by Hubert Howe

The SEAMUS Festival is the largest and most important event of its kind in the United States. There were 14 concerts in 3 days, including six on the final day, going from 9:30 AM until after 10 PM. A total of 88 works were played. There were also 12 papers and one sound installation (which was more interesting than some of the works). It was an orgy of electro-acoustic music. You hear so much; there is little time to reflect. Things go by so fast that you can’t process one piece before another one starts. With all this stimulation, you are bound to miss some things even when they are happening right in front of you. I arrived on the evening of the first day, having already missed three concerts, but I did hear all the rest, and some of the papers. There were many outstanding pieces on the festival, and those are the ones that I would like to comment on most. Perhaps in more than most festivals of this type, I can say that many of the works that impressed me the most combined live performers with electronic sounds in a variety of ways. An unfortunate effect of this was, as I mentioned above, the tendency to compare these works, when in fact they have nothing to do with one another. But we can only hear them as they come, and walk away with our half-formed impressions (I was hearing almost all these works for the first time). Concert #4, for example, presented Orlando Garcia’s Paisaje del Sonido I for contrabass, William Kleinsasser’s Inner Nature Persistently Emerges for bass clarinet, and James Mobberley’s Alter Ego (Homage a Hrothgar), each work with computer accompaniment. (This concert also included Glenn Hackbarth’s Spiked for percussion and computer, which I will discuss later.) Each of these works employs recordings of the same live instruments in the electronic parts, so how can we not compare them? Each work was also a completely different idea, and each had a different surface. Garcia’s piece was slow and subtle, and it a version of a piece that he originally began 15 years ago. Kleinsasser’s piece was the opposite. The bass clarinet playing was complex and virtuosic, using multiphonics, fast rhythms, extreme changes in register, and so forth. The electronic part matched the timbre of the live player so closely that I imagined it was done by real-time processing, but there were aspects of the sound that made me think it could have all been recorded. Mobberley’s piece was in the middle between these two extremes, with both virtuosic and more contemplative passages. It was also the richest of all these works, but it was based on an idea about the performer originally following the recorded music and later leading it, which I found unconvincing. Certainly the relationship changed from the beginning, which was a cello solo, to passages employing tighter and more varied music as the work progressed. In this case my lack of conviction in no way diminished my appreciation of the work, which was one of the most interesting at the festival. Another similar comparison had to be made between Andrew May’s A Room Full of Ghosts and Elizabeth Hoffman’s folly for, both expertly played by Elizabeth McNutt. The computer parts in both works were extensions of the live player, although in Hoffman’s case preassembled from recorded samples. May’s piece was for piccolo and computer, with the electronic parts extending the piccolo’s sound into “a chorus of ghostly echoes,” as the program notes put it. The piccolo melodies were interesting by themselves, but the extensions were even more so. May also made excellent use of spatialization, very audible in the excellent playback space. Hoffman’s piece, on the other hand, was intended to be some sort of improvisation, but it seemed that she couldn’t make up her mind on where the music was supposed to go. At times the flute was overwhelmed by a cacophony of the computer part, which included some noises as well as flute timbres. Another concert presented (in succession, no less) SLAMMED by James Paul Sain and Les Flutes de Pan: Homage a Debussy by Larry Austin (followed by For the Birds by Judith Shatin, which I will discuss later). Again, the computer parts used recordings of the instruments. Sain’s piece was for saxophone and computer, and it resembled William Kleinsasser’s Inner Nature Persistently Emerges more than anything else. The saxophone part is virtuosic, using multiphonics, fast rhythms, and extreme changes. One of the playback channels sounded like an echo of the live performer, and the electronics included lots of noises. This is the only work I have heard where the composer used a game controller as a live input to the computer, and it seemed to be controlling more than spatialization, but I couldn’t tell what. Austin’s piece was one of the most interesting works on the festival. Based on Debussy’s Syrinx, the music was evocative and ethereal. The excellent octaphonic spatialization created the effect of flutes surrounding the audience on all sides. The flute sound was transformed into a choir of flutes, water sounds, piccolos, breath sounds, and sometimes just simple background chords. The ending was like Syrinx itself. It was a homage Debussy would have appreciated. The final work on this concert was The Mirror of Enigma by Christopher Hopkins, the conference host. This was the only work that was conducted (by the composer), and it was basically an instrumental piece with one of the instruments being a computer (the others were flute, marimba, harp and bass clarinet). The computer seemed to play what were mainly transformed sounds of the instruments. It was an effective work, but unlike anything else at the conference. The final concert juxtaposed Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronism No. 11 for contrabass and Synchronism No. 12 for clarinet and electronic sounds , which had been commissioned by SEAMUS in honor of its twentieth year, with Arthur Kreiger’s Joining Hands and John Melby’s Concerto No. 2 for Clarinet and Computer, and also Scott Wyatt’s A Road Beyond for trumpet and computer and Russell Pinkston’s Gobo for oboe and computer. Wyatt’s piece was a slow, atmospheric, and beautiful “new agey” work with octaphonic surround sound with the trumpet player strolling through the audience and ending on stage. Pinkston’s work contrasted both lyrical passages for the oboe with “funkier and flashier” materials (as he described them). The other works were all pretty much cut from the same cloth, and interesting to hear in one concert. Davidovsky, a pioneer of “instrument and tape” music going back to the 1960s, got a chance to return to this mode (he had written only one other “synchronism” in almost 20 years), and both works showed his usual interesting mixture of extended playing techniques and recorded accompaniment that is highly percussive, pointillistic, and sometimes lyrical for brief stretches. Kreiger has truly become a master of this style. His work was filled with energy and nuance, making sudden shifts from near-inaudibility to fortissimo with an unrelenting drive, expertly played by percussionist Michael Lipsey. Melby’s concerto was another tour de force. Written in one long movement (18 minutes, the longest work on the festival), it breaks into sections that parallel a three-movement concerto, including several cadenzas. The work was written for Esther Lamneck, who expertly played the piece. She had apparently asked the composer not to worry about how difficult it would be but just to let him do whatever he wanted. She may have regretted that! It was so fast and so difficult that it was hard to judge whether she was playing it correctly. But unlike some of the other works, where some of the difficulties seemed to be just for effect, this was the kind of work a where a wrong note could stand out. The computer accompaniment was much more varied than the other works and resembled more of an orchestral background, albeit with several electronic enhancements. The octaphonic spatialization filled the hall. It was a suitable ending to the conference. There were some other works involving live performers that were not paired with something similar on the same concert and had a chance to stand out on their own. One was Nick Sibicky’s Pianazzola for piano and disklavier, which also involved some computer processing. Based on tangos of Astor Piazzolla – another homage! – it began with the composer playing tango-like music on the piano, which was then imitated on the disklavier. But the disklavier began going wild, its rhythms impossibly fast and the tones changing to glissandos. At the end, the composer stood up while he banged away, and the lights went out. Amaro Borges Ecoando (Portugese for “echoing”) for cello and Kyma system brings back the sounds that the cellist plays and mixes them with new material. The piece was quadrophonic and the cello sounds were coming from all directions, at times frenzied. What was disconcerting about this was that the cellist wore headphones, and you couldn’t be sure what he was listening to. In David Taddie’s Tracer for piano and computer the computer expanded and extended the sounds of the live piano, played by the composer. He played fast, incisive tones, including passages where he started in the low register and continued up to the top of the instrument. The computer played processed piano samples and synthesized tones, providing both a partner and accompanist. It was an effective work. Miguel Chauqui’s Mareas (Tides) was for alto flute and computer. The piece began with bell sounds which, for the composer, evoked the bell of a ship, which went on to get tossed around in choppy waters. Many of the computer sounds are transformations of the alto flute, nicely spatialized. This was also an effective piece. Another work that was unique was Curses by Sever Tipei for three female voices, narrator and computer-generated sounds. The singers, dressed in cocktail-lounge dresses, began in a manner almost like a singing commercial, while the narrator strolled slowly onto the stage out of the darkness. The computer sounds were similarly disconnected from the words of the text, which is a series of curses that get increasingly worse. But this humor was completely lost on the audience, because the poem was recited in the original Rumanian and no translation was provided. (I know all this because I have heard the piece before.) That was a missed opportunity. A number of works stood out in my mind because they employed unusual or weird sounds. Schuyler Tsuda’s Meditation on Violence claims to have “no melodies, harmonies or rhythmic motifs.” What it did have, among a plethora of noises, were drones. While it was mostly subdued, at one point there was a screeching, piercing tone. Jason Fick’s Surviving Images prominently employed the sound of shattering glass. Michael Boyd’s Bit of nostalgia… employed a variety of percussion “things” (you couldn’t call them all instruments) that were apparently selected by the player (the score just specifies categories) including normal percussion instruments like bells, chimes and drums to bowls, wine glasses, tin cans with and without rocks inside, all of which were struck mallets and such, but also certain items that he whirled above his head.. The items were arranged in separate locations on the floor which the performer walked to, in a space illuminated by a couple of table lamps placed on the floor. Stephen David Beck’s brief Study for Unhinged used the single sound of a door slam which was dissected into its components and built into the whole piece. This was a kind of homage to Pierre Henry’s early Variations on a Door and a Sigh, which also featured a recording of a squeaking door. Daniel K. Porter’s Autobahn pitted car noises street noises against live percussionists banging drumsticks on, among other things, a car muffler and an enormous tire. All of these “percussive” works paled when compared to two other pieces: Termites by Cort Lippe and Spiked by Glenn Hackbarth. Lippe’s piece was based entirely on marimba samples recorded by a Portugese percussionist. This is the first piece of Lippe’s that I have heard in many years that does not involve live interaction between a performer and computer. He referred to himself as “Convolution Brother #1,” and this is quite appropriate considering how he has transformed the sounds into a myriad of interesting and sensitive nuances. Hackbarth’s piece was another homage, this time to Luciano Berio’s Omaggio a Joyce and to the source material of Ulysses that Berio used in his early piece. The work is for live percussionist and prerecorded music, which includes much of the Joyce passages spoken by a female voice, but the reading is changed in more substantial ways than Berio did, although some