Vol. 28 Issue 4 Reviews
Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia: Forty Years on the Edge

Merrill Ellis Intermedia Theater, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas, USA, 19-20 April 2004.

Reviewed by Larry Austin
Denton, Texas, USA

With 38 works by faculty, alumni, and current graduate and undergraduate composers, CEMI—Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia, University of North Texas (UNT), Denton—celebrated "Forty Years on the Edge," a festival of five concerts of experimental music over two days, April 19-20, 2004. Established originally as the Electronic Music Center in 1963 by UNT composer/professor/researcher Merrill Ellis (d. 1981), the Center grew from its sub-rosa, analog synthesizer-based beginnings as Ellis's faculty research project in a School of Music classroom (1963-1970) to a dual-studio configuration in a small house owned by the University (1971-1978) to its present, fully-complemented, institutional complex of digital audio/video/graphic teaching and research studios adjacent to the surround-sound/image Merrill Ellis Intermedia Theater (MEIT) (1979-present), where the festival was presented. Altogether… CEMI.

Through its four decades, CEMI has grown in importance not only as a regional research, teaching, and production center for advancing new music technology but as a national (hosting the 2000 Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States National Conference) and international (hosting the 1981 International Computer Music Conference) model for high performance standards of excellence in the field. Each season since the early 1980s, the CEMI Event Series has featured tons of distinguished guest composers and performers in its intermedia concerts. As a founding member studio of CDCM: Consortium to Distribute Computer Music (1986-present), CEMI continues its leadership in the field by the production of over 30 compact discs, thus far, in the historic and critically acclaimed CDCM Computer Music Series on Centaur Records (www.music.unt.edu/CDCM/).

The pieces performed in this festival were pointedly in the experimental, mixed-media spirit of CEMI's four-decade history: video-plus-computer music; fixed-media octophonic, as well as real-time octophonic-plus-instruments; live-electronic and solo stereo computer music pieces; live ensemble-plus-dancer-plus-computer music; improvisatory dancers combined with instrument-plus-computer music; as well as an amplified, found-object piece and even a delightful piece for an antique, wind-up, non-electric phonograph-plus-clarinet. There were several pieces of 1980s and 1990s vintage, but most were from 2000/1/2/3/4, recently created and programmed for this occasion. The composers ranged in experience with electroacoustic/computer music media from one year to forty, demonstrably fluent practitioners of these technology-based genres. (Note: unless otherwise identified, all composers are currently enrolled UNT music students.)

Concert 1
Autumn (2003), octophonic computer music by Yo Oto, gently rustled leaves and metal sounds through the listening space of the MEIT morning concert. Two brand new, contrasting stereo pieces followed: Offspring (2004) by Christopher Lund, with its hybrid, fast-paced sound transformations, and Repercussion (2004) by Chapman Welch. Alumnus James Piekarski's Five Fractal Miniatures (1992), an algorithmic set of stereo pieces, expertly reminded all how important a role computer-aided composition has played in CEMI's research and development programs and studio experiments. Next, the first video-plus-computer music piece of the festival, Juxtaposition (2001), by Brent Scheihagen, opened our eyes and ears to a montage of world sights and sounds, the outsized images projected on the MEIT cyclorama. Alumna Lynn Job's Serengeti Supper (2002), composed for alto saxophone and stereo computer music, was brilliantly performed by UNT faculty theorist, Frank Heidelberger, who added a theatrical component by entering and leaving the performance space unseen. Even so, this colorful collage of world sounds was the musical highlight of the morning. The first concert closed with a second octophonic piece, Azulejo (2004) by alumnus Edilberto Cuellar, whose excitedly gestural piece, in the composer's words, "explores the paradigm between turmoil and tranquility… and is related to the name of a type of tile that, when one looks at it, one sees his/her reflection."

Concert 2
Late afternoon at the MEIT, the second concert opened with Chien-Wen Cheng's quietly meditative, stereo composition, Samadhi (2003), evoking the meditative sensibilities of Eastern cultures and multi-transformed, more assertive Western gestures. A more abstract, scientific metaphor was intended in Deborah Monroe's octophonic computer music composition, Shimmering Waves (2003), the pitched partials of a bell's resounding heard in various processed combinations. Alumnus Rob Frank's popular Zymurgy (1998), a stereo blend, once more proved tastily humorous as we heard the sounds he had brewed, bottled, and served festively for the occasion. Beautifully sounding stereo computer music, Kailas (2004) by Gabriel Lit, followed, with struck/sustained bells merging with whispering voices. Alumna and Bourges prizewinner Hideko Kawamoto's stereo composition, Summer Rain-Dawn (2000), provided beautiful forest sounds with imagery of rain—like tears—at dawn, inspired by reading the Rainier M. Rilke poem, "Nos Pleurs." The images and sounds of alumna Laura Romberg's video and computer music composition, Sidetracked (2003), effectively recalled her visit to modern-day Berlin with its star-crossed history. Hsiao-Lan Wang's Take a Walk with Me (2000), stereo computer music, followed with its synthetic bells scattered through an outdoor sonic setting. Closing the afternoon concert with playfully spatialized gestures was octophonic computer music, Dimebag (2004), by Dave Gedosh.

