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Bassoon, Sax, and Electronics from EAR


A last-minute alert from our BMInt colleague Peter Lane brought us to MIT’s Killian Hall on March 30 to hear the Amsterdam-based Americans comprising the EAR (i.e., Electro-Acoustic Reed) duo — Michael Straus, saxophone, and Dana Jessen, bassoon — in a program in which they collaborated with the composers’ collaborative EMMI and Oberlin-based composer Peter V. Swendsen. They also performed works by Matthew Burtner and Terry Riley, and all the foregoing involved them, as is their wont, in multi-media and electronics.

We first encountered Straus and Jessen about a year ago when they were operating under a different ensemble name, down at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain. On this occasion they appeared under the auspices of the MIT Music and Theater Arts department, in the altogether more polished environment of a real concert hall. There was, nevertheless, a kind of scattered nonchalance to the setup, with banks of computers and other electronic gadgetry occupying the stage area and a couple of rows of seats, and players, composers and other techies fidgeting with their stuff right up to the beginning of the performance.

The first item on the agenda was the premiere of Coral Attractions for soprano saxophone, bassoon, percussion and electronics by Burtner, an Alaska native who now teaches at the University of Virginia, where he specializes in computer music (there were no program notes provided, so what we report here comes from online sources). Coral Attractions begins with attractive watery sounds in the electronics and a quiet tapping by Straus and Jessen, amplified, of what we presume was coral — or maybe just ceramic — cylinders on a platter of similar material. There’s a crescendo and a pick-up of tempo, with the electronics coalescing into a sustained bass. The overall sonic effect is tropical, reinforced when the woodwinds enter, the bassoon with languid phrases, the sax with faster pentatonic-modal riffs, to an electronic jungle beat. Without very much harmonic change, the music builds to a climax and then retreats to its opening motifs and fades to black, as it were. Color us under-whelmed.

The next work was more of an extravaganza, as it presented the array of robotic instruments (that is, they were played “live” but remotely by computer instruction) created by EMMI, which we think stands for Expressive Machine Musical Instruments. This is a consortium of inventor-composers Troy Rogers, Scott Barton and Steven Kemper, whose family of brainchildren include PAM (Poly-tangent Automatic (multi-) Monochord), a device that, in its gawker-friendly transparent case sounds like a cross between a sitar and a honky-tonk piano; and CARI, a Cylindrical Aerophone Robotic Instrument, operating like a woodwind off a forced-air column. Its sounds are not as gross as those of a calliope, nor as loud; in fact, we were often unsure whether it was playing when the live musicians were. The piece the ensemble performed, Push to Position (another premiere), began the work with a passage in multi-phonics on the sax, followed by a more pointillistic section for both live players that builds tempo and volume — this business of taking isolated notes and making them faster, more connected and louder seeming to be what passes for compositional technique in the avant-garde — from which it continues with the live instruments sounding more and more mechanical and eventually taking a back seat to the robots, who develop a rock-like groove. The work concludes with a big cadenza for PAM. We were again left with the feeling that the strictly musical treatment was not fully cooked, leaving us only to admire The Boys and Their Toys. We are informed that PAM and CARI will be united (it’s OK. This is Massachusetts.) and are expecting their own offspring, to be named MARI —the Monochord Aerophone Robotic Instrument. We’ll see what kind of musical talent MARI will inherit.

The program continued with two works by Swendsen that entailed live playing, electronics and video. The first, a sudden change in the consistency of snow, dates from 2006 and was Swendsen’s first collaboration with, in this case, just Straus. Its title conjured in our mind the image of needing to apply klister wax to cross-country skis in the middle of a spring run, but we doubt that this is what ran through the composer’s mind, since xc skis have been wax-free for several decades now. Be that as it may, Swendsen’s video, essentially abstract but seemingly derived from natural surroundings, suggests a swift chase through snowy fields and woods. The music for the sax is contrastingly slow and haunting at first, the electronic feedback loop creating pungent dissonances over a fundamental tone. It all creates a fascinating audio-visual counterpoint.

The second Swendsen piece, Northern Circles (yet another premiere) was an altogether more tangible reflection of the composer’s year in Norway. The video was a clear-cut celebration of craggy fjords, clouds and the sea (quite idyllic — not an oil rig in sight), with electronics supplying the seabirds’ calls. The musical accompaniment this time was more consistent with the images (in fact, nothing about it really leapt out at us) and contributed to an integrated whole that, while threatening obviousness, was at least fully comprehensible. It’s too bad they don’t have things like world’s fairs any more — this would make a perfect show for the Norwegian pavilion.

The closing work was Terry Riley’s 1964 Dorian Reeds, to a movie by Bruce Conner called Looking for Mushrooms. This ensemble performed this on their January 2010 program, and you can get our description and evaluation of it here.

It remains for us to say something about the performances by Straus and Jessen — we really don’t know how to comment on the electronic realizations by EMMI and Swendsen other than that they happened and did not seem to suffer major technical failures. There was a certain tentativeness in Straus’s playing in the Burtner, at least at the beginning. After that, both performers seemed at ease with their material, producing rich and varied sounds (Straus’s multi-phonics  in Push to Position were admirable), with excellent intonation and, to the extent permitted by the idiom, expression. The audience, which, considering the somewhat last-minute publicity for the concert, was a respectably large one, gave them a solidly appreciative reception.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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