My father teaches film, among other things, and he finds that he frequently has to explain to his students that Steven Spielberg did not invent movie-making. I tell people I make electronic music, and have a similar experience explaining to them that Aphex Twin did not invent the field. Instead there have been three full generations of electronic composers, with a new one, armed with laptops, fast on the way.
For more than a generation, Roulette has been a premier resource for experimentation in and presentation of electronic music, and for the past year they have been celebrating 30 years of this music with a packed schedule (they also are offering generous concert packages for supporters). Thursday night they presented a concert from two important second generation composers, Larry Austin and Annea Lockwood, who continue to experiment and look past the edges of what has been, and could be, done.
Experimentation is as much about process as about results, and the possibility of failure, or unexpected results, is inherent, so it’s no surprise or even disappointment that the results were mixed. The successes, gladly, were grand in an intimate way.
With one exception, all the pieces called for performers to interact with electronics. The exception was Austin’s “John explains…,” solely produced on the computer. Though it’s a digital instrument, the piece is a throw-back to the tradition of analog tape compositions, adapting a taped conversation with Cage by accompanying it with digital sounds. It’s interesting enough to listen to, or overhear as Austin explains, Cage, but musically the piece is nothing but mild, a conversation with background music which itself seems to have no relationship to the source. However, its intimacy was emblematic of the theme of Austin’s work this night.
Intimacy was more fully and successfully explored in three pieces for soloist with computer music, “Redux” for violin, “Tableaux: Convolutions on a Theme” for alto sax and “ReduxTwo” for piano. This is virtuosic music with an introspective, exploratory quality, and the soloists essentially accompany themselves, as their live playing is recorded, altered and combined with pre-recorded music and then played back through an octophonic speaker system. The result is an intriguing set of interior dialogues on public display. “Redux” was the most abstract in tone, utilizing fragmented phrases interrupted by transitions to accented pizzicato and bow strokes, all mixed in a polyphonic spread that ended with the sense that it was both the right length and that there was still intriguing territory to explore. Patricia Strange was the exceptionally able performer.
“Tableaux” for alto was presented in mixed media style, with a distractingly bland video of clouds washed through a variety of colored filters. The electronic results produced a pleasing bed of blended, static timbres, while Stephen Duke played through the long, lyrical, challenging lines. His playing was committed, expressive and involving. The coda brings forth the theme on which the piece is based, that from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and after a moment of surprise, Austin and Duke completely convince the listener of the right sense of this choice. It’s a quietly confident and joyous piece. The final work, with pianist Joseph Kubera, continued this line of deeper exploration; the music is based in atonal systems and occupies the sound world of Webern. It is familiar in style and yet original at the same time, and, like the previous works, exceptionally idiomatic and well-written. The altered playback of the live performance goes the furthest in creating an antiphonal dialogue between the performer and himself, and since this is music, the sense is of a series of questions being answered with more questions. It was a fascinating, involving piece, successful and satisfying.
More problematic were Annea Lockwood’s two works. The first “Jitterbug,” featured David Behrman and John King performing against the background of pre-recorded sounds. The musicians are asked to interpret graphic scores based on images of rocks, to improvise in other words. There is an inherent problem in this; the performance gave the impression that the players were meant to improvise with the direct accompaniment of the tape, but tape cannot listen and respond, an essential foundation of improvised music, and so the result was of two musicians seeking proper windows in which to make music, while something mechanical rode blithely around and over them. The tape itself was the most interesting part of the piece, composed of buzzing and clicking insect sounds, but it seemed to have no internal organization. In all, the work started, went on too long, then ended without the feeling that anything had been said or accomplished.
Her other work on the program, “In Our Name,” was more successful but still flawed. This is an electro-acoustic work for voice and cello (Thomas Buckner and Ted Mook, two superb musicians), utilizing two poems from two former prisoners at Gitmo. This is political art that thankfully avoids the easy-out of most political art, the presentation of a slogan for consensus. A great deal of this success is that fact that the work is performed at all, as the Pentagon deemed poetry a security risk, because of its ‘content and form.’ When ideas and the words used to express them are deemed dangerous, than merely presenting them answers the political question.
The work begins in darkness with dramatic drones from the musicians, then the real playing begins. The first poem is recited and sung, accompanied by cello, and interrupted powerfully by the sound of screaming through the intake of breath; it’s severe and effecting. The singing of the poetry is musically successful and powerful. Strangely, this is only half the style of the piece, which has a bizarre and flawed binary structure. All the power and momentum essentially stops, as the second poem is merely spoken by the singer, at which point the piece ends. There are a few problems here. The first is that the piece goes from music to theater, letting go of all the things that are working without establishing enough theatrical sense for the transition to succeed. The second is that the poem, while a sincere expression, is not good poetry, there is no poetic art to it and it sorely needs to be set to music. Third, the switch in style and method is jarring, and the audience is still left puzzled over what happened when the work all-of-a-sudden stops. Ultimately, an involving, promising work becomes odd and dissatisfying. Perhaps it is a work still in progress.
Again, though, this is what experimentation is all about; try things, see what works, see what doesn’t, try again. It’s what makes music like science, solving problems, answering questions and building on the accretion of knowledge. That experimentation, successful and otherwise, is still going on is a true mark of the health of the musical world, and for everything that works and doesn’t work, I’m grateful that Austin and Lockwood are demonstrating their explorations to the world.