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Remediating Modernism: On the Digital Ends of Montreal's Electroacoustic Tradition

  • Patrick Valiquet


This article examines ongoing efforts to associate the decline of the modernist electroacoustic music tradition with the rise of digital technologies. Illustrative material is drawn from ethnographic and archival fieldwork conducted in 2011 and 2012 in the Canadian city of Montreal. The author surveys examples of institutions, careers, performances and works showing how the digital is brought into the ideological service of existing musical orders and power structures by musicians, policy-makers and other intermediaries. Drawing upon the social theories of Pierre Bourdieu and Georgina Born, as well as on contemporary media theory, the author argues that accounts of the disruptive agency of digital mediation are incomplete without a corresponding attention to the complex cultural mechanisms by which it is kept under control. What is at stake in the transformation of Montreal's electroacoustic tradition is not a collapse so much as a further remediation of modernist social and aesthetic principles.


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1 Quebec's provincial arts council was established in 1994 as part of a multifaceted devolution of powers from the federal government following the failed Charlottetown constitutional accord. Diane Saint-Pierre, La politique culturelle du Québec de 1992: Continuité ou changement? Les acteurs, les coalitions et les enjeux (Quebec City: Presses de l'Université Laval, 2003).

2 Geneviève Béliveau-Paquin, Sophie Le-Phat Ho and Alain Depocas, Faire rayonner la culture québécoise dans l'univers numérique: Éléments pour une stratégie numérique de la culture (Quebec City: Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec, 2011), 3. All translations from French-language sources are my own unless otherwise indicated.

3 Dean Louder and Eric Waddell, Du continent perdu à l'archipel retrouvé: Le Québec et l'Amérique française (Quebec City: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 2007); Bill Marshall, The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009).

4 Annick Germain and Damaris Rose, Montreal: The Quest for a Metropolis (Chichester: Wiley, 2000).

5 Thomas Pilati and Diane-Gabrielle Tremblay, ‘Le développement socio-économique de Montréal: La cité créative et la carrière artistique comme facteurs d'attraction?’, Canadian Journal of Regional Science, 3 (2007), 475–96.

6 Francis Dhomont, ‘Is There a Québec Sound?’, Organised Sound, 1 (1996), 23–8; Réjean Beaucage, ‘Schaeffer au Québec en quelques allers-retours’, Pierre Schaeffer, ed. Évelyne Gayou, Portraits polychromes, 13 (Paris: Institut National de l'Audiovisuel, 2008), 19–23.

7 Compositional Crossroads: Music, McGill, Montreal, ed. Eleanor Stubley (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008).

8 Pierre-Michel Menger, Le paradoxe du musicien: Le compositeur, le mélomane et l’état dans la societé contemporaine (Paris: Flammarion, 1983); Susan McClary, ‘Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition’, Cultural Critique, 12 (1989), 57–81; Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995); Jann Pasler, ‘The Political Economy of Composition in the American University, 1965–1985’, in Pasler, Writing through Music: Essays on Music, Culture, and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 318–62.

9 Damien Charrieras, ‘Trajectoires, circulation, assemblages: Des modes hétérogènes de la constitution de la pratique en arts numériques à Montréal’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Montréal, 2010).

10 Patricia Schmidt, ‘Québec Electric: Montréal, Mutek and the Global Circuit’ (MA thesis, McGill University, 2010).

11 Conseil Québécois des Arts Médiatiques, Rapport final: États généraux des arts médiatiques (Montreal: Conseil Québécois des Arts Médiatiques, 2009).

12 Jonathan Sterne, ‘The Death and Life of Digital Audio’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 31 (2006), 338–48; Simon Emmerson, Living Electronic Music (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007); Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (London: Viking, 2015); Adam Harper, ‘How Internet Music Is Frying Your Brain’, Popular Music, 36 (2017), 86–97.

13 Christopher Kelty, ‘Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics’, Cultural Anthropology, 20 (2005), 185–214.

14 Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

15 Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004); Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen and Anne Danielsen, Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).

16 Georgina Born, ‘Relational Ontologies and Social Forms in Digital Music’, Bodily Expression in Electronic Music: Perspectives on Relaiming Performativity, ed. Deniz Peters, Gerhard Eckel and Andreas Dorschel (London: Routledge, 2012), 163–80.

17 Matthew Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 36.

18 Ibid., 38.

19 Ilana Gershon, ‘Media Ideologies: An Introduction’, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 20 (2010), 283–93.

20 Karin Knorr Cetina, ‘Objectual Practice’, The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina and Eike von Savigny (London: Routledge, 2001), 175–88.

