CEC and Digital Rewind

Grant Chu Covell

[April 2001. Orginally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

Absolutely brilliant and balanced anthologies and collections are put out by the CEC (The Canadian Electroacoustic Community/Communauté Electroacoustique Canadienne). New are Cache 2000 and Presence II. They’re distributed by the CEC at http://cec.concordia.ca/ or through alternative vendors (try to use Netscape to browse their site, Internet Explorer doesn’t seem as happy with it for me).

What makes these discs special is that a lot of diverse works are put into one package. Some of the more established anthologies have a maximum of five or seven composers and works (I’m thinking of the Wergo or CDCM series), but the CEC’s anthologies go for distinctive shorter works, accompanied with terse notes which leave little room for aggrandizing commentary. The CEC’s publications also have to be bilingual which promotes an effective use of space.

I have only one minor problem with the CEC and that is that the booklets fall out of the paper CD billfolds too easily. But I am grateful for the considerate and compact packaging. Fortunately all the details are up on their Website.

I could go on extensively about each of the four sets here, but I will be brisk. These are all good anthologies, and any of them are worth snapping up.

Cache 2000 is a single disc of 14 varied works, just part of a larger CEC effort to support young and emerging sound artists of Canada (http://cec.concordia.ca/econtact/YESA/Yesaindex.htm/). The composers and their works are presented alphabetically: David BEREZAN: Gathering; Nicolas BORYCKI: Le Diable au Teint Orageux; Christian BOUCHARD: tonicité; Jef CHIPPEWA: Duo; Yves GIGON: Crickpet; Michael GUREVICH: Soft White; Mark J. HANNESSON: Burdizzo; Christien LEDROIT: Miasmata; Mathieu MARCOUX: Corporation; Daniel ROMANO: Cosmos; Julien ROY: Rémanence (Remix); Warren SPICER: Singing of a Speaking Summer Swelter; Ian STEWART: Surveillance; Ivan ZAVADA: Relation Diplomatik.

From the beginning you will notice how these composers have a commanding use of the sound spectrum. Sounds and gestures appear all over the stereo spectrum, and the variety within each piece is diverse. And yes, these pieces don’t seem to dwell exclusively in either the pure computer or pure concrete domain. I really like this disc, so if I don’t mention every piece on it, it’s purely for reasons of space. The opening three pieces make and excellent set: Berezan’s Gathering, Borycki’s Le Diable au Teint Orageux and Bouchard’s tonicité. Gathering and Le Diable au Teint Orageux describe intriguing spaces. tonicité starts with the recognizable sound of a large truck maneuvering, and the whole piece seems to dissect this sound pulling out a deep drone and making the truck’s horn into a saxophone (or maybe I’m being tricked into hearing this). Gurevich’s Soft White begins a casual poem with saxophone plus multiphonics and assorted electronic processing which turns kind of R-rated all of a sudden. The longer works by Roy and Zavada are entrancing as they course though textures and places effortlessly, and the appearance of text in Zavada’s Relation Diplomatik is effective and surprising. Not all of these works are easily explainable: Ledroit’s Miasmata starts with a handful of sounds and creates a set of expectations that are thwarted by the remainder of the piece. This is a great disc, and we should look forward to more work by these artists and the continuance of this CEC series in the future.

Presence II is a 2CD anthology of 34 works from 32 composers from 11 countries. The diversity is overwhelming and it’s hard to single out individual works. They’re all arranged alphabetically: Jorge ANTUNES: La beauté indiscrète d’une note violette; Alastair BANNERMAN: In th’air or th’earth; Peter BATCHELOR: Velocity; Steve BRADLEY: “volalle melodie vi to trot” or “fowl melody to trot”; Chin-Chin CHEN: Points of No Return; Jef CHIPPEWA: DUO; Ian CHUPRUN: To many moments passed and Reading Allowed (PA 11); Gordon FITZELL: Zipper Music II; Martín Alejandro FUMAROLA: ARGOS and SET IN; Thomas GERWIN: 6 Aphorisms; Yves GIGON: Éphémère; Barbara GOLDEN: Whipping the Boys; Martin GOTFRIT: A Palaver with Procrustes (ex.); Otto JOACHIM: Three Electronic Sketches; Suk Jun KIM: sudden cry (ex.); Sylvi MACCORMAC: Spirit Wheels: Journey (part 1 of a puppet opera); Kevin MACLEOD: pacific; Diana MCINTOSH: Climb to Camp One; Dugal MCKINNON: Horizont im Ohr (ex.); Adrian MOORE: Soundbodies: Bodypart; David PRIOR: Somewhere Submarine (5th Movement); Jean ROUTHIER: Stereotyped Latter-Day Opinion; Antti SAARIO: B-Side; Dave SOLURSH: We; Jørgen TELLER: H a e i o u y æ ø å pt. 2 (ex.); Ben THIGPEN: step, under (ex.); Todor TODOROFF: Voices Part I (version stéréo); Pascale TRUDEL: Ce n’est pas ici; Hans TUTSCHKU: extrémités lointaines (ex.); Annette Vande GORNE: Amoroso: Vox Alia, 2e mouvement; Chris WIND: to be led; Daniel ZIMBALDO: Au-delà du miroir.

