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31 July 2007

A Maturing Artform

ACMC // ACT // 19-21.06.07

Juno Kim, Terumi Narushima and Greg Schiemer Image: Juno Kim, Terumi Narushima and Greg Schiemer  
© Warren Burt

For many years, the rest of the music world has, to some degree, looked on the computer music field as an area that is more involved with experiment than actual music making. Even to someone in the field, computer music conferences often seem to consist of long streams of technical papers which have little to do with practical music making.

That this is no longer the case was dramatically illustrated by the 2007 Australasian Computer Music Conference, held on 19-21 June, at the Centre for New Media Arts, and the School of Music at the Australian National University, Canberra. Organised by Alistair Riddell and his team, the conference consisted of six formal daytime concerts, three informal evening music events in various Canberra bars, a number of paper sessions, in which work in progress was discussed, and two keynote addresses/events.

The annual ACMA conference is always a very pleasant gathering of the tribes, where old friends and associates catch up, exchange information, and hear what each other have been up to. Held annually since 1993, the conference is always small enough so that one has a chance to catch up with everyone, and see most of the events, but large enough so that there’s always a good buzz from the amount of interaction. This year’s conference was attended by about 60 people.

Usually at computer music conferences, since one is seeing work mostly by one’s friends, there is a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to shaky performances, uncertain technology, and the almost inevitable vengeance of the gods (otherwise known as Murphy’s Law). This year, that kind of forbearance was not necessary. In almost all pieces during the concerts, not only did the technology work as expected, but also the performing was generally of a very high standard. And, delightfully, the quality of the sound system and mixing was superb. All concerts were at a reasonable listening level. Only rarely did volumes rise above a comfortable level, and then only briefly.

Good pieces, performed well, with functioning technology, in a pleasant listening environment. What more could one ask for?

Some of the high points of the first performance were Lydia Ayers’s The Chalky Desert Where Nothing Grows for flute and recorded sounds; Ben Carey’s Excitation, for recorded sounds alone; and Sebastian Tomczak’s (Your Ego is) The Size of Mountains, a performance on a wonderful homemade instrument consisting of 6 lasers reflecting off a bowl of water. Tomczak performed the piece by dripping water into the bowl and then by moving his hands on the surface of the water. This produced sounds that interacted beautifully with the motion of the water.

These three pieces seemed to sum up the main areas of performance in the conference – works for acoustic instrument and some level of electronic sound; pieces for recorded sounds, intricately shaped; and pieces for experimental instruments, whether those instruments were computers and their associated programs or more elaborated devices.

Luke Harrald and Derek Pascoe’s fr@gm3nt, for computer and saxophone, had Pascoe’s saxophone sometimes accompanied, sometimes attacked by computer-selected samples of itself; while Brigid Burke’s Petals Scream combined her remarkable computer graphics with live performance on her clarinet and computer transformed acoustic sounds. Gordon Monro’s Triangular Vibrations for computer-generated sound and images, my favourite of the conference, was simply magnificent.

Andrew Sorensen and Andrew Brown gave what was visually the most macho performance of the conference – simply by sitting behind their laptops and writing computer programs while performing. Called ‘live coding’, this practice is the Paganini virtuoso end of computer music performance, having, as it does, the constant risk of falling into a silent, malfunctioning heap. In this case, the performing was virtuoso, but the music was surprisingly delicate, being filled with a sense of fantasy, and sometimes delicious harmonic progressions.

Space prevents me from describing other performances in detail, but ‘must mentions’ were instrument (or voice) and electronics pieces by Ros Bandt and Helen Thompson; video-sound works by Tim Kreger and Roger Alsop; and the riveting and sonically lovely eye-movement controlled performance by Juno Kim, Terumi Narushima and Greg Schiemer.

In almost all the events, including the papers, the emphasis was on practical music making. Many of the papers included either live performance or video documentation of live performance with the technology under discussion.

In keeping with the theme of the conference, ‘Trans’ – that is works which crossed boundaries – especially welcome were papers from other related fields, such as Danielle Wilde’s Hip Disk, a device which translates core-body movement to musical note output, and Josh Dubrau and Mark Havryliv’s P[a]ra[pra]xis, a real-time interactive poetry writing program. Also of interest were reports on interactive composing systems by Steven Campbell, Ross Bencina (an update on the continuing progress of his AudioMulch program) and Peter McIlwain. As with the pieces, I found something useful in almost all the papers and presentations.

A real high point of the conference was the keynote address by Brad Garton, director of the Columbia University Computer Music Center. Prevented from travelling to Australia by illness, he appeared instead on a large projection screen, live, from his office in New York, his image and voice modified by computer software guru Luke DuBois. Starting off with a straight talk, his presentation then progressed into a dazzling display of real-time voice and image modification, where intelligibility was put aside for intricate explorations of abstract sound and movement.

Returning to straight camera work and unmodified voice, the performance concluded with an extended question and answer session between Garton and the audience. The encounter may have been mediated by (amazingly problem free!) technology, but I’ve seldom seen or felt a more loving exchange between an audience and a speaker than this.

With the medium reaching maturity like this, both technologically and aesthetically, I look forward to next year’s ACMC, to be held at the Sydney Conservatorium.

Further Links

Australasian Computer Music Association (www.acma.asn.au).

Subjects discussed by this article:

Warren Burt is a composer, performer, instrument builder, video artist, sound poet, and writer. After almost 30 years in Melbourne, he moved to Wollongong in 2004, where he is now a research fellow at the University of Wollongong and also teaches audio engineering at the Illawarra Institute of TAFE.


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