Vol. 34 Issue 4 Reviews

Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States 2010 National Conference

St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA, 7-10 April 2010.

Reviewed by Michael Boyd
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) is surely an organization with which readers of Computer Music Journal are well acquainted. On April 7-10 of this year the organization held its national conference, SEAMUS 2010, at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA.  Details about the conference including its full program are available at the conference Web site (seamus2010.stcloudstate.edu/). This conference was particularly notable as it was the 25th anniversary of SEAMUS’s founding, a fact that speaks to the continuing vibrancy of both the organization and the electroacoustic paradigm in general. The conference was hosted by St. Cloud State composition and new media faculty Scott Miller and Kristian Twombly, both of whom work in the electroacoustic medium and had striking pieces programmed on the conference. The event consisted of thirteen concerts, three paper sessions, and four continuously-running installations, as well as the organization’s annual banquet and President’s Reception. Despite the fact that more than 100 works were programmed, the conference events were spaced in a manner that allowed attendees time to reflect on each concert and also to explore St. Cloud, a small but delightful city.  Overall, SEAMUS 2010 ran smoothly and was extremely well organized, a credit to the host composers and their institution.

SEAMUS 2010 featured spectacular sound, due to the high-quality loudspeakers supplied by Genelec, a conference sponsor, and the skilled technicians who worked throughout the event. The conference’s primary events were located at both on- and off-campus venues. Six concerts were held at St. Cloud State’s Ritsche Auditorium, a large hall with a spacious stage that featured up to eight-channel sound diffusion.  The Ruth Gant Recital Hall, found in the university’s Performing Arts Center, was used for four concerts. This comparatively intimate, medium-sized hall offered more limited spatialization options but the ability to project video, and to situate the audience closer to the speakers and, when present, performers. The paper sessions and installations were primarily found in this same building.

The other three concerts employed an unusual, innovative “headphone” format.  At each of these events, live and fixed media works were distributed to several hubs spread throughout a room that allowed four individuals to plug in their own headphones, personally adjust their volume, and listen for durations of their choosing. The headphone concerts were held at 10:00 PM on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights; the first two occurred at the Veranda Lounge, a charming local restaurant and wine bar, while the final took place at the Radisson Hotel where many composers were lodged. Each headphone concert accommodated more than thirty listeners, and, notably, the first two of these events appeared to be completely or nearly full. I found the alternative format and venue for these concerts refreshing, and most attendees also appeared to be similarly enthusiastic.

The conference featured so many outstanding compositions and papers, that it would be impossible to describe each here. Instead I will discuss a few highlights to provide readers with a sense of what was experienced by attendees. While the majority of programmed compositions were fixed, multi-channel pieces, a significant percentage of works that incorporated live performers and video were also seen and heard. The three pieces by the winner of the 2010 SEAMUS Award, Curtis Roads, Eleventh vortex, Never, and Touche pas, were obvious standouts from the former category. Each exploring granulation and presenting a spectrum of timbres, these works were particularly notable for their dynamic spatial gestures, diffused live by the composer adding a choreography of sorts, that made full use of Ritsche Auditorium’s eight-channel system. From a broader perspective, the tape works heard at SEAMUS 2010 were marked by a plurality of aesthetic and technical approaches. For example, Braxton Sherouse’s _impulse->response(&space); was a quieter, internally mobile piece that nicely contrasted noisier, more intense works such as Dan Tramte’s Eight Gluons.

Live performers played an important role at the conference. Concert 12, the final large-auditorium event, featured St. Paul-based Zeitgeist, a quartet comprised of percussionists Heather Barringer and Patti Cudd, woodwind player Pat O’Keefe and pianist Shannon Wettstein, who added guest violinist/violist Alastair Brown for portions of this performance. Zeitgeist is an ensemble dedicated to contemporary music, and they performed each work on this concert with skill and sensitivity.  Both host composers had experientially rich pieces performed by the group that demonstrated its range and ability. Kristian Twombly’s austere Eratosthenes consisted of ten discrete events that intricately blended inharmonic electroacoustic sounds with delicate, long tones played by Zeitgest and was nicely contrasted by Scott Miller’s Tipping Point, a work that used the ensemble with electronics in a more rhythmically active manner to create a variety of striking, evolutionary textures.

SEAMUS 2010 featured many other excellent performers.  In the percussion medium, Terry Vermillion, St. Cloud State faculty and Music Department chair, lent a dynamic vibrancy to Konstantinos Karathanasis’s Dionysus, while Janus Percussion, a Minneapolis/St. Paul duo, gave a remarkable realization of Steve Wanna’s (in)difference/s, an improvisatory found-object work that explores the nature of basic performance gestures and the relationship between the performers and randomized electronics. Composer and trumpeter David Bithell performed his own work, Hithering, which integrates electronic controllers into the trumpet itself, allowing him to create a range of innovative gestures. About this work the composer writes, “[t]hrough a combination of a wireless microphone and gestural controllers nested into the body of the trumpet, I am able to activate and control an array of real-time audio manipulation tools, rhythmically structured sample playback engines, and live sound diffusion.” Ted Coffey’s Autopoetics II was another engaging piece for unconventional performing forces: five individuals with networked laptops.  The particularly interesting aspect of this work was the series of unseen but readily apparent interactions between the performers that created and shaped sound events, highlighting the communicative facet of the ensemble and enabling all performers to contribute to the performance’s evolution.

The conference’s four installations ran throughout and, like the headphone concerts, provided a welcome contrast to the traditional concert format. The dispersion of these delightful works into different locations provided attendees with the occasional pleasant surprise as they discovered each while walking through campus buildings. Todd Welbourne’s Autoalvin, an Alvin Lucier-inspired piece for Disklavier and computer, and Philip Blackburn’s Talking Plant, an interactive installation in which actions and sounds made in relation to a large Bird of Paradise plant triggered different electroacoustic sounds, were both placed in fairly public locations, the former in the Music Department office where registration took place and the latter in the lobby outside of Ritsche Auditorium. Ivica Bukvic’s FORGETFULNESS, an interactive work that uses a Wii balance board as an interface, and Paula Matthusen’s circadian,were found on the lower level of the Performing Arts Center. I was particularly drawn to Ms. Matthusen’s installation, which comprised a number of glass jars with embedded speakers placed in the room that lit up and played pulses and sustained tones based on acoustical feedback within the space.

SEAMUS 2010 was a pleasure to attend. The conference provided a welcoming forum for established figures, younger composers, and students to present their work, exchange ideas, network, and socialize. While there, I heard a number of excellent works and discovered several composers whose music I want to engage with further. For those unable to attend, a handful of compositions will be available in the future as part of the SEAMUS CD Series, the contents of which is determined by conference attendee votes.  I look forward to the 2011 conference at the University of Miami.