Mutek 2002, Part 1

Panels and Critical Discourse

by Randolph Jordan Volume 6, Issue 5 / May 2002 32 minutes (7890 words)

Farben

So here I sit, agonizing over what justification I can muster for keeping some recently purchased CDs (of the impulse variety) that I’m not likely to listen to very much. I want to keep them so I don’t feel like I wasted my money, but I know in my heart that they do not have that durability to bring me back to them time and time again (artistic durability that is, not that of the discs themselves, though the latter is also an important issue in the age of the 99 cent CD-R). So, as I pick them up in my hands to put them in my bag and take them over to the CD store to sell, I look at their often spectacular packaging, and it makes me put them down again and reconsider. Do I want them as art objects? Is that valid? Part of me says yes, of course. But then I think of all the CDs whose music I love but whose packaging I could care less about. So why do I keep them? I could just copy them and sell the originals back to the store. Some part of me wants to keep the originals because I like the music contained within, but that music is the one thing I can retain through the wonders of digital technologies. So, if I don’t care about the packaging, then why do I keep them? And then it really starts to bother me that I feel I need to keep the CDs with good packaging even if I don’t like the music. Perhaps it is a problem of categorization. Are CDs really about music anymore? Is the line being blurred between what the art of recorded music actually is? If I considered them as visual art, would I care so much?

Interestingly, my agonies happen to be some of the key issues underlying the 2002 edition of Mutek (Wednesday May 29th – Sunday June 2nd, 2002), issues addressed at the four panel discussions that were new to the festival this time out. All four panels presented infinite routes for discussion of contemporary music, and they will make a good place to start my look at this year’s festival. Rest assured, however, that I will (eventually) get around to discussing the actual shows presented at Mutek. Those interested in the Mutek_Vision film series, also new to the festival this year, can take heart as well; I spend a significant amount of time on that series at the end of this report’s second part. Now, on with the panels.

Presented in the screening room of Montreal’s Goethe Institute, one of the main concerns in all four panels was the idea of categorization in the face of seemingly endless new genres and subgenres proliferating in new music. The difficulty in categorization is greatly enhanced when the practitioners of this music operate under multiple monikers, as nearly every act at Mutek this year illustrates. Unless a specialty store has its act together, good luck figuring out where to find all but the one solo album that bass guru and producer extraordinaire Bill Laswell has released under his own name. Laswell didn’t appear at Mutek, but his case is a good one. I am, of course, greatly anticipating his appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival with Zakir Hussein under the guise of Table Beat Science, but that’s another story.

Panel 1, featuring the representatives of various government funding agencies that support music production in Canada, emphasized the difficulty in setting up a bureaucratic grant-giving system that can accommodate such a rapidly changing musical landscape. “You can only fractionalize things so much,” someone said; “the system needs genres.” The most traditional of the organizations represented here was SPACQ, a division of Musicaction dedicated to supporting “author/composers.” Francine Bertrand Venne stated quite clearly that her organization is geared around the 3 minute vocal-based song, and that the kind of music Mutek deals with would not stand much of a chance at finding representation with SPAQ. “I understand that your music lasts longer than three minutes,” she explains, “but I wondered if you couldn’t cut some pieces down so they could get some airtime on the radio?” Everybody chuckles. SPAQ clearly illustrates some of the changes happening in our understanding of what music is in the computer age. What is a composition, for instance? Something that exists on paper? An author? Someone who writes something? In film studies we don’t have as much of a problem considering the idea of authorship in terms other than putting pen to paper (though we have a whole host of other problems with that word in the context of the intense collaboration that cinema usually is). We do, however, have a history of verbocentrism in the cinema that seems equally present in all music save for certain strains of classical.

Some of the other agencies represented in Panel 1 are more amenable to the world of computer-based music. Though the need for genres in the system exists, it was stated that applications for funding can be tailored beyond the rigid guidelines set out on paper. Heather Ostertag, of the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Record (FACTOR), made it clear that they are novices in the new and ever expanding field of electronic music. She suggested that it is up to the applicants to make their case within their proposal, and even to make personal contact with the FACTOR office so that when their application is reviewed it is not just tossed aside because it doesn’t appear to conform with their guidelines. She also suggested that applications can be tailored according to how the applicants might want their work judged. If an artist is making experimental electronic music but wants to be judged by people in the pop field, then they should indicate pop on the application so a pop jury will listen to it.

