“Sound in Space Festival: The Art of Interpretation of Electroacoustic Music” at theFenway Center in Boston continued into the evening of Thursday, November 17 with “Finalist Concert 1.” Not the most inviting sounding title, one has to admit. But following “Interpretation Workshop 1” held earlier in the day (see my report here) I found myself excited about the prospect of listening to a “live” performance, not just a pre-recorded electronic composition the likes of which I have experienced as early as the ‘60s. I can still recall the chairman of the music department where I worked on my undergraduate degree saying after a concert of electronic music, “Can you imagine that we just sat there staring at two speakers for the past several hours!”
This was not the case some fifty years later. It was another matter altogether with the “Harvard University ‘Hydra’ Speaker-Orchestra” comprising at least three rings of eight speakers (large, midsize and small) “specially placed and adjusted to fit the space [where] a new and live dramatic spatial sound choreography can be interpreted.”
When the lights went out in Fenway Center the sounds began. Concertino for Twisted Metal, composed by one of the six finalists of the Sound in Space competition, Chester Udell, featured “an ensemble of samples I had recorded from Tokyo’s famous Tsukji fish market and an ‘acousmatic soloist,’ comprised of scraping twisted metal scraps on resonant surfaces.” Udell maneuvered faders on the console to move the metallic Concertino away from “the front,” or traditional focus of listening, by engaging various rings of speakers to voice his ensemble of samples with the result that this “diffusion” enveloped the audience.
“The sound of a common wine glass encapsulates both its banal everyday use as well as the inherent musicality of everyday objects” figures in A glass is not a glass by finalist Adam Basanta. Single objects tinkled and crackled left and right, forward and back. As with Udell’s Concertino, Basanta’s A glass … developed musical structures hearkening originally from the environment. Sectioned areas and climaxes further tied this electroacoustic music to more traditional means of creating continuity, resulting in an electrochemistry of the new and old (though perhaps still not enough of the old references, if you will), that helped me find my way through most of these pieces.
Champs de foilles by another competition finalist, Martin Bédard, a commissioned work for the Quebec City 400th anniversary celebrations, “is an homage to the history and unique character of Quebec City” where listeners “will recognize themselves in the work and be able to identify with it.” No single objects here, but immense masses and multi-layered textures swept around the room filling—fulfilling—Hans Tutshcku’s master class observation: this piece with “distinct sections and no silence definitely calls for diffusion.” At the console, Bédard performed his piece, diffusing the sounds both laterally and from front to back. I also noted that the greatest amplitude coming especially as climaxes did, in fact, also follow the expert guidance from Hans Tutschku in the earlier master class: the notion of what decibel level amplified music should not exceed. For Tutschku, “Activities have certain plausible energies. I am not a fan of a big, loud thing coming out of nowhere. I am not a big fan of wearing ear plugs — I don’t wear sunglasses to the movies.” Champs de foilles impressed by its striking power in both the acoustical and emotional realms. I was reminded of soundtracks from today’s action movies. Such a reference was helpful to me in connecting with the piece.
At the urging of Harvard Professor and composer Hans Tutschku, a key organizer of the festival, the composers drew graphs of their pieces for the purpose of achieving the most effective diffusion of their compositions. With a graph (there are as yet, we are told, no standardized ways of notating electroacoustic music) composers can practice interpreting their pieces employing the Hydra Speaker-Orchestra just as pianists would practice a Chopin piano piece, and that is through expression. In the electroacoustic world, space (diffusion) and amplitude are the means toward that end.
There’s another round of three finalists on Friday night’s program. It will be interesting to hear their three pieces and then see to whom the judges award First Prize.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net.