Vol. 27 Issue 4 Reviews
Sonic Circuits X Boston International Electronic Music Festival

American Composers Forum Boston Chapter, Boston Cyberarts Festival, Berklee College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 12 March/27 April/4 May, 2003.

Reviewed by Alexia Rosari
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Musicians and audiophiles alike have been involved in lengthy and controversial discussions since the first attempts were made at using rudimentary tone generators as musical instruments. Some view sequencers, synthesizers, and computers as a curse, even taking it as far as to accusing them of having contributed to “the day when music died.” To others, they represent a new, exciting kind of instrument marking the beginning of a new era—the era of electronic composition. Perhaps understanding how synthesizers and computers function as musical instruments is crucial to being able to appreciate the creative potential they can unleash within a musician. “Education” is the word. The Boston edition of this year’s Sonic Circuits X Festival was sponsored by the Berklee College of Music in Boston to promote extracurricular impact and cross-departmental work. Under the direction of Berklee Professor Neil Leonard and Dr. Beth Denisch, Director of the Boston Chapter of the American Composers Forum, students and alumni alike were involved in this project from organizing, producing, and promoting to composing and performing. Internationally acclaimed artists and Berklee faculty members were also invited to participate.

“The Sonic Circuits X International Electronic Music Festival,“ to quote the festival’s Web site (www.soniccircuits.com/events/Berkleeevent.html), ”is a festival that showcases the latest artistic uses of technology from commercial to classical, arcane to mundane, for gear-heads and neophytes, students and professionals.” The Boston festival was subdivided into three events, each one focusing on a main theme.

March 12 marked the opening concert, which was held at Berklee’s David Friend Recital Hall and featured local and international talents. The room’s oval shape and wooden acoustical treatment proved to be ideal for the various acoustic instruments being played. Berklee String Professor Mimi Rabson started the evening with an impressive performance showcasing the electric violin with electronic processing (see Figure 1). I had the pleasure of participating in a conversation with Ms. Rabson during which she expressed her fascination with percussion instruments. Her appreciation for rhythm clearly showed in her percussive and melodically impeccable performance of her composition Hard Wired (2003). Berklee World Scholar Ilona Kudina presented a dynamic interpretation of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 1 (1962), playing the flute to a prerecorded tape. The electronic program material was contrasted and complemented by Argentinean acoustic guitar virtuoso Victor Pellegrini, who played Leo Brouwer’s Canticum (1968), Tarantos (1974), and Elogio de la Danza (1964). Mr. Pellegrini has become one of the premiere interpreters of Mr. Brouwer's music, viewed by many as the most important composer of modern guitar music. Mr. Pellegrini also gave a tastefully sensitive and warm premiere of Neil Leonard’s Vitrales (2003), a piece which extended many ideas that Mr. Leonard first developed in his algorithmic music. Experiencing a live appearance by Mr. Pellegrini was a unique treat.

Nan Zhand, a Berklee Music Synthesis student, impressed everyone with an energetic piano performance in Charles Dodge’s pioneering remix of Enrico Caruso entitled Any Resemblance is Purely Coincidental (1980). The Swedish cyberjazz trio Natural Artefacts, featuring Susanna Lindeborg on piano, Ove Johansson on tenor saxophone, and Per-Anders Nilsson on computer, captured the audience with an exquisite improvisational act. Natural Artefacts aims to fully integrate computers with tools and musical instruments from the “real world.” This trio created an intriguing blend of interactive improvisation between acoustic instruments and computer-generated sounds. It was remarkable how their very simple technical setup could provide such a wide platform for improvisational freedom. Ms. Lindeborg’s piano as well as Mr. Johansson’s saxophone were picked up by microphones and routed to a MOTU 828 Firewire audio interface. Mr. Nilsson used the program Max/MSP on his laptop to capture and analyze snapshots of the incoming audio. With the help of a small keyboard controller he would manipulate these audio snippets, allowing him to interact with the other two musicians. The result was a playful and at times capricious cacophony between live instruments and their momentary audio reflections. It was almost as if imaginary little mirrors were reflecting their images, offering a challenge for a prompt response. This was truly an improvisational majesty!

The April 27 concert was held at Berklee’s Fenway Recital Hall and focused on performances by Berklee students and alumni. Among them was Poh-Gek Tay, a current Music Synthesis student, who was also involved in the festival as a production manager. Ms. Tay presented a computer-generated tape entitled Romble In the Gongs (2003) to which Bruce Bertrand improvised on electronic bass trombone. The music was based on a few gong samples, which were redesigned and edited using the programs Reason and Peak. Mr. Bertrand also presented his own composition, Improvisation No. 4 for Electronic Bass Trombone (2003), which he skillfully composed on the spot. Alumna Meeyoung Choi played cello to a tape generated with electronics. Her composition The Flood (2003) was inspired by the biblical story of Noah. Ms. Choi mainly used Csound and SoundHack to create the samples, eventually compiling and mixing them in Logic Audio. The piece began with an eerie and gloomy mood nicely building up to rest on a peaceful meadow of soothing tones. As a contrast, New York-based alumnus Glenn Ianaro literally took us right back into a somber setting with his X-Tronics "Faintly We Hear" (2003), exhibiting visuals generated on a portable computer along with sounds created on custom “laptop” instruments. X-tronics is a software looping system developed by Mr. Ianaro utilizing both Csound and pd software. David Linnenback controlled the visuals projected from a portable computer onto a screen while Jazz Composition student Yoshino Ishii complemented this synthetic string of sounds with her saxophone improvisations. Three-dimensional geometric structures gracefully enfolded on the screen to shape a city-like view, and blurry colorful images faded in and out underlying the atmospheric soundscape.

