Posts Tagged “electronic”
Jenny Olivia Johnson
Don’t Look Back
Innova Recordings CD 925
Wellesley professor Jenny Olivia Johnson presents a program of synth-inflected songs on Don’t Look Back, her debut recording for the Innova imprint. Like many good indie classical songwriters, her formula combines beautiful sounds with stark lyrics: I like to think of it as the “Corey Dargel effect.” Very fine interpreters sing the songs: Megan Schubert, P. Lucy McVeigh, and Amanda Crider. Johnson’s performances as percussionist and electronic musician are seamlessly melded with instrumental contributions by some of the luminaries from the current indie classical scene: violinist Todd Reynolds, cellist Peter Gregson, flutist Jessica Schmitz, clarinetist Eileen Mack, and pianist Isabelle O’Connell among them. Conductor Nathaniel Berman leads the ensemble in assured renditions of the material. While plenty of composers are reveling in the electro-acoustic playground, there aren’t too many that have the orchestrator’s ear and sense of pacing possessed by Johnson. Recommended.
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Who Has the Biggest Sound
If any composer is going to ask the musical question “Who has the biggest sound,” Paul Dolden is rightfully going to be on the short list of potential composers. The almost hour-long work Who Has the Biggest Sound is quite the whirlwind of sonic activity and stylistic diversity.
Relying mostly on high-quality samples instead of synthesized sounds, Dolden keeps a lot of humanity in the sound world. Rhythm and articulation are the only real means by which the artifice of his production shows through. One could imagine, for example, the overall sound world of “The Answer is Blowing in the Winds” being played totally acoustically but the hard edge to the attacks coupled with the dryness and clarity of the timbres makes it obvious to the ear that these are all processed sounds. This movement in particular comes across mostly like an instrumental version of Paul Lansky’s “chatter” pieces. Dolden’s journey through various ensembles at the start of the album hits its apex in the fifth movement “Who Can Play the Fastest?” Dolden started using rock instruments and tropes in the previous movement but in “Who Can Play the Fastest” he really, to be blunt, rocks the f—k out. It is glorious.
Unfortunately, Dolden kills this energy with the introduction of a narrator with hyper-exaggerated declamation while being mimicked in real time by instrumental samples. This overt asking of the music question brings an unwanted and unwelcome campiness to the piece and reduces most of the clean crisp instrumental samples into cheesy 90’s era MIDI samples. Who Has the Biggest Sound managed to have the right balance of levity and seriousness before the narrator started its aural mugging, the first 30 seconds of “My Hound is Out of Harmony” was going quite well before the narrator barges in, and for the rest of the piece Dolden seems obligated to pollute his otherwise engrossing creations with this whiny and irritating character. I love the idea of this musical question being posed by the “Center for Strategic Sound” but I think the implementation of the narration falls short. Humor is a tricky and subjective thing and something many composers avoid. Dolden’s attention to electroacoustic studio techniques reassures me that while he tries to be funny he takes his art seriously.
The Un-Tempered Orchestra fortunately presents its aural landscape without a verbal guide. Having composed diatonic melodies and harmonies, Dolden uses computer processing to retune and juxtapose his material through a wide variety of tuning systems. The end result is a blurred aural line between performance and processing; a work which in some ways could be played acoustically (from a timbre, rhythm, and instrumentation point of view) and a work which could only be done via intense computer analysis and transformation. I find “Orchestra 4” to be the most sonically satisfying, especially as female voices emerge from the elongated clouds of stretched notes. These six conjoined ruminations which form The Un-Tempered Orchestra never really build into a single shape or trajectory, at least not to my ear, but I nevertheless find the whole work compelling and the final cadential resolution rather satisfying.
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music by Ingram Marshall
photography by Jim Bengston
While the audio to these two collaborative works has been available for some time, this Starkland DVD release is the first time that Ingram Marshall’s music and Jim Bengston’s photography for Alcatraz and Eberbach can be seen in its combined form. While I’m sure nothing could replace a live performance of these pieces, this DVD maintains all the rich immersive qualities of any good multimedia collaboration. Artistically, both works are a testament to the “difficulty of simplicity.” The ideas are direct, expertly executed, and immediately palatable while revealing more nuance upon repeated listenings.
I will fully confess to not being much of a visual person. I cannot speak at length about technical issues in the photography. I find the visuals to be stunning and affecting even though the presentation is just a cross-fade slideshow. By today’s technical standards that doesn’t sound too interesting but the instant anyone would try the “Burns Effect” on these images they would destroy the resonance these images make through their rather monolithic simplicity. Bengston has all the right images at the right times and clearly conveys motion throughout each piece.
