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2nd Sonic Arts Network Conference

Stereo or octophonic, popularism vs. elitism, and the musicology of electroacoustic music were just some of the stirring issues debated at the second Sonic Arts Network Conference held in conjunction with Huddersfield's Electric Spring Festival. The four-day event comprised eight concerts in two venues (one set up as an octophonic cube, the other as a stereo multi-channel system), paper sessions and demonstrations.

Present throughout the whole of the conference was the featured composer Yves Daoust. Daoust presented seven of his works from the early La Gamme (1981) to the revised octophonic version of the Sonic Arts commission Children's Corner (1997-99). Of all these works, it was perhaps the Impromptu (1994) that stood out, not merely by dint of its sheer musicality and its crystalline presentation of material but by its technical simplicity. That this work was the result of a significant reassessment of Daoust's compositional practice was outlined in his keynote speech on the last day of the conference. In this lecture Daoust spoke eloquently and humorously about his work as a sound artist and frankly of the aesthetic impasse in which he found himself during the mid-1990s and how Bruits was exploring new structural and more formalised techniques. This lecture was extremely well received and his presence throughout the four days was keenly acknowledged by all those attending the conference.

As well as Daoust's keynote paper, there were two further paper sessions. The aesthetic range of these papers was wide, and few failed to provoke heated debate both inside the sessions and then later over coffee. While John Richards' 'Introspectiveness and the Source', John Dack's 'Kontakte and Narrativity' and Leigh Landy's 'Reviewing the Musicology of Electroacoustic Music' were highly erudite and well received it was Vassileia Boura's 'Electroacoustic Music and Popularity' and the presentation from Malcolm Buckland of the PRS that engendered the most vociferous debate.

Daniel walking into the lion's den would be an apt analogy for Malcolm Buckland's presentation to the conference delegates concerning the Performing Right Society's new 'sampling system', and how this may effect the lot of the experimental sound artists present at the conference. However Mr. Buckland failed to work any miracles as by far the majority of the conference were left feeling that the PRS would still not properly represent them, as was voiced by more than one of the eminent members of the Network. Only time will tell whether this new system will benefit British sound artists or whether the calls for the PRS. to adopt models closer to our European counterparts will be implemented.

Electroacoustic music and popularism is an issue always guaranteed to set most sonic artists alight and polarise opinion. Boura's paper argued that much experimental sound work was already in the public domain but often went unrecognised as such as it was often combined with visual stimuli. More provocatively, however, ways were suggested in which electroacoustic music might include more popular elements in order to appeal to a wider audience. This last issue raised a plethora of questions and counter-questions which if nothing else, revealed the broad aesthetic sympathies of the Sonic Arts Network membership.

Apart from Boura's work Choras ichthyon, only one other work utilised elements from popular culture. Tom Wallace's BrixtonQuatrain, a comparatively short work, at a little over five minutes, was for some, one of the gems of the conference. Wallace's work has always been provocative, eschewing many of the norms of acousmatic music. BrixtonQuatrain's beauty is in its play with extremes; the work is barely audible for the opening minutes only to explode with a driving rhythm which itself becomes fragmented dissolving back into the barely audible.

Octophonic works were presented in two concerts, including the U.K. premiere of Stockhausen's Oktophonie, Normandeau's Tangram, Truax's Sequence of Earlier Heaven, Tutschku's Extrémités Lointaines and Field's Till. Two works were specifically remixed for these concerts; my own Pagan Circus and David Lumsdaine's Near and Far. It was a comparison of the relative merits of the octophonic versions of these last two works to their original stereo versions that prompted the ensuing debate among the delegates. It is fair to say that opinion was divided as to the merits of stereo or octophonic presentation. While some were keen not to lose the performance and more 'interpretative' aspects of stereo multi-channel diffusion maintaining that some works seemed composed for eight channels rather than composed for eight channels, others revelled in the three dimensionality of the sound. Other highlights included, Mike Challis Arboretum, Aquiles Pantaleao's Three Inconspicuous Settings, Diego Garrao's Voci Dall'Aldiqua, Rajmil Fischman Kol Ha Torr, Natasha Barrett's Red Snow, and Jo Thomas' Glitch.

