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Cooking up music, along with other projects of note

From loudspeaker concerts to Arcade Fire, Concordia has played a major developmental and educational role in Canadian electroacoustics
January 22, 2014
By Julie Gedeon, BA 89, BA 01, MA 09

When Navid Navab, BFA 10, recorded a chef at work in 2012, it may not have seemed like an obvious activity for a music composer and sound designer. However, Navab interlaced the slicing, dicing and other noises with discrete melodic sounds to create a distinctive electroacoustic composition titled “Practices of Everyday Life — Part I: Cooking.”

“By associating a new sound with every gesture, you instill new value into everyday-life actions,” he says. “A chopping knife, for instance, sounds like gongs.”

cooking-music Video still from Navid Navab’s “practices of everyday life — part I: cooking.”

Navab credits the pioneering electroacoustic studies program in Concordia’s Department of Music for enhancing his perceptions of sound. “It’s not just what you can do with technology,” says Navab, who also studied computational arts. “There has to be a real connection — in this case the ‘performance’ of a chef preparing a meal — to have acoustical poetry.”

Electroacoustics comprises any sound created by converting electricity into acoustical energy. Hardly a moment passes today without us hearing it from our televisions, radios, phones, alarms, computers, tablets, game consoles, speakers, MP3, CD or DVD players, earbuds, headphones and even microwave and oven timers. For musical examples, think of the opening notes of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” played on a mellotron, or the eerie theremin in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

Long history

The musical medium came into existence after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. “We tend to forget that before Edison, when people died, their voices disappeared with them,” says Kevin Austin, co-director and a key founder of Concordia’s electroacoustic studies program, a composer, and a specialist in sound theory and ear training.

Electroacoustics only became commonplace after the first radio broadcasts in 1919. “Most broadcasting was initially live because recording technology wasn’t very good,” Austin says. “But as the quality of 78 RPM recordings improved, stations repeatedly played records, making singers and musicians famous and launching the pop music era.”

Initially, if a mistake was made during a recording the entire track had to be redone. With the popularity of reel-to-reel tape machines from the 1940s (a decade after their invention) onward, sound was often cut and respliced. “Tape enabled people to rearrange sound,” Austin notes. “Radio stations and filmmakers were particularly inter­ested in this technology to create more realistic sound effects.”

While European radio stations invested in sonic labs to create background sounds for radio dramas, North American interest remained vested at universities. “In Europe, governments were trying to influence society through radio to avoid more war,” Austin explains. “While in North America the governments expected the commercial sector to adopt university research in due course.”

Technology spurred innovation. In the early 1960s, music producer Phil Spector became known for his studio creations of a dense, reverberating “wall of sound.” This could be heard in such songs as “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers, which played well on AM radio and in jukeboxes. Spector produced the sound by complementing electric and acoustic guitar playing with the music recorded by other instrumentalists inside an echo chamber.

“Producer George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick at Abbey Road Studios [in London] gave the Beatles their distinctive sound,” Austin adds. “For [the song] ‘A Day in the Life,’ Martin arranged for the Beatles and an orchestra to perform separately and then had Emerick assemble the music.”

During that decade, studio mixing equipment’s improvement resulted in about six electroacoustic composers in Canada who recorded and performed their work. Their numbers rose to about 25 during the 1970s and as many as 150 by the 1980s, as technology became more affordable. “A four-channel mixer cost about $5,000 in 1969,” Austin recalls. “By 1972, they started at $200 with a semi-pro model available for $1,000, making it easier for bands to use microphones, speakers and amplifiers.”

Affordable equipment led to more people becoming interested in manipulating sound. “[Filmmaker] George Lucas and his team basically launched sound design in 1977 when he decided to invent sounds for lightsabers and other farfangled gadgets in his Star Wars movie,” Austin says.

At the vanguard

Concordia has always been at the Canadian electroacoustic forefront. Austin with others arranged for the first introductory course in 1971 and encouraged the program’s expansion to 72 credits by 2000.