Richard Davis, program officer for the music section of the Canada Council for the Arts, explained that his organization has had trouble in the past trying to recognize electronic music as music. This harks back to the tired debate over where to draw the line between noise and music, a debate that should have ended with John Cage’s arrival on the scene (and which should have died a second death with the emergence of Brian Eno). But alas, even this very report will engage in perpetuating discussions of noise Vs music, so I’m as guilty as the next person in flogging the dead horse. According to Davis, many applications would come through the music section of Canada Council and the jury would listen, argue over whether or not it was music, and then decide it was too iffy and send it over to the Media Arts section. Meanwhile, Francine Bertrand Venne pours a tall glass of Perrier for herself and Claire Mason, head of performing arts for the promotional division of the Arts and Cultural Industries section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (the government’s dependence upon categorization becomes clearer in light of that title). The glasses happens to be right in front of their microphones, and the sparkling sound fizzles throughout the auditorium evoking charmed laughter all over. This was music to my ears, but don’t expect to get a grant from the music section of the Canada Council with a recorded facsimile thereof.

It seems that the Media Arts section of the Canada Council is the place for the Mutek-minded to find their funding. Marilyn Burgess, program officer, was closest to the scene and seemed to be the only one on the panel who had ever created anything other than a sandwich or perhaps some tension at the family dinner table. She was still in the categorization frame of mind, but had just finished a year-long study that allowed her to create a variety of new and more relevant categories of music for the Media Arts application process, including “micro-house,” “glitch-hop,” “turntableism,” among others. The Media Arts section also caters to interdisciplinary projects, and as such is less concerned with medium-based categories such as music or film. Media Arts also has the only specifically digital section in its mandate, and as such is the prime funding body for art created with new technology. Panel 2 was dedicated specifically to the Canada Council with the Media Arts section generating the most interest. Basically, from what I gathered, anything at all dubious in categorization is sent to Media Arts. Much emphasis was placed on the importance of the use of technology for Media Arts projects, and that if technology is the guiding principal behind your work (instead of, say, composition) then Media Arts is the place for you. They even offer grants specifically for artists collaborating with scientists or engineers. With the shift now to audio/visual computer-based works which we are seeing more of at festivals like Mutek and the Festival Nouveau Cinéma Nouveau Média de Montreal (FCMM), it looks like Media Arts is going to have its hands full. But the system does work, to a certain extent. My brother’s Multimedia Collage Artist Collective known as NomIg received a grant from Media Arts to help with their travel expenses to Spain and Greece to play some big festivals there.

On the interdisciplinary side of things, Richard Davis mentioned that Telefilm Canada also operates a music fund that people can apply to. One attendee asked in a frustrated tone why a film organization is administering a music fund. For an audience bent on dissolving all this bureaucratic categorization and red tape, this question struck me as coming from a similar mentality as that possessed by the bureaucrats. I see no problem with a film organization getting involved with music, since film is the most interdisciplinary of arts. Not to mention that the kind of music being produced on computers these days is much more akin to the processes of post-production filmmaking than it is to traditional Western notions of music making. Davis’ answer was, simply, that Telefilm is an umbrella organization with many divisions not specifically related to film. I could have used that umbrella on my way to Panel 4 on Friday, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The general feeling at Panels 1 and 2 was that the government representatives were acutely aware of how square they were in the face of so much hipness gathered in a single locale. They made every attempt to be as reflexive as possible about this awareness and to let us all know that new artists are the future and only we can unstuff the shirts in the big office towers.

The fuss over categorization continued on Thursday with Panel 3: Catching Eyeballs, Catching Ears: The Challenges of Promoting Electronic Music. This time, however, the panel was part of the in-scene, and the profanity level increased proportionally (both behind and in front of the round table). This panel was headed-up by freelance Wire contributor Philip Sherburne who also delivered a DJ set on Saturday afternoon at the Société de Arts Technologiques (SAT), and included music writer Mathew from the Montreal Mirror, Patti Schmidt from CBC’s Brave New Waves program (which will be broadcasting several Mutek performances throughout the year), Force Inc. label owner Jon (celebrating the debut release of Montreal-based Akufen who is deemed to be the highlight of the festival), a Mexican concert promoter (whom I saw enjoying himself thoroughly at every event I attended thereafter) and some other freelance writer guy (they didn’t have a handy info-sheet for this panel like they did for yesterday’s). This panel addressed some issues surrounding how to promote the kind of music Mutek deals with in light of increasingly fragmented markets, categories etc. Having journalists on the panel, the question of how to write about such music also came up, a question that obviously interests me a great deal.

