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An acousmatic experience

Thoughts, reflections, and comments on the 1999 Australasian Computer Music Association conference Imaginary Space

The 1999 Australasian Computer Music Association conference Imaginary Space was held on July 7-10 in the Music Department, Victoria University of Wellington. The conference was very ably organised by John Young and his team, and apart from the usual very welcome opportunity to find out what people in the region have been up to, there was an added bonus in the form of a concentrated exposure to "acousmatic" music. The keynote speaker was Jonty Harrison, one of the leaders of the British acousmatic school, and we heard more than a dozen pieces of acousmatic music in the concerts.

The conference extended over four days, with about 45 participants including one from the USA., two from Sweden and four from Britain. We had a keynote address, six paper sessions, a panel discussion, and no less than 12 concerts (including late night sessions).

Electroacoustic music is flourishing in New Zealand. There are at least four main centres (at which postgraduate study is available); from North to South, Auckland, Waikato, Wellington and Christchurch (apologies if I have omitted anyone). It has been suggested that this strong position is due in part to the fact that Douglas Lilburn, a leading New Zealand composer of the post-war period, was deeply involved in electronic music, but the present-day activity surely owes more to the energy and commitment of people like John Young.

What follows is a personal report on the conference, followed by my reactions to acousmatic music as presented at the conference.

The keynote address - Jonty Harrison

Jonty Harrison and Denis Smalley are leaders of the British acousmatic school of electroacoustic composition, and have had an enormous interest through their numerous students. The distinguishing features of the British acousmatic school appear to be the acousmatic attitude and sound diffusion. Jonty discussed both of these in his keynote address, which I will now attempt to summarise.

Acousmatic music is a particular kind of tape music. To quote Jonty: "Acousmatic music on the whole continues the traditions of musique concrete and has inherited many of its concerns. It admits any sound as potential compositional material, frequently refers to acoustic phenomena and situations from everyday life and, most fundamentally of all, relies on perceptual realities rather than conceptual speculation to unlock the potential for musical discourse and musical structure from the inherent properties of the sound objects themselves - and the arbiter of this process is the ear."

An acousmatic piece, then, grows upwards from the sounds used in the piece, rather than downwards from an overall concept. Because acousmatic pieces grow upwards from the sounds, they represent a "qualitative" and "organic" approach to composition, according to Jonty, as opposed to the "quantitative" and "architectonic" thinking of much traditionally notated music, and also much electronic music.

Diffusion, in this context, is a electroacoustic performance art. It is the practice of taking a (typically) two-channel piece and playing it back on many more than two speakers, the performer manipulating the spatial distribution of sound in real time. Jonty considers that this approach represents an organic approach to space in opposition to an architectonic approach, where an 8-channel work (say) is played back over an 8-channel speaker system and all the spatial placing of sounds is worked out in advance.

Jonty discussed several kinds of space. The intrinsic qualities of a sound interact with our perceptual mechanisms to generate spatial implications. A soft sound may be perceived as distant; sounds can be perceived as "big" or "small"; we perceive pitch as "high or "low". Also, when we record a sound, we capture the environment in which the sound occurs, so we are dealing with a real space which is different from the physical space in which the work is performed. The composer can play games by placing recorded sounds in other spaces to which they do not belong; Jonty calls this combination "surreal space".

Jonty's keynote address raised a lot of interesting issues. I have put a few comments at the end of this article.

The Concert Space

All the concerts were held in the Adam Concert Room, a squarish room with much wooden construction. The front of the room (as it was set up for the conference) was dominated by a two-manual pipe organ. The organisers did call for organ and tape pieces, but none were forthcoming, so the organ stared mutely at us throughout the proceedings. However, the concerts were lit by coloured lights which reflected prettily off the organ pipes.

The sound system was elaborate, fitting the emphasis on diffusion. There were 8 speakers placed in Jonty Harrison's "main 8" configuration: {front} (at either side of a small stage space), {front wide} (about 45 degrees to each side), {far} (to each side of the organ pipes and quite high up), and {rear} (two speakers behind the audience). Additionally there were two side speakers, an extra pair of speakers at the front intended for amplifying live performers, subwoofers, and an array of tweeters suspended over the heads of the audience!


Over 60 works were presented in the concerts: approximately a dozen from each of New Zealand, Australia, Britain and North America, and smaller numbers from continental Europe and South America. There were no works directly from Asian countries, though there were some pieces from Chinese composers now working in the USA.

There were over 150 music submissions; John Young attributed this large number to the fact that the music submissions form was on the conference website. The people on the music jury were confronted with five CDs of two-minute extracts! The pieces selected were very varied, though within them the acousmatic pieces formed a distinct bloc.

There was a moderate number of pieces involving acoustic instruments, including three pieces for cello and tape. There were also two pieces for five or six part ensemble and tape. One of these was by the American composer Brian Bevelander, who was present at the conference, and was based on a letter written by an American Civil War soldier to whom the composer is related. It was a very effective piece. The piece Dolor en Mi for guitar and tape, by Mexican composer Rodrigo Sigal, was quite strange. It combined virtuosic guitar playing with conversations in English and Spanish, bits of folksong and other sounds on the tape. The piece stopped, we all applauded (including the sound diffusion person), and then the tape started up again with recorded applause and the piece went on to a new section. Despite the title and the program note, which begins "Pain as the source of so many things that we depend on each day...", most of the piece seemed quite cheerful to me.

