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The Edge May Be the Middle

A View of Electroacoustic Music in the Antipodes.

At times, it can be a daunting process building a university electroacoustic music studio and teaching programme from scratch. This article briefly reflects on the process, and the approach we have taken from an educational and philosophical perspective in a broader New Zealand context.

The Music Department at the University of Waikato first offered a major in music in 1991. Although the digital studios were first established then, it was not until 1996 that they were set up in purposely built space. Over the last ten years, the department has set up the professional music degree programme to doctoral level, and a purpose-built multi-venue performing arts complex will open on campus in March 2001.

The three-year undergraduate digital music programme is now the largest in New Zealand universities, and supporting a growing graduate programme. The courses also contribute to a conjoint multimedia programme run by the department of computer science.

Supported by composer Lisa Meridan-Skipp, Ian Whalley directs the studio teaching programme. The focus is on composition and sound generation to produce music in a variety of settings, rather that using digital equipment to record live performance. The facilities also allow for full CD mastering. Current studio configurations are on our website.

Both staff members are actively involved in composition and research projects internationally, with recent work being delivered through Europe, Asia, and USA and Australasia. Recent activities have also included being involved in the final adjudication panel for research work submitted to the International Computer Music Association Conference in Berlin 2000.

Staff in the Department of Computer Science also actively research in digital music and have a particular strength in artificial intelligence. They have recently launched the New Zealand digital music library on the web (

The university was the original gateway for the internet into New Zealand, and we are fortunate on campus to have a first rate digital infrastructure. The department recently set up and hosts the new website for Australasia Computer Music Association, with its associated listserv group (

To mid 1980, electronic music attracted few people in tertiary music departments Perhaps this was due to the expense in equipping studios and the pragmatic outcomes of the skills learnt. With decreasing cost and the use of home PCs, digital dabbling in music is now the province of many.

We were fortunate to be able to equip our studios directly in the digital domain to meet this growing interest in computer based approaches to music. At the same time, we needed to address the demand from students to introduce pragmatic courses in the digital arts where they may seek future employment, without compromising the need for a sound academic education. We also needed to take into account the current tradition in New Zealand.

Unlike the Australian electroacoustic tradition which seems to include an emphasis on pitch/duration based performance, much of it outside the academy, the New Zealand electroacoustic tradition generally has been dominated by the approach taken by Douglas Lilburn at Victoria University of Wellington in the 1950s. Works tend to be studio based, tightly crafted, and based in the academy. The intended audience has historically been relatively small and the idiom is at times treated with bemusement by the public and critics alike.

One of the main influences recently on New Zealand electroacoustic music is the acousmatic aesthetic. The connection is reinforced with New Zealander Denis Smalley being based in London, and graduate students taking up study in the U.K. with Dennis and other practitioners who are sympathetic to the approach.

Other aesthetic approaches are also evident in the main centres of Auckland and Christchurch, centered on the work of the composers teaching in the studios there such as John Rimmer and John Cousins. In Hamilton, we have taken a different approach, partly due to the nature of our student population, and partly because a new situation provides the opportunity to rethink established ways of approaching problems.

A notable aspect of the demographic in new countries like Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand is their level of ethic and cultural diversity in contrast to countries like Japan, Germany or France. This is more prevalent in an area like Hamilton where there has been recent immigration. Like me, many people here were not born in the country and live in cross-cultural relationships.

A consequence is diverse experiences and views that people bring to the learning situation at university. Views from the northern and southern hemispheres and the east and west are juxtaposed freely.

A further difference in new as opposed to established countries is that the often regimented and hierarchical division of culture, say between popularism and 'high art', 'street smarts' and academic intelligence, and the guardians and rebels of culture, often is not clear cut. The situation makes for a mixture of irreverence and awe, the opportunity to think the unthinkable, and the chance to try new approaches that may easily be marginalized in traditional centres.

A consequence is the exhilarating and at times frightening possibility for some, of the opportunity to create something new with only the courage of one's convictions for support. A safe option would be to simply import a current aesthetic and 'open at page one', but the alternatives seemed much more attractive.

The programme we have established at Waikato University freely mixes the European intellectual aesthetic tradition with a study of electronic popular music. Similarly, we have drawn material from both the eastern, western and Pacific traditions in the teaching programme. Computer music is stressed as being about the application of computers to music making in a broad sense, without an emphasis on any particular approach or style; but includes a broad a range of approaches. Internationalism is then freely mixed with regional approaches to similar problems, and the pragmatic and artistic outcomes in a variety of settings are explored.

The downside of such an approach is of course that one can be accused of avoiding the pursuit of excellence or acquisition of taste found in specialization, and opting to replace it with token stylistic dabbling: perhaps this is the dilemma of postmodernism generally. At first there seemed a danger of attempting to serve too many masters in the teaching programme, but given the number of courses we have that are studio based we have been able to accommodate intellectual and pragmatic demands. At the same time, some students have freely pursued a specialist area of academic electroacoustic music as their interests have dictated.

The approach is helped by students arriving to take the first year course being much more technologically literate than in the past and with access to the internet, more flexible in their approach to learning new skills and ideas. Drawing on artists working outside the academy and encouraging students to write for non-academic audiences has also helped. Electroacoustic music techniques are then freely incorporated into a variety of other music making situations.

New music has often come from an interesting mixture of internationalism and regionalism, as the blues demonstrates. It is often in the netherworld between the permissible and the possible, through cultural and political diversity, and where new experience meets the narrative weight of history and culture that new art forms are produced, and the most innovative work can often occur. It is difficult to be singularly doctrinaire in such a situation.

New music also results from the dialectic between art and new technology. The adventurous have historically been early adopters, adapters, and inventors. New technology is not always used in ways intended by manufacturers, such as the overdriven amplifier in the 1960s by guitarists. Given that New Zealand is characterized by the rapid adoption of new technology and the country is often used as a testing ground for new devices the combination, it is fertile ground for new artistic insights.

I am only now beginning to appreciate why this odd mixture of opposites makes many New Zealanders and Australians, who often travel extensively, react against some established musical centres that are not forced deal with diversity.

Ian Whalley
Music Department, The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Studio:

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