Musical practices continuities and transitions


Scientific work on the theme of the International Music Competition “INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia”


The Twelfth International Conference of the Department of Musicology

of the Faculty of Music, University of Arts in Belgrade

Belgrade, 23–26 April 2014

Vera Mevorah



Case Study of the INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia, an online music competition by the Teacher Association of Primary and Secondary Music Schools in Serbia My goal here will be analizing the INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia which is a music competition founded in Serbia and based on the Internet. Today the practice of music competition has a crucial role in formal music education and continues to play its part in profesional life of musicians in forms of auditions and job aplications. The main questions I ask here are, what kind of changes is the institution of music competition going through on what we mostly think of as global, interactive and plural space of the Internet? Also, how are these changes reflecting the transitions of Art music discourses in the age that is marked by digital technology?

INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia was founded in 2010 by the Teacher Association of Primary and Secondary Music Schools in Serbia (Udruženje pedagoga osnovnih i srednjih muzičkih škola Srbije). In 26 different instrument and group categories, with the inclusion of jazz and national music, by its forth year the number of participants of this competition reached 4000 competitiors and over 100 members of the jury in 25 different countries, making this competition the largest of its kind. This competition also seems to be for now an only example of such pratice.

The complete process from forming the jury, registration of competitors, and finaly judging and awording prizes is being conducted through the Internet. The participants are requested to make and send a video of a two piece performance made solely for this competition. With the video, participants send scanned evidence confirming their indentity as well as proof of payment. Jury members are notified by e-mail, skype or telephone when all of the competitors videos are online, which is done at same time, that they can start assessing the material on the website. The judging proces is conducted without consultation between the jury members where only after each member sends their scores the organizers declare a winner in each category. The victor of the whole competition is desided between those prize competitors in a masters final of all categories. The financial participation for the competition is 20 euros. The collected amount covers complete costs of the competition as well as a prize fund of 3000 dollar in total which is used for organizing a master class or concert performace for the winner.

The founders of the Teacher Association of Primary and Secondary Music Schools in Serbia and the INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia, Natalija i Milomir Dojčinović stated in an interview conducted for this study that the main idea behind the competition was inspired by a festival event in which their son participated, that had 7 or 8 jury members and a small audience, and where they felt that „all that work and talent of professor, students and parents, it was all ended in half an hour.“ 1 They found on the Internet the possibility to prolong and materialize the effort and time put in prepering of a performance as well as results of long and demanding formal music education. The first notable transition in the institution of music competition I find closly related to what Lev Manovich called a new symbolic form of the computer age, the database.

Database as the new symbolic form of the computer age and the new form of music competition

The promise for participation in the INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia is that your performance will be available 24h a day, 365 days a year for many years to come. Such a performance becomes a part of a large archive of past and present performances on the competition website, but also part of the biggest database, the Internet itself, bringing the opportunity for performances to be heard by a much wider audience. One outcome of such archive is better understanding of the performance style and technique of the student by the teacher and as such serves an important educational function. By participating year after year in this competition teachers and students both gain the possibility of tapping into this database for much more detailed assesment of the students progress, and also using this database as a valueble tool for analyzing performance and education styles of other performers around the world.

Inclusion and diversity of (the Internet) Music Competition?

1 Interview with Natalija and Milomir Dojčinović conducted by Vera Mevorah in Belgrade, 17th of April 2014.

Internet is prised by many technologicaly enthusiastic theorists for being a space of plural and diverse voices, an enviorment with a promise of pure democracy and equality. Today we know that this could be an impossible promise. Internet may be a new space of opportunities, but it is very much a place of conflict and power struggle. What cyberspace offers the music competition practice is getting free of limitations of physical space and borders. As Dojcinovic asks, „can you imagine organizing live music competition event for 26 disciplines? It is impossible.“ 2 The Internet makes sharing of events practice for millions of people. This competition has opened the opportunity for performing and participating to many people who live in small and cut off communities. For these teachers and students the Web offers rare opportunity for recognition and improvement. There is no age limitation in this competition. Organizers mention a case of two 70-year old performers who applyed purely for their love of performing and wish of leaving a memento for their children and grandchildren. The Internet opens multitude of perspectives and gives an always changing context to the music competition itself. With inclusion of performers of traditional music istruments as well as jazz music program we find overlapping of discourses which are in lots of ways still strongly devided, especially in the case of traditional and art music. Moving beyond the institutional context in which music competition operated allows a wide and diverse paricipation.

