On December 4th, I attend a concert of the “NYU New Music And Dance Ensemble”. Almost all of the pieces involved computer music and live instruments performing simultaneously. In addition, almost all of the works employed live video and dance. The ensemble of live musicians contained eleven flutes, three clarinets, and one each of alto saxophone, violin, cello, electric guitar, electric bass and piano.The program for the concert contained extensive notes for each piece, but I decided not to read anything about the pieces until after I had written down my own impressions of the works.
Tranquility - Kyong Mee Choi
The piece began with soft computer generated sound. Gently, the flutes began to enter with somewhat random lines. Soon the full ensemble had joined and the computer music crescendoed to a climax which the ensemble followed. Then, the music retreated to the quieter material of the opening. twenty to thirty seconds later, another crescendo and climax came followed by another retreat. This cycle happened over and over again. After approximately twenty repetitions of this cycle, with little variation except perhaps for the time between climaxes, the piece ended.
During all of this, there were about ten dancers on stage with a video projection behind them. The video contained what appeared to be a pixellated image up close, making the squares very large. Early in the piece the size of the squares became suddenly smaller leading me to believe that over the course of the piece, the video view would continue to zoom out and reveal the true image. This did not happen.
The dance was very disordered (at least to my untrained eyes), and as with the video, I kept waited for some sort of revelation to occur, where suddenly it would become clear that everything they were doing was leading somewhere. That moment never came.
Early in the piece it became very clear that the live musicians (and dancers) were mostly improvising. It is possible that the musicians were given some sort of pitch collections to work with It is also possible that they were simply given the instructions to follow the computer music’s ebb and flow. There was one moment of interest in the middle of the piece where suddenly the note D came forward and was being played by many of the musicians. That moment seemed as though it may have been planned, though it could easily have been an improvisational occurrence. Given the context, I think the piece could not have been what it was without the aleatoric elements. Especially given the number of musicians performing. It would have been nearly impossible for the musicians to create such a texture had it been notated. Along with the notion of randomness, the computer music would occasionally present some sort of dry, percussive sound that would step out of the texture. This gave the impression that the computer was interacting with the live players.
It was very interesting observing myself listening to this piece. I kept expecting things to happen. I wanted it to be leading somewhere. Towards the end, I realized that I needed to let go of my own musical desires and give in to the piece. I realized that the piece was like the waves in the ocean. Though they are not a perfectly regular oscillation, they keep going, back and forth, without ever thinking of some grand “change” where something completely new would happen. The waves themselves are the event, the goal. The wave analogy can expand to all things. Cycles of life, cycles of the earth, the planets, everything. In his notes on the piece, composer Kyong Mee Choi states that the piece was inspired by the image of a pond at dawn.
Dhyana (1990)- Zhou Long
This piece was unique on the program because it did not involve computer generated sound. Also, it did not involve any indeterminacy (at least not noticeably). It was scored for a quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. There was a video projection behind the musicians, but it was, I think, static. It showed an abstract shape of blue and pink. It looked as though it might have been a close-up of an impressionist painting.
The piece seemed to contain two simple ideas. One was the idea of short, rhythmic entrances. To this effect, pizzicato strings and piano (with muted strings) were often present in the texture. The other idea was of long, sustained dissonances. These were often carried by the flute and clarinet, quietly holding while the other instruments played more rhythmic material. In addition to these textural ideas, there was a rhythmic motive that appeared throughout the work. It was five evenly repeated notes. To my ears, it sounded like four sixteenth notes followed by a quarter note, though it could have been notated any number of ways.
Early in the piece, there was a moment that felt important. Suddenly, the clarinet came forward with a very rhythmic melody. The flute then entered almost imitatively. The two played as a duet briefly before the rest of the ensemble returned to the texture. This moment gave me the feeling of a false start. As if the clarinet and flute had attempted to lead the piece in an entirely new direction, but they were overpowered by the persuasive texture of the strings and piano. This moment returned again later in the piece. Again, it lasted only a few moments before dissolving into the “usual” musical material.
This piece was very effective at setting up a universe of “usual” events, or types of events. It created a world where anything outside of the expected textural effects was very noticeable.
The piece had many interesting effects in it. My favorite was a unique moment where the cello played a low descending glissando. At the exact end of the glissando, the pianist played one of the bottom strings with what sounded like her fingernail. It had the sound of a Sul Ponticello note, but with the resonance of a piano. It was a great moment.
Once More Into The Abyss - David Taddie
At the beginning of this piece, the full ensemble stood on stage positioned almost exactly as they were for the first piece. The music began with a call and respond between two flutes on opposite sides of the stage. Slowly, more instruments began to creep in and fill out the texture. I was hoping that the left/right effect of the opening would continue and carry through the piece, but it was quickly lost in a mass of sound. This makes me think that the call and respond was improvisational and not specifically called for by the composer.
The computer-generated sounds were underneath all of the live music, but were very difficult to hear. The intricacies of the computer parts were drowned out by about twenty musicians going crazy.
As the piece progressed, I began to experience it as a sort of sound-mass on top of which more rhythmic events would take place. Certain percussive effects from the computer would step out of the texture. A particularly memorable moment of this involved an almost castanetlike sound that moved from the right speaker to the left. Perhaps this move was in some way acknowledging the left/right effect of the opening. Or, more likely, the flute players may have been purposefully foreshadowing an effect that they new would come later. It is also quite possible that there were more effects like this in the computer part that were not audible.
