Vol. 29 Issue 2 Reviews
James Dashow: 60th Birthday USA Concert Tour

College Park, Maryland; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Champaign, Illinois; Seattle, Washington; Eugene, Oregon; Berkeley, California; Dominguez Hills, California; Albuquerque, New Mexico; 14-20 October 2004.

Larry Heyl
Champaign, Illinois, USA

James Dashow, a computer music composer well known to readers of Computer Music Journal, was on tour in USA during late October, 2004, giving concerts (and seminars and master classes) at the University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Washington, Seattle, the University of Oregon, Eugene, the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, Berkeley, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and the LodeStar Planetarium in Albuquerque. The theme for this series of concerts was music with words and images, but, as anyone familiar with Mr. Dashow’s work will readily agree, the relation between music, words, and images is complex, in a constant state of flux, ironic, dramatic, lyrical, and even funny.

The two works presented in the concert at the University of Illinois that I attended were Media Survival Kit and four scenes from Archimedes, a planetarium opera. While this made for a rather brief evening (about an hour), the richness of the work more than compensated. While quite independent in many ways, these two works share a common subject in the relation of technology and society. This is treated as a suite in the first piece, and the manifold of the relation is viewed in a different manner in each movement. The second piece, excerpts from a large scale opera, treats this problem through the lens of one character, Archimedes, and our identification with him works to open an examination of the relation of man, his technology, and his society. With profound irony, Mr. Dashow uses the cutting edge of audio and video technology to explore these thoughts. Both works were presented by means of superb multichannel audio and widescreen video projection.

Media Survival Kit (1996), originally a commission from RAI (Italian National Radio) Radio 3, with text in Italian by Bruno Ballardini and performed by an appropriately virtual ensemble, was given an additional video track by Cristopher Ewing using an English translation of the text. In the three movements of this piece, Mr. Dashow and Mr. Ballardini examine our growing relationship, infatuation, consumption, and digestion by our various screen-oriented media: cinema, television, and especially the computer. As the various lingual quanta scintillate between the spoken and visible word, the music acts as a wonderful dialogical moderator between the sounds of the words, the meanings of the words, and their meaning as a text. The mood of the piece varies in its three movements from a kind of free-spirited philosophical inquiry to a humorous romp to a personal tragedy. The last section portrays the sad assumption where, stripped bare of our humanity, we have become mere virtual beings. The second movement, Crema, is one of the most jocose in recent music, portraying our inundation by the advertising media and the market culture it represents. We are first apprised of the coming of a cream and secondly of its arrival, but, rather than just enjoy the cream as such, we are instructed to think of the cream, this cream, not just as a cream, but creamier, and creamier, and… the whole becoming dizzier and dizzier. The creators make their point with such eloquence that I laughed out loud, as did others in the audience.

As much as Media Survival Kit examines our relationship with contemporary culture, Mr. Dashow’s opera Archimedes is posited on a grander scale of looking at the human predicament and the potential for the good, the noble, and the creative as epitomized by mathematical thought. To realize such a vision in an evening of theatre, Mr. Dashow’s vision is to have Archimedes performed in a planetarium with a live ensemble; singing, acting, dancing, and immersive electronic sounds and images are to fuse in forming a profound multimedia discourse. On this tour, the only planetarium presentation was at the LodeStar Planetarium at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque. Large-screen video projection was used at the other concerts.

Where the “images” in Media Survival Kit are words and various planar spatial relations between them as organized by the music and text, the scenes from Archimedes are more viscerally images and textures, eventually united by mathematical relations, with the artifacts of these mathematical relations (curves and surfaces) being taken as forms of a universal aesthetic. Mr. Dashow’s canvas moves from a prologue, where, after the creation, questions of shape and form arise, and an interpretation of Timaeus, by poet Theodore Weiss, describes the leaving to a demiurge the problem of humanity, from which comes Archimedes. Two subsequent scenes portray the growth of Archimedes from boy to youth, and from youth to mathematician. The fourth scene sets a contrast between a vision of mathematics and its freedom and possibilities in Archimedes’ mind and the government of Syracuse’s need for his help in fighting Rome. The fourth scene shown in these concerts was the material “illustrating” Archimedes’ vision. The video for this last scene (Act II, scene ii, or the Mathematics 2 sequence) is by Argentine video artist Sebastian Cudicio, who has made a beautiful set of visual gestures that make for a wonderful interplay with the rich timbres and fascinating spatializations of the electronic sounds.

Through this complicated succession of thoughts, images, and sounds, Mr. Dashow’s music is nothing short of spectacular. The music works at a variety of levels, but I will mention two of the more obvious. First, on the large-scale level, Mr. Dashow’s music behaves as a kind of text with its own logic and rhetoric. Ideas may be introduced as any of a number of characteristic sonorities, and then a sense of large-scale operations is brought to bear on them, working on them in combination or in succession by application of still further operations such as elaboration, modification, or negation. Second, on the small-scale level, the musical material is rich, and while varied, it thankfully doesn’t try to be encyclopedic, but rather it is used effectively to work out the large-scale composition.

A few specific examples from Archimedes follow. The prologue uses a variety of rich sound masses, mostly derived from voice sources, and spatialization techniques that have the flavor of reverberation tails, processed in a number of ways giving a very pleasing and profound bass with a delicate, high-end sparkle. The video by Kevin Beaulieu is an impressive mix of cosmological and abstract images, clearly designed for an immersive planetarium presentation. Act 1, scene i, “in which he grows up,” is a tour de force of edited speech material and electronic composition. Here, Archimedes grows from child to young man, and in this music, the sounds of an infant giggling are transformed into several babies giggling, different babies giggling, a child giggling, children laughing, ending with the deeper voice of adolescent laughter at the entry to manhood. This is accompanied by a flurry of images of children, ably assembled by Mr. Ewing, the whole taking on a sense of childlike play, framed in a deeper sense of how fleeting childhood is, and how one personality might develop that sees the world in a different way. To be caught up in the happiness of this piece on an emotional level is a joy in itself, but to then back off, one must admire Mr. Dashow’s art and craft to record, assemble, and process a large variety of speech sounds, adding to that a set of fast moving, sprightly synthetic tracks that mirror properties of children laughing, playing, and tumbling.

Act 1, scene ii, “Young Archimedes,” is another tour de force of electronic composition. One of its targets is Archimedes’s discovery of the 2:3 ratio of the volume of a sphere inscribed within a cylinder, and the ratios 2:3 and 3:2 appear to turn up everywhere in this music, from the gestural level down to the spectral level. Again, Mr. Dashow’s sense of musical discourse gives us a wonderful panoply of timbres and textures that maintain focus and avoid problems of inappropriate scale. The video is by Rudolfo Quintas whose selection of images and three-dimensional spatial effects is a perfect match to the music.

Further presentations of these pieces in Italy include 20 November, 2004, at Teatro Miela in Trieste, and 11 December, 2004, at the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello in Venice. The four scenes from Archimedes will be shown 29 November,2004, at Catania (Sicily) for the Associazione Musicale Etnea. Performances in the USA start again on 29 March 2005, at State University of New York, Stony Brook, and continue at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, San Jose State University, San Jose, California, and Stanford University. Mr. Dashow’s website (www.jamesdashow.net) appears to contain the latest schedule information, and should be consulted for dates, places, and times.