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Historical Notes [1964-1990]

These historical notes concerning the McGill Electronic Music Studio were initially published in the souvenir program of the EMS festival, December 1990. Original chronicle by Kevin Austin, Founder of the Concordia University Studio and a founding member of the CEC. Updated by alcides lanza, 2001. Transcribed and edited by Ian Knopke.

The McGill University EMS, while not the oldest Canadian university studio, must be recognized as Canada's pre-eminent electroacoustic studio complex in terms of age, continuity, activity, support, production, diversity and profile in the electroacoustic arts in Canada. A brief look at the lists of composers who have worked in the studios, the dozen or so teachers, compositions that have achieved international recognition, studio related concerts (more than 100 since 1967), world premieres and other performances, immediately demonstrates the breadth and vitality of electroacoustic activity at McGill.

The confluence of exceptional administrative support, insightful curricular development, energetic teachers, composers and technical support, a tremendous flexibility in aesthetic approaches, prudent equipment acquisitions and the physical location of an anglophone institution within a francophone region has provided the rich soil, nutrients and life-giving atmosphere for this very special place.

The term electronic music has given way to the word electroacoustics in many circles, the voltage controlled synthesizer has moved from center-stage to the garage as the discussions have moved away from broken patch-chords(sic) to kHz sampling rates, megabyte programs and gigabyte files. It is possible to see the history of electroacoustics in Canada through three overlapping periods, each marked by its own philosophy, technology and aesthetics, with the McGill University electroacoustic studios having been active and vital through all three. The 'classical studio' period (1950s to c1970), the 'modern period (c1970-1984) ushered in by the appearance of the voltage-controlled synthesizer, and the 'post-modern' period, with its personal computer environment, from the mid 80's.

Classical Period [1964-1970]

McGill’s Electronic Music Studio was born on June 16th 1964, when an Oscillator Bank and a Spectrogram (both instruments built by inventor Hugh Le Caine) were delivered to the Faculty of Music. Professor Istvan Anhalt, who had been collaborating with Le Caine for several years, became the first EMS director. Eventually Hugh Le Caines's fantastical machines cluttered the small room in a coach-house behind the old three-floor, 20-room Victorian house at 3500 Redpath Street. Equipment was expensive (and often unstable!); composers worked with cumbersome and usually unique devices. Distortion and tape hiss were our ever-present working friends: always there whenever we plugged into the home-made twenty by two switching mixer (which took two and a half years to build). Le Caine's 'special-purpose' (ten stereo-tape) variable speed (with a five octave range) multi-track tape playback machine (reliably noisy), his 20-channel photocell operated controller, his wandering (tube) sine-oscillator bank, the NRC (transformer-based) ring-modulator, Krohn-Hite variable band-pass filter, the Ampex 440-A and 440-B two and four-channel tape recorders, and the Ampex 350 stereo mastering machine, co-habited this strange-noise factory hidden behind two padlocked doors. Except in winter, these doors would be open and we would glimpse birds and plants in the quite expansive garden which surrounded the Montreal "Golden Square Mile" mansion mutated into a Faculty of Music.

The last of Le Caine's machines to enter the coach-house, the sequencer-like Serial Sound Structure Generator (SSSG), arrived in the spring of 1970. Conceived and built some half a dozen years before Robert Moog's much simpler sequencer, the SSSG allowed serial-like control over control-voltages, in-built squarewave generators, amplitude, tempo and rhythm. It was linked to Le Caine's 13-oscillator, voltage-controlled, sine-tone bank.

They were fun and possibly over-sentimentalized times. Frank and Charlie, the janitors, shook their heads and brooms, and shrugged their shoulders as the odd student and occasional well-known composer made the pilgrimage to the Faculty of Music's out-house studio.

Even before regular classes were given, the studio was populated by a number of people anxious to experience the future, including painters, film makers and writers. Some of the sound tracks for the World's Fair, Expo 67, were created in this early studio, and Charlie would later recount being asked to play his vacuum cleaner for one of the composers to record. Taught by Istvan Anhalt and Paul Pedersen, and a few times per year, by the shy, illuminated Hugh Le Caine, the Electronic Music Course was offered to (and sometimes forced upon) composition students in the graduate program. Once in a while an intrepid explorer from the netherworld of undergraduate students or from another faculty wandered into this course challenging the prevailing aesthetic bias and attitudes.

