Linz Report: A View into the World of Digital Music at Ars Electronica 2006by Sergei Tcherepnin
In an age bored by concert halls, swamped with CDs, and constantly bombarded by noise, there comes a need for a critical rethinking of how to present music so that the audience is actively involved in the sound. This can be done in a variety of ways: the composer may create physical and immersive sound environments, add visual stimuli such as film or video, give historical context, involve the audience in the creative act—in this way, the possibilities continue to seed.
Ars Electronica, a festival for art, technology and society, addresses these issues over the course of six days, during which lectures, workshops and projects are presented in venues spread throughout the city of Linz (which saw over 36,000 visitors for this year’s festival) in the fields of Computer Animation, Digital Music, Interactive Art, Net Vision, and Digital Communities. This year’s theme, “Simplicity: The Art of Complexity,” emphasized the need to go back to our roots in spirit while maintaining a thorough knowledge of technology and all its advantages as a creative tool. In the Digital Music category, this was explored by way of presenting work that was not only about the musical material, but just as much about the compositional process and the presentation of the sound. Those lucky enough to stay in Linz for the entire festival were able, each day, to experience wildly different musical performances in various venues across the city.
Day 1: Harbor resonance
The concept behind this evening of DJ/VJ sets and electro-acoustic music was that the port of Linz act as the “concert hall,” accentuating the industrial nature of the music and making use of the water’s ability to reflect sound. The audience had the option of enjoying the show from a long two-story anchored barge (the basement of which was radiating high-strung techno) or from a large vacant lot which faced a projection screen mounted on a four-story-high storage unit bearing the logo “Mediterranean Shipping Co.” On either side was a two-story-high balcony, lined with television monitors that shielded a performance area where the DJs and VJs mixed. On the train tracks, which divided the two performance/audience spaces, were two spotlights that were customed for Ars Electronica and moved like robots in synch with each other, at times highlighting the trees in the background and the imposing construction cranes. DJ Mao opened, playing dark industrial beats and repetitive melodic phrases that fit the atmosphere.
As this opening act proceeded, most of the audience continued to socialize and wait for food. I wandered off to the back parking lot to explore the surrounding area, where I came across a small crowd hovering around two men making industrial music with laptops out of the back of their car. The duo, “Metalycee,” creates their music from samples of digitally altered guitar, drums, and other types of metal. By performing in this context, they were borrowing an idea from their group of another name, Thilges, who make guerilla performances in public spaces in order to provoke new modes of thought by questioning our regular habits and conventions. These seemingly spontaneous shows are actually well planned acts of “Poetic Terrorism” which, in the words of Hakim Bey, “is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets & no walls.”
The feature presentation of “Harbor Resonance” came from Matmos, who received an honorable mention for their album, “The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast,” a tribute album containing biographical sketches, often of their favorite people in history ranging from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to pornographer Boyd Macdonald. They labored long and hard to accumulate audio material for this tribute, making recordings of snails playing the Theremin, cows chewing, men making love (appropriated from classic porn movies from the ’70s) among other sounds. This set was at its peek when Zeena Parkins, guest performer on their Europe tour, awed the audience to silence with what appeared to be a dry ice solo. The ice screamed out into the night as she pressed hot metal against it with varying degrees of pressure. Parkins also captivated the audience as she worked herself into a trance while sensually stroking the harp—quite a contrast to the dynamic clicks of teeth (for Wittgenstein) and the popping of adding machines (for William S. Burroughs).
Day 2: O.K. Centrum
Two of the award-winning artists in Digital Music this year presented their work in the form of an installation at the O.K. Center for Contemporary Art. Kaffe Matthews from the UK presented her Sonic Bed, which is part of a worldwide initiative called “music for bodies.” As I entered the coffin-like bed, the sound came to life and enveloped my entire body. I lay there with my eyes closed letting the sound pass around and through me—low frequencies massaging my calves, high frequencies passing through my head, in one ear and out the other. Every time I came back to the bed (I visited three times) the piece sounded and felt different. While this distinction occurs in part because the composition of the piece makes use of several folders of organized sound chosen at random by a computer, it also has to do with the way that the physical and the psychoacoustic elements work together.
Staalplaat Soundsystem, a duo German-Dutch duo, won an honorable mention with their “Mono Erosive Surround Sound Installation” entitled “Yokomono.” Inside the dark room are toy trains on two tracks moving around the floor and four light boxes containing remote control cars circling round and round. The walls of the room are covered with cheap-looking boom boxes that emit various degrees of noise, creating a multi-dimensional soundscape. The cars are spinning atop records; these “vinyl killers” are equipped with wireless FM transmitters that send their signal to the radios on the wall, each tuned to the special Yokomono frequency. They quite literally create a wall of sound, which envelops the listener and, combined with the glowing cars and dark trains, transport the audience. I should also note that they made a special late-night performance in the top floor of O.K. Centrum which entailed the two of them facing each other across a long table with ten of these spinning “vinyl killers.” They played their “instruments” with exacto knives and torches, gradually morphing the rhythm and noise by blemishing and occasionally flipping the records.
Day 3: Going to the Country
At the Baroque Monastery St. Florian we were given the full range of contradictions that hit at the essence of the festival’s theme. From 10 A.M. until 11 P.M. there were concerts, installations, and lectures involving a wide array of topics—from a tour through the Bruckner organ to a workshop in how to build electronic instruments. The day began and ended with a concert in the church featuring music written for organ and electronics, much of which seemed contrived due to poor integration of the two elements. Instead of fusing ancient technology with new technology so as to create a transcendent space, the two mixed like oil and water. Christian Fennesz’s performance was an exception to this trend as he created swirling, surprising textures using prerecorded and manipulated organ with live electronics.