Alcatraz, the longer work of the two, is understandably darker in tone and more disquieting than its companion. Having only experienced the audio version of this piece in the past, while I watched the visuals I was reminded that Marshall’s soundcraft was really only half of the work. I do not say that to diminish anything that Marshall did; quite the opposite. Alcatraz works quite well on its own as a purely audio experience. Or, at least, it did before I saw the photography. Now that I’ve seen how Bengston’s images inform and deepen my understanding of the work.
Marshall’s music is not generally known for wild and chaotic textures but Alcatraz relies on disquieted energy and anticipation in extremely Marshallian terms. The music channels the watery ride out to the island and keeps that churning sense of nervous energy until we enter the prison. Sometimes the frantic arpeggiations which accompany the images within the prison struck me as a little too joyous but it ended up always being rooted in nervousness and ominousness. As we go deeper and deeper into the prison the music becomes increasingly desolate and lonely. Hope only emerges again as we leave the building.
Eberbach is a metaphorical parallel for many reasons. The title refers to a German monastery in the Rhine Valley. Men isolated from society within the walls of a dark stone structure is clearly the connective tissue which binds these two works together. In Eberbach, however, the music never generates any amount of nervous energy and why would it? Calm plaintive environmental and atmospheric sounds are tinged slightly with manipulation as the photographs take us around and through the monastery. While Eberbach parallels Alcatraz in some respects, it is also an opposite. The form of both works is similar (starting outside, moving inside) but Eberbach does not end with an emergence back to the outside world. We are taken into the monastery and stay there. Marshall uses same/similar sound sources for the deep interior as he used in Alcatraz but with a completely different affect. Eberbach soothes while Alcatraz looms.
Both Alcatraz and Eberbach stand on their own but both clearly benefit from the juxtaposition of the other. This relationship is identical to how Marshall’s music and Bengston’s photography are simultaneously independent yet connected. They could be experienced apart from the other but clearly shouldn’t be. This is an excellent DVD with great reproductions of the visuals (the aspect ratio has not been tampered with and maintains the 35 mm size) and the audio is available in the original stereo mix as well as 5.1 surround.
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Posted by Jay Batzner in CD Review, tags: barlow, basinski, beglarian, CD Review, curran, duncan, electronic, flute, instrumental, jacob tv, Jay Batzner, lucier, oliveros, riley, rzewski, Scelsi, zurria
music for flute and electronics
- Casaciescelsi – Giancinto Scelsi
- Portrait – Pauline Oliveros
- Almost New York – Alvin Lucier
- Madonna and Child – Alvin Curran
- The Carnival – John Duncan
- The Garden of Love – Jacob TV
- I Will Not Be Sad In This World – Eve Beglarian
- Lipstick – Jacob TV
- …Until… – Clarence Barlow
- A Movement in Chrome Primitive – William Basinski
- Last Judgement – Frederic Rzewski
- Dorian Reeds – Terry Riley
There is nothing typical about this 2 disc set. I would submit that when most flutists are putting together a recording project of music for flute and electronics, they would tend to shy away from the majority of the works that Manuel Zurria has so expertly collected and performed. Not only that, Zurria ups the ante by leading off with his own Scelsi-hommage. Casadiscelsi is really a combination of Scelsi’s bass flute work Maknongan and flute work Pwyll with sounds that Zurria himself recorded from Sclesi’s house in Rome. It sets the stage for this whole first disc which is one of luminesce and slow-moving atmospheres. The virtuosity of performance is not one of a million notes per second but one of tone, mood, and environment. Zurria nails it every single time and loops4ever is consistently captivating. In Portrait by Oliveros, Zurria is almost invisible, with the voice taking center stage, yet he could not be removed. Few flutists are brave enough to feature a work like Lucier’s Almost New York for flute and three oscillators, giving up 25 minutes of precious CD space so they can play long tones, but Zurria anchors the first disc around this particular work to great affect. After the Scelsi and the Oliveros, the Lucier is exactly what we want to hear, played in precisely the way we want to hear it.
