SEAMUS 2006

The annual SEAMUS conference, like all annual affairs, gives you a taste of some of what’s been going on in the past year or so and of some of the people who’ve been doing it. But an added bonus to events such as SEAMUS puts on, which move around the country, is learning where the activities are taking place. Everybody knows about Paris and Stockholm and Köln and New York and so forth. Things are always happening in big towns like that, including music. But size, as has been pointed out before, doesn’t always matter. Last year’s SEAMUS conference, for instance, took place in Eugene, Oregon, on the scenic campus of the University of Oregon. Eugene is a pretty, anyhow town and not a hotbed of new music activity. Perhaps the same could be said of the current conference’s location, Iowa State University. But there it is. You find out that people are there, working, playing, making new music. And you’re a better person for it.

There were 128 composers represented at last year’s conference. That’s more than 42 pieces a day, which I found to be a real treat. Concerts for electroacoustic music aren’t all that common, a small subsection of new music concerts, which are also not all that common, sadly. So festivals and conferences are the places to go for hardcore fans like myself. My impression at the time was that it was all good. New music people tend to be very nice people as well as talented, and so three days with the likes of Larry Austin and Jeff Stadelman and Anna Clyne has much to recommend it. But as I look over my notes, I see that I was less starry-eyed (starry-eared) than I remembered. Several pieces influenced by dance techno didn’t impress me very much. I couldn’t help thinking that this is just one more place where one can give in to the temptation to let the machine take over. You’ll recall how many pieces on the Buchla all sounded like Buchla pieces, no matter who wrote them. And so it was with these. Though some in this group were quite good, most just let the machine do its techno riffs.

“Live instrument plus ‘tape’” is still very popular. That is, a lot of people still write pieces for intruments and electronics. I have mixed feelings about this subgenre. Instruments can be made to make lovely, gritty non-acoustic sounding sounds, sounds that are halfway to being electronic already. But too many people settle for writing for the instruments’ nineteenth century sounds, leaving the electronic sounds to the ‘tape’. Somehow, this almost always means the instrument part has lots of wide leaps and lots of trills. Truly, if I hear one more trill…. The live instrument, so often there to provide an antidote to the (perceived) lack of theater in tape concerts, has to justify its existence with something more than just being there in the room. (We’re all used and more than used to sitting in our living rooms listening to recordings. On those recordings, everything’s equal—“live” instrumentalists, prerecorded sounds, everything. And in that situation, it all has to be simply good music, or we won’t listen to it.)

The same pitfalls exist in the video/music combinations, of which there were plenty at SEAMUS 2006. Combinations, not pitfalls. I’m probably in the minority in this regard, bu music doesn’t encourage me to make pictures, and adding pictures to music often seems simply distracting. Not always. In Rodrigo F. Cádiz’ ID – FUSIONES, the images seemed almost to constitute a score for the music we were hearing, a score, intriguingly enough, that went from right to left. Christopher Morgan’s Inside the Box worked a simple, but startlingly effective, conceit, which was to align sudden changes in the music from “melodic” to white or pink noise with sudden changes in the image from balls hitting the sides of transparent, rotating boxes to static negatives of a landscape.

I’ll close this account of a very enjoyable weekend by saying that many of my favorite pieces were in categories I’ve identified as troublesome. So much so, that I’d like to make a case for conferences and festivals being excellent things for calling personal prejudices into question. While my comment on trills stands (!), I have to say that there are a lot of things I thought I didn’t like before this weekend that I thoroughly enjoy now.

I managed to get cds or dvds from several people there, though not from everyone I liked, and permission (so far) from only some of those people to put clips up. So while I don’t have clips of all the pieces I liked, the clips here are all from pieces I thought were particularly good.

This year’s conference, if you’re in the Iowa area, is March 8, 9, and 10. You can find out all the details at http://www.music.iastate.edu/seamus/main.html. If it’s anything like the 2006 conference, it’s worth checking out, even if you’re not in the area.

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