Vol. 29 Issue 2 Reviews
Electronic Music Midwest Festival

Lewis University, Romeoville, Illinois, USA; 16-18 September 2004.

Lewis University, Romeoville, Illinois, USA; 16-18 September 2004.

From September 16-18, 2004, Lewis University hosted the fourth Electronic Music Midwest Festival (EMMF). Previous to 2002, when the organizers officially formed a consortium to host the event, festivals were held in 2000 and 2001 at, respectively, Kansas City Kansas Community College and Lewis University. Since 2002 the EMMF has been held at KCKCC (Spring 2002), Lewis University (Fall 2002), University of Missouri at Kansas City (2003) and Lewis University (2004).

This is the second EMMF I have attended and on both occasions I have been impressed by the dedication, care, and "labor of love" quality with which these events have been produced. Although regional in orientation, EMMF has achieved prominence nationally and internationally through its participants.

Each festival has invited a guest artist to work with students. Past guests have included Tom Lopez, James Mobberly, Mark Applebaum, Elizabeth McNutt, Mark Wingate, and this year offered Kevin Austin, from Concordia University in Montreal. The NeXT Ens was invited this year as guest performers. Formed in 2003 by a group of students from the College Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, the group’s stated mission is to perform and support the creation of electroacoustic works. The festival opened with a Welcoming Concert/Presentation surrounding the theme of Globalization presented by Mr. Austin, and The NeXT Ens performed a concert the next day.

Among the many possible rationales for writing a conference review I have chosen two: to highlight the conference itself, and to mention works that seemed to stand out in the eyes/ears of this writer. For a blow-by-blow report of who did what, when, and with what I would invite the reader to the EMMF Web site (www.electronicmusicmidwest.org). There one can also read additional information regarding the festival and its presenters.

Andrew Walters' Still Life and Landscape offered a subtle exploration of a polarity of close/distant objects. The multi-channel diffusion served to both dramatize and spatialize. Particularly poignant were sparkling "wake-ups" which peppered the piece. Derailed, by Michael A. Thompson, reflected his usual mastery of thoughtfully dramatizing the "connections" between diverse materials. Sounds and dramas are allowed to flourish in the absence of undue technological invasion.

Robert Griffin Morgan's Neophilia2 was a very well performed laptop improvisation combining loop manipulation with the actual "keyboard tapping" sounds resulting from the performer's real-time interaction. The result was informative rather than merely novel, and it suggested that loop manipulation doesn't always have to be tired, tedious, and overworked. A big plus was the relative brevity of the work, greater length not being asked to stretch the usability of the materials. Similarly championing the appreciation for appropriately short pieces was Gaia, by Kirsten Volness. The piece was a tasty, percussive morsel based on features of dynamic relationships within life systems.

One of the most delicious experiences of the festival was the "perceived reality" of Elainie Lillios' Backroads. The work is a beautiful trip through our psychology. It may suggest that we miss the richest, most flavorful utterances of life because they reside in a domain other than consciousness—a domain that day-in/day-out life may render less accessible than we would prefer. This piece seductively invites us to enter that world. Don Malone can always be counted on to deliver a unique DJ-ish performance where unlike materials redefine one another. Spin is no exception. Always artful as well as entertaining, Mr. Malone continues to hold rank as a guru of mixing the unmixable, in this case, Franz Schubert and Blood, Sweat and Tears. What a treat! Design, by Jeff Herriot, is a beautiful marriage of bass clarinet and electronics suggesting an "extended instrument." The piece enveloped the hall in enriched bass clarinet sound; it was "about" bass clarinet timbre and was superbly performed with Jeffrey Ouper, bass clarinet.

Jon Anderson performed splendidly as he sat in for his soprano who was unable to be present. His piece for voice and Max/MSP, Hybrid, draws from a New York Times article investigating public perception of newly-installed self-check-out machines in supermarkets, subway stations, and airports. Quotes from interviewed consumers make up the text of the piece. Through deconstruction and fusion, Mr. Anderson effects a "personality developer" (my words) or perhaps a "metamorphizer" (once again, my coinage) in fusing a different type of cognition yielded by a strange communication between past and present sonic events. GEMS, by Charles Norman Mason, is a refreshing set of seven vignettes, of sorts, each representing the molecular structure of a gem, each element of the structure being assigned its own timbre. The gems featured were rhodochrosite, malachite, amber, diamond, coral, turquoise, and tolbachite. The beauty created is of almost accidental quality with delightful surprise events throughout.

Also presented during the festival were several compelling pieces including video components. Three such pieces were Slowly Sinking Slower, by Douglass Bielmeier, Fire Dance by David Ozab (music) and Andrew Lane (video), and Underground by Tom Lopez (audio) and Nate Pagel (video). Slowly Sinking Slower blended a film projector mode/metaphor of visual representation with that of contemporary video technology to explore our memories and their capacity, through their subjective nature, to skew our perceptions of ourselves and of the external. Fire Dance creates an abstraction (the dance) from audio and video samples taken from a burning violin (the fire). The piece is at times comical, playful, delightful, as well as powerful. A longitudinal metaphor was effectively turned into medium in Underground. Often the visual images were "at one" with the mode of presentation. Content and medium were fused offering a familiar yet, at times, unfamiliar perspective of the London Underground system (the “Tube”).

When I hear that special lighting and fog machines are to be used for a piece I normally have an immediately cynical, "Oh no!" reaction. However, upon experiencing Joseph Klein's Leviathan (after W.S. Merwin), I may be less fearful in the future. The work did indeed effectively incorporate subtle green hues in the lighting and a fog machine, both sensitively and contextually brought into play. Two panels of elusive imagery (largely monochromatic) on either side of and above the stage "glossed" the voice and bass trombone. This was an artful piece performed consummately by Jon Truitt (voice) and William Bootz (bass trombone).

A warm, sensitive piece, Three Zheng Etudes (Version II) was described by composer Kevin Austin as "twenty-one cues from three mixed pieces (live Zheng—Chinese zither, and ea sounds)." I would dearly have loved being able to savor these delicacies in a more stationary setting rather than the "diffusionist style" in which it was offered. The award for "the lightest use of electronics" goes to Hsiao-Lan Wang for Star Gazer. Laurel Tempas' performance on flute was delicately attended by Wang's computer treatment to highlight tonal and timbral organizations.

Tae Hong Park's 48 13 N, 16 20 O may very well have been the most impressively-diffused piece using eight-channel sound. The audience seemed to feel equally immersed in the object-filled space regardless of seat location. Even sitting considerably left-of-center for this performance I felt aware of the total space, actively involved. Running a risk of committing a too-poetic interpretation of the program notes, I must say that the description by the composer including "sonic attributes of a particular place, specific geographical location and regional auditory entities" supports the rapport this piece establishes with the audience.

Altogether too infrequently, it happens that a very rare performer, a master composer, and an equally outstanding piece come together to create one of those moments that define concerts and even entire events. Stephen Duke's performance of Larry Austin's Tableaux: Convolutions on a Theme was one such prize. Seldom do a performer, composer, a piece, a time and a place coalesce into a musical "rapture" as was the case with Tableaux. Just one of those rare moments that render a given day unforgettable. Mr. Austin evokes convolution technologically, metaphorically, and musically/thematically. Even the cross-synthesis technique of convolution is used in an uncommon manner, "crossing" one instrument (Mr. Duke's alto saxophone) with itself. In a similar, yet seductively more elusive manner, the work impresses the listener as being a musical convolution of a thematic passage (from a piece of "classical" repertoire which I won't give away here) with itself. Convolution in technique and metaphor has never been more gloriously hailed.