Vol. 29 Issue 4 Reviews

3rd Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Art

School of Music, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, 16-20 February, 2005.

Reviewed by A. William Smith
Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

The third annual Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Art, held at the University of Minnesota (UMinn) School of Music, 16-20 February 2005, was so much fun that I want to go to the next one. Ranging from sampled sounds of the hip-hop scene with the kick-off event—DJ Spooky—mainly for UMinn students, to electroacoustic and other events such as an eight-channel concert, there was a venue for every facet of the electronic music genre, it seemed. While I was particularly impressed by the intensity of pianist Shiau-uen Ding in her own concert as well as with the NeXT Ens Ensemble, I was rewarded by attending all events. The diversity of the experience is what I found valuable.

On Wednesday evening, DJ Spooky bridged popular culture and academia and promoted his new book at the keynote event by passing out free CDs to the hundreds of students in attendance. He attempted to connect graffiti with music created by contemporary DJs. Coming from the more serious side of sound, I wondered at first if this were an appropriate way to begin an international festival, but it was an attempt to reach out to young people at the university focused in other ways. It was disappointing that those hundreds of students at the first event rarely attended others of the diverse programming.

Thursday began with papers, followed by a panel session, “The Polarized Composer: Addressing the Conflict of Musical Upbringings of Today’s Young Composers.” While the papers and points of views of the panelists are concisely summarized in the elegant conference program (available online: spark.cla.umn.edu/archive.html), the gist of the panel discussion centered around academia as the “keeper of important cultural material.” The panelists, all very articulate, struggled with the ideas of what is worthy to study and seek as a career path regarding sound. It seemed central to their arguments the nature of authority and endorsement. Indeed, isn’t it?

At the famous Weisman Art Museum designed by Frank Gehry, on the other side of the UMinn campus, approachable by a walking bridge over the Mississippi River, a 4 p.m. concert featured visuals with adjudicated sonic environments. Among the six works, 60x60 was an hour-long event with minute-long compositions culled from 60 electronic music artists throughout the world and sequenced by Robert Voisey. This serial event was important conceptually, and unity of the discrete sound experiences was attempted through visuals created by a single artist, Shimpei Takeda. While everyone seemed to be able to appreciate the uniqueness of each of the 60 compositions composing the entire work, some of the audience members indicated to me that their interest seemed to wander about 20 minutes into the piece and that they were not able to connect emotionally with the one-minute pieces that did not display any developmental relationship to the others. Nevertheless, one of the ends of the creators was to introduce audiences to a broad range of practicing electronic artists, and while it would have been very difficult to identify a single piece because there were no visual cues such as a number or name in the visuals associated with a particular 60-sec segment, 60 more artists must be encouraged by performances throughout the world of that miniscule fraction of their creativity.

To complete the first full day of the festival there were two experimental performances in two different venues, one on campus and the other off. The first featured five performances involving real-time processing of sound as well as interactive graphics. The Whole in the Coffman Center, a basement space that is similar to a theatrical black-box venue, had a cash bar, although most attendees seemed more interested in talking than in taking refreshments. Circular tables with lighted candles provided a warm and comfortable setting for enjoying performing groups of up to six people on a small, lighted stage with a screen for video projection. J. Anthony Allen with his group of performers calling itself Ballet Méchanique was memorable with his glove-controlled clips of a drum performer on video that formed the backbone of a work with drum set, bass, trumpet, and other instruments. The idea of using found or borrowed material resonated with the pop cultural opening of the festival.

In the evening, various performers sometimes were hard to see in the Town Hall Brewery, a microbrewery with the absolute best dark beer I’ve had in ten years. The stage was not raised and there wasn’t enough seating, but the food was great and the setting very informal. On the first evening, Jamie Allen and his suitcase with sensors in it gave a physical performance, but the audience also enjoyed Ray Dybzinski with his sound-driven lasers and guitar playing in Sounding Spirals. A similar event was held on the Friday and Saturday nights after the evening concerts, with performers such as Seiji Takahashi and Michi Yokota from Japan, Neil Rolnick from New York, and others. What a way to end the days… but this made for an intense experience for someone like me wanting to hear every paper, meet everyone, and listen to every work.

On Friday, the festival again featured lectures by artists and scholars as it did on Saturday and Sunday, and included a masterclass by Philippe Manoury, artist-in-residence. Mr. Manoury also gave the keynote lecture on Saturday afternoon and had a piece with flute played by Elizabeth McNutt on the Saturday night Electroacoustic Concert at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. I found his work, Jupiter, to be very well crafted, elegant as a fine sonic wine with attention to detail in sonorities. This and other events were available to the public, though on this particular blustery evening, many forewent the experience. Clarinetist Esther Lamneck who is specializing in intersections of live and pre-processed sounds explored her instrument through Musicometry I by Lawrence Fritts and Cigar Smoke by Robert Rowe. She made many of us want to compose for her.

As well as the informal venues in the evening, and capstone Saturday night concert, there were events in the In Flux Auditorium, an irregular shaped space, and the Lloyd Ultan Recital Hall. The audio immersion concert (Friday, 4:30 p.m.) featured audience seating surrounded by eight loudspeakers. One of the virtues of this venue is the sensitivity of the artists to the spatialization of sound. A first-year composition student at UMinn, Josh Clausen, had the closing work, Phoneme Play, and the piece had a dynamic intensity to its influence of popular culture. I hope to hear Mr. Clausen’s work next year based on this promising debut.

At the Friday 8 p.m. concert, press-and-play fully realized standalones and a variety of instrumentalists performing with electronic means were featured. Dennis Miller in his faktura had stunning 3D graphics (as I always find) created by POVray, and together with Noel Zahler’s Gothic Tempest added variety through visuals. Dr. Zahler, one of the drivers of the biennial Arts and Technology Symposium at Connecticut College at New London recently became Director of the UMinn School of Music. Connecticut College’s loss is UMinn’s gain. His piece, created in the late 1980s, has held up very well. I delighted in experiencing it at its premiere at the second Arts and Technology Symposium, and found again the aesthetics to be very secure and filled with a sense of wonder about nature.

Tae Hong Park performed Bass X Sung on bass guitar and Cory Kasprzyk on saxophone performed Robert Hamilton’s Is the same…is not the same. The variety of work on this Friday 8 p.m. concert and for the entire five days was staggering. Spark Festival Director Douglas Geers, who programmed strong works in several venues,  is one of the major driving forces behind this event. Work from throughout the electro-musical world was solicited for at least a dozen formal and informal concerts/performances. I saw the boxes and boxes of submissions that Mr. Geers and his team had to adjudicate. Much work went into the planning and execution of this festival and I found the results exemplary. I feel much richer for having been able to attend.

Finally, I hope to hear more of NeXT Ens, a student group from Cincinnati dedicated to performing new works of interactive acoustic and computer music. Its concert was scheduled Saturday at 11:15 a.m. Secret Pulse by Zack Browning had the drive I’ve always loved from parts of the Béla Bartók quartets. They make music that crests like a wave.

The submission call for the annual Spark Festival comes again in the autumn (see the festival Web site, spark.cla.umn.edu, for details), and I look forward to returning.