Vol. 29 Issue 2 Reviews
International Computer Music Conference 2004: Concerts

University of Miami, Coral Gables, Miami, USA; 1-6 November 2004.

Dan Hosken
Northride, California, USA

This review covers the first ten concerts of the 2004 International Computer Music Conference. Firstly, kudos to Colby Lieder of the University of Miami for hosting an excellent conference and Paul Koonce and the members of the Music Selection Committee for programming a series of concerts featuring a wide array of techniques and styles.

Rather than go concert-by-concert, piece-by-piece, I will divide the works into three broad categories: live performances, video, and “tape” pieces. I won’t be able to comment on every piece in the space allotted to this review, but I will try to mention particularly memorable works (while undoubtedly leaving out some that deserve notice) and provide a sample of works covering the spectrum of aesthetic and technical practices in evidence.

Live Performances
Music containing live performance elements outnumbered both video and “tape” works by quite a bit. Flutist Elizabeth McNutt was the busiest performer of the week, appearing in four pieces. A highly sought-after interpreter of new music, Ms. McNutt performed these widely varying pieces splendidly. Robert Rowe’s turbulent and exciting Flutter began with the flute actuating a cascade of, yes, fluttery sounds in the electronics with these frequently falling gestures at times overwhelming the live flute. Later, her restrained lyrical playing was accompanied by swooping gestures in the electronics, and the work was brought to a close with the electronic sound spinning out into space.

Eric Lyon’s Onceathon 2 was a gloriously absurd mix of stylistic clichés including rock, blues, new age, and, of course, computer music. An intentionally over-the-top computer solo in the middle of the piece with Ms. McNutt waiting in a state of patient amusement brought chuckles from the audience. Russell Pinkston’s Lizamander presented a careful balance of traditionally stark computer-generated sounds and attractive harmonic and rhythmic elements. The composer used the interactive environment to lay down a pulsating groove and simultaneously to allow Ms. McNutt to expressively place her lyrical, computer-enhanced gestures. The work reached an expressive climax with a beautiful chordal passage built from the flute’s notes.

Several pieces included dance elements. The intriguing Ich, mich und mir was performed by the group Palindrome with choreography and dance by Emily Fernandez, Robert Wechsler, and Helena Zwiauer, music by Peter Dowling, and motion tracking hardware and software by Frieder Weiss. This work used the idea of shadow play to allow the dancer’s movements to trigger sounds prominently based on the spoken word. The idea of shadows was present in the barely heard echoes of conversation in the sound and abstract after-images of the dancers in the video projection. Wayne Siegel’s Sisters, inspired by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, was performed by Patricia Pawlik and Deborah Macedo with choreography by Marie Brolin-Tani. The dancers wore wireless sensors on their knees and elbows allowing them to trigger sounds using dramatic gestures such as throwing an arm out while at the same time giving them some freedom of movement, such as moving their head or upper body, without sending triggers. The sounds triggered by the dancers began with voice-like samples, followed by bright, sharp sounds, harsh percussive clouds, and, finally, sounds with a watery texture.

There are three works that deserve credit for presenting the oddest objects on stage. Mari Kimura’s Guitar Botana consisted of the composer on violin, electronics tracking that performance, and accompaniment by the “guitarbot” created by the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR). The guitarbot consists of four large “fingerboards,” each with a single string bearing that fresh-from-the-machine-shop look, attached by a springy mechanism to a table. In performance, the four strings are “fretted” and plucked by electro-mechanical means. The piece was largely fast-paced and virtuosic, showing off the guitarbot’s slide technique and mandolin-style rapid-fire picking.

Juraj Kojs’ Garden of the Dragon consisted of six performers first crinkling a huge pile of cellophane that had been heaped atop a microphone and then swinging plastic corrugated tubes at faster and slower rates to generate different partials from a tube’s overtone series. This was accompanied by electronic elements that utilized a physical model of the tubes. This work was fun, but it was difficult to discern when particular tubes would generate a given pitch; this gave the work a diffuse quality.

Gil Weinberg’s Iltur 1 consisted of a jazz trio and two “beatbug” players who smacked hand-held plastic objects (the beatbugs) to capture and transform the music being played by a pianist performing on a Yamaha Disklavier. The beatbugs’ transformation of the pianist’s music was performed using a vibraphone timbre. This was fundamentally a demonstration of an interesting collaborative technique in the service of decent, but generally non-descript, jazz.

