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New Movements : Auditory
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Auditory and Visual
Electroacoustic Music and the End of an Avant-garde
by Réjean Beaucage, translated by Timothy Barnard
Electroacoustic is Born
Technological advances have always been at the heart of developments in music, just as they have always been at the heart of developments in all human activity. And each new advance brings in its wake a train of advocates and opponents, devotees and objectors, ancients and moderns. For some time now we've been seeing the increasingly frequent return of musicians to the stage in electroacoustic music concerts - not to move a mouse about, but to play a guitar, a synthesizer, or even drums. Some of the concerts at the Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) in May 20041, or at the MUTEK festival2 in Montreal in June 2004, provide good examples of this. And yet, it was not so long ago that musical instruments were practically banished from electro concerts, as they were considered out of date beside the latest miniature model from Macintosh...
If we discount the preparations leading up to it (which may be viewed as a
gestation period), 3we can say that what was to become electroacoustic music
was born on June 20, 1948. On that day, at 9:00 p.m., Pierre Schaeffer's famous
Concert de bruits ("Concert of Noises") was broadcast
on French radio. Schaeffer was the director of Studio d'essai,
the centre for experimentation in radio at the Radio-Télévision-Française
network. This was the first invisible concert. Not only was there no one on
stage, but...there was no stage! Some people would go so far as to say that
there were no musicians either, which is not untrue, but the fact remains: it
was on this day that musique concrète was born. Much
less abstract than music which exists on paper, musique concrète, which was recorded directly onto a flexible record, could be played backwards,
speeded up, or slowed down. Beginning in 1950 with the arrival of magnetic recording
tape, it could even be cut up and rejoined. Schaeffer soon recruited Pierre
Henry, who had studied music at the conservatory level (piano, percussion, composition,
harmony). These two men made great strides in the development of musique concrète, which soon encountered the German electronic music being produced by the Studio für elektronische Musik at the NWDR
(Nord West Deutsher Darstellungs Ring) in Cologne. From their union,
electroacoustic music was born.
Initially, of course, concerts were rare, the instruments for the most part
being those of a radio studio. But thanks to collaborations with painters, filmmakers,
and choreographers (principally Maurice Béjart), Pierre Henry was able to get
his work heard in settings where the visual still had a role to play. In 1963,
he gave his first concerts in a church - performing, among other works, the
famous Variations pour une porte et un soupir ("Variations
for a Door and a Sigh"). He always gave his concerts the air of ceremonies or
rituals. In 1967, in an interview with a France-Soir
journalist, he commented that, "On November 16...I will do something new in
Bordeaux. I'm going to take all my equipment to the Alhambra, an 1,800-seat
hall with a boxing ring in the centre. I'm going to take out the seats and have
people sit on mattresses. There will be projections of moving images on the
ceiling and during the intermission I want the audience to dance."4 Pierre
Henry's flirtations with pop music, such as his Messe pour le
temps présent ("Mass for the Present Time", 1967), earned him, despite
his protests, the now widely-known nickname of "the grandfather of techno".
Other composers, in order to distance electroacoustic music from other music that used electricity, adopted the term "acousmatic", which describes a sound whose source cannot be identified. The composer François Bayle, who became the director of the Groupe de recherche musicale, or GRM (which took over from the Groupe de recherche de musique concrète founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1951), defined acousmatic music as a music which, "like cinema, is recorded and takes shape in the studio and is projected in a hall". Hence its other, often-heard name: "sound cinema". Naturally, this cinema had no images other than sound images - much like the 1929-30 work Wochende ("Weekend") by Walter Ruttman, which used a film soundtrack to create the first film without images. The acousmatic composers gave concerts using orchestras of loudspeakers, often hidden in shadow and placed all around the audience. These were the first experiments in truly immersive music - an immersion which was only reinforced when the concerts took place in the dark.
From the beginning, then, the baby had two heads: the line growing out of Pierre Schaeffer, which privileged acousmatic music (or art) and was more academic, and the other growing out of Pierre Henry, which did not disdain revealing its sources, and which did not dismiss regular rhythms. This dichotomy was also found in the Montreal scene, where two organizations were eventually born: the Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustique au Québec (ACREQ) in 1978, and Réseaux in 1991. The former group's penchant for various forms of hybrid music provoked the birth of the latter, which was devoted almost exclusively to acousmatic music. In the early 1990s, the arrival of the composer Alain Thibault as head of the ACREQ led the organisation to turn increasingly toward music videos and other more popular expressions of experimentation in electronic art. Today, the organisation's name is almost never heard, having been eclipsed by an a much punchier title, Elektra, which was at first the name of an ACREQ festival.5
Exponential advances in technology have led to the creation of many other events or festivals devoted to electronic music, which is in fact the avant-garde of popular music. And the distance separating this avant-garde from the mainstream seems to shrink more rapidly with each passing day. The MUTEK festival in Montreal, which is celebrating its fifth edition in June 2004, is one of these events. Éric Mattson is a program consultant for the event. I met with him to discuss recent developments in electro music.
Interview with Éric Mattson
Réjean Beaucage: I see that there are several concerts at MUTEK 2004 involving "real musicians" playing "real instruments". This is a new trend in electronic music, isn't it?
