|Vol. 36 Issue 1 Reviews||Reviews > Events >|
|Larry Austin at Eighty: A Fifty-Year Retrospective, Part I|
Issue Project Room, The Old American Can Factory, Third Floor, 232 Third Street, Brooklyn, New York, USA, June 11, 2011. www.issueprojectroom.org/2011/04/18/composer-larry-austin-at-eighty-a-fifty-year-retrospective-part-i/.
Reviewed by Elainie Lillios
In celebration of composer Larry Austin’s 80th birthday, The Darmstadt Festival and the Issue Project Room collaborated to present a program of his works. The concert featured Austin’s computer music compositions dating from 1982-2006, including virtuoso performances by double bassist Robert Black, saxophonist Steve Duke, tárogató performer Esther Lamneck, and flutist Jacqueline Martelle. The Issue Project Room’s nontraditional setting, fusing the industrial with the intimate, provided an ideal venue for Mr. Austin’s music. Eight loudspeakers surrounding the audience created a sonically immersive environment, and the space’s configuration allowed for detailed listening while maintaining an appropriate balance between the live instruments and the octophonic sounds. In addition to the outstanding concert, audiences visiting the foyer could view a newly released copy of Austin’s Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966-1973. Co-edited with Douglas Kahn, the text collects Source Magazine’s original, provocative issues into a single repository. It was fitting that this new compilation received its first public viewing at Austin’s concert, since he was instrumental in Source Magazine’s development and evolution, and so much of his music reflects the experimentalism present within the book.
The program’s first piece, ¡Tárogató! (1998) for tárogató and octophonic computer music, was brilliantly performed by its commissioner, Esther Lamneck, whose compelling presence and flawless performance captivated the audience, setting the stage for the rest of the concert. The tárogató, a 19th century Hungarian folk instrument (similar to a clarinet), was used primarily for dance and for rallying troops in battle. Austin’s ¡Tárogató! unifies these diverse worlds, blending the mystical and militaristic into an enveloping, evolving soundscape. Lamneck’s florid, melismatic tárogató lines soared through the Issue Project Room, evoking a sense of strength and conviction while revealing an underlying delicacy and fragility. The accompanying octophonic computer music bathed the audience in undulating, layered drones, always soothing even as the tárogató’s lines evolved into declamatory fanfares.
The boisterous climax of ¡Tárogató! found its foil in the ensuing piece, art is self-alteration is Cage is… (1982) for double bass and recorded bass ensemble. Austin describes this highly improvisational, aleatoric piece as a “uni-word omniostic, where all possible arrangements of the letters of one word (C A G E) appear adjacently, allowing one to spell the word, continually in sequence, following appropriate horizontal, vertical, and diagonal paths through the array of the word's letters.” Bassist Robert Black’s meditative performance masterfully illustrated Austin’s homage to John Cage as he quietly and reflectively traced through the score, changing pitches intuitively when the directions instructed. Black’s contrabass harmonics blended perfectly with the tape, the two forces merging into a single entity where one was unable to distinguish the live contrabass with its virtual counterparts. On occasion Black’s perfectly flowing, floating lines emerged from the texture as self-alterations, only to submerge again into the reflective sonic continuum.
Les Flûtes de Pan: Hommage á Debussy (2006) for flute/piccolo and octophonic computer music shifted the concert’s focus from internal alteration and singularity to external alteration and imitation, illustrating Austin’s historical proclivity along with interests in appropriation and transformation. Les Flûtes de Pan employs, as its source, sequences derived from Claude Debussy’s solo flute piece Syrinx (1913). Mr. Austin quotes from and recomposes Debussy’s original materials to create florid, fluttering flute passages that float above an octophonic montage created by convolved versions of the same material. Commissioner Jacqueline Martelle’s ardent performance conjured images of the water nymph Syrinx fleeing from the clutches of Pan, with the octophonic material’s densely layered drones serving as a virtual “Greek Chorus”, abstractly foreshadowing and plaintively commenting on Syrinx’s ultimate demise. The piece’s middle section presented a stark contrast to the surrounding sections’ densely pitched, chromatic sound world, featuring dripping water sounds combined with key clicks and jet whistles. The listener might imagine a respite from Pan’s pursuit, with Syrinx hiding in a secret oasis. As the composition ended, a direct quotation from Syrinx appeared as a final homage to Debussy’s work.