Philip asked Jon right off if he felt that it was important, from a promotional standpoint, to try and personalize the faceless electronic musician. Jon felt that personalization was necessary, and explained that he encourages his artists to do interviews and tours to put a personal vibe to the name as much as possible. With the biases towards computer-based music as being a technological and mechanical product with little human intervention, this approach seems warranted. Philip added that, from a writer’s standpoint, it is often easier to write about music from the point of view of its creator, as much of this new music is unapproachable and hard for readers to get a handle on. The other writer guy agreed. He suggested that, with the technological component in electronic music, geek speak could dominate this music’s press coverage. But this will only fly for certain niche readerships. The rest of the world wants to know the story behind the gear. He then provided the following demonstration. “How many people in the room use a computer to create their art?” A whole bunch of us put up our hands. “How many of you have cats?” Many of us put up our hands. “Dogs?” Far fewer (my hand stayed down – slobbering mutts…). “So, far more computer-based artists have cats than dogs. There’s an interesting story there.” Point taken.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that back-stories and personalities are the answer to writing about technologically oriented art. I’ve never been overly interested in artist personalities. I’d often rather be left to make up my own mind about a piece of art, and have frequently been turned off when I’ve heard the creator speak. And when I do want to hear from an artist, I’m most interested in their processes, techniques, and whatever technical information they might want to provide. This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate a good interview, though. So much has to do with the quality of the interviewer, a point that was well expressed by Patti Schmidt. Jon mentioned that so many artists seem to be inarticulate, which makes it difficult to promote them through the interview circuit. Schmidt countered by saying that, in her experience, only about 25% of the artists she has interviewed seem genuinely incapable of expressing themselves coherently. You just have to know how to extract the goods from various different personalities.

Is there a way to talk about this music without appealing only to geeks, but without deflecting attention away from the music onto the personality of the creator? It’s a difficult issue to be sure. One of the reasons I enjoy writing about computer-based music is because so much of it is concept driven – there is something I can latch onto besides the intangible qualities of transcendence that the best music makes me feel. I have an interest in the philosophical tradition of reductive materialism, whereby it is believed that one to one relationships can be made between the physical processes found within our brains and all our

experiences as human beings. I am not sure, however, that human beings, as we exist now, will ever be able to uncover those connections; our understanding of what it means to be human is really only just beginning. I find that much of the music that uses computer technology in its creation is about exploring the technology and, by extension, ourselves. Machines are often created as extensions of ourselves, and as such they can teach us much about our own nature. But this can be said about all music. So what is so special about computer-based music that allows more concepts to latch onto? Perhaps this is ultimately part of the problem. Electronic music is often branded as geek music because of the intellectual distanciation that the use of the computer implies. Yet all music uses technology of one sort or another in its creation. Even our bodies can be seen as technology, instruments capable of creating a vast array of noises that our brains can organize into sound that we can accept as music. So the categorization of music based on how we make it and how we talk about it might be totally arbitrary, the consequence of a bias towards what we usually think of as technology and the intended uses of this technology.

Mathew from the Mirror suggested that he doesn’t like to categorize things according to genres. His approach is to label things according to where you are going to listen to it. “Is it club music? Car music?” I find this system to be no less problematic than any other kind of labeling. However, it does bring up a very important area of consideration with regards to Mutek. With three venues this year, I have heard much quibbling over the kinds of music that people would prefer to hear in specific venues. I offer the following anecdote as an example.

I attended an event in the Micro-Mutek series (that takes place at various times throughout the year) featuring Komet, Bytone, and Noto. I am a great fan of the acoustics in the Salle Fellini at the Ex-Centris Media Center, one of the main Mutek venues. Usually a screening room, for Mutek they clear the seats out and transform it into a performance space. The acoustics are superb and although they sell beer and allow smoking, the environment is decidedly not that of the usual club fare we music lovers have to put up with when checking out our favourite acts. However, due to the nature of the work produced by many of today’s electro-experimentalists, the audience’s desire to pay close attention to the music is inevitably accompanied by a desire to sit. So, we pack ourselves into the room and sit on the hard floor, our necks craning upwards towards the stage (not that shaven heads half obscured by Powerbooks could be accurately described as eye candy, but that issue will be dealt with a bit later). Not very comfortable, but I really hate standing for long stretches. So I put up with my feet falling asleep and my knees aching as I try to enjoy the show from a cross-legged position, all the while thinking that I should make good on my intention to get into yoga.