Also among the live performances were two pieces by Australian composers who always come up with something original: Warren Burt and Greg Schiemer. Warren's piece (Double Dachshund Memory Trace) used a computer program imitating an analogue synthesizer. Greg's piece could only be presented in part, as it was a collaboration with Thorin Kerr and Sean Bridgeman, neither of whom could be present. What we heard was a live feedback piece using the Lake Huron audio workstation and timpani as resonators. (It is also the first time I have seen a kettledrum used as a mouse mat.)

Terry McDermott (Melbourne) presented a different form of live performance with his exstatic project, where Terry acts as a meta-disk-jockey, controlling a computer which in turn carries out real-time spatialisation and sound processing, using software written by Ross Bencina. The source material was tape music from many people. Unfortunately Terry's borrowed computer apparently had hardware problems, and after a little while it refused to play any more. This was one of only a few hardware failures: the playback of an 8-channel piece from a ProTools system had to be abandoned, and in another piece, the cello's A-string frayed into unusability. In these two cases the performances were rescheduled.

I will just mention a few of the 40 or so tape pieces, and I am leaving comments on the acousmatic pieces until later. The two Swedish composers present at the conference, Jens Hedman and Paulina Sundin, contributed an attractive jointly-composed piece described as a "musical tribute to Stockholm". John Elmsly's (NZ) piece Soft Dawn over Whispering Island made use of environmental and instrumental sounds, together with the resynthesised call of the kokako (an endangered blue-wattled crow).

The American composer Elainie Lillios' piece Arturo is based around an interview with a Tarot card reader. The words were ridiculous at times: The Tarot can predict death..., but the sounds were good and often related to card shuffling. Lo Yee On's (China/USA) piece Portrait of Timbre as a Wind Wood Dove, inspired by a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins' called Peace, was largely abstract, but with discernible bird calls. Ian Whalley (NZ) was commissioned in Japan to write a piece for a general orchestra-concert-going audience which would be technically sophisticated but not "sound electronic". His solution to this difficult problem involved sampled sounds (crowds, drums) and also "instrumental" sounds produced by the Yamaha VL1 physical modelling instrument. I felt that these last sounds didn't quite work: they still felt a bit bland to me.

Two Australian pieces which are both parts of projected larger cycles are David Hirst's Mon Dieu, based on David's childhood associations with religion, including church-run cricket and tennis games, and Anthony Hood's Humidity I, a piece based on cicada sounds, which as he says "dominate the sonic landscape" of a Sydney summer.

There were several videos, of which perhaps the most memorable was from Brigid Burke (Melbourne); it contained extraordinary images painted by Brigid, largely abstract, but with traces of eyes and faces. The sounds were mostly clarinet-derived, but I could hear parrots, dogs barking... The videos reinforced my opinion that sound plus video is a completely different artform from sound alone; adding images is not a solution to the "problem" of tape music.

Finally there was Australian Garth Paine's interactive installation, a space with microphones and speakers in which sounds made in the space were put through a granular process which was controlled by the movements of people in the room, using parameters such as grain density and amount of pitch shift. This worked well and was fun to play with.


There were 17 research papers and two studio reports in the conference proceedings, though not all of these were presented at the conference.

Approximately half of the papers had a substantial technical focus. Tim Kreger and Eduardo Miranda had papers about musical uses of cellular automata. Ian Kaminskyj talked about "tone signatures" of acoustic instruments in the context of automatic classification of instrument textures. Oliver Hancock talked about musical gestures generated by a simulation of a sandpile. My paper was on musical applications of the wavelet transform. Greg Schiemer presented three papers: two describing work done by his group on the Lake DSP project, and one describing a project involving his A4 MIDI Tool Box in collaborative performances with two Indian musicians. Greg produced the best metaphor of the conference: in describing how difficult it was to get complex code into the very small program memory of the A4 chip, he compared the endeavour to seeing how many Tongans would fit into a VW.

Although all of these papers were quite technical, they were generally oriented towards musical composition; indeed Ian Kaminskyj commented that he felt he was the only non-composer at the conference.

There was one psychoacoustic paper, Denzil Cabrera's reporting experiments on the perception of the volume of sounds as "big" or "small".

There were two compositional papers: Terry McDermott's paper described the exstatic project from both an artistic and a technical viewpoint, and Andrew Lyons talked about the philosophical underpinnings of his work Schwarzchild for sound and image.

There were several more general papers. Warren Burt discussed the conditions of performance of electroacoustic music in Australia. The British have been trying for 20 years to set up a National Centre for Electronic Music. (We learnt at the conference that funding is again not forthcoming.) The model of a large installation such as the Acousmonium of the Groupe de Recherche Musicales may not be the way to go. Warren called for the use of smaller, lighter and cheaper systems, enabling many smaller-scale performances, instead of putting enormous amounts of effort into one big concert.

