Review of ICMC 2000 Off-ICMC Concert

28 August 2000

This review was originally published in Array, and is currently online here.

I arrived at the off-ICMC about 2 hours late due to the evening concert at Akademie der Ktime (and there was no way I was going to miss the last piece on the program: Allan Schindler and Stephanie Maxwell's playful and daringly archaic film 'Outermost'). I was primed for the off-ICMC concert by a panel on aesthetics that afternoon in which a central concern was whether a reified computer music aesthetic would enable us to compose more effectively and communicate with a larger audience, or whether such an aesthetic (and indeed the entire ICMA/ICMC structure) necessarily serves as an enforcement mechanism for stylistic conformity. Doug Geers suggested that the existence of such an enforcement mechanism was in fact proved by the designation 'off-ICMC' i.e. that which cannot be 'on the ICMC'. The portion of the late-night Off-ICMC I attended, and in particular the farmersmanual performance, would tend to support Doug's claim.

The farmersmanual performance would not have had a prayer of being programmed on the ICMC proper. The forbidding ingredients included clicks, massive distortion, a regular pulse, free improvisation, a duration well over 30 minutes, and irresponsible sound pressure levels. (In general, audience members with any sense wore earplugs at all off-ICMC performances.) It was also the most interesting and exciting performance of the entire ICMC for this reviewer. Although many of the off-ICMC performances suffered from a paucity of generative ideas, retreating to the comfort of maximum amplitude, hyper-distorted sounds, or the sonic poverty of repeating sample loops, the farmersmanual performance remained unpredictable throughout. The listener rarely knew what sort of sounds and textures were coming next or even how they were being produced.

Farmersmanual's performance was about algorithms and their artifacts. Clicks and textural discontinuities were rampant. The demeanor of the performers was stoic: that of accountants working a spreadsheet program rather than artists expressing themselves. Despite the apparent detachment of the performers, the musical pace was extremely rapid, both in terms of events per second and the speed of textural change. At several points the performance veered towards totally unexpected textures with complete confidence and synchrony among the performers (and in keeping with the straight-faced nature of the performance, no indication that anything unusual had occurred).

The performance was enhanced with a video improvisation (created with the notorious Nato software) using stripped down, mostly black and white imagery. Many of the images were zoomed in and quantized beyond recognition (like the audio) but occasional recognizable images were of airplane crashes or disturbingly transformed faces (blurred and with parts erased, somewhat reminiscent of Francis Bacon's paintings). The video contributed nicely to the atmosphere of instability, chaos and mental overload so skillfully evoked by farmersmanual.

Following farmersmanual was a performance by Rechenzentrum. This temporal evolution of this performance was more carefully pre-planned, with pre-composed rhythmic backing tracks over which samples were layered, along with various processing strategies. Some of the whispered, distorted vocal sounds were very reminiscent of Skinny Puppy, the 1980s industrial music group. Although the performance had its moments (some surprising noise interruptions and a recorded German speech), I was not generally captivated by the grooves, and the pre-composed materials undermined the sense of full interactive freedom which was such a winning characteristic of the wild farmersmanual performance. To be fair, farmersmanual had twice as many members as Rechenzentrum, and thus was in a better position to unleash barely controlled audio chaos with abandon.

The off-ICMC was a daring, impressive and successful step forward in music programming for the ICMC. It is to be hoped that off-ICMCs will become a tradition in the future. Or perhaps the programming of the ICMC proper will itself become adventurous and diverse enough to obviate the need for an off-ICMC.