Vol. 32 Issue 4 Reviews

Seventeenth Florida Electroacoustic Music Festival

University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA, 10-12 April 2008.

Reviewed by Matthew Dotson
Iowa City, Iowa, USA

Established in 1992, The Florida Electroacoustic Music Festival (FEMF) is a highly prestigious festival in the field of electronic music, attracting some of the most important composers from North America, Europe, Asia, and South America. Most of the composers attending are at the professional and faculty level, with approximately 30 percent of the program comprising works from graduate students in composition and electronic music. Taking place in Gainesville, Florida, the “fifth most rocking city in America” (according to Esquire), FEMF is right at home on the hopping University of Florida campus and provides a great atmosphere for the exchange of cutting-edge ideas. In the past, FEMF has featured composers-in-residence as diverse as Jon Appleton, Paul Lansky, Charles Dodge, and Cort Lippe. For the 17th annual festival, held 10-12 April 2008, the composer-in-residence was the internationally renowned Annea Lockwood. Thanks to Director and Founder James Paul Sain and his wonderful team of student and professional helpers, FEMF 17 was a wonderful and stress-free festival that was a joy to all concerned.

The first juried concert of the festival opened with Vera Stanojevic’s Voyages for fixed-medium electronics and piano (played by the composer). Initiating what was to become somewhat of a theme of this first concert, Voyages took as its starting point recordings of contemporary poets reading their own works. This material was then subjected to various processes in order to sonically mesh with the live piano accompaniment while simultaneously providing textual points of reference for the piece. The use of voice was also prevalent in Ted Coffey’s Never ate so many stars, featuring a poem by Jean Valentine. However, in Mr. Coffey’s piece, the voice was offset by the surrounding texture rather than subsumed in it. Field recordings, glitch and groove elements, and granular textures served as the counterpoint to the voice in this work. A piece that very effectively conveyed a narrative was Robert Honstein’s Fantasy Triptych, moving through three sections with its own unique logic. Konstantinos Karathanasis’s Pollock’s Dreams: Liquified Sounds also forms its own narrative by means of a smooth progression from the purely gestural/electronic to the ambient/natural. The piano (played by David Goldblatt) made its second appearance of the evening in Barry Moon’s POP. Based on a “random visit to the music store,” POP is intended to evoke the “Rock/Pop” section with its driving rhythms and tight relationship between electronic and acoustic elements. The fixed-media compositions of this first concert also included Neil Flory’s Dark Inside Shift, a continuous undulation of electronics with physical immediacy, and Elizabeth Hoffman’s Venus, an almost sculptural exploration of metallic textures. The only video work of the evening was Sylvia Pengilly’s Impossible Spaces, a series of three vignettes that examine the use of different geometrical shapes in fractals.

The second juried concert began with Michaela Reiser’s Excitations, a work for performer (Ms. Reiser herself) and biofeedback sensors. Pulse and blood flow are sonified into a sort of minimal-electronic pulse-scape that alternately lulls and excites. Other works for performers in this concert included Adam Hardin’s piece for interactive electronics and improvisatory elements, Echolalia (featuring bass clarinet by Russell Brown), as well as Heather Stebbins’ rush me to shadows, a modal contemplation featuring virtuosic cello-playing by the composer. Another theme of this concert (and also of the festival) was the use of recognizable real-world sound sources in an acousmatic setting. Dominic Thibault’s Nuit noire, nuit grise deftly mixes sounds as identifiable as a garbage truck into non-programmatic, acousmatic gestures while Paul Riker’s Cubicle takes as its starting point a perfectly common-place environment and twists it into a symbolic interplay of the real and unreal. Similarly, Anthony Reimer’s Puttin’ In Time…As it Goes By juxtaposes the ominously real sound of a ticking clock with the processed echoes of students in practice rooms, and Tohm Judson’s Oma delivers a nostalgic mix of pentatonic bells and chirping birds. Braxton Sherouse’s clouded (in a sense) also touches on the poignancy of memory by creating dusty, granularized textures in audio and video.

Concert V, subtitled Aspects of the Contemporary Saxophone in Electroacoustic Music, was one of FEMF’s non-juried concerts. Jean-Michel Goury delivered a simply stunning performance of three works for saxophone and fixed-media electronics. The first of these was Suguru Goto’s Temps Tresse III. Stemming from Mr. Goto’s interest in a relativistic perception of time, the piece is presented as a series of vignettes, each contributing to the overall sentiment and coherence of the work. The use of vocalizations and extended saxophone technique made this work particularly provoking. Following this was Bernard Carlosema’s Clepsydre, a work immediately striking in its rich use of multiphonics. Essentially set as a solo saxophone against taped multiplications of itself, this work builds to a tempestuous climax supported by an ostinato in the taped accompaniment and blistering multiphonics in the solo part. Bernard Cavanna’s Goutte d’or blues was an explosive finale to this incendiary set. Insistent and aggressive in tone, Mr. Cavanna’s work features no less then twelve saxophones in the tape accompaniment. Its harmonic language, with a tonic focus that borders on distortion of the genre referenced in its title, is severe. Goutte d’or blues ultimately forms a rather satisfying alternation between the severe and the serene that, while not diminishing its aggressiveness, certainly rounded out the piece and the set nicely.