Towards the end of the evening an interesting social development emerged. Byetone was on, and he had a visual component to the performance. As we all sat and watched, in walks this raveoid white bread salon dressed dread-head with three hipster cronies and stands right in the middle of the room, blocking a wide range of view for those behind. Over the course of ten minutes, at least five separate people tugged on his baggy leg coverings and asked him to please sit, which two of his friends then did. A few light scraps of garbage were even tossed in his direction, but The Man himself just kept shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head, pleading there’s nothing he could do. They took the seats out for a reason, he insists. Finally, one guy next to him reaches up to give him a tap, and the righteous upright grabs his hand and hollers something. So the plaintiff grabs the guy by the neck, pulls his head down and a verbal exchange takes place. The Dude wrenches himself free, and carries on with his defiant stance, whereupon the other guy gets up and storms out of the room.

And so a concrete example of the divided nature of contemporary electronic music is presented to the Mutek audience. As suggested in the liner notes to the New Forms compilation double-CD, “No other form of creative expression has undergone such radical changes in the past decade as has pop music,” whereby the creation of new forms of music within the context of pop yields a clash between worlds. The notes refer to this worldly collision as a black hole, and it is within this black hole that standardized reception styles based on preconceived understandings of musical genre need to be reassessed. Hence the conflicts of rave Vs gallery, beats vs ambience, and yes, standing vs sitting. Interesting to note that Noto (aka Carsten Nicolai) is famous for pioneering the blur between club space and gallery space, most notably through his 1998 installation bausatz noto. The work consisted of four Technics MK II turntables (the DJ standard) placed in a row on a table within an empty room. As Martin Pesch notes, “the photo of his installation has since repeatedly been reproduced whenever an attempt was made to prove that the borderline between club and gallery, between DJ culture and the visual arts, had ceased to exist”(1). Clearly the debate as to whether or not the border remains still carries on, and perhaps Noto might better have been presented at Mutek’s own attempt at the merging of club and gallery spaces: the SAT.

Flash forward to the second night of Mutek 2001. The assembled crowd in Salle Fellini are actually instructed by festival officials to stand up, as the sound space was apparently designed to be best appreciated that way. And whaddya know, the sound is much better while standing. I’m willing to surrender to the truth, but buddy didn’t have to be such an asshole lo those many weeks ago.

Mathew Herbert (who performed as Radio Boy on Friday night of this year’s festival) cautions against what can happen when music is not presented in its proper venue. During Panel 4 he mentioned a show he did with various other rousing electronic acts at the Royal Festival Hal l, London’s premiere sit-down concert venue. Everyone sat very politely until near the end when a veritable riot broke out, complete with one person diving off the balcony. Herbert figured there was too much unreleased tension built up over the course of the evening. As good as the venue is for sound, perhaps the music might have been better presented at a more danceable location. Or perhaps it all went downhill when he started tossing Big-Macs into the crowd. More on that later…

Radio Boy

Towards the end of the Panel 3, the question of fragmenting markets came up, and internet distribution was addressed. For some, the idea of file sharing through Napster-like systems seems like a killer. I’m not going to engage too much in this overworked debate that has some as hot under the collar as any religious or ethical issue you can imagine. However, Patti Schmidt mentioned a point of view that I have known to be true: word of mouth can be as important to an artist’s career as record sales, and file sharing is one of the best ways to get word of mouth going. As I stated at the beginning of this report, I am a music-stealer. I download music and burn CDs on a regular basis. However, I am also an audiophile and a completist, which means that once I get a taste for something, I need it all and in the best possible quality available. I regularly purchase complete albums by artists who I catch a glimpse of on the internet. MP3 compression at anything below 320 kps is barely tolerable for me, as is downloading miscellaneous songs from unknown sources and often mislabeled. I would much rather purchase a packaged product than scour the net for hours on end looking for particular items. I realize that with FTP searching you can get whole albums at much higher levels of quality, and that as bandwidth increases over the years even I will be able to find what I need in satisfactory formats. But if you can add a nice package to the deal, I’ll still go for the hard product over the download. And don’t forget that we’ve got a whole new generation of music junkies who are also vinyl junkies. In the endless sea of white labels and blank dust jackets, knowing what you’re looking for before you enter the record store can be a really good thing. You can’t replace vinyl with any format of downloadable music or digital disc, but you can sure make people want to seek out the latest 12” with a little taste found online. I would like to wager that long after CDs and DVDs have gone the way of the dodo, vinyl will still be around and as cherished as the books that will never be replaced by the computer screen. Vinyl and paper literature may well be the last hopes for the post office…

Panel 4, entitled Innovation or Inundation: Electronic Music at the Crossroads, most clearly addressed the problem of what this music really is. This was the most popular of the panels, and was full before I had the chance to add my name to the list via-email. I got there early hoping for a few no shows to free-up some seats, and the weather was on my side. That morning featured a torrential downpour, and I managed to get into the show.