Mr. Austin’s Bourges Magistère prize-winning composition, BluesAx (1995) for saxophonist (soprano/alto) and computer music, reveals and explores the breadth of his musical interests. While Les Flûtes de Pan features quotation and transformation, BluesAx explores reminiscence and recombination. The through-composed, seven-movement BluesAx features four interpretive portraits of jazz saxophone greats Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane, Johnny Hodges, and Charlie Parker, framed by three blues “choruses.” Expertly performed by saxophonist Steve Duke (whose amazing versatility allowed him to play the jazz-inspired BluesAx followed by the classically-influenced Tableaux), BluesAx traverses through and reveals the excitement, virtuosity, and passionate character of jazz. Duke’s powerful, inspired improvisations made the piece sing, as he flowed effortlessly through this challenging, virtuosic, stylistically varied work, conjuring the jazz legends through his instrument. Duke’s spontaneous lines, imbued with historical retrospection and colored by modern invention, blended with the accompanying computer music, which at times provided a background montage and at other times served as an ensemble accompaniment for his solos.
Austin’s more recent Tableaux: Convolutions on a Theme (2003), for alto saxophone, octophonic music and video, presents an earlier perspective on imitation and cross synthesis. While related to Les Flûtes de Pan in its use of quotation, appropriation, and convolution, Tableaux: Convolutions on a Theme makes its own unique contribution to Austin’s historical nostalgia, this time employing the music of Modest Mussorgsky. Although through-composed, Tableaux: Convolution on a Theme appears to be cast as a theme and variations in retrograde, where convolutions, improvisations, and remixes serve as variations hinting at the possible “reward” that is the theme. As the piece unfolded, high, clear bell tones resonated from Duke’s instrument, floating over a wash of layered octophonic drones. Short gestures gradually evolved, hinting at the theme, with Duke’s masterful performance maintaining suspense about whether the original theme would ever emerge. In a crowning, exultant climax, the theme finally appeared with a sense of triumph and pride, cast in a brighter, more vibrant and celebratory light than Mussorgsky’s original version. Accompanying the piece was a video by Kevin Evansen, whose slowly evolving sky-scape created an evocative visual accompaniment to this kaleidoscopic work.
The concert’s final piece in many ways encapsulates Austin’s explorative musical life, revealing his multi-faceted career as a historian, restorer, preserver, arranger, and composer. In Williams [re]Mix[ed] (1997-2001), Mr. Austin shares John Cage’s unique voice with us, adding his own creative and sonic interests to the mix. Presented in octophonic surround sound, the piece opened with Cage’s Williams Mix (1951-53), originally for eight magnetic tapes, but digitized and re-mastered by Mr. Austin, who purposely retained a portion of the piece’s noisy artifacts, thus maintaining its authenticity and charm. Following the re-mastered original were six new variations composed by Austin that explore individual sound categories defined by Cage for Williams Mix: “A–city sounds”; “B–country sounds”; “C–electronic sounds”; “D–manual sounds”; “E–wind sounds”; and “F–small sounds”. The category distinguished itself from the others with its delicate, eerie quality that enticed the listener to lean forward in their seat to hear tiny, intimate sonic details as they dispersed through the space, bringing the audience full circle from ¡Tárogató!’s initial, inviting calls. The final Williams [re]Mix[ed] track, “The Nth Realization”, incorporated sounds from all six categories in a collage that truly paid homage to Cage’s affirmation that all sound is musical sound.
In the concert program notes, Austin reflected on his music by sharing the following anecdote: “In a dinner conversation John [Cage] and I were enjoying in his New York apartment in 1981, I asked him: ‘John, what kind of composer are you?’ He replied, ‘I’m an experimental composer, Larry.’ I am, too. I mix genres (BluesAx); I convolute sources (Tableaux); I appropriate and transform (¡Tárogató! and Pan); I invent, improvise and concoct (art is…); and I restore, remake, and rearrange (Williams [re]Mix[ed]). I ask my performers to experiment as well, melding their musics with mine to produce stronger, ever more vital, hybrid musics.” While it’s true that Austin is an experimental composer, his abilities and influence extend significantly beyond those that are proposed by that label. He is an electronic music pioneer, innovator, inventor, restorer, promoter, and above all, a consummate composer, and in his 80th year is certainly a composer worth celebrating and recognizing. Congratulations to the Issue Project Room, Austin, and his outstanding performers, who presented a remarkable evening of creative exploration, musical innovation, and sonic immersion that merged live instruments with technology, reworked history, and provided a comprehensive view of an important composer’s varied, distinguished career.