SEAMUS 2009 took place over three days in Sweetwater’s new LEED certified headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Not only is it a pretty, comfortable building, not only is their warehouse just on the other side of a huge doorway in the main hall (allowing me get some new toys without having to mail-order them), not only is there a cafeteria and lounge and arcade and ping pong and clean bathrooms and, and, and… there is The Theater. Designed and built onsite, with all the most high-end equipment available, it would have been a treat to hear any music there, of any quality and genre. As it was, the SEAMUS conference was showcasing some of the best of modern electro-acoustic music, and the theater at the Sweetwater campus seemed constructed for no other purpose.
Each of the three days of the conference included four 1 1/2 hour concerts, a master class, and a presentation, collectively filling anywhere from 14 to 17 hours per day. These long days were filled quite easily (not just with ping pong) with the two main themes of the conference, first, a “focus on human interface devices,” and second, a recognition and celebration of composer Larry Austin, who was presented with the appropriately named 2009 SEAMUS Award. His 2003 piece Tableaux: Variation on a Theme was performed as last piece of the last concert of the conference, with video by Kevin Evensen and Stephen Duke playing alto saxophone.
The theme of human interface devices was covered in the concerts, the presentations, and the master classes. These master classes were on Digidesign’s ProTools, and Symbolic Sound’s KYMA (http://tinyurl.com/yjcccjo). I did not attend either (I had long ago chosen Ableton Live over ProTools for my own composition) though I wish now that I had seen what KYMA was all about firsthand. It looks like a great piece of software.
The presentations were on various new software, new methods for using software and hardware and new means of using, analyzing and interpreting electro-acoustic music. Many of these software and hardware based presentations revolved around Max/MSP and Jitter, and while I could certainly see some groundbreaking new techniques emerging for use with those software, the bulk of the information flew straight over my head, as I am one of the only people in the world that has not yet dabbled in the world of Max. In fact, aside from the presentations, most of the pieces both audio and audio/visual that were performed or played in the concerts were Max-based, Jitter being used for the visuals.
The concerts themselves then, half taking place in the theater (and you know by now how great that theater is, right?) and half in a large conference room across the hall (still with the latest and best quality PA equipment available) were fantastic, and while I won’t even attempt to talk about each one (that would take you 14 hours a day for three straight days to read, and if you’re going to do that, you might as well go to SEAMUS 2010, April 8-10 at SCSU in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, http://tinyurl.com/ydw9lnw), I will give some impressions of a few that particularly stuck out to me (or that I took particularly good notes on).
“A Nonfunctional Teapot is an electroacoustic composition for fixed media” is Tim Reed’s quite understated description of his piece. Or perhaps overstated – words really should not be used to describe music this good, but, since we’re here already: Slow, mellow harmonica drones, flowing gently through the stereo field, interspersed at just the right moments with a clash or a clank, on and on, and just when you realize that you would be perfectly happy if it went on forever, chimes, chopped and warped, invade the space, cancelling out everything else. A slow buildup of textures eases itself out of and inbetween the chimes, swirls around the headspace, all with expert timing and precision, until the smooth slope of a decaying bell ends the piece. When I first heard the piece played I wrote down the following, and since I have it, I have to use it: ‘It is not often that one hears such superb manipulation of audio.’ With all the fantastic music in the world, all the talented composers, I have rarely come across such mastery and such control over sound.
And I could, and do, and will, say the same about Joo Won Park’s Gainesville Soundscape, in terms of a complete mastery over sound. The piece, as I jotted down while first listening, is a wonderfully musical and warm use of mostly unaltered field recordings – birdsong, frogs, rain, critters walking on dry leaves, church bells – and a subtle and rare use of static and white noise. Both in terms of malipulating sound, and simply using sound, Joo Won Park is fantastically talented, and it is apparent in every second, with every subtle change, with every click and swirl of this piece. With each phase, each time one texture moves into the next, one is certain that it could have occurred in no other way. Beautiful.
