South Korea 2018 – Part 1 – International Computer Music Conference, Daegu

Scarlett Choi performing in her installation “Reminiscing the Great Artist, JI Yeong-hee“,
Daegu Art Factory, ICMC2018 (photo by me)

Introduction to South Korea 2018 blog posts

Summer 2018, I travelled to the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) in Daegu, South Korea, to present a surround sound version of my techno / classical crossover album Protokols. I was supported by Creative Industries Fund NL in sharing my vision on integrating ancient musical heritage into contemporary (digital) club culture. I extended my stay in South Korea to a full month, so I could immersive myself deeper into the country’s (old and new) music and culture. This gave me the chance to perform twice in Seoul.

Part 1: Daegu – ICMC 2018 Conference
Part 2: Daegu – ICMC 2018 Hack-n-Makerthon
Part 3: Seoul – Underground Electronic Scene
Related post: Reflections on my album Protokols

In this blog post I share my thoughts about the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC): how I got to know it, how it relates to my work, and what I thought about this year’s edition (incl. my work and that of others). I cover the ICMC’s Hack-n-Makerthon in a separate post.

ICMC & HKU (University of the Arts Utrecht)
Between 2008 and 2012, studying at HKU Music & Technology (Hilversum, Netherlands), my teachers had familiarised me with the term ICMC: as students, we were encouraged to read articles from ARRAY, the journal of ICMC’s mother organisation ICMA (International Computer Music Association). Both the ICMA and the HKU are firmly rooted in the scientific and interdisciplinary origins of electronic music.

Innovation in the field of electronic music is often made possible through the transformation of non-musical inventions. Take for example FFT, an algorithm invented around 1805 by Carl Friedrich Gauss to calculate the orbit of asteroids. Moments later 😉 in the 1970s and 80s, FFT would become a foundational element of spectral music (electronic or acoustic music focused on the explorations of timbre), thanks to software development at IRCAM, the Parisian institute for electroacoustic music.

Subsequently, at ICMC 2005, Michael Klingbeil would present a paper about SPEAR, his FFT-powered application developed to make the digital simulation (resynthesis) of recorded sounds more accessible. At the HKU, I was taught to experiment with SPEAR.

ICMC 2004 featured the presentation of a paper co-written by my former HKU teachers Gerard van Wolferen and Hans Timmermans, about MEDIATE, their interactive installation for autistic children. Spectral music, interdisciplinary, accessible design… all topics that interest me greatly, yet I did not have a chance to visit an ICMC prior to its 2018 edition. But here I went…

ICMC 2018 kick-off, Daegu, South Korea (photo by me)

ICMC 2018 – “Preserve | Engage | Advance”
This edition of the International Computer Music Conference was held in Daegu, a city located in the south-east of South-Korea, with a population surpassing 2.5 million. Here, the conference continued in its interdisciplinary fashion, balancing various forms of art and research. The 6-day programme was jam-packed with presentations, discussions, installations, concerts, workshops, a banquet and ICMC’s first-ever hackathon.

Activities were spread out over five venues:
Daegu Concert House: Chamber Hall and Grand Hall
Daegu Art Factory: exhibition and lecture spaces, plus the Listening Space (Suchang Hall)
Sogeum Changgo (Sodium Place): late-night live music bar
C-Fab makerspace at the Daegu Samsung Creative Campus
Novotel Ambassador Daegu: Champagne Hall, banquet

Daegu Art Factory (photo by me)

I saw and heard so much at ICMC. Too much too mention. And I’m holding the180(!)-page programme book now. Please let me tell you about some of my highlights and interests…

Spatial sound (a.k.a. multi-channel diffusion or surround sound) was held in high regard at ICMC 2018. It’s somehow odd that this approach is still avant-garde, roughly 70 years after its experimental roots, given that its effect is already dramatic with just 4 speakers (quadraphony). Perhaps initiatives like 4DSOUND and Envelop – the latter also offering free software – will inspire more and more artists and venues to embrace alternatives to stereo. At this ICMC edition, all concert and listening spaces were equipped with an 8+ speaker setup. Awesome!

Spatial Audio Configuration, Daegu Concert House, Grand Hall, ICMC2018

Tae Hong Park’s “48 13 N, 16 20 O” (for 8-channel tape) transformed the concert hall into a mythic construction site, with recordings of roaring engines and squeaking machinery — through which he showed how deep listening can transform strong kinetics into mindful energy. Resonating on a different frequency was Signal Exchange by Taiwanese artists Yung-hung WANG, Cevo Chen-Yen YANG and Sandra Tavali (Wuan-chin LI): live-processed Sanshin (Okinawan banjo) – and a lot of small radios spread among the audience – shaped a different kind of spatial sound: in-your-face and ritualistic, with a punk-like urgency.