One of the evening concerts was largely populated by works involving the Yamaha Disklavier (including the Weinberg piece). Among the more unusual pieces on this concert was Jeffrey Stolet’s Tokyo Lick, in which the composer used his hands coupled with infrared detectors to trigger piano notes through a series of algorithms that he switched between on the fly (Stolet opted not to use the Disklavier that evening, instead triggering piano notes on a sound module). The nature of the work derives from Mr. Stolet’s professed love of “things that are extremely fast,” and the piece was absolutely breathless in its speed. The timbral limitation forced one to focus on the clouds of notes that flew by and on the composer’s dynamic performance.

Mark Applebaum’s Intellectual Property consisted of the composer improvising on the Disklavier along with an improvisation that had been pre-recorded into the Disklavier’s memory. The primary interest in the piece is the fascinating interplay between live improviser and recorded improviser and between different styles including a jazz/blues element. Kristine Burns’ Atanos I presented an auto-accompaniment scenario between a live clarinet, performed by Scott Locke, and the Disklavier, whose part is raucous and exciting. Christopher Keye’s In Recent Memory takes the gestures of the pianist and stretches and suspends them so they hang like resonances that shimmer and skitter. The final Disklavier piece of the night was Ben Broening’s evocative Nocturne/Doubles in which the electronics react and ornament pianist Daniel Koppelman’s gestures.

There were several other notable live performances. Clarinetist Gerry Errante expertly performed Andrew May’s Chant/Songe, which initially cloaks the clarinet in echoes of itself and then branches out into rhythmic and percussive accompaniment. In Christian Eloy’s L’Arpa di Laura, performed by Valerie Von Pechy Whitcup, the harp’s varied gestures were transformed, often quite subtly, by the computer: a harshly plucked string sounded as if it was rattling against a virtual fingerboard, straight tones were given a vibrato by the computer, single pitches were harmonized, etc. Bonnie Miksch’s playful and expressive Inklings on the Loose, performed by flutist Margaret Lancaster, began with an expanding lyrical line in the flute over a bright glassy pad, and returned to that texture after excursions into more tumultuous, fluttery, and pointillistic textures.

After opening gestures of alternating turbulence and stasis, Joseph Waters Flamehead, for percussion and electronics, broke into a light, rhythmic groove with the vibraphone seemingly channeling Lionel Hampton. The composer cued the electronics onstage with gestures that enhanced the typical “mouse click theater” of this configuration. Pianist Winston Choi demonstrated his virtuosity in Derek Hurst’s …ai tempi, le distanze, as he engaged in a fast, tricky dialog with the pre-recorded sounds. The tape part provided some non-well-tempered relief, and included a passage or two that seemed to be in homage to Mario Davidovsky.

Video Works
There were quite a number of high quality works for video and sound at the conference, many of them with the visuals created by the composer. One phenomenon I found interesting was that many of the video works had soundtracks that were more atmospheric than anything else. Even when the visuals and the sounds were created by the same person, the sound often took on the role of providing a surreal or otherwise dream-like backdrop to the images. Perhaps this is less of an objective choice by the artist-composers and more of a perceptual reality that is a natural consequence of our visually-oriented selves.

Michael Theodore’s Sivel is a relatively short work that quite arrestingly realizes a single arc of increasing activity and tension both visually and sonically, reaching an apex seconds before the end of the piece and then dissipating briefly. The visual style was quite eclectic, including images that appeared hand-drawn, processed sepia-toned line images, and visuals that possessed a familiar flowing, melted look. The soundtrack’s changes followed the visual changes fairly closely, with sonic material that ranged from sounds evoking respiration to those evoking distortion and feedback.

Dennis Miller’s absorbing Faktura presented an ever-changing collage of 3-D liquid surfaces accompanied by turbulent noise and voice pads that evolved slowly. The soundtrack had its own independent interest, but in context it seemed largely to provide an atmosphere for the visuals.
Tim Howle and Nick Cope’s Open Circuits engaged some of the gestures seen in contemporary music video and movies with dizzying cuts between urban images, trains, and time-accumulated images of freeways. The speed of these cuts could at times be quite disconcerting. The soundtrack followed the same strategy with fitful explosions of sound, long evolving drones, and many one-to-one relationships between visual and sonic gestures. By contrast Keith Kothman’s Interludes presented three meditative, dreamlike sequences whose soundtrack and visuals changed very slowly—in this work it would be hard to say which element created the context for the other.