Éric Mattson: To tell the truth, I find that the term "electronic music" no longer means much of anything. Unless you use it only to describe a very wide genre, like the term "electroacoustic music", which covers compositions which can be very different, depending on whether you're in France or Quebec, for example. But here too we find ourselves faced with a kind of academic baggage. As for "electronic music", on the other hand, this is truly a catch-all term. I think that the return of musical instruments to the stage is simply the reflection of technological developments. It's clear that most musicians work with laptop computers; until quite recently, they travelled about with much larger computers. More and more interfaces are being manufactured to make it possible for these "laptop musicians" to have something to do onstage, rather than sitting and gazing intently at the screen while they move the mouse about. I've seen Deadbeat in concert, and they no longer work with computers at all, they have other interfaces they use and they are developing new gestures.
RB: This gives the audience something to look at.
EM: Yes, but they're also rediscovering the pleasure of making music on stage. Because laptop music is boring not just for the audience. But today, with two or three people controlling the music and a sound board for setting the sound levels, and all that connected to a laptop with more software than two or three computers could hold just a few years ago, musicians can enjoy themselves and transmit this enjoyment. Some techno musicians come from the world of rock, and played guitar before discovering laptop computers. Often, today, they are getting their guitars back out, because it is possible to integrate them with the computer.
RB: Fashion may be at work here, because at a certain moment, everyone wanted to play a laptop.
EM: No, I think that it's simply a normal development. We're no longer in techno's early days, when people went to raves - to dance, of course, but also to listen to and discover new music. Because these new forms of music, as festive as they were, were the work of composers and serious people. This music was addressed as much to the head as to the body. But technology changed, and interfaces and software became more user-friendly. At the same time, there was a paradigm shift among audiences, which are not the same as they were in the early years. Then, people went to raves to react to the music, and certainly not to see a concert, unless it was the spectacle they themselves put on. Now, we've returned to the stage and to an environment that might recall the rock concert, with lighting effects, smoke machines, etc. I think that people want to return to this. Or, you see musicians working with visual artists to create a complete concept. Like in the upcoming MUTEK, where we'll see Schneider TM, Ilpo Väisänen, and KPT Michigan, who all work with the same visual artist, phiLipp geist. Or someone like Plastikman, who thanks to the new tools available can control everything that happens onstage, like a true multimedia orchestra conductor. And then there are the newcomers, who simply arrive onto this new scene and adopt its codes.
RB: When someone wanted to make music in the 1960s and 1970s, they got their hands on a guitar. That was the normal thing to do. Today, you get a laptop.
EM: Yes. Their basic idea is to "put on a concert", not to "make electronic music". Electronic music is one kind of music you can create when you want to get on stage. A musician like Donna Summer (Jason Forrest) puts on a real show - you have to see him jumping about to music he prepared in advance with sequencers, and to which he lip syncs. Jamie Lidell is also a true performer, he's the master of white funk. And then there's Burnt Friedman, who performs with Jaki Liebezeit, the legendary drummer with the group Can. He plays real drums, not electronic percussion. Or Aeroc, with Geoff White and Ben Kamen, who use guitars (like Schneider TM, who makes out-and-out pop music). But everywhere, there is electronic music, just as there is in heavy metal and contemporary music.
Indeed, for some time now it has no longer been enough to use "electronic" instruments to pass yourself off as avant-garde. Stockhausen's electronic music from the early 1950s has become part of the landscape, as have Pierre Schaeffer's record players. In the 2003 edition of the Montréal/Nouvelles Musiques festival, which is devoted to contemporary music, sixty-one per cent of the concerts used electronic music in one form or another. The Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, another contemporary music ensemble, regularly collaborates with Réseaux to present "mixed music" events combining live instruments with live sound manipulation, tape, or any other type of support, including electronic. In sum we can say that, at the beginning of the 21st century, new technology is perhaps not all that new. If one hopes to be original, it is no longer enough to use sophisticated equipment, because this equipment is available everywhere and used by everyone. In order to be original, musicians must have ideas. Once they have the tools, that is always the last step.
After earning a B.A. in Études littéraires at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Réjean Beaucage turned simultaneously towards music and radio - as a self-taught drummer, and as a researcher, producer, director, and on-air personality at CIBL FM (where he worked from 1985-2002). He then moved into print journalism, contributing regularly since 2001 to the Montreal weekly newspaper Voir. Since 2003 he has also been the deputy editor-in-chief of the monthly Canadian magazine La Scena Musicale. He has contributed regularly to Circuit, and his byline is also sometimes found in Possible/s/, Improjazz (France), and Elle-Québec.
1. Among the many people performing at FIMAV 2004 are: The alto saxophonist
Charlotte Hug, playing with the electroacoustic musician Chantal Laplante. The
clarinetist Lori Freedman, playing with Kafe Matthews on sampler. Tim Hecker
playing his computer alongside the guitars of Fly Pan Am. And Christian Fennesz
on computer with Oren Ambarchi and Keith Row on guitar. See: www.fimav.qc.ca
2. See: www.mutek.ca
3. The first musical instrument to use electricity, Elisha Grey's musical telegraph, dates from 1876.
4. Quoted in: Michel Chion, Pierre Henry, Paris: Fayard/Sacem, 1980.
5. See: www.elektrafestival.ca