Electroacoustic Music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Electroacoustic Music

Electroacoustic music. Term which designates a musical orientation based on the use of electroacoustic devices for the conception, production, presentation, storage and/or cognition of works.
Term which designates a musical orientation based on the use of electroacoustic devices for the conception, production, presentation, storage and/or cognition of works. Electroacoustics uses sound sources as diverse as natural sounds (which can be picked up by microphone), analog electronics (produced by equipment such as synthesizers) and digital (generated or processed by digital means). These sources may subsequently be processed and organized by electroacoustic techniques or by digital means before, in many cases, being stored on or presented by an electromagnetic medium. In actual fact, electroacoustics cover a complex of artistic production and research, ranging from a simple concert presentation or pedagogical application to an elaborate combination of multi-media events covering all degrees of combinations of instruments and electroacoustic means and computer-based research, not to mention the types of music which accompany dance, theatre, the visual arts, installations, among others, as well as the sonorization of locations, ambient and environmental musics, advertising, cinema, special effects, etc. The frontiers of electroacoustics are flexible and adapt themselves as much to the contours of technological evolution as to creative innovations. That is why the generic term is chosen to indicate that electroacoustics are no longer the prerogative of musicians alone.

There are three principal aspects to consider, to understand the development of electroacoustics in Canada: the university institutions (groups) responsible for the major part of Canadian electroacoustic activity; the composers' groups, which subdivide into ensembles, societies or associations and whose role is gradually growing; and individuals, often recognized as pioneers, who greatly contributed to the field. Moreover, it is essential to lay stress on technological evolution and its impact on the general flowering of electroacoustics, especially from the early 1970s on.

See also Electronic musical instruments, Mixed media, New-music societies and ensembles

University Institutions

It was mainly in university institutions that electroacoustics truly got underway in Canada. The practice of electroacoustics is still largely centered there and nearly all major universities have one or more studios. They represent the preferred places for the apprenticeship of composers and for those who wish to familiarize themselves with electroacoustics.

The first studio (the second in North America) opened its doors in 1959 at the University of Toronto, under the prompting of Arnold Walter, with the collaboration of Hugh Le Caine who was then director of the National Research Council's Electronic Music Laboratory (ELMUS) in Ottawa. The first director of the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS) was Myron Schaeffer (1908-65), succeeded by Harvey Olnick, and in 1965 by Gustav Ciamaga. The latter was one of the first Canadian pioneers of computer music applications. Since then, the University of Toronto has remained known for computer music applications, involving such individuals as Norma Beecroft, William Buxton, Bruno Degazio, John Free, James Gabura, and David Jaeger. Notable among their major productions are the PIPER II, Outperform and the Midiforth and the SSSP (Structured Sound Synthesis Project).

McGill University followed in 1964 with the founding of the McGill Electronic Music Studio (EMS). István Anhalt was also assisted there by Le Caine. Anhalt had already composed four works entitled 'Electronic Composition' and organized at McGill University (1959) the first concert of tape music in Canada. After Anhalt, the studio director was Paul Pedersen 1971-4 and, after 1974, Alcides Lanza, joined in 1988 by Bruce Pennycook. After acquiring one of the first Moog synthesizers (1969), then a complete Synclavier system, the EMS now also contains a complete MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) studio.

Two years after Cortland Hultberg had opened a studio at University of British Columbia in 1965, R. Murray Schafer and Anthony Gnazzo founded the Sonic Research Studio at Simon Fraser University. Schafer soon became internationally renowned, due not only to his music, but to the World Soundscape Project which gave birth to the concept of sonic landscape. With the collaboration of several musicians and researchers such as Barry Truax, Bruce Davis, Peter Huse, Howard Broomfield, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Jean Piché, Schafer studied the acoustic and socio-acoustic environment of our cities and of our cultures and proposed a new approach to the problems of noise and sound quality in urban areas. At the same time he invited the composer to become actively involved in this process. Barry Truax, who succeeded Philip Werren as director of the studio in 1975, is also known for his computer program (POD), and for his original sound-synthesis program, 'granular synthesis'. Martin Gotfrit and Martin Bartlett also contributed to music computer applications in that same university.

Three other studios were established during the 1960s in educational institutions. In 1966, the RCMT became the first conservatory in Canada to set up a studio. Samuel Dolin was the first director and Wes Wraggett succeeded him in 1978. After that, a studio was inaugurated at the Ontario College of Education in 1968 by Richard Henninger. Finally, Nil Parent founded the first francophone studio in the country, the Laval University Studio de musique électronique (SMEUL) in Quebec City in 1969. Nil Parent is also the author of two lexicons of French terminology on synthesis and he is also an inventor of digital instruments.

