A column about past, present and future ongoings in international electroacoustic and related communities [index].
Electroacoustic Music in Aberdeen and the Northeast of Scotland
The electroacoustic music community in Aberdeen and the Northeast of Scotland consists of a small, yet diverse and enthusiastic network of composers, musicians and sound artists working across the area.
As is the case with many EA communities, a fair number of these artists are active within higher education and showcase their work primarily within that system. There are, however, several artists outside of academia that are also active in the promotion and production of local EA-related events.
Due to the relatively small size of the EA community in the region, as well as a progressively open policy regarding community engagement by the local Higher Education Institutions (The University of Aberdeen, Gray’s School of Art at Robert Gordon University, and Aberdeen College), the crossover between these academic and other non-academic communities is common and often sought out by artists from both groups.
With the continued development of the Electroacoustic Music programme at the University of Aberdeen, as well as the Photographic and Electronic Media programme at Gray’s, and the much anticipated new Centre for Contemporary Arts in Aberdeen (e.t.a. 2010), the EA community is slowly growing as more artists are drawn to these institutions. This is also encouraged by the music festival s•o•u•n•d, which supports a number of EA and sound art related events and artists during its annual showcase in November.
There is, however, a threat of talent-leakage to larger nearby cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh due to a perceived lack of opportunity for exposure and performance in the region. This is exemplified by the closing of EA-sympathetic local venues such as the well known arts venue, the Lemon Tree in 2007, as well as the Union in 2005, and Dr Drakes in 2004, all of which hosted experimental music nights on a monthly or quarterly basis.
Regardless of these difficulties however, Aberdeen and the Northeast of Scotland have shown a definite trend towards growth and increased activity with regards to EA and sound art over the past several years.
Little is recorded about EA in the area prior to the founding of the Electroacoustic Music Studio at Northern College in 1991 by Professor Pete Stollery.
It would seem that until this time, any EA activities (if at all) would have taken place in the former music department at the University of Aberdeen. Dr. Roger B. Williams of the university states that there was a complete electronic studio from the mid-1970s that was used by research and undergraduates over the years. The individuals primarily involved with its development were lecturer Raymond Dodd, and technician Derek Giles. The equipment was modest, consisting of a medium size mixing desk, an assortment of microphones, and some recording equipment. The university was also a studio member of EMAS/Sonic Arts Network during this time. The studio was eventually supplanted by the facilities established at Northern College by Pete Stollery when it merged with the University of Aberdeen in 2001.
Academic Institutions and Related Developments
In 1991, Stollery, who had studied with Jonty Harrison at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at the University of Birmingham, was appointed as Lecturer in Music Education at Northern College in Aberdeen, the brief being to set up and run an Electroacoustic Music Studio and coordinate courses in electroacoustic music for trainee music teachers. A studio built around multiple reel-to-reel tape recorders, primarily for the creation of acousmatic music, was established in 1992 and an opening event featured workshops and lectures by Trevor Wishart, Rob Worby and Jonty Harrison as well as a concert including music by Stollery, Harrison, Wishart and Denis Smalley. This concert is believed to be the first UK electroacoustic music concert to take place north of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
In 2001, Northern College merged with the University of Aberdeen, which allowed for further studio developments, particularly following a change of premises in 2003 and the creation of a suite of studios and the establishment of postgraduate research programmes in electroacoustic music.
As a result, a number of artists were attracted to Aberdeen to teach and study might otherwise never have considered moving to the area. These included Bill Thompson and James Wyness, as well as the recent additions of Dr. Miriama Young as Lecturer in Music, and graduate students Claire M. Singer, Patrick Keenan, and Ross Whyte.
Other institutions with related programmes include Aberdeen College who offer sound recording and music technology courses as well as Gray’s whose Photographic and Electronic Media programme include studies related to time-based media, installation art, and to some degree, sound art.
South of Aberdeen in Dundee, the Duncan Jordanstone College of Art and Design, part of Dundee University, offers courses in time-based media that include sound art related studies, similar to the programme at Gray’s.
In addition to academic institutions, a number of museums, galleries, churches, and venues have supported various EA concerts over the years. Early on, the Lemon Tree hosted many events and after a period of inactivity, took up the cause again by hosting the experimental music series The Burning Harpsichord in 2007. Additionally, other venues such as The Union (which hosted the Experimental Music Showcase) and Dr Drakes (which hosted Interesting Music Promotions’ Synergy concert series) both supported underground EA until their closures.
Currently (May 2008), EA-related concerts outside of the University are often hosted by Peacock Visual Arts in their main gallery space. These are organized either by the gallery itself, by Interesting Music Promotions, or by independent artists such as Bill Thompson and others. In addition to hosting EA related concerts and sound art events, PVA also facilitate workshops that often benefit those working in EA, such as a recent Pure Data workshop. Additionally, Peacock’s much anticipated new Centre for the Contemporary Arts is hoped to provide new, cutting edge facilities for the promotion of new media and sound art related events.
