Decades ago when we first explored classical music, we tried to sample everything. After hearing Steve Reich's "Come Out," for tape, and some Toru Takemitsu on Odyssey Lps, we became wary of "modern" music. Recalcitrant electronics and coarse speakers of limited range used in local concerts re-enforced this lack of affinity, so we approached the February 15 Mini-Milestones concert in Hill Hall with no little trepidation. The program featured compositions by faculty and students from Duke and UNC. Three works were specially composed for this concert.
Digital and computer technology has come far, making "electronic" music sound more natural, and the speakers placed at the four corners of Hill Hall reproduced the full sonic spectrum faithfully. The world premiere pieces were generated by programs on laptops that had graphic displays that might bear projection on a large screen as a sort of "virtual ballet."
The computer age is not without its pitfalls. Forty-eight hours before this concert, two hard drives storing Duke Ph.D. student John Bower's "ombres d'un reflet" (2004) crashed. He was able to reconstruct only about three minutes of his work. It features sounds like the striking of various metal bells and chimes and organ-like tootings. We hope an ugly clicking or clipping sound was a flaw.
Two Preludes (2004) by Duke Ph. D. candidate Mikhail Krishtal launched the concert. The first opened with swelling sounds like whale songs and features sounds reminiscent of plcked piano strings, perhaps somewhat "prepared," along with radiating overtones. Some of the latter sounds carry over into the second Prelude, which includes a tinkling, harpsichord-like episode, a wowing sound like a bowed handsaw, and deep gong resonances.
Easily our favorite computer generated work was "assemble en tournant" (2004) by UNC's Luke Seldon. According to the program notes, the title is "a term from classical ballet (literally 'assembled while turning')," and the composer "began with the desire to translate the spatial movements and gestures of dance from something visible to something audible." From our seat, mid-hall, we were able to glimpse a fascinating twisting and twirling graphic on the laptop. Opening with pizzicato sounds, a virtual aural jazz band consisting of keyboard, double bass and muted and brazen trumpets is created. Now laid back, now "hot" and fast and with occasional washes of sound, this work was immediately attractive.
"Held In the Weave" (2003) by UNC's Allen Anderson was commissioned by the Institute for Arts and Humanities of UNC to celebrate the first anniversary of its new building, Hyde Hall. Played by violinist Richard Luby, cellist Brent Wissick and pianist Mayron Tsong, its central theme and metaphor is the weaving of thoughts and ideas. It features intertwining instrumental lines, the most important of which is the "spinning" of the violin and cello about each other.
We loved "The New Ragtime" (1990) by Duke's Anthony M. Kelley, brilliantly realized by James Ketch, trumpet and Thomas Warburton, piano, with the lid fully up. The composer was inspired by the "more melancholy, dark, and tragic implications of some of Scott Joplin's 'blue' gestures" and the conditions of Post-Reconstruction African-Americans. A snatch reminded me of a bit from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess ; some parts of it are melancholy and other parts are bluesy. Both instruments are given showy solos; the trumpet, in its high range, has trills aplenty. After an extended sonic exploration, the work returns to its ragtime roots near the end.
The concert ended with "Anaphora" (1991) by UC Davis-based Ross Bauer, founder and former director of the Empyrean Ensemble. Brooks de Wetter-Smith played the prominent flute part, using alto and C Major flutes. Violinist Luby, cellist Wissick, and pianist Warburton were joined by violist Yoram Youngerman and directed by Michael Votta, Jr. The eleven-minute piece is mostly played at a lower dynamic with tempi getting faster as work proceeds. Trilled flute notes abound, and one section features the viola and other strings played in very high registers. A focus of the piece is an extended perpetual motion section.