Troy, NY — If you’ve spent any time at children’s birthday parties, you probably know what an inflated balloon sounds like when rubbed: harsh, squeaky, not particularly resonant.
“Rubbed-balloon sound” [used in Topology Chamber 2] might not seem like a sonic texture you’d place much stock in if you were creating a musical work. But how would that change if you were listening from inside the balloon? The composer Natasha Barrett decided to answer the question. She put a 3-D microphone in a balloon, pressed the record button and got down to some serious rubbing.
On Monday morning, at a “spatial audio” lecture at
As Ms Barrett’s 3-D audio file was piped into the loudspeakers — there are 64, positioned both around and over listeners — the sound of her balloon manipulations was enveloping. Smeared textures whipped around listeners’ heads along a wild variety of trajectories. Variations of pressure and phrase-length registered as legitimately musical. Discrete lines of vibration converged, with a triumphant air, before splitting apart again.
But there wasn’t much time to linger over Ms Barrett’s startling spatialized recording. Presenters and participants at
One goal of the workshop, the first of its kind at
On Monday evening, the first concert was led, as was that morning’s lecture, by Markus Noisternig, an artist in residence at
The wave system, a modular array of more than 500 speakers, uses acoustical trickery to reproduce organic sounds with unusually high fidelity. It can also “place” (and seem to move, quickly) those eerily lifelike tones at specific coordinates. Any but the most superficial kind of explanation of how this is possible tends to involve high math (like Bessel functions). But if you had to describe the effect, you might go for trippy and exciting.
Toying with spatially separated sounds is not a new fascination for composers. The conductor Alan Gilbert charted a lineage of such explorations in a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert, from a portion of Mozart’s Don Giovanni to works by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. (Boulez being, not at all coincidentally, the founder of
Systems like Wave Field Synthesis can also change approaches to pieces conceived using earlier technologies. A highlight on Monday night was Mr Noisternig’s presentation of Ricercare una melodia, by the composer Jonathan Harvey. This 1984 work was originally scored for a live trombone player and tape delay (with speakers bordering the audience on two sides). In what he called a new interpretation, Mr Noisternig looped the live playing of the trombonist Benny Sluchin using a 248-speaker section of
So, do you need a fancy hall with spatial-audio bells and whistles to appreciate these sounds? In an interview, Mr Noisternig said that the true nature of such pieces could not be appreciated in traditional stereo mixes. There are headphones capable of simulating 3-D audio — made more accessible by the boom in virtual reality technology — but they, too, provide only approximations of the concert hall experience.
He Slowly Fell and Transformed into the Terrain, a 2016 piece by Ms Barrett, received its American premiere on Monday night, courtesy of 49 speakers in
Ms Barrett has posted an excerpt from a stereo mix-down to her SoundCloud account. You can listen and get an idea of her skills with dramatic build and textural variation. But as she notes on the site, about the stereo reduction (from 49 channels to two), “Mastering really tricky for this.”
During daytime studio sessions, the workshop’s participants developed their own approaches to the surround-sound systems installed in
Near the speaker array, it sounded as if different versions of Mr Braxton were zooming through space at superhuman speed, as a grinning Mr Testa dragged and dropped the “point sources” of the virtual Braxtons with the click of a mouse. After the session, Mr Testa noted that those effects had dovetailed nicely with some of Mr Braxton’s ideas, like the immersive sound environment of his Echo Echo Mirror House system, in which musicians sample vintage Braxton recordings while also navigating new scores, creating a vertiginous blur of past and present playing.
Mr Testa’s early experiments in the
Like the ingenious musicality of Ms Barrett’s balloon experiments, insights about spatial sound may seem intuitive after the fact. But as organizers at
Though I’m reviewing it in old-fashioned stereo, Yawar Fiesta is a 7.1 surround sound extravaganza. ChainDLK doesn’t currently have an entry for “Blu-ray Audio” as a known format, so I’ve had to pick “Laser Disc” as a cludge, but please be assured this is Blu-ray.