Like the first piece, there were dancers and video for this work. The dancing seemed just as improvisational as the first. The video was a live feed of the stage processed through an effect. The effect reduced the image to only black&white outlines of the objects. So, the dancers and musicians on the stage existed in outline form on the screen. I enjoyed this effect, however I thought it might have been more effective to only see the video, and not the actual stage.
Rock And Roll Goddess (2001) - Eric LyonThis piece used Bass Clarinet, Violin, Guitar, Electric Bass, Piano, and Computer. There were no dancers, but there was a live video effect similar to the previous piece. This time, instead of a pure black&white outline, there was artificial color added that smeared over everything.
Musically, this piece was very chaotic. It seemed as though the only instruction given to the performers for this piece was to play as loud and crazy as possible. The live musicians almost completely drowned out the computer music. The electric guitar and electric bass were very high in volume and not balanced with the rest of the ensemble. The pianist was literally pounding on the keys, but I could barely hear it. Perhaps that was the intention with this piece. Given the title, perhaps it was intended as an over-the-top satire of live rock & roll.
At a certain point, there was a call and response between the computer and the live players. It was hard to say whether it was a planned event or not (I guess it doesn’t really matter).
The most unique event in the piece was a bass solo which occurred somewhere in the middle. The bass player, who had previously been sliding wire along his string to created intense scratching sounds, began to play pitches. This was the first time that any any specific pitch material was decipherable. For that reason, it was very effective as a kind of middle section.
After the bass solo, the group erupted again and played full-force until the end. The piece ended by dying away. The computer music faded away and the live musicians settled down and played less and less until they stopped.
Gordon Soundscape (2005)- Pete Stollery
I. Still Voices
This piece began with an empty stage and the sound of rain. It sounded as though it was probably an actual sample of rain. Then, the alto saxophone player walked onstage while improvising along with the computer. This went on for a while before anything else was added to the texture. After a while, the saxophonist began humming and speaking into his saxophone while playing pitches. This created a very strange moaning sound that went well with the piece.
After a while, a few piccolo players walked onstage playing bird-call-like flourishes. Shortly thereafter, many flute players enter and the texture begin to get very dense. The computer, meanwhile, had progressed beyond the rain-sample, and was now unleashing a variety of industrial machine sounds.
At a certain point, I stopped hearing all of the winds as individual instruments and became aware of the larger waves of texture that were being created. The abundance of flutes helped to create a perfectly blended mass of sound. The only unique voice that was still identifiable within the soup was the saxophone. The saxophone is by nature much louder and harsher than the flute, and this made it stick out like a sore thumb. However, I got the impression that the saxophonist could have played much softer to create a better blend, but he didn’t. It may have been the composer’s intention to maintain the saxophone’s soloistic presence from the opening.
Towards the end, the machine sounds reached a climax of intensity and the wind-players followed. This was one of the few times in the concert where the computer was as loud as, if not louder than the onstage forces. After the climax, the piece wound down and ended.
As I was listening to the piece I wrote in my program the phrase “junkyard of sound”. In the program notes, Mr. Stollery reveals that the entire computer portion of the piece was created from samples from in and around a distillery in Scotland.
I should note that this piece used yet another variation of the video effect found in the previous pieces.
II. Fields Of Silence
The second movement began with the sounds of an audience. At this point in the concert, it was very refreshing to hear. It was a sound that was very unique in the program. Throughout this movement, there were several samples of “room sound”. One sounded like a busy bus/train station. Another was like the inside of a car with the radio on.
This piece used the full ensemble of musicians, and like so much of the music on this program, their part was improvised. As the din of improvisational madness progressed, the saxophone emerged as a solo voice. The saxophonist was humming into his horn to create the same moaning sound as the first movement. After a time, the sax-player stopped using this technique and began to play a more standard version of a freak-out saxophone solo. I was sad to see the moaning go. All things must pass.
At a certain point, there was the sound of announcements being made, but it was impossible to tell what they were saying. It sounded like a sample of a loud, echoing train station. Shortly after this, there were samples of bird-calls. This made me think that the piccolo entrance at the beginning of the first movement was intended to foreshadow this event.
Eventually, more “outdoor” sounds began to emerge. Wind blowing, cars passing, the sounds of a stream, etc. Towards the end, the sounds of water took over. Then, the evening’s most organized onstage event took place. All of the musicians put down their instruments and picked up empty plastic water bottles. They all began to squeeze the bottles, creating an interesting texture of snaps and cracks that simulated the sound of water. The samples faded away and all that was left was the bottle noise.
In the piece, the onstage musicians were put in the context of a train station, a highway, a field, and more. It was as if the composer was telling us that the musician is a thing to be found in nature, just as those other things. Or, all sound is natural, even the sound of a musician, and all sound is music.
This concert contained a large amount of improvisation. With the exception of the second work, every piece consisted of live musicians improvising on top of computer music (perhaps the use of similar video effects on three of the works was a visual comment on the abundance of similarities between the music of the different works). The improvisation was incredibly similar between all the works. Also, the overpowering of the computer resulted in the loss of most of the composer’s work. I would love to hear these pieces again with the computer turned up (or the ensemble playing quieter). Then again, I don’t know what the composer’s intentions were. Perhaps they wanted it that way.
As far as comparing these works to pieces we have studied this semester, I am at a loss. The cyclical nature of the first piece is comparable to minimalist works by Steve Reich or Philip Glass. The sound mass textures bear a resemblance to Ligeti’s micro polyphony. Zhou Long’s piece contained Webern-like textures, only squeezed into a shorter amount of time.