Ars Electronica

Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Avoid those Clichés!

The Music Jury last year drew attention to some of the many categories of music and music-making which qualify to be dubbed "computer music", and to the way in which the practitioners of the genre had failed to realise that it had "matured" to such an extent that, in terms of both technique and gestural language, it had lapsed into cliché when it was clearly intending to be "serious"

True, the Jury encountered many an honourable exception, the prize-winning works among them, but listening to over 250 pieces in a short period of time made it embarrassingly clear that much computer music was becoming the oldest swinger in town. This year's Jury comprised 80 per cent new personnel, with different backgrounds and interests, but their views were largely similar to those on which the Jury signed off last year. It too felt that originality and innovation, the qualities which the Prix Ars Electronica esteems the highest, had wilted under the pressure to master the extraordinarily pervasive set of software tools that appear to have become studio standard issue including ProTools, GRM Tools and SoundHack. It would, of course, be foolish to damn these fine applications, and that is certainly not the Jury's intention. But there is something about the over-reliance on them which obliges even good composers to risk sacrificing the chance of speaking with a genuinely distinctive voice. What they have to say is somehow masked by what the technology does most easily. The deadly conformity extends beyond mere technique, which is often of admirable accomplishment, to an over-formulaic approach to gesture, pacing and mood.

These observations explain in part the Jury's (unanimous) selection of "Munich Samba" by Matt Heckert as the winner of the Golden Nica. This is a work with no electronic sound of any kind, and no loudspeaker in or out of sight. Matt Heckert is far from being alone in pursuing the development of computer-controlled acoustico-mechanical devices, but his work is among the most impressive. His work is designed not to occupy the concert hall, but spaces of a less prescriptive nature maybe museums, maybe old warehouses, maybe shopping malls. "Munich Samba" can operate automatically, as a kind of moving, noise-making sculpture rather than a piece with a beginning, middle and end, but it can also be "performed" so that form can be shaped to produce different degrees of relative stasis and activity, with deliberately calculated and controlled high-points. "Munich Samba" does not seem to have any "meaning" in the sense of having external reference points: it is simply itself; that is, a collection of varied mechanical devices each gradually fulfilling its generic potential of movement and sound, in a huge variety of combinations and counterpoints, the basic physical principles of which are as bewitching as they are completely understandable.

The two Distincitions went to Jonty Harrison for "Unsound Objects", and Maryanne Amacher for "The Levi-Montalcini Variations".

Harrison has behind him a remarkable oeuvre of electroacoustic works, of which "Unsound Objects" is a typically virtuoso recent example. The listener is drawn into a surreal world of sonic allusion where "impossible" things are made to happen. The canvas is a dazzle of transforming colour and hectic activity even in its more tranquil moments, the sound quality is vivid and alive. By virtue of his activities as both composer and teacher, Harrison has become one of the most influential figures in electroacoustic music.

Amacher's "The Levi-Montalcini Variations" is a completely different kind of creation, positioned somewhere between the dynamic concert-work style of "Unsound Objects" and the sculptural "Munich Samba". As much a sonic installation as a composition in the more conventional sense, it is a monumental wall of sound. It is massive, overwhelming, unrelenting and unyielding; but, once the hearing changes gear to adjust to these features, a myriad of details appear to spring from the tex- ture, and somehow one is drawn completely into Amacher's rescaled world.

Space forbids providing here a comprehensive account of the works awarded Honourable Mentions. But let us point out a few common features which the Jury discussed.

A small group of these works (by Luigi Ceccarelli, Annie Gosfield and Mario Verandi) engage with the aesthetics (and the actual musical objects) from our ever-present musical past. Such pieces, when well executed (as these are), have an additional perspective to what is usually encountered. They seem to have been composed out of a love of past musics, but also, perhaps, out of a regret that its overpowering certainties and its ubiquity must be challenged in order to recapture a small piece of territory for the music of our time to occupy. In the right hands, computer music, because of its ability to remould and recontextualize existing, widely recognisable sounds, is especially well suited to sustain the challenge.

Two more characteristics caught the jury's ear: concision and humour. Anyone familiar with the world of computer music will instantly recognise that these are rare jewels, much to be treasured when encountered. So "Bravo!" to Ambrose Field, Annie Gosfield and Mark Wingate for digging successfully in these potentially rich mines.

Finally, one can see that among the entries of "pure" computer music on tape (a category which covered about 85% of the entries this year), some works continue to establish a high quality reference in the genre. The pieces by Patrick Ascione, Christian Calon, Ake Parmerud and John Young clearly demonstrate that there are still some new paths to explore in this field and that, when artists of imagination and skill try to overcome the obviousness prescribed by the tools, their works continue to enlarge the sonic soundscape and artistic perception in general.

Last year's Jury identified four categories from which it hoped an increased number of future submissions would come: works designed for alternative modes of presentation (i.e. non-concert works), works with wider aesthetic range (avoid those clichés!), works by people without institutional affiliations (perhaps operating in a real, unsubsidized marketplace), and works by women. The new Jury paid no conscious attention to these hopes, but independently chose to make awards as though it had. The truth is, however, that the proportion of submissions from these categories was no greater this year than last. The message for next year must be the same: the Jury will seek to reward genuine innovation of means, context and aesthetics alongside manifestations of quality and accomplishment.

Among this year's submissions were a welcome handful which seek to explore the musical potential of the World Wide Web. While the Jury felt that there was no outstanding exemplar on this occasion which would have justified an award, it certainly felt that the Web is now beginning to offer an opportunity to develop entirely new modes of musical creation. One clear difficulty is limitations on bandwidth and the absence of guaranteed quality of network service which impede the use of high-quality audio in the networked environment. So there are two challenges to those considering submitting network "pieces" to the Prix Ars Electronica in the future. Firstly, is it possible to produce an award-winning work within current technical limitations? Secondly, is it possible to push the boundaries and exploit for artistic ends the experimental high-performance networking technologies which are now becoming more widely available?

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