Is Electroacoustic Music in Canada an exception or a model?
By Daniel Teruggi, Director of Research and Director of GRM at the INA (National Audiovisual Institute in France)
In the short and intense history of electroacoustic music, the intriguing fact is: Why did this new approach to music creation in which technology had a leading function, succeed strongly in certain countries and had little impact or during a short period of time in others.
To understand better the way the practice of electroacoustic music expanded after the first experiences in Paris, with Musique concrète, and in Köln, with elektronische Musik, it is important to describe the context and the way this expansion took place (the term “electroacoustic” is used here as a generic work, concerning all experiences of musical creation using electric, electronic or digital technology).
The common aspect of the pioneer initiatives in Paris and Köln, were that they took place in National Radio institutions where the necessary technology was available and where complicity existed between technicians and composers. We must remember that sound recording or sound synthesis needed very expensive equipment that was rarely available outside broadcast institutions. This broadcast model expanded to other countries, in which National Radios became interested in this activity and, once again, one or several musicians and technicians made experiments to try the possibilities of this new way of thinking and making music. The fact that Pierre Schaeffer held a great number of conferences and presentations in several European countries helped to develop interest, or at least curiosity, for electroacoustic music.
Another interesting fact was that strong actors in the broadcast Industry, as Siemens, Telefunken or Philips, also became interested and installed studios or facilities in their premises to study this new application of their technology.
However, Electroacoustic music in the fifties was a pioneering activity and even if the interest that musicians had for it was very large, the impact on the public and the medias was much smaller; so after this first expansion period there was a steady disinterest by Broadcast authorities on this activity and only few studios managed to survive and progress during the sixties and seventies.
Technological and institutional context
At the end of the fifties, two major technological evolutions modified the location and practice (as well as the results) of the electroacoustic activity. The first great evolution was the invention of transistors and the strong reduction in size and prize of equipment. Not only portable radios became popular, but also small tape-recorders and completely new sound generator systems called synthesizers appeared, integrating together all the existing technology for sound generation. This changes modified the production schemes and structures, it was now possible for an individual or a small structure, to acquire equipment that was not only considerably less expensive, but occupied a small amount of space, compared with the huge equipment used in broadcast facilities. Personal studios appeared and electroacoustic practice became more accessible, equipment was still expensive but composers or groups of composers invested in developing small production centers and the association of electroacoustic music with other kinds of artistic activities as dance and theatre somehow made this music better known and more accessible for the public.
The second great evolution was digital sound and digital composition, which started at the end of the fifties and proposed at the beginning of the sixties the first modular software permitting a composer to make music with digital technology. The evolution of computer music is closely related to Max Mathews, who developed the first software, and the Bell Laboratories who financed the first research and experimentation activities; then, it expanded towards universities, which were the only places that had the computer power needed to calculate sounds. Electroacoustic music thus shifted from the analogue world to the digital world and the production from Radio centers towards small and sometimes personal studios, or centers associated to a university calculation unit.
The electronic and electro-mechanical technology continued existing parallel to the development of digital technology. Both technological domains had their adepts and detractors; it is clear that the first digital work were made in a hybrid mode: a computer produced the sounds but some analogue processing was needed afterwards as well as the mixing of the sounds. Analogue made music produced richer sounds and more complex structures at the beginning of the sixties, but digital music, even if in that period sounds were less attractive and musical structures less complex, had a strong perspective of evolution and was extremely precise in parameter control.
Both worlds coexisted for a long time, with technological improvements on both sides, and hundreds of works being produced all around the world. After the sixties, radios became less and less involved with musical production. Most studios disappeared except the GRM Studio in the French Radio; the two other historical studios: Studio di Fonologia Musicale at the RAI in Italy and the Studio für Elektronische Musik at the WDR in Köln, were still active but their production was slowing down and they were getting less support from their institutions. The universities became centers of activity, developing pedagogical and production structures; in Latin countries, pedagogy integrated the Conservatories associated with traditional composition teaching. Electroacoustic technology was being used more and more by composers and considered as a basic aspect of their training.
