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Quadratic, Fixed Media, Caterpillar: Wassup?

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If you are distressed about being cooped up inside for months on end; if you lament the dearth of musical performances in our once-vibrant city and are seeking music anyway you can find it; this review may not be for you. As readers may know, NEC is my alma mater; in my time, I too participated in Tuesday Night New Music.

Perhaps the desire for hearing conventional music-making highlighted the streamed event’s virtuality. The video would not even play on NEC’s website, I had to view it on YouTube, which did allow me to witness the concert in its entirety despite my “arrival” at the show 15 minutes past the official starting time.

TNNM regularly showcases student compositions from New England Conservatory with wildly varying programs; selections arrive as diverse as the composition students who produce them. Last night’s show consisted of 4 works, 2 of which featured fixed media (meaning a pre-recorded work of mostly electronic sounds). It is unclear whether the other two pieces were broadcast live or not, as aside from some short notes on NEC’s website (where the video would not play) there was nothing to guide the listener (notes, emcee, captions). [And the embedded YouTube version below seems to work, though the first piece shows no  video.]

Composer Kyle Quarles described the first work, Synthetic Piece 2 (quadres 31) as “the second in a series based on quadratic residues of a number. If a perfect square of some integer is congruent to some number n mod p, then we say n is a quadratic residue of p.” I used to write program notes like this when I was a student at NEC too. While the composer had asserted “The frequencies of the pitches, as well as their envelopes, and significant structural boundaries, are all based on the quadratic residues of 31,” I heard more quadratic residues of 29, but perhaps the playback speed was a little slow. The composer concluded by noting his work should serve as “an enveloping backdrop to meditation, reading, or exercise.” Perhaps I paid too close attention. A composer is free to use whatever he likes to structure his works, though it seems music hyper-inspired by mathematical formulae rarely exhibit in sound the elegance of their generating equations.

Now, while I may only have a tangential relationship with fixed-media composition, my toddler has made me an expert on the topic of the next work: Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, recast in a modern idiom by Brooks Clarke. I laud Clarke’s admitted desire to use a children’s book to expose young ears to more adventurous modern musical techniques, and the work was not as outlandish as one might suspect from his introduction. A quartet consisting of baritone Jeff Gavett (who also spoke and even had to conduct the ensemble – kudos), trumpet Andrew Kozar, trombone William Lang, and bass clarinet Rane Moore, brought it to life. The instrumental balance worked well and the swings of mood and style, from an Ellingtonian-tinged “One Sunday morning…” to a pointillistic germ emulating the infectious rhythm of “one ice cream cone/one pickle/one slice of swiss cheese/one slice of salami,” would work well to hold the attention of children and adults alike. But Clarke missed some opportunities, not capitalizing on the increasing counting contained in the book, nor the “pile-on” of foodstuffs that led to the poor insect’s stomachache, both of which were chopped up musically in a way which stood at odds with their natural rhythm in the story and thus their potential appeal to young listeners. This work however remained in my memory as the highlight of the event.

Another fixed media piece followed, air chrysalis by Marie Carroll (a somewhat cheeky choice to place after the caterpillar). Carroll’s composition worked better than the previous electronic work, or at least held the attention more. Scattered about with hints of pitch and rhythm, a vaguely koto-like sound frequently appeared, as did occasional flurries of sonic events. While some might say it’s strictly a matter of taste to stand against purely electronic and pre-recorded fixed pieces, I liken it more to sports (live vs pre-recorded). The pre-recorded fixed piece displays craft but not execution; in this sense even a DJ at a turntable accomplishes more in the moment. And these pieces want for central reasons why music lovers should seek out live performance of them in the first place.

While Carroll’s work felt evocative and often pleasant, the final work, Robin Meeker-Cummings’ Selvage, gave us neither of those qualities. This time, broken tuning came to mind. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, I heartily encourage you to check out the performance, which we embed, and draw your own conclusions.

Though the composer avers, “this process of musicalizing sound allows us to apprehend the pleasure of the matter,” this listener find each noun and verb in that description totally invalid.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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