From April 20-22, I had the pleasure of attending the SEAMUS 2017 conference in St. Cloud, Minnesota. SEAMUS (The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) is an organization of composers, performers and academics who try to push the intersection of music and technology. I’ve known some of these people for years, and have done drive-by visits to the conference in the past, but this was the first time that I dedicated myself to its entirety.
I've decided to cover this as an ‘artist focus’ article, because the conference has become a performance locale for artists, composers, inventors and academics that share a passion for electro-acoustic music. The result is that it is focused while maintaining its breadth, and feels more like the work of an artistic collective than an arbitrary grouping of individual, disconnected artists.
SEAMUS 2017 was three days of music-tech overload that featured a massive set of concerts, installations and a few select – but exciting – papers and panels. The primary activity of the conference is the presentation of concerts, and there were a pile of them: 13 separate concert setups in all, starting from 9:30am and going until people finally headed out of “The Nest” (a downtown St. Cloud watering hole) long after midnight.
The morning concerts focused on presentation of tech-heavy and surround-focused pieces, often done in a darkened auditorium. There was some amazing sound design work going on here, and the 10-speaker (or so – 10 is what I saw…) surround array made for a great surround experience. One of my favorite pieces was played during the very first concert: Modus Operandi, by Francesco Bossi, used interesting algorithmic composition, granular synthesis and great use of the surround system. Featuring fragments of cello, it combined great processing of warm acoustic tones.
The afternoon concerts featured more live performances – and even occasional visuals. There was a lot of interesting controller action going on here, including things that I’d never seen before. One of these was the use of something called the Gametrak controller, which uses two strings to determine 3D location of the performer’s hands. Two artists (Fang Wan and Chi Wang) used these to great effect on the piece Moving Bits; the development of gestures using these devices was especially effective.
The evenings were the featured performers, with SEAMUS Award recipient Carla Scaletti (designer of the Kyma language and co-founder of Symbolic Sound Corporation). Heavily steeped in science concepts, we got to hear her explorations of strange attractors, sub-atomic particles and boundary conditions. In case this sounds altogether too academic, realize that the attractors were explored by having the whole audience play penny-whistles, and the boundary conditions were represented by balloons (with the occasional POP!).
In addition to the performances, there were a few bits of more “standard fare” for conferences: paper presentations and discussion panels - although these were kept to a minimum. Three good papers were presented, including an overview of virtuosity in electro-acoustic music (by Jeff Kaiser) and an overview of Synth-A-Modeler, a compile-to-anything physical modeling toolkit coming out of LSU. Perhaps the most important discussion was a paper by Chris Dobrian and Molly Jones about promoting more diversity in electronic music graduate programs. This sparked a lively debate; rather than just focusing on ‘how do we get more X’ (where X might be women, people of color or a variety of ages), there was discussion about how the circumstances of university music education might not provide comfortable entry points or might not provide the proper environment for a diverse group. It was a very interesting, and hopefully a program-changing discussion for some of the institutions represented in the audience.
The panels were also pleasantly brief, occupying a single session during one afternoon. Jon Appleton led a discussion about Anti-Aesthetics, while Maja Cerar led a chat about expressivity in Electroacoustic performance. Both were very detailed, and honored the scholarly side of the SEAMUS crowd. But a discussion of the SPLICE (The Summer institute for Performance, Listening, Interpretation, and Creation of Electroacoustic music) project really got people excited, because it also made clear how individuals could get involved in introducing artists to the new possibilities provided by integrating technology into their compositions and performances.
It sometimes seems that conferences like this could fall prey to the easy information access provided by the Internet, but there is nothing like meeting and getting to know the people behind the work. Additionally, the environment is tweaked for this kind of music, with ubiquitous surround in the performance spaces and great high-visibility seating for everyone. I came out of the SEAMUS conference inspired to the teeth, and have scribbled down a notebook worth of ideas for myself based on the things I heard and saw.
An academic music conference might not be for everyone, but it provides a lot more inspiration to the dedicated sonic explorer than you might think. This isn’t a conference of papers and polemics – it’s about performance, and it’ll set your head right!
My thanks to St. Cloud University for hosting this, Dr. Scott Miller for leading the charge, and for SEAMUS for putting this on and letting me join in. It was an amazing experience!