Under founder Philip Cohen, the music section of the Department of Fine Arts at Sir George Williams University started electronic music/media courses in 1970. The next winter, Austin and colleagues Howard Abrams, Dawn Luke, Martin Gotfrit, BA 74, Ross McAuley and David Sutherland, BA 76, formed an electronic music improvisation en­semble called MetaMusic, The Sound of Three Hands Clapping. The ensemble performed and promoted electronic music in Montreal.

electroacoustics Concordia’s electroacoustic studies program provides students with a mix of compositional and theoretical courses in the eclectic musical field. Co-director Kevin Austin is pictured at bottom left in front of a classroom.

In 1976, the membership transformed and the concerts started to incorporate “tape” (fixed media) compositions from musicians around the world. Over 35 years of these loudspeaker concerts, the Concordia Tape Archive expanded to approximately 3,500 pieces. In 1982 the group was renamed the Concordia Electroacoustic Composers Group/Groupe électroacoustique de Concordia. Its 400-plus concerts over the next 30 years included fixed media, multimedia, and live electroacoustics.

By the mid-1980s, Canada had 150 to 200 electroacoustic composers. Austin travelled across the country twice in 1985 to establish a Canadian organization that would have a better chance than individual composers of obtaining government funding. “The dean’s office and music department really supported these efforts,” Austin says. “And with 15 years of collecting electroacoustic musical compositions and presenting loudspeaker concerts, Concordia already had a solid reputation.” For the next 18 years, the university provided key logistical support to the Canadian Electroacoustic Community and still collaborates with the national organization.

Today, with more than 3,000 recorded compositions, Concordia has one of the world’s largest collections of electroacoustic music (and accompanying information), spanning 1972 through 1990. About one-third has been digitized for internet access so far and the Concordia Archival Project (CAP, “Some considered it silly for us to store all those reels, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before people would want to know what this music sounded like a few decades back,” Austin says. “If you don’t have a culture’s artifacts, those cultural aspects remain only as mythology.”

In tune with technology, in 1984 the Department of Music became the first Concordia department to obtain a Macintosh computer. “It was clear that computers would open up a much bigger world in terms of manipulating sound. Professional recording studios had already been pushing for more soundtracks and by the mid-1980s were able to simultaneously record or mix 80 channels,” Austin says.

By 1990, computers and compact discs were in wide use for recording, manipulating and transmitting sound. “The need to reproduce music repeatedly from an original source basically vanished,” Austin notes. “Once we could send people an email with music in an attached file, or direct them to a website, the loudspeaker concerts weren’t as necessary anymore either.”

Austin decided to make 1990 the cut-off year for collecting new works for the archives. So much had already changed since the time he had envisioned one day dialing a telephone number to hear a composition. “My current students have never known a time when they couldn’t manipulate sound,” he points out. “They mix tracks on their smartphones.”

Impressive alumni

Graduates with an electroacoustic studies major or minor use their honed listening and sonic creativity skills to become sound designers, engineers, composers and producers, as well as well-known musicians such as Sarah Neufeld, BFA 03, and Richard Reed Parry, BFA 03, members of the Grammy Award-winning indie band Arcade Fire. “The program’s flexibility really encourages you to explore your own creative interests,” Neufeld says. (See the sidebar “Under the Dome: Arcade Fire’s Sara Neufeld” on page 45.)

Electroacoustic studies cover a gamut of electroacoustic, recording and sonic arts, including acousmatics (music integrated within a medium, such as a CD or computer file where it can be directly manipulated), spectromorphology (the study of the spectrum of sounds in a piece and their arrangement in time) and psychoacoustics (which delves into the physiological and psychological responses to sounds). “But the main focus has always been on training students’ outer, technical ear to recognize the quality in sound before they produce, manipulate or transform it,” Austin emphasizes. “The other key aspect is developing their imaginative, inner ear to use sounds in innovative ways.”

