International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA2015: Disruption, Goldcorp Centre, Simon Fraser University, and other locations, August 14-19, 2015.

ISEA2015: Disruption brought together artists and theorists currently in the practice of electronic art to create an interdisciplinary cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques.  Key questions in the realm of aesthetic theory were addressed, as well as the complex relationship of sound art to art music. The symposium was exceptionally varied and wider-ranging, and it is to be hoped that a discussion of three of the performances can give an inspired glimpse into the whole.            

Jean Routhier, a local composer and artist, originally from Quebec, has always found inspiration in everyday situations and his presentation was the most naturalistic of the three.  He led a ‘sound walk’ through South False Creek on the evening of August 16th.  Sound walking involves a curator, or leader, guiding an audience into a space with the injunction to be mindful of the aural environment they encounter and to track changes and self-impressions of the things they hear. The idea is simple and enchanting: there is no formal ‘composer’ as such, and with the random nature of the sounds experienced, artistic purpose on behalf of the leader is rendered impotent.  It is left to the participants themselves to create meaning within the space of the sound walk.  Overall, it seems that this intentional relinquishing of control over meaning serves a pedagogic function more than something one finds in a finished work of art.  But the experiment is suggestive: Routhier’s objective to embrace all audio-generated stimuli, both random and systematic, as potential material for his work is convincing.

At the Goldcorp Centre on the same day, Martin Messier introduced his interdisciplinary work Field, a virtuosic gesamtkunstwerk for performer with electronic accoutrements and projection screen. Indeed, this is powerful electronically-generated audio that fully dominates the senses -- produced in real time by the manipulation of audio jack plug cables, with free mounted ‘sound boards’, playing through a speaker system, in turn projecting monochrome visual effects and light emitting diodes aimed at carefully-placed mirrors. These elements are all controlled and influenced by the artist on stage, interacting with his self-created environment.  Perhaps Field is not music per se; its closest equivalent would be one man opera, if that could be visualized.

Messier’s stage presence is mesmerizing; he communicates abstractly but directly with his audience, without artifice.  So comfortable and ‘present’ was Messier during the performance that I felt no barrier between myself and his creation, the challenge not being comprehension, but how to put such a singular experience into something as comparatively clumsy as words. The composer first establishes a sensory environment, fine-tunes it to his requirements, and then proceeds sectionally to introduce new elements (audio, visual, or physical) which modify, or completely change, the nature of the original environment. The use of musical elements of duration and intensity to create different degrees of ‘saturation’ and ‘stability’ all testify to the sophistication and integrity of the creation.   

Improvising Algorithms was the theme of the concert the next evening at Goldcorp, featuring musicians Lisa Cay Miller (piano), François Houle (clarinet), and Daryl Jahnke (guitar), improvising with autonomous software systems.  The mutual fascination between programmers and composers is understandable, since a musical score can be viewed as an anologue to a ‘program’ -- both offer a set of instructions to achieve a defined result.  A prevalent bias nonetheless has been that the former is ‘art’ while the latter is not.  How we distinguish art from function becomes meaningfully amorphous in American composer/ trombonist George Lewis' computer program Voyager. The ingenuity here is that Voyager analyses feedback data created by the musician himself during performance and generates its own response.  In principle, it produces a different aural output every time it is run.

Lisa Kay Miller’s piano was clearly collaborative with Voyager, yielding a sort of otherworldly effect. At first, pitch clusters, idioms, and gestures seem to float between understandable musical syntax and 'gibberish'. Then, the distinction started to blur as the piece evolved.  I do not think that the computer’s output could never be aurally confused with music, but its ability to interact with a live musician in real time added to the quality of the experience in quite a remarkable way. It is doubtlessly intriguing to examine more complex feedback processes between a work and its performer, since here the computer’s processing of the performer’s response to the work tangibly becomes part of the work itself.  

I was impressed with the high level of integrity present in these undertakings, and I think that the same goes for the symposium as a whole. None of these three performances can be placed within any particular ‘musical’ classification, but why should they be? They are unique creations that seize upon, among other things, new trends in digital technology to expand the way that aural experience shapes the dialogue around musical and aesthetic meaning.  The scope for fertile dialogue and experiment here seems boundless.

© Kate Mackin 2015


*ISEA2015 was presented with the assistance of Simon Fraser University, the City of Vancouver, Dubai Design District, the School for the Contemporary Arts, and the School for interactive Arts and Technology.