Curran’s Madonna and Child is a relief from the stasis which culminated in the Lucier but still the work floats in a somewhat restless and rocking manner. Zurria’s bass flute tone is sumptuous and once layered upon itself, the lullaby nature of the piece is exponentially amplified. I couldn’t believe my ears with the last work on the disc, The Carnival by John Duncan. A single sustained piccolo pitch (and not the most comfortable one, I should add) is held, Lucier-style, for 17 minutes. There are gradual spectral and timbral changes through the electronics but for the most part, it is a monolith of piercing brightness. Imagine a piccolo arrangement of Lucier’s Silver Streetcar. I don’t mean any of this is a bad way, although some folks will be quick to skip this track. The Carnival is an amazing listen, the perfect tonic/alarm clock to the slumber found in the Curran.
Disc two contains works that are more expected of a “flute and electronics” recording. Zurria has packed in more peppy and traditionally-technical works with the same quality of performance found in disc one. Jacob TV’s works are rhythmic and cool, quirky and spiky with the electronic component coming almost exclusively from voice editing while the flute zips out perky punctuations. I Will Not Be Sad in this World by Eve Begrarian is the perfect palate cleanser, silky smooth and tender with subdued sustained vocal manipulations.
Clarence Barlow’s work for piccolo and drone finds the middle ground between Lucier’s work and Berio’s oboe Sequenza. Barlow’s repetitive melodic fragment changes subtly enough to keep me engaged while the drone does what drones do. It was also refreshing to hear a drone in the middle of the flute’s line as opposed to underneath. Once again, Zurria highlights his programming prowess by contrasting the bright sounds of the Barlow with the murky and luxurious sounds of Basinski’s A Movement in Chrome Primitive for bass flute, temple bells, and delays. Rzewski’s Last Judgement uses the bass flute as well but in a more strained and tense register, focusing more on propulsive energy than letting the listener wallow in sound. Either way, Zurria sounds great. Dorian Reeds, originally for soprano sax, gets the final word on the second disc. The overall take on this track uses more reverb than I expected, leaving the different delayed lines a grayish wash instead of dense contrapuntal lines.
The notes for the disc consist mainly of the short interviews that Zurria did with each composer and they make for a compelling read. I find the music and the performances speak for themselves, though. This is a terrific disc full of great repertoire and expertly performed.
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electroacoustic music by
Robert Scott Thompson
- Out of the Vivid Air
- Waters of Cabeus (A)
These four compositions by Robert Scott Thompson, all for fixed digital audio playback, blend notions of the natural and unnatural worlds. All the sounds used are crisp and clean, elegantly placed in time, and each work progresses at a slow and unencumbered pace. Most of the sonic materials are drawn from natural sources: water, wind, or simple percussion sounds and the synthetic elements grow into and out of these natural sounds so deftly that it can be hard to tell how much you are hearing is, in fact, artificial. Shinrin-yoku, with its obvious instrumental timbres, never quite sounds like it is either instrument or environment. Lots of attention is given to spatialization and these works would do extremely well in a surround format. So much of this music is based on where things happen that I feel the stereo field is a bit of a let down. Be that as it may, these organic and ambient tracks are splendidly created and infinitely listenable.
F. Gerard Errante, clarinet
- Water Crossing ~ Alex Shapiro
- Echoes of the Invisible ~ Peter Terry
- Passage ~ Robert Scott Thompson
- Circles in the Sky ~ Jane Brockman
- Breath ~ Joseph Harchanko
- Equanimity ~ Robert Mackay
- Midway Inlet ~ McGregor Boyle
- Cherry Blossom and a Wrapped Thing ~ Judith Shatin
- A Little Night Music ~ Douglas Quin
- rain of the heart, reign of the soul ~ D. Gause
The purpose of this disc was to collect works for clarinet and electronics that were “calm, peaceful and tranquil, perhaps being suitable for relaxation and contemplation.” Every composition succeeds in this goal. The music is indeed calm and tranquil with soft droning synths and slow moving harmonies. Rhythmic activity is kept light, as with the groove in Shapiro’s Water Crossing, and for the most part each piece consists of mellow string pads underneath a long drifting clarinet line. Robert Scott Thompson’s Passage stands out for tying in the high and bright clarinet sound into the electronic fabric of the accompaniment. Breath by Joseph Harchanko pulls its inspiration from Vipassana meditation to great affect, making a work that is sonically unlike the others and a welcome break from the clarinet/synthesizer dichotomy in other pieces. The quietude and spaciousness of Judith Shatin’s Cherry Blossom and a Wrapped Thing are wonderful things. Cherry Blossom has rich and sumptuous electronics that envelope the clarinet in a blissful and dreamy sonic fabric. Through all of these pieces, F. Gerard Errante maintains excellent control in blending the clarinet timbre with whatever electronics are present. It can be difficult to make calm music compelling but each piece, and Errante’s playing, keep me listening.