James Finnerty Audio engineer, composer and music producer James Finnerty is one of many successful electroacoustic studies graduates.

Students entering the program must already have musical or sound training. Most want to learn how to design and/or produce sound for recording, gaming, theatre, film, animation, dance or visual art installations.

Audio engineer, composer and music producer James Finnerty, BFA 13, wanted to sharpen his skills after learning on his own how to mix and engineer his first album in a home studio. “When I entered the program, I was eager to improve my audio engineering and producing abilities, but soon appreciated how the program’s compositional and theoretical components broadened my perspectives,” he says.

Among the students invited to fill one of the 35 seats available in the program, 85 per cent say yes right away. “The only Concordia program with a higher acceptance rate is film production,” Austin reports.

Added dimension

Faculty members encourage “action research,” which involves students and teachers learning from the actual teaching processes so they can be improved or expanded, too. “It became clear through surveys, for example, that students wanted quicker feedback on their work,” says Eldad Tsabary, an assistant professor in the program. “So we now immediately share and discuss assignments rather than have everyone wait a week for my comments.”

Liselyn Adams, chair of the Department of Music, lauds electroacoustic studies for adding a “wonderful dimension” to Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts. “During its earlier introspective days, students enriched the faculty by exploring the whole realm of sound art in ways quite unimaginable to the rest of us,” she says. “And, more recently, they are doing so through interdisciplinary projects that instill a creative energy throughout the fine arts faculty.”

For nearly 10 years, the program’s teachers have been refining an ear-training method specifically for electroacoustic musicians. “It includes melodic dictation, interval identification and other traditional ear-training elements, but its primary goal is for students to be aware of and connect with every millisecond of a composition,” Tsabary explains.

“Electroacoustic studies definitely focuses on training our ears and inspiring our creativity through composition,” Julian Stein, BFA 12, says. “Constantly paying attention to sound has become a part of my life and makes me a better composer.”

He and his brother, Max, BFA 12, drew greater attention to the discipline on campus and globally by establishing the Concordia Electroacoustic Studies Student Association. “By involving other students, Max and Julian basically led a new movement and made Concordia’s expertise known internationally by speaking and presenting students’ work at conferences,” Tsabary says.

Julian and Max Stein have become recognized in Montreal and elsewhere for encouraging the public to add intrinsic sounds to locations on their online city sound maps, which present their city in a distinct auditory format.

New world

The internet has opened the world for electroacoustic students. Last spring, for instance, students in the Concordia Laptop Orchestra (CLOrk) — a requirement for the Live Digital Practices course — were accompanied by acoustic instrumentalists and singers to perform Dancity, a live telematics (long-distance transmission) concert that was simultaneously featured in five cities. The laptop concerts by students have received global attention. They often involve other music students as well. Tsabary and Adams have respectively led CLOrk and a traditional orchestral ensemble in a series of “sound paintings” that involved both groups playing rehearsed or improvised sounds in response to each conductor’s gestures calling for long, short, high, low, rapid or slow notes.

Nothing is ruled out as creative ideas in the course. “In fact, students are encouraged to think of things that seem impossible and then find ways to do them,” Adams says.

Live telematics and interdisciplinary projects are currently driving electroacoustic studies, but the field is expected to continue to evolve in innovative and unanticipated ways as both technology and creativity advance. “By encouraging students to dream up ideas and then find out whether they’ll actually work, we’re preparing them for rapidly changing technologies,” Tsabary says. “They learn how to figure out things for themselves.”

Finnerty still values the approach. “What I appreciated the most was how the professors encouraged us to each find our own path and then gave us the support, guidance and resources to succeed at our projects,” Finnerty says. Navab agrees and similarly praises the professors for encouraging students to establish their own human connections with sound. “That’s where you find the magic, or what I like to call sonic alchemy,” he says.

– Julie Gedeon, BA 89, BA 01, MA 09, is a Montreal freelance journalist.

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