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Canada’s Electroacoustic Success Story

Daniel Feist, SOCAN, Words & Music, no. 2:7, July 1, 1995

Canada is famous for hockey, the Rockies and sockeye salmon, medical research and film animation, even space age technology. There is reason to be proud.

But could you have guessed we lead the way in electroacoustic music? Odds are, most Canadians don’t even know what it is.

Yet Francis Dhomont, Robert Normandeau and Gilles Gobeil from Quebec, Barry Truax and Paul Dolden from Vancouver, and Toronto’s Bruno Degazio are counted among a growing number of internationally acclaimed Canadian electroacoustic composers.

“Canada occupies a unique place in the area of electroacoustics,” says Toronto composer Al Mattes. “You just have to see who wins the major prizes each year at Bourges in France and other important events. Canadians are always up there near the top.”

Mattes, who co-founded Toronto’s avant-garde Music Gallery two decades ago, is current president of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), the country’s only coast-to-coast support group for the sonically obsessed. Significantly, membership in the CEC has almost doubled in the last two years.

“I think you could make a legitimate claim that electroaccustic music was invented in Canada,” says Mattes. “There are a number of different roots of course, but the idea of voltage control really comes from Hugh Le Caine’s work.” Le Caine (1914-1977) was an extraordinary figure and it’s no wonder SOCAN Foundation’s annual electroacoustic composition award, one of five categories in the society’s Awards for Young Composers, bears his name. As director of the Electronic Music Laboratory at the National Research Council in Ottawa dating back to the 1940s, Le Caine was driven by an urge to create new instruments and sounds. A number of the inventor/composer’s remarkable instruments, such as the Sackbut and the Serial Sound Structure Generator, were precursors of today’s synthesizers. Le Caine also laid the foundations for Canada’s earliest important electroacoustic studios, first at the University of Toronto and later at Montréal’s McGill University. Ever since, music departments in universities across the country have been a fertile environment for the burgeoning electroacoustic scene. Now-retired pioneers like Istvan Anhalt (Queen’s University) and Otto Joachim (who has had his own private studio since the mid-1950s) have been followed by the likes of Gustav Ciamaga (University of Toronto), alcides lanza (McGill), and Jean Piché (Université de Montréal).

The CEC has about 250 members but, according to administrator Ian Chuprun, “there’s a much larger number of electroacoustic composers who aren’t members yet. Pop culture has started to use more electroacoustic techniques all over the place — in television, in film, in commercials — and that has made the whole field more accessible.”

Kevin Austin of Concordia University in Montréal agrees: “This is not music in the traditional sense. A large part of it is the use of sound without direct reference to pitch and rhythm as we’ve come to understand it. But electroacoustic music is much easier to appreciate now than when it was first developing, because many of the sounds are no longer perceived as being so different. We’ve grown accustomed to sounds being ‘morphed’.”

Austin, actively involved in the electroacoustic scene for more than 25 years, founded the MetaMusic ensemble in 1972 and the Concordia Electroacoustic Composers’ Group in 1982. He was the driving force behind the creation of the CEC in 1986.

While the media have made electroacoustic ideas more accessible from an audience point of view, technology has made the process more approachable from a composer’s perspective.

“To ‘morph’ a sound in the ’50s might have taken weeks of computer time,” Austin says. “Today, you can sit down with a sampler, attach a vocal resonance to the attack of a guitar, and presto, you have a new sound.”

One of Canada’s top electroacoustic composers, Paul Dolden has a different point of view: “I just don’t like the word ‘electroacoustics.’ I would prefer to say I’m a composer who uses technology. My work is basically glorified orchestral music. The fact is, I like notes. I’m not much interested in so-called ‘sound objects’ and I hate synthesized sounds. However, since I do work on tape and none of my pieces can be performed live, I suppose it can all be classified as electroacoustic. But I just don’t think we need the term.”

Today Dolden is $10,000 richer, having just won one of two Jean A. Chalmers Musical Composition Awards, along with Montréal’s Jean-François Denis. Denis, who taught electroacoustic music at Concordia University [in 1985-89], captured his $10,000 award for his valuable work as a concert presenter and editor, and for launching the successful record label empreintes DIGITALes. Dolden was recognized for his composition L’ivresse de la vitesse (“Intoxication by Speed”).

