Surrounding Sound at SFU

SFU Theatre lobbyOn April 4, 2009, SFU Contemporary Arts put on a show of electroacoustic music that included a new piece by Barry Truax, Chalice Well, three pieces for flute and “tape” played by visiting flautist Mark McGregor, a live laptop piece, and several other treats by SFU faculty and students.

Prominent in many pieces were water sounds—rain, waves, miscellaneous dripping and swishing. Rain is, of course, a multitude of sounds all on its own, without even counting the processing, of which there was a certain amount. Also prominent in several pieces were the sounds of cathedral bells, both with and without their attacks, both with and without some fairly serious manipulation. There’s something very rich and mysterious about the sound of a huge bell without its attack.

If I’ve started with some of the common elements of the pieces in this concert, it is only with the intent of emphasizing the variety, the diversity of these eleven pieces. Take the three for flute+ for instance, The first, Barry Truax’s Steam, reviewed in more detail here, tightly integrates the flute and the electroacoustic sounds, and that not by using flute sounds on the soundtrack, and not by making the foghorn and steam whistles mimic the flute part, or not much, but by making a whole, seamless fabric out of all the sounds together. Whole and seamless, somehow, in spite of the flute playing melodies and the horns and whistles and such just being their own, sweet, non-melodic selves.

Stefan Smulovitz’ Stutter also has the flute playing long lines, but here definitely to the accompaniment of the Kenaxis sounds, some of them, many of them, broken up bits of flute sounds, hence the title. And Stutter had some interesting interaction between flute and Kenaxis, the most stunning of which was a swinging gesture by the flutist as he played a loud tone, followed by a loud flute-ish burst of sound—as if he had flung the sound into the speakers.

In Yota Kobayashi’s Tensho, the flute comes in only after a long bit of tape music, including traffic sounds and rain. It has only a few bits, too, neither integrated nor interactive, just some nice flute bits along with all the other things going on. Until the very last, that is, the last flute bit, preceded (announced) by some flute sounds on the tape (the first of those as I recall). Then there’s a definite weave, tightly woven. Quite an effective design.

The other pieces? Equally various. James O’Callaghan’s Waterlogue, the wateriest piece of the evening, was performed live at a keyboard, different clips for different keys. It looked too, after playing some similar bits, like the crashing waves clusters, that he changed the clips activated by different keys, undercutting our expectations in a very satisfyingly theatrical way. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Rhythmicacy, by Peter Bowles, which followed, could easily and appositely been introduced by John Cleese saying “And now, for something completely different.” Artificial, hard, bright, electric piano-type sounds, criss-crossing lines passing back and forth over our heads (only eight loudspeakers can sound like so many more than eight—and none of them were directly above us), alternating with slow “chordal” passages.

Ebb & Flow, by Brandon Hoffman, was one of two pieces that relied heavily on voice, in this piece the very pretty voice of Janine Williams, reading her own prose about the ebb & flow of traffic, about wheat trains, her reality, heroin, and such. I couldn’t decide during the concert whether the piece was delightful because Janine’s voice is so lovely or because the prose was so well-written or because Brandon mixed everything together so artfully. Writing this review, it seems clear to me now that it was all three. The other voice piece, Chris Grigor’s Eve’s Way, featured the composer’s voice and the also lovely voice of Kathy Borneman reading from Dale Pendell’s Pharmako Trilogy about “plant teachers and the poison path.” In it was some good advice about dealing with demons—demons should be welcomed as resisting them only makes them stronger!

Like Rhythmicacy, Martin Gotfrit’s Wake alternates the horizontal (long lines, staggered and superimposed) and the vertical (percussive “chords,” some of them made up of actual drum sounds). But the sound, the effect, the form of the piece are quite different. The long lines take up the first seven and a half minutes of the twelve minute piece. After some percussive chords, the long lines return, then some more percussive stuff, but this time preceded by tinkling little bells, which then return after the percussion has faded out again. An engaging and cunningly structured piece.

Adam Baranta’s Free/Association began with rain sounds—or as he put it in the program, “It begins with a drip.” The rain sounds are various, on different surfaces, including a metal bucket. (I say that because it had an echoey sound different from what you’d get with a metal roof, say.) After a great electronic judder, the rain sounds return, electronically transformed. Footsteps walk across the ceiling (right to left as I recall), only once—very daring to do something only once in a piece of music—then some European-type church bells ring out. These morph into something like marbles, huge wooden marbles, crashing into each other. And then to close, more rain. I should note here, about all the pieces, that they contained much more than the little precis I’m giving.

Nathan Clarkson describes his Partrez as “a summary of my favorite things in music,” which includes ocean waves and a snippet (at least) of Arvo Pärt. The piece is mostly warm sounds, overlaid near the end with some delicious crackling, like the surface noise on an old LP. What a difference context makes. How we all deprecated that sound in “the quiet parts” of our records, and how we all (I hope it’s “all”) revel now in its crunchy goodness when it’s a sound in and of itself.

The concert concluded with a premiere of Truax’s Chalice Well, which alternates and mingles water (female) and wind (male) sounds in a journey into the Chalice Well (female) at the foot of Glastonbury Tor (male) to the gates of the underworld, guarded by the Holy Grail. A beautiful piece (I had to stop taking notes to just listen), perfect ending to a more than satisfying evening of new electroacoustic music.



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