On May 11, 2006 I attended a concert of new experimental electro-acoustic music by three young composer-instrumentalist-improvisers, each of whom incorporated some form of non-traditional sounds or techniques. The performance took place at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, NY. The performance space was located in the top of a cylindrical silo-ish structure, while a second such structure directly adjacent served as a reception/gallery/bar area. The buildings surely served some industrial purpose in their previous life, a fact underscored by its being located directly off of the Gowanus Canal. Tucked away from view and fronting along the greenish canal rather than a street, there was an eerie sense of privacy and seclusion about the space. Nature played its part by lending overcast skies and an impending storm to the proceedings, which itself became a part of the performance. This little toxified oasis amidst the gritty, industrial backdrop (the canal still serves as ‘home’ to industry of all kinds) seemed a perfect setting to take in some cutting-edge explorations of sound.
Situated at stage left was Cor Fuhler, an Amsterdam-based avant-gardist who played a special type of ‘prepared’ piano. What had once been an upright was turned on its back, the hammers removed and the strings exposed. Fuhler thus played his piano directly on the strings, by using a variety of ‘string stimulators’. Among these were: his fingers; sticks and beaters of wood, metal and other materials, of varying hardness; spinning disks; rotating threads; tuning forks; metal tools; and most uniquely, a set of 12 e-bows (each modified by Fuhler). The e-bow, primarily known for its use with electric guitar, is a device that produces sound from a stringed instrument by vibrating the string with a tiny beam of light, thus enabling sustained tones of theoretically infinite length. I also saw him use something akin to the thing the dentist uses to clean teeth- a powered, spinning jagged surface that when applied to a string lightly produced a ‘rolling’ (as in a drum-roll) effect. Not surprisingly, Fuhler also builds instruments and sound installations as well; he has designed a violin with keys called a ‘keyolin’, and also uses an analogue synth to modify live sounds in real time (though neither of these instruments was used for this performance).
At center stage was Nate Wooley, who coaxed a variety of other-wordly sounds from his trumpet (very few of which bore any resemblance to the ‘sound of a trumpet’). The sparse notes for the program indicate that Nate grew up in a Finnish-American fishing village in Oregon, and “has spent the rest of his life trying musically to find a way back to the peace and quiet of that time by whole-heartedly embracing the space between complete absorption in sound and relative absence of the same”. In contrast to the density of the previous sentence, Wooley’s playing was indeed evocative of this ebb and flow between sound and silence, ranging from throaty roars and violent outbursts to wisps of breathy noise or near-nothingness. He too modified his instrument in real time, removing various valves and tubes at various times throughout the performance, and using the resultant assemblages to create new ‘trumpet sounds’ or sounds in contrast to same.
Finally, at stage right was Newton Armstrong, an electronic composer and improviser. His previous work has encompassed performance, installation, instrument building and interaction design. On this night, his main instrument was a self-built embedded Linux synthesizer named ‘Mr. Feely’ (no doubt in reverent homage to the creepy postman from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Mr. McFeely). Mr. Feely was a rectangular silver box mounted on a stand and having lots of knobs, butons, inputs and outputs, along with an LCD display screen containing info on various parameters. Connected to it was a foot-controlled expression pedal. The box was, in appearance, not unlike the ‘groove-box’ sequencers that have populated the pro audio section of large chain music stores for the last several years; however, in speaking with Mr. Armstrong and having viewed the performance and his website, his invention is quite a bit more powerful and flexible. Ironically, its invention was in part inspired by the performance-oriented interface of these kinds of devices, and Armstrong’s frustration with attempting to use a laptop as a musical instrument; he decided to invent and build his own fusion of the two.