The development in university studios intensified in the next decade. It included York University (1970, set up by James Tenney); University of Calgary (1970, Warren Rowley); Queen's University (1970, David Keane) where a music computer section was also set up with Bruce Pennycook; Dalhousie University (1971, Steve Tittle); University of Victoria (1971, Rudolf Komorous) where John Celona directed the Sonic Lab Ensemble 1982-9; the University of Saskatchewan (1972, Richard W. Wedgewood); University of Western Ontario (1972, Peter Clements); Carleton University (1974, David Piper); University of Guelph (1978, Charles Wilson); and Wilfrid Laurier University (1978, Owen Underhill).

Between 1971 and 1976, Kevin Austin set up the Concordia University studio in Montreal, directing it alone until 1991 when Mark Corwin became co-director, except for the years 1986 to 1989 when the studio was entrusted to Jean-François Denis. During this same period, the Groupe informatique-musique of the University of Montreal, which brought together, under Éric Regener's leadership, Walter Boudreau, Jean-Marie Cloutier, Robert Dupuy, Alain Fortin, Daniel Hennequin, Robert Léonard, Denis Lorrain, Jean-Louis Richer, and Pierre Trochu, with the timely aid of Louise Gariépy and the Laboratoire d'acoustique, contributed to the establishment of an electronic studio in 1980. Marcelle Deschênes, with the academic assistance of Francis Dhomont and Jean Piché, organized a program of electroacoustic composition at the bachelor, master, and doctoral levels.

Finally, studios devoted to the use of electroacoustics were introduced to the CMQ in 1978 and to the CMM in 1980. Yves Daoust was in charge of teaching, as was Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux at the CMM 1971-4.

Composers' Groups

By forming their own groups, composers were provided with the means of presentation and promotion. Several organizations were thus set up, supporting to various degrees the develoment of electroacoustics in Canada. Three types of association can be distinguished: ensembles for the performance of works in concerts; concert societies, most often subsidized, whose principal goal is the organization of concert seasons; and associations, which offer an ensemble of services to their members.

The first important association for contemporary music was the SMCQ. Initiated by Jean Papineau-Couture, Jean Vallerand and Wilfrid Pelletier, who were later joined by Maryvonne Kendergi, Hugh Davidson, and Serge Garant, the founding of the SMCQ in 1966 laid the groundwork for subsequent organizations. The SMCQ concerts were representative of music composed in Canada and elsewhere, and made a place for composers and electroacoustic devices which were more and more integrated into instrumental works.

New Music Concerts is the Toronto counterpart to the SMCQ. Founded in 1971 by Norma Beecroft and Robert Aitken, this organization, still run by the latter in 1991, has pursued a sustained program of concerts, which has included premieres of contemporary music.

The Canadian Electronic Ensemble, founded in 1971 by David Grimes, David Jaeger, Larry Lake and James Montgomery, was one of the first Canadian groups to devote itself to live electronic music. It set up its own studio in 1973. The ensemble has produced and commissioned several works and by 1991 had half-a-dozen recordings to its credit.

Following the same route, Nil Parent founded GIMEL (Groupe d'interprétation de musique électroacoustique de Laval) in Quebec City in 1973, whereas in Montreal, the groupe Sonde (Charles de Mestral, Pierre Dostie, Christopher Howard, Robin Minard, Keith Daniel and Andrew Culver) appeared in 1976. The musicians of Sonde built their own instruments, improvised live electronic music and collaborated with visual artists until 1988, when the group ceased its activities.

After MetaMusic 1971-8, which brought together Kevin Austin, Howard Abrams, Dawn Luke, Martin Gotfrit, Ross McAuley, and David Sutherland, Austin set up the Concordia Electroacoustic Composers Group in 1982 (becoming in 1989 the Concordia University Electroacoustics) with Daniel Feist, Dave Lindsay, James Tallon, and John Wells. In addition to a series of annual concerts, the group has managed a tape library of more than 1100 works, listed by Jean-François Denis in the publications Q/Résonance and Q/Résonance Addendum.

The Music Gallery of Toronto, devoted to all musical and artistic tendencies, began in 1976 with Allan Mattes and Peter Anson of the CCMC. A considerable number of events and composers have been presented there. The director of the Music Gallery in 1991 was James Montgomery.

