Vol. 25 Issue 3 Reviews
Elizabeth McNutt: Pipe Wrench
Music by Andrew May, Cort Lippe, Eric Lyon, Barry Moon, Philippe Manoury
Compact disc, EMF 025, 2000; available from Electronic Music Foundation, 116 North Lake Avenue, Albany, New York 12206, USA; telephone (+1) 518-434-4110; electronic mail emf@emf.org; World Wide Web www.emf.org

Reviewed by James Harley
Moorhead, Minnesota, USA

As interactive computer music has become more widely possible, there has grown a need for skilled, responsive (and interested) performers to involve themselves in this domain. The need to have some knowledge of the hardware and software, to be able to improvise or "interact," as well as to be able to play the (often difficult) notes has been a barrier to some performers. Luckily, there are a few who have taken on these challenges with relish, and flutist Elizabeth McNutt is one of the most dedicated. She recently obtained her doctorate in performance at the University of California San Diego, where the confluence of contemporary performance practice, interactive music, and improvised music is particularly strong.

In this, Ms. McNutt’s debut solo disc, she presents a combination of "classics" with compositions written especially for her. Philippe Manoury’s Jupiter (1987) is a pioneering work, the first to use score-following to synchronize live electronics with the performer. The relationship between the two parts is ever-changing, the flutist at times leading, at times following the computer-produced music. At 28 min 04 sec, Jupiter is by far the longest piece on the disc. This version dates from a live performance in January 1999, with Miller Puckette, now at UCSD but previously at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustic/Musique (IRCAM) where he assisted Mr. Manoury in producing the piece, supervising the computer part (he also updated it to run in the Max/FTS environment). The solo part sounds slightly distant, but the balance is good, and Ms. McNutt’s beautifully velvet tone carries through with no trouble. There is never any mistaking the computer-generated music for the live flute, as there can be in some of the other pieces. Nonetheless, Mr. Manoury succeeds in creating a dialectic between the contrasting elements that generates a succession of quite focused sections and that sustains the music throughout its ambitious span.

Cort Lippe is well-known as one of the major practitioners of interactive computer music, having composed a substantial set of pieces for various instruments and computer. Music for Flute and Computer (1994) was commissioned by François Bru and is dedicated "to the people and the extraordinary musical cultures of Burundi and Rwanda." This piece also uses the score-following technique to track the solo flute part to control the processing and trigger specific events. Whether one is aware of the inspiration for the music or not, this is a strongly dramatic piece. The evocative opening flute solo is punctuated by cluster-type electronic "shouts," a gesture that becomes increasingly elaborate as the music proceeds. There are other elements that are developed at the same time, including some percussive textures and rapid figurations for the flute. At somewhere after the 4-minute mark, there is a rising motion to the upper register, with some plaintive microtones and then a pause. It’s easy to overlook the power of silence, and it is a measure of Mr. Lippe’s strong aesthetic sense that he allows the music to fade away now and then. The balance with the at-times intensely active textures works very well. The integration of the flute part with the electronics is very tight, a tribute both to the performer’s skill and the composer’s facility with the computer.

Andrew May has created a remarkable tribute to Paul Klee with his The Twittering Machine (1995). He was fortunate to be able to work in close collaboration with Ms. McNutt in developing the piece, and he has allowed her great leeway in shaping the piece. Each new section is triggered by a foot-pedal, and there is a great deal of improvisation throughout. There is an emphasis on percussive sounds and trills, as perhaps befits the title. Ms. McNutt exhibits here her mastery of various extended techniques, including breath sounds, key slaps, tongue rams, whistle-tones, and so on. There is a mobile-like quality to the music, as certain elements are fixed for periods of time, but the composer always keeps a nice balance between foreground activity and background sustained textures. The Twittering Machine is a tour-de-force for Ms. McNutt and she navigates its quirky intricacies with great aplomb.

Barry Moon is an Australian composer who has been developing ways of increasing the interactivity of the relationship between performer and computer. Interact I (1996) was written for Ms. McNutt (who performed it at the 1998 International Computer Music Conference), and it grants her a large degree of control over the unfolding of the piece. The score is put together in "open form," so that the performer can choose what to play at any given moment from a selection of modules. The music contains some highly distinctive textures, including harmonized pitch bends that are evocative of trying to walk on the deck of a roiling ocean-liner. There is a sense of fun in this music that Ms. McNutt conveys enthusiastically. It would be nice to have a second realization of the piece, to hear just how different it could be.

The remaining piece on the disc is for flute and tape by Eric Lyon. The Blistering Price of Power was composed in 1993, and the tape part is a strange composite of electronic sonorities produced on the UPIC graphic/music system (at Les Ateliers UPIC) and algorithmically-generated "disco" materials produced with the composer’s own "BashFest computer drum machine." The music shifts in collage-like fashion between sharply contrasting materials, including fragments of spoken text, with the flute jumping in to play in mechanical synchronization with some of them. For me, while the tape part is interesting, the flute part seems rather gratuitous and unnecessary. Still, it makes for a fun contrast with the rest of the CD.

It is obvious from this recording that Ms. McNutt is a flutist of the first order. In addition, she is clearly comfortable performing in an amplified setting with electronics and the various accoutrements such as foot-pedals. Hopefully, Pipe Wrench will provide an example and encouragement to other performers who might want to explore this fascinating world of interactive music.