Tae Hong Park’s ViPer, a piece for violin, drum kit, and 7 channel tape, surprised me. At first, while perfectly suited to an electro-acoustic festival, it would also be perfectly welcome at any drum-and-bass night night at your local club – pulsing drums, snare-rushes, sub-bass drops, the mainstays of a good old-fashioned jungle track, with violin. As the piece progressed, the only reaction was one of of pure enjoyment. In my own defense, that surprise was unfounded, as there are plenty of composers existing and performing in both popular and specialized musical cultures (have you not heard of Keith Fullerton Whitman yet? Masami Akita?). Well, my unpreparedness aside, Tah Hong’s piece was pleasurable in every way. The drum-and-bass elements that comprise the first third of the piece give way, unwillingly, to weaving violin melodies, soon to be a full violin soundfield, accented with sparse drumming. This, in turn, gives way to a dark, ambient soundscape that slowly grows in intensity until a single violin, after straining to break through, finally takes its place and eases the piece to its conclusion.
Jason Bolte’s Noises Everywhere is chimes. Bells and Chimes. A gentle introduction, slowly growing complexity, a swell, and every imaginable use of a chime slams through: endless reverberations, clanking and clacking and droning, every artifact and warp of a once pristine bell recording flow around and slamming into one another, being mangled beyond recognition and back again. Moving from points of relative calm to thunderous climaxes, and back again, Bolte’s piece, as I wrote (and all I was able to jot down) upon first listening, is ‘rich, powerful, expert.’
Mondrian Variations is a computer animated video by Jaroslaw Kapuscinski, based on five paintings by Piet Mondrian, in three parts. The music ranges from field recordings at constructions sites to heavily reverberated piano to boogie woogie and traffic noise, all deftly utilized, altered, and aligned with the shifting grids and color-blocks of the video. Each phase of the video moves from seemingly random computer generated movements to finally settling into a replication of a Mondrian painting. Extremely well crafted, the movement and use of both the video and audio material is quite in keeping with Mondrian’s artistic aesthetic.
Peter Van Zant Lane’s Aeromancer was a finalist in the SEAMUS/ASCAP 2008 Student Comission. A piece for bassoon and electronics, Aeromancer moves seamlessly between worlds, touching on little bits of various genre’s here and there, resting long enough to tickle anyone’s naughty bits, no matter their personal musical aesthetic. Beginning with mostly pure bassoon, with little to no computer accompaniment, the electro and the acoustic (get it?) dance around each other, taking turns as the dominant force though always in concert and partnership. A gentle period of clicks and snippets from both bassoon and computer move slowly into a wavering rhythmic structure, a jazzy rythmic structure, setting toes a-tapping until easing back into a gentle flowing of both live and heavily processed bassoon textures. Very, very well composed, in my opinion.
Christopher Biggs’ MMCHAOS is a piece for flute and electronics, commissioned and performed by Rebecca Ashe. This was the first piece performed at SEAMUS 09, and it certainly set the event off on the right foot (well, the correct foot, anyway – we hold no prejudices here at Asymmetry). The flute and computer converse with each other, back and forth, with quick, sharp jabs and flutters. The piece moves freely from an interplay between live and digitally manipulated flute, both frantic and subdued, to rumbles, drones, more soft back-and-forths, to a climactic ending of frantic clicks and flutters. What I wrote in my notes at the time was ‘extremely well performed and composed,’ and I look forward to hearing more from a Biggs/Ashe partnership.
I could go on and on about the fantastic composition, expert sound design, and amazing visual complexity in Bonnie Mitchell and Elainie Lillios’ 2BTextures, but I think I will just put down what I wrote in my notebook while watching – ‘fucking awesome, insane computer animation and harsh noisy soundscapes.’ I was too busy enjoying myself to do my job, and for that, I apologize, to both the readers and the editor, but, perhaps some links will make up for it!
Bonnie and Elainie’s website: http://tinyurl.com/yjcueq5
A clip from 2BTexturess: http://tinyurl.com/yl85v9w
Eric Lyon’s Trio for Clarinet, Flute and Computer is a masterfully composed piece (and masterfully performed with Esther Lamneck on clarinet and Elizabeth McNutt on flute), from any angle you should choose to experience it from. As a listener, it is simply a pleasant and engrossing experience. As a composer, as one who knows the tools and techniques used to create the piece, it is an exquisite exposition of Lyon’s compositional talents, and of Lamneck and McNutt’s abilities. The live flute and clarinet interaction is beautiful,the two angling around each other, flowing, interacting, making for quite an interesting conversation. Lyon’s performance on computer is, from my perspective, enviable. I can only assume that the computer part was Lyon, not simply pre-recorded audio or a pre-drawn FX track, it being far too precise, far too reactive to not have been performed live. Whatever the case, the results were fantastic.
