February 25, 2008, Raleigh, NC: One can expect the extraordinary on opening night. Greeted with an architecturally delightful percussion set, I was reminded of Alexander Calder's standing mobiles. Electroacoustic music, some with digital photography, live performers, and their acoustic instruments filled the Stewart Theatre with fascinating sounds as part of the NC Computer Festival at North Carolina State University.
"Mellipse 2" by Mara Helmuth (U. of Cincinnati) and Allen Otte (U. of Illinois) was an auspicious beginning. Delicately played triangles, six in all, each of varying size, along with cymbals and drum, were framed by timpani and orchestral chimes. The juxtaposition of traditional and the new provided mesmerizing soundscapes. Their second collaboration, "No. 7," for gyil and computer, and performed by Otte, is a "salute to the divine." With samples derived from Ghanian xylophone and hand cut logs, the composition explores the interactive quality of sampled and acoustic explorations of wood. Otte successfully engaged the audience through his stellar performance.
"Dark Wood," by Benjamin Broening (University of Richmond), was performed by eighth blackbird member and cellist Nicholas Photinos; it summoned shadowy fairy tale images. Photinos' playing was inspired. A second piece for computer and live performer, "Afterimage 6," by Ronald Parks (Winthrop U.) was most difficult for this listener. Performed by guitarist Lewis H. Dickert (also Winthrop U.), the dense texture, reminiscent of Elliott Carter's string quartets and Cage's Freeman Etudes, is, nevertheless, a fascinating study.
Dean Thomas Clark (of the NC School of the Arts) contributed "Light Forms 2," which includes digital photographs by the composer. Coupled with rich, evolving textures and colors of the electronically produced sound, the piece conjures cosmic images recently made available through modern technology. This, my second listening, proved to be a compelling experience. (It was first performed for the Global Warming Conference at the University in 2006.)
"John Explains...," (2007), composed by Larry Austin (formerly of U. of N. Texas), received its world premiere; it is built around the voice of John Cage in conversation with Richard Kostelanetz. "Creating an object produced by chance," Cage's words, were not only revolutionary, but also prophetic. On the other hand, the historical value is only second to the rhythmic cadence and lyric quality of his speech, which is enhanced by the electronic environment.
Two musical offerings, "SIM4" (2007), by Ionnis Kalantzis, and "Notturno" (2007), by Antonio Scarcia, were created and realized by computer, recorded and presented in absentia. With slowly-emerging Feldman-like deliberation, the latter piece provided a soothing contrast. And Kalantzis' work, with scintillating color and well-punctuated timing, represents electronic music par excellence. The audience expressed appreciation that hopefully rippled through the airwaves.
February 26, 2008: The prophet (John Cage) had spoken, and we eagerly awaited the voice of Topsy, the infamous circus-elephant-turned-murderess, later to be channeled by trombonist Sean Devlin. Rodney Waschka dedicated the second concert of the Festival to Allen Strange, beloved composer and witty colleague of electroacoustic music makers.
The evening unfolded with the first of three pieces of recorded computer music: Ronald Parks' "Fractures." Crackles, scraping, ringing — Parks' sonic explorations evoke an immediate visceral response. Reminding me of Beth Wiemann's "Dodge of Mann Gulch" (2004), the visual imagery of forest fire, Randy Shull's "Implement" pieces, and found objects after Hurricane Hugo on display in the Gregg Museum, this beautifully-constructed piece is a fine example of the power and beauty of the medium.
Benjamin Broening's "Lamentation Alphabet: Aleph" provided an abstract example. In his notes Broening describes the piece as "re-imagining... Tallis' 'Lamentation of Jeremiah.'" Allowing suspended notes to linger allowed one's musical memory to ponder the beauty of early music in the context of an electronic environment; this was truly wondrous! And "Boendegi," by James Paul Sain (U. of Florida), is rich in textural contrasts and timbre. Drawing from his South Korean visit, Sain explores, in vivid detail, the world of color in space. I imagined myself at a train station, in an airport, and caught in downtown traffic of an exotic world.
"Slammed," also by Sain, features computer music with a live saxophonist; the player was virtuoso performer Susan Fancher (UNC-Greensboro). A much-sought-after player, Fancher realized the demanding piece with extraordinary flair. She also played Mark Engebretson's gem of a piece, "SaxMax." The two works serve as fine examples of the mutual influence of extended performance practice on computer sampling and vice versa.
The Festival would not have been complete without theater works, and Rodney Waschka delivered. His own "Topsy Speaks," for trombone and recorded electronic music, wacky and dark, is an imaginative and evocative piece. Sean Devlin played (and spoke) the part with great aplomb. Our host performed the finale, Allen Strange's "Were-Being Split Personality Jazz." A fitting tribute, Waschka transformed himself into a delightfully wild and mad musician. Surely Allen Strange smiled!
Waschka has a knack for interesting programming, which aided the success of the concerts. Digital photographs and live performers brought a sensual richness that can be lacking with fixed recorded media works. And it is customary for Waschka to invite the audience to chat with the composers after the show. The public was also invited to a panel discussion with a distinguished group of composers who shared thoughts on music of the 21st century — marvelous works that the three B's could scarcely have imagined.
The 2008 NC Computer Festival at North Carolina State University was sponsored jointly by the Arts Studies and Music Departments and hosted by Rodney Waschka II.