Review of the 1994 ICMC

Brad Garton
Columbia University

This short review of the 1994 ICMC proved rather difficult to write.  The
difficulty had nothing to do with the organization of the ICMC (which in
fact was quite wonderful -- Wayne Siegel and his associates are to be
commended for putting together a well-run and interesting conference), nor
did it paradoxically have anything to do with the actual events and
activities that took place at the Conference.  I thoroughly enjoyed many
aspects of the Conference.

There was much music I truly liked, ranging from Barry Truax' latest
granular escapade "Sequence of Later Heaven" (unfortunately plagued by some
speaker distortion during playback) to surprising pieces by Rich Taube
("Gloriette for John Cage", algorithmically generated and realized on a
mechanical pipe-organ) and John Rahn ("Sea of Souls", a beautiful dream-like
piece I think I can characterize best as 'new-agey sublime').  The strength
of the compositional writing in Katharine Norman's "Trilling Wire" for
clarinet and tape overcame my acquired prejudice against 'tape + ...'
pieces, as was the case with Jon Christopher Nelson's "Waves of Refraction"
for guitar and tape.  I had a great time with Larry Austin's "Rompido!" and
I was impressed by the sense of space in Peter Lunden's "Noises", although
the playback of both of these pieces was far too loud.  Any chance I get to
see David Jaffe play the mandolin, as he did with the Athelas Ensemble in
his delightful "Seven Wonders", is worth the price of admission.  We were
also extremely fortunate that George Lewis stepped in as a pinch-hitter for
the missing Giorgio Tedde, delivering an improvisational performance that
was one of the best live/interactive pieces I've experienced.  Two pieces
managed to make me forget I was attending a concert -- Frances White's
slowly-unfolding and stunningly moving "Winter Aconites", and Trevor
Wishart's time-bending "Tongues of Fire".  Both of these pieces took me 'out
of time', leaving me wondering how long I had been immersed in the music
when they finished.  Music capable of doing this is powerful indeed.

The attempt to convey some sense of a portion of the ICMC music in the
capsule summaries I just listed was part of the problem I had in putting
this review together -- it simply can't be done with any degree of fidelity.
To try to cover the broad scope of the technical topics presented at the
ICMC is equally impossible.  As a reviewer, however, it is part of my job to
communicate what I perceive as salient aspects of the ICMC, my impressions
of and feelings about the Conference.  Even beyond the role of reviewer,
this process of codifying, assimilating, describing -- making sense of our
experience -- is what we humans do.  Because of the scattered and diverse
range of activities we now label as "computer music", the digesting of an
ICMC presents major problems for any single individual with a particular
point of view.  I think this indigestion is also beginning to affect the
organization of the Conference itself.  How are we to decide what the ICMC
is/should be?  What direction should future Conference organizers choose?
In making these choices, what are we saying about "computer music"?

There seems to be a number of different dynamics at work among those of us
involved in the ICMC.  If these are not recognized and reconciled, I fear
that the computer music community (to say nothing of the ICMC) risks
becoming fragmented to the point of non-existence.  The most obvious of
these dynamics is the tension inherent in the differing aesthetic viewpoints
represented by the music presented at the Conference.  At the 1994 ICMC, the
aesthetic territory was circumscribed on one side by Ira Mowitz' lush
computer-orchestration in his piece "I Tak Dalej" and by Chris Penrose' wild
sig-processing free-for-all "Manwich" on the other.  Both pieces received
boos (not by me -- I like 'em all!) in addition to applause, which suggests
that this aesthetic tension is keenly felt by at least a few ICMC
participants.  How can "computer music" be defined to accommodate a large
variety of musics?  Should it be?

Another related area of dynamic tension within the ICMC has to do with the
different cultural backgrounds of ICMC attendees.  I was prepared for a bit
of cultural dislocation at the 1993 ICMC in Tokyo, but I found the cultural
differences much more pronounced in Aarhus.  Perhaps this is because there
has not been a European ICMC for over four years, or perhaps I was better
prepared for a heavy dose of multiculturalism in Japan, or possibly this is
an artifact of the notorious exponential growth of the internet "global
village".  In any case, I believe that many of the disagreements heard in
various ICMC discussions could be traced to differences in cultural
heritage.  This certainly seemed the case in a lively panel, "Touched by
Machine?  Composition and Performance in the Digital Age", chaired by
Stephen Pope (which unfortunately included almost exclusively North
Americans, despite the efforts of the organizers).  As a participant in the
panel, I came away with a heightened appreciation of the difference between
being acculturated in the "top-down" historical tradition found in many
European countries rather than the "bottom-up" approach that has grown in
the United States.  As the ICMC expands and gains wider international
membership, it will become increasingly important for all of us to come to
terms with the unique cultural filters we each carry.

One final and obvious area covering a whole host of dynamic and divergent
interests is the technology of computer music itself, primarily represented
at the ICMC by the paper sessions and demonstrations.  To be sure, there has
always been a wide range of technology presented at past ICMCs -- we all
have our favorite computing platform, or we all have different degrees of
access to computing power.  At this ICMC, the continuum of "power" ranged
from Damon Horowitz' fascinating a-life demo "Generating Rhythms with
Genetic Algorithms" run on a simple Macintosh/MIDI drum machine setup to the
"Model based interactive sound for an immersive virtual environment"
presented by Robin Bargar and Insook Choi (et. al.), making heavy use of a
large SGI Onyx computer at the University of Illinois' National Center for
Supercomputing Applications.  What was striking at this ICMC (and to lesser
extents at past ICMCs) is the fundamentally different conceptions of what
constitutes computer music research evidenced by the papers presented.
Tamas Ungvary's "Nuntius" computer choreography system, Michael Clarke's
"SYnthia" teaching workstation, Peter Desain and Henkjan Honing's
foot-tapping perceptual research, music notation -- there is no longer One
Big Thing.  There is no contemporary equivalent to FM (or neural nets, or
physical modelling...) that dominates the ICMC paper sessions.  The only
thing that ties together all of the work shown at the ICMC is the digital
hardware used.  In today's world, this is not a strongly differentiating

I personally don't mind this state of affairs at all.  In fact, I really
enjoy confronting completely different activities as I go from one demo room
to another.  The challenge to future ICMC organizers will be to embrace this
diversity or choose to focus on a more narrow definition of "computer
music".  My vote is surely for diversity, but I do think we need to conceive
of better ways to present the world of "computer music".  The studio reports
were fascinating in this respect; they provided a way to structure a
presentation of a wide variety of activities (plus I thought the Stanford
CCRMA videotape with live commentary by Fernando Lopez was hysterical)
without being conceptually over-constrained.  I was also amazed by how well
ties to other art forms worked at the 1994 ICMC.  The Royal Danish Ballet
evening, featuring the dynamic and wonderful piece "Music for Margo's World"
by Russ Pinkston and the elegant 'bathtub' choreography for Mark Ainger's
"Lament", was easily the most enjoyable concert for me.  Similarly, I got a
real kick out of several of the installations ("Electric Swaying Orchestra"
by Peter Bosch and Simone Simons; the indefatigable Lego robot designed by
Max Grundlund and Emil Tim) as well as the dramatic outdoor computer music +
fireworks presented by Ake Parmerud and Anders Blomqvist.

These activities, especially the installations, were intriguing because they
point towards alternative ways to present our music.  We desperately need to
conceptualize new structures for the presentation of research and music at
the ICMC -- structures that allow for much more activity within the limited
time-frame of the ICMC -- if we truly want to lay claim to the entire field
of computer music.  Right now the ICMC is a small conference that feels big.
If we want to mature into a large conference that feels big, I think it is
vitally important for us to confront the issues of diversity and divergence
that are defining our age.