Vol. 37 Issue 3 Reviews
Andrew May: Imaginary Friends

Compact disc, 2013, RR7861; available from Ravello Records, 223 Lafayette Road, North Hampton, New Hampshire, USA; telephone: (603) 758-1718; electronic mail info@ravellorecords.com; http://www.ravellorecords.com/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

May CoverAccording to the one sheet for Imaginary Friends, composer Andrew May’s compositions “defy classification, seamlessly blending the personal expressiveness of traditional classical performance with the alien landscape of ambient computer music.” This statement does a good job mapping out the territory that May covers on this, his debut release. But it only tells half the story since he also employs conventional computer processing techniques, and deftly traverses alien acoustic landscapes.

The first piece on this disc, Shimmer, is scored for piano and electroacoustic sound. The title refers to a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson. May presents us with quickly shifting, freely atonal palettes alongside analogous processing changes. There are also clear, yet temporary, centric pitches that successfully push the listener in a given direction, only to be diverted by other pitches also used as center points.
Until about a third of the way into this 12-minute piece the piano and computer follow separate, hierarchically divided trajectories. After four minutes or so, aspects of computer processing are foregrounded. May employs a wide array of processing techniques, including delay, reverb, flange, chorus, equalization, sound reversal, and envelope truncation. Shimmer uses prerecorded electroacoustic materials, but they are so well integrated that upon listening without having first read the liner notes, I had assumed that this was an interactive piece. Much of the prerecorded materials were from recordings that the composer made of the pianist playing through initial sketches for the piece.

Around the two-thirds point there is a climactic, rather artificial sounding downward glissando that clearly draws attention to itself, especially because it is set apart by silence and initiates a different type of texture. Until this moment the predominant texture consisted of fast tremolo flourishes mostly in the piano part. After the glissando, the texture becomes much more subdued. Combined with the focus on reverb, this change causes one to experience a visceral sense of spatial distance. Toward the end of the piece the tape and piano parts attempt to sync up in a series of rhythmic unison passages that eventually conclude in F.

Chant/Songe, for clarinet and computer, employs a wide frequency range, including very low frequencies that are not always apparent in digitally generated computer music. The harmonic pacing is much slower than in the first piece. Large parts of this piece feature admirably sparse textures. May carefully and masterfully crafts each subsequent phrase, from silence to thick textures, and back to silence. At times the clarinet seems to recede into the background, perhaps because of the overlapping frequencies shared between it and the computer. Additionally, we hear the live clarinet through the same audio settings, whereas the computer's materials sound like they are in continual flux. Thus, they command more attention than the clarinet. While one can clearly discern the clarinet from the computer, its recorded invariance leads this listener to want the clarinet’s live-to-processed mixture to break out of its “box.”

Nevertheless, one of May’s compositional strengths is evident in this piece: he knows how to write for acoustic instruments while at the same time skillfully mixing in electroacoustic components. For example, in Chant/Songe the clarinet performs several bi- and multi-phonics while the computer reinforces these unique timbral resonances, providing them with an acoustic space.

Retake, the third piece on this disc, begins with some breathy, high-pitched whistles and flute sounds. An occasional snare drum hit disrupts the mostly continuous texture. Interestingly, the snare drum timbre never evolves, and so remains a fixed, accompanimental element to the live flute. The computer-generated tones, combined with the live flute, produce piercing difference tones that sometimes sound disturbingly loud. These are especially evident in the thicker textures in this piece. Toward the end, the flute pays a series of long, sustained tones that might be described as mournful, especially given how they microtonally slide around at their terminal points. The computer processing in this piece involves the effective use of spatialization, both with respect to panning and depth.