The round table was headed up once again by Philip Sherburne, along with musicians Mathew Herbert, Chris Sattinger, and Montreal’s own Tim Hecker. Also in attendance were LA media lab operator Not Human, Orthlong Musork label co-owner Sue Costible (who provided visuals for her label showcase the next day), and Mutek founder and programmer Alain Mongeau. Chris Sattinger (who performed under the name Timeblind the following day) opened the discussion by stating clearly that “electronic music” is a useless term. “The recording of a symphony orchestra uses far more electronic equipment than any artist performing at Mutek” he said. Finally somebody managed to get to the point. The whole idea of electronic music being something associated with the Techno dance explosion of the late 80s and 90s is simply a current way of drawing the line between categories we feel the need to impose upon ourselves. Before Techno was even a word, various other forms of new music were equally criticized for their use of electric technology, the most obvious example being, of course, the electric guitar in the world of rock n’ roll. This bias against technology can be traced much farther back as well – the piano has been no saint in corrupting popular notions of what music is supposed to be and how it is to be created. I do not want to get into a history lesson, as there is plenty to deal with in the here and now. Suffice it to say that the issues and debates surrounding what labels we want to slap on various different kinds of sounds is nothing new in the constantly shifting sonic landscape of human experience. And with that I will take Sattinger’s cue and move on from the question of categorizing the music at issue here and take a look at what is actually being showcased at Mutek. This is a festival review after all.

Some people refer to Mutek as the “Powerbook Festival.” Indeed, I can count the number of acts on one hand which didn’t involve the audience staring at the shiny shaved head of the artist eerily aglow with the light of liquid crystal emanating from a little black box sporting a glowing apple dead center. If Mutek had anything to say about it (and believe me, it does), we would have to believe that Macs are the standard in producing music with computers in the 21st century. It does seem as though the Mac is ubiquitous, and Mac users harbour utter disdain for any mention of using PCs in the act of music production. There is a strong belief in the stability of Macs for use in live performance, a belief Alexandre Burton would like to get back after his Mac crashed mid-set on Thursday afternoon at the SAT.

As with all things there are trends, trend-setters, and trend followers. Attending Mutek would make any young aspiring musician believe that a Mac is the only way to go. Well, I use a PC for my computer-based music projects, and I enjoy every minute of it. But don’t ask me. Cut ‘n’ paste legends and Ninjatune founders Matt Black and John Moore (aka Coldcut) use PCs for their live performances and studio work alike. And the software they wrote to facilitate their wok was written expressly for PCs. So why all the Powerbooks at Mutek? One jaded attendee suggested to me that festival programmer Alain Mongeau simply likes the “Powerbook sound” and thus that’s what he schedules for his illustrious event. This may be true, but if Powerbooks weren’t so highly utilized then Mongeau would have far less a selection of cutting edge music creators to fill his line-up. Anyway, I’m not sure that a programmer acting on his or her own tastes is necessarily a bad thing. I too have been guilty in this regard. Back in my days as an undergrad involved in the Film Society at the University of British Columbia I spent two years as programmer for the Wednesday – Thursday slots at the society’s theatre, and I stuck in whatever I felt like seeing on the big screen at the time. Does that mean they were bad films? I don’t think so, but of course I am biased. I do know that someone was more interested in stealing the poster I meticulously hand-crafted for the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me screening than they were in actually paying to see the film, but that’s another story. Programmers can only go so far to try and be objective in what they think will make a good festival, and sometimes one person’s taste can please many. This is most certainly the case with Mutek, so I won’t spend any more time postulating the pros and cons of Mongeau’s curatorial strategies. Besides, in the age of the DJ where people pay big bucks to hear someone essentially programming an evening of their favourite music, the art of the curator is becoming increasingly respected as a legitimate form of production as well as consumption. DJs are respected for the archival side to their craft, and the act of listening and selecting is as important as the way the selections are presented on stage. This is one of the most interesting aspects of DJ culture to my mind, and I like to think that a festival could be viewed as the ultimate DJ set: a string of shows featuring day after day of carefully selected and lovingly presented music from around the world.