By far the majority of the works presented were acousmatic, in fact only two mixed works were submitted to the conference. Whether this is representative of an aesthetic or an economic shift in current electroacoustic music is open to speculation. However, the two works that were performed, Nick Fells VUG for clarinet and computer (Sharon Lyons - clarinet) and Paul Wilson's Air for trombone, tape and live electronics (Barrie Webb - trombone) were both highly virtuosic both from a technical and a playing perspective. Fell's use of real-time signal processing to granulate and expand material played by the clarinet was particularly well-suited to the large resonant acoustic of the St. Paul's Concert Hall. Paul Wilson's Air tested Barrie Webb's co-ordination to the full - the trombonist is called to blow, play, shout, and hit the instrument, stamp, jump and play a glass harmonica - all of which is carefully notated. Needless to say that Barrie Webb performed the work with great conviction, revelling in the works' theatricality.

The demonstrations, presented by the Composers Desktop Project, Sibelius, and Douglas Doherty's DACS, ran throughout the conference. These were informal demonstrations allowing delegates to get a close view of the new developments in both software and hardware these companies had to offer at any time during the conference.

The importance of this conference was not only in programming works by established composer's alongside new works by the Network's members, but also in providing a meeting point for composers from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to come together to share ideas and to feel part of a community, one which is slowly, but definitely growing in both size and its range of activity.

Extracts from works presented at the conference

Glitch by Jo Thomas

A glitch in life generally creates two sorts of responses; one is general negativity, the other tends to be a positive interest to overcome and work with pathways. Glitches have lead to some of the most innovative scientific and artistic discoveries this century. Glitches can show our weakness as humans however they also have the capacity to show our strengths. Glitch is fundamentally a behavioural composition. There are a wide variety of materials. Some elements always stay the same, others change in transit. The materials have alternate behavioural states, which they can occupy. Glitch is a work of continuous gesture on many different levels The past 18 months have been an interesting sonic exercise. I have collected 'sonic glitches' for my source pallet that in the past I would have all too easily thrown away. These sounds (abstract indiscretions) show themselves in the form of hiss, digital clicks and distortions. The primary source for material for the work is an old recording of a C trumpet. The flaws in the recording are manifold. The gain levels are low and in places there is an impractical amount of distortion. However these sonic indiscretions seem to very positively expose fragile, delicate and animated sonorities, all qualities which the artistic media I work within is based. This work is an attempt to shape those delicate areas of instability into inspired moments of strength.

Hope by John Levack Drever (composer) and Alaric Sumner (poet)

The bleached presentation of Sumner's voice reciting the text and the accompanying textures, metaphorically reflect an emotional journey that the text may evoke. The recording of the voice and the more abstract sonic material derived from the voice inform each other.

BrixtonQuatrain by Tom Wallace

This work explores some of the delicate attributes of the Brixton, London soundscape. As in many urban areas the listener is confronted with not only environmental and human-mechanical sounds but also with an array of speaker music. The last twenty years have seen a radical development in the dynamic and spectral make up of popular music. This process was heavily influenced by the studio alchemy of Jamaican dub and concluded with the speaker's apotheosis in house where the music was perfectly intertwined with the attributes of the system. One unfortunate consequence is that ringing in the ear…

Air by Paul Wilson

Air was composed during November 1996 and was featured at the 1996 'Sounds Electric' festival. The sounds that appear on tape are derived entirely from source recordings of the trombone. The tape is used to expand and develop the timbral possibilities of the trombone rather than impose an unrelated sound world. The sounds produced by trombone draw upon extended techniques to deliver a range of timbres that match the tape. These sounds include breathing through the instrument, tapping the mouthpiece and the mute. The opening is sustained with both trombone and tape timbres collaborating, combining to deliver a texture built upon the timbral similarities between both. The central section becomes very agitated and this is reflected by the sounds on tape and the specifications for the performer to play an amalgamation of sounds from four staves simultaneously. The tape and trombone parts act and react to sonic gestures delivered by each other.

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