The highlight of the day came at sunset when everyone gathered in the meditation garden to experience Michael Nyman’s composition for the Augustinian Monastery’s tuned set of eight bells. After an ironically stressful day of running from place to place trying to decide which event to attend, it was a relief to be able to sit in one place and at last breathe in the tranquil Baroque atmosphere. Over the course of nearly one hour Nyman managed to consistently find new and mysterious harmonies as unexpected overtones drifted in and out of the slowly evolving sound.
Day 4: Some Sound and Some Fury
The theme of old and new was again explored during this marathon of music and video, this time in less obvious and consequently more powerful ways. To open the concert, Ludwig Brummer created a synesthetic masterpiece for piano, electronics and video. Using a combination of composed music for piano, prepared electronic sounds, and real-time manipulation of the piano, he built complex textures using many layers of echoes which exploded into dreamlike soundscapes derived from recordings of the notorious Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo—no wonder there was such a dark energy surrounding this mysterious piece. The visual component for which he developed special software reinforced the structure of the music subtly yet effectively, the most noteworthy moments being when the dreamlike sound was combined with shimmering ethereal turquoise textures.
Another very powerful performance was that of the young Japanese noise artist Ryoichi Kurakawa, who also developed both the visual and the audio components simultaneously, creating a precise and dynamic composition. There were thunderous Merzbow-like moments interspersed with much more sparse use of sound reminiscent of Ryuchi Ikeda, woven together with broken loops. The sound was very tightly synchronized with the imagery, which consisted of flickering textures contained neatly within the confines of virtual windows.
Although Philippe Manoury’s “The Sound and the Fury” is for a grand orchestra and does not contain any electronics in the music, digital media is integral to his compositional process. A longtime researcher at IRCAM in Paris and collaborator with MAX programmer Miller Puckette, Manoury has always been concerned with developing music that seamlessly combines electronics and acoustic instruments. In this “computer assisted composition” Manoury focuses on creating left-right spatial effects with the hopes of building a more complete sound environment. The overall effect is subtle, especially in contrast to the vastness of the piece, which is reminiscent of Messiaen in its dramatic and lugubrious character. To accompany the orchestra, “1NOUT,” a video and interactive art collective, created a visual interpretation that featured a lurking creature that was constructed out of the same texture and colors as its surroundings, creating a subtle three-dimensional effect. This video component focused the music by constructing a narrative that incited the audience’s imagination without directing it.
To finish the evening, San Francisco based audio instigator Naut Humon challenged Berlin’s Ulrich Maiss to a “duel” (laptop vs. electric cello) in order to “sort out” an “auditory misunderstanding” regarding Maiss’ “CelloMachine” project in which he had sought to recreate Lou Reed’s noise composition “Metal Machine Music.” Smoke seemed to fill the room as Humon laid the groundwork for this unlikely encounter. The simply constructed computer-generated drone grew quickly into an undulating texture over which Maiss softly highlighted certain pitches, easing the audience into the sound, the atmosphere of an imminent storm. After this long opening, the flood of noise appeared suddenly as Maiss burst into a violent tremolo—an attempt to match the tremendous volume of the swarming drones. The sound became a living entity as I even thought I heard the audience screaming. In creating such an inviting atmosphere with pleasant though at times dissonant harmonies, the duo was able to introduce noise in an emotionally charged and meaningful way.
Day 5: Digital Music Concert
California’s Joe Colley captivated the audience this evening with a sound projection of his composition, “psychic stress soundtracks,” which received an Award of Distinction in Digital Music. In the creation of his compositions, Colley scrounges for sounds, using a combination of digital and analogue sources, assembling found material with his own recordings. In this piece, he built complex drones using mis-tuned octaves rich with harmonics, creating an odd space in the concert hall and in the listener’s head. These drones broke as fast as they appeared, giving way to swarms of frantic insects and crumpling paper. I was truly frightened when these textures in which I would lose myself were violently ripped apart. He sat bathed in red light on a large stage, complementing the paranoid nature of the music.
Right after Colley’s performance was the sound projection of a piece by his childhood idol, Eliane Radigue, winner of this year’s Golden Nica with her composition, “L’isle re-sonante.” For the concert she composed a new work, “676,” which was actually a retrospective of her music consisting of seven older pieces. Radigue fit well into this year’s theme, as her music consists of deceptively simple drones that evolve slowly over long periods of time, much like the view of a single landscape moving through different times of year. She also uses “primitive” technology: the Arp 2500 to which she has been “married” to for over thirty years. Her deep respect and commitment to this vintage analogue synthesizer has caused her to develop a special sensitivity to the richness and warmth of its sounds.
Day 6: Visualizing Stravinsky
Perhaps the most sophisticated and successful attempts at rendering music visible came at the end of the festival in the form of a rehearsal for a performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” performed by the Bruckner Orchestra with dancer Julia Mach. Claus Obermeyer and Ars Electronica Futurlab have developed a visual system that combines a live dancer with a preset digital scene to create a more complete three-dimensional synesthetic experience. As the dancer moves, her image is filmed, fed through a computer and then projected onto a large screen together with the computer-generated set. She is essentially “painting” with her body as she dances in front of a white scrim off to the side. Her movements are minimal and poignant, resembling a Butoh performance, without the facial expressions. As she contorts her near motionless body ever so slightly, she sets off a wide range of stunning effects on the projection screen. I was happy to hear that the next stage of this project is to collaborate with a living composer who they will commission to write a new work in 2009—hopefully an indication that there will be more projects of this sort in the future.
Sergei Tcherepnin is a composer/performer of new music currently based in Brooklyn.