This post is a review of the September release of Music from SEAMUS 26, the annual CD released by the Society of Electro-Acoustic Music of the United States. The pieces contained on this CD were presented at the 2016 SEAMUS conference which took place at Georgia Southern University. Conference attendees are given a ballot to cast their vote for their 10 favorite pieces presented during the entire 3-day conference. The ballots are counted, and 8 works are chosen to be on the Music from SEAMUS CD for that year. Additionally, SEAMUS holds a yearly student commissioning competition wherein 4 student works are chosen as finalists for the competition, and two winners are chosen to compose a new work to be presented at the following SEAMUS conference. The winner of the 2016 ASCAP/SEAMUS Student Competition was William Dougherty, with his work Intersections.
In the interest of transparency, I should add that I was a finalist and 2nd place winner of the ASCAP/SEAMUS Student Competition at the 2016 SEAMUS conference. My remarks regarding this CD, SEAMUS, and Bill Dougherty’s piece are a reflection of my own thoughts, and are presented as my personal subjective experience of these works, and in no way reflect the opinions of SEAMUS or its members, outside of my own opinion.
The CD opens with Scott Wyatt’s incredibly powerful 8-channel acousmatic work ...and nature is alone - a radio drama about the nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Northern Ukraine. Wyatt’s piece utilizes a text written by Elena Filatova (a woman who frequently takes rides into the
“Dead zone”) which is presented as a dramatic reading by University of Illinois professor Valeria Sobol, who was a child in Kiev during the incident. Wyatt’s piece, for me, is the high point of this album, but that is mostly due to my particular interest in text, spoken word art forms and my love of storytelling. Sobol’s reading of Filatova’s text is mesmerizing as she leads the listener through a description of the events leading up to the explosion and the myriad ways in which the lives of people involved continue to be impacted 30 years after the fact. The only drawback to the presentation of Wyatt’s piece on this CD is that it should be experienced in the full 8-channel version. While it is impactful and engaging as a stereo piece, there is something that is lost with the stereo mixdown, as is often the case with multi-channel works. Regardless, this should not dissuade you from experiencing what I believe is a masterpiece of early 21st century acousmatic repertoire.
Following the Wyatt is Eli Fieldsteel’s Brain Candy, another piece in which the full glory and impact cannot be captured as a recording. This piece utilizes custom-designed gloves that employ Arduino technology to generate and manipulate audio in various ways. The recording sounds incredible and demonstrates Fieldsteel’s attention to detail and care in crafting his sound world, but again something is missing when the listener is not able to watch Eli perform this piece in the full quadraphonic diffusion of the sounds. That said, when I first saw this piece performed I was very much engaged in the physical movements and really marveling at the sensitivity of the gloves and how responsive the music was to Fieldsteel’s motions. I have seen other multimedia and interactive works by Eli in the past, and this one definitely measures up in terms of craftsmanship, creativity and successful implementation of technology, but I really want to emphasize that the music itself is very interesting and does stand on its own. Though I do enjoy watching the textures be crated and manipulated in front of me, I could also sit and listen to the music based on its own merits. That, in and of itself, is a real accomplishment for this particular type of live interactive electroacoustic music.
Keith Kirchoff’s Irrational Rationalities, performed by the SPLICE Ensemble (trumpet, piano, percussion), is a refreshing piece to hear on a collection of electroacoustic music. I absolutely love experimental electroacoustic music, and in my mind the more kerplunkity and abrasive the better. That said, one can often become oversaturated with this aesthetic, particularly electronic music conferences, where even the most impressive and well-crafted pieces run the risk of getting lost. Kirchoff’s piece brings a lot to the table in what is ultimately an energetic, at times quirky, but always engaging work for chamber ensemble and live electronics. The performances from Kirchoff, Sam Wells (trumpet) and Adam Vidiksis (percussion) is remarkable, and their work as soloists and together with SPLICE shows a level of dedication that is truly inspiring for the future of electroacoustic composition, performance and use of interactivity in conjunction with chamber ensembles.
Hold Still by Becky Brown is another text-sound composition, with Brown reading her own text. This piece is also somewhat of a descriptive/narrative similar to Wyatt’s piece, described in her own words as a “multimedia self-portrait.” This piece utilizes Arduino and copper on paper while the composer draws a self-portrait in real-time to a pre-recorded acousmatic text-sound composition. The text discusses Brown’s own experiences in her youth when she would draw her friends, specifically while they were sleeping. The text is deeply personal to Brown’s development as an artist and a human, and is honestly one of the most honest, direct and communicative works I have experienced in many years. While the CD only includes the recorded audio component, watching Becky perform the piece in real-time is both fascinating and exhilarating. While the text discusses her personal growth as an artist and the speed with which she would have to work while creating portraits of her dozing friends she is simultaneously creating a self-portrait in real-time that is projected on a screen for the audience to watch, all the while wondering if she will finish that portrait before the piece comes to a close. One line that stuck with me upon first experiencing this piece is when Brown says “I never got to meaning, I never got beyond practice.” While that may be true of Becky’s work in drawing, I can definitely attest that she has gotten to meaning in her work as a musician, composer, and sonic artist.
