Music, Digitisation, Mediation: Towards Interdisciplinary Music Studies

Digital Mediation and Aesthetic Change in Montreal Art Music

By Patrick Valiquet

A benefits sharing report for this study can be accessed on our Outputs page.

Research in the predominantly French-Canadian city of Montreal was conducted between 2011 and 2013. Ethnography was combined with archival studies and oral history to develop a long-term view of the city’s diverse traditions of audio art and electroacoustic music production, focusing on the changing entanglement of digital technologies in the construction of musical literacies, aesthetics and histories. Recent decades have seen significant institutional and industrial changes affecting how digital technology is deployed among cultural producers in the city. These changes are catalysed by the work of a closely connected network of musicians, researchers and entrepreneurs, linked to various strands of the city’s musical heritage, and drawing upon a variety of public and private sources of support. Despite declining record sales, small independent labels have continued to play a key role in the local music scene, and digital technologies have also generated new trajectories for professionalisation and entrepreneurialism, especially in the areas of multimedia spectacle, commercial design, advertising, and video games. The project developed multiple interlocking perspectives on the aesthetic and practical repercussions of digitalisation in this unique institutional and industrial ecology, providing productive contrasts with the parallel study of art music education in the UK by comparing university and non-university programmes, and by focusing on local cultural politics.

First, it charted changes in the construction and circulation of musical literacies, modes of apprenticeship, and professionalisation. The expansion of art and technology research in the universities, for example, has inspired the development of hybridised models of musical training which reposition creative practice in relation to science and engineering research. The impact of initiatives to stimulate a growing ‘knowledge economy’ has also been felt in the city’s high-profile festival industry, which has been a focal point in the rebranding of the city as a technological hub since the second sovereignty referendum in 1995 (Germain and Rose 2000). At the same time approaches have emerged within the city’s long established network of artist-run centres and informal collectives, favouring low-cost, recycled or hacked technologies, and encouraging critical participation from groups traditionally marginalised by the institutions of high-technology, notably women and artists without formal education. Skills and theoretical understandings have been reconfigured under these conditions in ways which both reproduce entrenched genre distinctions and engender new ones.

Second, the subproject compared the ways different local scenes have engendered and made sense of aesthetic and technological change. Drawing upon primary archival sources and oral histories of institutional and industrial engagements with digital technology since the 1970s, as well as close-range case studies of classroom, studio, promotion and performance practices, processes of translation between technical innovations and genre-specific canons were followed at multiple time scales. While historical narratives associated with the western art music tradition herald a coming era of global digital democratisation and convergence, the diversity of accounts gathered among local musicians highlights how the theorisation of technical and aesthetic change still involves social and economic frictions and asymmetries.

Comparative investigations were conducted at several key sites. First, along with intensive examinations of the undergraduate programme in electroacoustic studies at Concordia University, long-term aesthetic transformations in the teaching of electroacoustic composition were compared between Concordia, McGill University, and Université de Montréal. Second, efforts to reform the funding of digital art by the provincial arts council (CALQ) were connected to recent aesthetic and organizational shifts involving both the city’s internationally-recognized digital art and music festivals Elektra and MUTEK, and a new crop of artist-run institutions devoted to digital art, including Eastern Bloc, Perte de Signal, Studio XX, and The User. Finally, the project investigated a broad set of counter-narratives of the impact of digital technologies on creative practice, engaging with key interlocutors in the city’s electronic dance music, noise, and audio art scenes.

The audio embedded in the sidebar presents a sampler of audio art and experimental electronic music produced in Montreal before 2010. The selection features local artists who contributed to the ethnographic study.

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