21 Brøvig-Hanssen and Danielsen, Digital Signatures.

22 Georgina Born, ‘On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity’, Twentieth-Century Music, 2 (2005), 7–36; Born, ‘Music and the Materialization of Identities’, Journal of Material Culture, 16 (2011), 376–88.

23 Born, ‘On Musical Mediation’, 7; Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence Schehr (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 225.

24 Richard Grusin, ‘Radical Mediation’, Critical Inquiry, 42 (2015), 124–48 (p. 129).

25 Georgina Born, ‘Music and the Social’, The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012), 261–74.

26 Joel Chadabe, ‘Remarks on Computer Music Culture’, Computer Music Journal, 24 (2000), 9–11; Simon Emmerson, ‘From Dance! to “Dance”: Distance and Digits’, Computer Music Journal, 25 (2001), 13–20.

27 Bob Ostertag, ‘Why Computer Music Sucks’, Resonance, 5 (1996), 2; Kim Cascone, ‘The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post-Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music’, Computer Music Journal, 24 (2000), 12–18; Simon Waters, ‘Beyond the Acousmatic: Hybrid Tendencies in Electroacoustic Music’, Music, Electronic Media and Culture, ed. Simon Emmerson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), 56–83; Christopher Haworth, ‘“All the Musics Which Computers Make Possible”: Questions of Genre at the Prix Ars Electronica’, Organised Sound, 21 (2016), 15–29.

28 Crucially, changes introduced to mark the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation in 2017, also dedicated to the goal of fostering ‘digital’ innovation, have begun to break down these protective ‘silos’, encouraging applicants for funding to describe their own genre associations instead of submitting under predefined ones. It remains to be seen what effect this will have. Robert Everett-Green, ‘Canada Council to Simplify Access to Arts Funding’, Globe and Mail, 3 June 2015.

29 Jody Berland, ‘Nationalism and the Modernist Legacy: Dialogues with Innis’, Capital Culture: A Reader on Modernist Legacies, State Institutions, and the Value(s) of Art, ed. Jody Berland and Shelley Hornstein (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000), 14 –38 (p. 17).

30 Charles Taylor, Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993).

31 Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Market of Symbolic Goods’, in Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (Cambridge: Polity, 1993), 112–41 (p. 125).

32 Theodor Adorno, ‘Correspondence with Benjamin’, New Left Review, 80 (1973), 55–80.

33 Pierre Bourdieu, Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action, trans. Randal Johnson (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 22.

34 Edward LiPuma, ‘Culture and the Concept of Culture in a Theory of Practice’, Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives, ed. Craig Calhoun, Edward LiPuma and Moishe Postone (Cambridge: Polity, 1993), 14–34; Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, On Justification: Economies of Worth, trans. Catherine Porter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Georgina Born, ‘The Social and the Aesthetic: For a Post-Bourdieuian Theory of Cultural Production’, Cultural Sociology, 4 (2010), 171–208.

35 Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

36 Richard Handler, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 102–10.

37 She cites UNESCO interventions, André Malraux's Maisons de la culture programme in France and the decolonization movements of the West Indies and Algeria as particularly influential. Saint-Pierre, La politique culturelle du Québec de 1992.

38 Fernand Dumont, Genèse de la société québécoise (Montreal: Boréal, 1993).

39 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, 16 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

40 Handler, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec, 158.

41 State support for cultural and social programmes has played a central role in marking nationalist political territory in Quebec. Comparative studies of the sovereignty movements in Quebec and Scotland emphasize how the drive towards devolution of powers has mirrored the decline of the welfare state since the 1970s. Nicola McEwan, Nationalism and the State: Welfare and Identity in Scotland and Quebec (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2006); Alisa Henderson, Hierarchies of Belonging: National Identity and Political Culture in Scotland and Quebec (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007).

42 Erin Hurley, National Performance: Representing Quebec from Expo 67 to Celine Dion (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 22.

43 Ibid., 14–15.

44 Sherry Simon, Le trafic des langues: Traduction et culture dans la littérature québécoise (Montreal: Boréal, 1994); Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996).

45 Will Straw, ‘Music from the Wrong Place: On the Italianicity of Quebec Disco’, Criticism, 50 (2008), 113–32.

46 Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier and Laurent Blais, ‘La comète Piu Piu: Nouveaux médias et nationalisme en mutation’, Anthropologie et sociétés, 40 (2016), 103–23.

47 Geoff Stahl, ‘Tracing Out an Anglo-Bohemia: Musicmaking and Myth in Montreal’, Public, 22/23 (2001), 99–121.

48 While tuition rates for non-resident students are higher than those for residents, residency can be established by living in Quebec for one year before undertaking full-time studies.