The next piece, Ripped-Up Maps, for solo instrument and computer, features the composer himself ably performing on a five-string electric violin. The electric violin is blended well with the computer part. Additionally, they both exhibit natural and artificial sounds. This piece is improvisatory and can be performed by any monophonic solo instrument. The composer describes the relationship between the live instrument and computer as a “closed loop of interaction.” The soloist influences, but cannot completely control, the computer. The title refers to a mapping process in which input data about the soloist’s materials are correlated with the output according to different algorithms. The composer has revised the program for this piece many times since it was initially composed in 1996. The version on this disc dates from 2011 and involves effects that would not be possible without the technology employed. These include such things as sped-up pizzicati that human performers would not be able to perform.

Ripped-Up Maps progresses in a wavelike manner, from mildly sparse passages to full-throttled textures that challenge the listener. Although I found this piece to be an effective composition, it also seemed to ramble on a bit. The freely atonal materials favored by the composer tend toward a kind of equivalence that avoids the navigation of sharp corners that one might expect from ripped-up maps.
The Twittering Machine, the fifth piece on this disc, is another work for flute and computer. Dating from 1995, it is the earliest work on the disc, and represents the composer’s first foray into the world of interactive computer music. Surprisingly perhaps, many of the hallmarks of May's compositional style are already fully formed in this piece. While his processing techniques seem to be somewhat simpler than those used for other pieces on this disc, they are employed in clearer, more direct ways, which is ultimately quite convincing. The composer organically builds the computer's materials from overlapping playback of flute soundfiles and delay effects. The flutist controls the pacing of events with a foot pedal used to trigger each new set of events. This piece was inspired by the eponymous painting by Paul Klee. According to the composer’s liner notes, "as in Klee's painting, grotesque birdlike forms arise from abstract shapes, framed by a shifting wash of color".

Wandering, for two clarinets and computer employs a low-frequency drone beneath a fairly busy texture in which the clarinets echo and enhance each other's tones. In the liner notes, May writes that the clarinets "wander in search of one another through a dream-like scene whose details endlessly refract, recombine, and mutate". The clarinets are joined by tambourine, tom-tom, and other percussive sounds that the composer thinks of as "grooves," though he may be thinking of them in an ironic manner.

The overall effect of this piece, especially with respect to its formal trajectory, seems rather flat, like a form with only A sections. There's no real contrast to speak of and the journey upon which the clarinets embark is marked by reiteration rather than development. Perhaps part of the problem resides in the piece's length, which is a little over seven minutes. It sounds compact and safe given what fills it. If it were, say, twice or even three times as long, the composer might have treated us to a more varied textural palette. It is also worth noting that the score for this piece was partially made out of fragmented materials from the composer's Chant/Song which according to the composer, "the performers may traverse with great freedom." Given this conceptual (and potentially intriguing) scenario it seems possible that the performance freedoms given to the performers may have enticed them to repeatedly take the middle path.

Vanishing, the final piece from this collection is, at a little over 22 minutes, the longest piece on the disc. Written between 1999 and 2000, it is a tour de force of acoustic writing and computer programming. Like Shimmer it is based upon a poem by Emerson, but is scored for sampled soprano voice, flute/piccolo, two violas, two cellos, piano, percussion, and computer. The computer plays back vocal samples over the ensemble’s “backdrop,” while the flute, piano and percussion serve solo duties. The texture is wonderfully complex and variegated in most respects. Because the vocal part is performed by the computer, the composer is able to move the virtual vocalist around the stage while morphing and multiplying her voice into various colliding and fusing streams. The piece ends with an intriguing, cadence-free, unison passage obliquely suggestive of an Arabic scale. We hear it for a few seconds and then it vanishes. Vanishing, certainly one of the best pieces on this disc, showcases the composer's abilities to write for an acoustic ensemble enhanced by a convincing approach to electroacoustic manipulation, fueled by his deep knowledge of acoustics and computer programming.

All the compositions on this disc involve real and imaginary performers. The live instrumentalists worked very closely with the composer. These relationships are clearly in evidence and directly contributed to the successful performances. The imaginary performers are produced by the composer from an elegant array of processing techniques and software manipulations. All told, this disc represents well the state of the art in works for live instrument and computer.