IN: Reviews

Electroacoustic Music about Caring and Spirituality


Earlier setup of Hydra array
Earlier setup of Hydra array

Hydra’s 40 Loudspeaker Orchestra was featured at the third and final presentation of audio-visual compositions and installations at John Knowles Paine Concert Hall, Harvard University on Thursday evening. A small but robust turnout clustered around the “sweet spot,” or center of the darkened room. The four works at this show went extremely well together. Altogether, it was a remarkable evening

First up, “Study for a Mirror Box (2014), was the work of Stefan Prins, a young composer who divides his time between Europe and the USA where he is pursuing a PhD at Harvard University. I overheard someone asking what instruments Prins used to create his 15-minute piece. They were saxophone, piano and percussion, all of which were nearly unidentifiable after having been virtually disembodied by way of electronics. A virtuoso effort in terms of its spatial achievement, the continuum of the study harkened back to older models. There was a lot of electroacoustic start-stop chatter that would finally wind up in loud climaxes. By contrast, the lean and delicate beeps of the closing conjured up communication from a distant sphere.

“Tongues of Fire” (2000) by the English composer Trevor Wishart “uses a brief recording of my own voice…to build an extended piece of music.” The 25-minute work “realized almost entirely on a low cost home compute” helped contribute to clear boundaries in both sound production and manipulation. Hearing “Tongues of Fire” on YouTube and then in Paine Hall with the Hydra made all the difference in the world. Hans Tuschku was at the control panel.

Babbling took on a wholly new sense as it captivatingly toured the room moving from large to small speakers placed nearby and further away. Another attractive feature of this highly focused work was its ongoing engagement with pulse, which could accelerate and slow down. Swarms of voice fragments became downpours that would morph into sleet then hail. The moment in this brilliantly composed electronica came midway through where multidirectional sweeps of the transformed voice produced physical sensations.

Director of the Harvard University Studio for Electroacoustic Music and inventor of the Hydra, Hans Tuschku followed a diametrically opposite approach. His “Issho ni” (2014) brought together two-hundred voices, a chorus “you don’t really know what they are singing about,” he said in his introductory remarks. His bent on taking secular and religious sources “to memorialize unity and to rejoice” introduced a rarity, as far as I know, to the realm of electroacoustic music and all its relatives, that of spirituality.

Tuschku’s new work is in keeping with most of those preceding it by being rich in context. We are never lost as identities abound. Organ and tower bells lead to various kinds of chanting and dancing pulsations. The drone, a tone that is the stabilizer, the immobile sound common in so many musical cultures, is a force here. Even a certain amount of minimalism in the unfolding of events finds its way into this commanding half-hour world adventure and a tour-de-force.

Fragments of Tibetan throat singing and Buddhist chiming are amidst an array of a most moving inter-faith singing. Tuschku’s concept, a departure from the norm, resonates even more meaningfully in a time of unrest caused by events in Ferguson (where I earned my high school diploma years ago), Staten Island, Cleveland, and beyond. “Issho ni” is a timely statement. Two major climaxes, both dense, seemed long. However, a third shorter build full of warmth played well into the piece’s denouement.

Along with contemplation, caring might very well be suggested by the title “Time Present” (2013), or a gift of time. Alfred Guzzetti, responsible for image, and Kurt Stallmann for sound, invited us “to inhabit complexities that usually we can do no more than glimpse.” Slow motion scenes of New York City, its crowds, portrait-like faces, and automobiles were juxtaposed with nature’s waves, sky, and moon. The soundtrack often times resembled softer breezes across grasses and at other times a kind of white noise suggesting the ocean’s surf.

Coming back after the 15-minute intermission for a 15-minute “meditation,” as the creators describe their work, made for a quietly different experience, remember there were three pieces that had preceded this one. The richly colored city sights alternating with a colorless sea all against a transparent backdrop of sonic reflection drifting about the Hydra-filled hall truly took higher ground. “Time Present” offered simplicity and maturity, a real break from our daily existence. Afterwards, crossing Mass Avenue, I found myself taking a moment to observe the street, its cars and lights, which transformed the usual freneticism into calm.

One caveat bears mentioning. Punctuation in symphonic music, such as coming from the timpani and cymbals, does not carry over all that well in electroacoustic music. In this latter medium, punctuation too often sounds unnatural, moreover, it is overused; predictability and finally fatigue sets in.

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. He is the author of  20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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