This past week, musical technicians from Paris's Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique -- better known simply as IRCAM -- came to New York for a conference with composers, musicians and engineers at Columbia University. The sessions concluded with two concerts at Miller Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, both of which provided a nice overview of current trends in electro-acoustic composition within the contemporary classical sphere.
It would be easy to digress into a lengthy history of IRCAM, which was founded in 1970 by Pierre Boulez at the behest of French president Georges Pompidou, as well as a debate over the positive and negative effects it may have had on trends in postmodern music, particularly in Europe. (If you're interested, there's a concise history available at Wikipedia.) I'll refrain from that here, because honestly, all that really concerns me is the quality of the music facilitated by this think-tank's technological advances.
On Saturday night, Jeffrey Milarsky conducted the Columbia Sinfonietta -- a recently founded ensemble patterned after IRCAM's original house band, the Ensemble InterContemporain, as well as the Ensemble Modern and London Sinfonietta -- in three recent scores that made use of active electronics in varying ways. The opening work was Empreintes, a 1995 composition by Harvard University-based composer Joshua Fineberg, previously performed in New York by Speculum Musicae during the American Composers Orchestra's "Orchestra Tech" conference. (That performance was warmly greeted in a review for New Music Conoisseur.)
Fineberg's piece makes use of an algorithm developed by German psycho-acoustician Ernst Terhardt, which permits a computer to analyze the performance of the live musicians and emphasize certain features. On paper, it sounds fascinating; in performance, I am forced to admit that I seldom noticed a substantial interaction between acoustic and electronic elements. Whether this was due to Miller Theatre's acoustics or simply a fluke of the specific performance, I can't say -- Milarsky, in a Sunday afternoon talk, noted that each performance of Empreintes is different and thus unpredictable. The piece opened with glassy pinpricks on synthesizer, which hung suspended against lengthy sustained notes from the ensemble; now and then, a violent outburst shattered the relative calm.
In Pour adoucir le cours du temps, French composer Tristan Murail, a former student of Messiaen now based at Columbia University, extended what was essentially an impressionist orchestral style with a synthesizer whose sounds were scattered among loudspeakers placed throughout the hall. Here, the electronic components of Murail's palette mixed fruitfully with his acoustic players, not unlike Messiaen's deployment of the Ondes Martenot in his Turangalîla-Symphonie -- a relationship with which Murail is certainly familiar, since he was himself the Ondes player on Simon Rattle's celebrated recording of the work. Murail's lush score turned up one succulent patch of orchestration after another, including two passages that could only be described as "bluesy." The piece sustained attention from beginning to end, and it's a work I'd gladly hear again -- which is something I would say about pretty much everything of Murail's I've heard.
The concluding piece, Rand Steiger's Ecosphere, struck me as the evening's most successful, both in terms of electronic innovation and a compelling narrative flow. The work's structure is based on planet Earth's 15 climatological classifications (subarctic, warm continental, tropical desert, rain forest and so on) as determined by geographer Robert Bailey. Steiger didn't attempt to depict these climates literally, but rather let their relative dispersion -- 17% savanna, 1.4% hot continental -- determine the duration and changeability of the various episodes that made up the piece.
If that all sounds rather dry, the results were anything but. The ensemble was arranged antiphonally, with gigantic percussion arrays at each end. Two synthesizers provided the sounds of instruments not physically present onstage -- for instance, during an opening passage for crotales at stage left and vibraphone at stage right, an array of temple bells seemed to sound out from the ether -- while a computer retuned the notes of live instrumentalists and scattered them around the hall. The most dramatic example of this was during lengthy trombone and French horn solos, which echoed beside and behind the audience as if bouncing from one mountain peak to the next. An English horn solo sounded as if it was being played in a hall far larger than the one in which we were seated; a lengthy violin solo, amplified to rock-concert dimensions, was accompanied by synthesized harpsichord.
The listener was left free to ponder which of Steiger's sonic episodes represented what climate... although it was reasonably clear, proportionally speaking, that a lengthy stretch of flutters late in the piece must surely be that 17% savanna. Heading toward the climax, metrical units shifted constantly to the beat of the dual drummers, who ended with a massive riff, then scraped gongs to evoke the closing "ice cap." Throughout Steiger's piece, the ends to which the live electronics were deployed was consistently impressive. Just as readily apparent, as with the Murail work, was a sense that Steiger's music succeeded not merely for the novelty of its electronic elements, but because it was created by a composer with a genuine aptitude for shaping music of substance and appeal. Ecosphere is a marvelous, imaginative score. (You don't take my word for it; you can hear the entire piece for yourself here, although this MP3 stream obviously can't do complete justice to the spatialized elements of the score.)