Unconfined by the duration limitations of vinyl or CD, this is a work just shy of 90 minutes dominated by operatic vocal snippets, long drones and hums, and waves of both distant and close percussive vocal noises that attack and decay in a way that’s leisurely at times, but never comfortable. Sourcing the majority of the sonic ingredients from the voice — with a particular favouring of masculine bass operatic tones and throat singing, but not without feminine and spoken word moments too — but without actually using a singer, brings us frequently into bizarre arrangements akin to choral arrangements gone wrong- at times quite Lygeti -like. Much of the time the elements are multi-layered, keeping everything hectic and relentless throughout. Electronic glitches, tape-style effects, pitch shifts and flangey panning (isn’t that a type of cake?) are thoroughly modern and digital and give the work an extra twist.
The work is ostensibly an opera — the press release describes a piece in multiple acts that’s a hybrid of actual storytelling and the name-dropping of broad themes into something that’s frankly very difficult to follow. But the result definitely has distinct scenes, and when holding your attention, is like listening to the most off-the-wall opera re-work you’ve ever heard.
After the bewildering 44-minute journey of Condor (La veillée), second track Taureau (Le défi) doesn’t perhaps represent enough of a shift. The addition of traffic noises and horns gives the sonics a different hint, as does the heavier use of discernible French language sources, but the core arrangement is essentially half an hour more of the same experimental opera.
Monologue final is also consistent rather than contrasting, but with fewer operatic elements and more emphasis on digital processing such as layering offset copies of the same sample at different speeds, and with sound effects akin to alien rocket launches and monstrous whispers tilting it more in the direction of sci-fi. The sound of rolling stock evokes the spirit of the KLF towards the very end.
It’s an unusual buffet, sometimes reminiscent of 60’s avantgarde choral works, sometimes the spacier sound of 90’s ambient house, sometimes very contemporary and sharp-sounding digital electronic frippery. It’s got a unique quality to it that demands attention, even though at 87 minutes long it perhaps can’t hold that attention throughout.
Unusually for this genre, the press release on Histoires d’histoire is sparse — a simple list of titles, durations, dates and credits. There’s no written rationale or post-justification with heavy use of adjectives — the music will justify itself. And it really does.
It’s a collection of long, expansive and ambitious avantgarde classical pieces that combine ‘proper’ modern classical in the style of Ligeti or Bartók with a range of more Eastern-sounding percussive instrumentation, and gentle and occasional use of post-production, re-processing and resampling at unexpected moments. The histories being squared here are not purely Western, not purely any tradition, perhaps a history from a universe parallel to our own.
Music Of Another Present Era is the main work, in five distinct and individually named parts. After the warm overture of Marsyas’ Melodies, Shango’s Funkiness is a percussive workout, at times sounding like an improvised drum workshop descending into either confusion or ennui before repeatedly recovering. Shortest piece Entr’acte is the most Lygeti-esque, bursts of long and then short string sustains flirting with cacophony, segueing into Air of The Rainbow Robe and Feathered Skirt which has a similar attitude with a broader, more operatic palette. It evolves further as The Cosmic Circle Dance treats the same ingredients with an extra spark of spontaneity, before twisting into a kind of bizarre alt-jazz in the final third — an obtuse way to wrap up.
Two further long pieces, each a few years old, fill the CD almost to its brim. The eighteen-minute BeBop Baghdad is, despite the name, practically prog rock — long noodling guitar notes playing over sporadic percussion, like a kind of subdued and Eastern-influenced Yes or Robert Fripp piece in parts. The sixteen-minute Show Tunes in Samarian Starlight is similarly adventurous, but with the central instrument switched from Maurizio Grandinetti’s electric guitar to Łukasz Gothszalk’s layered-up B-flat trumpet, bringing proceedings back into the weirder suburbs of out-there jazz.
It’s an extensive 80-minute journey through a whole heap of ideas, sounds and moods, a real patchwork quilt of organic ideas arriving and departing with plenty of energy and a hint of frivolity. That playfulness and slight shortage of coherence disempowers it somewhat from being a really ‘wow’-inducing listening experience, but it’s a very out-there listen.
Canadian David Berezan has since 2003 been director of the Electroacoustic Music Studios and the Manchester Theatre of Sound (
There are five compositions presented here, each being around the ten minute plus mark in length, affording ample opportunity for the listener to lose themselves in the density of Berezan’s sound. The first piece is Buoy (2011) which builds its sound world around the characteristics and environment of sea buoys. Digital processing has affected a quantum leap in possibility for the composer of acousmatic music. Comparing the tape cutting techniques of Schaeffer and Henry to the array of digital tools available now is like holding up a stone axe to an eye surgery scanning laser. Berezan makes the most of his apparatus, contorting the signature bells and whistles atop of buoys into squealing artefacts of unidentifiable origin. The piece oozes atmosphere whether in the form of creaking metal or actual waves which frame the more abstract and uncanny sounds.