There were two papers on musical analysis. Michael Norris contributed a thoughtful paper on possible future directions for the currently very undeveloped analysis of electroacoustic music. Mathew Adkins discussed acousmatic music; I will comment on his paper later.

Finally, in the last paper of the conference, John Elmsly gave an affectionate commentary on the electroacoustic work of John Rimmer, who recently retired from the University of Auckland after a long and distinguished career.

I had to miss most of the panel discussion. All I can report is that the perennial subject of audiences came up. Terry McDermott reported that the exstatic project did a performance in the chill-out room of a techno rave. Although much of the source material was similar to the pieces at conference concerts, and the audience was very different, Terry got an enthusiastic response.

Acousmatic music

These are some personal comments on the British acousmatic music presented at the conference. I have had little contact with this area, and it was good to have a concentrated exposure to it. We were fortunate to have not only Jonty Harrison, but also three other British electroacoustic composers, Mathew Adkins, Robert Dow and Tom Williams. The first two are squarely in the acousmatic camp; Tom Williams has a somewhat different aesthetic.

The acousmatic approach originated in France and spread to Britain via Denis Smalley. It is alive and well in Wellington, thanks to John Young. It appears that the term "acousmatic" used to imply that the sounds used are selected for their sonic qualities only, without reference to whatever produced them. Thus the sound of a train was not intended to bring the concept of "train" into the mind of the listener, but simply to present an interesting combination of rhythm, texture and timbre. This is a radical move, and it was not sustained: when one hears the sound of a train in an acousmatic piece one is allowed to think of a train.

The sounds used are from everyday life: footsteps, trains, car doors (though one conference participant claimed to know which sound effects CD the car door slams came from). The sounds are often noisy, with sharp attacks, and retain these qualities under the transformations used. This certainly gives a "concrete" character to the works, but leads to overuse of what I think of as the "kitchen-sink gesture": a fast-moving noisy gesture which sounds as though the composer sampled everything within reach, including the kitchen sink. Not all the acousmatic pieces were like this, Jonty's own Streams being an honourable exception.

Inasmuch as the acousmatic pieces were "about" anything, they were about the contexts of the source sounds, and thus about everyday life: a train journey to work; the contents of the composer's kitchen cupboards. Sometimes the results were larger than life. The piece by David Shepherd (NZ) claimed to be about a day in the life of the composer, but it must have been quite a day: it sounded as though the composer had at least been shot at, blown up and kidnapped by aliens.

Apart from everyday life, the other concern of the acousmatic pieces, judging by the programme notes, was the relationship between the real and the unreal. "The boundaries between the real world and unreal worlds become blurred - eventually we begin to recognise the unknown." (Pete Stollery, programme note to Peel.)

With the exception of Graham Hadfield's piece Io (and arguably Francis Dhomont's piece Phonurgie, which used sounds from exotic cultures) there was a resolute exclusion of wider extra-musical references. One conference participant suggested that inasmuch as art music has neglected everyday life, the acousmatic composers are redressing the balance. Once could also argue that we are deluding ourselves if we think that by calling a piece Io we understand anything about the moons of Jupiter, or that by referring to a text about the effects of war (as in my Lament over Jerusalem) we do anything for world peace. However, there does not seem to be anything political in the acousmatic rejection of wider contexts. Presumably, then, the focus on the mundane arises from using everyday sounds and "relying on perceptual realities rather than conceptual speculation". I have to say that I found it rather introverted, even claustrophobic.

This expression of introversion was strengthened by Mathew Adkins' paper "Acoustic Chains in Acousmatic Music". With considerable theoretical background, Mathew gave examples of similar sound sources, or similar (abstract) sounds, being used in different acousmatic pieces. If I understood correctly, a set of such similar sounds forms an "acousmatic chain", and hearing one member of the set is supposed to evoke the other contexts in the set. Thus a new acousmatic work acquires "meaning" by reference to previous such works.

Diffusion is clearly an important and valuable part of the acousmatic genre, and it was fascinating to watch Jonty applying "vibrato", moving sliders rapidly, to enhance the effect of a choppy passage. Nonetheless, someone (I think it was Lea Collins) pointed out that Jonty's argument for diffusion was also an argument in favour of real-time signal processing: it seems inconsistent to fix every aspect of a piece except the actual diffusion.

Acousmatic music is a coherent genre with a well-established practice, and the exclusion of broad extra-musical concerns at least arises from a consistent approach to sound and to composition.

There is no theoretical reason for fixing every aspect of the piece except the diffusion, but there are good practical reasons for so doing, and when the diffusion is well done, which it was at Wellington, the results are very effective.

I agree with Jonty's assertion that sounds should be taken seriously, not just treated as placeholders in some abstract structure. The acousmatic approach is valuable. Nonetheless, in its pure form the acousmatic approach appears to me to be introverted and self-limiting. The acousmatic approach is valuable, but as part of a composer's toolkit, not the whole of it.

Of course, I may have missed the point completely.

Gordon Monro

This conference review first appeared in Chroma 26-67

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