Buxton, W. (1986), A (Highly) Selective View of Canadian Electroacoustic Music, MUSICANADA, 57, June, 5-6.


A (Highly) Selective View of

Canadian Electroacoustic Music

Bill Buxton


Canada's contribution to the development of electroacoustic music is important. I'll go even farther: Canada's contribution to electroacoustic music is out of all proportion to its population or the support (financial or moral) that it has received. And, in a most unCanadian way, I believe that we should recognize this contribution, and feel good about it.

I'm not a historian. Nor was I active in the early days of development. What I'd like to do in this limited space is give a personal view of what I have seen that makes me feel so strongly about all of this. (And in so doing, I apologize in advance to all those whose work and contribution I omit.)

For many of us, the "godfather" of electronic music in Canada was High LeCaine. What he did was inspire two generations of composers with the instruments that he invented, his compositions, and his energy. LeCaine viewed his inventions as instruments, and designed them with "feel" and playability in mind. In this, as in so many other ways, he was way ahead of his time.

My own introduction to electronic music came at Queen's University, where David Keane was given a mandate by Istvan Anhalt to construct a studio for the Music Department. For me that was a great period, since I had excellent instruction, and the chance to help build a studio from the ground up.

It was during that period that I started to work at the NRC (National Research Council). There I met LeCaine and was exposed to serious instrument design. But I also discovered Ken Pulfer and his Wonderful Music Machine. This was, in typical Canadian fashion, one of the most innovative, ahead-of-its-time computer music systems never to be heard of.

In 1970 Ken Pulfer and a student, Peter Tanner, built a system at NRC that could do things that are still not common practice, even today. It had real-time sound synthesis, music notation on the screen that scrolled during playback, a keyboard, and music printing. But most important, it was easy to use. In fact, it was probably the first computer music system in the world that was really designed with musicians in mind as users. While few people know about it, many have benefited indirectly, as this NRC system was the main inspiration for my own designs at the University of Toronto in the 1970's, as well as having a large influence on the design of the Experimental Music Studio at MIT.

After leaving Queen's, I spent two years studying and teaching at the Institute of Sonology at Utrecht. What I met on arrival was the legacy of another Canadian, Barry Truax. Barry was on his way back to take on the World Soundscape Project (started by Murray Schafer) at Simon Fraser University. However, while at Utrecht, he designed a compositional system called POD6 which has now been in constant use in Europe and Canada for over a decade. What Barry did was develop a system which brought to the hands of rank-and-file composer tools which allowed them to build upon the musical foundation laid by Xenakis. His work was outstanding, and brought him deserved world-class attention.

Not all instrument design done in Canada has grown out of "academic" music, however. While Truax was back in Vancouver, a studio musician, Ralph Dyck, was busy soldering away building one of the first programmable portable sequencers. His original prototype was picked up by Roland Corporation and became the parent of their current state-of-the-art line of sequencers.
But all of this discussion of instruments and hardware need not be historical. The tradition is continuing, most notably with the work of Bruce Pennycook and his colleagues in Kingston. They have recently developed computer-based audio signal processing hardware, which I believe will be the environment on which the next generation of electroacoustic composers and performers will develop their craft.

What the reader could now be asking, however, is "if all of these instruments and systems were so wonderful, where is the music?" Fair enough. My glib answer is to say it is in exactly the same place as most other contemporary music - neglected. But the question deserves a more serious answer. Canada's composers and performers of electroacoustic music deserve special mention.

LeCaine's instruments provided the foundation for the electronic music studios at both the University of Toronto and McGill (among the first half dozen electronic music studios in North America). Hence, a major aspect of his impact was through the students who were exposed to them during their studies at those institutions. Some of those students went on to become institutions themselves. Perhaps most notable among them were David Jaeger, Larry Lake, James Montgomery, and David Grimes, known collectively as the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE). If anyone is responsible for promoting live electronic music in this country, it is they. The CEE is probably the longest-lived ensemble for live electronic music in the world. They have performed concerts throughout North America and Europe, commissioned over 100 original compositions, and performed with some of the Nation's leading instrumentalists and ensembles (most recently the Toronto Symphony).

Meanwhile, on the pop scene, John Mills-Cockell was pioneering the use of synthesizers in the bands Kensington Market and Syrinx. It was probably through John's hands that a generation of Canadians had their first exposure to the synthesizer.

Because of the studio at McGill, and more recently at Concordia, the University of Montreal and at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Montreal has developed a very active scene as well. Sonde and ACREQ, for example, are two active and long-lived societies specializing in electroacoustic music. In addition, a regular series of concerts is now presented by Kevin Austin and his colleagues at Concordia (who also publish a newsletter for the Canadian Electroacoustic community).

One place to hear a good cross section of Canadian electroacoustic music is the annual Festival of Live Electronic Music sponsored by the Music Gallery in Toronto. However, one need not travel so far, since similar festivals are now being staged in other parts of the country, such as Quebec City and Winnipeg, and Barry Truax organizes a regular series of concerts in Vancouver  The new festival in Quebec is organized by Nil Parent who, besides running the studio at Laval, has also recently invented a new, powerful digital synthesizer.

Competitions are the springboard for many composers and performers. Electroacoustic music is no different in this regard. Two such competitions are those in Bourges (France) and Stockholm. Hardly a year goes by without at least one Canadian prize winner in these world-wide events. John Celona, of Victoria, won a major prize at Bourges last year. But he is just the latest in a group that includes Philippe Menard, David Keane, Barry Truax. and many others. And in the February 1986 issue of Keyboard magazine, you will find a photo of Montreal's Alain Theibault, who just won a competition sponsored by the magazine.

Electroacoustic music is a critical part of our musical life. It offers growth, excitement, and relevance. It is a catalyst that may help draw a few more fence-sitters into making a commitment to a life in music. In these times, I find it only fitting that technology provide, through art, a partial solution to some of the problems that it has helped create. In helping demonstrate that technology can serve the humanities and improve the quality of life - musical and otherwise - I think that Canadians have played an outstanding role. And I wonder; if we have been able to accomplish so much with such limited support, what could we do in the future if provided with the resources?