A General Introduction to JTTP and Some Personal Insights Into the Jury Process
Jeu de temps / Times Play (JTTP) is an annual competition by the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, aimed at supporting the work of young and emerging composers / sound artists in Canada and of Canadians living outside the country. The limits for applicants are self-defining, with most applicants between the ages of 18 and 35, usually with between a minimum of 3–4 years of experience, and sometimes with up to 10 or more years of experience in sound / electroacoustics.
By far the vast majority have studied electroacoustics / electroacoustic music / sound design or mediatic art at a university or college. Quite often, those placing in the top five places will be working on a master’s or doctoral degree.
One definition of electroacoustics (EA) is that it is an electrical signal is transduced by a loudspeaker into acoustic energy. The breadth of the project allows the project to include works that are fixed media (a.k.a. “tape pieces”), mixed (live performer [amplified or acoustic], possibly processed, with fixed media), and live EA (which may include acoustic elements as well). 1[1. As stated on the “About” page on the CEC website, the association is “dedicated to promoting this progressive art form in its broadest definition: from “pure” acousmatic and computer music to soundscape and sonic art to hardware hacking and beyond.”] Multi-media, for example with film or video, sound art for installations, and sound design tracks for theatre or dance etc., are also included.
For a number of years now, multi-media and multi-channel works have been accepted. Not all jurors have access to multi-channel listening facilities, so for multi-channel submissions, two-channel mixdowns are provided along with the individual channel files. These are provided as uncompressed files.
There is no longer a limit to the duration of the submission and pieces range in length from about 2 minutes to over 40 minutes from time to time. The average length of a submission is generally between 7:30–9:00. There are between 40 and 50 submissions per year, these days representing around seven hours of listening.
But Why an Annual Competition?
One of the steps in most artistic development, today often called “career development”, is recognition of reaching certain “community-based” markers, such as graduating from high school or from university. The emerging artist submits their work to conferences, concert series, festivals and competitions. It is part of the usual “rite of passage” from student to professional.
The Jury and the Process
One of the more unusual features of JTTP is in the size of the jury. Over the past fifteen years, the pool of possible jurors has slowly increased and become more and more diverse. This is an international group, with jurors from Australia to Austria, Newfoundland to New Zealand. New names are added to the list every year, and early in the year, the administrators, jef chippewa and Yves Gigon, send out announcements to the community, and invitations to the list of potential jurors. In any given year, there will usually be between 25 and 35 jurors.
While not required of the jurors, they are strongly encouraged to comment on the works that they are evaluating. These comments are made available to the individuals who have submitted a work. This jury feedback is a critical aspect of the process, as it allows the composers to receive some individual comments, advice and guidance, which may be useful.
The submissions are all converted to high-rate MP3 files and made available to the jury members, along with any programme notes received. As the evaluation process is anonymous, all personal references are removed from all of the files the jury members receive. Jurors have a few weeks to go through the pieces. They are to evaluate each piece and give it a numerical evaluation of between 0 and 20. There is a closed email list for the jurors to communicate with each other, but historically there has been little discussion about the merits of individual pieces.
This process is somewhat in contrast to “live juries,” where the jury may meet for two or three days of “hard listening” and discussion over the strengths and weaknesses of each submission. Live juries that have to evaluate large numbers of submissions, such as commissioning competitions where the jury may have to evaluate 120 or more submissions in four full days, will frequently revert to listening to short sections of the submitted work — there just isn’t enough time to listen to everything received.
JTTP jury members stream or download the submissions and then work on their own, at their own pace. They may listen to a piece as many times as they want, or possibly fast-forward through a submission that they feel is of low quality.
With identifying information removed, the real work begins. The CEC administrators provide a Word document template to be filled out: piece number, evaluation, comments. The completed evaluation sheet is returned via email to the administrators, the contents of the Word document are put into an Excel spreadsheet and a cumulative “mark” is computed.
With a jury of 30 members, the mark could range between 0, if everyone gives a “0” evaluation, and 600 if all of the evaluations are “20”. With about 30 jurors, the totals usually fall between 120–150, and 500–550. The ranking is computed and the names of the “top 5” are announced. The ranking of the remaining applicants is not made available publicly.
In general over the years, the top 5, 6 or 7 pieces have been within around 40 points of each other. The rankings are often so close that ties within the top 5 are not uncommon. 2[2. For JTTP 2003 there was a tie for 5th place; for JTTP 2011 there was a tie for 1st place. And again for the previous edition of JTTP there was a tie for 5th place.] One of the lessons here for both applicants and jurors is that three or four jurors raising or lowering an evaluation by even 1 point can change the ranking of the positions.
Some jurors give no evaluation below 10 or above 18, while some use everything from 0 to 20. Some jurors will have a mean of 12–13, while others may have a mean of 15–16. If the jury size were small, for example five members, these differences in the mean value would be significant, but with a large jury as in JTTP, these differences are quickly averaged out.
