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To know where we are, it sometimes helps to know where we were before

2014 marks the centenary of the birth of Hugh Le Caine, the most important Canadian in the early history of electronic music in Canada. An inventor and occasional composer, having invented the electronic sackbut in the late-1940s — essentially the first voltage-controlled electronic music synthesizer, he maintained an interest in inventing and promoting the discipline until his accidental death in 1977, at the age of 63. His inventions and connections in the 1950s and 60s led directly to the founding of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Toronto and McGill University (in Montreal).

At this time in the history of electronic music, every studio in the world was unique as there was no “standard equipment” beyond the tape recorder and sound monitoring equipment. Composers visited one or another studio because of the unique equipment there, and tended to create “unique”-sounding pieces from this equipment. With a few notable exceptions, these newly invented instruments had distinctive characteristics, often imposing their own limitations on what a composer would do in the studio. Such uniqueness contributed to the view that the studio was more an instrument than a laboratory.

With greater commercialization of electronics, by the late 1960s, availability of equipment increased, and prices started to plummet. Given budget and interest, an electronic music studio could be built anywhere by anyone. In Europe, the chosen homes for these studios were mostly associated with radio networks as they would have basic facilities, and above all, technical staff to build, maintain and modify equipment. In Canada, the “natural order” dictated that studios would flourish in academia — universities mostly. And while many universities built studios starting in the late 1960s and early-1970s, not all had the sustained administrative support, or the budget for the essential technical services, and a number of studios opened, and subsequently, effectively stopped functioning for a period of time.

By the late-1970s, the Canadian situation was a hodgepodge of studios largely founded and operated by individuals of great focus and determination. However, the technical / commercial side continued evolving rapidly, and the “frontier mentality” of studio design changed as studios began to have more similar, standardized equipment. The good thing about this was that in the period 1970–1980, the number of students in electronic music courses rose from about 15–20 across Canada, to more than ten times that number.

In about 1972, the number of Canadian composers who used electronics regularly could probably be counted on one hand; by the early 1980s this number was into the range of around 70–100 people. In the early 1970s, “the studio” (fixed media) was the centre of activity, but by the end of the decade, there were several live electronic music (electroacoustic music) performers and ensembles, and the clear division between “concert music”, “experimental” and the “pop scene” had begun to blur.

The Canada Council was receiving grant applications for “sound” assistance from musicians, media artists and visual artists, among others. There were no specific guidelines for the various sections of the Canada Council, as “sound as art” — independent of “music” — was not yet an independent discipline. No one seemed to know how to deal with electroacoustics (EA) and a number of different ways of “classifying” it were attempted. Many were valiant failures. A number were simply visionary beyond the technology of the period.

A Bird’s-Eye View of Canada’s EA Community in the 1980s

It was in 1982–84 that I made two road trips from Victoria to Montreal to meet people and see what was similar (and what was different), and started to contact studios from Victoria to St. John’s to collect information, and also to “spread the word”.

British Columbia. Victoria had a thriving but isolated studio at the university. It looked “south” for connection rather than east. Vancouver had the historically important Simon Fraser University connection with EA spread between Communication Studies and the School for Contemporary Arts. There were a few independent composers, but not enough to create a strong sense of community.

Alberta. Banff was largely a performance school and EA was largely adjunctive to the developing recording arts profile. Edmonton had a few rugged individuals, independent artists and some EA-oriented students at the University of Alberta, however EA was largely unconnected to developments specifically in Canada. Calgary also had a few individuals, however the community was too small to develop extensively.

Saskatchewan. Saskatoon had a studio (with a Synthi 100!), and a small independent arts scene, but like Regina, it was too small to maintain an on-going academic presence.

Manitoba. Brandon had an independent composer who had to connect to the major city two hours east: Winnipeg, a city on the verge of breaking the “rugged prairie” mold. There was a rapidly evolving “new music community” and the University of Manitoba fostered the development of a small, but close to state-of-the-art computer music studio.

