Donna Haraway argued in her “Cyborg Manifesto” that the human race should embrace the intrusion of technology into the most intimate areas of our lives. For Haraway, the cyborg is the eventual outcome of our technological progress; it “…is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.” Now, 35 years after Haraway wrote her essay, our history is daily transformed by the combination of organic and cybernetic materials. Whether it be a conversation over a common cellphone, the wireless pacemaker (here), or a robotic arm controlled by a paralyzed woman’s thought (here), the synthesis of biology and technology are rapidly increasing human life in quality and duration, and the limits of this transformation seem only structurally bound by our imagination. In this historical transformation, science has mostly led the way, but in its concert Saturday night at MIT, the Boston based electro-acoustic ensemble Bleep Blop showed that the arts, too, can be transformative.
The concert opened with Ramon Castillo’s Artifice, a deeply introspective play on timbre and gesture with a formal organization structured on a series of organizational crescendos. There is a delicacy to the electronics in this piece, which, more often than not, serve only to preserve, sustain, or finely alter the source signal from the acoustic piano. This was followed by PoChun Wang’s Wonderland, a piece that featured an intellectually rigorous rhythmic counterpoint which only gradually emerged over an obstinate four note theme in what would become an extremely low bass register.
The trance inducing seriousness of the first two pieces was quickly dispersed by the upbeat humor of the third piece, Castillo’s Bounce. The piece was accompanied by a video from Andy Fillebrown (here) in which the sound was not rendered vertically, as it is in notated music, but in a gradually expanding colorful spiral on the screen behind the stage. The visual provided additional interest to the piece as an interpretation but without distracting from the music.
The fourth piece was Iota, written by Deepak Gropinath for violin, percussion and live electronics. While there were only two performers on the stage, the piece is essentially a quartet in which each performer also manipulates electronics. Takahiko Tsuchiya performed the violin part on his Zeta midi violin (here) and his electronic part on a gesturally controlled glove (here). Overall the piece was very bright, and, according to the program, it sought “the middle ground between dichotomies, such as order and disorder, noise and tonalities, improvisation and composition.” There was another dichotomy here, indeed a grating tension, between the futile resistance of the nostalgic violin and the perpetually current electronics.
The next two pieces were by Castillo. Two Eight: Simultaneous Film Scores features a visual interaction of several films intensified by the electronic combination of one or two snippets from each film’s soundtrack. The aural effect is almost “neo-pointalistic” in the way it saturates one’s perception with details. The aesthetic is somewhat a reversal of Arnold Schoenberg’s thematic liquidation in which a theme is slowly stripped of its individual characteristics. Here the music accumulates so many characteristic traits that it becomes everything (and thus nothing) at once. It was an overwhelming symphonic experience. Next was Gargantuan, aptly described in the program as “the extreme stretching of a forte-piano attack.”
Wang’s Six Six is built from a collage of influences including a Brahmsian lullaby and Desmond/Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Each individual section seems to carry an element of heterophony or polyphonic stratification in its adoption of the borrowed material. The transitions between sections are akin to shifting one’s attention from one artifact to another—it is an enchanting aural stroll through an exhibit of influence. Mbira Loops, an improvisation for mbira played by Ryan Meyer and manipulated electronically by Castillo, rounded out the program. With its evolving and pulsating meditation, the piece sharply contrasted Meyer’s asymmetrical and organic melodic phrasing with the hyper-organized electronics.
Throughout the night, the acoustic signals were articulated (initially at least) by the ambitious, confident pianist Pei-yeh Tsai, playing with precision and clarity, in a traditional concert music atmosphere on stage-right even as Castillo worked various non-traditional instruments (a laptop, an iPad, a melodica, et al) on stage-left. The sound was provided a velvet acoustic by the hall itself, a warm room adorned with dark wood and wainscoting that created a damp, but not dull, aural setting.
After the concert, as I walked down the “Infinite Corridor” and spilled blinkingly into the cool spring night, I was struck by the electro-acoustic soundscape outside M.I.T. The walk sign beeped, the wind blew, the brakes on a car squealed, a girl nattered at her cellphone and some grumbling future-engineers rushed past. I’m not sure how to answer the old question about whether art imitates life or life imitates art, but the parallel between the two on Saturday night was indeed striking.
The concert will repeat on April 20th in Durgin Hall at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
See related article here.
Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.