Where to start? Bradley’s “volalle melodie vi to trot” or “fowl melody to trot” is very, very disturbing: under or over a text that seems to be foreign language instruction we hear parents of young children at their wits end. Fitzell’s Zipper Music II (an earlier version is on DISContact II below) is a nifty exploration of the sounds a zipper can make. McIntosh’s Climb to Camp One is built from the sounds of climbing equipment being used inside an amplified piano but it doesn’t recall ostensibly similar works by Cowell or Cage. I’m partial to the 3 short works by Joachim (the oldest works in the set) which explore the filtering of computer generated sounds. Solursh’s We extracts some neat noises out of water, while Teller’s H a e i o u y æ ø å pt. 2 (ex.) gets mileage from laughter. Of course I like the seemingly random collage effects of Trudel’s Ce n’est pas ici and am wonderfully at a loss to explain what the crowd noise, fire, marching band and nature noises are all about. There are many works here, and this is an easy anthology to pop in the CD player and savour.

Stepping back to 1997, Presence is a 2CD anthology of 23 composers. Some of the many good pieces that jump out are Tape Measure in which Steve BRADLEY has played a Verdi LP with a sewing machine needle attached to a tape measure. No, you can’t hear the Verdi, but it’s with childlike fascination that you will hear some micro-level gurgling and rumbling. James HARLEY contributes a long work, Voyage, a grand arc of sound, intricate and spacious. Monique JEAN’s If finds an essay in a simple spoken phrase, and in Squeaky Chair Christopher K. KOENIGSBERG finds a symphony in, yes, a squeaky chair. Jean ROUTHIER’s Face à claques is a deviant piece of assemblage, something to do with things overheard we shouldn’t be privy to.

Also still available is DISContact! II from 1995 that offers 51 short works on 2 CDs. The CEC makes somewhat limited quantities of their productions and this one was reissued in 1997. This is an enriching anthology filled with works created by members of the CEC. The brief works pack in variety and contrast, as well as varieties of technique and sound worlds. Spoken political pieces, song settings, inscrutable noise works, musique concrète and collage are well represented and thriving in the hands of these composers.

Looking forward, the CEC has put out the call for inclusion in Presence III, so watch this space!

Digital Rewind is the title of a 2CD set celebrating 25 years of Music for Instruments and Computer from the MIT Experimental Music Studio (their Website is out of date: http://www.media.mit.edu/events/EMS/). Very early on, MIT got into that strange realm of mixing computers with music. Barry Vercoe, the creator of the Music eleven sound synthesis language and the Csound language, started the MIT Experimental Music Studio in 1973, and in 1985 it became part of MIT’s Media Lab.

Back in May of 1999 I attended the anniversary concert and it was a long evening of performances and recreations of some classic works the MIT folks have spawned. This CD set goes back to the original performances, focussing mostly on works from the 1980’s and picking up some previously released material from Neuma, Bridge and Wergo. Only 3 of the works come from the 90s. The contents of the disc read like a who’s who in the academic end of music plus computers (OK, I live in the area, so most of the composers and performers are known to me).

The discs contain: Peter CHILD: Ensemblance; John LUNN: Echoes; Curtis ROADS: Field; Martin BRODY: Moments Musicaux; Charles DODGE: The Waves; Barry VERCOE: Synapse; William ALBRIGHT: Sphaera; James DASHOW: In Winter Shine; Elliot BALABAN: In My Future; Jonathan HARVEY: From Silence; Jean-Claude RISSET: Eight Sketches: Duet For One Pianist; Michael A. CASEY and Simon ATKINSON: Strange-Charmed; Mario DAVIDOVSKY: Synchronisms No. 9.