The issue of the “Powerbook sound,” however, brings up an enormous array of concepts that need to be considered when discussing the kind of music that Mutek showcases. All four panels touched on this array in interesting ways. In many ways, the music that has been loosely termed “electronic music,” (the Powerbook music that is the subject of Mutek), is music about exploring the nature of sound itself through the possibilities of electronic manipulation. This isn’t new either, of course. Stockhausen’s 1959/60 piece Kontakte set the standard for exploring the relationships between micro and macrostructure in sound. As David W. Bernstein describes, “about 17 minutes into the work…a sweeping electronic sound slows down to a point where timbre is transformed into a series of rhythmic pulses”(2). Computer technology, however, has allowed the exploration of the microcosmos of sound in unprecedented ways. Terms like “microsound,” “micro-house,” “glitch-hop,” and “clicks and cuts” are common in trying to categorize what it is that people do with these powerful playstations. Whether making music to dance to, or more experimental soundscapes to sit quietly on the floor and space-out to (militant standees notwithstanding), most of the Mutek music-makers utilize the idea of tiny portions of sound or the unwanted by-products of digital technology as the basis for their creations. As Macs are very particular about the software they make available for use on their operating systems, many artists are using the same programs to explore these microsonic worlds. So, as Mr. Not Human queried near the beginning of Panel 4, “are we just listening to software?”

If computer-based music is striving for legitimacy, then you’d think the idea of software being recognizable in its sonic characteristics would be a good thing. Most purists never complained that a guitarist’s sound was too much like a particular guitar (a Fender Telecaster or Gibson Les Paul, for example); we expect certain sounds from certain instruments, as much as we expect the individual styles of certain artists to do interesting things with those sounds. So why all the fuss about a piece of computer-based music sounding too much like a certain piece of software? I believe this reaction stems from the notion that pushing a button on a computer and letting a program do its thing is far easier than creating music on a more traditional instrument. The drum machine is a perfect example. Getting a drum machine to play a steady 4/4 beat is literally as easy as pushing a button. For a drummer in a straight-up rock band, keeping a steady beat is one of the most difficult things to master. However, the careful selection and manipulation of samples can be far more difficult and time consuming than making music on a more traditional instrument. As a musician-friend of mine once put it, “I’d much rather play a melody on my guitar than try to construct one out of samples on a computer.”

As with all things in life, it’s what you do with the means at your disposal that counts. As Chris Sattinger suggested, “you can really tell when a human has merged with technology, not just let it do its thing.” He added that, in the future, artificial intelligence programs might start creating their own music, but how expressive might it be? This is a little far out for present purposes, so I won’t go any further into that (except to say that whatever artistic product A.I. does come up with in the future, I hope it’s more expressive than Haley Joe Osmont). As I noted earlier, the use of technology in the creation of music should be about the mutual exploration of self and world that techno/human relationships foster, and it seems that most of this panel agreed with that stance.

However, it also seems that, as computers are still young and computer-based music still younger (though not by much), many artists are getting stuck in the trap of letting software do its thing without too much intervention, and this thing is indeed becoming recognizable. In a review for Cycling ‘74’s MAX MSP software, Micah Stupak explains that upon discovering what this software can do, he also discovered that it was not very hard to sound like much of the work deluging the shelves these days (3). The software’s possibilities are seemingly infinite, allowing the user to design almost any kind of sound processing device that can be imagined. As we Spider-man enthusiasts have been aware of for some time now (and of which we have all been recently reminded), Stupak warns that “with power comes responsibility” (4). He adds, “After playing with Max/MSP, a lot of the glitchy hacked-up stuff out there sounds 80 percent less impressive to me, because I now know it only takes a little effort with this software to do it” (5). Anyone who would like to experience this on a more basic level should plug into Steinberg’s Rebirth software, which emulates two Roland 303s and a 909 and allows the heaviest of trance techno to be produced at the click of a mouse.

As if in response to press like Stupak’s, Cycling ’74 has released a series of CDs showcasing prominent computer-based musicians who work with Max/MSP so that listeners can judge for themselves as to whether or not the software produces generic results. The first seven of these CDs were, of course, available for purchase at the festival CD counter, and include artists such as The Freight Elevator Quartet, interface, Amnon Wolman, Kim Cascone, Testsu Inoue and Carl Stone, William Kleinsasser, and Leslie Stuck. In a well developed marketing maneuver that seemed to respond to some of the issues addressed in Panel 3, Cycling ’74 had courteously made available a free promo CD for this series alongside the CDs themselves. Indeed, if this group of Max/MSP users is any indication of the diverse possibilities of this software, then it seems that at least a few people out there are exercising some responsibility with the power they wield at their fingertips. Not insignificantly, mind you, most of the artists in the Cycling ’74 series utilize other instrumentation in conjunction with Max/MSP, and to great effect.