49 Monica Heller, Paths to Post-Nationalism: A Critical Ethnography of Language and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

50 John Dickinson and Brian Young, A Short History of Quebec (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008), 305–6.

51 Jane Jacobs, The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty (New York: Random House, 1981).

52 Jocelyn Létourneau, Que veulent vraiment les Québécois? Regard sur l'intention national du Québec (français) d'hier à aujourd'hui (Montreal: Boréal, 2006); Sean Mills, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010).

53 Taylor, Reconciling the Solitudes, 51; Hurley, National Performance, 20–1.

54 Expo 67: Not Just a Souvenir, ed. Rhona Richman Kenneally and Johanne Sloan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

55 Gildas Illien, La place des arts et la révolution tranquille: Les fonctions politiques d'un centre culturel (Quebec City: Les Éditions de l'IQRC, 1999); Germain and Rose, Montreal.

56 Joel McKim, ‘Spectacular Infrastructure: The Mediatic Space of Montreal's “Quartier des Spectacles”’, Public, 45 (2012), 128–38.

57 Simon Brault, Le facteur C: L'avenir passe par la culture (Montreal: Voix Parallèles, 2009).

58 Frédérique Doyon, ‘Mécénat Placements Culture, version améliorée’, Le devoir, 2 October 2013.

59 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Adam Krims, Music and Urban Geography (New York: Routledge, 2007).

60 Deleuzian metaphors are popular with Montreal's music and media art critics. See, for example, Genevieve Letarte and Bernard Schütze, ‘Mycologie urbaine: Montréal, ses scènes et ses sons’, Parachute, 107 (2002), 102–13; Dix ans de création numérique, ed. Marie-Ève Charron (Montreal: Perte de Signal, 2008); Nathalie Bachand, Angles art numérique (Montreal: ACREQ, 2009).

61 Réseau Koumbit, ‘Logiciel libre: Lettre ouverte au CALQ’, Montreal, 16 June 2011.

62 ‘Introduction’, Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture, ed. Lauren Rabinovitz and Abraham Geil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 1–19 (pp. 4–5).

63 Handler, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec, 140–58; cf. Diane Lamoureux, L'amère patrie: Féminisme et nationalisme dans le Québec contemporain (Montreal: Les Éditions du Remue-Ménage, 2001).

64 Alain Thibault, ‘Culture numérique et électroacoustique’, Circuit, 13 (2002), 51–6.

65 Rosemary Mountain, ‘Creating and Contributing: The Expansive Spirit of Marcelle Deschênes’, Musicworks, 86 (2003), 14–21; Marie-Thérèse Lefebvre, ‘Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux et Marcelle Deschênes: Pionnières dans le sentier de la création électroacoustique’, Circuit, 19 (2009), 23–41.

66 Interview with Nathalie Bachand, Montreal, 28 May 2012.

67 L’éducation pour tous: Une anthologie du Rapport Parent, ed. Claude Corbo (Montreal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2002); Yves Lenoir, ‘Le Rapport Parent, point de départ de l'ancrage de l’école québécoise dans la logique anglophone nord-américaine’, Canadian Journal of Education, 28 (2005), 638–68.

68 Rosemary Mountain, ‘“Sculpting” Sound: The Story of the CEC’, Journal of the Canadian Association of Music Libraries, 29 (2001), 25–8.

69 For an analysis of this earlier incarnation, see Jean-Paul Fourmentraux, ‘Governing Artistic Innovation: An Interface among Art, Science and Industry’, Leonardo, 40 (2007), 489–92; and Fourmentraux, Artistes de laboratoire: Recherche et création à l’ère numérique (Paris: L'Harmattan, 2011).

70 Gail Young, The Sackbut Blues: Hugh Le Caine, Pioneer in Electronic Music (Ottawa: National Museum of Science and Technology, 1991).

71 Alcides Lanza, ‘McGill University: Its Electronic Music Studio Complex’, Interface, 9 (1980), 59–69.

72 Morag Grant, Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

73 Benjamin Piekut, ‘Sound's Modest Witness: Notes on Cage and Modernism’, Contemporary Music Review, 31 (2012), 3–18.

74 François Guérin, ‘Electroacoustic Music’, Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, ed. Helmut Kallman, Gilles Potvin and Kenneth Winters (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 409–12 (p. 410).

75 Interview with Kevin Austin, Montreal, 16 December 2011.

76 Ibid. For a similar account dating from the early years of the CEC, see also Kevin Austin and George Lewis, ‘On Identity and Fragmentation of the Ea/CM Community’, Computer Music Journal, 20 (1996), 6–8.