On Sunday night, the Argento Chamber Ensemble, a smaller group that added guests for the occasion, played further works by Fineberg and Murail, as well as pieces by Michael Jarrell and Philippe Leroux. Once again, Fineberg opened the evening -- this time with the world premiere of his Lolita - part I (Humbert), the first section of an evening-length "opera" that will be premiered in Marseille, in May 2008. The reason I put quotes around the word "opera" is that all of the voices present in the piece are those of the actor who portrays Nabokov's Humbert Humbert -- tonight, Daniel Gurian. Sitting at a desk with a flat-screen monitor in front of him, the Wilde-haired actor recited lines drawn from the Nabokov novel; a computer transformed his speech into song, delivered by ghostly voices throughout the hall in a variety of vocal timbres. Fineberg chose this approach to illustrate the concept that Nabokov's book is less a multi-character narrative than a first-person memoir, in which everyone who appears is modulated through the narrator's voice. Accordingly, in Fineberg's work, all of the characters and settings are literally born of Humbert's descriptions. Both process and piece were fascinating, promising much for future developments.
Swiss-French composer Michael Jarrell's ...more leaves... drew upon material from an earlier viola concerto, From the Leaves of Shadow. Stephanie Griffin provided a dramatic account of the solo part, rendered over a constantly shifting background supplied by clarinet, trumpet, trombone, double bass and piano extended through electronic means. A computer cast a shimmering halo around Griffin's lines, and dispersed them throughout the hall. Tristan Murail's Winter Fragments evoked chilly, crystalline ice formations and breathy gusts of frigid air, while also movingly paying homage to a late friend, spectralist composer Gérard Grisey, by quoting at its conclusion a theme from the solo-viola Prologue of his seminal cycle, Les Espaces Acoustiques.
The closing work, French composer Philippe Leroux's Voi(rex), was a virtuosic vehicle for soprano Daisy Press, whose voice was amplified, relocated and split into choruses as she sang, spoke, squealed and clucked, occasionally miming the punctuation that ended her lines. The program notes stated that the singer triggers the electronic manipulations with a device worn like a ring; tonight, Press was left free to sing while Joshua Fineberg, seated onstage, controlled the live electronics.
Instrumentalists alternatingly mimicked and countered Press as she delivered the rapidly tumbling lines of Lin Delpierre's wordy poem. More than once, it seemed as if multiple melodies were simultaneously performed to opposing rhythms. Yet the most exciting passage of the work was one in which each instrumentalist in turn fell in with the singer's scatting line, until everyone on stage was sounding the same melody like a breakneck downhill slalom on a treacherously winding course. Near the end, the piece unraveled into its constituent elements: Spoken words were rendered electronically as strings of isolated vowels and consonants, accompanied by violinist Miranda Cuckson's breathy gasp. Pencil in hand, Press sketched her final lines in the air as she intoned them; around her, ghostly voices -- male and female -- read along.
I've done a bit of maintenance on the blogroll tonight, mainly to introduce a few recently discovered points of interest. Bruce Hodges -- who not only writes about contemporary music and visual art, but has also taken an active hand in steering a number of ensembles and organizations over the years -- has been blogging for a few months now at the eye-catching Monotonous Forest. Andrew Johnston, my Time Out New York colleague who handles the magazine's television, radio and home video coverage, just launched The True Wheel just this morning; if you're a multimedia maven, this will be worth following once Andrew gets up a full head of steam. (He also promises to write about music -- how could he not, after naming his blog after a Brian Eno song? -- but for now, look for Andrew in my Arts/Culture category.) Last but far from least, I've finally added Dave Douglas's blog on his Greenleaf Music label site to the roll of Musicians tattooed to my virtual right wrist.
Eliane Radigue - Adnos I-III (Table of the Elements)
Rand Steiger - Ecosphere - Ensemble InterContemporain / Patrick Davin (MP3 stream)