Vol. 27 Issue 2 Reviews
Alternating Currents: Electronic Music from The University of Michigan

Compact disc,2000, CRC 2492; available from Centaur Records, Inc., 136 St. Joseph Street, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802, USA; telephone (+1) 225-336-4877; fax: (+1) 225-336-9678; electronic mail info@centaurrecords.com; World Wide Web www.centaurrecords.com/.

Reviewed by Nico Schüler
San Marcos, Texas, USA

Alternating Currents, released in 2000, presents a diverse spectrum of new electroacoustic music by University of Michigan (UM) composers Mary Simoni, Erik Santos, Benjamin Broening, Gregory D. Laman, Evan Chambers, James Aikman, and Stephen Rush. All pieces were composed between 1995 and 1999.

The initial composition on the disc, Doxology (1998) by Mary Simoni, refers to the tradition of the English-speaking Roman Catholic Mass. Ms. Simoni, who is Chair of the Department of Performing Arts and Technology at UM and current President of the International Computer Music Association, writes in the liner-notes: "Doxology is an unfolding of the history and the future of the doxology. Initially chanted by males in Greek and Latin, the voice of a woman foreshadows changes yet to come in the Roman Catholic tradition." Indeed, Ms. Simoni's composition represents two opposing performance practices: traditional Gregorian chant, performed excellently by Dennis Keller (St. Mary's Parish in Pickney, Michigan) and electronically modified, is juxtaposed against the music of a female liturgist (Kristi English). However, the pop-idiomatic music that "accompanies" the female liturgist resembles a rather cheesy gospel song. The listener may ask if that should really be the "foreshadowed changes" in the Roman Catholic tradition. The formal organization of the piece is in four separated parts, two of which symbolize the "past-present" music tradition and two of which symbolize the "foreshadowed changes". Unfortunately, the four parts of this short piece (4'17'') hardly relate to one another musically.

Erik Santos' composition Mariposa Morena (Dark Butterfly) (1999) is part of his large-scale multimedia production, Cruces de Fuego (Crosses of Fire). Mr. Santos, assistant professor of composition at UM, has been interested in the synthesis of music, poetry, theater, dance, art, and video. Such a synthesis is achieved in his Mariposa Morena.

Deeply rooted in the elemental metaphors of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the earthy surrealism of Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo, my intentions for this production were simple: to create a setting in which magic was possible. Using all the musical and theatrical technology I could find, I wanted to awaken the possibility for all participants to build a bridge between their dreams and reality and nourish each other with their own individual revelations.

The music, "world music" in the best sense of the term, does indeed convey the composer's intentions. While all vocal parts were performed by Mr. Santos himself, the instruments, such as piano, ney flute, claves, taiko drum, Arabian flute, and others, were sampled and modified to support the Neruda poem on butterflies. Based on these vocal and instrumental parts, the composer has created "magic" sound colors that seem perfectly coordinated and formally well organized.

Via Negativa: Cloud of Forgetting (1995), by UM graduate Benjamin Broening, now assistant professor of composition at the University of Richmond in Virginia, is based on the 14th-century Christian mystical book, The Cloud of Unknowing. It is about approaching the unapproachable and knowing the unknowable. The composer "was struck by current secular versions of this idea, in which Truth and Happiness are attained through a renunciation of the external world. While the present piece is not a call to reanimate early Christian values, it does represent a personal endeavor to combat comfort's seductions and to preserve contemplation as a value in my own life." While the beginning of Mr. Broening's piece is abstract in its synthesized sounds, its dramaturgy is well prepared and leads to a bagpipe melody toward the end. Although one may only identify the composer's literary references and thoughts after reading his explanations, it is a very pleasing piece of music.

Gregory D. Laman's One Divided (1996) is a composition for an acoustic instrument (Bb trumpet) with live electronics, without using any synthesized sounds. The software for the real-time modifications of the trumpet sounds includes five different processing configurations. These configurations create different sound effects, such as pitch shifting (for glissandi), harmonizations of the instrument with itself, short delay loops (for ostinati), long phrase delays (to create canons), and simultaneous combinations of these processes. Mr. Laman, a computer systems consultant at UM, formally divides the music not only through the sound as a result of these configurations but also by short pauses between the "movements." The unity and coherence of this wonderful eight-and-a-half minute piece, however, is maintained by the live performance of the trumpet part (played by Paul Bhasin).

The highlight of this CD, Evan Chambers' Lament (1996), is a composition for Zeta violin, sampler, and tape. The title refers to the traditional Irish form of lament and "aims to capture the overwhelming sense of sadness and loss that seeps slowly out of the abandoned places in the West of Ireland. Although beautifully desolate, these areas were once densely populated, and even now are marked with reminders of a catastrophe and an overwhelming human loss." Not only does Mr. Chambers, director of the electronic music studios at UM, indeed capture these feelings with sampled, processed, and sequenced instrumental and vocal sounds (creating the tape part) that he had gathered on a trip to Ireland; an Irish fiddler himself, he also makes the feelings and (historical) circumstances understandable to the listener without them having to read the liner notes. All sampled, modified, and live sounds melt together perfectly and are dramaturgically well-organized.

James Aikman, assistant professor of composition at UM, is represented by two compositions on this disc: Burton Tower Prelude (1997) and The 7th Trumpet Toccata (1997). The first one is based on noises in the bell tower on his campus (in which his office is located), from noises of a recent remodeling to piano practicing, from bell sounds inside to siren noises outside the tower. The second piece is based on Revelations 8:6: "And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound." Both compositions are rhythmically creative and complex, emphasizing the contrast between steady beats and asymmetric meters (and partially polyrhythmic structures). The pop-idiomatic percussion part in the latter piece, however, does not seem to fit well either the trumpet-derived sounds or the musical style in general.

The final piece of the CD, Stephen Rush's RANDALOG (1999), is composed by use of aleatoric procedures: "Decisions about random parameters, tempo, and sample content were the primary function of the composer, determining variable frequency shifting, random panning, and algorithmic silence or repetition." Mr. Rush, a dance and performing arts professor at UM, based the piece entirely on synthesized sounds. Despite some interesting room effects and high-quality production of the synthesized sounds, RANDALOG is of little musical value because its (random) organization and sound structure hardly functions by itself aesthetically (nor does it refer to a program).

All in all, Alternating Currents presents a relatively broad spectrum of aesthetics, compositional techniques, and sound structures, but unfortunately also a broad spectrum of musical quality. However, the Evan Chambers piece alone is worth the price of this disc.