During the seventies and afterwards, the same organization prevailed: universities and conservatories were in charge of teaching electroacoustic music and managed to have small production units and even organized concerts or festivals; radio structures practically disappeared. A new impulse was given through small structures that start emerging in different countries, with state support, or associated to universities, or as an association of several composers. These structures concentrate on three activities, which are: research on new technologies, creation of original works, and production of concerts or other diffusion activities, sometimes including teaching. This trend strongly continued during the 1980s, were the same structures changed their objectives towards digital technology, now more easily available for small structures. Important centers emerged in this period like the IRCAM in France in 1975 or the ZKM in Karlsruhe in 1989; during the mid-eighties, there existed in France only 25 centers with these characteristics. During the nineties, personal studios became more and more popular, many structures disappeared and only some production and research centers remained. Universities and music teaching centers are still very popular even if a small decline is observed.
The expansion of electroacoustic Music
The purpose here is not to describe the technological challenges of electroacoustic music, but to analyze the reasons of its success and expansion in different countries and particularly in Canada, where it has had a strong success since the first days.
Historically electroacoustic music (with its former denominations) appeared first in France and Germany, however it can be said that it was “in the air”. In many places there was an interest for sound and technology, mainly in the cinema domain where many experimentations had already been done, but also in the instrumental domain with the invention of new machines, and evidently in the radio domain, where radio-drama had become an open place for unusual experiences. This is why the French and German experiences showed the road of what could be done and proposed production and institutional models.
Several components were needed for these actions to succeed:
1) A technological environment and technicians willing to collaborate with composers,
2) composers interested in using technology to make music,
3) some kind of diffusion scheme, concerts, radio programs, or auditions capable of promoting these activities and
4) interesting musical works that would attract public and critics, as well as organizers
The first three components were relatively easy to find within radio structures, what was less easy to start an activity and pursue it with a certain success and to produce interesting works that would somehow justify the investment. In many places these activities were just experimentations to evaluate the interest of this new activity. In the places where it was very successful, it depended on the presence of a strong musical personality that would promote the activity, compose outstanding works and have a strong ambition for the activity. We clearly find these components in the GRM Studios (GRMC at that time ) with Pierre Schaeffer first but shortly afterwards with Pierre Henry, in the RAI with Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono, in WDR with Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as in other places where activity existed for a long period or even still exists.
Within universities the success and continuity depended mainly on the personality of the teacher and his capacity to attract students and to have “successful” students that would be recognized in the musical domain. Universities also brought an important issue on electroacoustic music and this was research in the domain of technology and musical analysis, practice or historical views. This favoured aesthetical discussions and the understanding of the musical domain.
A combined model of the radio and the university model was the development of the electroacoustic centers, where production, diffusion and research were envisaged associated or not with pedagogical issues. These centers thus covered a large span of activities even if they often involve few people, but justified an action towards the community and the society through giving access to production structures to creators, giving to the audience and access to new music and through research and pedagogical actions.
A long-term view
When analyzing the history of electroacoustic music since 1948 to today, all these previous conditions have existed in different places of the world: in some places they lasted only a short period of time, in others they are still active and promote future developments. It is necessary now to analyze more generally the conditions that have permitted such continuity and that open perspectives towards the future.
Five issues underlie this continuity and the success that electroacoustic activity has had in different countries of the world.
They were the central factor in electroacoustic music; in times in which technology was expensive and complex they represented the locations in which the technology could be found. There was not a general definition of what a studio should be, it mainly brought together technology associated to a certain number of well defined functions: Sound-recording, sound processing, sound synthesis, editing, mixing. Other technology would be available for performance: synthesizers and real-time sound processors. Generally the concept of Studio was associated with a production centre since works had to be performed or published.
The concept of studios has changed with time as technology became more popular and accessible; there is no longer the same need for large production structures, which tend to simplify their premises. Many research centers have made their software available in order to offer the possibility to composers to have access to a specific technology. Some centers still develop composition projects associated with a technological research (which was a very strong model in the eighties), however the large diffusion of software and the difficulty to develop new software within the existing operational systems, has given less importance to this association.
The main objective of the studio is to produce quality works that may have an impact in musical thought or be a success in terms of audience. It is difficult to measure the success of these kind of structures; it depends on many factors, as the renown of the structure, if or not it commissions works, the impact of the performances or the quality of the environment. In fact a studio is a point of attraction for composers who, due to all these circumstances, will try to work in a certain studio rather than another.