Concert 3
Alumnus Chris Morgan's octophonic composition, Clique (2000), opened the first day's evening concert. Imaginatively spatialized "everyday household sounds" rattled about us, both granulated and non-granulated. The decidedly indeterminate Burning Monkey ensued. Its composer, Joseph Klein, no less the Chair of the UNT Division of Composition Studies, and his equally indeterminate co-performer, Joseph “Butch” Rovan, no less the current Director of CEMI (2000-present), had selected two tables full of assorted toys, noise-makers, and ad hoc objects to "put out the fire." Amplified diffusely, they struggled to contain the flames! But did the monkey escape? Next followed the unabashedly retro RickLicks (2003), by alumnus Jim Phelps, composer and performer for/of an authentic reissue of the Rickenbacker 305 electric guitar played by John Lennon on the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1964: beautiful strumming, complimented by the stereo computer music "licks." Professor Emeritus Larry Austin (Director, CEMI, 1981-1991, 1995-1996) presented his lament to the memory of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy, Threnos, for real and virtual bass clarinets (2001-2002), sensitively performed by a quartet of excellent bass clarinetists, namely Mr. Rovan, Gabriel Lit, Alana Wilson, and Nick De Cesare.

After the intermission, we heard alumnus Michael Thompson's virtuosic stereo computer composition, Derailed (2002), in all its wonderfully manipulated, micro-sonic detail. Faculty composer Phil Winsor (Director, CEMI, 1982-1993) provided his Formosan Mosaics: Version 2 (1999) as the closing piece of the evening. Composed for the Chinese single-string instrument, the Erhu, plus synthesized chamber ensemble and digital sound, the soloist, Jing Wang, gave an impressively lyrical performance, accompanied by a cross-cultural, sonic montage of the composer’s sound impressions of the island of Formosa, which he has visited many times through the years.

Concert 4
The second day of concerts began in late afternoon and was opened by a brief, stereo computer music composition, Tiene Mugre en la Oreja (2004), a work by Camilo Salazar inspired by a Salvador Dali painting and exploring diverse, transformed guitar sounds. Next, Improvisation (2004), by Jeff Morris, featured two dancers, Jon Anderson and Sarah Gamblin, and bass clarinetist Gabriel Lit, all three spontaneously improvising with the composer’s interactive computer music program. Recent graduate Rob Madler's excerpt from his stereo composition, fathom from spit and shine erase (2003), followed. John Dribus's piece, The Other Ear (2004), was performed next and was certainly a most ambitious effort, mapping/creating "a sonification of 29 channels of EEG data recorded while a subject was listening to music." Another city piece was heard next, based on sounds recorded from the Columbian city, Medellin: Jet Valley (2002), by alumnus Henry Vega. Lynnea Edwards's CODE 12345 (2004) explored the sonic space with her octophonic computer music. Beth Andresen's excellent video-computer music composition, Esse: to be (2004), was then heard/seen, "a piece about time, perceptions and memories," as the composer so eloquently expressed visually and aurally. For this reviewer, the most compelling solo stereo computer music piece of the festival was heard next, alumna Elainie Lillios's Speaking…again (2004). Through the piece, her friend and subject describes in an interview, in halting speech, his ordeal and challenge to speak and be understood again after suffering a major stroke, his voice accompanied by gentle echoes of vocal sounds in the background. In contrast, perhaps, Daniel Zajicek's stereo composition, Vague Speech (2004), made abstract sounds from spoken words.

Concert 5
The final evening concert was the most varied of the festival: five of the eight pieces were mixed-media presentations. The opening piece, Scott Krejci's humorous Slide and Crunch (2004), stereo computer music, involved imaginative mixes of outdoor, winter sounds. Next, alumnus Kevin Patton's We Are All Creatures of Moisture (2004) mixed water, poured and "played" by performer Carmen Montoya, live electronics, and video, also featuring Ms. Montoya on the video in dance-like poses, all associated with watery machinations. Here and There (2003), a lively stereo composition by Jing Wang, was heard next, its sonic materials limited to a rolling cart and bubbly fountain, but not limited in treatment or gestural energy. Unravel (2004), an interactive piece for computer and alto saxophone by Peter McCulloch, was performed next by saxophonist Greg Dewhurst. Intent on the pun on Ravel's name and his famous Bolero, the composer "de-composed" the original, creating its live-electronic, humorously convoluted form.

Continuing this humorous vein after intermission, we heard/saw Jon Anderson's Hybrid (2004), an interactive, Max/MSP-based, eight-channel piece with soprano Kristen Wonderlich vocalizing an encounter with the voice of an electronic check-out machine. The audience, all identifying with this familiar situation, loved it. Faculty composer Jon Nelson (Director, CEMI, 1996-2000) presented his eight-channel computer music composition, L'Horloge imaginaire (2002), commissioned by and realized in the studios of the Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges, France. The piece, based entirely on a wide variety of recorded clock sounds and church bells, is a rich montage, making us feel we were inside the clockworks themselves. Faculty composer Thomas Clark (Director, CEMI, 1993-95) combined five instrumentalists, "dancer-sculpture," and computer music for his Paths of Light: Homage to Webern (1985). Modeled on Anton Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, with its "economy of means," the piece proceeds through short episodes of pointillistic interplay with the continuity and timbral blending of Synclavier-generated computer sounds. The concurrent "dance-sculpture," projected lines of light on Jon Anderson, dancer, gave a timeless quality to the scene, its composition modeled on the photographs of Texas photographer, Carlotta Corpron. The final piece of the concert and the festival was composed and performed by Mr. Rovan, appropriately titled Winding Up (2004), for RCA Victrola, wound and "played" by Jon Nelson, and clarinet, played by the composer. As Mr. Rovan expresses in his notes for the piece, "Winding Up is a memorial to things passing, and about winding up where one did not expect."

Kudos go to Director Rovan and his intrepid CEMI staff of technical assistants who more than capably negotiated the audio/visual/performance intricacies of the complex production of this important mixed-media festival… altogether CEMI.