You may not have marked it on your calendar, arranged for time off or bought the appropriate greeting cards, but Electro-Acoustic Music Week is upon us. Monday marked the beginning of the festivities, which the Contemporary Music Forum celebrated with a concert at the Corcoran Gallery.
Electro-acoustic music is music that includes both the raw material of real sounds and an electronically derived component. On Monday's program, one work ("Synchronisms No. 3" by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mario Davidovsky) was for cello and recorded electronic sounds; another ("Private Play" by Scott Wyatt) was played entirely on tape, but based on mostly peaceful sounds reminiscent of wind over bottle tops and distant chimes.
The electronic alteration of sound is as commonplace as elevator music today, but the field of electronic new music (which includes electro-acoustic works) is decidedly a specialist pursuit. Sounds that we take for granted on Hollywood film tracks and in almost all popular music are based on the same techniques used by composers like Davidovsky and Wyatt (and many others). It's no accident that some of the least interesting music on Monday's program (and much of electronic music in general) sounds like the screeches, groans and crashes of a horror film.
But there is much more to this kind of music than simply assaulting the listener with sounds that are easily reduced to their acoustic referents: Ah, that sounds like a door, that sounds like the ocean, that sounds like a bird call. Electronic music, more than many other forms of music, is about how we hear. And it is particularly capable of making us conscious of the psychological component in hearing. Like abstract painting, it can reduce sounds to something elemental, or build elaborate structures that have relation to familiar sounds or music.
Monday's concert included a lucid and entertaining lecture by Robert Gibson, who demonstrated electronic techniques from the simple and maddeningly dull pure "sine" wave, to the ocean "tuned" to the key of G-sharp by filtering out unwanted tones and overtones. If all of this sounds very like science fiction, it's worth remembering that electronic music has been with us for a long time now. Its basic roots lie in the Italian futurist movement of the early 20th century, including the work of the polemicist Luigi Russolo. In the 1920s, there came the ondes martenot and the theremin, two relatively simple but highly expressive electronic instruments that were embraced by a handful of adventurous composers. Then the Moog synthesizer in the 1960s and the computer, which revolutionized the possibilities of music, in the 1980s.
In 1913, Russolo wrote something relevant to the checkered history of electronic music. In his "Art of Noises" he divided the orchestra of the future into six groups, which would be responsible for six basic sound groups: explosions, whistles, whispers, screeches, percussion effects and vocal or animal sounds. His bizarre taxonomy is not terribly more expansive than the limited vocabulary used by most critics to describe electronic sounds. The lack of a sophisticated critical language for talking about an art form can be deadly. Add to this the fact that many electronic composers have written compositions of symphonic length, which can overwhelm the already disoriented and wondering ear. It's no wonder Electro-Acoustic Music Week isn't on the Hallmark horizon.
Monday's program worked, in part, because of the modest length of the works (most lasted four to five minutes). The timings were printed in the program, which let listeners create a mental frame around the music, and experience the composers' efforts without impatience at their often indiscernible form and structure.
Frederick Weck's "Video I" was a world premiere for video- and computer-generated sound. By MTV standards, the imagery and music seemed naive, though other listeners may argue it is classical and controlled. Nonetheless, it was mesmerizing and pieces like this point the way to a more sophisticated exploration of the potential of music video.
Four live performers deserve special recognition: cellist Lori Barnet, who performed the Davidovsky work; percussionist Barry Dove, who performed the mock-angry percussion and tape work "Move!" by Mara Helmuth; clarinetist Claire Eichhorn, who performed Steve Reich's "New York Counterpart"; and pianist Clinton Adams, who integrated piano and tape in James Mobberley's "Caution to the Winds." Electronic tapes stop for no one, and all four performers gamely kept pace with few missteps.