Under the word “diffusion” are put together all the activities developed to promote the music and the activities of a studio or a production centre. It can range from concerts to installations, radio programs to websites, CD production to DVD’s and books. Probably the most complex issue is concerts, which are an efficient way to promote the notoriety of a Studio, but which are difficult issues for small structures in terms of organization and funding. Another difficulty for concerts is that in many countries they are not popular for electroacoustic music or are restricted to a confidential audience, so that it may happen that in certain places electroacoustic concerts do not exist any more or are reduced to auditions where groups of initiates gather to listen music. This apparent difficulty has permitted other developments in what concerns making public presentations of electroacoustic music, mainly its relation to other forms of art and other presentation modalities.
Radio has also lost its central role in music diffusion, the progressive commercialization of radios or the fact the national radios look very closely to the audience rates has progressively reduced the number of programs in which any kind of experimental or contemporary art is accessible. The new vector is the web, where it is more and more easy to publish contents and information, and that is regularly used by all structures to address their works and activities.
Finally publishing has largely permitted in the past the public to become acquainted with new music, historical collections are references for knowing music of the past and contemporary productions are regularly published. The market for CD’s is also shrinking and again the web is gaining importance among the public as an access to music and ideas.
In the next years, networks of studios and common actions may permit a better visibility on this sector of music, which historically has been in advance regarding other domains and has to prove its capacity to organize and structure so to optimize the diffusion and access to works.
Under transmission are included all the activities related to teaching and developing pedagogy around the concepts of electroacoustic music. During the fifties and the sixties, composers that were willing to work on electroacoustic music, did not have any education on technology, synthesis or sound processing, they only had a traditional musical education and had to learn and incorporate new methods and thoughts to their procedures. With computer music it was even worse, composers had to learn programming languages in order to address simple instructions to computers. Finally, there was no precise knowledge on how to teach composition in a domain in which composers were making their way through new concepts and methods and where no theory existed yet.
However, teachers appeared who possessed the double profile needed to teach technology theory and use as well as musical composition; even if this second aspect was approached in a more intuitive way. Teaching is a very effective way to analyze music and to understand the concepts and trends underlying composition as well as the problems related to structure and form. So teaching was a very important way to start developing concepts and theories as well as a way to diffuse electroacoustic work among the composers.
Today technology is a common trend in musical education and students have to acquire a certain amount of knowledge in their curriculum concerning the use of technology, so new generations have less problems integrating technology into their musical practice.
In any case the role of the “transmitter” is an essential one. These have formed and given orientation to generations of composers, they have often contributed to the development of theory, they have in certain cases transformed their pedagogical environment into production studios as well as diffusion structures to give public access to the students. They have had to battle with continuously changing technology and adapt their pedagogical approach to new circumstances, sometimes difficult to conciliate with the fact of transmitting a knowledge and forming composers for the future.
The continuity of the previous actions depends largely on generation renewal. Generation renewal depends on many factors; some of them have no relation with music but more with economic or political factors. It is important that different generations coexist at the same time; there has been a generation of pioneers who explored the new roads of composition using technology. Then came the younger generation that coexisted with the elder one, learning about there experience and generally launching the first pedagogical actions. Then came the young students that learned and applied the teachings and contributed to the diffusion of music and ideas, bringing new visions on technology and more at ease with its evolution.
Sometimes this renewal has not happened, it is not always easy to pursue an experimental activity, to fight for funding or to make a reputation of a centre or a studio. Funding is an essential issue so to be able to diffuse results and show the community the importance of the work accomplished. Education has proven to be one of the more active fields, but there is little funding to be found in pedagogical structures so to develop a diffusion or communication activity.
It is also real that many pioneers were interested in composing with new media but were less interested in composition itself, so once the first experiences done, the interest for the activity fell and if no other composer was around, the activity just faded out to finally disappear.
Today one may think that there are less problems with generation renewal, since electroacoustic music is well imbedded in education and practice. However the actual menace is dispersion; composers working and living in an isolated context in which little interchange and discussion is done as well as a lack of community feeling. The renewal of generations is also creating links with the past so that the knowledge or experience of the elders is not lost and applied positively towards the future.
The final domain is theorization, as an active thought on what is happening and the development of theories and concepts as well as terminology. When electroacoustic music started all was to be invented: methods, concepts, genres and theories. Even more: electroacoustic music brought new problems to musical thought as the role of sound in music, what makes sounds look musical, the limits of the musical domain or the relation between sound and perception. Nothing existed, only the theories of the past, which were circumscribed to a specific way of conceiving sound and music.
