Experimental music, or New Music as it is often called, has always had a love affair with new technology. As long ago as the 1920s, Dadaists and Futurists were predicting what a music of artificial sound might be like, and George Antheil was blowing a fresh breeze onto the stage -- literally -- with an airplane propeller stationed behind the orchestra.
More than ever, this year's New Music America Festival, which ends today, confirmed the continuing crush on shiny machines. Only a fringe of composers are exploring this new territory, but they are exciting. Contrary to the traditional view of technology as cold and rigid, their music can be flexible, warm, expansive and interactive. Some of it even suggests a new way of looking at the world.
From John Cage's tape reels and scattered speakers in the new sculpture garden of Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, christened by Cage's gentle "Ryoanji," to Lois Vierk's roiling overlays of recorded and live accordion tracks, to Morton Subotnick's major new computer piece, "Return of Halley's Comet," music here was amplified, repeated, echoed or independently generated by technology. Even something as usually sedate as an all-flute music recital included tape delays and reverb.
"What people don't realize," says flutist Robert Dick, whose phenomenal extended technique was amply demonstrated at the concert, "is that even acoustic pieces have been influenced enormously by technology. Just about every new sound I have learned to play on the flute was inspired by something I heard through tape or electronics."
The influence of devices like digital delays, synthesizers and computers on contemporary music cannot be exaggerated. Pop musicians were the first to jump into the fray, but on the fringes of "serious" music bold experimenters have multiplied. Because these often wild and woolly composers do unheard-of things like write symphonies for electric guitars or mix tapes with live performance, they have often been excluded from the normal channels.
To remedy this fringe status, New Music composers banded together in 1979 in New York to produce a festival that eventually became New Music America. Since then, the festival has moved to a different city each year. The fourth New Music America was held in Washington in 1983. Many successful figures have emerged from the movement, including Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich.
It's fitting in Houston, however, with its high-tech image, that the artistic director for this year's New Music America should be a lapsed Houstonian who left Texas in the 1950s to pioneer the early tape music scene in California -- Pauline Oliveros. It's also appropriate, depending on your tolerance for mass events, that the Texas edition of the festival has been presented this past week as part of a larger event, the Houston Festival. So taken with tech is this Gulf Coast Texas town that the Houston Festival has announced in its Future Plan that it' its goal is a "convergence of art and technology."
Not so long ago, such a call might have struck terror into the hearts of artists and composers. Nothing, it seemed, could be further from the inspiration of art than cold, rigid technology. Not so, say the new composers. In language surprisingly reminiscent of computer talk, Oliveros says, "Musical understanding is the ability to recognize and get information from musical forms and their contents." None of this blather about inspiration, please. Yet, Houston's festival showcased one piece after another that used today's flashy equipment to create work with a great romantic sense of infinite possibility.
Computer music filled a spectacular and well-attended program last Tuesday at the Burke Baker Planetarium. Subotnick's roaring program piece, though somewhat spoiled by corny projections of dinosaurs, highlighted many of the strengths of computer-generated music. The piece included speedy reels of notes that no performer could possibly play, intense electronic percussion rhythms and a suggestion of grandeur in its oceanic swells.
Not all computer composers stray so far from earth. Austin composition professor Karl Korte's nature-oriented pieces, "Song" and "Dance," which digitally transfered recordings of New Zealand birds, raised some intriguing questions. The call of the kokako bird, for examples, sounds like an oboe. Since wind instruments originally were invented to mimic such sounds, which is more synthetic, the oboe or the tape of a kokako?
Surprising to the skeptic of technologically aided music must be a piece like Joan La Barbera's "Rothko," which layers vocal tracks into a warm, deep texture. Presented in the stark, octagonal chapel where Mark Rothko's gray and black panels cover the white walls, the shifting layers of La Barbara's electronically enhanced singing perfectly translated the terror and wonder of Rothko's shimmering monument.
Warmth and expansiveness are qualities that one can find in pretech music, too. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the new techno-music comes from pieces in which machines interact with their environment, with each other or with performers. Pieces like Russell Frehling's "Mapping" and Australian performance artist Stelarc's "Event for Amplified Body, Laser Eyes and Third Hand" suggest something altogether new, not only about music, but about human beings in general.
In the past, humans making music have imagined themselves as long, sentient beings sending out a cry (or song) into the universe. The advent of artificial intelligence and synthesis has begun to change that self-image. Interactive music -- music created by the collision of sensory fields -- suggests a new model: Perhaps humans are simply receptors of information in an elaborate system that includes other receptors.
The most exotic and initially captivating instance of this way of thinking was suggested by Frehling's "Mapping," presented in the Astrodome Wednesday morning, featuring a small gray blimp equipped with a microphone that fed back to elaborate circuitry on the playing field. As the blimp nosed easily through the air below the dome, like some big fish in the deeps, it "mapped" the dome's acoustic content and synthesized music that described each new territory. The piece seemed to say, "You see, there we are, all of us organisms, mapping the world with our sensors -- and making music as we do so."