of the processes are reminiscent of Berio’s. The live percussionist plays a variety of drums, wood blocks, cymbals and vibraphone. Some of these sounds appear in the electronic parts along with the vocal material, but there is a huge diversity of sounds, including ringing chords, bell-like tones, flutes and more. There were also subtle transformations, such as, for example, the sound of running water that is blended into a speeded-up sound of the voice so that it has the same rhythm and texture. My only regret was that the percussion sounds were sometimes so loud that they drowned out some of the nuances of the recorded materials. Judith Shatin’s For the Birds pitted a solo cello against sounds derived from various specific birds, each movement featuring a different species. The movements were entitled Songbirds, Sapsuckers (which also apparently included woodpeckers), Birds of Prey and Water Birds (which did not include any loons or ducks). The instrument often imitated the bird calls, which were very specific and used only within each specific context. Some of the source sounds, and the music, were quite beautiful. It was surprising to me that this was the only piece that used such identifiable natural sounds. Among the pure electroacoustic works, several stood out for me. Colby Leider’s Circulo used a recording of the Medieval Christmas carol In hoc anni circulo which was transformed and remixed in many ways, bringing out many subtle inflections of timbre and balance while also spatializing the sounds. One prominent aspect was a constant amplitude modulation of about 7 Hz, under which some tones made glissandos down to some very low octaves (only 32 Hz according to the composer, but it felt lower). The sounds were extremely rich and nuanced. Mark Zaki’s Down Every Company of Dreams was also a slow, ethereal piece with many interesting sounds. The composer claimed to be using time-point durational sets to invoke “particular spatial and temporal trajectories that could allude to different and passing states of mind.” I can’t say that I understood of his time-point sets, but the rest of his concept came through clearly. Jeff Stadelman’s Prosthesus was mainly a noise composition, with lots of vivid octaphonic panning and long changing tones contrasting with sudden bursts. Krzysztof Wolek’s Mobile Variations was based entirely on sounds he created from scratch, eschewing the use of prerecorded sounds. He created some quite interesting timbres, and the excellent octaphonic diffusion added another dimension to the experience. There were several videos presented on the festival (“music videos” I guess you could say, although they bear no resemblance to the ones on MTV), and some composers are clearly developing sophisticated techniques to create images and coordinate them with music in much the same way that they compose music. Some works in this vein were excellent, with beautiful images, colors, and composition, but some also illustrate the problems of an art in its infancy. For one thing, the music is often just an accompaniment that could not stand on its own without the visuals. Several of the works involved images that were annoyingly out of focus. I can see how such a quality may be useful in blending images and in creating a surrealistic landscape, but to go on for too long is unsettling. It is also a problem when the music and images are poorly coordinated, especially when one of the portions ends much before the other. Finally, all the videos seem to spend a great deal of time on the title and credits. One was only about 3 minutes in length, but the title remained on screen over half a minute, which was a huge percentage of the duration. All this was heightened by one work that had trouble getting started and kept the title image on screen for about a minute and a half. But there were some videos that were truly interesting. Maurice Wright’s charming OCTET consisted of abstract images, almost like a video game. The coordination between the sounds and images was precise, and we could almost imagine what the music would be if we only saw the images. Mark Snyder’s Malmo for tuba with video presented a rich sound environment to usually monochromatic images of water, fields, and other natural scenes, although I don’t think there are any waterfalls in Malmo (Sweden) like the one in a prominent section of his piece. Paul Rudy’s November Sycamore Leaf is one of the few video works where the music, in a way, was more interesting than the images. The screen shows a single leaf transforming slowly through video operations, changing color, and finally having portions of it decaying into blankness. The music also explored slow transformations of sounds, including many natural sounds like wind, rain, water and such. Lots of works had catchy titles: Termites by Cort Lippe (aka Convolution Brother #1), Spiked by Glenn Hackbarth, not to be confused with Slammed by James Paul Sain, Anger Stone by Jon Christopher Nelson, Meditation on Violence mentioned above. But the award for best title of this festival surely must go to Lulled by an Imploding Lotus by Jack W. Stamps! Gary Kendall’s sound installation entitled The Singing Brook was on exhibit in a separate room for one day, and it was an interesting sound environment if not exactly a musical composition. While hiking on Mount Shasta in California, he thought he heard someone talking or singing in the distance. When he investigated, he found instead that the water running through the fields was itself creating the singing sounds, and he recorded several of these events and assembled them into the installation. It ran continuously in a loop, which you could drop into or out of at any time. The environment was octaphonic and in near darkness, creating a truly meditating experience. The festival was a great success, at least for people like me who really enjoy listening to this music. A huge debt of gratitude is owed to Christopher Hopkins, the organizer of the event, and to Iowa State University for hosting it. I would also like to praise the professionalism of the staff, and especially Chad Jacobson, the main audio engineer, who managed to bring off every work without a hitch. Finally, Tye Recital Hall, with its built-in octaphonic speaker system that allowed the subtleties of the diffusion to be heard throughout the space, also deserves some of the credit.