77 Euripides, Electra, in Medea and Other Plays, ed. Philip Vellacott (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 105–52.

78 Although I did not have access to official data for other years, I did note that women were outnumbered by a factor of 20 to 1 in the 2011 cohort of electroacoustic undergraduates at Concordia. Efforts to establish spaces for women in the scene began as early as the 1970s, but representation remains a pressing concern. See Marie-Thérèse Lefebvre, La création musicale des femmes au Québec (Montreal: Les Éditions du Remue-Ménage, 1991); Andra McCartney, ‘Gender, Genre and Electroacoustic Soundmaking Practices’, Intersections, 26 (2006), 20–48; and Patrick Valiquet, ‘Animating the Object: Marcelle Deschênes and Electroacoustic Education in Quebec’, Organised Sound, 22 (2017), 385–93. For analysis of the role that the Electra myth has played in historical efforts by men to enclose the expression of female sexuality in shame and taboo, see also Lawrence Kramer, ‘Fin-de-siècle Fantasies: Elektra, Degeneration and Sexual Science’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 5 (1993), 141–65, and Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Vintage, 2011), 50–62.

79 Cf. Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des objets musicaux (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966).

80 New Music Across America, ed. Iris Brooks (Los Angeles, CA: California Institute of the Arts, 1992).

81 See Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1984).

82 Interview with Jean Piché, Montreal, 16 May 2012.

83 Literally, ‘current’ music. See Sophie Stévance, Musique actuelle (Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 2012).

84 Iris Brooks et al., ‘Montréal Musiques Actuelles/New Music America 1990: 1 Novembre–11 Novembre 1990’, Musicworks, 50 (1991), 49–53.

85 Jean Piché, ‘Montréal Musiques Actuelles / New Music America 1990: Post-mortem d'un festival’, Canadian University Music Review, 11 (1990), 138–40 (p. 138).

86 Ibid., 139.

87 Both comments are from a collective review in the Toronto-based journal Musicworks. Brooks et al., ‘Montréal Musiques Actuelles’.

88 André Picard, The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada's Tainted-Blood Tragedy (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1995).

89 Jean-Jacques Nattiez, ‘Faut-il tout accepter?’, Circuit, 1/2 (1991), 43–50; Dominique Olivier, ‘Montréal: Portrait d'une saison hybride (1990–1991)’, Circuit, 2/1–2 (1991), 163–78.

90 Note that this was also the period when the anti-modernist interventions of figures like McClary and Born first began to rise to the attention of anglophone musicologists.

91 Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

92 Paul Steenhuisen, Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009), 262.

93 Bernard Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde (Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 2002), 18–19.

94 Born, ‘Music and the Materialization of Identities’, 378.

95 Tara Rodgers, Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Georgina Born and Kyle Devine, ‘Music Technology, Gender, and Class: Digitization, Educational and Social Change in Britain’, Twentieth-Century Music, 12 (2015), 135–72.

96 Both have a long history in the feminist critique of science and technology. For a comparison, see Judy Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology (Cambridge: Polity, 1991).

97 Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge: Polity, 1994).

98 Richard Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu (London: Routledge, 2002), 158.

99 Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and his Poor, ed. Andrew Parker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Caroline Pelletier, ‘Emancipation, Equality and Education: Rancière's Critique of Bourdieu and the Question of Performativity’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 30 (2009), 137–50.

100 For example, Monty Adkins, Richard Scott and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, ‘Post-Acousmatic Practice: Re-evaluating Schaeffer's Heritage’, Organised Sound, 21 (2016), 106–16.

101 Jeremy Morris, ‘Understanding the Digital Music Commodity’ (Ph.D. dissertation, McGill University, 2010).

102 Fred Turner, ‘Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production’, New Media and Society, 11 (2009), 73–94.

103 David Hesmondhalgh, ‘Flexibility, Post-Fordism and the Music Industries’, Media, Culture and Society, 18 (1996), 469–88; Benjamin Tausig, ‘Neoliberalism's Moral Overtones: Music, Money, and Morality at Thailand's Red Shirt Protests’, Culture, Theory and Critique, 55 (2014), 257–71.

104 Ilana Gershon, ‘Neoliberal Agency’, Current Anthropology, 52 (2011), 537–55 (pp. 546–7).

105 Markus Krajewski, Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogs, 1548–1929, trans. Peter Krapp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 5.

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Remediating Modernism: On the Digital Ends of Montreal's Electroacoustic Tradition

  • Patrick Valiquet


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