Vol. 31 Issue 2 Reviews

Eighth Electronic Music Midwest Festival

Lewis University, Romeoville, Illinois, USA, 12-14 October, 2006.

Reviewed by Bruce Bennett
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

A small consortium of institutions, including Lewis University, Kansas City Kansas Community College, and the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City have conspired over the past eight years to produce a regional festival of electronic music, the Electronic Music Midwest (EMM). These institutions have shared the burden of producing this festival by taking turns as hosts. This year, EMM was held 12-14 October, 2006, at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, south of Chicago. Lewis University Associate Professor Mike McFerron proved an able, organized, and hospitable host.

Each of the eight concerts, presented over three days, managed to have a consistent theme by virtue of careful programming and by having curated concerts. All of the concerts were presented in the Philip Lynch Theater, which was equipped with a 9.1 surround system (3 in front, 5 around the sides and back, and one on the ceiling). Additionally, the theater lobby provided space for two installations: the first, [un]wired by Jesse Allison, John Fillwalk, and Keith Kothman, employed wireless handheld devices to interact with the audio and video; the second installation, Harmonic Sounds for a Public Space by Marc Jensen, ran all day Saturday and created a pleasant, slowly-changing soundscape of harmonically tuned tones.

The opening night of the festival presented Robert Voisey’s 60 x 60 Midwest Minutes Mix, consisting of 60 electroacoustic (fixed media) compositions by 60 different composers, each lasting 60 seconds or less. This is an interesting idea that has been done in the past by Elliott Sharp (with his State of the Union productions), Frog Peak Music, and Guy Livingston (works for solo piano). However, a project like this presents several challenges to the composer, the curator, and the listener alike. For the composer, the obvious challenge is to be able to create a work, complete in itself that can yet be heard as part of the greater collection. For the curator, the challenge is to create a coherent playlist that can sustain the audience’s interest over the entire hour. And for the listener, making sense of 60 disparate 60-sec works in a concert setting is most challenging. Perhaps the best medium for this sort of project remains Shuffle Play on one’s iPod.

Concerts were held all day Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Packing so many concerts into such a tight schedule can be fatiguing for the listener, but for the most part, the organizers kept to the schedule, none of the concerts ran over, and there were no apparent technical difficulties. Much credit is due to the professional expertise of the Technical Director of the festival, Ian Corbet (Associate Professor, Coordinator, Audio Engineering Program, Kansas City, Kansas Community College) and his assistants.

The late afternoon concert on Friday showcased the work of members of the Chicago Composers Forum. The varied and interesting program featured fixed media and mixed electronic and acoustic works. The highlight of the concert was probably Torrid Mix: Featuring DJ Jazzy King and Master L.T. for piano and tape by host Mike McFerron, featuring pianist Irina Feoktistova.

While EMM clearly remains a regional festival, and the majority of the participants were certainly from the mid-western region, there was a significant national and international presence. Most notably, Cristian Morales-Ossio and Felix Lazo presented a curated concert of electroacoustic music from Chile, “Celebrating 50 years: Electroacoustic Music from Chile.” While intending to be a retrospective of Chilean electronic music, the majority of the pieces were created within the last few years, including the presentation of a work-in-progress by the curators, Morales-Ossio and Lazo, Mirror for live video and audio performed on two laptop computers. The work is a reflective travel journal of the sights and sounds of their 2006 tour of the United States. Three works of historical significance in Chilean electronic music were also presented: Juan Amenábar’s Los Peces (The Fishes) (1957), José Vicente Asuar’s Variaciones Espectrales (Spectral Variations) (1959), and Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt’s Quipus (1978–1980).

Among the highlights of Saturday’s concerts two works in particular stood out. Daniel Weymouth’s Unexpected Things for tape, violin, piano, and audience participation received an outstanding performance by Duo Diorama (Minghuan Xu, violin and Winston Choi, piano) for whom the piece was composed. The use of extended instrumental techniques very successfully helped fuse the live performance with the tape part, and the choreography of the players assisting each other with page turns, preparing (and un-preparing) the piano, and the humorous use of cue cards instructing audience participation (a number of slide whistles were planted in the audience) made for an engaging and enormously entertaining happening. In stark contrast, André Ruschkowski’s ambient, almost sculpted Twigs and Grains, Parts I & II was a beautiful and meditative work for video and audio. Mr. Ruschkowski gave a presentation of the work the previous day, exploring the correlation between the techniques of audio and video granulation. He uses Max/MSP and Jitter to translate the visual into the aural domain, and the aural into the visual domain.

All in all, this year’s EMM Festival was well organized and well programmed. Its location made it more of an insular event, with little participation beyond the confines of the university, but the space, the sound system, and the conviviality of the participants made for an enjoyable and stimulating weekend. Hopefully EMM will grow to include a broader network of mid-western institutions and continue with greater success involving the broader public.