Street in Daegu (photo by me)

Data sonification/visualisation. Some people, like me, claim that big data is the new oil, at least regarding its value and wide-spread usage. Yet, data-art had not yet had a strong impact on me thus far. Of course, Ryoji Ikeda has often mesmerised me with his aesthetics that reveal the hyper-efficiency of data processing: overwhelmingly sharp, organised, minimal/binary and (when necessary) noisy. But I think hadn’t yet encountered artworks that fuse this algorithmic complexity with a more personal, intimate dataset, or expression thereof.

Enter ICMC 2018 and behold BeHAVE, an audio-visual work by Korean artist Sihwa Park. Through visualisation and sonification of his mobile phone usage collected throughout the year, his work teleports us into the patterns of his daily life. In his abstract aesthetic, the human factor that remains is minimal, but it’s exactly that fragility that makes the work cut through to the essence of human behaviour. It’s not simply glitch art, it’s too alive for that. I imagine the babbling sounds and jumpy playfulness to be tiny creatures.

Preservation and distribution. A theme of this year’s ICMC. How do we collect and preserve computer music’s history? How can we reinterpret electronic or electroacoustic compositions when the original sound equipment is not available any longer? I never gave much thought about it, so it was mind-opening to experience a panel discussion about on that topic.

What excited me most was the announcement of COMPEL, a “crowdsourced community-building repository for reproducible computer music“, not only because of its ambitions in exhaustively representing the transgressive abilities of experimental electronic music; artistically, technically, architecturally, performatively, spatially, and so forth — but also because I think we need more music sharing platforms that are non-commercial, free, supportive and easy-to-use. I’ll try to explain why…

I find myself in a sort of love-hate relationship with the modern concept of flat-fee streaming. These services are affordable, easy-to-use (great apps), they always work (at home or on the road), and their recommendation algorithms are nifty. Plus, some artists can gain at least somewhat of an income from royalties. But my main concern with these services is that they primarily benefit the major labels. The once underground-platform Soundcloud is no exception to that rule anymore. Of course, majors have contributed hugely to the success of main-streaming, by lending out their huge song catalogues, but…

…what if I want to primarily support independent music makers? Bandcamp is a unique platform in that respect, and their curational/journalistic outlet Bandcamp Daily offers a great way of discovering new music. But Bandcamp isn’t a flat-fee streaming platform, it revolves around selling albums (digitally and physically), which you can only stream from your purchased collection. It does feel good to support artists more or less directly, but…

I wonder if Bandcamp could offer an optional flat-feel subscription without it conflicting with their sales-based model? I don’t know. If so, then it might adopt the flat-fee (or spread-fee) models of Flattr and Brave, which divide your monthly flat-fee amount exclusively between the artists you’ve been listening to, but…

Food break (pic by me)

…what if monetisation is not a priority for me as an artist? What if I feel that my music should be as free and accessible as possible? Without putting myself in the control of media giants like Youtube (Google)? In that case there are a few options. Non-profit Internet Archive allows anyone to upload an unlimited amount of multimedia content, as long as it can be freely redistributed via the Public Domain or under a Creative Commons license. Free Music Archive is based on a similar philosophy, and it’s better organised thanks to its categories and curators. But both of these platforms miss the smooth and flexible listening experience (apps) of the major streaming platforms.

So why don’t “we” build an open (source) streaming platform, and make it run on peer-to-peer distribution (like BitTorrent), so we don’t have to depend on any central server whatsoever? This makes me think of the torrent-streaming application Popcorn Time and the underground music sharing program Soulseek (which is still around after 16 years!). (Warning: both of these programs can make you an illegal uploader, which can unfortunately still cost you an exorbitant fine).

Could there be a streaming version of Soulseek? Could it feature a donation button to support artists directly? For a couple of years now a collective of well-known indie musicians run a free music platform 37d03d (formerly known as PEOPLE), it’s free to listen, but it’s not open for anyone to participate.

I can’t directly follow up on these observations with clear-cut advice. But I do strongly believe that all artists should decide for themselves what way of distribution feels most valuable and sincere to them personally. Perhaps we should embrace the autonomy of our own websites more, and make it easy for people to stream music directly from there (without embedding tracks or videos via commercial platforms). That might lead to bandwidth problems though.