In Montreal, ACREQ (Association pour la création et la recherche électroacoustiques du Québec) was launched in 1977 by Yves Daoust, Marcelle Deschênes, Michel Longtin, Philippe Ménard, Jean Sauvageau, and Pierre Trochu. ACREQ devotes itself exclusively to electroacoustics and is responsible for presenting in Canada many influential composers and groups such as the Groupe de musique expérimentale de Bourges, Charles Dodge, Pierre Henry, Léo Küpper, Luc Ferrari, François Bayle, Alain Savouret, and others. In 1983 the Printemps électroacoustique launched one of the first electroacoustic music festivals on a Canada-wide basis.

It was nevertheless the mandate of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), however, to establish a liaison among Canadian composers working in this field. The CEC, which was formed in 1986, following the initiative of Kevin Austin, and of Jean-François Denis, was the first truly pan-Canadian organization for electroacoustics. A national information network was set up as were the Electroacoustic Days which are held periodically in a different city of the country. These CEC Days, the most important electroacoustic event in Canada, have allowed the presentation and the creation of a large number of works and provide members with the opportunity to take stock of common projects. TheCEC also has published six bilingual Newletters, as well as the periodical Contact (1988-), which regularly informs its members of national and international electroacoustic activities. An agreement was negotiated in 1988 between the CEC and the Canadian Music Centre to establish a national electroacoustic archive.

Other groups also contributed to the growth of electroacoustics in Canada. These include the Group of the Electronic Music Studio (GEMS) created in 1983 at McGill University by Alcides Lanza, John Oliver and Claude Schryer; the group ARRAYMUSIC of Toronto with Henry Kucharzyk and Linda C. Smith; the Vancouver New Music Society; the COMUS Music Theatre; the NOVA MUSIC ensemble; the group Numus with Peter Hatch in Kitchener-Waterloo; the New Directions Ensemble with Jeffrey Bush and Thomas Schudel in Regina; and the Music Inter Alia with Diana McIntosh in Winnipeg. In Quebec, the following groups should also be mentioned: the Événements du neuf (1978-90), the Assn de musique actuelle de Québec, the Société des concerts alternatifs du Québec, and Musiques itinérantes founded by Michelle Boudreau.


As early as the 1950s, many composers outside universities and associations contributed to the promotion of electroacoustics in Canada. The majority can be considered pioneers and their contribution to the first manifestations of electroacoustics in Canada should not be forgotten.

The outstanding personality of these early years was without question Hugh Le Caine. After studies in music and physics, he became involved in the exploration of new sound sources for composers. He invented several instruments, ancestors of today's synthesizers, such as the Sackbut, the Polyphonic (PAULY) synthesizer, the Serial Sound Structure Generator, as well as a touch-sensitive electronic keyboard, a multi-track tape-recorder, etc. Within the National Research Council in Ottawa, Le Caine was the director of the Electronic Music Laboratory (ELMUS) and he laid the foundations for the first studios in Toronto, at McGill University, and at Queen's University. The National Research Council also engaged the research worker Ken Pulfer who developed, from 1968 to 1972, a computer music system.

One must not overlook the special contribution of Maurice Blackburn. Special, because it is in the cinema that Blackburn played his first 'collages,' 'etchings,' and other manipulations which can be associated with musique concrète. His collaboration with the filmaker Norman McLaren at the NFB remains famous and several of the animated films produced jointly (especially Blinkety Blank) have received international honours. The Toronto composer Louis Applebaum benefited from this influence in a series of short studies created between 1950 and 1955.

On his return from France in 1952, Serge Garant undertook to promote new music. In addition to being the composer of the first mixed media music piece (combining tape and traditional instruments) in Canada, Nucléogame, Garant played a determining role in the presentation of contemporary music, including electroacoustics.

For their part, Otto Joachim and Udo Kasemets attracted attention as soon as they arrived in Canada. Joachim was one of the first to build his own studio and he promoted the use of synthesizers. He was entrusted with the sonic environment for Katimavik, the Canadian pavillion at Expo 67. As for Kasemets, he established contact with the US avant-garde. He is responsible for bringing to Canada several of its representatives, including Gordon Mumma, John Cage, and Alvin Lucier, and the organization of the experimental arts festivals. Kasemets was one of the very first to explore multi-media art, that is the combination of electroacoustics and other artistic manifestations.

Gilles Tremblay returned from Paris in 1961 with two Exercises composed within the framework of the newly created Groupe de recherches musicales by Pierre Schaeffer. Although Tremblay did not pursue this course, it nevertheless can be traced as an influence in the writing of several of his works, including the sound effects for the Quebec Pavillion at Expo 67.