I picked up the Tetsu Inoue/Carl Stone collaboration pict.soul, as Inoue has been one of my favourite explorers of the microsonic universe for some time. His many collaborations also provide an excellent opportunity to examine his personal contribution to the software he uses, and to see how this contribution merges with that of others. In addition to Carl Stone, some other notable artists Inoue has worked with include Taylor Deupree and Pete Namlook. Inoue’s characteristic ultra hacked-up sampling style can be identified in all three of these pairings. As his signature Fragment Dots (2000) illustrates, he works with split-second snippets of material and layers, twists and bends them into shapes the net effect of which is what I imagine being inside a circuit board might be like: a living, breathing, pulsating world of constantly shifting micro-morsels of electrical glitches evoking an electronic consciousness in the midst of awakening to self-awareness. Indeed, the subject of one of his solo works, Waterloo Terminal (1998), is the inner life of the famed London railway terminal’s electronic switching and timing mechanisms. As Steve Smith describes:

The static and distortion echo the electrons coursing through the metallic arteries that move the trains forward, the radio signals that keep the trains running on time, the packets of data coursing through the silicon chips that regulate the smooth operation of the station. Another grey world, pulsing with a life of its own, different than what we know, but present in everything we create of steel…Here Tetsu Inoue’s uncanny electronics chart the indigenous pulse of the world we have constructed (6).

When paired with other, often more melody-minded musicians, Inoue’s style becomes the free-roaming electro-charged nuances to the exploration of more stable sonic textures that Namlook is famous for, or the equally nuanced yet less fragmented and twitchy soundscapes of Deupree.

Waterloo Terminal is part of the Architettura series of works that explore the relationships between sound and architecture. The first edition of Mutek in 2000 featured an evening with some of the Architettura line-up, notably Taylor Deupree, Panacea, and Savvas Ysatis. Sadly, contributors Tetsu Inoue and David Toop were not in attendance. Despite the lack, however, the Architettura night was, to my mind, the best show Mutek has yet put forth. With its emphasis on sound/space relationships it was also a showcase for one of the most important topics in current musical exploration.

As my anecdote about the debate over proper venues illustrates, the spatial environment in which a sonic event takes place can make a huge difference to the perception of the sound and the space alike. With architecture there comes a conscious design of space that often includes an understanding of sound. Many musicians have worked with architects in the design of sonic environments. Some, such as Stockhausen, have even had the means to build full architectural structures for the performance of specific works. Others with more modest means, such as Pauline Oliveros, have worked with existing (often natural) environments to achieve the same effects. Her Deep Listening concept was solidified as she sat in a cave whose multiple reflective surfaces created a sound space of rich echoic interplay. She describes the experience of performing music composed specifically for that space:

The sound is so well mirrored, so to speak, that it’s hard to tell direct sound from the reflective sound. It puts you in the deep listening space. You’re hearing the past, of sound that you made; you’re continuing it, possibly, so you’re right in the present, and you’re anticipating the future, which is coming at you from the past. So it puts you in the simultaneity of time…(7)

In such an environment, the question of where one thing ends and another begins is turned on its head, and makes for a wonderfful exploration of the idea of being in the moment and exploring the nuances of the interrelationships between original sounds and their echoic reproductions. It seems to me that this is at the heart of much of the music being created with computer-based reproduction technology, so much of which involves the use of acoustic materials sampled and transformed through reproduction. This is certainly the case with the Architettura musicians.

Oliveros’ recent CD/book combo release The Roots of the Moment is a rich exploration of the idea of getting down to the minute details of something’s origination and propagation within the world, and the tensions between stasis and change that result. The CD and book work together present a host of ideas related to Oliveros’ interest in exploring change through sound and the role of space therein. She writes: “As my experience of numerous performance spaces accumulated I began to wish for the possibility of changing the apparent acoustic space while performing. With the advent of signal processors and sophisticated sound systems, it is possible to tamper with the container of music in imaginative ways” (8).Oliveros’ beautifully simple approach brings up a whole host of issues related to the Mutek environment. Not only is much of the music descendent from the academic electro-acoustic form of sound making, involving the technological manipulation of non-electronically produced sonic material, but it is also an extension of the idea that the recording studio is one of the most important instruments in any musical grouping. With the laptop, musicians are literally taking their studios around with them, and performing live studio manipulations that would once have been the strict domain of post-production mixing. With such powerful tools at hand, and a musical mandate largely based on understanding music as soundscapes more than as compositions, the laptop crowd is able to take Oliveros’ desire to manipulate apparent space to great heights.