Eric Lyon, Trio
Like many pieces showcased at SEAMUS 09, The Tightrope Dancer was one of them. The end. I mean, like many pieces showcased at SEAMUS 09, The Tightrope Dancer, by Seung-Hye Kim, was composed in 8-channel sound. Various parts of the piece were stationed at various points in space, some behind, some in front, some above and below, some stationary and others moving, swirling around the audience. When you click on the clip below (you owe it to your self) you will not be listening in 8-channel surround sound, but even in stereo, Seung-Hye is able to able to spread her composition past any two-dimensional limits. Crisp, close recordings of scratched strings, cracking wood, and hyperventilation are expertly displayed, twisted, morphed, reverberated, resonated, and gently spread across an acoustic pallet in an ever changing beautiful complexity. Such a pleasure to experience, that all I wrote in my notes at the time was “too busy listening – really good,” and, I feel like I am doing it an injustice even by writing this review; I should just be listening to her piece again.
Seung-Hye Kim, The Tightrope Dancer
Christopher Cook wrote Sun, Moon, and Talia for Mary Hellman (piano) and William Bootz (trombone) and the three performed the piece (with Cook himself at the computer) in the main theater on the Sweetwater campus. The piece moves freely between sparse instrumentation from all three performers, gigantic walls-of-sound, slow decays, endless drones, intricately composed solo passages, straight acoustic purely electronic verses. The three are a fantastic trio, whose collaboration produces quite wonderful music. They’re great people too – you should really just go hang out with them. Interviewing them was even more fun than listening to the beautiful piece they had just performed.
Cook, Sun, Moon, and Talia
The video that Lorelei Tong has on YouTube of her audio/visual piece Calligraphy of Dynasties will cause you two reactions, one right after the other – first you will be amazed at Tong’s ability to perfectly match audio to video. Not simply lining things up nicely on a time-line, but seriously creating music as video, and video as music, and presenting them together in a fantastic piece of art. Second, you will be supremely jealous if me, because I was privileged enough to experience Lorelei’s piece on a huge screen, in a huge concert hall, on huge speakers, the way she meant it to be. The video moves between the Han, Ming, and Tang dynasties, using period calligraphic style and instrumentation to truly separate and expose the feeling of the three eras. Not only was this expertly done, but the composition techniques she used, combined with her amazing skill and talent, are just fantastic to experience. If it’s available on dvd anywhere, get it!
Paul Koontz’s Clockwork. A clock is cranked, and for a time, it runs, until it needs to be cranked again. Small things click into place, clatter on, die down. The clock is cranked again, and the parts click into place, bounce around, water drops, gears and ratchets turn, an endless variety of small sounds. The clock is cranked again, and bells begin to chime, water drops, gears click into place, objects revolve, and the clock slowly dies down. The gears as cranked back up, chimes chime, water drops, and the clocks tick. Koontz has left no trace of himself, of his presence in the piece, no trace of a guiding hand, of an arranger and a composer. Koontz is able to create something without leaving a trace.
Alan Bern’s The Man and the Moon is just my type of thing. He begins playing, as I wrote at the time, “cute, pleasant” accordion. The melody goes on, lulling, reaching a point that you have fallen completely into it, not slightly interested in any further change. Now, this is the point where Bern has a choice to make. He could certainly go on, playing his accordion melody, keeping the audience floating, but he chooses PURE, WARPED DRONING NOISE!!! Yes! I have trouble using words to describe this change, this perfectly timed, perfectly executed change (or maybe I just did it). It’s all that I could ever hope for – being awash in a pleasant, droning melody, only to have my eardrums filled suddenly with supremely beautiful noise. He must have read my three step guide to a perfect piece (1- drone until every listener is completely absorbed. 2- Harsh, beautiful noise. 3- End) before composing The Man and the Moon. Back on track – the noise slowly, very slowly, drones, fades, and gives way once again to slowly drifting accordion. This particular piece is not online anywhere that I could find, but, he’s written more than one! Go listen to them!