Auf der Autobahn: American Sound Artists Bring Collaboration to “Solitude”



Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart

While Porsche and Mercedes-Benz may be the most well known names to come out of Stuttgart, Germany, Akademie Schloss Solitude is looking to change that. Founded in 1990, the Akademie has quickly propelled itself to one of the most sought after residencies for young artists from all over the world. Offering fellowships in several categories including architecture, visual arts, performing arts, design, literature, music/sound, and video/film/new media, Schloss Solitude aims to offer its guests “the opportunity to experience their time in a different, qualitatively better way than what they experience in the course of their everyday lives.” While this mission statement may not seem too different than those of similar artist retreats in the U.S. like Yaddo or MacDowell, the German penchant for cutting edge, adventurous work tints Schloss Solitude with a decidedly experimental vibe. In the realm of music, this means a predilection for tech-based sound art, installations, and other kinds of wild explorations in sound.

For the most recent round of fellowships (2003-2005) all 5 of the music/sound fellows are American-based composers. David Birchfield (New York/Arizona), Jason Freeman (New York), Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan (Santa Barbara), Kristjan Varnik (Boston), and Jennifer Walshe (Chicago) will be spending some portion of the next two years in Stuttgart.

The dominance of Americans on the roster certainly reflects the growing interest in experimental sound works that has surged through both American academy and the broader musical environment of the United States, but upon closer examination, it is a deep knowledge of technology and computers that characterizes most of the work of these artists. With the exception of Walshe, whose chamber works often celebrate naturally occurring soundscapes, the other 4 fellows will be collaborating with legendary sound artist Max Neuhaus on a massive project called Auracle. In fact, it was Neuhaus who was the sole juror of this round of fellows, and he has handpicked some of the most talented musical technophiles in the world to contribute to Auracle, which will ultimately be a Web architecture that combines signal processing, network design, machine learning, psychology, music, and aesthetics to create an global, interactive musical experience. (Many of the fellows warn that the project is still in its planning stages, so the end results are difficult to predict and nearly impossible to articulate.)

“We are all musicians with strong technology skills,” says David Birchfield. “For many of us, the use of the computer has become as much of an instrument as the piano or any other. The computer suggests a myriad of alternative, open forms, and this project exemplifies that. Of course these trends are not particular to musicians in the US, perhaps just a fact of the particular technology we will be working with in this case.”

Caught between a permanent faculty position at the Institute for Studies in the Arts and the residency in Stuttgart, Birchfield worked out a compromise that, while foregoing a long-term residency at the Akademie, will still allow him to work on Auracle through several visits, phone, and e-mail. He is excited to get to work on this project with Neuhaus and the other fellows and will be focusing primarily on applying artificial intelligence to musical problems and extracting emotive elements from participants through a Web interface. “I am attracted to this project because of its social implications, and the creative use of web technologies. Furthermore, facilitating unique, rich, and interactive musical experiences for people with diverse backgrounds is particularly exciting.”

“The project will require a huge amount of work in so many different areas, that it will challenge me to apply everything that each I have learned through years of exploring computers and sound, and quickly fill the knowledge gaps in areas that I haven’t touched on before,” chimes in Kristjan Varnik, who will be helping build audio software that is driven by the human voice for the project. “The completeness of this challenge is what I am looking forward to the most.”

Birchfield adds that another uniqueness it of the project is that it requires such close collaboration and the different strengths of all of the participants. “I think the acceptance of several musicians to collaborate on one big collaborative ‘piece’ speaks to the shifting role of the ‘composer’ or ‘author’ in music. Not only will this piece be a dynamic work with contributions from an online community, the process of making the piece will be dynamic and collaborative. The romantic notion of a single author toiling alone to produce a masterwork has no place in this particular work.”

Freeman and Ramakrishnan are also part of the Auracle crew, but they also acknowledge individual projects that they hope to have time to work on at Schloss Solitude. Freeman has an instrumental work to complete for Speculum Musicae in 2004 and will also be delving into the first phase of his Virtual Composer Residency Project, that like much of his recent output, “uses technology to facilitate a creative musical experience.”

Ramakrishnan, a professional programmer-cum-sound artist, looks forward to the chance to focus on his art. “My time at Schloss Solitude will give me opportunities to experience a different culture, interact with ambitious and accomplished artists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, and concentrate on developing my own artistic ideas. I plan to take full advantage of these opportunities and expect it to influence my work in unpredictable ways.” He hopes to have some extra time to develop software for improvisational music making and toolkits for building music applications.

“More than anything, the residency is an opportunity for me to really focus on writing, without many of the distractions and responsibilities that usually fight for my time,” points out Freeman. “And being able to do so in such an incredible environment, surrounded by all of these other interesting artists, should make it not only productive but enjoyable too!”

Artists who have finished their basic studies within 5 years and are less than 35 years old are eligible for fellowships to the Akademie. Fellows are selected based on the quality of their submitted works by a juror in their specialty and are awarded an apartment/studio for the duration of their residency as well as 1000 Euros per month as a stipend. Applications for the next round of fellowships will be available in July 2004.