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The Concordia Collection as a Primary Research Source

The history of electroacoustics in Canada is … but perhaps I should first define “electroacoustics".

Electroacoustics is the field where electrical energy (a signal) is converted to acoustical energy (sound), and this is done with a loudspeaker — headphones are simply tiny loudspeakers!

The history of electroacoustics in Canada is as long as it is any where else in the world, dating back into the late nineteenth century, notably the work of the Scot / Canadian / American, Alexander Graham Bell, the father of the electromagnetic transducer — the microphone and the loudspeaker.

Bell’s interests in sound were of greater breadth and depth than simply transmitting voices from one place to another, but included a profound devotion to the human sides of sound and technology as he continued to invent machines to assist in teaching deaf-mutes, and producing (voice-like) sounds.

The history of sound in Canada that includes radio with the first licence for broadcasting being that for CFCF radio (XWA) in Montreal in 1919. Radio and communication over great distances continue to play a significant role in the identity and bonding of a country that spans 5-1/2 time zones.

It was the 1940s that witnessed the two greatest Canadian pioneers in the field of “sound invention”, for electroacoustics not only encompasses the reproduction of sound, but the importance of production, and the research, invention, creativity required to realize the ideas in the concrete reality of sound. Norman McLaren and Hugh Le Caine are the two names written in the international history of electroacoustic pioneers as inventors / composers.

Composers have an intimate vested interest in technology; without technology, the only music would be vocal, all instruments — acoustic and electronic relying on technology for their existence. McLaren wrote, scratched and photographed onto film soundtracks and Le Caine took oscillators from decommissioned World War II bombers and converted the arms into sonic inventions.

In Europe, the United States, Japan and Australia, composers and inventors were finding their ways to join in this explosion of sonic creativity, each in their own distinct ways. To promote this new area of study, electronic music studios started to be built — in Europe, by radio networks, and in the USA, Australia and Canada, in university environments.

Canadian universities started to build electronic music studios. With the base growing so rapidly by the late 1960s, the field was ready for the first important steps out of the “research” environment, and electronic music started to be taught in music programs. This fascinating new area was attractive to some younger composers, but also to pop record producers, adventurous radio producers, visual artists, theater and dance creators, and most notably, film and video producers. These new sound techniques were common to all of the interests although applied differently within the cognate fields that contribute to the discipline of electroacoustics.

As educators started to teach electronic music it was clear that while there was production going on, there was no reliable way of distributing this work to a great number of people. There were few LP recordings, and most of these were european or american, and for a Canadian composer to distribute ten copies of a piece meant making 10 tape copies, one at a time — a time consuming and expensive proposition. Not only was tape relatively expensive (30 minutes of good tape costing the equivalent of 20 to 30 cups of coffee!), but the studio and equipment costs were so high that only the rich or the university could afford a $3000–$5000 (1969 dollars) tape recorder, and you needed two in order to make a copy of the tape.

When the Concordia studio(s) started in the early 1970s, a very small collection of works was kept on hand for teaching purposes. The idea for such a collection of works is not new. Electronic Music Studios in the 1950s and 1960s kept copies of pieces composed in them, and these were for concert use, duplication, reference or archival purposes. The Concordia Collection began in much the same way as a collection of works (and performances) starting with the documentation of the MetaMusic rehearsals and concerts from the early 1970s, and slowly adding new pieces as they became available.

In the early 1980s after MetaMusic and its unnamed successor had ceased to exist, a group from Concordia, the CECG/GEC formed to play together, compose (through Rhino Prods Reg.), and produce concerts — this began the series that is now called EuCuE. The CECG/GEC made calls for works, but with no solid infrastructural system, this was all done by land mail. Tape was expensive and so few copies of many pieces were made. This produced the effect that the tape collection in each studio around the world was quite unique.

The CECG/GEC produced concerts summer and winter, and therefore there were constant opportunities for performance by established and emerging composers. Unlike most “composer / performer” groups of this period, the CEC/GEC also had a commitment to the national and international communities, and also to the younger generation, and in the early 1980s, the collection simply began to grow in size.

In the mid-1980s, Jean-Francois Denis, with the financial assistance of Concordia University, created the first database of the collection and this was published as Q-Resonance. And while the archiving of the collection was taking place, there were also the continuing aspects of encouraging composition, the central role of improvisation / realtime composition, and concert production. It was all of these together that makes this collection particularly unique.

The CECG/GEC archival activities occupied Kevin Austin on and off from 1970 to the present. In the 1980s, following the success of the publication of Q-Resonance, he extended his activities in databasing, and created databases for a number of other important collections: the University of Toronto (c 1988), McGill University (c 1988), Columbia / Princeton studio (c 1989), Sonde (c 1989), and the Warsaw Radio Studio (1989). Since that time, a number of these collections have also been digitized.

It was realized early on that the technology was going to have to catch up with the demands of the archiving project. Pieces existed on 1/4" analog tape in half a dozen formats, and on 1/2" tape in four or five formats. Cassettes were used where money wasn’t available to buy 1/4" tape, and the cassettes also came in about half a dozen formats. The mid-80s saw the development of the Sony PCM converter recording onto Beta cassettes, which died, and then VHS cassettes. Shortly after there was stereo DAT, and eight-channel ADAT, in competition with eight-channel 1/2" tape and TASCAM’s eight-channel format.

These were all expensive, bulky, inflexible and incompatible! Slowly, the (16/44.1) audio CD emerged, and then, the CD-R. It was with the CD-R that the distribution system had its first major change; anyone could produce multiple copies quite inexpensively. The major change however was the worldwide web, when the work was no longer distributed, but available on-demand. This is a major reason that this part of the project ends in the mid-1990s.

From time to time, individuals or groups contributed tapes and materials to the collection, sometimes for performance purposes, sometimes for archival (or even simply storage) reasons. Concordia had no dedicated space for the growing numbers of boxes, and the tapes were put into a storage space in the basement of the Music Department — a space that had only a few floods, but was well heated by the steam pipes that ran overhead. The collection wasn’t sorted as much as it was “stacked up” more densely as more boxes accumulated.

One enormous, incidental side-effect of this was that Concordia was able to keep track of a very wide range of activities and styles over a long period of time, and students and staff were able to go through the pieces and hear for themselves. There was one person, Ian Chuprun, who spent about a year listening to everything in the collection at that time, about one thousand pieces. The collection had become a primary research source.

Concordia University / Université Concordia

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