Vol. 30 Issue 3 Reviews

Paul Doornbusch: Corrosion: Music for Instruments, computers and electronics

Compact disc, 2002, EMF CD 043; available from CDeMUSIC/Electronic Music Foundation, 116 North Lake Avenue, Albany, New York 12206, USA; telephone (+1) 888-749-9998 or (+1) 518-434-4110; fax (+1) 518-434-0308; electronic mail cde@emf.org; Web www.cdemusic.org/.

Reviewed by Richard Barrett
Berlin, Germany

CD CoverPaul Doornbusch, born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1959, produced the pieces on this CD in The Netherlands, where he was resident during the 1990s and where he had the opportunity to engage in extended and fruitful collaborations with all of the gifted musicians featured there. The five works of this collection are representative of Mr. Doornbusch’s output in combining acoustic instrumental parts of challenging intricacy with either live electronic processing or prerecorded materials.

Continuity 3 (2002) for percussion and computer uses transformations both of performing technique and of the sound itself to explore relationships between continuous and discontinuous textures and structures. The use of only three metallic sound-sources does indeed create a sense of continuity and coherence, whose converse is to be found in the constantly-changing electronic refractions to which the sounds are subjected. The overall effect is of an extension of the idea of resonance, so that as the metallic bodies are struck and resonate, they in turn serve to “excite” the virtual resonating body in the computer, one which is no longer tied to rigid physical objects and natural decays. Both in its adherence to a carefully-selected vocabulary of sounds produced by bodies in motion and in its sense of dramatic timing, Continuity 3 seems to continue the musique concrète tradition exemplified most memorably in the work of composers like Pierre Henry, Bernard Parmegiani, and François Bayle. The fact that it is performed in real time by a percussionist and a computer running Max/MSP is a measure of how profoundly the practice of electronic music has changed as a result of the accelerating development of digital technology. At the same time, the lessons it draws from musique concrète, a music composed with magnetic tape and razor blades, is witness to the fact that the best of that music was in no way restricted by what we can now view as rudimentary and fearsomely time-consuming methods, but has, and will no doubt continue to have, many subtle and sophisticated things to tell us about the art of sound-composition. The percussionist Timothy Phillips plays with and against the distorted images of his own sounds as if engaged in the almost subliminal interactions of chamber music.

Unfortunately, the Malle Symen recorder quartet has now disbanded. This Amsterdam-based ensemble was unique in its commitment to expanding the musical and technical potential of the recorder, including explorations of microtonality, theatrical modes of presentation, combining recorders with electronics, and commissioning new works from a wide variety of composers. Mr. Doornbusch’s Continuity 2 (1999) shows them at their most virtuosic, containing as it does virtually no “traditional” means of sound-production, instead disengaging from one another the various physical components of playing and using a multilayered system of notation to encode the resulting complex textures. These notational devices are derived, as the composer acknowledges, from the recorder notation developed by Luciano Berio for his solo piece Gesti. This “discontinuity” between the actions of lungs, embouchure, and fingers is complemented by a “continuity” between the instruments, in so far as the individual players (who all play bass recorders) are very rarely perceptible as such, fusing instead into a single “sound-object” which sounds as if actuated by four mouths. This “instrument” is confronted by an electronic part that combines sampled and processed concrete sounds (principally but not exclusively bass recorder sounds) with synthetic materials generated by an implementation of Iannis Xenakis’s dynamic stochastic synthesis technique. The combination of the recorder ensemble’s dense twitterings and keenings with this often even denser “wall of sound” is for this listener the least successful aspect of Continuity 2, which sounds sometimes as if two self-sufficient pieces are running simultaneously and canceling rather than complementing one another’s musical impact. (The electronic part does in fact have a separate existence as Continuity 1.) This is not, however, to detract from Mr. Doornbusch’s achievement in eliciting a raw kind of musical energy from these seemingly innocuous instruments, to parallel Xenakis’s definitive denial of the harpsichord’s baroque quaintness in Khoai  and Naama.

The theatrical component of Act 5 (1998) for bassoon and electronics always threatens to overshadow everything else in the audience’s perception: three large objects (a cluster of pots and pans, a xylophone and a kettledrum), hanging precariously over a large darkened stage, are released in turn by the soloist to fall noisily to the floor. The performer therefore has not only to execute an increasingly “athletic” bassoon part but also repeatedly to sprint back and forth to where these objects are suspended. The palpably heroic efforts of Hamish McKeich, not only a talented and imaginative bassoonist but also New Zealand’s leading conductor of contemporary music, cannot altogether dispel the idea that the music appears sometimes to be there more to fill out the overall musical process of the composition (whose pitch range, beginning in a restricted low register, gradually opens outwards and upwards) than to breathe life into that process. After a striking start, a little too much time is spent meandering around modal pitch-collections which themselves seem dangerously close to being arbitrary. The music wears its algorithms on its sleeve, so to speak, in distinction to the other works on the disc which embody a much more distinctive sense of imaginative freedom. This may seem an odd thing to say about a piece which involves dropping heavy items onto the stage from a height of several meters, but of course the comparative neutrality of much of the bassoon’s material is not necessarily a miscalculation or a disadvantage when placed in the context of a staged performance

The electronic composition g4 (1997) was composed exclusively using dynamic stochastic synthesis, and its form also is reminiscent of the abrupt, unpredictable, and aggressive beginnings and endings of layers of sound materials in Xenakis’s Gendy3. There, however, the resemblance ends, although there are obvious family resemblances between some of the sounds in that piece and those heard in g4. In comparison with Xenakis’s use of these techniques, the layers in g4 are less static and more complex in themselves, and are also assembled into denser conglomerate textures. The result is a remarkably individual and absorbing composition, which forms a worthy tribute to the work of Xenakis while simultaneously striking out in a direction of its own, giving the impression that there is indeed a future in developing and personalizing this method of synthesis, even though it is hardly as “general” as its name would imply.

The final work on the disc, Strepidus Somnus (1996), for vocal quartet and electronic sounds, is, at 27 minutes, considerably longer than any of the others. The four vocalists perform with earpieces, upon which each hears and reproduces a track of precomposed vocal material, ranging from coital gasps to whispering in an algorithmically-fractured English, reminiscent (as such things always are) of the teasing impenetrability of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. This kind of “audible score” has been used by several composers previously, notably in the stage works of Robert Ashley, but seldom with such chaotic abandon as in Mr. Doornbusch’s piece. Indeed, the composer’s intention here is to give the impression of parallel streams of quasi-improvisatory consciousness, whose occasional synchronized or coordinated moments engender a floridly surrealistic sense of dislocation. The use of shortwave-radio-derived electronic sounds, together with vocal acrobatics which occasionally congeal into operatic parody or “realistic” weeping or laughing, is often reminiscent of Michael Vetter’s tour de force recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Spiral, and the combinations of vocal hysteria with “pure” electronic sounds bring us close to some of Luigi Nono’s works for similar resources such as Contrappunto dialettico alla mente. Here, however, the emphasis is neither on absorbing, incorporating, and transcending the detritus of global communication as in Stockhausen, or on using radical musical means to articulate radical socialist politics as in Nono, but on the creation of a nightmarish sonic landscape whose inhabitants leer and convulse like Bosch’s demons. Strepidus Somnus forms a disturbing conclusion to a program which is never less than thought-provoking, and which deserves to bring Mr. Doornbusch’s work to the attention of a wider audience. There are not so many composers at work, even in the 21st century, even after the example of Xenakis, whose commitment to the technical possibilities afforded by contemporary technology is so closely matched by a compulsion to exploit to the full the expressive potential unleashed thereby.