Certainly an impressive and curious collection of parts, but I was more curious to hear what the meeting place of all this invention would be. The works played at the concert consisted of improvised material freely interspersed with material from pieces which were recently recorded, according to Fuhler. None of the pieces had any title, or at least none were given. In fact, it was somewhat unclear what divisions existed between pieces, or if there were really any at all. This was due in large part to the use of negative space/silence by the players- even when sound was happening, it was often slow moving and ethereal, with long sustains and deep ‘breaths’ between sonic events. The three traded material and sonic space carefully, using the aforementioned silences as both phrase markings and as a means to prevent total disorder. The players sat silent, motionless and expressionless at their instruments during these silent periods and whenever they were not playing. This added somewhat to the confusion as to whether a piece had ended, or started, or whether a reaction was expected. The aesthetic effect was austere and dark, and certainly assuaged any doubts I may have had about whether this was intended to be ‘serious music’. The sonic effect was alternately trance-like, thrilling, and disturbing (in the best possible sense).
After a prolonged silence, the concert began with Wooley’s trumpet creating a soft sound reminiscent of a transistor radio being tuned. White noise- like bursts would evolve into hints of a melody- still heard distantly and through static- and then gently dissolve once again to breathy noise. Armstrong then entered with what sounded like a frequency test-tone, initially at the farthest upper end of the audible spectrum- at times unsettlingly so- which eventually became a background layer over which Armstrong layered other synthesized sounds. Fuhler was the last to enter, huddled meditatively over his flattened piano as the aforementioned sounds created a grayish layer. First striking single tones with a variety of hard and soft objects, these were eventually augmented by sustained tones via the e-bow. Again, he started out by placing a single e-bow over a string, letting it sustain and then gently decay when removed. Gradually, some of the other e-bows were added to create ambient tone clusters. By moving around some of the e-bows as the others vibrated away, a gently shifting ‘orchestra’ of string tones resulted, with long attacks and decays. Other manipulations of the e-bows included different settings for the light beam, which accentuated different harmonics of the vibrating string; and a deliberate misalignment of the device on the string, by which part of the plastic housing of the light beam would graze the vibrating string and create a nasty, harsh overtone.
This three-way texture unfolded slowly over what must have been 10 minutes or so, the e-bow orchestra rising and falling over the shifting layer of gray tones. Finally, it wound its way back down to Wooley’s solo trumpet again, where the static/ white noise now morphed into what sounded like a death gurgle. Long, sustained and vortex-like, it sounded as if he was shooting a circling stream of saliva through the trumpet, or like the horn of the trumpet had become a black hole, sucking up everything that makes its way into it. It was a startling and uncomfortable (again in the best possible sense) moment. Of course, the actual technique used was thankfully nothing like this (it involves the trumpet’s aperture), but Wooley did tell me later that the sound once made a singer cry during a performance.
After a long stretch of the death gurgle, which seemed to require a great deal of breath control and sustain, long tones struck on the piano strings this time gave way to a three way improvised conversation. This was perhaps the fastest moving and most frenzied part of the performance. The interplay became much more rapid, with Armstrong’s synth tones taking on both a percussive urgency and an industrial grit, clearly sharper in intent. Fuhler used a variety of metal objects on the piano strings, creating sustained harmonics. At times he would use a contractor’s taping knife (a long thin blade on a handle) across a set of strings, either as a struck mute, a beater, or a scraper. The metallic sounds were augmented by the aforementioned dentist’s tool, rotating on the strings. Used on some of the higher pitched strings, it created sounds reminiscent of harp glissandos and of bowed tremolos. This too went on for some time, and reached a crescendo capped by Fuhler throwing various small metal objects at the strings, striking dissonant clusters before dying away to Wooley, again solo, making the sound of passing air through the trumpet while tapping on one of the keys. It made me imagine an endlessly creaking door, in a ghostly and deserted place. The near-silence finally dissolved away to a long pause.
By this time, the wind was really kicking up off of the canal, adding to the austere effect and augmenting the prolonged silences in a suitably dark manner. Unfortunately, the sparse attendance added to that effect as well, though in the small space it was not much of a factor.