Additional concerts and sound art events in Aberdeen have been held at various places including Marischal Museum, Maritime Museum, St. Andrews Cathedral, and The Tunnels (who host a monthly “noise” concert series).
Although somewhat south of Aberdeen, the DCA (Dundee Contemporary Arts) in Dundee hosts an annual experimental music festival, Kill Your Timid Notion, curated by Arika. The three day festival features cutting edge experimental music from around the world often combined with moving image (film/video), as well as an avant-garde film festival, and conference on sound art.
Important Persons, Concert Series, and Groups
As noted above, Pete Stollery is a driving force in the development of the EA community in Aberdeen and surrounding areas. Following the success of his 1992 concert, Stollery set up the series discoveries, which placed electroacoustic music created by students and schoolchildren alongside music composed by more established figures. The series attracted a great deal of interest and works were submitted from all over the world. As the series developed, many composers were invited to Aberdeen including Paul Rudy, Elainie Lillios, Rainer Bürck, Eduardo Miranda, James Paul Sain, Javier Garavaglia, and members of the Scottish acousmatic collective invisiblEARts. An archive of pieces performed in discoveries can be found on Pete Stollery’s website.
Stollery co-founded invisiblEARts in 1996, whose aim is to perform acousmatic music throughout Scotland and to promote Scottish acousmatic music to a wider audience, both within Scotland and abroad.
Stollery’s connections with the Sonic Arts Network (SAN), the national UK organisation promoting and supporting electroacoustic music in the UK, led to the roll-out, beginning in 2006, throughout Aberdeenshire schools, of the Sonic Postcards project which allows schools to link up with others, via the internet, to explore and share, through soundscape composition, their particular sonic environments.
One of the most significant developments in contemporary performance in the region in recent years has been the s•o•u•n•d festival. This festival continues Stollery’s work in trying to gently engage as many people as possible with contemporary musical culture through workshops and performances from performers, composers and practitioners from all over the world.
In addition to Stollery’s work, upon his arrival in 2004 Bill Thompson was particularly active outside of the university, setting up performances and monthly music showcases. He created and hosted a concert series, The Experimental Music Showcase in 2004 that featured artists from the US and the UK (including the first “phonography” festival in Aberdeen.) He also actively sought out galleries, museums, and churches to host EA concerts, as well as collaborating with regional artists and musicians. These included working with the visual arts group FOUND, the noise and improvisation group Mickel Mass, and artist collectives urbanNovember and Limousine Bull.
Thompson went on to organize and host the SoundasArt conference with urbanNovember and the University of Aberdeen in 2006, that brought over 100 delegates from across the world to Aberdeen for three days of talks, installations, and performances. Additionally he set up the online community soundasart to encourage discussion of sound art and related topics as well as hosting a quarterly experimental music series, The Burning Harpsichord, at the Lemon Tree.
Thompson was also active as a workshop leader in the Sonic Postcards project. In addition to facilitating many of these workshops in the area, he also led a similar series of workshops for secondary schools for the Youth Music Initiative, and for Peacock Visual Arts. He also led a circuit bending workshop for young people for Whitespace Arts organization. Currently he is working on a project with Aberdeenshire Council to facilitate series of workshops for teenagers focusing on recording, sound design, circuit bending, improvisation, performance and sound installation.
Other important people in EA also included Mark Lawton, aka FOG (1963–2006), who was active as both performer and sound artist in the area, as well as hosting a weekly online webcast of experimental music on Station House Media Unit’s net radio station. In 2007, SHMU received an FM broadcast licence and in honour of Mark Lawton’s work, Thompson hosts a two hour web/radio program called The Fog, dedicated to experimental music, including EA.
Trends and Conclusions
As stated above, there has been significant growth over the past few years in EA and related activities throughout Aberdeen and Northeast Scotland. These were developed initially by Northern College and later, the University of Aberdeen with the work of Pete Stollery. With the influx of new artists and composers brought to the area for these programmes, there seems to have been significant crossover with artists working outside of academia as well as those coming from the visual arts world. This could be the result of the region having limited resources and the willingness of local artists of all backgrounds to work together to foster a culture beyond the mainstream; but it also reflects the current trend in the art world of genre-blending and the blurring of boundaries between practices. It also seems to be a result of the open policy of community engagement of the University of Aberdeen as fostered by Stollery, and the influx of postgraduate students such as Thompson, Wyness, and others, whose work is often heard in both academic and non-academic settings. The presence of a substantial number of art students from Gray’s with exposure to courses in time-based media also seems to provide an open minded and enthusiastic community to engage with at concerts and exhibitions alike. This crossover is also encouraged by local galleries and venues (when they manage to stay open) who have been supportive of experimental music, including EA, as well as sound art and new media exhibitions. That being said, there is still a significant challenge to promoting new works of any kind, and although there is evidence of continued growth (the s•o•u•n•d festival, the Centre for Contemporary Arts, etc) the local scene has been and is still driven mainly by key individuals (Stollery, Thompson, Lawton, etc.) without whom there would be much less activity in general.