Vol. 33 Issue 1 Reviews
Various: Music from SEAMUS, Volume 17

Compact disc, 2008, EAM-2008; SEAMUS, 2550 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90057, USA; Web seamusonline.org/

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Oberlin, Ohio, USA

The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) is a non-profit organization of composers, performers, and teachers of electroacoustic music that was founded in 1984. Music from SEAMUS, Volume 17, continues the tradition of placing the most popular compositions from the annual SEAMUS national conference onto a CD distributed free to all its members. Scott Wyatt, Professor of Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a past president of SEAMUS (1989-1996), directs the project, and also does the fine remastering. Almost all of the compositions on this disc are scored for live instruments (from one to four) with electroacoustic accompaniment. The combination of acoustic and electroacoustic sounds runs the gamut from blended to confrontational assemblages, representing well the current diversity of styles and approaches.

Daniel Weymouth’s Unexpected Things for violin, piano, and electroacoustic accompaniment employs a variety of unpredictable and aggressive materials to good effect. The instrumental and electroacoustic parts are equally engaging, idiomatic, and virtuosic. The piece begins with the violin and piano attacking a unison pitch using a variety of articulations and rhythms. A violent piano cluster enters, processed to forcefully reshape the piano’s resonant decay. This ushers in a short section devoted to a sequence of asymmetrical repetitive patterns reminiscent of those found in Franco Donatoni’s work. Chromatic pitch collections are briefly interrupted with cleverly constructed unison alliances. The first two minutes of this twelve-minute piece serve as a kind of introduction in which the basic compositional ideas are brought into play. The remainder of the piece develops the ideas from the introduction within a lengthy, sectionalized formal structure that is positively kaleidoscopic. At times the textural density builds to include multiple, simultaneously unfolding layers of material. Around the two-thirds mark we hear the climax of the piece, a dense, labyrinth of squealing and wailing above a slowly rising glissando. Following this is a two-and-a-quarter-minute decay that features the minor third in the first harmonically stable section of the piece. The integration of the electroacoustic part is mostly seamless in Unexpected Things. Worth noting is the use of amplitude envelopes that seem to open or close too quickly, especially when used in reverse. This effect palpably and effectively foregrounds the artificial nature of the electroacoustic part.

According to the liner notes, David Taddie’s Tracer for piano with electroacoustic accompaniment “makes extensive use of digitally processed samples as well as purely synthesized sounds to provide expanded resonance of the harmonic fields implied by the piano’s lines and to expand the piano’s apparent acoustical sound space. At times, the roles are reversed as the piano supplies harmonic and/or gestural intensification of the electronics.” Mr. Taddie successfully integrates his acoustic and electroacoustic materials with a high degree of rhythmic and timbral precision. The piano part employs an intriguing atonal pitch collection, fluidly performed and subtly inflected by pianist Mark George. The electroacoustic part utilizes a variety of sound sources and techniques, from MIDI-sounding percussion and string patches to comb-filtered grain sounds that groove. Tracer is commendable for its eclecticism and expertly crafted sonic palette. The one disappointing thing about this piece is that it fades out prematurely just its materials seem to suggest continuation.

Kyong Mee Choi, the composer of It only needs to be seen for acoustic guitar with electroacoustic accompaniment wants her audience to experience “the moment through the stream of sound that does not need any explanation but only needs to be heard.” The title for her piece comes from the international bestselling author and Zen priest Steve Hagen: “Truth does not need any explanation. It only needs to be seen.” You may be allergic to preachy, absolute, or simplistic notions about truth, but don’t let that spoil your experience of Ms. Choi’s exquisite piece. After a reverb-laden, atmospheric beginning, pointing to the use of convolution, the acoustic guitar enters with a melodic series of inverted U-shaped contours. Soon afterward the texture is enlivened with noisy, fluttering sounds that demonstrate effective uses of spatialization and depth. The gestural interplay between the guitar and accompaniment is evocative and well balanced. Ms. Choi poignantly combines portamento/slide effects with grain-like electroacoustic constellations. The piece exists the way it began except that the guitar has the last say.