The contribution of Pierre Mercure, who died in 1966, was crucial during these early years. Involved in the major artistic trends of the period (including the Automatistes, an important Quebec artistic group who signed the 1948 Refus global manifesto), and a fierce champion of new music, Mercure was the first in Quebec to combine electroacoustics with film or dance. He was to have been the first artistic director of the SMCQ.

After Paris, where she had come into contact with electroacoustics, and founded the Groupe international de musique électroacoustique de Paris in 1969, Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux composed many works for mixed media and for tape alone. She was teaching electroacoustic composition at the CMM before her death in 1985.

Norma Beecroft learned electroacoustic techniques very early on, first at the University of Toronto with Myron Schaeffer, then at New York's Columbia-Princeton U, in Utrecht and in Stockholm. She was an active collaborator in the conceptualization of computer music applications and the author of many works of mixed media.

Finally, one cannot overlook the production of Michel Longtin who composed numerous electroacoustic works for tape and for dance during the 1970s.

The 1980s

If most of the major studios were set up during the 1970s, it is mostly during the next decade that they were consolidated and expanded. Moreover, many organizations or services now function around or outside institutions and are making a sustained effort to stimulate electroacoustics.

In addition to the University of Ottawa with Michael Bussière and the University of Waterloo with David Harrison, the Banff CA is now equipped with a studio. Within the framework of the media arts program, directed by Michael Century, assisted by Maureen Lee and Claude Schryer, the Banff CA is the host of important electroascoustic events. Mention must also be made of the teaching program set up at the University of Alberta, directed by George Arasimowicz.

The Sound Symposium which is presented every two years in St John's, Nfld, is a large artistic festival where sound and electroacoustics are in the forefront. Don Wherry has been artistic director from its founding in 1983.

The media hasnot lagged behind. David Olds' radio broadcasts 'Transfigured Night,' on CKLN radio in Toronto, and 'CBC's Two New Hours' and 'Musique actuelle,' not to mention the numerous community or university radio stations, regularly offer a perspective of Canadian and international electroacoustic activity. David Olds has commissioned several premieres of works for his radio program.

In 1989 the group Diffusion i MéDIA ( Jean-François Denis, Claude Schryer, directors) was created, and is responsible for the compact disc label empreintes DIGITAL es devoted to electroacoustic works, while in 1990, RCI released as vol37 of its Anthology of Canadian Music, an album exclusively devoted to this genre (4-ACM 37). Furthermore many recordings appear in the individual entries devoted to composers and groups mentioned in this article.

Finally the increase of private studios, composers' competitions sponsored by performing rights associations, or radio competitions, various electroacoustic groups or associations (ie, the New Digital Orchestra or the Canadian MIDI Users Group), inventors, (ie, the 2000 Delta Music Research of Tim Lawrence, the FDSS synthesis module of the Lyre Company, the Technos company of Nil Parent or various music on micro-computers, eg, Eric Johnstone), the more and more frequent use of electroacoustic devices in cinema, the theatre, the visual arts, video art, multi-media arts, dance, advertising etc, will give a better idea of the energy that drives the Canadian electroacoustic scene.

There also are various festivals or events devoted to electroacoustics. In addition to those already cited, mention must be made of the festival Music Here & Now at Hamilton organized by Elma Miller, the Fifth Stream Festival at Wilfrid Laurier University in 1989 with the participation of Numus, and the Annual Computer Music Weekend at Simon Fraser University (begun in 1969), under the direction of Barry Truax. In 1985 the latter organized the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) there, an event which is held annually in a different country and which brings together the principal researchers and practitioners of computer music. It was held at McGill University in 1991. Finally, reference must be made to two international competitions held in Canada: one organized by Robert Pritchard at Brock University in 1985, and Électro-Clip, coordinated by Myke Roy, and sonpsored by ACREQ which was held in Montreal in 1990.

Not to be overlooked in this flowering, is the enormous impact of technological change. With the appearance of micro-processors in musical instruments, with the development of an information exchange protocol between these instruments (MIDI), and with the rapid increase in the number and power of computer programs - very long and very expensive by traditional means - numerous creators were provided access to means unattainable in 1980.

These means are no longer the exclusive domain of the musical world and that is a key aspect in the originality of the electroacoustic genre. Artists of diverse orientations can benefit from the common tools which enable constructive interaction, and stimulate cross-cultural activity, particularly between European roots and the North-American reality.

Further Reading