Concert VI was the third juried concert of the festival and featured a varied mix of approaches. The concert started off with Mara Helmuth’s meditative Improvisation with Qin, Percussion and Computer No. 3 in which the composer played the Chinese Qin as well as an assortment of other non-Western percussion instruments. The electronics, featuring both real-time manipulation and pre-recorded sounds of Qin player Huang Mei, were careful to never obscure the solemn contemplation of the physical instruments. In a very different approach to live electronics, Hans Tutschku’s Das Bleierne Klavier treats the piano (played by the composer) as a trigger for a gamut of live processing and concrete material. Effectively turning the piano into an electroacoustic instrument, this piece very effectively blends these two sonic domains to the point of indistinguishability. This concert also featured two very fine works for clarinet and electronics. David Kim-Boyle’s Whisps, featuring bass clarinetist E. Michael Richards, masterfully merges real-time spectral filtering with modal, multiphonic instrumental writing. Similarly, Javier Alejandro Garavaglia’s Intersections (memories) explores the real-time processing of a clarinet (played by Jorge Variego) by echoing, both near and far, the themes presented in the instrument. A work featuring a particularly non-traditional instrument was also presented on this concert: Jeffrey Stolet’s Things I Do With My Fingers. As the composer explained prior to his performance, several key aspects of the piece are controlled througth the composer’s real-time manipulation of two Wii Controllers. This made for a particularly engaging live performance in which the element of “human activity” (as explained in the composer’s program notes) was definitely at the core. The works for tape alone also proved very effective in this concert. The first to appear was Gary Kendall’s Qosqo, a spatially rich evocation of a spinning energetic vortex, replete with shimmering micro-tonal percussion. Sam Hamm’s Ite Missa Est takes as its starting point a choral work composed by James Paul Sain and suspends these quotations in a web of processed sounds, offsetting their texture nicely and making for a particularly poetic work. This was then followed by Michael Pounds’ Collection, an acousmatic work that seamlessly travels through a startling variety of sounds all collected in a trip to Japan. Similarly global in approach, Thomas Wells’ Kisa features thematic material entirely based on a reading of the Serbo-Croatian poem by the same name. By using direct spectral manipulation, Mr. Wells treats the voice as sonic material and skillfully handles it as such. Ending Concert VI, Ronald K. Parks’ Deluge very effectively explores the grey-area between polyrhythm and granular sound-mass. Alternately moving between these two dimensions, Mr. Parks creates a striking work focusing on one of the most important element of electroacoustic music: rhythm.

The fourth juried concert began with one of the few works of the festival to utilize live dancing, Jeffrey Hass’s Coming to Light. Performed by Kelley McCormick Bangs and choreographed by Elizabeth Shea, only the first three movements of this multi-movement work were performed. Playing into the concept of the body as an originator of both rhythm and gesture, masterful contrasts between relatively bare percussion and continuous drifts of sound are central to the dialogue of this work. Kyong Mee Choi’s eight-channel piece, Photogene, was the next work on the program. Utilizing a very keen sense of spatialization, the composer evokes the afterimages formed by blasts of white-light by utilizing bursts of noise that subsequently give way to the gradual emergence of intricate figures. Whereas Ms. Choi’s work is concerned with the aural representation of a visual phenomenon, Jen-Kuang Chang’s Drishti deals with the construction of audio to a specific visual form. Featuring video (by the composer) of concentric rings and spirals, the cumulative effect of audio and video evoked a state of meditative calm and focus in the audience. In contrast, Pat Pagano’s live group-improvisation work, Masik, was a near-overload of digital imagery and sonic fragments, intended to evoke a cosmopolitan clashing of influence and impetus. This was followed by the further contrast of Colby Leider and Kristine Burns’ Cheraw, a 24-minute distillation of a 24-hour recording in Cheraw State Park, South Carolina; unprocessed but for the editing. The concert ended with two very convincing works for instrument and electronics. The first was David Durant’s Vista for piano (played by the composer) and the second Ed Martin’s Flurry for saxophone (Michael Holmes).

