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International Computer Music Conference

New Ways of Thinking about Music from Artificial Intelligence

The international community of composers and researchers in computer music met online for seven days for the world's largest event in this area, organized by Universidad Católica. The participants highlighted the stylistic variety presented and the new visibility of the Southern Cone.

a man working in front of a computer with lots of wires

In 47 years, the International Computer Music Conference, ICMC 2021, was held in South America for the first time. It is the largest event of its kind in the world, and this year the venue was Santiago, Chile. 

It was initially scheduled for 2020, but due to the Covid-19 global health emergency, the meeting was postponed to 2021. Eventually, the conference was online due to the rise in contagion rates and air travel restrictions.

Las July, more than 300 exhibitors from 47 countries showcased their latest research and creations in the field of computer music on the International Computer Music Conference 2021 platform.

Ninety papers were presented, and there were also master lectures, workshops, and debates. 

There was also a rich artistic program, with 22 concerts, two listening rooms, 18 sound installations, and ten works composed for virtual reality.

The event was organized by Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (the UC Faculty of Arts and the UC Institute of Music) and had more than 350 registered participants. 

"In terms of the number of concerts, attendees, and presentations, it worked similar to a face-to-face version. The lesson is that the virtual format did not diminish the typical characteristics of the conference," said Rodrigo Cadiz. He is chair of ICMC 2021 and a professor at the UC Institute of Music and the UC School of Engineering.

This composer and electrical engineer received very positive feedback locally and from the International Computer Music Association. 

"Everyone was thrilled. People didn't think a conference could work so well in a virtual format. However, it wasn't just a collection of videos shown. There was a community present every day, attending concerts and talks, and even a debate. We managed to emulate the physical conference as best we could," explained Professor Cadiz.

The Chilean Tradition of Computer Music

Santiago was not chosen as a venue by accident. 

In this city, Chilean composer León Schidlowsky composed Nacimiento (1956), the first electroacoustic work in Latin America. 

In 1958, Chilean composer José Vicente Asuar created the first electronic music laboratory in Latin America, at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. 

These Chilean pioneers were commemorated through concerts and a listening room at ICMC 2021 and the central topic of the conference: "The Virtuoso Computer: Redefining Boundaries."

The title alluded to the vinyl El computador virtuoso (1973) by José Vicente Asuar, who in 1978 created the first computer entirely dedicated to making music in the region. The mythical COMDASUAR.

Professor Cadiz noted three keynote lectures addressed the central theme of the event: 

"The theme of the conference was cross-cutting and was addressed in many papers, which generated interest. The questions were whether a computer itself could be virtuoso, whether the computer performer can be a virtuoso, or the concept of virtuosity in this kind of music. People were motivated to think about it, and that doesn't always happen," said Rodrigo Cádiz. He has participated in every event since 2004.

Locally, it is often unfeasible for artists and researchers in this field to attend conferences because of travel costs. 

However, a more significant number of Chilean and Latin American exhibitors participated in this edition, representing new visibility for computer music made and used in the region.

"I think that today with this conference, the rest of the participants consider Latin America is as important and relevant as Europe and the United States. They got to know the music made here in the '50s and '60s. They saw active composers here, and there are many articles and music made in Latin America," explained Professor Cadiz.

A digital concert also presented an overview of current Latin American composition by selecting the VI Festival de Música Electroacústica UC (VI UC Chile Electroacoustic Music Festival). 

"Together with the listening room dedicated to the pioneers of Chilean electroacoustic music, this made the work of composers from this sector of the world visible," said composer Antonio Carvallo. He is the music chair of ICMC 2021 and a professor at the UC Chile Institute of Music.

The composer Patricio de la Cuadra, professor at the UC Institute of Music and the UC Faculty of Engineering, as well as Paper Chair of ICMC 2021, highlighted the intervention of one of the keynote speakers, Chris Chafe: 

"He took on the theme of the conference 'The Virtuoso Computer' to critically reflect on virtuosity and its autonomy. He related it to the expressive possibilities of electronic music, human perception, and the relationship between hands and cognition."  

This journey, he said, was "…a beautiful, poetic, historical and passionate account of one of the great masters and educators of music with computers." 

For composer Tomás Koljatic, professor at the UC Institute of Music and Music Chair of ICMC 2021, one of the highlights was the presentation "Generative Music Systems Tutorial," by Canadian researcher Philippe Pasquier:

"It was a master class. He conveyed a panoramic view of artificial intelligence applied to different aspects of music: from the earliest attempts to the most recent techniques. The class took four hours or so, which is also the length of an opera. It was intense."

The artistic program, which allowed hundreds of compositions to be presented, confirmed the wide aesthetic and linguistic variety that computer music currently exhibits. 

This repertoire, plus the seven days of presentations, demonstrated the privileged place of AI.

"I believe that these artificial intelligence technologies are probably going to take more and more space in different aspects of music: in composition, sound generation, synthesis, etc.," asserted Tomás Koljatic.

Professor Patricio de la Cuadra agreed: "Artificial intelligence, and especially complex neural networks, i.e., deep learning, are positioning themselves strongly in almost all technical and scientific disciplines. Computer music is no exception. They are compelling in Musical Information Retrieval. That is to say, in extracting information from audio signals. But they are also powerful at classifying, looking for hidden patterns, generalizing behaviors, and creating novel sound material."

Another trend has to do with the very nature of the electroacoustic composition. 

"It was interesting to see an important number of pieces in the musical program that had visual counterparts. João Pedro Oliveira's presentation was precisely about the intersections between music and the visual arts," commented professor Tomás Koljatic. 

This observation opens an academic question: "To what extent are the curricula that have the conservatory approach not preparing us to address these issues?"

Throughout ICMC 2021, there were a series of lectures and works that showed "a less traditional way of thinking about music. There is a critical reflection on technology. It is the most interesting thing, a critical reflection coming from technology. And it is relevant because it is not about technology as a mere tool. Still, technology itself is a place for reflection", emphasized Music Chair Antonio Carvallo.

In addition, ICMC emerged as a space for analysis of the discipline itself and its resources and how computer music is consolidating as an expressive medium to address social issues.

Professor Carvallo explained: "There was a wide range of topics. Within that, I consider two extremes. There were fascinating technical talks on how to work with algorithms. And at another end, there was a talk on how these new technological resources are linked to political activism in Mexico, Colombia, and other places in Latin America." 

"Reflecting on music starting from a technological point of view also leads us to work that could very well be linked to the social sciences, and that caught my attention. Because it has to do not only with thinking about how I make music from here, but also what it means to make music from here."


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