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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 2

Electroacoustic Music

by Réjean Beaucage / October 10, 2003

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The diverse areas of the large family of electroacoustic music are presently very popular among aspiring composers and technicians. Rapid advances in computer technology have made it possible for almost anyone to establish small-scale professional music studios in the convenience of their own homes--a possibility unimaginable only ten years ago. But to where can one turn for formal training in this domain? LSM visited two anglophone institutions in Montreal offering programs in electroacoustic music.

Concordia University

In 1971 composer Kevin Austin established Concordia University's electronic music studio, and courses in electroacoustic music were launched shortly thereafter. Since April 2000 the university has offered a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) major in Electroacoustic Studies. Music Department chair, composer Mark Corwin, describes it: "Because our program is broader, and subjects available through universities are more numerous, we don't attract the same clientele as the Conservatoire, whose program is more specialized. We have students who would not be admissible to the Conservatoire, such as those with techno and pop backgrounds, students whose training is different from that of classical musicians. Also, since a large part of the electroacoustics program is dedicated to recording techniques, many of our students are technicians rather than composers; but they require a good knowledge of music nonetheless. In addition, we are essentially the anglophone alternative to the University of Montreal."

Students wanting to enrol in the undergraduate program do not need to take an entrance exam but instead must submit recordings of their work. The first year of the degree is built around the history of electroacoustic music and training in the basics of studio work. "We aim during this initial period to gradually allow the students' individual compositional styles to emerge. We don't ask them to produce five works per year, but rather five 'works-in-progress.' In one of our standard deconstruction exercises we ask them to remove the 's' sound from the recording of a poem. It helps students develop their perception, and it is a basic function in teaching sound manipulation. We dedicate two years to introducing the fundamentals and only in the third year do we begin formal composition courses. As for our studios, they have been equipped with computers for a long time now, but we have also kept analog equipment such as tape recorders and soundtracks, because we consider knowledge of these techniques important. Our approach, even for those wanting to learn mainly recording technique, is to regard studio work as an artistic discipline."

There has recently been an explosion in the electroacoustics program, which in the first year alone now has 90 students under three full-time professors and four lecturers. The department benefits from the use of six different studios, including one set up for eight-channel sound projection, and one recording studio in the building that houses the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall. Kevin Austin is also credited with establishing the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), whose website is part of the university's (http://cec.concordia.ca).

McGill University

McGill's Istvan Anhalt pioneered the first electroacoustic music studio in Quebec in 1964 with the help of composer/inventor Hugh LeCaine. Music audiences are also indebted to Anhalt for the first electroacoustic music concert in Canada, which took place at McGill, where he presented his own compositions as well as those of LeCaine and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Electroacoustic music was therefore integrated early on into the composition program, but since 1990, under the leadership of composer Bruce Pennycook, the university has developed a very specific program called Music Technology, which is associated with the faculty's Theory Department. Headed by Chair Ichiro Fujinaga, who earned the program's first undergraduate degree, it merits mention here because it offers another dimension to students attracted to new technologies. La Scena Musicale spoke with professors Philippe Depalle and Marcelo Wanderley.

As is the case with the University of Montreal, applicants must complete an admission exam for the Faculty of Music. "There is so much research in Music Tech that it is really a scientific activity," Depalle explains. "The aim is to serve music by creating either tools for composers or tools related to the audio side of the musical framework. Traditionally this has been done by the Faculty of Music, so the degree is a Bachelor of Music with technical aspects added to the musical requirements."

It goes without saying that the lives of musicians, whether electroacousticians or not, are becoming more and more dependent on advances in technology. Students in Music Tech not only learn how to use application software programs but also how to modify them or draw inspiration to create new ones that respond better to their needs. "Composers come here to respond to a personal need to know more about the development of the tools themselves," Depalle continues. Marcelo Wanderley adds, "An example can be to create extensions that modify the functions of an already existing software program; for example, we don't aim to show how audio mixers work, but rather to examine their scientific or technological bases."

One of the possible applications of this type of program was demonstrated by Depalle, who, along with the analysis-synthesis team from IRCAM (Institute of Research and Coordination in Acoustics / Music, associated with the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris), made possible certain amazing performance aspects in the film Farinelli. The title character's wide vocal range was created by superimposing the high voices of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and coloratura soprano Ewa Malas-Godlewska into one. This kind of work requires not only technical and musical knowledge, but most definitely a creative approach as well.

There are some twenty students registered in the Bachelor's program, which has four full-time professors, one assistant professor, a technician and three faculty lecturers. Music Tech shares two laboratories with the Electronic Music Studio (EMS) and has the use of two others. EMS professors give courses in electroacoustic composition to students who, in increasing numbers, are pursuing graduate studies at the master's and doctoral levels.

[Translated by Susan Spier]

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