By Howard Kenty
Phipps Hall, a fairly acoustically dry space with a surround speaker configuration, seats approximately 100 people. This program was repeated at 2:00 PM the same day; this review deals only with the 12:30 concert.
The first performance consisted of two short pieces from Eric Lyon’s Selected Noise Quartets, featuring the Noise Quartet (Steve Davis, drums; Eric Lyon, piano; Franziska Schroeder, saxophone; and Paul Stapleton, electric guitar). The performers generated all sounds acoustically (save the guitar’s amplification); the electronic elements here wirelessly delivered text instructions to the performers via synchronized computers. These instructions were apparently often new to the players and/or impossible to execute literally, and as their selection and order was chosen live by a computer program, each performance is different. It was indeed quite “noisy,” in the manner of avant-garde free jazz. The players were all gifted improvisers, and handled the abrupt starts, stops, and aggressive dynamic and tempo changes with aplomb. Though the pieces are by nature of an uncertain structure, and would perhaps have benefited from a more composed form, the performances were enjoyable to watch, and an interesting variation from standard ICMC fare.
Next was Bruce Hamilton’s Pental, an acousmatic work. The brief program notes listed “noise, xenharmonic tunings, drone, soundscape, improvisation, and periodicity” as used in its creation, but left the composer’s conceptual intentions opaque. Though I was unable to distinguish the five continuous movements mentioned in the notes, the piece proceeded very naturally, constructing a sonic narrative while successfully integrating the diverse compositional strands, often exploring the chaotic points in which the material degraded into “noise.” The source materials all seemed synthetically generated, or processed as to be practically so, save for the piece’s last, faint minute of actual humans talking, perhaps at a family gathering. This provided a very compelling and effective coda, giving the previous material a satisfying conclusion via this new but somehow related contextual framework.
mikro:strukt was an audio-visual piece composed by Alo Allik in collaboration with Satoshi Shiraishi, who performed live on the e-clambone, a proprietary wind controller activated by blowing, utilizing button sensors, and changing the instrument’s length, position, and orientation. This produced little acoustic sound, but its miked output was used to control the audio and visual electronics. Though augmented by the responses of autonomous listening agents, the performer’s interaction was largely apparent as the piece gradually progressed from sparse, low-register ambient textures with the odd click or thud to more spectrally complex, aggressive swirls of swooping, pixelated synthetic grains whose density occasionally verged on noise. As the piece built in intensity toward its latter half, the interaction between performer and output became somewhat less apparent. Visually, though the mutating grids of colored blocks and shapes responded appropriately to the performer’s actions, I feel that more could have been done to make the visual material as central to the piece as the audio, instead of using these simplistic forms and color palette. Though texturally and conceptually interesting, I think mikro:strukt would be well served with more structured improvisation to make a similar but more concise artistic statement.
Dale Perkins’ acousmatic Cuckooborough, a minimalistic piece, established a major 7th chord bed of a hypnotic, low-register pulse and sparse diatonic synthesized phrases, accompanied by an unprocessed female voice softly vocalizing scratchy, wordless melodies. The timbral and spacial differences between the synthetic and human elements contrasted nicely, and the primal nature of the vocalizations evoked the titular avian. After essentially remaining in stasis for two-thirds of its duration, slowly incorporating processing into the vocal variations, the entrance of a heavily vocoded, dissonant vocal sample marked the piece’s descent into a more climactic, chaotic state, and the steady pulse was replaced by erratic glitchy percussive noises while the vocals agitated toward growling and shouting. Even on the pulse’s return, the glitches and singer’s distress remained, evoking the simmering tensions of society mentioned in the notes. It was an enjoyable piece, though I feel a more complex structure, less abrupt ending, and performance with a live singer would enhance its impact.
Shawn Greenlee’s Endolith, for live audio and visuals, followed. Both were generated using “graphic waveshaping” via input from a live camera, in front of which were placed mixed-media paper works, with the composer additionally operating a “multi-touch trackpad and turntable-like spinner.” Unfortunately, this did not translate into an effective piece. The sonic palette varied little from record-scratch-like squiggles of almost-noise manipulated via the controllers, overlaid on a slowly evolving, low-register drone. The visuals never changed from a pixelated, shifting horizontal center line that ranged up and down, dividing the screen into two portions, the bottom containing moving vertical lines of processed input, and the top containing static, striated cross-sections of material affixed by the horizontal center line as it moved. Though both audio and visuals occasionally produced engaging material, and Greenlee maintained an admirable intensity during his performance, this would have functioned better as a technique demonstration, or a shorter piece with a more varied palette and form, rather than a lengthy improvisation with little development.
The last piece was Jordan Munson’s Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate, for bodhran (Scott Deal), electronics, and live video. Deriving its title from the Yeats poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, the visual element consisted of old footage of soldiers heading to war, marching, running, and eventually falling on the battlefield, looped repetitively and increasingly processed into a gauzy haze. The piece had a simple structure, beginning quietly, with the rubbing and scratching of the drum head melding nicely with electronics of similar timbre. This eventually crescendoed into waves of rhythmic beating on the head, sides, and back of the drum, building to a climax of greater intensity mirrored in the visual images, before a gradual decrescendo was accompanied by the haunting shot of a soldier slowly shaking his head and a fade to white. The overall effect was simple, somber, and rather moving.
Howard Kenty is a Masters Candidate in Music Composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City University of New York.