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a retrospective (1977 – 2009)
New World Records
It may be unfair to say that the genre of electronic music is one that ignores its history. Of course that isn’t entirely true, there is always attention paid to the past, rarely does that attention manifest itself in the presentation of music more than ten years old. Concerts that feature or include electronic music typically showcase the “newest in new” as if anything prior to 2004 is the sonic equivalent of day-old donuts, anything from the 1990s is “quaint” and literature found before 1980 is approached the way a music appreciation class approaches Machaut.
I know this is a brash generalization and a stunning example of hyperbole, but it is rare that the pioneers of electronic music are given much air time in concert halls when compared to acoustic composers who also paved the way for future generations. And since fixed media pieces lack the element of performer interpretation, there seems to be no need to release a composition more than once. That the work is available at all seems to be enough.
New World Records does a great service here by releasing a collection of works by the venerable master Charles Dodge. Dodge, a paragon of the early American pioneers, is someone who made exquisite compositions from the digital equivalent of banging two rocks together. Most of those early compositions, released on vinyl, haven’t found the larger distribution in part because earlier electronic compositions are not as valued as more contemporary pieces. Sites like Ubuweb and the now defunct Avantgardeproject.org offer access to earlier experimental electronic recordings. New World’s commitment to preserving, promoting, and distributing cornerstones of the genre is worthy of praise.
What about the music? The bulk of the disc is occupied by Dodge’s seminal Cascando, based on the radio play by Samuel Beckett. Cascando dates from 1977 and makes heavy use of the vocal synth/sampling techniques found in Dodge’s earlier Speech Songs. Cascando is to Speech Songs, though as Reich’s Drumming is to Clapping Music. Cascando’s texture is sparse and draws the bulk of its sound world from the speech synthesis engine. My reaction to the work is similar to my reactions to much of Beckett; I don’t feel a strong narrative arc but I find the events compelling in and of themselves.
New World includes two other more recent compositions alongside the 30 minute Cascando. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles for fixed media, from way back in 1995, connects well to the older work and demonstrates a through line in Dodge’s compositional voice. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is built from fairly plain and simple synthetic bell-like timbres. The event language is similar to Cascando in that there is rarely a counterpoint of ideas. Dodge favors single events and a slow unfolding of activity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles has quite a bit more pep, though, as the active pseudo-gamelan textures that arise help motivate the narrative and provide formal continuity. Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles is also strongly concerned with just intonation. The pure timbre of the synth helps the tuning relationships shine through.
The final composition is the 2009 work Violin Variations for violin and computer, played here by Baird Dodge. Again, just intonation and the slow unfolding of simple textures are the motivating factors in the construction. The synth sound is subtly refined from Fades, Dissolves, Fizzles with more overtones and richer sonic fabrics behind each pitch. The four movements rarely move past a contemplative affect, a faster tempo and pizzicato third movement help break monotony. Like the other pieces on the disc, I don’t feel a sense of a traditional dramatic narrative but find the work sonically compelling.
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The Twilight of the Gods
Hyperrealist Music by Noah Creshevsky
There is very little about this disc that tells you what it is. Even when listening to The Twilight of the Gods you will still question what exactly is going on and what composer Noah Creshevsky has done and how he managed to do it. Is this electronic music? Yes, but not so’s you’d notice. What is the style? How do you categorize this music? You don’t. The composer’s term hyperrealist is the only thing that could apply. So what is this disc? Noah Creshevsky’s music is electronic but reliant upon totally acoustic sound sources which are cut, spliced, and reassembled into extreme moments and gestures. Imagine Negativland on meth or if Girl Talk used recordings of the Arditti Quartet and Elliott Carter. And klezmer. Creshevsky takes the source recordings of quite a menagerie of music, shreds them into highly-focused and taut strings, then weaves them back together into a sonic mesh.
The amazing thing about this music is that, paradoxically, very little of it sounds artificial. Each moment is woven together with such precision and nuance that the overt synthetic nature is almost completely obfuscated. These could be piece played by real people in real time. They aren’t. Creshevsky displays a tremendous level of craft in the mixing and editing in addition to the musical craft of creating mood and tone. This isn’t music you can make or experience any other way than via recording. The delicious dichotomy of Creshevsky’s brash aural falsehoods and his ability to make everything SOUND “real” should spark a lot of further debate on whether ANY recording can be anything but false. What makes it all even more compelling is that even when you know the joke, when you know how this magician is doing his tricks, you still sit, baffled, while the music plays.
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