Compared with the other works on this CD, Russell Pinkston’s Gobo for oboe and electronic sounds, and Scott Wyatt’s A Road Beyond for trumpet with live processing and electroacoustic accompaniment, present more conventional or accessible approaches to the use of tonal materials. The live instrumental parts for both pieces also employ references to jazz inflection. Mr. Pinkston uses the blues scale over a constant pulse, while Mr. Wyatt takes a more ethereal, ECM-like approach. Mr. Pinkston and Mr. Wyatt are also both highly experienced electroacoustic composers, at the top of their respective games. The electroacoustic parts for their pieces demonstrate highly sophisticated, honed techniques the results of decades of hands-on experience.

Gobo begins with a background that sounds as if it came from the inside of a giant drum or container. Then the oboe enters with lyrically elegant, conventionally expressive lines. The juxtaposition of the two parts creates a visceral friction. At various times the oboe pitches match or complement formants that simultaneously come to the fore in the electroacoustic part. The overall formal trajectory for Gobo is largely shaped by intricate textural changes that occur in the electronic accompaniment. The relationship between the oboe part and the accompaniment is clear-cut, and for the most part invariant. Also worth noting is the use of complex filtering and spatialization techniques to produce a shimmering, visceral effect. These kinds of techniques are developed to an even greater extent in Mr. Wyatt’s A Road Beyond. The sense of space is so well defined that the listener experiences it as truly three-dimensional. The piece includes three primary layers: the trumpet’s articulation of expansive, melancholic melodic lines, a drone that undergoes various changes involving texture, bandwidth, and dynamics, and an intermittent layer of heavily processed material that sounds like its origin is deep, underwater. Mr. Wyatt achieves a mixture of colors that is outstanding, cast within emotionally charged references that create a powerful, suspenseful, dynamic tension. The large-scale form is as clearly defined as is the sense of space. Ronald Rimm, the trumpet performer, plays with an extraordinarily lush and impeccable tone.

Christopher Hopkins’ The Mirror of Enigma (Mirror Antiphonies II) is a three-movement piece scored for flute/alto flute, bass clarinet, marimba, harp, and electroacoustic sound. According to Mr. Hopkins, the work “interprets the idea of a mirror in which images are reflected with mysterious transformations.” The first movement “portrays the initial confrontation with the mirror, wherein simple reflections increasingly become complex and obscure.” The pacing of events is slow and expansive. There seems to be much attention to timbral balance and instrumental interaction. The use of electronics is subtle and eerie. In the second movement “images take flight within the mirror itself.” Here Mr. Hopkins pairs the low register of the marimba with inharmonic bell sounds. Gradually, streams of faster notes begin to take shape, cascading through various combinations of the live instruments and their electronic counterparts. In the final movement, “the images are transformed to attain a state of ecstasy.” After a light and airy beginning, this movement presents waves of fast-note sequences that eventually build to a frenzied climax using unison and octave lines.

One of the most intriguing pieces in this collection is Arthur Kreiger’s Joining Hands scored for hand percussion and electronic sounds. It is a remarkably individual work that convincingly presents gestural materials formed from concatenations of fragments. Skin and metallic timbres are combined in a constantly changing series of gestures. This presents some delightful challenges to the listener who attempts to track materials that are going by too fast to do so. There is also some humorous envelope-play. The synchronization between live and prerecorded parts is so well coordinated that the boundary line between them is often blurred. Overall, there is a strong sense of continuity and coherence even as the quickly shifting gestures throw the listener off balance. Mr. Kreiger also does a commendable job of engineering his piece.

The only piece on this disc that does not include live performers is Tom Lopez’s Dirge for Déjå Vu. It is a short electroacoustic work dedicated to what Mr. Lopez calls “a dirge for missing the sense of déjå vu.” The piece opens with what sounds like a field recording played in reverse and processed through convolution. This continues for the rest of the piece. There is also some minimal layering of vocals and a couple sound effects.

Music from SEAMUS, Volume 17 showcases current work that is state-of-the-art. In many respects electroacoustic music has become almost as subtle and expressive as acoustic music. The works on this CD, using live instruments with electroacoustic accompaniment, contain encouraging signs that the field continues to expand.