The eighth concert of the festival, Music from Sheffield University and InvisiblEARts (curated by Adrian Moore and Robert Dow), featured works for tape alone that touch on a major theme of the festival: the interaction between sounds originating from recognizable sources and those purely electronic. The concert began with a striking example of this in Alistair McDonald’s Equivalence. Focusing on the sonic texture of rolling objects, Mr. McDonald abstracts these sounds not only through their presentation but also through processing, thus reaching a state of “texture” rather than “object.” Simon Mulvaney’s Voice, while not as concerned with texture, similarly takes a recognizable sound (voice) and abstracts it through a variety of techniques. Fast-paced editing and garbled voice-like processing lent the piece a certain energy and humanity that brought the audience into the work. The juxtaposition of “natural” and “un-natural” materials is a technique used very effectively in both Robert Dow’s Precipitation Within Sight and Pete Stollery’s Still Voices. Both of them concerned with the acoustic representation of particular locales (Smoo Cave in Scotland and Aberdeenshire, Scotland, respectively), each breaks these natural sounds down into purely acoustic phenomenon by juxtaposing electronic elements against them, magnifying and multiplying their possibilities. Adrian Moore’s 3 Pieces: Horn ended this UK set with a sonic exploration of horn extended both physically (via extended techniques) and electronically. This concert ended with Ben Hackbarth’s open end for vibraphone and electronics (displaced from an earlier concert). Featuring a loudspeaker placed under the vibraphone (played by Matthew Jenkins) in order to create sympathetic resonance, open end is a very convincing example of tape as extension of instrument. With this resonant speaker bridging the gap between the purely electronic and purely physical, this work very effectively illustrated how electronics can extend the sonic qualities already extant in an acoustic instrument.

The final concert of the festival began with an unfortunate announcement: this year is to be the final Florida Electroacoustic Music Festival. After seventeen years of keeping the festival going, director James Paul Sain stated that it was simply impossible to keep it running any longer. After a touching closing ceremony by Mr. Sain, Richard Boulanger, Larry Austin, Javier Garavaglia, and Sam Hamm, the final concert of FEMF began. Larry Austin’s John Explains... for eight-channel tape opened this concert. Featuring a gritty recording of John Cage in conversation with writer Richard Kostelanetz as its centerpiece, the work was dedicated to the memory of Cage and was completed on what would have been his 95th birthday. The unprocessed interview forms a frame upon which all other sonic materials lay, alternately obscuring and enhancing the form. Hubert Howe’s GROANS offered what was perhaps the only purely electronic piece of the whole concert. Synthesized entirely in Csound, the electronic textures are all based upon the single sound of a tone in which 32 harmonic partials emerge one at a time in an ascending series. What resulted was a cloud of subtle intonational shifts and microtonal harmonies. Next was Brian Evans’ audiovisual work Salia. Offering a welcomingly diatonic soundscape, Salia develops a musical narrative based off of the counterpoint of image and sound. Richard Boulanger’s Conducting with Friends at C is a three-part homage to John Chowning, John Pierce, and Jean-Claude Risset, all very important names in electronic music. Also intended to celebrate the 80th birthday of Max Matthews, this work features Mr. Boulanger on the Matthews-designed Radio Baton, controlling in real-time a computer running Csound5. Each movement of the work features techniques designed by the eponymous composers and each is a brief melodic vignette that all together offer a very sincere homage to these outstanding men. Following this work was James Paul Sain’s Beondegi. Embodying what could almost be called the theme of the final FEMF (the balance of the real and the unreal), Beondegi juxtaposes ambient recordings of Seoul, Korea, with electronic elements to form a narrative of disparate units. The only work on the final concert to feature a live instrumental performer was Mark Engebretson’s ContraMAX for contrabassoon (Lynn Hileman) and interactive electronics. Alternating between meditative and rhythmic sections, this work features live manipulation of the contrabassoon, triggered contrabassoon samples, and samples from other pre-existing musical sources. Following this were two works for tape alone which focused on the use of voice. Lamentation Alphabet by Benjamin Broening and Vox Altra by Ragnar Grippe. While Mr. Broening focuses on the static calm of a time-stretched choir singing Thomas Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah, Mr. Grippe chose to amplify the vocoder-extended voice that has found its way into dance and techno music, touching on both genres in the process. This concert ended with artist-in-residence Annea Lockwood’s Bow Falls. Featuring video of the Canadian Bow Falls by video artist Paul Ryan, this work calls attention to the natural splendor of this locale by utilizing non-processed audio of the same falls. Audio and video are edited separately so that no connection (other then location) is evident and, in doing so, the sense of a work emerging from the natural flow of the falls is pronounced.

Coming full-spectrum from Hubert Howe’s purely electronic explorations to Annea Lockwood’s natural soundscapes, FEMF 17 provided a great opportunity to enjoy all aspects of contemporary electroacoustic music. The simultaneous exploration of new ways of not only recording natural sounds but also of processing and creating sounds from scratch has helped form an interesting dialogue between the real and the unreal in electroacoustic music. This is an important aspect of contemporary music creation and one that was certainly not overlooked at FEMF 17. Although it is extremely unfortunate that FEMF must end after so long and illustrious a career, there is no more important and timely a subject that could have been addressed in this festival’s twilight. Dr. James Paul Sain has achieved an extraordinary feat in keeping this festival going as long as he has and there is no doubt that both the community and the philosophy of FEMF will continue in national and international festivals to come.