Vol. 39 Issue 1 Reviews
Thomas DeLio: Selected Compositions CD and space/image/word/sound DVD

Thomas DeLio: Selected Compositions (1991–2013)
Compact disc, 2013, Neuma 450-108; available from Neuma Records; http:// www.neuma-music.com/.

Thomas DeLio: space/image/word/sound
Digital video disc, 2013, Neuma 450-201; available from Neuma Records; http:// www.neuma-music.com/.

Reviewed by Michael Boyd
Wilkins Township, Pennsylvania, USA

CD CoverThomas DeLio, a composer familiar to many Computer Music Journal readers, released two new recordings in 2013 through Neuma Records. Selected Compositions (1991-2013) is an audio CD that collects sixteen of the composer’s acoustic and electroacoustic pieces from a span of more than 20 years. space/image/word/sound is a multi-channel audio and video DVD that focuses on DeLio’s more recent music – two acoustic and five electroacoustic works, composed between 2002 and 2013. Taken together these releases provide a broad survey of the composer’s music since the early 1990s and a close look at his more recent work. Further, these recordings represent a reinvigoration of Neuma Records, which had been dormant since 2007. Now distributed by Albany Music Distributors, Neuma has several new projects slated for release. Given this company’s commitment to contemporary music, this renewed activity is surely welcome news for the electroacoustic music community.

Selected Compositions (1991-2013) provides an excellent overview of more than two decades of DeLio’s recent music. Commenting on his creative work the composer has written, “typically, my compositions are constructed from discrete segments of music which, though they coexist as a group, never become fixed with respect to one another through hierarchical relationships; in this respect my pieces are never organic. I strive for this condition in order to avoid as much as possible the expression of subjective priorities from which such hierarchies are engendered. In addition, I always try to avoid constructing transitions linking individual events, anything that might convey a sense of continuity and connection. I want everything to feel segmented, halted, separated. Only the direct perception of the moment seems important to me.” To this end, his music is often comprised of rich, intricate sound events that are separated by varying, sometimes significant, amounts of silence.

This aesthetic and creative impetus can be clearly heard on several acoustic and electroacoustic works from this disc, including: between for flute, piano, and three percussionists, Than for orchestra, Though for piano, as though for solo percussion), and five pieces for tape: z,rb ,c,el,f, Belle-Isle I-IV, Zilahn, and XXXIII-XXVII. Like compositional studies, these works tend toward short durations, ranging from approximately two to six minutes in length. In each work one encounters individual sound events that challenge perception in one way or another. Some examples include: subtle moments of static hovering quietly at the threshold of audibility, noisy and inharmonic timbres locked into a continuous flux, highly active, multifaceted instrumental textures in which individual components alternately gain prominence and are hidden, and a variety of other compelling sonic gestures. Shorter works such as z,rb and c,el,f, both of which are just under two minutes long, tend to feature a diverse array of sound events, whereas in some of the longer compositions such as Though and Belle-Isle I-IV one finds sounds and textures that recur, though in fragmented, non-linear ways. The composer writes, “I find myself less and less interested in creating states of order or disorder…I am more interested in the gray area that separates them,” and in a broad sense this notion is reflected in these works.

The compact disc features three of what DeLio refers to as “deconstructions”: “electronic composition[s] based upon a recorded performance of one of my own earlier instrumental works.” Appropriately, each electroacoustic deconstruction is preceded by the acoustic piece from which it was derived. as though composed in 1994 and as though/of composed in 1999 comprise the oldest such pair on the disc. Regarding the percussion work, the composer states that he “was very interested in drawing attention to the distinction between pitched and non-pitched sound.” In this piece one primarily hears noisy events such as a snare drum roll or gestures across multiple tom toms that strongly contrast with the single tone played on the vibraphone near the end of the work. This opposition, the boundary between noise and pitch, is the focus of this composition’s electroacoustic deconstruction. In as though/of, which is somewhat longer and less sparse than its source, DeLio used filtering and other transformation techniques to shape the noisy gestures of as though into semi-pitched inharmonic timbres and attenuated, colored noise. The other two pairs of source works and deconstructions: transients/images (2006) and …transients (2011), and Center (1999), Center/s (2000) highlight this opposition in broadly similar ways. Each source work variously juxtaposes and superimposes noisy and pitched gestures at multiple structural levels, while each deconstruction draws these oppositional timbres toward each other.

Text, an important facet of much of DeLio’s music, is the focus of three compositions on Selected Compositions (1991-2013) including the aforementioned Center, that light (1989/2009) for soprano), and Song: “aengus” (2013) for tape. As with most of the composer’s text-based work, the sonic character of the text itself becomes a significant compositional focus. that light, in a manner broadly similar to that found in Center, features pitch and noise oppositions that mirror the text’s vowel and consonant structure. This contrast is further highlighted in the piece through the soprano’s use of a few percussion instruments that timbrally expand the text’s consonants. According to the composer “the result is a rather prismatic refraction of words into multiple layers of sound. Text becomes music.” Song: “aengus”, a short work drawn from the composer’s opera installation for multichannel electronics (discussed shortly), is an electroacoustic setting of P. Inman’s poem “aengus,” which contains words and non-word phonemic combinations that each comprise a single line of the poem. Inman’s examination of language and its components is mirrored in DeLio’s setting, which extracts and isolates spoken words and parts of spoken words. In addition to modified and unmodified text fragments, one hears brief noises and evolving inharmonic timbres that are increasingly combined as the piece unfolds. When used together these sounds are evocative of spoken words and become a compelling reflection of the poem’s text.