“It’s 400 tracks of all acoustic instruments,” Dolden explains. “You should see the score. There are millions of notes! Basically what I’ve done is reduce five symphonies down to 15 minutes. The idea was to speed up music to the point of intoxication.”

Last month, Dolden premiered his latest work at a concert presented by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) in Montréal. “I called it The Heart Tears itself Apart with the Power of its own Muscle. Resonance #3. It’s a piece for string orchestra and tape. The tape part uses a lot of pop culture artifacts. It’s a rocker for intellectuals.”

At the other end of the electroacoustic scene, in Vancouver, is Barry Truax of Simon Fraser University. He has been an influential electroacoustic academic and composer since the early ’70s. Two years ago, on the strength of his piece Riverrun, Truax was awarded the coveted Magisterium Prize at Bourges, the most prestigious electroacoustic festival competition in the world.

“In the old days, there was tape music, electronic music and computer music,” Truax recalls. “They were separate communities with an emphasis on the technologies. The three groups didn’t really interact a lot. Eventually, the barriers started coming down and you can certainly point to a breakdown in the difference between analogue and digital as a factor.”

Truax is acclaimed for his work in the area of computer-assisted music, and was among the first to program his own software. “That was a necessity in the ’70s,” he says. “Today it’s just an inconvenience.”

The composer is currently at work on a major commission for the annual International Computer Music Conference in early September. The event was staged in Copenhagen last year and in Tokyo in 1993; this year it will be held in Banff, Alta.

A long time Truax associate is Vancouver composer Hildegard Westerkamp, whose acoustic explorations have always focused on environmental sounds. “A lot of the time I am walking the edge between sound ecology and sound composition,” she says. “I’m hoping to premiere a new piece at ISEA (the International Symposium for Electronic Arts) in Montréal in September.”

Westerkamp, who recently returned from a two-week sound symposium organized by the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin, is editor of The Soundscape Newsletter, official voice of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. “The electroacoustic medium is so fascinating,” she says. “I find it unfortunate that so few women are in the field. I think the big stumbling block is the technology. It doesn’t discourage everyone, but the circumstances can be quite difficult.”

Just ask Bruno Degazio. “Right now I’m working with a WX7 wind controller and a Yamaha VL1,” says the accomplished sound designer and composer from Toronto. “The VL1 is a physical modeling synthesizer that plays and feels like a musical instrument. It’s the way of the future.”

This year, Degazio is booked solid on IMAX film projects. His recent work includes impressive soundtracks to Titanica, The Last Buffalo and the Oscar-nominated documentary The Fires of Kuwait.

As it is in many other areas, the electroacoustic scene in Quebec is distinct. Many Québécois composers have been profoundly influenced by the school of “musique concrète” in France, which focussed on the electronic manipulation of “sound objects” rather than on electronically created sounds. As a result, their entire creative approach tends to be different.

A key organization in Quebec is the Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec (ACREQ), established by Yves Daoust and Marcelle Deschênes in 1978. A string of outstanding composers have been affiliated with ACREQ. Among them are Alain Thibault, Robert Normandeau and Gilles Gobeil, all of whom have won numerous international awards. Gobeil recently captured second prize at Ars Electronica, a festival in Austria.

“The scene is very stimulating right now,” Gobeil reports. “There have been a lot of changes and what I especially like is that we’re starting to communicate more and listen to each other’s work.”

One proof of that is Jean-François Denis’s label empreintes DIGITALes. “Right now we have 24 CDs on our label and yes, there’s an audience for it! I don’t just make these CDs, I sell them too,” Denis insists. “I’m not surprised by the potential of electroacoustic music either, because there are many sensitive artists working within the field.”

To get a measure of the electroaoustic talent that is out there, curious ears can explore DISContact! II, a recent compilation of 51 works on two CDs by members of the CEC. Though each piece lasts just three minutes or less, the development of acoustic ideas is often extraordinary.

… could you have guessed we lead the way in electroacoustic music?

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