26 April 2008

Sound Art: Beyond Mere Music

 Christopher Biggs; Rebecca Ashe
Interactive Gestures, a performance of electroacoustic music and multimedia works, with guest artist João Pedro Paiva de Oliveira, was held last night at La Esquina, in Kansas City, co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and by the UMKC Conservatory. One could say that it was a healing of the wound between ‘fixed-media’ and ‘live’ electroacoustic performance. The unity of the aesthetic effect of the musicians who performed live and the composers who engineered their fixed-media playback was among the best I’ve ever heard.

Composers who create works for fixed-media (recorded and edited in the studio; replayed in performance halls) are maybe more comfortable in the studio than on-stage. For them, performance is in the studio, but probably not more so than for traditional composers. The spatialization that’s achieved in concert may be subject to many environmental variables and interpretive choices that are out of the composer’s control, just as any chamber or orchestral work is out of the composer’s control at the moment of performance. Last night, as in other electroacoustic events, we had the composers as performers——at the mixer control board, conducting the performance and responding (by improvisatory actions on their MIDI keyboards and controllers) to the playing of the live performers.

Although the array of 8 Mackie SR-450 speakers and the excellent mixing mitigated a number of problems, the La Esquina performance venue lacks acoustic features that are essential to the transparency and crispness of delicate, wide-spectrum works like the ones last night. (That La Esquina is an AIA venue is ironic.)

By contrast, NOVARS at Manchester University uses chilled-water cooling of the structural steel to silence the architecture of the studio and performance spaces. The total absence of architectural sounds arising from thermal expansion-contraction of the building frame—unwanted noises—is a great advantage for electro-acoustic performances at NOVARS. La Esquina, though, is a 20 x 40 meter warehouse ‘box’ with the railroad across the street, less than 50 meters away. Freight trains rumbled by every few minutes during the Interactive Gestures performance last night, an intrusive aleatoric element that seriously impaired the sonic integrity of several of the works. The roaring Burlington Northern diesel engine can ruin your ‘Time Spell’, for example, unless you happen to be casting a magical abjuration against a wizard who has morphed into a train.

Probably the works that were least affected by these complications were de Oliveira’s. The 8-channel pieces were at a sound pressure level that exceeded the ambient distractions, and the timbral and rhythmic diversity of them were riveting. The spatial articulation of sound was dramatic: we were listening to a master storyteller. The title of the event, ‘Interactive Gestures’: clinically correct. Gestures, comma, interactive, comma, in your face.

That the sound reinforcement gear and the building itself can interfere with pre-composed material is no surprise, just as the concert hall architecture and ‘system’ can interfere with traditional acoustic performance. In fact, anytime you perform a piece you transform it—its tone colors, reverb, spatialization among the channels/speakers, and amplitude shaping are different in ways that are idiosyncratic to that performance and that venue, even if the equipment is the same and the controls’ settings are the same as on a previous occasion or the same as when the piece was composed in the studio. We get a great degree of variability in the timbre, in the directed spatial distribution or trajectory of sound from the monitors, in the acoustic morphology, and in the temporal structure as perceived by members in the audience.

In the de Oliveira pieces, the acoustic spatial diffusion that was rendered via the 8-channel playback through the Mackie SR-450 300W monitors (8 loudspeakers, placed on 5-meter centers, 4 on the left side and 4 on the right side of the audience) revealed the works’ rich internal spaces. Oliveira creates a wide range of textural and gestural acoustic shapes, with semantics and phrasing that have trajectories from milliseconds to tens of seconds long—very much like intense conversation.

From sub-50Hz to sounds above 5KHz, Oliveira establishes a captivating ‘spectral occupancy’ with figures that serve as anchors to his composition/story. He structures processes around these to ‘articulate’ or define interactions of his implied ‘characters’ within the performance space.

Fluctuations are then introduced into the acoustic material either locally (at individual loudspeakers or clusters of speakers, via EQ or layering of channels and phasing effects between channels) or globally (via pitch morphing; granulation; splintering; master output from mixing console; replaying/looping; interrupting/restarting; montage). These sonic gestures evoke dynamic relationships between the elements—imply characters/actors and processes amongst them, musically.

A particular textural motion leads the live musician who plays with the fixed-media to react and respond with her own spatial and musical trajectory. Rebecca Ashe’s interpretive sense in this regard was superb. The human responses in turn introduce yet further mutations of timbral coloring, and then meta-articulations of the textural/spatial/motion arise.

For example, Rebecca Ashe introduced a sforzando spatial articulation, and this was ‘answered’ by de Oliveira in Channels 1 and 2 in response to the gesture, not only by increasing the levels to these on the console, but with chunkier density via delay and transposition layering.

 Licht book
Each interpretation creates a unique realization of a piece, just as any other chamber music performance generates a unique realization. Some reshapings were vehement and improvisational, bordering on realtime recomposition. Other reshapings were gentle and dutiful—especially those near the compositions’ ends, where the composer and performers are providing acoustic gestural ‘cues’ to the piece’s ending. Electro-acoustic may be a different language than you are used to, and the under-40 median age of the audience may be a different culture than you are used to in classical music performance, but the semantics are just as understandable and trustworthy as Beethoven.

That said, the risks in electroacoustic performance are clear. Like traditional performance practice, there is the chance that a multi-channel fixed-media interpretation that is not well-planned, or that is executed poorly, will work against a piece, no matter how fancy the performance venue architecture is and no matter how state-of-the-art the sound reinforcement gear is. All performance practice carries huge risk of error or misinterpretation. Jacob Gotlib and his collaborators did an excellent job of insuring that the performance risks were minimized. Wonderful!

Admittedly, these composers’ and performers’ works are often closer to cinema or theater than to conventional music. Whether the stories they create are conscious or unconscious, narratives are implicit in the sampling and aleatory. Every story leads to another story to another story to another story. Some of these stories are, I think, surreal or ‘pre-linguistic’ ones, in the way that de Oliveira confesses. In all, a very enjoyable evening was had by the 50 or so attendees at La Esquina last night. Bravo!

 Kahn book




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