Social top


[Focus on Institutions]

A column about past, present and future ongoings in international electroacoustic and related institutions [index].

Concordia University (Montréal)

Since 2000, the Concordia University Music Department has offered a formal Major in Electroacoustic Studies [EaSt] and a course of study for a Minor in Electroacoustic Studies.

Part One (1974–1990): Building a Studio from the Ground up

In 1974 Concordia University was formed by the merger of Sir George Williams University and Loyola College of Montréal. Even at that time, there were many areas in the university where “sound” was a curricular item, as Loyola College had a Department of Communications Studies (including film studies and production, and video production), and Journalism (including broadcast journalism).

Sir George Williams University (SGWU) had a Cinema Section in the Department of Fine Arts, which included film studies, film production and animation, a television studio, and more importantly for electroacoustic studies, a budding Music Section, founded in 1969 by Professor Philip Cohen. In 1969. Cohen’s vision of a music area in Fine Arts was about “new” and “contemporary”. As part of this he created a course called “Contemporary Idioms and Media”, probably one of the first of its kind in Canada. This course evolved to become the first year electroacoustics course in the early 1980s – at that time called Electronic Music.

Contemporary Idioms and Media was first taught in 1971–72 by me, and marked the “founding” (more or less) of the Electronic Music Studio(s). The “studio” consisted of two borrowed Sony 1/4-track stereo portable tape recorders (TC-252), the model where the speakers were in the lid. It was the interest and eagerness of the students (which included Martin Gotfrit) that sustained activity even with no budget to buy tape — magnetic or splicing!

Sony 1/4-track stereo portable tape recorders (TC-252)

It was an odd time. Montréal had the McGill University EMS (founded in the early 1960s by István Anhalt) which had a complement of Ampex and Scully stereo and four-channel tape recorders, and some analog equipment designed and built by Hugh Le Caine, and some budget. The Sir George Williams University (SGWU) studio had nothing. Students who took the SGWU course might repeat it, but many took the McGill course as exchange students into the late 1970s. This proved somewhat beneficial as these students, still at SGWU (later Concordia) had access to the better facilities, and brought back a taste for better things!

In about 1973, amazingly, through the influence of Dawn Luke (secretary to the Chair of Fine Arts), who also played in MetaMusic, the Department of Fine Arts bought the studio a Synthi AKS, although we were still running on borrowed 1/4-track tape recorders.

With the merger into Concordia University, a small amount of capital became available, and Phil Cohen made sure that electronic music would have its own studio in the renovated space, not just a large closet-sized office as had been passed on at SGWU. Along with this space came the money for two UHER tape recorders ($900 each), and a small UHER mixer. EPI speakers and a Quad amp rounded out the studio. $2700!

As a part-time instructor I took the responsibility for the development of the studio and went to Physical Services to beg / borrow tables and wood to build the studio. I mounted the tape recorders into the long wooden (3’ x 8’) tables, made cables, drilled discarded pieces of metal to make a patchbay, and spent hours trying to get something that would work, and might even be slightly robust. As with many small university studios in the 70s, the building was carried on with no real budget, and depended upon resourceful “acquisition” of “unwanted” items that could be modified for studio use. It was at this time that the first piano soundboard was brought into the studio as a sound source.

A number of bits of wood and metal, some MetaMusic cast-offs turned up in the “box” that students used, and somehow (!) we bought a $150 electret condenser mic that allowed almost adequate recording onto 1/4-track stereo tape. When students wanted to mix two tapes to one, they borrowed a machine from the Audio-Visual department, but much overdubbing was done by covering the erase head with a piece of cardboard.

In about 1977, disaster struck; the Synthi AKS was stolen at the end of the year by people outside the university. The Chair, Phil Cohen, supported its total replacement, and rather than purchase an AKS, I decided to buy Aries modular units, and with the $3000 replacement money, bought kits for about 30 modules. During the autumn of 1978 I was also teaching at Queen’s University in Kingston, a 2-1/2 hour train ride, and once a week, I would sit on the 7:00 train and assemble PC boards, about 1-1/2 modules, solder them between my classes, and on the return train at about 8:00, would assemble another 1-1/2 boards, which I would solder after I got home around midnight. I was also still teaching electronic music at McGill — my last year, and spent my weekends (and other “spare” time), soldering, wiring and repairing. Also around this time, the studio was able to buy three Revox tape recorders that we custom modified for variable speed and remote synchronization. “Somehow” an old oscilloscope was made to appear in the studio and this “visual component” to sound became an important teaching tool.