At the same time it was an incredible field to explore for psychology, sociology and philosophy. The fundamentals of music seemed to vacillate and there did not exist a fixed tradition to analyze and understand the behavior of music and musicians. The relations between art and technology also created new fears regarding a certain dehumanization of art.
Little by little writings, conferences and theories started to appear that brought discussion and exchange among the actors of the domain. There was also a need for technical descriptions and manuals that would help teachers and users to approach the domain. It was and still is one of the most active parts of musical thought, with national and international meetings and symposiums taking place every year in different parts of the world. These range from some major historical encounters like the ICMC (International Computer Music Conference, that has been taking place for more than 30 years and is oriented towards the evolution of technology in regards to composition and the more recent EMS conference (Electroacoustic Music Studies), which enhance the understanding and the analysis of Electroacoustic music.
The Canadian model
We can now analyze what has happened in Canada and explain the extraordinary success of electroacoustic music in Canada and its impact in the domain. Canada is undoubtedly one of the leading countries in electroacoustic activity and has always been. Historically the first works started with pioneering researches of Hugh Le Caine in Ottawa, who constructed completely original technology and introduced Electroacoustic music to the National Research Council of Canada. But this activity very quickly spread to the major cities like Toronto, Burnaby, Montréal and Quebec; Montréal being the city that has become in the last twenty years the centre of Canadian activity.
When analyzing the reasons of the success and applying the issues that lead to it, we understand that the five trends were and are extremely important in this country. Studios started to appear since the beginning of the sixties, independent or associated to universities, these later have been the main vectors for the electroacoustic activity in Canada. These Studios have produced outstanding works since the early days and Canadian composers are well known in Europe and regularly present their works in this continent.
Canada has been very busy and active in the diffusion of electroacoustic music; concert series and presentations are regularly done that attract a large audience, acquainted and interested in this kind of music. It has since a long time ago been an important issue for European composers to have their works performed in Canada. Radio has also been very important to diffuse and make electroacoustic music known as well as CD edition; in Canada you may find one of the most important CD collections and one of the major distributors of electroacoustic music.
Pedagogy is one of the most interesting issues, since different schools of thought coexist and propose rich teachings and excellent results; Canada has become an objective for many students all around the world. It is important here to signal the transcendence of the action of Francis Dhomont, a French composer that has taught in Montréal for several decades and has formed successive generations of composers. In the last years Montréal, due to its different Universities and Conservatoires, has become a main centre for teaching as well as for music diffusion, and undoubtedly a main attraction pole for all the community of actors of electroacoustic Music.
Effective teaching and large diffusion of music is the main reason for a continuous generation turnover. From pioneers to young students, several generations coexist, creating rich exchanges, aesthetics, currents and ideas. Generations bring exchange and exchange nurtures thought, it has indeed been effective and positive for the country.
Finally in the domain of ideas and theories, Canada has always been an avant-garde for electroacoustic music: starting with Hugh Le Caine and his incredible synthesizers, Murray Schaffer and his Soundscape theory, Francis Dhomont and his global approach to sound and composition, and more lately Stéphane Roy who works on acousmatic music and analysis; Canada has made major contributions to electroacoustic music theory and promises more developments in the future.
Towards the future
Electroacoustic music is in a permanent change; the fact that technology is an essential element for its existence makes this music technology-dependant to a certain point. Technology does not only mean the fact that new machines and software arrive on the market, it is the fact that its implication within society evolves very quickly and modifies its user paradigms. When in the fifties, composers had to go to national radios and completely unknown environments in order to experiment or compose, technology was seen as an unattainable object that only a happy few could access, and thus elevated the studios to the status of a “temple”.
Today the relation with technology has completely changed, it is not only everywhere in our daily life, but its applications for creation have been multiplied and simplified a hundred times. What will happen when we will be able to compose on our mobile phones? Which unknown tools will simplify the relation between our thought and its sound materialization? One certainty remains: composing music will always be a complex and long task since no protocol exists on how to proceed or what tool may bring a good result. However more and more people have access to creation tools, which may not always bring innovative results in creation. Democratization may make creation banal! Here is where ideas, tradition and works intervene, to give the necessary perspective on what has been done and where it is leading us. It is a formidable challenge that Canada, through its rich history, has contributed to enlarge.
One may conclude that Canada is not an exception but probably the great “model” where all the conditions exist and succeed.
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