Three of the video works were particularly notable for their more playful spirit. Michael Berkowski and Gregory Scranton’s Gesture Lesson had the form of a technical study in that it consisted of a series of increasingly complex encounters between two characters. What made this work fascinating was the fact that the characters consisted entirely of fairly large single-colored dots that nevertheless conveyed with uncanny precision a series of interactions that included shaking hands, hugging, dancing, etc. There was a distinct sense of light-heartedness and play in the visuals that seemed at odds with the bright, turbulent accompanying sounds (this video, in particular, seemed to cry out for a much more subordinate soundtrack).

A similar sense of play could be found in Brian Evan’s short Amazilia, which consisted of a fluid grid in which each cell was initially filled by an object that looked a bit like a human cell. Fluidity is the watchword here as the objects in these cells moved, changed color, and eventually coalesced into larger shapes that still retained the sense of the original grid. The soundtrack was a genial groove that remained largely static. The experience here was pleasant and playful which provided a nice relief from other works on the concert that typically possessed a greater intensity. Chris Penrose’s My First Electric Dragon consisted of a series of shapes made of multicolored filaments on a black background that were made to “dance” by twisting and bending through themselves accompanied by largely atmospheric pads.

“ Tape” Pieces
Among the sound-only works for fixed media were many wonderful pieces demonstrating the gloriously wide range of aesthetic directions being taken by composers in our field. Resonant Sound Spaces by conference keynote speaker, Jean-Claude Risset, used eight channels both to articulate the space of the concert hall and as conduits for the presentation of artificial spaces. The work was in several discrete sections each with its own set of sound sources, including instrument timbres, struck/plucked strings, voice sounds and noise, and finally, bells and boat horns. The bell sounds, in particular, brought up associations with Edgard Varèse’s Poème Électronique. Even though these highly recognizable sound sources were not used to generate a specific narrative, there was never any friction between the mental associations brought up by the referential sound and the way they were used in the work as there often is in works of this type.

Jon Nelson’s kinetic Scatter also used a number of recognizable sound sources, although in this work it seemed that we were meant to hear these as pure sounds with particular properties rather than as referential objects. The composer used the eight channels to great effect, presenting these objects in constant motion.

Michael Thompson’s Derailed used the referential quality of his sounds to their fullest, first presenting a large-sounding urban landscape followed by a crest of noise that leads to a smaller artificial space filled with bright, noisy, electronic timbres. The final section of the work brings back the large open urban space again. Without access to program notes, one could easily construct a physical and psychological scenario for the work.

Elizabeth Hoffman’s Allamuchy took quite a different tack as it consisted of growing and shrinking clouds of particles over drones that gave way at various times to long respiring tones or regular pulsations. Waves of sound repeatedly crashed over the listener, leaving different results in their wakes.

James Paul Sain’s Coriolis Effect evoked his experiences in Argentina in a subtle and experiential way. Barely heard conversation and simple beating timbres gave way to street noises and eventually to a rhythmic accordion-like accompaniment. The various gestures often entered and exited in an ambient way leaving intangible impressions rather than clear images. In a very different way, Paul Koonce’s Out of Breath also presented an experiential process. Here a single flute tone was repeated at essentially the same time interval for about ten minutes. Each iteration provided something subtly new, from an intake of breath to a sudden brightening of tone to a slightly altered decay. From an listener’s point of view, one understood the self-limited nature of the process after a couple of minutes and then began to focus more and more intently on microscopic nuances of the sound. Necessarily, the piece ended rather than concluded.

Two works straddled the line (if there is one) between electroacoustic music and electronica. Christopher Bailey presented the intentions of Scrape-a-doo clearly from the outset with program notes that consisted solely of “If ya can’t shake it, ya ain’t got one.” The work lived up to its billing by presenting a rhythmic assemblage of occasionally primitive buzzes along with synthesizer pads and other electronica gestures. Iteration 31 by Jomenico (Jon Young, Margaret Shedel, and Nick Collins) was a conscious electronica-style remix of a portion of Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room. Jomenico’s remix evokes the requisite style while providing a loving deconstruction of the experimental classic. The work brings to mind some of the better remixes of composers such as Steve Reich where the quality (or qualities) of the source material in the right hands seems to generate a more interesting work than is typical of electronica. The piece was prefaced with a shout from the mixing desk that “This is not a rebel piece!” and, at about a minute in, Jomenico had interpolated part of Eminem’s Mosh, presumably as commentary on the American presidential election held the night before.

All in all, the 2004 ICMC provided an excellent panorama of computer music practices and a number of absorbing and moving listening experiences.