in: Reviews

December 22, 2010

State-of-the-art Orchestra: 32 Loudspeakers


“Ahem. Is this on? [two taps on the microphone]

Thus began Mark Applebaum’s Pre-Composition, the concert opener on Friday, December 10th for HYDRA: The Sound Space Experience, at Harvard’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall. Put on by the Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Composition (HUSEAC), the inspired program from Harvard’s state-of-the-art orchestra of thirty-two loudspeakers provided an immersion into nine distinct electronic sound worlds.

Attending a HYDRA concert is in itself a remarkable experience. The loudspeakers surround the audience in three rings, with each ring at a different height, enabling composers to exploit verticality in addition to the more common utilization of left, right, front, and rear found in surround configurations. However, the beauty, and indeed the magic of Friday night’s concert was not in the specifications of HYDRA but in the substance of the three larger pieces, works which transcended the novelty of sitting amid one of the few loudspeaker orchestras of this size and quality in the United States.

Applebaum’s Pre-Composition, written in 2002, is realized in eight channels with the composer’s unprocessed voice as the only sound source. During its twelve minutes, Applebaum vocally embodied a variety of caricatured collaborators, spatially diffused throughout the hall, and each with his own absurd ideas about how to construct the very piece being heard. Reminiscent of the early 1990s sitcom Herman’s Head, in which the quarreling of a dysfunctional motley crew inside the titular character’s brain represents his thought process, Applebaum’s own meta-creation took shape as a riotous, irreverent satire.

One quickly realized that this was not the dialog the composer had with himself during the construction of this piece. (Applebaum acknowledged in the program notes that “the voices I hear are not my own.”) Rather, he has constructed a loving but fiendishly sardonic send-up of the very familiar conversations that typically occur among colleagues, and in lessons, seminars, and colloquia wherever the compositionally inclined are found. He seems to be lampooning the diverse, sometimes hilariously factional world of contemporary music in which composers often dismissively assess others with dissimilar aesthetic values, or offer absurd, subjective or downright silly critiques.

Consequently, Pre-Composition’s cast of “collaborators” includes a technology-obsessed character who insists that the precise duration of the piece, in samples, must be pre-determined, a spiritual character who suggests first “conceiving of the mind in the body and the body in the mind”, and a character who believes, more than anything, that a flanger effect should be central to these considerations. Ultimately, Pre-Composition can be summed up as an impeccable execution of a zany high concept, and perhaps something of a comic masterpiece, a rare achievement in contemporary, much less electroacoustic, music.

Another noteworthy effort came from Harvard PhD candidate Edgar Barroso’s  Binary Opposition (2010) for video and electronics. The piece began with the mysterious, vaguely ominous whispering of multiple speakers.  In the video, a stark white stripe appeared across the screen and was intermittently invaded by specks and blotches of black. As this introduction ended, the sounds and images became more abstract. Sustained sections of foreboding repose were contrasted with short moments of intense agitation. Amid lacerating shards of noise, lifelike sounds were perceived in the distance, including the chirps of birds and the original whispering. At its climax, Binary Opposition reversed the pattern, sustaining the agitation and intermittently contrasting it with less saturated moments. A dark, contemplative stalking, just beneath the surface, underpinned this increased activity.

In conversation after the concert, Barroso revealed that the pathos in his recent works has been a reaction to the intense escalation of violence in his native Mexico. In a lesser composer’s hands, this profound angst might be rendered as avalanches of discordance, but Binary Opposition succeeds through its balance of contemplation and visceral anxiety. As Barroso explained in the program notes, dualities are “concepts that help us have a starting point to make sense out of the infinite possibilities that emerge from a deceiving simple dual.” Binary Opposition succeeds as a complex portrait of unease.

For Firmament-schlaflos (2010), the concert’s twenty-one minute finale, Hans Tutschku, Professor of Music at Harvard and Director of HUSEAC, manufactured a swirling, multi-layered, metallic ocean, diffused in sixteen channels. As meticulously sculpted waves of sound undulated throughout the hall, the listener became an aural seafarer, discovering vast expanses ranging in character from moderately placid to tempestuous. Recognizable utterances slowly surfaced, and one began to suspect that some form of humanity might be near.

Tutschku, a master manipulator,  used gradual, highly detailed transformation as well as sudden, extreme contrast to great advantage. In the first section, the fluidity of his billowing sea was interrupted twice by something like a hail shower, with small explosions bursting like popcorn from all sixteen channels. Through one of Tutschku’s unexpected, jump-cut contrasts, the listener was then abruptly dropped into hushed depths, where the only sounds were those of ghostly female voices intoning quivering melodic fragments and whispers.  For this listener, the chilling effect vividly evoked translucent specters. They called, perhaps beckoning, perhaps warning, as they drifted, amorphous and wide-eyed, down a small stream in a dark netherworld.