So perhaps COMPEL will bring a solution for some of us. It isn’t out yet any time soon, and I don’t know anything about its interface and features yet. It’s just about to enter its first non-public test phase. Whether it will align with my wishes or not, I’m definitely looking forward to explore its catalogue of uncompromised electronic music.

At Daegu Art Factory, unfortunately forgot the artist’s name (photo by me)

A.I. I don’t want to burn my finger trying define Artificial Intelligence yet ;). It’s a subject I still want to learn about. In any case, it’s an exciting field: scientists are trying to replicate biological intelligence without knowing what it exactly is? Surely this is good news for art, as it means that happy accidents are bound to happen. Glitch art might loose its digital edge and become uncannily organic (see for example Godmother by Holly Herndon, Jlin and Spawn).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to most of the presentations about A.I., but I do remember hearing several live-generated compositions inspired by the systems of nature. Also, quite some installations were aware of the behaviour of humans in their vicinity, and they weren’t too shy to give a reaction either. My favourite example of such a work was VoiceWork10_[chisel] by Andrew Telichan-Phillips, which was centred around a single microphone that picked up the ambience of the space (or the spontaneous vocal improvisations of crazy ICMCers like me) and transformed this input into an abstract cloud of musical fragments.

It reminded me a bit of RJDJ (now called Augment), an augmented music app that was able to pick up everyday-sounds through your iPhone’s headset-microphone to arrange them on-the-fly into rhythmic patterns, or into other adaptive soundscapes programmed in Pure Data. (The iOS application for running Pure Data patches – PdParty – includes several of RJDJ’s augmented compositions.)

Another work that redefined the relationship between humans and computers was Cellular Alchemy by Japanese researcher-composer Tsubasa Tanaka. It was odd and refreshing in equal measures, to hear a purely acoustic piano piece in the midst of an electroacoustic concert night. Its tonality I couldn’t grasp for a hundred percent, and that fascinated me. Not atonal, not minimal, not abstract, not romantic, not typical, perhaps expressionistic, surely graceful and compelling.

Tanaka generated the cells (building blocks) of his composition manually, and subsequently combined and arranged them with a functional-programming-based algorithm. The resulting composition was performed smoothly by pianist Jung-Ah AN. It must be reassuring to some of you out there, to know that advanced computations still go hand in hand with manual processes and instrumentation.

Tanaka’s work is a prime example of how technology will always bring new challenges to art. In 2017, he organised the concert AI Composition and Computational Creativity at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. I definitely want to visit such an event now.

New Traditional Music. At the late-night ICMC venue, the whole crowd was headnodding to a tribalistic energy. Hua Sun – who works for the Chinese National Opera and Dance Drama Theater – and his fellow performer, engaged in a Pipe Duet for Live Electronics, performed on Sun’s own instrument designs EP-1 and EP-2 . These electronic wind instruments react to blown air and spinning mechanisms. Some parts under the hood: spectral analysis, vocoding and live processing of samples of Chinese traditional wind instruments (Bandi, Xiao).

Hua Sun’s EP-1, EP-2 and the Pacarana sound design workstation (photo by me)
ICMC 2018, Daegu Art Factory, Deer Calling by Yuto Hasebe (photo by me)

Scarlett Choi presented her beautiful multimedia installation “Reminiscing the Great Artist, JI Young-Hee“, in honour of her late grandfather, who is referred to as the father and guardian of Korean folk music. During the conference, Choi regularly improvised in the work, interacting with the warm tones and color of her grandfather on video.

After the conference, I got in contact with Scarlett and asked her if she wanted to improvise over my electroacoustic/ambient work Processive (a suite I also perform with my ensemble). To my joy, she was interested. We managed to rehearse and perform in Seoul after the conference. Read about that in this other blog post.

The gamification of a musical composition and its performance. That seems to be Ricardo Climent‘s modus operandi in his work Ethertrum, resulting in my biggest what-the-f-moment at this ICMC. Mise-en-scène: Climent on stage with his desktop computer, postured behind his keyboard and mouse like a runner on the starting blocks, focused on a huge projection displaying psychedelic, semi-geometric/technologic alien landscapes. The creatures he encounters buzz around vividly, but don’t seem to be threatening. Climent might be finding his way, or shaping his own path. He seems to be collecting virtual (symbolic) cryptocoins, but above all he is exploring the abstract nature of his own sound/visual design – and immersing me in a state of wonder.

