Vol. 25 Issue 3 Reviews
Interactive Arts Performance Series
Miller Puckette, Kathleen Supové, Lisa Cella, Frederick Loewe Theater, New York University, 20 November 2000

Reviewed by James Forrest
New York, New York, USA

The Interactive Arts Performance Series at New York University is a relative newcomer both to the “uptown” world of university computer music and to the New York City “downtown” music scene. As such, it attempts to bring into closer contact these two worlds, which are at different times both strikingly different and noticeably similar. It is with relative rarity, however, that such concerts attempt to bridge such a gap rather than drive the wedge even deeper.

Whether or not by accident, the concert was divided along these lines into two very distinct halves. The first, more academic, half was comprised entirely of pieces written for solo piccolo or solo flute and electronics. They were all composed by important figures in the world of academia. In contrast, the second half was populated with pieces for piano and electronics written by some of New York’s best composers in the downtown music scene. These two worlds do not mingle nearly often enough, yet each can learn a lot from the other.

The first piece of the evening was Superscriptio, a non-electronic solo piccolo piece by Brian Ferneyhough. It is a manic exploration of the subtle differences between order and chaos, the piece teetering on the borders of both. Its pitch organization is complex yet steady, even insistent, as if to claim that a chaotic system might have certain characteristics that are relatively grounded (for example, even though weather patterns are chaotic, it never literally rains cats and dogs, only water). Despite the beautiful execution of the piece by flutist Lisa Cella (a member of SIRIUS, an ensemble based at the University of California San Diego), it was unclear why this piece had been included in the program. As a fully acoustic piece, it did not make sense as the opening piece of an Interactive Arts concert; it was less an introduction than a distraction. The question of relevance posed by Superscriptio, however, was a non-issue with regard to the next piece, Cort Lippe’s Music for Flute and ISPW.

At its core, Music for Flute and ISPW is a monologue about the nature of interactive music, making it entirely relevant to such a concert. It explores the many ways live electronics can be used in conjunction with acoustic instruments by presenting nearly all possible combinations. This amounts to three major musical functions for the electronics: as a contrapuntal voice (in dialogue with the live instrument), as a solo voice (in monologue with the live instrument), and as a timbral voice (in harmony with the live instrument). In this way, Mr. Lippe presents a sort of tutorial on the uses of electronics in conjunction with live instruments, one that also comes across as a well-structured and unified piece.

The piece begins with a brief solo flute section in which a tonal center is firmly established, though at the expense of an established thematic center. It hops around on several notes, repeatedly landing on a firm G, but never really building up a phrase or pattern. Later, however, what this listener first perceived as pattern-less invention in the opening section becomes the fundamental musical material of the piece. Following the introduction, the electronic accompaniment is gradually introduced, which, at least at that point in the piece, mainly consists of percussive enunciations of certain flute attacks. This material presents one of the three functions of electronic accompaniment—as a timbral voice. As the piece progresses, though, the electronics develop their own voice, departing from the flute and offering a melodic or rhythmic counterpoint to it. About two-thirds of the way through the piece, the electronics are given a solo section in which melodic lines are developed from previous shorter themes. This builds into a climax punctuated by a reentrance of the flute, now more aggressive than before.

Music for Flute and ISPW is a tour de force of real-time interactive digital signal processing, using a flute as its source and Max/MSP as its processor. It explores an unending palette of techniques including harmonization, cross-synthesis, and spatialization, amongst many others. With such a vast array of tools, one would think that the piece as a whole would sound fragmented, but it remains unified because each technique is given similar source material (the flute) and a precise musical function.

The success of Music for Flute and ISPW can also be attributed to the sort of relaxed control that Mr. Lippe exercises over his electronics. Never are they intrusive or overbearing, yet they are essential to the overall expression. The same could also be said for the next piece in the program, Kaija Saariaho’s NoaNoa, which is in many ways remarkably similar to Mr. Lippe’s piece. The two pieces are superficially similar, being both for flute and electronics. Yet their similarities run deeper as well, in that they both explore multiple possibilities for the electronics vis à vis their musical function.

NoaNoa was chosen for the concert by Ms. Cella, who also recruited Miller Puckette to program the electronics for the piece using his Pd signal processing software. Mr. Puckette has publicly released the source code for Pd so that other people can work on improving it. One of the most important improvements has been a port of the program to the Linux operating system, a version that, according to Mr. Puckette, he uses more frequently than his own original for Windows NT. Using Pd and the CD-ROM of NoaNoa, Mr. Puckette reverse-engineered the electronics used for the original performance. This included performer-triggered sample playback and a sort of “infinite” reverberation. The performance was a showcase for Lisa Cella as well. Aside from the numerous demanding extended-flute techniques, Ms. Cella was also required to utter phrases of French while playing.

With the intermission came a complete stylistic turnaround, the earliest sign of which was the dramatic percussive opening of Daphna Napthali’s Landmine. Landmine is a four-part symphony of sorts featuring Kathleen Supové on piano and Ms. Napthali on electronics. It is complex and insightful, long-winded and well-balanced.