One of this year’s Mutek participants made a reach for such heights. Zack Settel, who teaches composition at the University of Montreal, is also known for his work in the development of surround sound music tools. On Saturday he played a set featuring his joystick controlled quadrophonic steering system. The music itself was not without interest, taking the idea of a steady beat, and then fragmenting it into a kaleidoscope of shifting sound that spins around the listener until finally settling back down into a solid groove. The effect was good. However, the potential for surround sound music is vast, and still in its infancy despite several decades of technological opportunity. I am consistently disappointed in the tame fashion with which most film uses the tremendous surround sound powers they have access to. Thousands upon thousands of theatres have the technology built right in to provide outstanding sonic experience, and we get not much more than rain falling and birds chirping in the rear speakers with an occasional plane or rocket passing across the sonic plane to wake us up. With the increasing popularity of DVD and home theatres, however, this is changing. Not only is more effort being put into the deliberate use of multichannel sound for films, but audio-only DVDs are beginning to emerge with music specifically designed for surround sound applications. Bjork’s Vespertine (2001) is very well mixed for surround sound DVD. However, anyone wanting a real demonstration of the nuances to which their speaker system can pushed should pick up the Mode Records 2001 release of Morton Subotnick’s quadrophonic and surround sound work entitled Volume 1: Electronic Works. And note that Subotnick’s music was created for the systems of the 60s and 70s as well as the present, clearly illustrating the multichannel potential that has existed for some time.

Zack Settel’s live joystick manipulations bring to mind another key issue surrounding Mutek and other Powerbook showcases: performance. Panels 3 and 4 brought the issue of laptop performance to the fore with perspectives ranging from how difficult it is to promote faceless musicians hiding behind the LCD screen, to the question of whether or not pointing and clicking constitutes the kind of musical performance that can be deemed innovative. Kim Cascone (one of Cycling ‘74’s featured software users) has this to say:

Usually, music performed on a laptop is presented in a traditional proscenium setting, framed in the traditional performer-audience polarity. This context frustrates the audience because they are unable to resolve the setting with a lack of spectacularized gestures (i.e. the lack of theatrical codes) which signify “performance.” Gesture and spectacle disappear into the micro-movements of the laptop performer’s wrists and fingers…Thus, the cultural artifact produced by the laptop musician is deemed a counterfeit, leaving the audience unable to determine a use-value (9).

So we have a similar dilemma to the one I opened this report with: a dilemma of our expectations from certain kinds of art. We expect a certain standard of visual performance when we pay to go see a person present music in a live setting. The notions we have of “live” as it relates to music create an expectation for a performance we can watch. However, if we shift our expectation and come to understand music as being just as live and just as valuable in the absence of a visible performance, then this problem would disappear. This is not unlike the expectation I have for my hard-earned money to be spent on a CD based on the music contained therein, not on the packaging. But if I change my perspective to understand the CD object as something more than just music, as an art object in its own right, then my interest in the packaging becomes justified. As with the categories we place on music, it seems that it all has to do with perspective, not on the actual things we perceive. And with that, let us move now to a look at the various “performances” Mutek 2002 had to offer.

Mutek 2002, Part 2: The Performances

Mutek 2002, Part 3: The Films

Notes:

1- Pesch, Martin. “Transfer and Transformation: Strategies in the Oeuvre of Carsten Nicolai.” Parachute. No. 107. 2002: 89.

2 – Bernstein, David W. Liner notes from Kontakte: For Electronic Sounds, Piano and Percussion. Karlheinz Stockhausen. Recorded live in Toronto, Canada, 1978. Waltham: Forced Exposure, 1997.

3 – Stupak, Micah. “Better Use it to the Max.” Grooves. No. 8. 2002: 64.

4 -Ibid.

5 -Ibid.

6 – Smith, Steve. Liner notes for Waterloo Terminal. Tetsu Inoue. Caipirina Productions, 1998.

7 – Toop, David. Ocean of Sound. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995:249

8 – Oliveros, Pauline. “Acoustic and Virtual Space as a Dynamic Element of Music.” The Roots of the Moment. New York: Drogue Press, 1998: 7.

9 – Cascone, Kim. “Laptop Music: Counterfeiting Aura in the Age of Reproduction.” Parachute. No. 107. 2002:56.

Mutek 2002, Part 1

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. His research lives at the intersection of acoustic ecology, film studies, and critical geography. He is currently Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, and has previously taught film, media literacy, and environmental philosophy at Ryerson University, Champlain College, and LaSalle College. He is completing a monograph for Oxford University Press entitled An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema and is co-editing a collection for Palgrave entitled Sound, Media, Ecology. He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

Volume 6, Issue 5 / May 2002 Festival Reports avant-gardeexperimentalmutekso