylistic model and has to perceive the course of the piece with an open mind. The composer has to know how to offer the listener a comprehensible acoustic orientation in the music (Platel), because today we can no longer rely on the pattern that applied specifically from the 1950S to 1970s, i.e. contemporary art is the object of snobbish interest (T. W. Adorno, W. Allan) and snobbish interest gradually becomes adaptation to the new, which is accepted.

What do the composers see as the prospects for the genre? The consensus is that it is a bad thing to concentrate on one single presentation strategy, e.g. listening just from reproduction, or else bringing the performer (or composer at the mixing console) back to the podium at any price. What is crucial is to ensure an adequate hearing for the piece in appropriate even if heterogeneous settings. If people today can listen to music at a high technological standard including multichannel projection in the comfort of their homes, then public presentation has to offer them something more. First, the programmes have to be expertly thought out not just in terms of the combination of pieces but also from the point of view of the parameters of the hall and its technological equipment, since otherwise the result may be counter-productive. Second, given that the ordinary listener is being presented with a kind of terra incognita, a commentary is useful. The piece itself must be comprehensible in terms of sound and must respect the health-ecological point of view. Acoustically unpleasant music (which does not mean structurally unusual music) should be an episode with contextual meaning, and not the object of an extensive project. That would make it damaging to health. Pleasantness doesn't have to be trivial or kitschy. Third, the technological equipment of halls, and the application of the norm of quality surround sound playback are enormously important. Fourth, there is ever more live flexibility in the relationship between EA and the acoustic instrument. Fifth, the spatial aspect of presentation of music will be developing too, and in pop music as well. It would also be a good thing for the future if the teaching of the young ear could involve not just the acoustic world of classical music (Platel).

Recognising the sound quality of the environment, perceiving and responding to it a creative and ecological way, and cultivating the abilities of the ear, can generally be said to be very positive goals worth working towards, and good composition and presentation of EA music can contribute to them. This way greater understanding for the ecology of sound and more as yet unappreciated silence may eventually make headway in our environment.
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Title Annotation:event
Author:Dohnalova, Lenka
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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