The complexity of the piece stems from its thematic progression. Themes drift in and out of consciousness, sometimes contemplative, sometimes curious, sometimes maniacal. In fact, the progression of the piece seems to this listener to betray Ms. Naphtali’s thought-processes, dancing from boredom to frustration with great ease. It seems at times that the piece is on a blindfolded walk through some frightening territory, with the composer leading the way with both cautious hesitation and wild abandon.

The piece does become rather long-winded, however, as similar themes exit and re-enter as if only to assert their self-derived importance. At times, some of the material seems a bit superfluous, if not repetitious for repetition’s sake. But the abundance of material is explained, if not justified, by Ms. Naphtali’s technical setup, which is decidedly improvisational.

Her setup was based around a Macintosh PowerBook running Max/MSP, which performed real-time synthesis as well as manipulated an Eventide Harmonizer that processed a Yamaha Disklavier, both acoustically and via MIDI. She also used many different control surfaces, including MIDI faders, footswitches, and pedals. Indeed, although Landmine is clearly a pre-composed piece, it does incorporate improvisation both on the part of the electronics and the live piano part.

Some of the most exciting parts of the piece were those in which Ms. Supové seemed to improvise along with the Disklavier, which was being “played” algorithmically by the Max patch. When the Disklavier would begin to play itself, Ms. Supové would react violently to the intrusion on her musical space by the player piano. It was at these times that the audience wondered whether Ms. Supové was playing the piano or vice versa. In this way, the Disklavier poses interesting questions about the nature of human/computer interaction with regard to traditional acoustic instruments.

Ms. Supové’s accomplished piano playing was also featured in the next piece of the evening; not only was she the performer, she was also the compositional impetus. In a conversation with composer Nick Didkovsky, he admitted that his meditative fantasy Rama Broom is based on a homicidal vision that periodically comes to Ms. Supové while she exercises. Although it is not, strictly speaking, an interactive piece, it was algorithmically composed using JMSL (Java Music Specification Language), Mr. Didkovsky’s Java port of Phil Burk’s HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language).

The piece has a brilliant structure, creating extremely intense emotional meaning from surprisingly simple musical material. It follows a strict linear progression, both harmonically and rhythmically, beginning with a fairly rhythmic series of unisons, octaves, and fifths that gradually became more complex as the piece continues. (Other, more “dissonant” harmonic intervals are explored as well as more complicated polyrhythms.) Just as this listener was lulled into complacency by the music, however, an absurd play on language began that destroyed any such laziness. Ms. Supové began to speak a seemingly random set of absurd utterances, such as “time’s up,” “up times dred hun,” “hun stick times drarfed up.” Eventually these utterances coalesce into a meaningful phrase (which also happens to coincide with the increasing harmonic and rhythmic complexity of the music): “Ram a broomstick four hundred times up.” Such a graphic image is difficult to confront musically, but the trance-like subtlety of the rest of the piece is a perfect choice. It draws attention to the imagery without making it either too powerful or meaningless.

Rounding out the evening was Randall Woolf’s passionate blues-rock piece Adrenaline Revival, which, according to the program notes, was inspired by the scene in the movie Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman’s character is instantly revived by a jolt of adrenaline. Curiously, though, the piece isn’t an uncontrollable flood of energy, as its title would have one believe. Rather, it is a carefully structured and somewhat restrained piece alternating between sections of thoughtful calm and bombastic anxiety.

The electronics used for this piece are powerful yet tasteful: the piano is miked by two PZM boundary microphones whose signals are fed into a Digitech TSR 24S to be processed live. Each of the eight sections of the piece use these effects in a different way, although as a whole the effects are mainly used to augment the piano’s natural sound. Chorus, delay, reverberation, and other effects all contribute to a widely expressive palette of sounds, able to produce rock-infused distortion and more subtle vocal flavorings.

By the last downward turn of the blues-infused bass line of Adrenaline Revival, this listener was left wondering how the concert had traveled from the complex polyrhythms of Brian Ferneyhough through the emotional wanderings of Kaija Saariaho to the loose back-beat of Randall Woolf. While the concert presented neither unified stylistic, technological, nor compositional paradigms, it did present a nice survey of current trends in computer music. There were algorithmically-composed pieces, live signal processing, and sample-based music. But the most salient feature of the concert was certainly the polarized nature of the two halves, which gave a sort of 2-for-1 feeling to the concert.

It is not as common as one would hope to see concerts that combine such closely related musical cousins. The composers might not work for the same institutions, they might not have access to the same facilities, they might not even draw from the same musical traditions, but they all share a passion for the ways in which technology and sound can interact. And they certainly have much eclectic wisdom to share with one another, making for a richer and more inclusive overall experience. We can only hope that in the future these two worlds will engage in more and more dialogue, because if this concert is any evidence, the results of such a dialogue are rewarding.