The participant/user of the INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia

In the present Information age and especially on the Internet we are mostly talking about users. The term user is there to denote an active participation and communication on the Internet different from the idea of a passive consumer of media. As Michele White writes: “An active, and empowered Internet user who is in control of the interface, situated within the screen, and moves actively through the Internet space.” 3 The development of INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia is in many ways dictated by the participants. In the NEWS part of website we can find sections that both give feedback and strive to communicate and include the participants in the competition development, such as Guest Book, where we can find user comments, and Got a suggestion?, as an invitation text for partnership options and ideas for the competition. Even though the website or the INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia itself doesn’t

2 Ibid. 3 Michele White, The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006, str. 1.

include many of communication practices which characterize the social sphere of the Internet today, like live comment section or linking with significant social platforms, it paints a picture of a future where judging the music excellence becomes woven into the social fabric of the Internet. The organizers themselves state that the website is outdated and needs to be changed. Here we have an interesting example of collision of the need for continuity, for becoming a valued and respected tradition, and on the other hand the ever changing needs for the new and updated by the users.

Digital Divide and geographies of the INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia 

Internet is still far away from a “consensual hallucination” shared by all, described by William Gibson in his famous novel. Today there is close to 3 billion Internet users worldwide, which accounts for about 40% of planets population, where countries like Brazil, Egypt, Turkey and even Russia still have only around 50% of the people using internet. In Serbia it was 47.5% in 2012 survey. Many teachers stated that this competition was that which first brought them to the world of Internet. There is fundamental instability to the idea of the Internet as global, incorporeal and equal for all medium. There was an interesting case of a participant from Japan who had to travel 600 km to the closest bank in order to make the payment for competition. Also that of a student who needed to send a second video of the performance, but was unable because the helicopter he used to meet with his accompanist, as well as the accompanist were unavailable. We still deal with the Web in many different, sometimes painfully corporeal ways. Even though cyberspace is no real place, as Steven Graham writes, “cumulative effect of spatial metaphors means that they become visualizable and imagebly reconstructed as giant, apparently territorial systems.”4 Such a case of reconstructed territorial system is apparent in this case. With its double internet domains, and Internet Music Competition dwells in between two signifiers, one of Serbia and its .rs domain where brought by insignificant participation from Serbian teachers and students as well as status of a country too small, with bad reputation, the competition feels out of place. The other domain is that which represents European Union, an attempt to overcome prejudices about the Serbian identity, and move its virtual center to greener pastures. The absence of the physical place gives freedom to conjure

4 Steven Graham, „The End of Geography or the Explosion of Place: Conceptualizing Space, Place and Information Technology“ in Pramod K. Nayar, The Nre Media and Cybercultures Anthology, Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK, 2010, str. 91.

new ones, but the plane in which we operate is still that of the physical spaces and their signifiers.

Another important aspect of the changing form of music competition is its role and connection to the economic production and market logic. Internet Music Competition is related to workings of Teacher Association of Primary and Secondary Music Schools in Serbia which founded it, but also to a production company called MIR Production. The production company was made by the organizers to add the production element and widen the possibilities for international cooperation and projects. This element highlights the predominant field of music industry and inescapable influence it has on Art music today.

Is it live or is it “Memorex”?

There are numerous advantages for this kind of practice residing on the Internet but it also brings to our attention characteristics of digital sound and its mediation of music excellence. The title is a reference to a famous audio cassette commercial starring Ella Fitzgerald where the Memorex company invites us to witness the complete fidelity of their sound product. Today we judge the quality of a recorded performance mostly by the quality of the recording itself. The performance videos the participants submit to the competition by the rules cannot be larger then 50 megabyte. The process by which we make this kind of file is called perceptual audio coding and is related to audio recording and compression technologies informed by psychoacoustic theories developed in the 20th century. Pycoachoustic theories state that there are many qualities of the sound which are irrelevant for hearing habits and possibilities of the human ear and can therefore be excluded. These types of compressions, referred to as “lossy” compressions populate most of our current media sphere, from Mp3 files, Youtube videos to the performance videos of Internet Music Competition, with some representing up to 90 percent reduction of the original sound or video information. The videos of performances go through 3 different reductions of sound quality from the live performance to its reproduction by the jury or Internet audience. Even though most recording devices support the frequency range of sounds of musical instruments, the first reduction of the sound nevertheless happens with the process of recording itself. The characteristic of a live performance sound consists of all vibrations present in the room and not only the sound of the instrument itself and it takes multiple professional technological devices to capture the whole of the sound produced. None of the videos of performances is made in this way so the quality of the sound is reduced on the spot. The second reduction happens in the moment where the video file is compressed to create the requested 50 megabyte file. For comparison, uncompressed video file of a ten minute performance would take around 1 gigabyte of computer space depending on the amount of sound sources being recorded. This compression removes all very high and very low frequencies that aurally define the sound event, as well as other sound frequencies deemed unimportant by the technology. The final reduction of sound is done by sound reproduction technologies that we use to listen to performances. There is a qualitative difference between listening to a recorded performance in studio setting or on quality headphones then on small computer speakers or laptop speakers. The technology for high quality listening has reached today advanced forms of multi channeled surround systems and multiple additional devices. If we take the example of one of the master final competitors Fillipova Maria, Flute, we can see after analyzing the sound frequencies with “Peguin Audio Meter” that all frequencies above 4Khz cannot be heard. For comparison flute frequency range can go up to 10Khz. There are many other videos of similar quality as well as those of optimal frequency range for the instrument in question, but none of them go over a quality of “lossy” compression audio file. Technical sound analysis dictate the question: is there a difference in the expressive nuances and technical acumen in our listening experience of digital recording and what are the elements we assess in music competition that need to be heard?