The most impressive piece for me — as it’s constructed via a highly limited range of sources, is Thumbs (2011). Spawned out of a single plucked sound from a Balinese thumb piano the composition is nevertheless layered with multiple manipulations and iterations of that same sound. It’s almost hard to believe that every click or drawn out intonation is derived from a single source. Where the fixation on such a limited pallet might have yielded to a sterile formalism (Schaeffer’s early studies are sadly a prime case in point) Berezan succeeds in drawing out the textural and harmonic complexity from his subject, weaving each derivation around the next and providing a fine example of how technical virtuosity rather than masses of sounds are key to this form of composition.
The last three pieces are perhaps more aptly described along the lines of Luc Ferrari’s anecdotal music, if only for the fact that each attempts through field recordings to capture something of a specific time and place. The first, Badlands (2008), uses material recorded in Berezan’s native Alberta, Canada evoking the environment of the prairie landscape. For such a seemingly pastoral image the music here is oddly alien sounding, full of drones, swirling swampy electronics and ghostly half-heard sounds. It invites comparisons with the darker corners of Roger Doyle’s Babel project or Bernard Parmegiani’s most out-there productions. Galungan (2010) takes us back to Bali, Indonesia where the minimalist pallet of sources from Thumbs is fully fleshed out into a sound world containing multiple timbres of Balinese instruments and voices. The composer took his microphones out into the rice paddies recording sounds of everyday work life as well as religious ceremonies. The result is a contemplative rather than exuberant study of tone and cultural soundscaping (as Hein Schoer might call it) where recognisable human elements are rather fleeting and the sounds in-between people and things are amplified.
Finally it’s Nijō (2009) that completes the set, taking us to Japan to explore the idea of “nightingale floors”. These are wooden floors in high status homes that cause a squeaking or chirping sound when walked upon, and acting like a primitive security system. There are some cracking (literally) processed sounds derived from wood in which splinters seems to fly off around the listeners ears, while huge tree roots grind against each other. There are more percussive elements here and there as is the occasional sonorous gong. But it’s the sudden passing of a bullet train that brings the piece into the 20th century along with some brief fragments of chanting, incidental speech and crowd noise that appear during the last quarter of the piece.
Berezan is clearly a virtuoso of this kind of electroacoustic music. Hopefully more of his work will become available as it’s a rare treat to experience such compositional and sonic depth in what can be quite a stuffy field.
Un’insieme di nitide segnalazioni elettroacustiche in statica sospensione chiaroscurale. Il paesaggio urbano di sette città, osservato mutar nel corso di dieci anni, fra decadimento, nuova bellezza e reinterpretazione. Dodici tracce, figlie dell’inclusione del compositore elettroacustico canadese, nel decennale progetto espositivo del connazionale Derek Besant. Bouchard, procede lasciando propagar nel vuoto, l’acustico ridefinito e l’accentuato ronzamento dronante di malinconiche prese elettriche. Raga concentrici in disgregamento calcinoso, fotogramma dopo fotogramma. Consuetudini di passaggi vocianti in montaggio. Manco uno sputo sulla stronza terra, frequenze modulari e qualche eccesso astral/descrittivo.
It’s a real pleasure to present a new instalment in my occasional series The Dialogues. This episode is in conversation with composer Monty Adkins, whose music I’ve written about many times on 5:4 and hold in very high regard. Our discussion explores a wide range of topics, including the fundamental aspects of Adkins’ compositional aesthetic, the history and development of his practice, the influence of visual art throughout his output alongside musical influences, considerations of beauty, narrative vs abstract approaches to composition, the relationship between and implications pertaining to ‘authentic’ and artificial sonic environments, types of listening, perceptions of time, notions of the sacred, the imposition (and benefits) of compositional restrictions, the organisation / structuring of non-teleological music, combining electronics with live instruments, and Adkins’ relationship with the listener.
I want to thank Monty for generously giving me so much of his time, and for being prepared to talk so openly (and for so long!) about his life and work. The trajectory his music has taken over the last twenty years is markedly different from many involved in electronic music, and I hope both newcomers and long-standing fans of his work will find our discussion as fascinating and illuminating as I did.