Especially intriguing was a performance by New York-based Korean artist Bubblyfish who, just like the title New Works for Nintendo Gameboy (2003) suggests, manipulated groove patterns with a Nintendo Gameboy. The composition’s form was reminiscent of a symphony, subdivided into multiple movements. Bubblyfish’s setup consisted of two Gameboys and a portable computer running Reason software. One of the Gameboys ran through a Kaoss Pad, a real-time effects processor, and the other was connected to a Sans Amp guitar processor. She sometimes used one Gameboy, combined the two, or incorporated them with the computer. She used Reason as her main sequencing program, composing with the built-in virtual synthesizer modules and importing her own samples. During her performance she manipulated the parameters on the modules. She also used a music sequencing software written on the Gameboy cartridge called nanoloop, which accesses the Gameboy sound chip using FM synthesis. With nanoloop, she was able to create loop-based music in real time. I had to ask Bubblyfish how she came up with the idea of using a Gameboy: “First, I was attracted to the idea of music production done entirely in a small hand-held device as well as the familiar 8-bit sound from children's games,“ explained Bubblyfish. “Compared to computer-based music it is limited. However, I find that having fewer tools to work with can increase your creativity.” Is this the breaking point where the traditional DJ, who is often evil-eyed by rather conservative music scholars, is finally deserving of the title “musician”? Bubblyfish elegantly managed to close the gap in this controversy.

The May 4 event, once again held at the Fenway Recital Hall, showcased a collection of Berklee professors and guests improvising and experimenting with their instruments and computers. The concert opened with Brass Department Chair Tom Plsek who played a solo processed trombone, referred to as “microbone,” accompanied by Neil Leonard on saxophone and Glenn Ianaro on laptop electronics. Together they performed a collaborative composition titled Improvisation X (2003). Mr. Leonard kindly gave me some insight, exposing the technology involving the various performances. “Mr. Plsek was using a hand-held signal processor made by Yamaha,“ explained Mr. Leonard. “It has basic delays and filters, which are devices he has been exploring for years. He has now graduated to ‘sub-laptop’ electronics. They are high fidelity, but about the size of a Gameboy and reasonably simple to start with.” The evening continued with Berklee Guitar Professor Garrison Fewell leading a cyberjazz group featuring Greg Burk on Moog synthesizer, Tom Plsek on microbone, Dave Clark on bass, and Neil Leonard on saxophone and interactive system. Together they gave a rendition of Butch Morris’ Namthini’s Shadow (2003), a refreshing, collage-like soundscape of tones and effects.

Mr. Leonard was to further elaborate on his personal setup: “I wrote the software using the C programming language and Max. The system uses an acoustic sensor, which ‘listens’ to my use of pivotal scale tones and responds by creating a tapestry of melodic patterns in real time. The goal is to get the computer to play along with me using a language that was established by John Coltrane in his very late period. There are two saxophone-like voices in front of the ensemble, one is me and the other is an automated player. The lines that we play have arpeggiations and temporary tonal centers, but there is no periodic chord progression.”

As the title of the next act implied, Electronic Theme and Variation for Primitive Guitar Gestures (2003), guitar lovers were blessed with “electric guitars going electronic.” Music Synthesis Professor Michael Bierylo played duets for guitars and computer processing together with Berklee Guitar Professor Stephen MacLean. Mr. Bierylo used Reaktor, a software synthesis and processing environment that provides a wide palette of analog synthesis techniques to apply to basic single-cycle and sampled waveforms. Mr. Bierylo has worked a lot with prepared piano wizard Rodger Miller (Mission of Burma) and has taken a similar approach, applied it to guitar, sampled himself, and put the samples into Reaktor. He had a “Metaguitar” setup comprised of electric sitar, outboard processors, and a portable computer with prepared and re-synthesized guitar resources. The result was an exquisite construction of synthetic guitar magic. Mr. McLean processed his guitar through a Nord modular device and used an interesting gadget called “ebow” in lieu of a guitar pick. When applied right above a guitar string, the ebow produces an energy field that vibrates and sustains the string. It allows for creative tonal textures and arpeggios, which Mr. McLean aptly demonstrated throughout his performance. The evening, and consequently the Boston festival as a whole, closed with three pieces performed by Mr. Leonard, Mr. Clark, Mr. Ianaro, and guitarist extraordinaire Rick Iannacone on prepared and processed guitar using looping devices. This quartet seamlessly built up and broke down loops and patterns, brilliantly ending the festival.

The Sonic Circuits X Boston Festival was a success. The craft of blending traditional and electronic music instruments and their harmonious co-existence were masterfully demonstrated. Musicians and composers alike shone in their intelligent and innovative use of music technology.