When sound resumed, Fuhler and Armstrong created layers of sustained tones that became impossible to distinguish. Starting out again with a single e-bow, then layered with Armstrong’s computer, it eventually became a dense thicket of chromaticism. Minor and major seconds began to pile on top of one another, but would then die away judiciously before becoming unbearable. While this was being created, Wooley was taking parts out of his trumpet. As the layer of sound progressed and then died back down, Wooley entered now blowing into the side of his trumpet (the mouthpiece and horn facing opposite ends of the stage). This created a spatial panning effect, with ‘rushing air’ coming alternately out of either end. He later explained this is accomplished by removing the trumpet’s second valve. As the piece progressed it seemed as if other pieces were being pulled out of the trumpet, or shoved back in. In the course of this, Wooley put on an astonishing display of potentialities for the instrument. In fact, while each of the three players had many unique and innovative aspects, I was perhaps most impressed by Wooley simply for the fact that he was able to rival the sonic palette of his cohorts with a ‘traditional’ acoustic instrument and technique. This last ‘piece’ (see above) lasted the remainder of the performance, which totaled about an hour.
The music being either very new or improvised, and having no prior exposure to the players, I had had no idea what to expect in terms of intent or content. Of course, there is by now a ‘tradition’ in avant-garde music as well, the legacy of which cannot be avoided. The ‘rules’ of composition that existed have been broken and put back together more times than Humpty Dumpty. So what does it mean to be ‘experimental’ or ‘cutting edge’ these days? The formal answer will undoubtedly come thirty or forty years after its relevance has faded. But one of the more interesting developments in new music, at least from my perspective, has been composers and players expanding the sonic palette of traditional instruments- often in ways evocative of the synthesized or processed sounds that to some once heralded the ‘death of live music’. The resultant compositions, and performances such as this one, probably belong more to the world of ‘sound mass’; indeed, the performance here was evocative, at least in spirit, of composers like Ligeti and Berio. I didn’t feel like they were conspicuously trying to be tonal, atonal, or serial in terms of the treatment of pitches (when there were pitches); perhaps the logic adhered to was more concerned with the production of sounds and sonic potentialities of the three instruments, both as individual voices and in a group context.
Perhaps more accurately, the concert made me think of a ‘fantasy’ jam session (that would of course only be possible with modern technology) between Stockhausen (on the homemade computer), Cage (at the ‘prepared’ piano) and something like a Berio sequenza for trumpet.
And if we can accept that players are indeed integrating the synthesized and processed sounds- which have been part of our musical lexicon for almost fifty years- into the potentialities of traditional instruments, then a certain debt of gratitude must be owed to the early pioneers involved in creating these sounds or fostering the techniques that did. These would include, among many others: Stockhausen and the Cologne electronic studio, Ussachevsky and Luening’s tape music in America, along with composers like Babbitt, Varese, Xenakis and Cage. The latter two can be said to be particularly relevant to this discussion, having dealt extensively in “organized sound” and indeterminate elements. The music here seems to be a logical progression from these early influences, and underscores the progression of the last fifty years when thought of in terms of something like the infamous MOMA concert of “tape music” in 1952. Back then, they had to lug tape recorders and strange electronic devices around to ‘perform’- certainly a novel approach in those days- and even then, the validity of their music was questioned. Had they lived another fifty years, they probably could have played the same music with ‘real’ instruments! Though it may have spared them the wrath of traditionalists, undoubtedly the skeptics would still have had their say. It is hard to ignore the irony of “new music” that seems to at least be partially inspired by sonorities that are now some forty or fifty years old; to a true modernist that must seem almost antiquated. However, it shows to what extent we have continued to adopt a stream of new sounds and ideas into a common musical vocabulary (and continued to expand the notion of tradition).
In all, I would describe the concert as a success, certainly in terms of presenting challenging and interesting new sounds. As with many performances of “new music”, it was unfortunately not a great success in terms of attendance- there were perhaps a dozen or fifteen brave souls, at best- who did their best to show their enthusiasm for the efforts. I think one of the problems in promoting a concert like this is in nomenclature- namely, what kind of music is it? Even in the advertisements I received by email gave little indication, save for a brief paragraph about each of the three players. Still, it was to me an exciting display of possibilities, particularly with regard to live performance. Every performance has the potential to be an indicator of such possibilities, and when it seems like so few do explore them it is refreshing to be in attendance when it happens.
More information about the musicians can be found at:
Newton Armstrong: www.music.princeton.edu/~newton/
Cor Fuhler: www.euronet.nl/users/fuhler/
Nate Wooley: www.natewooley.com