Vol. 33 Issue 4 Reviews

Electronic Music, Vol. III, Música Viva Competition Prize Winners 2004—2005—2006: Adrian Moore, Joshua Goldman, Panayiotis Kokoras, Pedro Almeida, Santiago Díez Fischer, Ingrid Obled, Manuella Blackburn, Thomas Peter

Compact disc, 2007, mcd 016.07, Miso Records; available from Miso Music Portugal, Rua do Douro 92, Rebelva 2775-318, Parede, Portugal; telephone (+351) 21-457-5068; fax (+351) 21-458-7256; electronic mail misorecords@misomusic.com; Web www.misomusic.com/.

Reviewed by Ian Whalley
Hamilton, New Zealand

CD CoverThis collection, the third in a series from Miso Records in Portugal, collates the prizewinners of the Música Viva Competition from 2004 to 2006. The competition has assumed increasing importance on the international circuit, with 2006 being the seventh year it has been held. Entry to the competition is limited to composers under the age of 35. The last few years has attracted an average of 120 applicants from a range of nationalities.

Jury membership for the competition changes each year. Christian Clozier, Trevor Wishart, and Miguel Azguime adjudicated in 2004.  In 2005, Annette Vande Gorne, Marek Cholonievdki, and Miguel Azguime covered the duties, and 2006 judging was undertaken by François Bayle, Morton Subotnick, and Miguel Azguime.

The disc contains eight tracks: two works from the 2004, and three from each of 2005 and 2006. Given the jury selection of winning works from a large number of entries each year, the sonic production quality is uniformly high. As a documentary of the competition’s outcomes, and a reference point for others who may wish to emulate the standards required, the disc is a worthwhile addition to any library.

The disc also gives a clear sense of the aesthetic that was favored over the period of selection, which is remarkable for its cohesiveness in reflecting predominantly academic Anglo/French and sometimes German electroacoustic music styles. Partly this may be a result of the age limit imposed on composers, with younger composers reflecting the voice of their teachers;  but perhaps  it also reflects  on the orientation and backgrounds of the adjudication panels.

Whatever the reason, given the range of approaches available to electronic music over the last decade, the aesthetic uniformity between many of the works on the disc, and the lack of stylistic progression over the period, is notable. Accordingly, while there are many works included that are strong within established electronic genres, the few works that are stylistically adventurousness and also engage dramatically clearly stand out.

To aid the listening process, the composers have provided biographical and program notes for the disc. The resulting texts vary considerably in both length and quality, and a tighter writing brief would have added to overall presentation.

The first track from the 2004 competition is by Adrian Moore, titled Dreaming of the Dawn (14’04”). Largely drawing on the British electroacoustic music tradition, it is inspired by an Emily Dickinson short poem. Sonically, it uses heavily treated woodwind instrumental samples, which appear in the introduction. The work demonstrates an astute control of timing and timbre, and has a clear sense of development. The approach is delicate and sensitive, with a good range of gestures. Stylistically it is an odd mixture, including a comic moment with a chord often heard in horror films, and nods to popular music synthesis. While a refreshing approach, the stylistic diversity may disturb some traditionalists.

Mr. Moore’s work is followed by Language (6’27”) by Joshua Goldman, also from 2004. This is the shortest work on the disc, and the notes provided are scant. The composer indicates that it is a “stereophonic sound structure composed for seven vocalist (none of who are using their vocal cords)” (p. 5),  and that the work should be played in complete darkness within the limits of avoiding damaging hearing and equipment. The approach is pointillistic and sparse, and owes much to the vocal works of Trevor Wishart. There is a keen sense of placement, although this a little static in some sections. The humor is engaging, and in the context of the disc, the work differentiates due to it use of sound sources.

Three works are presented from 2005, and the next two tracks from that year are a highlight of the disc.

The first is Anechoic Pulse (9’40”) by Panayiotis Kokoras. Notable here is the delicacy of control, the fine sense of momentum, and the clearly thought-out use of space.  The orchestration of the central ideas is subtle, musical, and evocative, and the control of tension and relaxation is finely balanced. The work has clear motives, strong development, and the dramatic structure, although not immediately obvious, is masterful. Better notes of the work would have helped to come to terms with the piece, but the affective language used within an acousmatic style compensates abundantly.

Rota (10:51) by Pedro Almeida follows. A quasi-programmatic approach is taken here, the work making subconscious/experiential reference to the seafarers’ trips during the Portuguese colonial period, but using abstract sounds rather than direct sonic quotes. Appreciated was the exploration of lower frequencies in this work that seems lacking in earlier tracks on the disc. Apart from the temptation to interpret musical gestures in terms of extra-musical meaning here which can add to but also detract from the sonic experience, striking in the work is the clear musical/dramatic sense articulated though the astute use of timing and space. To the composer’s credit, he is able to do this with minimal gestures in many passages, while also allowing the texture to breathe and the listener to dwell on the delicacy of different sonic moments. Structurally, the manipulation of expectation of the climatic points was also appreciated. For sheer dramatic originality, this is the highlight of the disc.

The final work from 2005 is Tynajas (11’33”) by Santiago Díez Fischer. The masterful control of frequency range and timbre is evident from the dramatic outset here. The short program notes provided indicate that the sounds should be viewed as animals or little creatures, an interesting idea that begs more explanation. Still, the idea is a delightful one, and one certainly gets a sense of sonic animism in the work, with moments of delicate impishness and a sense of being drawn in and seduced. Stylistically, and in contrast to the previous piece, this follows a more mainstream acousmatic approach that partly makes it sound somewhat dated on one hand, but is redeemed with touches of harmonic spectral technique. Although a reflection of the intention of the work, gestures are small throughout, and one partly yearns for some longer sounds and a greater frequency range to aid dramatic development.

We arrive at 2006 with the sixth track by Ingrid Obled titled Si Je Regarde (7’37”).  The program notes here are the briefest in the booklet, which does something of a disservice to the piece, as a clear guide to intention here would help listeners. The work is minimalist, with sparse events and a structure that slowly evolves out of silence after a dramatic beginning.  The control of one’s expectation is noteworthy, as is the work’s cohesiveness. Perhaps greater variety would have helped with the dramatic sense. Still, the brooding nature of the work, and strong concluding section, redeem this.

Causal Impacts (7’00”) by Manuella Blackburn, one of two women whose works are included, is the third outstanding track on the disc. Written in a mainstream academic sonic art genre, the sense of production/sonic clarity is astounding here, finely balanced with an intuitively musical approach. Exceptional is the careful control of short gestural sounds sensitively placed in the frequency and space fields. The control of structure and sense of timing is also remarkable. 
The disc concludes with Thomas Peter’s work neugut-rand (9’13”). The author’s short program note provides a reasonable guide to the intention of the work, reflecting the contrast between the artificial and the natural. The aesthetic here is cerebral rather than affective, and while the production is outstanding in using some electronically generated sounds, it seems to beg for some more harmonic spectral glimpses to provide contrast. Notable is the clear shape and playful incidental moments, despite the limited range of gestures used. 

Within the dominant aesthetic that the disc represents, there is ample music here to savor and delight in, and it includes a fine collection of young composers who may continue the traditions drawn on. Again, the sense of production is generally high across the works presented, and there are some outstanding examples of compositional craft.  Beyond this, a concern is that art, while being about the “divine recapitulation” of knowledge, is also about the discovery of new knowledge. In these terms, works that explore new ground while drawing on older traditions are to be admired and encouraged, and it would have been interesting to hear more of the stylistic and affective voices of the younger composers included here.