That’s most of the nuts and bolts of the process, almost all of which is invisible to both composers and jurors. The method of submission via uploading of files, receiving and checking documentation, stripping out identifying elements, direct conversion to MP3 files as necessary and putting the files up on a hidden site or providing all of the work as downloads has become a very smooth process.
Comments and Impressions
What follows is an assortment of personal comments and insights into the whole process, and a number of rather candid opinions on the “how and why” of my own evaluation process. This is not to imply in any way that other jurors work this way.
I receive all of the materials in uncompressed form, exactly as the composer sent them. As my day job is in a classroom listening to up to 35 students working on assignments 26 weeks of the year, I listen to an enormous amount of new material every week, and every year. My experience on juries goes back over 30 years so I have developed many refined processes and techniques for evaluating and comparing submissions.
The first thing I do is to read the programme note. It provides me with the context the composer wishes to present. Not providing a programme note is for me a critical, fundamental error. The composer wishes me to try to guess their intention and their thinking. This competition is about demonstrating professional competence and behaviour. Not providing a programme note is, like, you know, like so high school. I comment on this in my comments about the piece.
Next I check sample rate and bit depth. Very few of the winning pieces in the past six editions of JTTP have been submitted in 16-bit / 44.1 kHz. 3[3. In fact none of the winning works in JTTP 2014 or JTTP 2015 were submitted in anything less than 24/48.] A minimum is 24 / 48 kHz. Some files arrive with still higher rates. This is the work of a professional who understands the medium they are working in.
I start with the 2-channel pieces. I open the files in an audio editor and run a waveform analysis. Is the file normalized to 0 dB? If the peak signal is -6, or even lower, this is a major technical flaw. The composer apparently doesn’t understand some of the basics of the medium they are using. I examine the waveshape and check for the average RMS value. Sometimes it may be in the -24 dB to -40 dB range. Yikes! This file is seriously not transportable. This file has serious technical problems. This is not the work of a serious electroacoustic composer. This information goes into the comments. As much as possible I detail the exact problem, why it is a problem and how to fix it.
Next I produce a spectrogramme and examine it, often in quite some detail. From this and the amplitude time line I can make some educated guesses about the formal structure of what I’m going to hear. Is this a “stereo” piece, or is it two channels? Are there clearly defined sections? How long is a section? What is the nature of the articulation of sections? Will I find a wide range of textures and gestures? How is spectrum approached?
These steps are followed for every submission, whether a piece of high acousmatic art music, or a 15-minute excerpt from an algorithmic installation. Sometimes I will play short two to three-second samples from various places in the audio file to get a sense of what to expect.
When there are no technical problems whatsoever, which occurs in about 50% of the pieces, my “comments” window is empty. Now it’s time to listen. I sit in the same place for each piece, with my head about 90 cm away from each of the two speakers and the output signal at my calibrated level.
Click! Play. As I listen, I am following both the amplitude timeline and the spectrogramme displayed on the computer monitor. If there are severe level problems, I will amplify the file to peak at 0 dB, but I do object to doing the composer’s work for them! That also goes in my comments.
I do not wish to be distracted by technical flaws. Most of the time I am not. I can listen to what the composer has done and how it has been done. Are the sounds factory presets with a little tweaking, or has every sound been carefully edited and shaped before being placed into the file?
Are there problems of masking and a lack of clarity? Does everything “speak”? Can everything be heard?
Is the sound ordinary and clichéd? Is my ear constantly drawn into the mix? Are there tracks which the composer has stopped listening to, and they have simply been left in as “filler”?
Is the piece built on transformation and development? Are there other more important ideas at play? Is “phrase” an important compositional tool, or is this a slowly morphing continuum?
If the track is from the EDM tradition, are the sounds newly formed, created and shaped, or is it same-old same-old? Am I singing along with the piece without having heard it before? This level of predictability has some serious problems!
Usually within the first half minute or so, I have been able to “classify” the piece: high acousmatic art, soundscape, exploration of the object, sonic documentary (a.k.a. live recording), narrative structure, amorphous immersive sound texture, etc., etc. Is it “new” within the category or is it somewhat of a copy of existing models?
The more I have written in the comments, the lower the evaluation is going to be. The composer who loads a loop and forgets about it needs to be reminded to listen to everything all the time — don’t take the sounds for granted. Listen. They are valuable. You put them there; they are your responsibility.
I appreciate a well-turned cliché, and I hope that next year it will be a well-turned original moment. While listening, I can often figure out how much work went into doing the piece. A JTTP award is a serious piece of business. It will be on your CV until you die. Being in the top five is a sign of it being “time to move on” as a professional artist. It is a sign of recognition that a marker has been reached and surpassed. It is time now to be submitting work to conferences and concerts, national and international.
Congratulations and the best of luck in your career in EA.