Transfixed in these depths, one easily forgets that this is a high-tech feat of electroacoustic virtuosity. The trick is that technology is not the foundation of Firmament-schlaflos’ success; rather, the piece’s substance and musicality become the foci. Sometimes in electroacoustic contexts, flaws in the hall, the audio components, or the composer’s approach, become impediments to a compelling connection between music and listener. However, the beauty of Tutschku’s writing for the HYDRA is that once immersed, one becomes completely lost in the musical narrative and the startling arrivals, which oscillate on a spectrum between spare fragility and vortexes of organic turbulence.

The other six pieces on the program were written by Daniela Dekhtyar, Kyle Fitzgerald, Julia Glenn, Jonathan Jain, Michael McGlaughlin, and Abel Acuna/Josiah Oberholtzer, who collaborated on a piece. These shorter pieces emerged out of an undergraduate class assignment to record the sounds of objects spinning and to focus on materials that did not have standard musical function. Coins, ocean sounds, wheels and bells were filtered, pitch stretched, and layered to create a variety of appealing, small-scale compositions, many of them first efforts in this medium for the composers. Each composer then spatially diffused his or her piece live, during the concert.

A program of nine fixed-media pieces (seven of them by students), with no live performers involved, remained completely engaging for the duration, a testament to the inspired imaginations of the composers, and hopefully, the fertile future of this cutting-edge format.

David Dominique is a composer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.  He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.


  1. David, I am not wild with the enter direction the HUSEAC is going and in away consider what they do a transgression. I do understand and appreciate that you were mostly focused in your article on the content of the message, not on the media of the message but I do question the value of the message delivered by such a media. The HUSEAC people state: “The main goal of this practice is to introduce another element of interpretation into the performance of electroacoustic music, allowing for greater expressive communication with audiences.” So, do you feel that you did have that “added value”, that “greater expressive communication” by experiencing the above-mentioned compositions in the offered playback format? What are we dealing in here: with expressionism of human intentions by virtue of harmonic sequences or with entertaining ourselves with sideshow of psychoacoustic effects? Sure, one can take film like “Casablanca” and render it’s sound in 854 surround channels. I do not think that the artistic values of the “Casablanca” would change. In another hand while those 342 surround channels will be pumping air pressure then something else, some kind acoustic phenomena, might happen. So, we optimize our playback algorithms to stress these phenomena and we call it “greater expressive communication”. The fact the “greater expressive communication” shall be somehow affinity with “Casablanca” cinematographic intend we care less….

    I am not against trying to make playback to be aware about performing intend. This is a noble and difficult task and I personally make my hands dirty on it. However, I do feel that if somebody COMPOSE music specifically targeted for being palsy via HUSEAC then we begin to take some things a bit out of perspective. What are you feeling about it? I do understand that you like the experience but as a practicing composer and as a person who will be teaching kids tomorrow composition, do you feel that we letting ourselves off the hook too easy?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — December 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm

  2. Hi Romy The Cat,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my review.

    To answer your first question, yes, I definitely feel that Tutschku’s piece, which made the most use of HYDRA’s surround capability, was uncommonly expressive, and that his use of the technology aided in that regard. It was not at all a “sideshow of psychoacoustic effects” as you speculate, but rather a dynamic, musical, and refined composition that resulted in a vivid, moving experience. This is not to suggest that I believe music must necessarily have a “refined” quality (however one might interpret the word “refined”) to achieve success or forge a human connection, but in this case the music did operate on those levels.

    In my review, I tried to communicate that my enthusiasm for these works was not based solely on the employment of technology, but the ways in which technology was used as a tool towards a richly imaginative end, much in the way a symphony orchestra can be employed by a skillful composer. It is simply a different medium. As the visual arts are not confined to painting and sculpture, but can incorporate a variety of media and technology to expand the palette of expressive tools, composers can also make use of numerous formats and methods that were not available 100, or even 10 years ago.

    To respond to the issues you raised in the last paragraph, there is nothing inherent in HYDRA that would force a composer to write in a way that lets him or her “off the hook” too easily. In every discipline, and in each genre within those disciplines, there are those who use new tools as novelties, and aim to impress with a vacuous flashiness that has a limited shelf life. These are the types of composers and artists that we may be letting off the hook too easily. It is the responsibility of practitioners, critics, and audiences to discern “flash” from “substance”, and there is enough gray area and overlap between the two that debates like these will never be resolved completely. All that said, if it is not already clear, I believe the three pieces I reviewed were well-endowed with substance, and satisfying on multiple levels.

    Lastly, I must point out that there is a danger in speaking about this “practice” as a hypothetical. I do not think of HUSEAC and the greater electroacoustic community as monolithic, and a discussion like this is most illuminating when it is specific. Though everyone is entitled to his or her own taste and aesthetic inclinations, I suspect that skeptics in attendance at this concert may have been positively influenced by the experience, if not completely converted to fans of the format.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and happy new year!


    Comment by David Dominique — December 27, 2010 at 6:03 pm

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