The 1999 concert added Flora by Tod Machover and At last…Free by Richard Boulanger, and didn’t have the works by Lunn, Roads, Dodge, Balaban and Casey/Atkinson. I recall the program order changed wildly and perhaps there was a substitution or deletion but I didn’t annotate my program.

Did I say you could get it for free? Get on over to http://www.cdemusic.org/ and check out what special offers they have and most likely, they’ll toss in this 2CD set for nothing (there is a time limit with this offer, however).

The classics you might have already heard of include Dodge’s The Waves and Davidovsky’s Synchonisms No. 9. Joan La Barbara is the voice for the Dodge and the violinist in the Davidovsky is Rolf Schulte. The longest piece is Harvey’s From Silence which opens the second disc.

The big gems are Vercoe’s Synapse with Marcus Thompson on viola. Classic instrument with tape, but both parts are so feisty and voluble, with charmed contrasts between computer and viola. Albright’s Spharea with David Bruge, piano, has some very neat sections of colors, and unexpected changes of mood and texture. James Dashow’s In Winter Shine for computer generated tape was an immediate favorite of mine when I heard it at the anniversary concert. Dashow is definitely worth paying attention to.

And then there’s a hint example of what technology could do in the wrong hands. Not that Balaban’s In my Future is twisted, just that this little song for voice, sung by Nancy Anderson, and synthesized orchestra, gives indication of some of the crazed possibilities of computer music outside of academia.

A couple of typos just might frustrate the perfectionist: Jonathan Harvey’s name spelled wrong on the tray and back of booklet and the great violist Walter Trampler’s name is spelled wrong (unless there really is a Walter Trampier). But the CD set is free after all. Did I mention that yet? Well, click over to http://www.cdemusic.org/ and see what interests you and pick this one up. Tell them I sent you.

Now, if you don’t want to get into my editorial about the state of computer music and what these MIT CDs represent, then read no more.

Still here? OK, the concert back in May of 1999 underscored for me the fixedness of these pieces, meaning how the computer aspects of the works seemed immutable and inflexible. Maybe this is a particular stamp of the MIT studio itself, or perhaps given MIT’s resources, the type of works being created there become incredibly ambitious and thus somewhat cumbersome.

A significant characteristic is that the computer aspects of these works sound as if they come completely from the computer world and not from the natural world. That is, I hear sounds that originated in the studio and made by a computer and very little that originated, even with extensive in-studio modification, from the natural world. This is a distinction at the core of many of the first electronic music studios (Schaeffer’s GRM in Paris vs. Eimert’s WDR in Berlin) that will cause diehards to roll-up their sleeves and get frothy. Some studios do allow a blend between the two, and this distinction is much less important to younger computer music or electro-acoustic types today.

By fixedness, I mean how the performers seemed to be accompanying an unchanging computer part or tape. Bear with me here. I recognize many of these works involved extensive collaboration between composer and performers, but in many cases the collaboration was done in the studio and once on stage, the performer has a somewhat rote task of playing along with the tape. I know that synchronizing with tape is really, really hard to do well, and I’m not belittling those who can do this ably, like Thompson and Schulte.

I am also aware that these performances are historical in that accessibility to real-time computer music didn’t come till later. And back in the first line of this paragraph, I did say “seemed” as without close analysis, I couldn’t (and even with the recording still can’t) fathom just what the computer is up to in the Harvey. The Risset does have less fixedness and some interaction, but it is being performed by Risset himself (He’s a darn fine pianist, by the way. And his works for instruments are really, really cool too.) and this negates the notion of performer collaborating with composer. Risset’s work is also highly scripted for each of the eight short duets, and the interaction is planned and structured.

Frankly, I prefer more interaction, such as live computer or a pre-recorded tape with inherent permutations that can be played in multiple ways, and I prefer a computer or tape part that can trace some source or connection to the natural world. The computer has infinite possibilities, and material taken from the natural world and manipulated by computer has infinite possibilities as well. But this latter manipulation contains more magic because a skilled composer can move the natural world in and out of recognition. The magic is that familiar sounds can draw upon memories and feelings, and we can be surprised by juxtapositions which are only possible in the studio (I’ll save my philosophy of perception for some other time). To get more of my biases out there, I confess that my own computer and electro-acoustic music aspires to the qualities I just described.

But did I mention these CDs are free? http://www.cdemusic.org/ will have something you want, so get them regardless.