Modern Period [1970-1984]

Just before Christmas in 1969, the studios leapt into the future. A 16 Module MOOG synthesizer arrived. Two nondescript grey loudspeakers were nailed to the ceiling in a closet down the corridor in the coach-house, an old (Le Caine modified) Ampex 300 tape-recorder was squeezed in and McGill had its second electronic music studio.

Rapid growth in the Faculty of Music and the generally optimistic view of the future set the course for the 70's. When Istvan Ahhalt left McGill to head the Music Department at Queen's University in Kingston in 1971, the justly well-known alcides lanza joined the Faculty. The following year the internationally recognized composer, musicologist, broadcaster and writer, Bengt Hambraeus, also became part of an expanding EMS family, that had already counted Paul Pedersen among its members for several years. When the Faculty moved to Royal Victoria College, now the Strathcona Music Building, in January 1972, the EMS occupied a five room complex on the fifth floor at the extreme north end of the building. Pressure was beginning to build in the studios: more students wanted to get into courses and the musique concrete center of gravity was giving way to the voltage-controlled revolution.

The old 'classical studio' from Redpath Street was moved virtually en masse to the main studio of the new complex. Tape cutting, loops and manipulation were still the entrees on the menu, and as a declining piece de resistance, Le Caine's polyphonic synthesizer was placed centrally on one wall. This instrument was, once again, a first: quite an elaborate piece of equipment, the four-octave keyboard was not only velocity sensitive, but laterally sensitive, allowing for manual vibrato and tremolo control. There was an organ-like pedal-board by means of which signals or control-voltages could be amplitude controlled.

The voltage-controlled era bore with it a harbinger of another time in the Studios' activities: performance. With alcides lanza's prompting, several young student composers from McGill and Sir George Williams Universities1 met in November of 1971 to form a live-electronic improvisation group. Within fifteen months, the group MetaMusic, now five people, gave its first concert. MetaMusic remained active until 1977, rehearsing regularly in the McGill EMS until 1975. There were some twenty concerts given at McGill, usually requiring eight audio channels, which entailed removing all of the EMS loudspeakers and complete disruption of studio activities for a full day.

The expansive 70s also saw visitors who brought many of the crosswinds of other cultural norms: the Italian composer Albert Mayr with elements of the post-Dada and pre-ethos of environmental concern; the composer, performer, installation artist Mario Bertoncini created an experimental intrument-building workshop that evolved into the electroacoustic improvisation ensemble SONDE (earlier, MUD - the Musical Design Group). In this period McGill also hosted demonstrations and lectures by such distinguished people as Makoto Shinohara, Mariano Etkin, Edgar Valcarcel, Sten Hanson, Knut Wiggen, Christian Clozier, Jon Appleton, Richard Kostelanetz, Mauricio Kagel, Charles de Mestral, Andrew Culver, Pierre Dostie, Chris Howard, Robin Minard, and Keith Daniel.

With the move to new facilities, it became possible to offer three electroacoustic courses per year, tailored for undergraduate non-composers, undergraduate composition, and graduate composition. The studios evolved into expanded versions of the Redpath Street coachhouse: a voltage-controlled facility that held the remnants of Le Caine's SSSG (now functioning as a thirteen stage sequencer), and his voltage-controlled sine bank; a 'classical studio' with tape cutting and the other Le Caine equipment; and, a third studio for the undergraduate non-composers' which had a couple of tape recorders, a small Arp synthesizer, and some parametric filters designed and built by the EMS technician, Eric Johnstone. This third studio reflected an openness on the part of the studio direction to encourage electroacoustic exploration and usage beyond the academic confines of a music composition course of study.

In 1980, the studios acquired a digital musical instrument, the Synclavier II. Computer music was taught by Paul Pedersen, Donald Steven, Glendon Diener and alcides lanza. Students from other universities clamoured for this course. The McGill EMS, which had always been known as being accessible to students from other universities, was becoming even better known for its resources, human, aesthetic and technical. Montreal area composers and researchers rushed to find out about this new (and still very expensive) technology.