The DVD space/image/word/sound contains, as mentioned previously, seven recent works from 2002 to the present. The DVD can be played in stereo or five channel surround (amounts. to. features four channel surround and “sam”, the only work with a video component, is presented in stereo only). All works on the disc actively engage with various texts. Poems by Inman are employed in four pieces, texts by Stéphane Mallarmé are used in two, and one work features poems by Paul Celan.
Works DeLio refers to as songs, Song: “Foxrock near Dublin…” and …zwischen den Worten are striking electroacoustic text settings that are further spatialized by the five channel surround presentation. Both compositions were previously released by another label on a recording that I reviewed in the Winter 2011 issue of this journal. For the sake of brevity I will not discuss these works again here, though both are well worth hearing. The pair of pieces for percussion ensemble and soloist, et avant/image for flute and percussion ensemble from 2011, and –qu’un espace/sépare for soprano and percussion ensemble from 2005, draw upon the 90th fragment of Mallarmé’s Pour un tombeau d’Anatole, a collection of poetic fragments that the composer has also used in other works. Both pieces contain different types of noise: white noise from maracas and occasionally other instruments, inharmonic timbres from tam tams and cymbals, and spoken words. Pitched sounds, associated primarily with each work’s soloist as well as limited pitched percussion, are largely confined to discrete portions of each piece (a two minute span early in et avant/image and the last minute of –qu’un espace/sépare). The DVD’s electroacoustic spatialization of these otherwise acoustic works provides a rich, immersive experience that more closely resembles the spatial characteristics of a live performance. Flutist George Pope and the Akros Percussion Collective perform et avant/image, and soprano Stacey Mastrian and The University of Maryland, Baltimore County Percussion Ensemble perform –qu’un espace/sépare. Both sets of performers present DeLio’s works with extreme sensitivity and subtlety.

The three works identified as “opera/installations” feature texts by Inman and expansive lengths, ranging between 17.5 and 31.5 minutes. DeLio sees his text-focused installations as a new conception of opera, writing, “It has always seemed to me that the substance of literature never lies in ‘what’ is said, but ‘how’ it is said. Language, not story or character, conveys meaning…[opera should] acknowledge the priority of an author’s treatment of language as the accompanying music’s true subject.” These pieces were originally presented as gallery installations in which sounds (and in one case visual elements) were dynamically projected throughout a space over long spans of time. In such a setting, listeners would enter and leave the installation at various times and move throughout the space, making each individual’s experience temporally and spatially distinct. On this disc one hears fixed versions of these installations. The composer views these “not so much as…reduction[s]...but as parallel composition[s] using the same materials.” All sound events heard in amounts. to. and “sam” are derived from readings of Inman’s text, while “aengus” also employs additional sounds. Despite this distinction, all three works share a number of sonic commonalities including a focus on white noise, reiterative quasi-percussive noisy gestures, fluctuating inharmonic textures, and processed spoken text.

Inman’s text is most clearly audible in the first two works. In amounts. to. one encounters foregrounded solo readings by the poet that are supported and punctuated by static-like and percussive noises. These moments of textual clarity are contrasted with noisy, blurred processed readings and spatially dynamic gestures that surround the listener with a cacophony of voices. “sam” features two sonically distinct readers, female and male, and this work is also characterized by a tension pertaining to text intelligibility. Regarding the piece, the composer notes that he “wanted to emphasize the noisy elements of the text…I first allow words, and later, phrases to emerge from a texture of sounds derived from those words…there is actually one instance where the entire poem can be heard as written, though the stanzas often overlap and are shared by the two readers.” “sam” is further enriched by sporadic images of varyingly distinct pages of text. The visual dimension, spatially projected in the original installation, is subtle but engaging, and adds another perspective on the text and its fragmentation. “aengus” occupies a sound world related to the other two “opera/installations,” though one that is slightly more varied due to the inclusion of synthesized sounds and a greater number of speaking voices. This piece is the most expansive of these three works, with a duration in excess of 30 minutes, and, perhaps as a result, spends longer amounts of time exploring various dynamically changing gestures that focus on reiterative noise, static, inharmonic timbres, multi-directional proliferative speaking voices, and so forth. The composer describes the work as consisting of “moments and surfaces” that “frame” the readings of Inman’s text, a notion that becomes increasingly pronounced as the piece unfolds.

Though each recording offers a different perspective on DeLio’s work, both demonstrate his innovative approach to form and text setting as well as his intricate, detailed sculpting of individual sound events. Further, the DVD also introduces the composer’s dynamic spatial designs as applied to both acoustic and electroacoustic settings. The inclusion of his recent “opera/installations” is also noteworthy, and an excellent opportunity to experience aspects of these otherwise site-specific works. These recordings will yield rewarding listening experiences. I highly recommend both.