In 2011, the MIDI harp received the Max Matthews Prize for technological innovation at the Qwartz Awards in Paris. Our senior redactrice Florence Lédi wrote this article about the prizegiving ceremony, for the Spring-Summer 2011 edition of Harpseasons.
MIDI Harp wins the Max Mathews Prize at the Qwartz Awards
On Friday April 1st, 2011, at the Théâtre du Trianon in Paris, Camac’s state-of-the-art MIDI harp received – into the hands of its inventor, Jakez François – the Max Mathews Prize at the Seventh Qwartz Electronic Music Awards. These awards were created in 2004 with the aim of presenting the many facets of the electronic and digital contemporary music scene. Their concept is to widen access to this music, and also to give financial support and recognition to the creativity and variety of a scene that struggles to secure these independently. The Qwartz 7 ceremony rewarded new music artists and their associated disciplines, giving no less than fourteen prizes before the juries, the nominees, partners and the public. Eight of these prizes were awarded after a team of international experts listened blind to more than four thousand works. They were: the Qwartz Album, the Qwartz Experimentation / Research, the Qwartz Discovery, the Qwartz Compilation, the Qwartz Title, the Qwartz Dancefloor, the Qwartz Artist, and the Qwartz Label prizes. Four honorary prizes were also given, on a nomination basis: the Qwartz d’Honneur, which rewards an artist for their career, the Qwartz Pierre Schaeffler, for a composer’s electroacoustic œuvre, the Qwartz Max Mathews (see Max Mathews biography) for an inventor of ground-breaking technology, and an additional special Qwartz, given this year to Christine Groult and KM Pantin for their pedagogic work in the electroacoustic field. Finally, the last two prizes were for disciplines closely bound up with the creation of music: graphic design with the Qwartz Artwork / Packaging prize, and new media with Qwartz New Media Arts.
Like every awards ceremony, it was a long evening: fourteen prizes, fourteen presentations, fourteen coming onto-s and getting off-s the stage, fourteen speeches of thanks and sets of applause…and, unfortunately, sombre and chaotic staging which weighed down the happy occasion. Nonetheless, it was reinvigorated by six live performances, including Elisabeth Valletti on the MIDI harp, and the large number of prizes and their associated performances reflected the dynamism and eclecticism of the electronic and digital world. It is creativity difficult to imagine and comprehend by those who, like me, have never touched on this world that is boiling over with ideas. As the presenter emphasised, the public is slow to throw themselves into something, especially new, creative things. The Qwartz Awards also aim to serve as a link between artists and audiences, to reduce the gap between musical creative progress and the time taken by the public’s listening capacity to catch up. It is a sort of resetting the clock, a bit like the quartz technology that improved the accuracy of our wristwatches some decades ago!
While it was certainly a long evening, it was also an electrifying one. It was not as unsettling as you might imagine, but rather simply puzzling. It clearly displayed the delay in my, in our knowledge of electronic music. I discovered artists which have surprised me since I first heard them amidst the whirl of impromptu downloads, some of which have even given me the satisfaction of impressing my two teenagers, who have always been very au fait with this music. I will not list the artists’ names here, for that is not the subject of this article, but while I do confess the music sometimes got on my nerves, I was more often amused, even charmed, by its diversity, and by that of the nationalities represented (Japan, Canada, Portugal, etc). The supporting equipment used, from the most classical instruments to a metal detector and the famous up-to-the-minute invention by the Da Fact firm, the karlax, also intrigued me. Finally, the electronic sound programming was equally impressive. Of course, above all the evening was celebratory for me, especially when Jakez François took his turn on the to receive the Max Mathews Prize for the MIDI harp. Imagine: the big harp, tall and proud, too often squeezed into its traditional, classical repertoire, but recognised and acclaimed that evening by an entire auditorium of digital aficionados! It was dazzling proof of how important it has been to develop MIDI technology for the concert harp. Its undeniable success has thrown open doors for the oldest instrument in the world, to a new universe that is many-sided, boundless, free from dogmatic constraints, and open to anything you can imagine and create. It is a universe where everything is just waiting to be invented. Such is the younger generation’s opinion, but older people with adventurous spirits think so too. Today, your instrument is at the forefront of digital technology, unlocking your access the most current and innovative trends from now on. It is enough for you to take a step, just one step: to learn how to master a new digital solfège, or to play an azerty or qwerty keyboard…that has just forty little keys and no pedals. Child’s play!
Elisabeth Valletti has been exploring this game for many years. It was she who presented and nominated the MIDI harp to the Qwartz committee. She also took to the stage of the Théâtre du Trianon to perform some of the short pieces she had composed specially for the occasion: ‘Mosquitoes’, ‘Cat’ and ‘Gargoyle’, all from ‘Harp Haikus’. How shall I talk to you about these, if not by suggesting you form your own opinion by listening to them yourselves, on YouTube for example? For my part, I will retain a sense of exhilaration born from the imbalance between the visual and aural impressions. The way of playing is traditional, like any harpist with two hands on either side of the strings. But the sound you hear is totally different from the sound you expect! There is magic in this discrepancy, between the antique instrument and its modern sonorities.
Max Mathews, the ‘father of music technology’, died very recently on April 21st, 2011, of pneumonia in San Francisco. He was eighty-four. Emeritus Professor at the Stanford University Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), he demonstrated brilliant powers of invention and innovation to his dying day. ‘He conceived and created his own magical world, and before all built the essential concepts and tools that allowed us all to do the same thing’, declared John Chowning, founding director of the CCRMA and another figure at the prow of music technology.
Max Mathews Vernon was born on November 13th, 1926, in Columbus, Nebraska. He studied the violin at secondary school and played it all his life, ‘albeit in an amateur and totally unremarkable way’, he said in 1995. He trained as a radio technician in the Marines, and studied electrotechnology at the Institute of Technology in California, obtaining his BSc in 1950. He received his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1954.
In 1955 he rejoined the acoustics and behavioural research department of Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, where together with other researchers he discovered how to digitalise speech, synthesise its sound and play it back using a computer. He adapted this process to music and wrote a programme capable of putting technology at non-scientists’ disposal. For all that digital music is at the forefront of the avant-garde today, its roots go back to 1957, when Mathews wrote the first version of ‘Music’, a programme which allowed an IBM 704 Mainframe computer to play a composition of seventeen seconds. He quickly realised, as he said in 1963 in an article in Science, that ‘theoretically there is no limit to the performance of a computer as a source of musical sounds’. Mathews developed several generations of ‘Music’, leading to programmes such as Csound, Cmix and Max, the latter named in his honour in the 1980s. When he retired from Bell Labs in 1987, he rejoined the CCRMA. If Mathews is the father of music technology, you could call the CCRMA the house where he grew up. John Chowning remarked: ‘Max sowed the seed and Stanford was the nutritive soil.’
Mathews collaborated with the avant-garde composers Edgard Varèse and John Cage, with the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. He was also at the heart of the l’Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris (IRCAM), where he was a scientific advisor in the 1970s. Max Mathews invented several electric violins as well as an entirely new instrument that he called the ‘Daton’, a mixture between a drum and a conductor’s baton.
Despite the sophisticated nature of his inventions, Mathews was disarmingly modest about his work: ‘I see myself as an instrument maker, and I try to convince musicians and composers to use my instruments.’