From November 11th-13th 2021 we hosted a symposium to celebrate 50 years of electronic music and audiovisuals at the folkwang university of the arts. With international guests presenting their music and thoughts alongside ICEM teaching staff, we presented six concerts and 12 impulse lectures leading to group discussions. My welcome text from the symposium booklet is copied below.


Welcome to our celebration of 50 Years of Electronic Music and Audiovisuals at the Folkwang University of the Arts. It is our great pleasure, here at the Folkwang’s Institute for Computer Music and Electronic Media, to present this three-day symposium of concerts and discussions with both invited guests and old friends and students.

During these days we will listen to a retrospective of ICEM works produced over the last decades, as well as take stock of the current state of our electronic art, and look forward to the future. ICEM will no doubt continue to enrich the musical and cultural life of our region, of Germany, and of the international music scene at large, just as it has done in the past through the hard work and talent of its many successful alumni—some of whom we are happy to have present at this symposium—as well as of its teachers.

In addition, we are very pleased to have with us six internationally active music-makers to present their thoughts and works:

  1. Ludger BrĂĽmmer: composer and Head of the Hertz-Lab, ZKM Karlsruhe
  2. Marta Gentilucci: independent composer originally from Perugia
  3. Maja Ratkje: independent composer and performer from Norway
  4. Claudia Robles-Angel: independent new media and sound artist born in Bogotá-Colombia, currently living in Cologne
  5. Kees Tazelaar: composer and Head of the Institute of Sonology, The Hague
  6. Hans Tutschku: composer and Fanny P. Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University

In particular we’re thrilled by the breadth of our guests’ experience and praxis. These range from Electroacoustics—or what we often still call Tape Music—to what some nowadays call Electro-Instrumental music, i.e., music combining acoustic instruments and live electronics or fixed media; it ranges from fully pre-composed works, perhaps involving detailed notation of various kinds, to live electronic improvisations with nothing at all fixed in advance; and from purely sonic art with no visual element whatsoever to multi-disciplinary works combining music, dance, theatre, what we also still call film, and/or other time-based visually-focused arts. Some of our guests work within several of these fields, perhaps even within a single piece. We find ourselves in exhilarating times, with many of the technical problems we once faced now finally solved, and with access to electronic music technologies perhaps not universal but certainly open to almost anyone with a computer or even a mobile phone.

What a long way we’ve come then in fifty years. When my distinguished predecessor Dirk Reith first began making electronic music, the digital realm that is second nature to many of us today was a mere theoretical promise at best. The analogue electronic music world was reality and the studio was its temple, but only for an initiated and lucky few. If you’ll excuse the pun, analogies are imperfect at best but perhaps we might allow that switching from analogue to digital techniques for electronic music production is a little like switching from swimming to running. Both might allow you to accomplish a 100m sprint in an impressively short amount of time but what you have to do in order to reach your goal is very different. Plus, one sport will get you there an awful lot quicker than the other, no matter who you are. In the electronic music world, to see things rather simplistically, analogue is faster—the speed of light, in fact. But is it better? Well, maybe we’ll get into that almost inevitable discussion during our symposium but certainly not here. The point is that for Dirk Reith and colleagues to make the switch from analogue to digital technologies as smoothly as they did, by all accounts, was… well, perhaps not miraculous, but highly laudable at the very least. To move from tape splicing, analogue synthesiser patching, sound manipulation in real-time with physical faders and knobs, to hybrid systems of digitally-controlled analogue synthesisers, and on to the endless coding-waiting-listening cycle of mid-80s computer music composition—this was by no means easy for any practitioner. Many didn’t make it (Stockhausen, for instance). Just as many transitioned but sorely missed the physical gesture celebrated in analogue electronic music. Certainly no one found particularly seductive the initial shift to command-line anything-but-real-time digital sound synthesis programmed on, by today’s standards, frustratingly slow and primitive computers.

But the sound. Yes, the sound. We’re at the point now—after decades of striving towards sonic perfection, noiseless electronic music circuits, and digital systems of infinite possibilities—where we can, and some regularly do, reach back to those wonderful analogue systems such as the Synlab, which Dirk Reith commissioned from Hofschneider and is still in use after first being installed in 1978; where we can mix and match from an enormous range of tools, according to our needs and desires; where we can grab some digital synthesis and shuffle it through gooey analogue tape saturation, digitise it again, and mix it with beautifully recorded vocals captured using a microphone from the 1950s and a digitally-controlled preamp from 2018, before passing the mix back through analogue hardware for a bit more pizzazz. Fantastic, no?

So what, in amongst all of this, is the job of the Professor of Electronic Composition in 2021? Well, twofold in its aims at least, in my view. I still need to constantly raise awareness of the aesthetic benefits of the electronic or digital approach to composition, but at the same time I have the goal of eradicating my field. That is of course a curious and provocative statement, but I believe we must get to the point where the composer’s choice of acoustic instruments versus electronics is no longer based on stark distinctions between technical disciplines or opposing aesthetic-philosophical worldviews, but merely a musical decision. Yes, we need to rigorously teach the approaches necessary to gain the deepest insights and reap the most advantages from electronic music techniques, but these should become so natural to the composer that reaching for those tools is hardly different, in terms of technical hurdles at least, to choosing to write for the piano as opposed to the oboe. So at some point we’ll merelyteach composition, via whatever means and with whatever resources the musical objective requires. When we achieve this, then the electronic in composition disappears and we are left with music in all its many-hued facets and aesthetics. (And after all, music has been highly technological ever since the first instruments were invented, so there is really no need to continue to force the distinction.) Until then, it’s back to the horrors of patching and coding and number crunching for sample-by-sample sound synthesis, all in combination with the integrative approach to composition and education: separate, investigate, ruminate, integrate, and celebrate.

Michael Edwards, Professor of Electronic Composition, ICEM, Folkwang UdK

Share Button