Ontario. Twenty-four hours by road, east of the prairies, after countless Tim Hortons, lakes, rocks, trees and black flies…

Toronto, through the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), had been one of the founding partners in Canadian electronic music history. UTEMS had maintained its strong academic focus and a number of other options (digital in this case!) were immediately visible, however, a required “network” between them had failed to take hold. EA was taught in a number of academic communities in Toronto and southern Ontario, but they remained quite isolated from each other. It was the Music Gallery that trawled Toronto’s Queen Street West listening for the inventive new sounds.

Kingston, almost as isolated as the prairie cities, had the good fortune of academic and individual support for the Queen’s University electronic music studios. So close in fact was the connection that the music building, the Harrison-LeCaine Hall, is partially named after an earlier graduate, Hugh Le Caine.

Ottawa had started studios in the early 1970s, but by the 1980s academic priorities were not strongly supportive of their development. The university radio stations did have programs supportive of new, and electroacoustic music.

Quebec. Montréal had the historical McGill EMS, founded in the early 1960s, and maintained with outstanding institutional budgetary support. Concordia University’s studios, started on a shoestring in 1970–71/72, was still the very poor cousin, however, being in a Faculty of Fine Arts, students tended to come with less traditional music backgrounds. The Université de Montréal was starting to fund and support a major academic program development, and the academic focus of the Conservatoire had not yet matured. Unique to Montréal were two dynamic groups, the magnetic and highly influential Association pour la Création et la Recherche Électroacoustiques du Québec (ACREQ) and the developing Concordia Electroacoustic Composers’ Group (CECG / GEC).

The Université de Laval had refocused its energies at this time, allowing Montréal to dominate EA activity in the province.

The Maritime Provinces were in a number of ways like the Prairie Provinces with small university and independent studios. Halifax, Nova Scotia, had a small but very active independent sonic arts scene — I was reminded of Edmonton and Saskatoon — and individuals in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and in St John’s, Newfoundland, trying to find a foothold in quite traditional and somewhat musically conservative environments.

EA Studies Today

Fast-forward thirty years, and much had changed. Superficially the changes could be attributed to the conditions of natural growth and evolution. The most significant two being equipment / technological access to sounding tools, and the internationalization of the community through the Internet.

On a meaningless estimate, I would guess that there are 2000–5000 students in Canada involved in the discipline of electroacoustics, or possibly more accurately, “electroacoustic studies” — the study and use of sound from loudspeakers.

Thirty years ago, EA (or at that time EM) was the domain of the music composer, sound artist, and the appendage “music” had a place in describing the field. Today, the sound designer for computer games, videos, film or television, advertising and media is using 80% of the same tools as the recording studio engineer, as is the “serious” EA composer. The ubiquitous laptop in the past decade now has ensemble status, and live academic, community, cross-country and international collaborations are a norm. The laptop orchestra performer this evening is working on cross-disciplinary theatre sound design tomorrow afternoon, recording her band at home two days from now, and is giving workshops in a local community library on Saturday afternoon.

As was clear in the early 1980s, the 19th-century view of the restrictive disciplinary “box” has collapsed for the younger generation. And this is one of the things I noted about the hundreds of people I met — live and via Skype — during the national tour to celebrate the CEC’s 25th anniversary: the vast majority had not used a monochrome computer, and it was (simply) accepted that to work in the discipline of electroacoustics meant to have a broad knowledge of sound (acoustics and auditory physiology), applications (virtual synthesis and Max/MSP), recording studio skills (mics to mixing), fluency in sound transformation (plug-in heaven) and also how to make a living in any aspect of sound, commercial to artistic.

The differences and divisions of the early 80s have been obliterated by the Internet, iClouds, Facebook and social media in general. The studio and academia still hold central positions in the development of sound artists and electroacoustic practitioners, as this is where the discipline of EA studies is at its most concentrated. Eleven-year-olds teach themselves GarageBand in a couple of hours. When they arrive at university, they have not come to learn software of knob twisting. They want depth and breadth of knowledge, perception, experience and research from their chosen academic environment.

The community has been built by the dedication and vision of many individuals over the past 65 years. This country’s history is well worth knowing, and many resources exist for people to find out about it. From the CEC 25th events, I feel confident that Canadian institutions rank among the very best in the world in the evolving discipline of electroacoustic studies.

Salvo NC, 31 December 2013
Montreal QC, 3 April 2013

Fondation SOCAN Foundation

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