Vol. 34 Issue 3 Reviews

Stephen Travis Pope: Ritual and Memory

Compact Discs (2) and DVD-Video (1), 2007, EMF CD/DVD 068; available from EMF Media, Electronic Music Foundation, Ltd., P.O. Box 8748, Albany, New York 12208, USA; Web www.emfmedia.org/.

Reviewed by Gareth Loy and John Snell
San Rafael and San Geronimo, California, USA

Disc CoverIn 2007, Stephen Travis Pope released this retrospective two-CD + DVD-Video set, described in the liner notes as “memories and rituals, which is to say they are dreams meant to wake us up.” The wake-up call for your reviewers came when we discovered we’d signed up to the daunting prospect of evaluating in excess of two hours of quite varied musical material, spanning nearly half of the entire history of computer music as a discipline (which we take to begin with the work of Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Issacson in 1956). The video material adds another 75 minutes. Your humble reviewers chose to limit themselves to the audio CDs, respectively titled “Ritual Places,” and “Dunkelkammergesprache.”

The breathtakingly broad swath of musical aesthetics and music technology incorporated by Mr. Pope in these CDs is revealed by both the compositional styles as well as the technologies one hears in its tracks. Indeed, the two are like sides of a coin, and the composer consistently finds compelling ways of adapting and combining media and tools to his compositional aims, though his aims are not always easy to discern.

A case in point is the final work on the retrospective CDs, Paragraph 31: All Gates Are Open (A National Anthem), finished in 1993. Mr. Pope describes this major, 30-minute work as a “tongue-in-cheek suite filled with Swedish-language puns and word-plays,” which leaves your non-Swedish-speaking reviewers at a loss to penetrate very deeply into the compositional design. Simply opening our ears to listen, what we hear is indeed a “hallucinogenic text-sound piece” in which the composer’s fascination with vocal transformations is fully developed: the voices alternately provide exaggerated expression and fragmented obscuration of the text they are reading, based on poems by Swedish concept artists Michael Hausswolff and Leif Elggren, who have crowned themselves kings of “the imaginary or virtual nation of Elgaland/Vargaland (KREV).” Mr. Pope says this work “serves as one possible national anthem” for these poets’ imaginary nation (and, indeed, one can only imagine the kinds of citizens who could actually march to such music).

A darker and more haunted aesthetic is at work in the text-sound piece, Kombination XI. Finished in 1990, based on a German poem by Helmut Heissenbüttel, it conjures the loneliness and alienation of gazing into a cold river at night. The work is constructed through extensive transformations of a male and female voice with the phase vocoder, which slurs and renders their utterances for this somber  “ritual/liturgical music” designed “to assist the listener in working through his/her un-lived grief.”

Also at the dark end, Leur Songe de la Paix (2002) is a mixed text/music work that incorporates extended excerpts from a speech of Dr. Martin Luther King. In “A Time to Break the Silence,” delivered a year before his death, King challenges the militarism in American culture that led to the travesty of the Vietnam War. Mr. Pope’s music provides an appropriately angst-laden accompaniment, however the extended verbatim quotations of King’s spine-tingling words and mesmerizing delivery engaged our minds to such an extent that the music fell into the background.

Contrasted to the dark textures and ethereal sonic backdrops of the text-sound works just mentioned are sunnier musical ideas such as WAKE: Ten Tangents for Dance, Bat out of Hell: Stories for Dance, Ballet Music for my Siblings, and Day, An Improvisation, which all project a fluid and engaging rhythmic and harmonic sense. The first three exploit canonical FM synthesis and musique concrète techniques; the latter uses mid-1980s personal computers to realize music in real-time “for low-end MIDI synthesizers,” designed “as an installation in multiple city environments.” Such accessible works are actually quite difficult to make convincing, but Mr. Pope’s imagination for movement and dance easily carries the listener along.

Because of the broad span of time encompassed by the output in this collection, your reviewers couldn’t help but note how the tools and techniques of computer music have evolved over his career. Just as the pianoforte evolved from the time of Muzio Clementi to Steinway, so too, Mr. Pope’s retrospective reveals to us the evolution of the techniques of computer music in his age. At the early end (1979/1980), WAKE: Ten Tangents for Dance was composed using the mid-1970s SSSP system in Toronto. The signature effects of low-precision calculations necessitated by this early real-time computer music system create glitches, noise, and “crunchies” that overlay the music, providing an acoustic snapshot of an era of computer music systems reminiscent of what one experiences gazing at a slightly scratched antique Daguerreotype.
In Bat out of Hell: Stories for Dance, wonderfully resonant bell-like sounds ring with a vibrant acoustic quality somewhat reminiscent of the tamboura or the drone strings of a sitar. The music moves spatially in a playful manner, somewhat like African Mbira playing, in Day, An Improvisation.

Amidships in this career span, circa 1984-85, lies Requiem Aeternam Dona Ais, an étude on then-de rigueur John Chowning-style FM synthesis of bell tones. Alas, by now the contemporary ear has become habituated by the signature spectral evolution of FM bell tones (as dictated by the Bessel functions of the first kind) to such an extent that we experienced difficulty listening past this effect to hear what else the composer had in mind.

None of these technological limitations reflect badly on our composer: these were just the tools we had to work with in those times. Beethoven, for example, found clever ways to exploit the timbral resources of Clementi’s piano, and our composer similarly works with what he has, mostly to good effect. In later works such as Paragraph 31, the sonic landscape is pristine. In Kombination XI, the composer actually conjures technical limitations in order to exploit them: he pushes the phase vocoder technique beyond its “comfort zone” in order to achieve particular sonic effects.

Your reviewers first encountered Mr. Pope and his work in the early 1980s, in a time when to be ambitious in computer music required a substantial capability to configure and program mainframe computers from scratch. Most of the works represented here derive from music programs and programming languages he has developed since the start of his career, beginning with his music shell for UNIX. (For an interesting tour of some of his software tools and musical notations, see track 4 of the DVD).

As this retrospective offering demonstrates, he has sustained a long and successful career as a composer and music technologist. Yet what arises to the surface from beneath all the technology, all the musical prosody, all the compositional algorithms and experimentalism, is Mr. Pope’s spiritually informed humanity. He says, “Listening deeply to music can be a powerfully mystical experience.” He knows whereof he speaks.