For over two decades, iSAW (and its parent organization the South Florida Composers Alliance) has sought to support music, musicians, and other sound related art genre through encouraging the widest diversity of creative activity relevant to its mission. While many music and arts organizations understand their role as an extension of specific aesthetic assumptions and historical traditions that can be narrowly defined, iSAW has pursued a different course: iSAW has attempted to foster creative music and sound experimentation in its most inclusive guise. Rather than seeing the recent aesthetic positions that have defined the extremes of contemporary music making as confrontational (i.e., classical versus popular, composition versus improvisation, traditional versus avant-garde, nationalistic versus ethnic, concert music versus sound art, academic versus commercial, etc.) we have seen all of these creative divergences as part of a greater whole. Music is not something fixed in form or purpose but rather continually changes as a measure of what it means to be human. There have probably been more forms of music—both individual and cultural—that have come and gone than are currently manifest on the planet. Music has never been fixed and its evolution into new forms and uses is not hierarchical. A near infinite diversity of musical realities can coexist and be widely valued.
While the rich heritage of Romantic Modernism is still the dominant aesthetic paradigm of Western 20th-century music—both popular and classical—there are other parallel paradigms that have existed and continue to thrive in the world today. One of the most important of these is an experimental tradition that bifurcated away from the predominantly European 19th-century belief that music must express “self” and “emotion.” Instead it is a tradition concerned with creative strategies that emphasize the materiality of sound, listening, environment, perception, socio-political engagement, and the nimbus of complex communicative interactions possible in the overlap between language and music.
Rather than exclusively focusing upon the special talents of a composer at “expressing” self through a dramatic structure and highlighting their compositional training and skill at doing so, this is a tradition that is more interested in drawing attention to the structure of auditory perception itself and/or issues of sound as an organizing factor in both human and non-human living systems. While it is convenient in this context to pose these paradigms as dichotomous in nature, it is readily apparent that the two can also be compatible. There are a large number of creative musicians who not only move back and forth between these sonic worlds, but also manage to combine them in extraordinary ways.
Starting in the 1960’s, many musicians transferred creative emphasis away from acts of self-expression towards perceptual acts of listening to non-semantically organized sounds as a strategy for focusing awareness to the reality around us. This concern for achieving a deeper understanding of how sound and our sensory modality of hearing are unique organizing forces within human society had begun to come into foreground attention.
The intervening years have also seen the emergence of new research areas concerned with the relationship of sound to the environment. Bio-musicology is an attempt to formalize thinking about the biological origins of music. The scientific discipline of bioacoustics advanced dramatically due to technical innovations and refinements to both field and analytical methodologies. This period also saw the initial formulation of theoretical ideas that were later realized by the emergent discipline of data sonification, the aural equivalent to computer visualization techniques through which streams of data are made more direct and experiential to researchers and the general public.
Together these artistic and scientific advances to our understanding of the unique aspects of human auditory perception have blurred older distinctions and confounded previous aesthetic assumptions. What has emerged is the realization that many aspects of all of these seemingly distinct disciplines—including diverse creative musical genre—share more attributes than previously assumed. While some academics seek to reconcile these distinctions under the banner of a new academic discipline called “sound studies”, iSAW also wishes to recognize their multiplicity through active co-existence. While the ongoing investigation of the expression of human “emotion” and sensibility through sound is profound and inexhaustible, it is clear that it is not the solitary agenda of musicians or of the sound-based arts. iSAW seeks to encourage and support all of these diverse explorations.