In the early 1970s I had learned electronics theory from Eric Johnstone, the technician in the McGill EMS, who had replaced Alan Conrad, who had started my basic knowledge. With Eric — a rather extraordinary inventor as mentor — and through extensive personal reading, I could understand schematics, so assembling modular kits was not problematic. Also, from the start, I had been taken by the fact that early electronic music composers almost all learned about phonetics, so I taught myself this as well.

This brief introduction to the first decade laid the groundwork of what was to follow in the developments of the Concordia program. Looking back, it becomes clear that there is no “school” of composition because the studios never had facilities to gain an “identity”, and because the students came from film (Martin Gotfrit and Mike Chevalier), photography (Harry Block), Communication Studies (Daniel Feist, Jean-François Denis), design and printing (John Wells) and music (Dave Lindsay), there was a need to develop a broad base of skills that could be applied across the entire discipline of electroacoustic studies, not simply those seen as important to a Faculty / School of Music. Having had no equipment meant the courses were based on being very resourceful, and because of my own background in electronics and phonetics / linguistics, these were integrated into the basic and advanced electronic music courses.

Curriculum was designed by necessity, and was always very pragmatic, as it remains now.

Growing up very poor has a number of advantages, one of which is that everything gains great value. Because we could never be assured of continued support or funding for growth, even the acquisition of recordings were seen as very important. Thus, in the mid 1970s, I had started my own small collection of pieces (numbering under 200), and began collecting pieces for teaching and studio use.

Concerts of tape music, mixed with extended improvisations began in earnest in about 1980. Tape works were hard to get, and a look at the programs from that time (CECG Series I and for a few years), will show quite a number of “repeat performances”. This did provide greater exposure for the composers, but also indicated how small the actual collection was at the time! Reading through the program from about 1980 to 1987, there are a remarkable number of (then) unknown composers who subsequently became well-known in the national and international communities. [Ed: Most of the programmes were published in eContact! 10.x]

The social / community aspect of the studios was always present, which partially accounts for the large number of concerts and the many hundreds of composers whose pieces were presented over the first decade (or so) of concerts. This was a time that saw the introduction of the desktop computer and our fascination with its use. Jean-François (who had returned to Montréal and started teaching ea part-time) also began to catalog the tapes that I acquired in various ways. The Macintosh computer changed our world. In the early 1980s, the Times Play / Jeu de temps competition was started, but it was really too soon! The communications technology didn’t exist to make it a manageable activity. There were too many things missing.

Through the work of about a dozen people over a period of three or four years, the studios first produced a Newsletter (CECG/GEC Newsletter / Bulletin), that ceased publication when the CEC was officially formed. At that time, the CECG/GEC (Concordia Electroacoustic Composers’ Group / Groupe électroacoustique de Concordia), changed its name to Électroacoustiques université Concordia university Electroacoustics (EuCuE), and the concerts continued.

Slowly the studios and curriculum expanded, Jean-François teaching the second year ea course for a number of years. It was built around an 8-channel TEAC/TASCAM recorder / mixer system, a small sampler and (!!) of course, a DX-7. Jean-François was an excellent colleague and a wonderful person to have teaching in the program. He combined, then as now, a talent for precision and discipline with an (apparently) easy-going manner. Also then, as now, he was very clear on his objectives and personal commitment to these objectives; dedication and energy abounded.

These were the early days, and in 1990, the University hired a second fulltime ea / recording instructor, Doctor Mark Corwin, who took over as studio director in the mid-1990s. It is therefore in about 1990 that this part of the story ends. Up until that time, concerts took place in small audio-visual rooms (at the start, seating perhaps 15–20), and grew to a small conference room (seating up to about 30), and in 1990, the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall was opened, and the concerts were suddenly in an entirely different space, metaphorically and literally.

Part Two (1990–present): It’s all about sound!

After the period of pioneering work in the field, about 20 years for Concordia, the students who were coming did not remember a time when “electronic music” was unknown, and ea was even starting to be recognized as an important area within a Faculty of Fine Arts that was over 85% focused on visual arts. Through the mid- to late-eighties, a number of short “Readings” were written that were to become a core of the first year ea courses (available on the ea site at Concordia). It was written as there was no single text that addressed the specific academic / curricular orientation of ea at Concordia, and was based upon the model provided by the 1975 book The Development and Practice of Electronic Music, edited by Appleton and Perera. In some ways, this early book is the only “comprehensive” text on the then very young discipline of electroacoustic studies.

It’s all about sound! “The Development and Practice …” had custom-written chapters on the “European” history of electronic music, complemented by an “American” history of live-electronics / experimental music, a chapter on acoustics, electronics and psychoacoustics, one on modular synthesis and one on computer music. This idea of integrating multiple disciplines was in line with / influential upon the Concordia curricular vision. The missing parts, such as analysis, phonetics, and certain detailed compositional ideas are in the “Selected Readings”, along with an ever-expanding timeline of the history and practice of ea.