Post-modern Period [1984-1990]

Until the unveiling of powerful personal computers in the early 1980s, computer interfaces were not particularly 'user-friendly'. The user had to learn specific control codes and languages to have access to the power of the machine, and very often, as in the case of the Synclavier, the instrument was very expensive and available for only one user at a time. Less-expensive personal microcomputers heralded the relatively inexpensive multi-user studio and the possibliity of individuals working outside of the EMS complex, at home on their own computers or in university microcomputer labs, and bringing materials into the EMS for further work and assembly.

In 1987, it was decided to donate the last of Le Caine's masterful mysterious machines to the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa for permanent public display, and to use the 'Classical Studio' for MIDI keyboards, processors and Apple computers. These were succeeded in short order by the faster more powerful Macintosh line.

This was not just a technological revolution. People wanted to learn about technology, not only about composition. Computers began to turn up as part of the regular curriculum. The Faculty of Music had grown to some 800 students with undergraduate, Master's and Doctoral degrees, and was once again bursting at the seams in search of space. There was greatly expanded interest in research. Acoustic, psychoacoustic, psychological and pedagogical research employing computer appications in music and the audio arts was being undertaken within the Faculty of Music - but outside of the walls of the EMS - under the direction of Bo Alphonce, Joel Wapnick, and Wieslaw Woszczyk. Professor lanza had for many years brought EMS activities to other areas of the Faculty of Music, and in 1983, the year of the second McGill Contemporary Music Festival, he founded the Group of the Electronic Music Studios (GEMS), with Claude Schryer and John Oliver, one of the first Canadian contemporary performance ensembles that regularly combined electroacoustic and contemporary compositional performance practices.

In the late 80's the Faculty of Music sought to bridge the multiple worlds of the electroacoustic studio, computer applications, performance, and research. Bruce Pennycook would be able to help in this. Dr. Penycook, composer, saxophonist and researcher, marked the first real linkage of 'traditional' performance practice and electroacoustics beyond the walls of the EMS. His work on a realtime MIDI environment as well as his international profile as a saxophonist and member of the Computer Music Association mark the merging of the studios to the mainstream of the Faculty of Music.

Finally, a most important tribute. Everyone who has worked in the studios over the past twenty years, composers (Luis de Pablo, R. Murray Schafer, Horacio Vaggione, Claude Vivier, Sten Hanson, Michel Longtin, Denis Lorrain, Alain Thibault, Christian Calon, Pierre Trochu, Ginette Bellavance, Michelle Boudreau, Harry Kirschner, John Oliver, Claude Schryer, Gilles Gobeil and others), students who became teachers (John Winiarz, Serge Laforest, Martin Gotfrit and myself), visiting students, students who passed through for three months and those who could not leave afer ten years, have had different and singular experiences in the Mcgill studios. But they all have had one experience in common - Eric Johnstone. Not a fixture, rather an entity, the word technician is to Eric, as hot-dog is to gastronome. Deep cogitator; problem solver; inventor; unique perspectivizer; digital, electrical and mechanical virtuoso. Some parallels to Hugh Le Caine are inevitable: quiet, self-effacing, dedicated, singular and very lateral. His inventions and constructions - from super-effective ring-modulators and multi-mode filters, to unique envelope and logic units, to far-sighted interfaces (the ROLKY computer interface and MIDIed Quebecois fiddler's foot-tapping jig-board), to his automatic Irish jig writing programs and his 3-D colour mathematical formula visualization software, to mention but a few, have ubiquitously cluttered his Lilliputian workshop in the studio complex. Without Eric, who taught himself IC theory and digital technology so that he could stay up-to-date, the entire history of the McGIll Electronic Music Studios would be much less rich by far. It is justly fitting and a tribute to the Faculty of Music that Eric has been able to remain and will continue to remain a valued private treasure of the EMS and the McGill University Faculty of Music.2

1 now Concordia University.

2 At present, Eric Johnstone works in research projects in the medical field, elsewhere on campus. The Technical Director of the Digital Composition Studios is now Richard McKenzie.