Ars Electronica

Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Statement of the Computer Music Jury

Computer Music has a history of some three and a half decades, and could therefore be said to have "matured". The present outcome of the maturation process is not a single, agreed collection of procedures, and certainly not an agreed aesthetic. What one now encounters is a plethora of creative and imaginative applications of computer technology in areas such as sound and instrument synthesis, the modification of sounds into new entities, the development of new form-generating concepts enabled by computer processing, and the computer-assisted presentation of music, particularly with regard to the control of its spatial environment.

The term "computer music" now seems under-powered, in that it has to embrace the many genres which have evolved since the expression was first coined (with little awareness, no doubt, of how hard it was going to have to work!). As well as straightforward examples such as the genre of tape music, one can cite tape-with-acoustic-instruments, live-performance on computer-aided electronic instruments, real-time interactive and reactive computing as part of performance, non-electric "mechanical" instruments controlled by computers, and works designed for contexts other than concert presentation, such as sound installations and sound sculptures. It is this diversity which is the defining characteristic of the maturity of computer music.

Within the context of the Prix Ars Electronica, one hopes to be able to identify and recognize, by means of the .Honourable Mentions", distinctive new trends, but, this year, the Music jury found it impossible to do so from the collection of submissions before it. Computer music, in its maturity, is developing some of the less endearing aspects of middle age. For its own good, it needs, perhaps, to be leaner and fitter! Its ideas and their expression are in a bit of a rut. The same mannerisms are encountered in piece after piece - when the pieces are by different composers - suggesting an outbreak of the virus of cliché, even of epidemic proportions.

It is especially disappointing to realize that the infection has spread to the younger generation of composers. While it is understandable that student or young professional composers model their work on what has become established practice, since to do so is a valuable part of the learning process, it is disconcerting to observe the extent to which they are apparently content to bow down in front of the middle-aged icons set before them. Sometimes iconoclasm is the greater sign of respect! The Music Jury encountered one or two examples of iconoclasm, which engendered lively debate but ultimately a sense of disappointment that examples of new conceptual thinking did not manifest an aura of quality. The jury believes that better examples do exist, and hopes to be able recognize them on another occasion.

One trend which was discussed at length was the emergence of .unskilled music". This is music, the composition and performance of which does not depend on acquiring traditional skills by undergoing formal training in those areas. This became a hypothetical possibility with the emergence of MIDI and the microcomputer in the early 1980s, and has since been increasingly realized (especially within the realm of popular music) as the power, sophistication and flexibility of computers and electroacoustic music equipment has developed. To be specific, the Music Jury would welcome a greater proportion of submissions:

- which experiment with modes of presentation other than the concert/tecital paradigm

- which display high-quality examples of a still wider range of aesthetics

- by composers and sound artists with no institutional affiliations

- by women composers, who at present are seriously under-represented in submissions.

In addition, the jury felt that it would be worth expanding the scope of the Computer Music category to permit the submission of artifacts other than compositions - for example, new and original, technology-based strategies for supporting musical activity.

Turning finally to the awards themselves, at least some of the concerns outlined above are reflected in the choice of the award winners. Two of the major prizes go to composers who are working in personal studios rather than the large institutional context, and two out of the three have either reinvented the sociology of the electroacoustic concert or abandoned it in favour of an alternative presentation. All the works selected show very high degrees of skill, imagination and artistic intergrity.

The Music Jury was unanimous in its decision to award the Golden Nica to Robert Normandeau for his acousmatic composition, "Le renard et la rose". A work of deceptively easy accomplishment, it is immediately appealing, with a strong narrative element, articulated not only by means of text, but even by its most highly processed or deconstructed forms and by the surrounding and accompanying computer "instruments", it has an intriguing use of periodicity as a musical source and demonstrates a concern that all its conceptual musical aspects arise from the inherent nature of the digital medium. The jury was impressed by the careful consideration given to the integration into the fundamental conceptual design of the performance space. The richness of its sound world provides what the composer calls a "cineifia for the ear": no doubt this, as well as the works narrative aspect, is helped by the work's origins in a radio play based on the same subject matter and musical sources.

One of the two Distinctions awarded, coincidentally, goes to a radio program, entitled "Media Survival Kit", a lyric satire by James Dashow, with a text by Bruno Ballardini, In spite of its diverse components - actors' voices, soprano, an instrumental ensemble and a human whistler, as well as a multitude of computer-processed and originated sounds - this vastly entertaining work comes across as a surreally unified view of the invasion of our lives and minds by the computer, its screen and the internet. The reality of everyday personal existence is gradually supplanted by the attractive but insubstantial delights of the virtual world, to the point where everything becomes uncertain, including the reality of personal existence. "But as for us, are we really there?" Such dangerously deep and ancient philosophical questions are handled with the lightest of touches and with welcome wit and humour. From a musical point of view, the rhythmic handling of the spoken text is cunningly counterpointed with the synthetic and processed elements in a way which only the most aurally imaginative composers can achieve.

The other Distinctionwas awarded to Regis Renouard Larivière for his work "Futaie" for an ensemble of loudspeakers. Another richly allusive work, where extra-musical symbology genuinely relates to musical materials and compositional unfolding, "Futaie" is a work of consciously extreme limitation of timbral, rhythmic and dynamic materials. It challenges common conceptions of how musical time should pass, and focusses attention on a distinctive, temporal dramaturgy, created in no small part by the careful attention given to the space between the sounds as the sounds themselves.

As previously noted, the award of "Honorary Mentions" does not acknowledge innovation so much as recognize works as being of inherent quality or representing one of the distinctive approaches to be found in the diverse world that is computer music.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH,