ICMC Musings, by Brad Garton

[Note to ARRAY readers -- I wrote the following article over a year ago, after the 1997 ICMC. For a variety of reasons, it was not published in ARRAY until now. Mara Helmuth and Joran Rudi asked me to review the text for the present publication, and I fully expected to do major rearranging -- time heals all wounds, right? Instead, I was surprised at how much I still agree with what I wrote on the heels of the ICMC. I did make some minor changes (it was no longer appropriate to say "See you at the 1998 ICMC!" at the end of the article, for example), but the basic text is relatively untouched.

To be sure, the ICMA/ICMC circumstances have changed somewhat: several proposals for ICMCs were presented at the Michigan meeting last fall, thus forestalling the acute problem of finding ICMC hosts mentioned in the article. However, my basic points about the difficulties encountered in producing the ICMC still remain valid, as ICMC organizers will surely discover. I also strongly believe that the push by the ICMA Board to expand the range of venues for the ICMC -- an admirable push, in my opinion -- will require the kind of flexibility in ICMC production that I advocate.

I want ARRAY readers to understand that my goal is certainly not to "tear down" the ICMC, nor is it to make it even more difficult for the ICMA Board to solicit ICMC proposals. To the contrary, I hope that an extended discussion of the ICMC can ultimately make the ICMC a highly attractive undertaking, with increasing benefits for both the ICMA and the ICMC hosts. I really believe that the ICMC can become even more vital and vibrant than it currently is. This is an extraordinarily exciting time to be a computer musician, and the ICMC acts as one of the most visible symbols of that excitement.

Brad Garton; June, 1999]

As I write this, it's been several months since the 1997 ICMC in Thessaloniki, and I suppose sufficient time has elapsed to put a bit of distance between myself and the event (I was one of the Conference organizers in 1997). We have received our fair share of good comments and negative reactions about our ICMC efforts. Rather than bask in the praise or try to respond to some of the pointy little critical fingers, I thought it might be useful to air several unresolved issues that have been on my mind since the ICMC -- things that I believe are important for the health of future Conferences.

Basically, the ICMC was not a Really Fun Thing to do. This is too bad, because it could be, and it surely should be. In general, the ICMA membership is a fairly decent and nice group of people (I even count a few as friends!), and the sorts of activities undertaken as part of an ICMC are certainly valued by us as a community. I would also venture to say that the ICMC is possibly one of the most important features of ICMA membership. It serves as the annual focal point of our field, acting as the primary meeting for all of us involved in computer music creation and research.

Why then do ICMC organizers grit teeth and assume that at least a year of hell faces them when producing an ICMC? Why is the ICMC so onerous a task that it requires near-Herculean efforts by the ICMA Vice President for Conferences in order to get minimal ICMC proposals each year in front of the Board? The ICMA ought to be choosing from a broad range of ICMC proposals every year! This may sound rather maudlin, but doing the Conference should be seen as an honor, a rewarding experience for all involved. At the very least, organizing the Conference should be seen as "worth it". At present, it isn't.

I have three observations to offer about the ICMC. These are from my vantage point as a past Music Director, thus they reflect problems primarily associated with concert and music-event production. My hope is that these observations will make aspects of the Conference apparent to the general ICMA membership, leading to a dialogue that will result in better future ICMCs -- for all involved.

First (and foremost), the ICMC is a seriously underfunded conference. Speaking of near-Herculean efforts, I suspect that Hercules himself would retreat hastily to Mt. Olympus in the face of the fund-raising that has to occur for the ICMC. How many of you would be willing to raise in excess of half-a-million dollars in real money and "soft" commitments, and then SPEND IT ALL on a week of concerts and papers? I know of no other conference or organization that requires this level of commitment (with no concomitant return) for conference production, a commitment that yields rather ephemeral benefits for the conference organizers.

The obvious way to lessen this burden is to build a stronger financial foundation for the ICMC. A large part of our aim in making the Exhibition Hall play a central role in the 1997 ICMC was to begin a process of vendor and industry involvement that would ultimately become self-sustaining. SIGGRAPH has done it, AES earns money, COMDEX has become a financial behemoth, why can't the ICMC at least begin to fund itself?

Exacerbating this monetary problem is the implicit expectation that ICMC organizers should be responsible for meeting all demands of `the music': equipment costs, rehearsal space costs, performer fees, etc. To be sure, we in the computer music business inhabit an expensive world, and to do "the best and finest" in cutting-edge computer music often requires costly hardware. Many participants in the 1997 ICMC brought equipment and resources with them, and we of the 1997 ICMC remain ETERNALLY indebted to them. But we still suffered from extensive, diverse and costly demands for technical resources.

So my second observation is that we all need to be keenly aware of how difficult it might be to mount a particular technological wonder, or we should be willing to "flex" a little and accept something other than the One True Objective Sound. Suppose that I had composed a piece with a very particular violin sound in mind -- a sound that can be achieved only by violins with a very specific varnish. I write the varnish formula into the score, and I tell organizers of festivals and conferences where this piece is to be performed that I will furnish "tech sheets" with the formula clearly emblazoned upon them. Chances are probably quite good that I will never hear my ur-violin-sound except upon the instrument I used when writing the piece.

Of course this is a silly example intended to make an obvious point -- specifying a varnish for a violin is clearly on the other side of a line defining what is acceptable for conference organizers to do. I want to make clear, however, that we are indeed deciding where to place this line with every ICMC we produce, and perhaps it should be drawn a little more in favor of the ICMC sponsors. I believe that the prevailing mindset of ICMA members is something like "ICMC organizers should do whatever it takes to make accepted pieces possible", especially if the pieces are really, truly Great Art.

I would think the obvious fact that presenting a piece at the ICMC usually involves travelling to a foreign venue suggests that pieces should be designed to be as portable as possible. The further awareness that the context for setup and rehearsal is rather insane (we produced nearly 30 concerts in slightly over 5 days) should make ICMC composers strive for a high "self-containedness" factor. Pieces on an ICMC concert do not exist in a context-free world, thus setting up a complex technical venture at leisure in a local (and probably well-outfitted) university concert hall will not guarantee a smooth transfer to Thessaloniki or Beijing.

I'm not advocating that we curtail advanced projects in techno-performance (or those of us with violin-varnish fetishes give up our compositional activity), nor am I seeking an arbitrary technical standard for what is or is not acceptable for an ICMC presentation. I am advocating, however, that the burden of presentation lie more with the creators of complex pieces instead of an underfunded ICMC. The responsibility for success should be the creator's, including the procurement or shipment and subsequent installation and testing of hardware/software that cannot be provided by Conference organizers. Barring gross incompetence or outright lies, technological problems should not be blamed on the ICMC. This is a lesson I have learned... the hard way.

Finally, I wish we could once and for all demolish the Wagnerian model of what it takes to be a Great Composer. We were told in all seriousness at the ICMC -- and this is a direct quote because I found it so amazing -- that "sometimes you have to be a professional asshole to get your piece done correctly." Yikes! If this is truly the case, I think it's time for me to change my major and get a real job. Did people really think we would do less for them if they didn't treat us like dirt? And is this really the type of world we want to create through our music?

To be sure, the percentage of total jerks we had to deal with was small. But the overall level of prima-donna-ism was pretty high: my favorite personal story is my excursion through the sleepy Sunday-afternoon streets of Thessaloniki seeking in vain additional isopropyl alcohol to clean piano strings that "weren't clean enough." (ha ha -- I bet you thought my violin-varnish scenario was completely inconceivable!) Every single one of us who was involved in the Greek ICMC has at least one story like this. Why should this be?

I'm not even going to try to answer that last question. Instead, I'd like to end this article with several positive suggestions for changing the ICMC. In a nutshell:

-- loosen the strictures on what is required of ICMC organizers, opting instead to capitalize on what each site can uniquely bring to an ICMC. Strength through diversity!

-- Change the mindset of ICMC participants so that fulfillment of expectations is not seen solely (or even primarily) as the responsibility of the ICMC organizers.

-- Work hard to build strong and continuing relationships with industry. I honestly believe the future of the ICMC (and thus the ICMA) depends critically upon this.

-- Relax! Enjoy the ICMC for what it is; a chance to hang out with good friends and interesting people, perhaps even enjoy a few unique and wonderful new musical experiences. And if it means the end of the world to you if your piece/presentation at the ICMC doesn't come off well, then I strongly suggest you do some in-depth listening to Prozac. Life is too short.

Brad Garton, 1998