Benjamin Whiting’s acousmatic composition Illumina! Arabidopsis thaliana is a track that I found very engaging on a first listen, but admittedly had difficulty maintaining focus. I don’t fault Whiting for this, as I often need repeated listenings to fully internalize any acousmatic work. Whiting’s piece is full of interesting sound and gestural shapes that create an ever-changing and interesting musical surface, and while I haven’t fully absorbed everything it has to offer in terms of form, narrative, and meaning, I can say that I do enjoy coming back to it for additional hearings.
Local Equilibrium Dynamics by Adam Vidiksis (with Vidiksis on percussion, Keith Kirchoff on piano and Temple University’s BEEP electronic ensemble) is a really remarkable work. While the interplay of live performers, electronics and the interaction of multiple laptop performers does not translate into a fixed audio recording, I feel that this recording is still a rewarding listening experience. The introductory material creates a soundscape of frenetic piano sounds (keys and inside the piano) as well as an assortment of percussive and electronic sounds that culminate around the 2-minute mark and fade to silence. What follows is an extended section of pointillistic textural counterpoint reminiscent of mid-20th century serial works, and is followed by a sequence of textural and timbral explorations of the piano, percussion and live processing of these acoustic elements. From the program notes, “the title refers to a principle in thermodynamics, whereby the thermal state of a system can be determined if the variations within it happen slowly enough in space and time.” This serves as a metaphor for the interplay of the two performers. What makes this piece so incredible is the elegant way in which live performers are combined with the live processing, all of which is handled by a handful of laptop performers. As a laptop musician, I know how difficult this kind of interaction with performers can be in a real-time live processing situation, and the fact that Vidiksis and Kirchoff are able to pull it off so well and create a captivating acoustic component alongside engaging electronic counterpoint in what creates an overall captivating musical experience is a stunning accomplishment.
In keeping with an ongoing theme of this CD, Olga Oseth’s Shapes of Each Other is another work that utilizes controllers for real-time manipulation of audio (similar to Fieldsteel’s Brain Candy). Unfortunately, I missed Oseth’s performance at the conference, but have since watched YouTube videos of her performing the piece and have listened to it multiple times on this CD. Oseth’s work is fairly minimalist in terms of sonic materials and foreground activity, which is an appropriate contrast to the previous work by Adam Vidiksis (speaking in terms of CD track ordering). Shapes of Each Other consists of sustained soundscapes that draw the listener into the subtle nuances of each moment. The sound world is made of resonant drones, sweeping gestures and live-processed recordings of a text by Mewalan Jalaluddin Rumi. While the sounds themselves are engrossing on their own, the real magic of this piece is in watching the performance and seeing how Oseth’s physical movements shape and sculpt every moment of the piece. I feel that this piece would be equally successful as a stand-alone acousmatic work, but having seen it performed in videos, I feel that there is something to be gained from watching Oseth’s soundscapes being generated and controlled in real time.
Sighs of an Ancient Wall for tárogató and audio file, by David Durant and Esther Lamneck is another work that I missed at the conference, and have in all honesty have had some difficulty coming back to on repeated listenings. The electronic component was composed by Durant and the tárogató part was composed and performed by Lamneck, and while I find both of these elements interesting on their own, I don’t know if they always complement one another well. Durant’s electronic accompaniment is masterfully created in terms of audio quality and gestural control, and the same can be said of Lamneck’s writing for tárogató and her execution of the part. However, I just often find myself thinking that I’m listening to two different works that could easily stand on their own as an acousmatic composition and an unaccompanied work for solo tárogató. Perhaps my opinion will change will additional listenings, and I don’t feel that my personal opinion should deter listeners from checking this piece out.
The final piece on the CD is William Dougherty’s Intersections for chamber ensemble (saxophone, flute, accordion, 2 pianos, percussion) and sine tones. Dougherty’s composition is interesting in theory and very well executed by the ensemble (zone expérimentale), and I admire his commitment to an idea. The piece consists primarily of slowly shifting instrumental timbres and textures with the use of quarter-tones in the instruments against electronic sine tones to create interference and beating effects that ebb and flow in and out of tune with the instruments. I have given this piece multiple listens and while moments of it pull me in, I do find my mind wandering at times. Dougherty is clearly coming from the tradition of French spectral composers (and is a student at Columbia, having studied with Georg Friedrich Haas), and his interest in that approach to composition is clear from his work here. His control of instrumental writing and scoring is handled well, and he clearly has an ear for how to effectively blend simple sonic elements with complex instrumental tones. However, compositionally, the piece does leave me wanting more, but more in the sense of I wanted the piece to go somewhere or do something else. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste, but I found it difficult (and still do on repeated listenings) to stay engaged in Dougherty’s glacially evolving (though sonically beautiful) drones. That said, if you are a fan of Haas, Grisey, Tristan Murail, Philippe Manoury, Joshua Fineberg or Philippe Leroux, you should definitely check this piece out.
Well there it is, my incredibly long-winded review of Music from SEAMUS 26. If you’re a fan of electro-acoustic music this is definitely an album you need to check out. If you’re not super into electro-acoustic music, but are looking for a way to break into listening to it, then this is also a good album for you. The text-sound compositions by Scott Wyatt and Becky Brown offer a wonderful narrative to latch onto. Olga Oseth and Eli Fieldsteel’s works are not enjoyable to listen to, but are wonderful visually as well (both of which have videos online you can watch), and the rest of the works provide a delightful collection of the various types of approaches 21st century composers are taking in experimental electronic music.
Thanks for reading. Until next time.