With the increased recognition of ea, once again efforts were made to introduce a Major in Ea program that would balance studies in “music” as taught in a Fine Arts music program with being a “sonic arts” / electroacoustic studies in a Faculty of Fine Arts, while at the same time being one of four universities in Montréal teaching ea. McGill University, Université de Montréal and the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal all had large music programs, significant resources and more importantly, exisiting Master and Doctoral programs in composition. Through Department of Education negotiations, it would soon prove to be impossible to develop a purely ea post-graduate program at Concordia, and for reasons internal to the Department of Music, it would be over a decade before the Major in Electroacoustic Studies would be approved by the Department of Music.

But this decade was not lost. It was during this time that Ned Bouhalassa and Laurie Radford dedicated their teaching efforts to bring Concordia into the 1990s in terms of techniques, æsthetics and communications.

As noted above, the core curriculum and pedagogical objectives were in place by the early 90s, notably a “basic” music component — both theory and ear-training, ea history and repertoire, acoustics and psychoacoustics, analysis, public presentation, courses in recording and the continuous central concern with composition / creativity. When both Ned and Laurie moved on to other career options, Ian Chuprun (a former student) began teaching and brought a personal energy and commitment that helped sustain the first year courses through this period of waiting. Mark Corwin was consumed with keeping the studios, courses, curriculum and equipment operational — an almost fulltime job. For a period of nine years, in his spare time he was a most effective and efficient Chair of the Department of Music, taking the Department through some of its most difficult times.

Below is found a list of many of the people who have taught in the program, ranging from one semester up to some 40 years of courses. There has not been a significant æsthetic orientation, such as acousmatic, or algorithmic, or computer music, etc., all of them rubbing shoulders as much as resources would allow.

Around 2001–02, a Major in Electroacoustic Studies finally passed through the Departmental and Faculty approval process and it was slightly revised in about 2006–07. Currently, there about 45–60 applicants per year, of which 25 are accepted, with the quality of the work rising every year — ea no longer being a fringe artistic activity. About 40–60% of the students come from outside the province and outside of Canada.

Being a strongly “student-centered” program, an internal ea email list was set up a decade ago, and while there are only about 65–70 students in the Major, there remain over 170 addresses on the email list, <eamt>. Of note was the creation in 2007–08 of a Concordia Electroacoustic Studies Student Association (CESSA) which has been extremely active in organizing a wide range of activities from concerts to listening sessions, installations to a sound map of Montréal. They have invited guests from the pop music field (Tim Hecker, Alessandro Cortini), and there have been presentations on sound design for computer games, soundwalking, circuit bending and such things as making windscreens for outside recording.

A review of the artistic and research activities of the instructors in the program will demonstrate that the æsthetic / cultural breadth of the teaching now including live-electronics, installation, performance, video, radiophonic, acousmatic and other fixed media. In the not-too-distant future lies the action of bringing ea into much closer contact with other sonic art forms taught in the Faculty of Fine Arts, such as courses in circuit bending, soundscaping, sound design for animation, Max/MSP, live-electronics and other contemporary innovative practices, with these changes starting to take place in 2010 when the Department of Music will move into newly renovated facilities on the downtown campus of Concordia University.

More information, details, pictures and many recordings from the studios, presentations, concerts and more can be found on several sites including: the Ea portion of the Department of Music site, the EuCuE concerts site, the CESSA site, and on Facebook under Concordia Electroacoustics.

1 July 2009, Montréal, London.

Additional information provided by Mark Corwin, Eldad Tsabary, jef chippewa, Yves Gigon and Jean-Francois Denis.

People at Concordia Over the Years

Faculty, Professors and Teachers, Past and Present

Kevin Austin (1970–)
Christine Beckett (2007)
Ned Bouhalassa (1990–96)
Christian Calon (2006–)
Raylene Campbell (2008–)
Ian Chuprun (1998–2006)
Mark Corwin (1990–)
Ricardo dal Farra (2008–)
Jean-Francois Denis (1985–89)
Daniel Feist (1984)
Kathy Kennedy (2003–)
Jon Klepko
Rosemary Mountain (1996–)
Michael Pinsonneault (2001–)
Laurie Radford (1991–98)
Karl Raudsepp (2007)
Paul Scriver (2007–)
Warren Spicer
Eldad Tsabary (2005–)
John Winiarz (2007–)

Guest Instructors and Visiting Artists

Jean-Claude Risset

Notable Graduates

Freida Abtan
Ned Bouhalassa
Ian Chuprun
Jean-Francois Denis
jef chippewa
Carey Dodge
Yves Gigon
Barbara Golden
Martin Gotfrit

Social bottom