Ethertrum by Ricardo Climent, ICMC 2018, Daegu Concert House (photo by me)

Live Coding is the art of (improvisingly) coding a program while its running, most popular in the audiovisual (creative coding) domain. But no longer completely in the academic/geek realm, thanks to the spread of its global, dance floor friendly(?) spin-off Algorave. I’ve attended two Algoraves, and witnessed things like a battle between a programmer and a drummer who was frantically hitting an electronic drumkit that was under control of said programmer. This was Canute. My favourite live-coding performance so far was the bizarre glitchy dubstep of Exoterrism. Smartphones unfortunately don’t record any sub-bass frequencies, but here’s a video anyway, throwing us back to the first Algorave of the Netherlands, organised by Fiber & STEIM:

Live coding freaks Felipe Ignacio Noriega & Anne Veinberg (also flying in from the Netherlands with support of Creative Industry Fund NL) brought something else to the table at ICMC 2018. Might I say a paradigm shift? With CodeKlavier they are developing a symbiotic live coding system/instrument that uses the piano as its interface. Wouldn’t that limit Anne’s ability to play piano? Or restrict her in her coding? Well, who cares, ’cause “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister, Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben” (Goethe’s way of saying that restrictions are the source of creativity). Keep up the good work, guys! The performance was fresh as hell.

CodeKlavier at ICMC 2018, Daegu Concert House, Chamber Hall
Daniel V Oppenheim (ICMC and Interdisciplinary Research center on Music and Mind) with Felipe Ignacio Noriega & Anne Veinberg (CodeKlavier)

Protokols – 1. The Listening Space
For my ICMC presentation, I fitted 2 tracks of my Protokols album into the 15 minutes available for presentation. I remixed them into a 10.1 surround mix.

Soundchecking in the ICMC2018 Listening Space (Suchang Hall), Daegu Art Factory
Audio Configuration for Listening Space (Sunchang Hall, Daegu Art Factory)

As you can see in the speaker configuration shown above, the Listening Space offered a 10.1 sound system: 10 audio channels + 1 subwoofer channel. Yet the total number of speakers was 14: the side-speakers were doubled, with both pairs acting as one single speaker. Same for the paired set of subwoofers.

Most speakers were placed at head-level height. The 3 yellow-marked speakers hung from the ceiling to project sound from above.

My 10.1 surrond compilation of Protokols for the ICMC Listening Space

Protokols – 2. The Arrangement
Since I don’t have a 10.1 setup at home, I had to do all of the surround mixing in my head. Any potential tweaking would have to be done after the sound check on the day of the presentation, but fortunately not much of that was needed.

In the arrangement process, I could draw on my earlier experiences of performing Protokols in quadraphonic surround (4 speakers). The Protokols compositions I was arranging (Cirkulae and Xermony), both consists of a lot of layers (audio and MIDI tracks). So I first had to group certain instruments together, making sure that the instruments within each group wouldn’t clash too much in terms of sound spectrum or overlap in time. Subsequently, I distributed these groups over the various channels, in search for a spatial and textural balance.

I didn’t use a lot of dynamic surround panning (sounds moving through/around the space) this time. It was mostly static spatial arrangement. But I did use stereo channels for all instrument groups, which means the I spread out the acoustics (reverberation and echos) of over speaker pairs. In future projects, I want to experiment with (subtle) dynamic approaches as well.

ICMC 2018, Daegu Art Factory, Listening Space (photo by me)

Protokols – 3. Networking
During the conference, I was able to invite a number of people to come listen. I found the experience inspiring and well suitable for friendly networking.

Listening spaces are great for deep/concentrated listening. I am positive that we need more of them on this planet.

I set up a Mailchimp campaign to build a mailing list and to store people’s contacts. Handy. Please sign up here if you’re interested ;).

Protokols – 4. The Interview
Leo Chang interviewed me during the conference, as a part of the ‘ICMC Composers Interview Series’. It was broadcast live via Facebook. Click on the image below to watch it.

Screencap of ICMC 2018 Composers Interview Series

Protokols – 5. More
My reflections on the album can be found in this blog post.

Protokols album art (acrylic on canvas) by Joeri Lefevre

A few more photos from Daegu:

ICMC panel discussion on intersectionality and feminism (pic by me)
Not ICMC. I made a Korean friend in the hostel, and she invited me to join the short film festival DIFF and its afterparty (pic by me).
Panel on the results of the big ICMC survey (pic by me)
One of the presentations at ICMC 2018 (pic by me)

My ICMC 2018 participation was made possible by:

Logo Stimuleringsfonds