There is a study conducted by Bruno Repp made out of 115 recordings of piano performances analyzing differences in performances and aesthetic judgment related to them. He compared the ratings of these recordings to MIDI mediated digital piano reproduction of the same performances in addition to one played separately on a digital piano, and found that individual variability in performances is found not in the distinct structural interpretations but in individual timing patterns which represent “different expressive shapings of the musical surface.”5 This means that music expressivity is found in those small deformations of musical structure, expressive nuances of the performance. Given a synthesized MIDI digital piano recording, the aesthetic preference would be given to conventional timing patterns, or to less expressive performance. The rating of recorded sound performances themselves in Repp’s study showed that timing patterns variables didn’t amount much in the rating, from what he concluded that the judges simply found all the patterns aesthetically viable. Repp takes for his starting point the very form of recorded sound and adds to the argument of possibility for

5 Bruno H. Repp, „Individual Differences in the Expressive Shaping of a Musical Phrase: The Opening of Chopin’s Etude in E major”, in Suk Won Yi (ed.) Music, Mind and Science, Seoul National University Press, 1999, str. 246.

virtuosity and expressivity of recorded performance being successfully differentiated and rated. He instructed the judges in his study that recorded sound quality was to be ignored as much as possible. This is exactly how the jury assesses the performances on the Internet Music Competition. The jury professor from Faculty of Music in Belgrade Miomir Simonović states that “its undisputed that there’s a difference between live and this kind of performance, but all that needs to be heard is heard.”6 Assessing music excellence is governed by a long tradition of teaching and emphasizing certain aspects of music expression and technique as more, or less important. There are perceptive cues, a kind of a shared consensus about these important elements of style and structure in the music performance and its judging. They start to form in a musician from an early age which makes recognizing them in the lowest quality video recording a simple case of recognizing a known language in a crowded place. The performance in music competitions is not percieved by most members of the jury as a music performance meant to be enjoyed. Simonović mentiones that „the competition brings a charge in energy which is somewhat negative“, and nobody can deny the palpable stressness this situation usually brings. There is always the question of specific contexts that different kinds of performances bring that cannot be overlooked in any analysis.

Recorded music was compered to live performances from its very beginings but it is the cultural change of listening which mostly determains how we listen to sound and music today and for some theorists is what always determined how we listen. As Emily Thompson states: „A soundscape’s cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what. A soundscape, like a landscape, ultimately has more to do with civilization than with nature, and as such, it is constantly under construction and always undergoing change.“7 Mp3s and other “lossy” compressions are what we could call a users choice. It is the technology that enabled practical and wide spread consumation and manipulation of sound and music and these aspects remain most favored qualities of sound culture today. The organizers of INTERNATIONAL MUSIC COMPETITION – Belgrade, Serbia stress this aspect of the contemporary listener when they explain that the competition would hardly have any participants if there was serious demand for audio and video quality.

This study brings to light the important sonic paradox in which we live today. On the one hand the advance and multiple opportunities that the Internet brings for music culture and

6 Interview with Miomir Simonović conducted by Vera Mevorah in Belgrade, 16th of April 2014. 7 Emily Thompson, „Sound, Modernity and History“ in Jonathan Sterne (ed.), The Sound Studies Reader, Routledge, London and New York, 2012, str. 117.

discourses and on the other transitions in the ways we listen and percieve digital sound and music.



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Graham, Steven, „The End of Geography or the Explosion of Place: Conceptualizing Space, Place and Information Technology“ in Pramod K. Nayar, The Nre Media and Cybercultures Anthology, Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK, 2010

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